The Johnstones estimated that at a price of just under $10,000 each they could sell 150 J/24s in the first year, the most any manufacturer of a boat that size and in that price range had ever sold. Instead, they sold 750. Today there are more than 4,100 J/24s on the water. Because of their meticulous hand-laid construction method, a rigid sandwich of fiber glass with a balsa core, the oldest hulls are still competitive with the newest. Last year hull No. 96, built in 1977, won the J/24 North American Championship.
"Dinghy sailors were really excited about it," says Drake Johnstone, Bob's 26-year-old son, who, like most of his generation of Johnstones, was a dinghy sailor himself. "It provided a boat you could sleep on, but it also performed like a big dinghy. In a good breeze it would get up on its tail and plane at 12 or 15 knots. There wasn't anything else like it."
"It's very easy to sail," says Jeff Johnstone, now 25 and Rod's oldest son. "You don't need many crew, and you can sail it with young people who don't have much strength, because there's not much sail area."
Rod's design studio is in a small building next to the waterside home that he and Lucia share in Stonington, but the sales offices of J Boats Inc. are an hour east in Newport. There, at 24 Mill Street, in a neatly restored 189-year-old green clapboard house, Bob sells $15 million worth of J Boats a year. His daughter, Helen, 24, works for J Boats Inc. as an assistant, and his son Stuart, 27, is manager of dealer development. Jeff and Drake operate their own company, J World sailing schools, from two converted bedrooms on the second floor.
Bob and his wife, Mary, live in a condominium near the entrance to Newport Harbor. They met when she was 18 and working as a summertime nanny on Fishers Island off the Connecticut shore and he was the 19-year-old sailing teacher and harbor master at the island's Hay Harbor Club. They raised their children in South America and Illinois while Bob was working in the marketing department of Quaker Oats.
"Bob is a real ace at marketing," says Rod. "He is the reason the thing's been such a success. He knew when to push which buttons."
Faced with the untried, the dealers were dubious at first. "They said it was exactly the kind of boat they would like to have, but that it wouldn't sell," says Bob. "We had to convince them that that was the very reason it would sell. We like it. You like it. And it won't sell? That doesn't make any sense."
Next came the sailmakers, who serve as a sort of jungle telegraph within the sailing community. J Boats' first national ad was directed toward the sailmakers. The copy read, "Do yourself and your customers a favor. If you buy this boat you'll win races and all of us will come out ahead." At the first J/24 Midwinter Championship, in 1978, sailmakers were aboard or involved with almost all of the 20 boats competing. The jungle telegraph was at work.
Gradually, eight more models were added to the line, each designed to fill a specific gap in the boating market, each a success, though none on the order of the 24. A J/24 or a Hobie 16 or a Laser doesn't come along often. Rod's drawing board is currently devoted to his first pure cruising boat, the J/38. Again, market research and common sense have pointed the way. Yacht Racing & Cruising magazine did a brand-loyalty survey and found that 58% of J owners plan to buy another boat in a year and that of those, 82% plan to buy another J.