If It Blows 66 MPH, You Will Be Glad You're On A J/42

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I spent more than a year and sailed more than twenty different boats before I decided to buy a J-42. Our family took delivery in August of 2000. We named our boat J-Belles after my daughter, Julie. I have owned several sailboats, but spent the last twenty years sailing a Tartan 37 from my home base in Erie, Pennsylvania.

I chose the J-42 for several different reasons. I liked her pedigree as the cruising version of the J-40. The extra two feet added to the stern made the J-42 an ideal boat to have my children, Robbie who is eleven and Julie who is thirteen, spend their adolescent years behind the helmsman where we can spend many hours of leisurely sailing and conversing. We also belong to an active sailing fleet where we can spend Wednesday evenings and some Saturdays competing in the JAM fleet.

The J-42 is an excellent light air sailboat, even with our shoal keel of 5’6”. With the wind blowing just 6 knots, the boat easily sails in the 5.5 knot range and at wind speeds of 8 or 9 knots, “J-Belles,” sails at 7 knots. Her seakindliness in heavy weather was the safety feature that was most appealing to me since I would be sailing her in Lake Erie, the most dangerous of the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes have a reputation for bad weather that appears with little warning. Lake Erie, the most shallow of the Great lakes, has the propensity for rapidly developing large waves, closely spaced which have been responsible for more shipwrecks anywhere except Cape Hatteras. J-Belles consistently sails in this weather in the spring and fall. Her stability from her low center of gravity and carbon fiber mast is such that we never reef the main unless the wind is blowing in excess of 30 knots. The J-42 is mostly driven from her large main sail, not the Genoa, so when the wind is 17 knots or more and we are feeling lazy, we often sail just tacking the main sail and achieve speeds of 7 plus knots.

We bought our boat from Paul Mikulski, at JPort in Annapolis. Paul is one of the largest J Boat dealers on the East Coast and his experience in outfitting the boat was invaluable. We outfitted J Belles with a main sail, a 100% Jib, a 140% Genoa, and an asymmetrical spinnaker. We also put two electric winches onboard to raise the main and trim the Genoa in heavy weather. We cannot use them during a race.

Paul Mikulski never seemed flustered no matter what our request when ordering the boat. His typical response was “Uh huh” followed by expeditiously doing exactly what we wanted. As an example, the boat was built in Newport, shipped to Paul in Annapolis where, after full commissioning and a beautiful dark blue Awlgrip paint job, she underwent complete sea trials on Wednesday through Sunday, derigged, packed, shipped overland to Erie, unpacked, rerigged and was sailing in Erie the following Friday. Paul was also in Erie to meet the boat; an exceptional dealer.

Over the course of a year, we got to know Paul, his wife, Sue, and their Portuguese water dog, Maggie. At the spectacular christening of J-Belles that Paul, Sue, and my wife, Patty, organized with old sea hymns and Cristal champagne, we invited Paul and Sue to join us for a race in 2001. Paul said, “Uh huh.”

We chose the Multiple Sclerosis charity race on Labor Day. It is the largest race in our area with 85 boats entered. It’s a short 5-mile race around the bay. There were two racing spinnaker fleets filled with Heritage One tons, Shock 36’s, J 24’s, 35’s and 36’s, Tripp designs and a few custom designed boats. We chose to sail in the cruising fleet with several C&C 40’s, 41’s and a 50, a Baltic 42, a Tartan 42, and a NM 50 ‘Champosa’. The NM 50 has a PHRF of 0; J-Belles has a PHRF of 87. The NM 50 had just finished the Lake Erie Race and wanted to sail the cruising class. Ours would be the third start; the first two starts of the racing spinnaker fleets would be separated by 5 minutes.

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It was a sunny day and the wind was blowing 22 knots at the start. Paul and Sue had joined us, and being a charity event, we had a boatful of ten people. We were fourth off the line on our start, but soon moved to second behind the NM 50 at the first buoy. On the downwind leg, we put a whisker pole to leeward, and closed on the racing fleet in front of us and the NM 50.

We carried a full main and the 140% Genoa. Clouds were rapidly closing in from the west. By the time we rounded the second mark and were on a reaching leg, the weather had turned foul. The wind was now blowing 30 knots and the rain was in sheets, stinging our faces. Sunglasses were mandatory despite the clouds to protect our eyes from the driving rain. At the turn of the third mark, we had sailed through half of the racing fleet in front of us and were only 30 seconds behind the NM 50. J-Belles loved this weather. She had very little helm and still had not dipped her rail. On the finishing, up wind leg, the wind had increased to 40 knots, J-Belles still had her full yard of sails up with no reef and was sailing at 9.9 knots. We crossed the finish line only 16 seconds behind the NM 50 and had sailed through the entire second racing fleet and caught two boats from the first fleet!

The wind rapidly increased to 66 knots as later reported by Erie International airport. It became almost a complete whiteout. We had dropped our sails by then. Many of the boats were knocked down, suffered rigging damage, and one even sunk. The Coast Guard rescued the sailors without further mishap. The storm was over in twenty minutes, and the wind settled in the fifteen-knot range with rain. We spent the rest of the afternoon in the yacht club, watching them raise the boat from the bottom of the bay and toasting our victory. J-Belles had the second fastest elapsed time, just 16 seconds behind the NM 50 who owed us 7 minutes and 15 seconds. We enjoyed a beautiful trophy and participated in raising thirty-eight thousand charity dollars. Most of all, we were safe in 66 knot winds and suffered no damage.

It is comforting to know that when the winds blow unexpectedly at that velocity that you will end up on the air-side of the water in a J-42. The boat had excelled in the challenge.

Later when I sent the clipping from our newspaper with the wind clocked at 66mph to Paul and reminisced about the race, I asked Paul if he ever thought the weather could change so violently in Lake Erie. Paul just said, “Uh huh.”