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J/30 Sailing Review

By Dale Mead

"Anyone who’s had even the briefest exposure to sailboat racing has heard of J/Boats. Ask a racer to list the hottest production racers active today, and they’re sure to Include J/24s and J/35s. Begun in 1977, J/Boats Incorporated, has defied the yacht sales slump with an ever-changing line that threatens to run out of numbers - 18 models through 1991, ranging from 22 to 44 feet.

For 1992, they’ve come out with a J/105 and J/92 (metric measurements equal to 34.5 and 30 feet respectively, opening the door to the European market), both of which have been pushed aggressively as fast, family oriented and very simple to sail. In addition, the J/130, a 42-footer, will debut in October, and a J/60 (feet) is in the advanced planning stage. Is there a length they’ve missed?

While the Johnstones understand that the weekend warrior with bucks to spend on a boat typically needs speed, they also know he’ll spend more time sailing if his family loves it, too. Those parallel concepts were driven home in the late ‘70s when Rod’s wife, Lucia, got tired of capsizing every time they raced dinghies. She refused to race anymore, and he determined to design a boat she and their children could race on -or at least stay on. The result was Ragtime, the prototype J/24, which swept race after race in Eastern competition’

When Johnstone couldn’t get his brother Bob’s employer, Sunfish builder AMF Alcort, to build a production version, the brothers struck out on their own, with Bob’s yacht marketing experience perfectly complementing Rod’s design instincts. They contracted Tillotson Pearson (now TPI Composites, Inc.) as manufacturer, and in 1977, the J/24 first went on sale. It was an instant hit, with 720 boats sold the first year. Having launched a company that performed as well as their first product, the Johnstones had to keep it afloat with new ideas. So in late 1979, Rod moved beyond the daysailer to an overnight version - the J/30.

The Johnstones’ second boat affirmed their philosophy that the family that plays together stays together. Its ample 11’ 2" beam allowed a spacious interior designed for family living, with six-foot headroom at the companionway tapering down to 5’6" at the forward bulkhead. And the Johnstones embellished it attractively with ash woodwork, a cramped but serviceable galley and a semi-enclosed head. The boat also slept six, although it lacked a double settee berth. An optional mid-cabin table also seated six comfortably for meals.

Despite its comfortable appointments, the J/30 was put together as a racer first. The entire fiberglass hull and deck are cored with balsa, with a strong fractional, single-spreader rig, double-foil forestay and lead fin keel for an overall displacement of about 7,000 pounds. The ballast/displacement ratio is a tippy .30, which necessitates the broad beam. The tiller is de-rigeur, and the rudder hangs off the back of the wide, vertical transom, so the boat turns on a dime. Of course, the maneuverability translates into busy steering. Extra crew makes a big difference keeping the boat flat. The side decks are wide enough to do laps around, and sufficiently sloped to be almost flat on the high side when heeled.

In 1984 the Johnstones added a cockpit coaming and lowered the bridge to the cockpit floor, as well as taking out a quarterberth to create a bigger galley, making the boat more yuppie-friendly, if a trace less raceable offshore.

In a reviewing, Practical Sailor summarized the boat this way: "The J/30 Is slab-sided, with little sheer, short overhangs, and little grace. Fortunately, it goes like hell under sail.... She is a boat that inspires confidence. She is a young sailor’s boat, a stepping stone to the big time." Practical Sailor also quoted a 1981 price tag of $35,000 for the 30-footer, which should make current owners feel good; a reasonably maintained used one still goes in the low thirties these days. Sailing the J/30 can be as simple or complicated as you choose. Although a crew of seven is optimal for competitive racing, one experienced and one inexperienced person can handle it easily with the stock rig. Leave the jib down and it sails like a dinghy singlehanded.

On the other end of the spectrum, a killer storm during the 1979 Fastnet confirmed the J/30’s strength. A total of 24 yachts were abandoned and 15 sailors died, but Juggernaut, skippered by Andy Cassel and crewed by Tim Levett, made It unscathed across the Atlantic, despite having to run under bare poles for 14 hours and taking two severe knockdowns. Bill Wallace of Houston, Texas, survived the same storm while delivering J/30 hull #29 to Britain singlehanded. Upon arrival, he was asked by a Yachting World reporter how he and his crew held up under the storm. He sailed alone, he explained. "In what?" asked the reporter. "In that J/30 over there."

Wallace told Bob Johnstone afterward, "The J/30 is the best goddamned sailboat in the world for its Intended purpose. Only once did I get rolled down by a huge wave. And I’ve got coffee stains on the cabin overhead to show that it was 120 degrees."

Long-term sales confirmed the J/30’s market attraction. It established J-Boats as more than a one-product company, and confirmed the Johnstones’ readings of the yachting market. More than 580 J/30s were sold before production ended In 1987. For comparison’s sake, 240 Olson 30s were built, and (so far) 300 J/35s. Some 5,000 J/24s have been sold since 1977.

Ironically, some early owners blamed the decline of the popularity of the J/30 on J/Boats’ introduction in 1982 of the J/29. This was a stripped-out racing version of the same hull with virtually the same rig, a foot-lower deck, and typically no inboard diesel, making It 2,000 pounds lighter. But Bob argued that the strategy actually resurrected J/30 sales, which had virtually stopped. When the J/29 came out, 40 or 50 more J/30s were sold. The speed and price of the J/29s drew people to dealers, he explained, where many bought the J/30 for its more versatile, practical design.

At last count in 1990, the National J/30 Association was more than 250 members strong. It holds its own Nationals every year, and the slickly printed, annual J130 Journal is crammed with fleet news, national results, sailing tips, racing regs and a membership roster.

Unfortunately, the Nationals aren’t about to happen out here. Built in Rhode Island, the vast majority of J/30s are berthed on the East Coast, with the rest scattered In the South, the Great Lakes and out west. Perhaps 10, no more than 15, have found their way to the Bay according to local J/Boats dealer Don Trask, who built J/24s here and almost began production of the J/30s.

The wind here could be a factor, since the boat was designed and built in an area with lighter winds. Competing with the stock 163 percent genoa, spinnaker and spinnaker pole takes a hefty 9 points off the local 141 PHRF rating. But that hasn’t kept owners from racing, both PHRF and one-design. In 1981 Nicholas Molnar of Piedmont bought lone and served as president of the San Francisco Bay J/30 Association, organizing races for roughly 10 active boats, mostly on the San Francisco waterfront. By 1985, he recalls, enough J/30s left the Bay to end one-design races. As Molnar became less active the organization faded. But gradually Paradise Cay on the east side of the Tiburon Peninsula has become the de facto J/30 Fleet Headquarters - thanks largely to Harry Blake, skipper of the killer J/30 Limelight.

As intense a competitor as you’ll find, Harry took delivery of Limelight, hull #51, in Newport, Rhode Island, In 1980 - and has been winning trophies ever since. Perhaps his most prestigious recent win was the 1991 Larry Knight Regatta with Tim Parsons aboard. This year, without a rockstar, Limelight’s regular crew took third in the Larry Knight. Blake has won the Corinthian Midwinters four times, the Golden Gate Midwinters this year - his first time - and the San Francisco YC series twice. Last year he won going up on the Vallejo Race. This year the whole division was DNF the first day; but Harry won the return race, with Break Away second for a one-two J/30 finish. He also took second place in this year’s Big Daddy.

In fact, Blake competes in upwards of 60 or more races per year and wins so consistently that when competitors do finish ahead of him they boast, "We beat Harry!" no matter how they placed.

The Tiburon YC holds several series for members, but makes outsiders feel welcome. In addition, they have several open contests each year including a J/Boat Regatta in the fall where the 30s can count on a one-design start. And the St. Francis Yacht Club hosts an annual J/Fest West, a grueling series of six races in one weekend In the spring when the wind blows hardest.

My wife Janice and I fell in love with our J/30, Break Away, the minute we stepped into the cabin at Trask’s J-Boats West dealership in Alameda in 1989. Unlike every other 30-footer we looked at, it was capacious, not cramped, and finished not in teak but golden ash and pine, with tasteful powder-blue upholstery. On the test drive in gentle winds it responded as briskly as our 23-foot Ericson - wheel-driven 30-footers seemed like slugs by comparison - and covered twice the distance of a Catalina 30 that started out with us. At first we wrote it off as twice what we could afford, but kept going back, even though friends told us we were crazy. One couple, experienced Southern California offshore racers with lots of trophies, respectfully cautioned that It was "too much boat," especially considering our grand total of 10 months owning the 23-footer.

"But if you buy it," the man said after a half-hour warning, "let us know and we’ll be up within two months to sail with you."

Sure enough, we inaugurated BreakAway by taking them to Petaluma for an overnight cruise. Then, without taking off the sleeping bags or pots and pans, we won a beer-can race that same night, beating the 42-foot Centurion Contessa Il to the finish line by half a boatlength. Now that’s exhilaration. (Okay, Contessa did make a few mistakes.)

With much more modest racing ambitions than Harry, we claimed second at the 1991 J/Fest West, first in the ‘91 Silver Eagle, second in TYC’s J/Boat Regatta and, as mentioned, second in this year’s return Vallejo Race. We’ve also done well in a few beer can series, and can even claim we’ve beaten Harry a couple of times.

The track record, the endorsements, the construction and the resale value all speak well for the J/30. But more importantly, most of the J/30s around here are used a lot - for cruising, YRA series racing, specialty races or offshore competitions like the Windjammers. Find a J/30 owner, and chances are he or she has the boat out at least a couple of times a month. That’s the bottom line on the success of a yacht."