Built on a heritage of performance, this 43-foot sprit-boat offers a classic interior, stellar speed, and smooth handling. Despite a few teething problems—and a lofty price—it appears to have found acceptance in the market place.
We like a turn of speed now and again. And we like it even better if that celerity is delivered in a controllable, comfortable package that inspires confidence not only for the operator, but for others who ride aboard. All of that applies to the new J/133 introduced by J/Boats last year.
From a fledgling backyard operation formed in 1975, J/Boats has matured to attain a prominent role in the boatbuilding world as the designer and marketer of boats that, coupled with state-of-the-art construction methods at TPI, enjoy nearly universal market appeal.
Once an ad salesman for a sailing magazine, Rod Johnstone began designing sailboats following completion of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design correspondence course. In 1976, his first effort produced Ragtime, a 24-foot prototype built in the family’s garage that evolved into the J/24, now one of the most popular recreational sloops in the world. When Everett Pearson, owner of TPI and a bastion of the industry, recognized the boat's potential and agreed to produce it in return for the U.S. building rights, the company was in business. The first boats were produced in an old textile mill near Fall River, MA.
At the time, Bob Johnstone, Rod's brother, was a marketing officer at AMF/Alcort, which manufactured the Sunfish. In 1977, following an unsuccessful attempt to convince AMF to produce a boat like the J/24, he joined Rod as the company’s marketing guru and co-owner, and the duo has never looked back. Hoping to sell 250 J/24s the first year, the brothers sold 750. The company now markets a complement of 22- through 65-foot sloops and 'sprit boats.
These days, Rod and Bob continue in the design and marketing roles, but a second generation of Johnstones handles day-to-day operations. Rod's sons Jeff and Alan are president and vice-president, respectively, with Alan handling the majority of design tasks. Alan has been designing boats under the tutelage of Rod since 1988, when the duo collaborated on the J/44. The J/32, a conventional sloop, was the first design completely bearing Alan's signature. Nephew Jim is the company's sales director.
And, the TPI connection endures. Everett Pearson's son Mark is now the president of TPI Marine Group, the unit responsible for engineering and building most J/Boat products.
In 1991, the company introduced the J/105, the first of a series of sport boats with metric length designations, and became the first company to mass produce of a series of sloops with retractable bowsprits. Several other competitors, notably C&C (Fairport Marine), have since offered sprits as optional gear. Since an asymmetrical spinnaker tacked to a retractable sprit requires less deck hardware and fewer lines to hoist, douse, and trim than a conventional spinnaker, and is more easily managed by shorthanded crews, we’re somewhat puzzled by the reluctance of other major production builders to follow suit.
Al Johnstone opined: "Each of our boats has its own story, but reflects input from our dealers and customers about what they want us to produce. The basic goal is to produce boats that sail better, are easier to sail, and that allow novice crews to be confident about the boats and feel safe on board."
To that end, the company's design principles focus on producing boats that are stable, and forgiving.
"We also produce durable vessels," Johnstone added, that, coincidentally, command a premium price.
The company's most recently introduced boats, the J/109 (35 feet), J/133 (43 feet), and J/100 (33 feet), present interesting contrasts in the designer's attempt to fit round pegs into round holes.
The J/133 was conceived because "we didn't have a modern performance boat that also represented a dual-purpose personality," said Johnstone. Since its recent introduction, 20 have been ordered in the US.
More than an updated version of its predecessor—the J/44—with a bowsprit, the reshaped hull of the J/133 has a lower center of gravity and deeper draft and ballast, which produce a more stable platform for offshore sailors.
"We have optimized the center of gravity so that she will cut through the water, rather than wallowing in a heavy sea," explained Johnstone, alluding to a typical complaint about full-keeled, heavy displacement cruisers. Sprit boats sail well to weather and typically travel downwind by way of high reaching angles. In this case, Johnstone designed a hull shape that provides "better downwind performance when sailing on a reach," which should translate to fewer jibes and less distance traveled. This boat also sails well in varying wind and sea conditions under different sail configurations, as we learned during our sea trial, when winds piped up to 30-plus knots and Lake Michigan presented short, but steep 3- to 4-foot waves.
On board the J/133, other contributors to stability and performance are the use of carbon fiber masts, which reduce weight aloft and have become standard equipment on J/Boats since the introduction of the J/90. Lower cabintops and less freeboard also reduce windage, though occasionally at the expense of crew comfort when seas cover the deck. The keel's center of gravity is lowered by placing a bulb at the tip. Add the ability of TPI to produce strong, but light, hulls and decks, and you have a nice package of speed, stability, and durability.
Dealing with a 43-footer allowed Alan the luxury of having more space in which to build in comfort with fewer compromises. "It is easier to get the interior to work without compromising on the hull shape," he said. As a result, the J/133 has the same interior volume as the J/44, but is two feet shorter. In comparison, many designers attempting to create interior volume in a small boat may accomplish that objective with teardrop shaped vessels that are short on performance. (A positive result is that owners traveling slowly have plenty of time to enjoy their boat's amenities, though they may arrive late for a rendezvous.)
In her standard configuration, the J/133 is equipped with three staterooms and a head, though there is a two-cabin, two-head version.
The cockpit of the J/133 reflects the dual-purpose nature of her design. Measuring 9' 3" on the centerline, with an additional 1' 9" seat behind the wheel, the crew has plenty of room in which to operate. And given that the cockpit seats are 6' 5" long and 19" wide, there's room to stretch out for a snooze. Only the backrests, approximately 12" high, are too low for comfort, but they're the right height for efficiently grinding the Harken self-tailing winches.
Deck hardware consists of Harken winches, and Harken Black Magic blocks for jib, spinnaker and genoa sheets; sheets are led to the cockpit via an adjustable car system managed from the cockpit. Spinlock rope clutches house the mainsail and jib halyards, reef and furler lines. A plus is that the mainsheet—located on a traveler mounted in front of the 60" wheel and close at hand to the helmsman—is double-ended. If more cruisers paid careful attention to the layout of sheets and lines on performance boats like the J/133, and the gear employed, odds are they would discover that items like adjustable genoa leads simplify the operation of their boats, and require less musclepower.
The rig consists of a Hall Spars carbon fiber section with double spreaders that allow rig tuning without the need for running backstays. Standing rigging is Navtec continuous rod rigging, and the backstay is affixed with an integral hydraulic unit also from Navtec.
Unlike most contemporary designs, the jib and spinnaker halyards terminate and are controlled by gear at the mast. Because the standard 105-percent jib will live much of the time on a Harken MK III furler, this is a non-issue. Neither is placement of the spinnaker halyard at the mast since the crew operating the sprit will be amidships during a hoist or takedown. This arrangement also reduces the amount of spaghetti in the cockpit. Hoisting an asymmetrical spinnaker is a simple matter of attaching the tack to the end of the sprit, extending it from the bow, and then hoisting the sail. However, a shorthanded crew will place a spinnaker snuffer high on the list of necessary options since it will ease setting and dousing in heavy winds.
Down below, this boat feels like a cruiser. Consider that it’s got 6'4" of standing headroom in the saloon, a maximum beam of 12' 6", 6' 6"-long settees located port and starboard, and a drop-leaf table surrounded by cherry joinery, a vinyl headliner, and teak and holly floor panels. This area is well lit by opening ports and a hatch overhead, as well as stainless halogen reading and overhead lights. Stainless-steel grabrails are located overhead. A U-shaped galley located to starboard and nav station opposite fill the remaining area in the cabin. The dining table will seat six, leaving room for two others on the settee, and there is adequate room at the forward facing nav table for another crewmember to dine.
The galley is snug, providing just enough counter space for a cook to prepare meals, though it benefits from the addition of a cutting board that covers the top of the three-burner Force 10 propane stove/broiler/oven. A 6.5-cubic-foot icebox is located outboard, as are cabinets enclosed by plexiglass doors.
Having more interior space in which to design, Alan created a legitimate nav station by incorporating a chart table large enough to allow the use of full-sized charts. The instrument panel houses a full complement of accessories and circuit breakers, and a bookshelf located outboard provides storage area.
Skipper's quarters are forward in a cabin occupied by a hanging locker and clothes drawers, a vanity and changing seat. The space is large enough that the tube in which the sprit lives is virtually unnoticeable, a dramatic change from their presence in smaller J boats. Berths are adult-length 6' 4" long and 5' 10" wide at the head.
In the three-cabin, one-bath version, the head is located inside the skipper's quarters, though enclosed by a solid door. Aft cabins have double berths measuring 6' 4" long and 4' 3" wide, a vanity with drawer and cabinet, and hanging locker. In this configuration, there's adequate storage for a full crew. In the two-cabin, two-head version, the aft port stateroom is replaced by a small head.
Though J/Boats continues to use the lightest possible materials to enhance performance, the interior of this boat is well-appointed and feels like a legitimate cruiser. We doubt that the loss of the third stateroom is worth the addition of a second head, since the forward head is large enough for adults to shower comfortably, and the third stateroom could double as a storage area for cruisers.
The SCRIMP construction system, which TPI has been using for more than 10 years, is refined and well accepted, but still benefits from occasional tweaking. In general, it entails the use of an infusion-molded laminating process that allows the use of biaxial, triaxial and quadraxial E-glass that encapsulate Baltek Super-Light 45 end-grain balsa in the hull and deck. The method mechanically produces precise combinations of fabric and resins while eliminating voids in the lamination and reducing VOCs. "SCRIMP is still an evolving process," said Al Johnstone, "and we are becoming smarter in the use of materials than we were when we first adopted the system." The laminate has proven to produce strong, lightweight sections that, "because of their thickness," said Johnstone, "would be nearly impossible to lay up using traditional handlaid methods."
Recent models also benefit from a design-engineering strategy that places maximum laminates in high stress areas, and thinner layers in areas less affected by loads. The results are hulls and decks that, pound for pound, are lighter than those produced employing traditional methods.
J/Boats specifies the use of vinylester resins throughout, producing blister-resistant surfaces on both hull and deck, an improvement over builders who use that material only on hull exteriors or, only below the waterline. Though deck blistering is essentially unheard of, vinylester improves the overall quality of the product, yet at an increased cost.
The hull-deck joint is bonded with methacrylate adhesive, a well-tested product that cures slower than 3M 5200, affording workers the luxury of additional time to assure proper alignment and bonds. A structural grid that includes keel floors, mast step, engine bed, and longitudinal supports, also stiffens the hull and provides a base for the attachment of furniture.
With more than 1,500 boats produced since introducing the SCRIMP method to J/Boat buyers, Johnstone says the boats have "proven to be more durable than hand-laid boats."
We were given the opportunity to sail Patriot, hull #2, on her maiden voyage with owner Mike Duncan and J/Boats Midwest dealer Rich Stearns on a blustery Lake Michigan race day that can literally be described as a gear- buster.
While sorting out gear and crew assignments, we sailed closehauled under mainsail in 15- to 20-knot winds with speed ranging between 6 and 7 knots. She accelerated into the 9-knot range when we hoisted the 105-percent jib. Her deep rudder provided good tracking and a moderate weather helm. Still under full sails while sailing on a close reach, the boat became slightly unruly while speeding along at 10 to 12 knots; a cruising sailor would be more comfortable sailing under shortened headsail or by tucking a reef into the mainsail. After we eventually hoisted the asymmetrical spinnaker, our speed stayed in the low double digits while moving downwind.
However, the boat has one unfavorable feature that was exacerbated by a factory defect. In its standard configuration, the J/133 toerail is a molded fiberglass section extending aft to the mast, after which it disappears. Though its absence aft provides racing crewmembers assigned to rail duty a comfortable place to sit, in heavy weather conditions it proved a hazard.
Patriot's decks also suffered from an overabundance of plug wax that filled the tread in the nonskid. As a result, during pre-race maneuvers in pouring rain, when the boat heeled severely, two crewmembers slid to leeward and only avoided going overboard by grabbing lifelines and handrails. In Patriot's case, removing the excess plug wax to improve the nonskid is described as "a matter of wire brushing the entire deck surface," Alan said, adding, "That situation has been resolved at the factory."
Of the lack of toerail length, the company offers three toerail options that include the use of a teak or aluminum section extending aft to the cockpit. It's no secret, we prefer the longer toerails.
Problem No.3 reared its head as we led the fleet to the first weather mark. We suddenly heard a loud thumping sound below, which we attributed to gear falling from a cabinet. The second time we heard it, we discovered a crack in the deck that ran fore and aft beneath the covering plate where the shrouds extend below. Stearns recognized the risk and bore off to leeward before we dropped the rig.
During a dockside inspection, we determined that a stainless steel pin bedded in the hull and attached to the chainplate had pulled from the laminate, freeing the chainplate from its bed.
"The problem, said Johnstone, "was the result of a misaligned pin bedded fore and aft in the hull that was located too close to the edge of a supporting buttress, the fiberglass section into which the pin is bedded. The combination of those factors and the heavy loads in big wind and seas caused the failure."
TPI quickly swung into action. A repair crew arrived in Chicago a day later, pulled the rig and made the necessary repairs, and the boat was racing the following weekend. That particular J/133 has since completed the 300-plus-mile Chicago Mackinaw Race without incident. TPI also sent crews to inspect other J/133s that had been commissioned, and discovered no misalignments. TPI has re-engineered the pin-buttress connection.
The J/133 seems to fit the designer's objective of producing a performance-oriented cruising vessel. She has performed well on the racecourse, winning her class at Key West and in several buoy races. She's easy to manage under sail, and handles big winds and seas nicely. She motors at 6 to 8 knots powered by a Yanmar 56-hp, four-cylinder engine and Saildrive DS-40 with a folding, two-blade prop.
]Priced at $369,500, FOB Warren, RI, she's at the high end of the scale. For a little more, you can add these options: two-head, two-cabin layout ($1,920); refrigeration ($2,505); and a 6' 3" shoal-draft keel ($830). But "high price" is a relative term too often confused with the size of a required downpayment and ensuing monthly obligation that ignores quality and the ultimate price of a boat based on its resale value.
J/Boats designs and TPI produces boats that are faster than most similarly sized production boats. On deck, the cockpit and arrangement of deck gear is sensible, reflecting a racer's mentality that coincidentally simplifies tasks for the cruising sailor. The deck gear and spars are the highest quality. We believe that the retrofit of a sprit and asymmetrical spinnaker, essentially an oversized drifter, to almost any boat will increase that owner's enjoyment of the boat. Belowdecks, creature comforts are sufficient enough for distance cruisers; here they're similar to those we found during an ocean race on a J/145, a 48-footer that preceded the 133. Spaces below are comfortable and the joinery well executed.
Plus, as the designer and marketer of these boats, Johnstone is involved in warranty issues as an "owner advocate, a facilitator" whose responsibility is "getting people at TPI involved in problem situations." In the case of the failure aboard Patriot, the relationship worked as envisioned.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing J/Boats is the perception that its products are too expensive, and overly performance-oriented. In this case, we think the company offers value. We suspect that sailors who experience this superior performance relative to other production boats, especially in light air, will appreciate this.
Contact - J/Boats, 401/846-8410, www.jboats.com.