TEST-DRIVING THE J/125

By Tom Leweck

Sure—I’ve heard all those stories about people who are too dumb to come in out of the rain. Yet on Tuesday afternoon there were seven of us sailing in the rain on San Francisco Bay. And while I can’t speak for the others, I was having a blast. How’s come? It was because I was taking my first test-drive in the new J/125.

Over the years I’ve sailed on lots and lots of J/Boats and have owned and campaigned a J/24. But this J/Boat is different—very different. It’s a 41-footer that makes virtually no concessions to cruising. This is a pure racer.

The first thing you notice is that the boat has almost no beam—it’s only 10.6 feet wide and looks like a long canoe with a tall mast …or maybe half a catamaran. As I understand it, skinny boats push aside less water, which makes them faster. But skinny boats also have less "form stability" which normally makes them tippier. However, designer Rod Johnstone found a way to solve that problem—he hung 4646 pounds of lead at the end of a narrow foil that’s long enough to hit the bottom anytime the boat sails into less than eight feet of water.

The boat is so skinny that stacking a lot of people on the rail doesn’t add much stability. So you sail with fewer people and let the lead do its job. 57% of the boat’s weight is ballast which makes it stiff enough to carry a #2 genoa into the 20 knot range.

Comparing the J/125 to J/120 you instantly see some ‘interesting’ differences. The J/125 is only a foot longer but its waterline is two feet longer … and the J/125 is skinnier by almost a foot and a half. But perhaps weight is the biggest difference. The J/120 displaces nearly 14,000 pounds, but thanks to high-tech construction the J/125 comes in at only 8350 pounds.

There are also plenty of differences down below. The J/120 has a wonderful cruising interior, while the J/125 is significantly "more modest." And that’s being very kind. The ice box is a portable igloo, the sink looks a lot like a urinal and the galley itself is much more austere than the one I had on my old Cal 25.

Whitbread navigator Mark Rudiger found that the most convenient way to work at the "chart table" was by sitting on the sink and leaning forward. He couldn’t stand up—there’s nowhere near enough headroom. Only Dave Ullman and Norman Davant thought the boat had standing headroom—anyone over 5’ 9" will have to bend over down below.

But this is not a boat you buy for the interior. Its purpose is high performance sailing and Rod Johnstone hit that target right in the middle of the bullseye. It didn’t take the curmudgeon very long at the steering wheel to realize the J/125 is very much a "gentleman’s Melges 24." It’s a big keelboat, but it is also a very spirited one with a very light helm. Turning the huge steering wheel takes a bit less strength than dialing an old fashioned dial phone. One finger does the job—honest. But when you spin the wheel, the boat does not turn—it leaps to the left or right. Give me the wheel in 15 knots of breeze with the A-sail flying and I’m pretty sure I could throw any unrestrained bowman over the side … if that was my objective. This is one lively sailboat.

Upwind, the helm is still very very light without a trace of weather helm. Perhaps that’s because we were using a #3 genoa in only 10-12 knots of wind. Or maybe it’s because the carbon-fiber rig was only raked back three feet. Hey guys, it’s a J/Boat—you have to rake the mast way back to give the helmsman some feel. The crew who sailed the 125 in the Big Boat Series said the boat points just fine, but who really cares? Downwind is where the fun is—guaranteed to produce enduring smiles. There is a hell of a temptation to sail the boat "hot"—when you do, the boat seems to jump right out of the water.

New owners will spend at least $300,000 before they can race their J/125, but apparently that has not dulled enthusiasm. Four have been sold on the West Coast and the next available hull from the TPI factory is #12.

Admittedly the boat was designed as a day racer, but could you also take it on a Mexican Race? Oh, I think so! The interior is going to be very crowded with six people living aboard; and sleeping will be difficult with the boat continually leaping off waves; and the menu will be very limited. But I can almost guarantee it will take weeks to wipe the smiles off of the faces of those six people.

Sailing the J/125 produces a big rush. Even in the rain.