Practical Sailor Review- Ed Adams
THE BOAT AND THE BUILDER
Let's play word association. When you hear "J Boats," what are the first three words that come to mind? For us, those words are "Johnstone," "marketing," and "racing."
It's safe to say that the word "cruising" is far from the tip of anyone's tongue. But it might not be that way for long. Consider the power of the first two words- "Johnstone" and "marketing." They may not connect on every punch, but the marine industry has learned to pay attention when they wind up and take a swing.
J Boats is a family-run business, and the Johnstone family has as much cumulative racing expertise as any clan in the country. They are best known for their "offshore" one-design racers-the J/24, J/27 , J/30 and J/35. But like all families, the Johnstones are maturing. Founders Bob and Rod Johnstone are now ensconced in middle age, and they've taken up coastal cruising. They recently passed the company management to their children. J/Boats is looking in new directions.
J Boats first tested the cruising market in 1985 with the J/40, and has since sold 65 boats. They followed in 1986 with the J/28; 75 of them have been sold. In 1987, they introduced yet another cruiser, the J/34c. Twenty-five were sold in the first production year. The designation "c" was added to distinguish the boat from the J/34, an lOR design that failed both on the race course and in the sales room.
Like all the J/cruisers, the J/34c is an example of what happens when a group of "gung-ho" racers designs a cruis¬ing boat. Racers are obsessed with how a boat sails, how it feels. They know that ease of handling is essential for enjoyable sailing, and they know that this is as dependent on hardware choice and layout as it is on design.
For a racer, going below is something you do when you're too tired to sail anymore. This isn't to say that the J/34c is poorly laid out belowdecks. It's just that her strong points are abovedecks.
In appearance, the J/34c looks much like her sister J/cruisers. She has a fixed shoal draft keel, a straight sheer, and a slotted Goiot aluminum toerail. Her waterline, at 30', is long. It leaves her little overhang for appearance.
Although she has modest freeboard and cabin house profile (headroom below is barely 6'), she will still seem a little "squarish" for traditionalists. To enhance her appearance, a boat can be ordered with a 4" high teak toerail that tapers as it runs aft.
As a rule, the J Boat line is expensive. The 34c is no exception. Base price is almost $100,000. With basic sails and electronics, and options like propane, shore power, vinyl overhead panels, varnished interior, swim ladder, dodger, roller furling, refrigeration, and spinnaker gear, the price can approach $130,000. This puts the J/34c at the upper end of the price range for boats of her size. By comparison, the Hunter 33.5, while admittedly of lesser quality, has a base price of only $55,000. The Crealock 34, of similar quality to the J/34c, also has a similar $100,000 base price.
Hull and Deck - J Boats are built by Tillotson-Pearson, which also builds the Freedom and Alden lines. Tillotson-Pearson is highly regarded among production boatbuilders. They employ a large engineering staff and have an extensive materials testing program.
To support their claims of superior construction, Tillotson-Pearson is having all of their larger boats, including the J/34c, ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) certified. Similar to a Lloyds certification, this proves that each boat has been built to certain standards and inspected by an independent surveyor at various stages of construction. ABS has three levels of certification: hull plan approval, hull certification, and A-I classification which includes hull, power, electrical and plumbing systems. An ABS certified boat is fitted with a bronze plaque. Any builder can claim he builds to ABS standards; without the plaque it is only a claim. ABS inspection and A-I classification add about $2000 to the cost of the J/34c. Is the plaque literally worth its weight in gold when you resell your boat? That will depend on how effectively J Boats promotes its advantages.
Like all J Boats, the 34c is constructed of fiberglass and polyester resin, and cored with balsa. Standard, uncoated Baltek balsa is used, but the balsa sheets are sprayed with quick-catalyzed polyester before being laid in the mold. This helps seal the balsa end grain and avoid dry spots in the lay-up. This is an important step, because the laminate is not vacuum-bagged, as would be done on a custom boat.
A barrier layer of vinylester resin between the gelcoat and the first lamination prevents blistering, says the builder. The hull is warranted against blistering for 10 years. Much of the laminate is of unidirectional cloth. Unlike typical fiberglass cloth, which is woven, unidirectional cloth is constructed by stitching sheets of unidirectional fibers together, typically at 90° or 45° angles. Without the "crimp" caused by having to weave the fibers around each other, the finished laminate is stronger. The hull-to-deck joint is Tillotson-Pearson's standard, seaworthy, inward-turned hull flange with the deck and toerail through-bolted and bonded with 3M 5200 polyurethane adhesive. All of the deck fittings are also bedded with 5200. The holes drilled for deck fastenings are countersunk to further improve the bond and reduce gelcoat crazing. This should ensure a watertight deck. The only drawback is that 5200 is such a powerful adhesive that later removal of hardware for repair or replacement is difficult.
The only molded interior components are the hull stringers, the icebox and the head. The rest of the interior is constructed of lauan teak-faced marine plywood and installed piece by piece. When an interior is installed this way, you can use more fiberglass tabbing to attach it to the hull. This gives you the potential for a hull which will remain stiffer longer. With a one-piece molded interior, you must set the interior on putty and rely on spot tabbing. All of the structural interior components in the J/34c are tabbed on both sides, for most of their length, with fiberglass cloth. The small, non-structural components are tabbed on one side with fiberglass mat. Except for the fact that no fillet is used to spread the loads on the tabbing, this is a good method.
Rig - Unlike many builders who have gone to less expensive spars from mass-production manufacturers like Isomat, J Boats still equips its boats with more expensive rigs from Hall Spars. The J/34c has a masthead double spreader rig, with speaders swept back 10°. Sweeping the spreaders aft gives the mast fore and aft stability, at the sacrifice of being able to adjust the bend easily. Running backstays are not needed to stabilize the mast. Sweepback also requires the spreader bases to accept more of the shroud load. It should be no problem, as Hall uses a patented through-mast spreader bar, which incorporates tangs for the lower and intermediate shrouds. The spreaders fit over the bar, resulting in a clean, strong low windage attachment.
Sweepback does hinder dead downwind performance slightly, because you cannot let the mainsail out as far. And it increases chafe on a fully-battened mainsail. We think the advantages outweigh these small drawbacks. The mast is tapered and painted with Awlgrip. It is not anodized. The only mechanically fastened hardware items are the halyard exit plates and the spinnaker track. That's good, because like most production masts, the fittings are not bedded when installed. The gooseneck, vang fittings, cranes and halyard boxes are all welded on before the spar is painted. Rod rigging is used, and the tangs are flush-mounted. Halyards are internal, but the spinnaker halyard turning blocks are hung from a masthead crane-a more seaworthy, traditional approach than the internal sheaves found on racing boats.
The boom has a powerful 6: I outhaul with a recessed Teflon-lined track. A Hall Quik Vang is standard, and is a very convenient way to adjust boom vang tension. A Navtec hydraulic backstay adjuster is optional. The mast also has a single folding step to enable shorter crewmembers to climb up and attach the main halyard shackle. There are two reef lines, led internally. They cleat on deck-mounted clutch stoppers, a far more convenient system than gooseneck-mounted stoppers. A continuous system, made up of one line through the leech and the luff, would make reefing even simpler.
Engine and Mechanical Systems - The J/34c is powered by a 28 hp Volvo 2003 diesel engine. Being three-cylinder, it is relatively quiet. Engine access is good, but you have to get at it through a number of hatches because the engine is tucked well under the cockpit floor. There are two hatches next to the quarterberth and a single hatch in the cockpit sail locker, as well as the removable companionway ladder.
An aluminum fuel tank holds 26 gallons, which is adequate for coastal cruising. Wiring and plumbing are done to ABS specifications. However, there is an exposed junction box in the head, where it is likely to get wet whenever someone takes a shower. The head is equipped with a Raritan PH-2 toilet, and an l8-gallon holding tank with a Y-valve for overboard discharge. The toilet has a ceramic bowl and pumps with a lever handle, which is convenient, but the shut-off valve is operated with a knob instead of a lever. It's hard to dog down because it's often wet from overspray from the pump.
The boat we looked at had optional vinyl cabin overhead panels, held in place by strips of teak. The panels hide the wiring and deck fastenings, yet drop easily for access because they are held in place with un-bunged screws.
Standard water tank is 45 gallons, plenty for coastal cruising; an additional 35-gallon tank is optional. Hot and cold pressure water is standard. On the boat we sailed there was no overflow vent for the water tank. Because the tank is plastic, when it is overfilled it expands and can damage the settee in which it is housed.
Propane cooking is a $1250 option, but we recommend it over the alcohol alternative. A compartment aft of the cockpit holds two propane bottles, enough to last a summer of weekend sailing. The propane stove is a Force 10, two-burner gimbaled stove with oven.
Handling Under Sail - This is the J/34c's strong point, what sets her apart from the run-of-the-mill coastal cruiser. Her ease of handling is probably more a result of her deck layout and hardware than her design.
She is advertised as fast and smooth riding because of her long waterline. True, long waterlines have a higher potential hull speed. They can also make for a smoother ride when combined with short overhangs such as those on the J/34c. Short overhangs cut down on pitching by eliminating parasitic weight in the ends of the boat.
However, if not accompanied by a proportional increase in sail area, lengthening the waterline can detract from light air speed. The boat we sailed did seem to bog down in winds under 5 knots. It only had a 135% genoa. We'd recommend a 150% genoa, but the boat also seemed to be a bit on the tender side when the breeze increased to 12 knots. Remember that this is a shoal draft cruiser.
The J/34c's 30' waterline is long-perhaps too long. The leeward stem quarter was almost 5" under water when close reaching in a 6-8 knot breeze. Short overhangs may make it easier to climb up a stem ladder if thrown overboard, but if the bustle is insufficient to keep the stem from "digging" a hole in the water, speed can suffer. This isn't to say that the J/34c is slow. In fact, she should be considered a performance cruiser, faster than a majority of cruisers her size. But like most boats, she isn't as perfect as the advertising suggests.
Her advertising also touts her large steering wheel and Harken rudder bearings. True, her steering is tight, quick to respond and frictionless. But like many modern designs, we'd have to say her rudder is overbalanced. A "balanced" rudder has the rudder post placed somewhere near the center of the rudder blade. The more "balanced", the less helm, or "feel" a boat has.
With the J/34c, there is no helm at all-if you leave the helm, while sailing upwind or reaching, she goes straight. If you start a turn while powering, the wheel won't return to center unless you bring it back. Some sailors like this type of effortless steering, but we think that with roller rudder bearings and a large steering wheel, you are not going to tire your arm with a little bit of weather helm.
Spinnaker gear is a $3950 option, and that doesn't include the sail. As on all coastal cruisers, some sort of downwind specialty sail is a necessity.
The J/34c is equipped with what the Johnstones call a "UFO" keel. It is a shoal draft keel with a conventional leading edge sweepback, the bottom ending in a flattened bulb. Unlike a winged keel, it shouldn't snag lobster pots and weeds. When run aground, however, the UFO keel will still be more difficult to free than a conventional keel. The Johnstones report that the UFO keel is about seven to nine seconds per mile slower than a conventional keel upwind, but neither slower nor faster when reaching or running-a reasonable trade-off for those who need shoal draft. But for those who sail in deep water, it would be better if there were a deep draft option.
There is a raised seat, incorporating a horseshoe life ring as a cushion, aft of the wheel. But it's a long reach from the seat to the wheel. A short person would be inclined to steer with his or her toes. A Harken traveler is located just in front of the steering pedestal. True, you do have to step over it to go forward from the helm, and the main sheet can hook on the pedestal during a jibe, but the convenience when trimming sails makes it worth it.
The J/34c has a proportionally large mainsail and small genoa. This makes tacking easier, and sailing under mainsail alone possible. However, the size of the mainsail demands that you pay more attention to sail trim. The person best suited to judge that is the helmsman.
The traveler car has a 4: I purchase, led to cam cleats at each end facing the helmsman. The mainsheet is double-ended, led to two Barient 22 self-tailing winches, one on each side of the traveler, in easy reach of the helmsman.
Genoa winches, Barient 27 self-tailers, are also in reach of the helmsman, so he can adjust trim or cast off the sheet during a tack. There is a small price for the convenient proximity of these winches--on some points of sail the winch handles cannot be turned through 360 deg. All winches are adequately sized for the job.
The coaming forms nicely angled seatbacks in the forward half of the cockpit. The aft face of the wide molded coaming faces the helmsman, and is a good location for instrument readouts.
There is a huge cockpit locker to port. The single entry hatch is comprised of the seat and coaming. Because it is so big and heavy, it must be secured to the lifelines before you enter the locker. If the lid fell on you, you'd know it. The locker is large enough to hold a deflated dinghy, out-board, sails, plus other gear. Stanchion bases are aluminum castings, which we never completely trust. These lock securely onto the aluminum toerail. Stainless steel stanchion bases are provided with the teak toe-rail option. On the standard boat there is no teak to maintain, save the cabin house handrails.
Reefs and halyards are led through quality Lewmar Spinlock clutch stoppers to Barient 21 self-tailers on the cabin house. The anchor roller chock is not designed for any particular size or brand of ground tackle. Therefore, the anchor we used had to be secured with extra line to hold it in place while sailing. It would be better to design the chock for one anchor and make that anchor standard equipment. A hawse pipe leads to a shallow, level compartment, so the anchor rode tends to pile up directly below it, obstructing the deck opening. With this system you should dry the rode on deck before stowing to prevent mildew. According to the builder, future boats will be equipped with a conventional molded anchor locker. A locker for a backup, Danforth-type anchor is an option. It holds the anchor vertically in a well just forward of the chainplates. While it saves the hassle of stowing the backup anchor belowdecks, it also constricts the space in the already small hanging locker in the forward cabin.
Belowdecks - This is a simple, old-fashioned interior with a few innovative twists. It is optimized for one couple or small family cruising. It isn't jammed full of undersized berths, nor is the 43"-wide quarterberth intended as a double berth. There are two doors in the main bulkhead, one on each side of the mast. One door opens into a large forward state-room, the other into the head. You can also get access to the head from the forward stateroom. This is preferable to walking through the head to get to the forward stateroom, which is a more typical layout on a boat this size.
The V-berth in the forward stateroom is over 6' wide at the head and almost 3' wide at the foot, with enough headroom to sit up and read at night. The cushions are 4" foam, comfortable enough to sleep on your side without bruising your shoulders. The stateroom also has bookshelves, a small dresser with drawers, and good ventilation through two hatches and one port. There are no cowl vents, however, so you may suffer during a rainy night when everything must be closed.
Lockers under the V -berth extend to the bottom of the boat. Although there are limber holes between lockers to drain water from the anchor compartment into the bilge, the holes are not flush with the hull, so water will not drain completely. To keep the contents of the lockers from getting wet, future J/34s will be equipped with shelves to lift the locker contents off the hull.
All of the interior is teak-faced plywood trimmed in teak. Hull ceiling is teak battens. On the standard boat the interior teak is oiled; varnish is an option. Joinerwork is of average quality. The cabin sole is varnished teak and holly. J Boats stopped using light-colored ash belowdecks after the J/36, because that wood turns black when it gets wet. The head has less than 6' of headroom. Ventilation is good---one hatch and one port. The molded shower sump drains into the bilge. Most surfaces in the head drain well, but spilled water collects on the sink counter top. Full-length mirrors on the inside of both head doors give the user the illusion of spaciousness.
There are handrails on the cabin overhead. Unlike many boats, glued-in marine carpet or vinyl are not used on the overhead or the ceiling. Instead, gelcoat or vinyl drop panels are used. This is a good feature, as it gives you access to deck fastenings without major disassembly.
The cabin house and cockpit ports all open, giving good ventilation in fair weather. Some are so large you can stick your head through them. The first 25 boats had Bomar ports with only three dogs per port. The ports could distort and leak and the dogs could sheer off if overtightened. Now a Bomar port with six dogs is used.
A Lewmar foward hatch is articulated so it can be opened to preset positions. It can be operated from above or belowdecks, but locked only from below.
Galley and icebox are a bit small. Stowage for dishes and silverware is under the companionway, in a compart¬ment which allows them to drain and dry. As with most of the cabin stowage, galley stowage is behind sliding doors. The sink is deep-so deep that we suspect it might gather a little water when heeled severely on starboard tack. The stove is covered by a counter which slides back for access to the burners. The cabin table is large, if a bit wobbly on its tube-in-socket legs. It has utensil stowage in the center and fiddles on the edges. There is a small nav station, using a cabin berth for a seat. It is adequate for weekend cruising, but not long-distance sailing.
You won't find many cruisers with the quality of hardware that is found on the J/34c. And you probably won't find any that are as easy to sail shorthanded. The boat is fast compared to cruisers of her size, but not as fast as the manufacturers would have you believe. That's typically the case with manufacturer hype. No new boat is ever a good investment. They all depreciate with alarming speed. However, if the boat is well-promoted, and the builder is respected, as is the case with the J/34c, you can be assured of a reasonable resale value.