Alan Johnstone’s first design for J Boats is a roomy performance cruiser that suffers only from a lack of organized stowage.


Having spent recent years building performance-oriented “sprit boats,” including a recent 45-footer designed for competition in the Admiral’s Cup, J Boats did an about face in 1996 with the introduction of a new cruising boat. Though the boat shares the pedigree of its racing cousins, the new entry is more traditionally shaped and has a good deal of space below.

The Company
J Boats was founded in 1977 by marketer Bob and designer Rod Johnstone. Its first boat was the one-design J/24, which now numbers more than 5,200. A succession of 28′ to 35′ designs expanded the company’s line.

In 1988, the brothers began reshaping the management of J Boats. Four of their sons joined the company in various management roles. During the next 10 years two departed, leaving Jeff Johnstone in the president’s seat and Alan Johnstone as vice-president, overseeing project management. Along the way, Alan, like Rod, pursued an interest in yacht design by enrolling in the Westlawn School of Yacht Design.

Though Jeff and Alan now manage day-to-day affairs, Bob and Rod continue as active participants in the company.

The design of the J/32 can be partially attributed to the shortcomings of the company’s successful “sprit boats,” all of which are designed for one-design racing. They have long cockpits and low profiles, and are equipped with retractable bowsprits that replace conventional spinnaker poles. The boats are fast and fun to sail, but most owners find them unsuitable for weekending, at least compared to more traditional boats.

To distinguish its models, models that fly conventional headsails from a tack on the bow are designated by names equivalent to length on the deck—the J/32 is a 32-footer. Sprit boats are assigned metric equivalents. For example, the J/80 is 26.3′.

The genesis of the J/32 occurred when Alan Johnstone and his wife sailed a J/105, a 34-footer, on a weekend getaway and discovered the same shortcomings mentioned by would-be weekenders.

“We had a fast, comfortable trip from Newport to Block Island,” he said. “When we couldn’t find a slip or mooring, we anchored in the harbor. The wind was blowing about 18 knots, but we were comfortable stretched out in the cockpit. Then it began to rain, so we went below, which was okay for the first couple of hours. However, we discovered that the quarters below were rather confining after a long period of time. And there’s little headroom so we couldn’t stretch our legs.”

Consequently, he and his wife began playing “what if?” They imagined the changes that would make the boat more suitable for cruising.

Upon his return to the office, Alan queried Rod about the possibility of undertaking his first design, and was encouraged to pursue development of the first cruising boat the company would offer since the J/42 in 1996.

“The criteria we established,” said Alan, “was that the boat should sail well and handle well. It was targeted to younger families with children as an entry level boat, and for older sailors who may have tired of bigger boats and want to step down in size.”

Alan designed a shapely hull that is pleasing from all angles. Overhangs are virtually undetectable; the bow is plum and the stern relatively square. Viewed from abeam, the sheer is relatively flat; the height of the coach-roof does not detract from its appearance, despite having 6′ 3″ of headroom below. Johnstone boasts that the boat has more volume below than any J Boat smaller than 40′.

“We first considered a swim platform on the stern but decided that 2′ of additional space for the cockpit was more important,” he said.

The swim platform was replaced by a ladder, which we think makes sense.

To simplify sailhandling, the J/32 has a 7/8 fractional rig with a small foretriangle. The J measurement is only 11′, so shorthanded sailing will be simplified, a trend we’ve noticed among other manufacturers as well. The mainsail carries 356 sq. ft. of canvas; total sail area is 518 sq. ft.

The sail area/displacement ratio is 18, and the displacement/length ratio 183, both of which suggest good performance. Using New England PHRF ratings, the J/32 with an asymmetrical spinnaker rates 120, compared to the C&C 33-2, which rates 132, the Catalina 320 at 159 and the Pearson 323 at 174. The sheeting angle for the jib is only 11.4°, which will produce high pointing angles.

J Boats are constructed at TPI’s plant in Warren, Rhode Island using the Seeman Composites Resin Infusion Molding Process (SCRIMP), a vacuum-assisted closed system that increases the glass-to-resin ratio, while reducing the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) that enter the environment.

The process produces such light and strong hulls that it is now used in a variety of nautical, industrial and military applications, ranging from wind generators to hot tubs.

The method is not infallible, however, as we learned in talking with one J/32 owner. His boat was damaged during a collision and during the repair process a 4″ void was discovered under the gelcoat at the rounded edge of the hull-deck joint, approximately 6″ aft of the headstay.

TPI’s manager of customer service, Richard Moody, told us that a void of that nature could occur on the top of the mold, usually at a corner, and that such a flaw does not affect the structural integrity of the boat.

“After spraying gelcoat to the mold, we apply two layers of chopped fiber to the hull,” he said. “It is possible for areas in corners to be resin-rich, which can create the void.”

The owner reported the fix to be uncomplicated, with no residual blemishes on the hull.

The structure of the J/32 is engineered and built to exceed the Offshore Yacht Service guidelines of the ABS (American Bureau of Shipping), which defines types of materials and the fabrication process of structural components that include the bottom, side, deck and deckhouse, bulkheads, rudder and keel.

Hull construction begins with a layer of NPG isopthalic gelcoat to produce a high gloss finish that TPI says inhibits water penetration more effectively than other products. The company provides a 10-year warranty against blistering.

The hull laminate consists of two outer plies of mat with vinylester resin followed by three or four plies of glass fabric consisting of mat/biaxial cloth/mat combinations sewn together. They sandwich 3/4″ thick AL-600 balsa core.

Eight additional layers of biaxial reinforcement are laid in the keel area and on centerline in the bow and stern. Additional reinforcement is also used on flanges, through-hull locations, the strut mount, and the shaft and rudder. When completed, total thickness of the hull at the bottom is more than 1″.

The deck laminate mirrors the hull lay-up except that SCRIMP layers are molded using polyester resin.

The hull-deck joint is an overlapping flange bonded with a combination of 3M 5200 and Plexus adhesive. Deck hardware is through-bolted and sealed with Sikaflex. Because the main bulkhead supports the chainplates, mast bearing beam and keel support grid, it is solid fiberglass in load-bearing areas; it is bonded to the hull using non-woven biaxial glass fabrics. Owners report no flexing of this joint.

A keel stub area is molded to the hull using multiple plies of fiberglass and fiberglass stringers in the stub. The keel, which is cast with J-shaped bolts in the lead, is sealed in epoxy and through-bolted to the stub.

TPI’s methods produce strong, lightweight hulls that, when built properly, represent the state-of-the-art in fiberglass boatbuilding.

Deck Layout
We think cruisers will like the deck layout for two important reasons: All of the hardware necessary to sail the boat is at the fingertips, and movement about the deck is easy, even with a dodger mounted over the companionway.

Walkways forward are nearly a foot wide, and jib sheet controls are mounted out of the way on a 3″ high toerail or inboard on Harken T- track. The bow pulpit is open forward, which facilitates sail trim and will not interfere with anchoring. Stainless steel handrails on the cabin top are high enough to provide security when moving in a seaway.

Light and ventilation belowdecks are provided by several hatches and ports; a Lewmar 60 Ocean model is over the forward cabin, a Lewmar Ocean 40 is mounted over the saloon, two fixed ports are on each side of the cabin, and two opening ports are in the cockpit bulkhead and in the forepeak. Though opening side ports are optional, we think they are vital.

Primary winches are Lewmar 40 STC two-speed self-tailers, and halyard winches are Lewmar 16 STC self-tailers, which worked efficiently on our test boat. Halyards are led aft through port and starboard Harken sheave organizers to Lewmar Superlock double stoppers located near the companionway.

The mainsheet is close at hand to skipper or crew; controls are a Harken 6:1 tackle system with Harken fiddle blocks and a single ratchet with becket and cam. The system is anchored by a double-ended Harken traveler.

We were impressed that this mainsheet arrangement, despite being located in the cockpit, does not interfere with crew comfort and still allows the helmsman to ease the sheet quickly.

Additional mainsail control is provided by a Hall Quik-Vang.

A 40″ Edson stainless steel wheel allows the helmsman to see headsail shape from either rail. However, we’re not sold on wheel steering on a boat this size. We think a tiller provides better feel, improved steering from the weather side, and is less obtrusive, but we also realize that the public prefers wheel steering.

The cockpit seats measure 50″ long x 19″ wide and are comfortable.

Both a Schaefer 1100 furler and a Thurston dodger are on the boat’s list of standard equipment.

With the exception of a carbon fiber mast, a $10,000 option, the only option needed to enhance performance is the spinnaker hardware package, which lists for $945, less sails.

We think most sailors will find this boat’s systems well-conceived and functional, whether sailing shorthanded or fully crewed.

The 11′ beam and 6′ 2″ headroom make for a spacious interior, especially compared to other 32-footers. The finish work shows excellent attention to detail, including the teak and holly sole and teak ceiling battens. Gelcoat surfaces are smooth and shiny, chainplates attached to the bulkhead are polished, and cushions are well upholstered with heavy fabric.

Beyond that, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the layout or accommodations, though we did find a few nits to pick.

The saloon has two 6′ 4″ settee/berths covered with 4″ closed-cell foam cushions. The dining table folds upright on the bulkhead when not in use, and the fastener holding it is flimsy.

There are pigeonhole stowage areas behind the settees, and narrow, 9″ wide shelves mounted on the hull. The space below the starboard settee holds a 50-gallon water tank. There is storage under the port settee, unless it is filled with an auxiliary tank, as was our test boat.

The navigation station is an off-white counter top measuring 23″ x 27″. Below the table is open stowage. We think this area is a candidate for reorganization because above and outboard of the shelves are the boat’s batteries, which will be difficult to monitor and require strength and agility to remove. Also, there’s no seating at the nav table, except by kneeling on the settee and facing aft, which would be uncomfortable. One owner has retrofitted a swing-out seat, which has two drawbacks: It blocks the passageway and has no knee room. Another owner is considering a removable, floor-mounted chair, but doesn’t know where to stow it.

Immediately aft of the nav station is the head, a one-piece molded unit copied from larger J Boats. It is equipped with a shower and a large, open hanging locker, sink, cup holder, mirror and small medicine cabinet behind the sink. The head is a Raritan PH-II with holding tank and overboard discharge system.

The galley is L-shaped with adequate space and equipment to satisfy the needs of most short-term cruisers. A two-burner Force 10 stove with oven and broiler is located outboard and aft, and there is space for meal preparation on a 41″ x 18″ countertop over a 6 cubic foot icebox. This is a large space for a boat this size; however, the cook will have to remove necessary items from the ice box before commencing.

The single-basin stainless steel sink measures 29″ x 13″ x 10″ deep. Stowage for pots and pans is below the stove. Behind a smoked Lexan cover are two 48″ shelves.

Additional stowage is accessed through a removable panel in the galley or from the cockpit lazarette. This 46″ high and 44″ wide area extends to the stern and is subdivided by what Johnstone calls a bisecting bulkhead running fore and aft. Because it has no hanging poles, shelves or bins, it has the potential to resemble Fibber McGee’s closet. Johnstone explained that the company decided to leave the area open so that individual skippers could organize it to suit their needs.

The forward stateroom has a 76″ V-berth, 24″ wide at the foot, enclosed by a solid wood door.

There are 9″ wide shelves on both sides, a hanging locker, and a small vanity. Stowage below the berth is divided into two compartments. Optional equipment includes a sink and teak battens on the hull sides.

The engine is located below the companionway steps, which are teak mounted on a stainless steel frame. There is also access to the engine from a removable panel in the head.

The engine is easily accessible but changing the oil on the 3-cylinder, 27-hp. Yanmar diesel through the dip stick could get messy. There is a drip pan but little clearance.

During our test sail we found the J/32 to have the same performance characteristics of her predecessors, and may be easier to steer. Our test boat was provided by an owner who had her outfitted for cruising and was loaded with personal possessions, and full fuel and water tanks.

We tested her in relatively flat water and true wind speeds ranging from 8-12 knots.

Our first impression is that she is buoyant and lively, and responds quickly to the breeze by moving forward, rather than sideways. The entire test was conducted with a full mainsail and 120% roller furling genoa.

Sailing to weather we initially sailed to within 50°-55° of the true wind at 6-6.5 knots with a neutral helm. When we added backstay tension by cranking the Sailtec hydraulic backstay tensioner, her point improved by 5° and we gained 1/4 knot of boatspeed. She has a seakindly motion, and we like the way she knifed through the small chop.

We think the sailor who enjoys trimming sails to maximize speed will enjoy tinkering with the mainsheet, jib and traveler positions. A hanked-on jib would improve pointing, but will require manual sail changes.

Off-the-wind performance was equally good. Sailing at 120° in 8 knots of wind, boatspeed hit 7 knots.

We also discovered that her sailing groove is relatively wide, and that average sailors will find her easy to balance on all points of sail.

Under power, the J/32 reached 6 knots at three-quarters throttle, it backed in a straight line, and turned 360° within a boat length.

We think Alan Johnstone hit the target he was aiming for. She’s a legitimate performance cruiser with spacious accommodations.

The J/32 is built to high standards using modern construction. The workmanship, with both fiberglass and wood materials, is of high quality.

Among her warts are the navigation station design and allocation of stowage areas. One owner told us that he had more usable stowage on his San Juan 28 than on the J/32. We also were told that a stainless steel swim ladder was showing signs of corrosion after only one season, and that the ladder is attached to the stern rail by a bungie cord rather than a proper fastening.

Standard equipment includes full engine instrumentation, a Martec two-bladed folding propeller, hot and cold pressure water system, hydraulic backstay adjuster, furler, cockpit dodger and Yanmar engine.

Sailors who can afford this boat can expect to be passing lots of other boats while under sail. Performance has a price, however. The J/32 is priced at $120,900, fob Warren, Rhode Island; the Catalina 320 is priced at $85,000.


Contact- J Boats, Inc., Box 90, 557 Thames St., Newport, RI 02840; 401/846-8410.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at darrellnicholson.com.