A sporting revolution has been going on in the waters off Florida in recent weeks. It won't change the lives of many people, and no monuments will be raised to its heroes, but it represents a triumph of thrift over conspicuous consumption in an event given to excess, and for that it deserves at least a footnote in the history of modern sailboat racing.
Charlie Scott, a 30-year-old boatyard owner from Annapolis, Md., sailed his J/41, Smiles, to a sweep of the 1985 Southern Ocean Racing Conference, America's premier sailing event. By finishing first in class and first overall in a 75-boat fleet that included some of the world's most expensive custom-made toys, Scott and the J/41 have proved that an expertly sailed, exhaustively prepared and well-designed production-line sailboat of moderate price can win against the best that money can buy.
For all its long history and considerable prestige, the Circuit, as the SORC is known, is a little like a floating fashion show. Sailmakers, sparmakers, winch-makers, naval architects, dealers and builders use it to demonstrate their newest wares to an haute couture clientele, hoping that if the sport's elite endorse their various products, a trickle-down effect will result. Fortunes ride on the outcome of the SORC's six races, and money—the spending of it and the potential loss of it—permeates the atmosphere like swamp gas. For a production boat such as the J/41, which retails for $135,000, excluding sails and electronic gear, to beat the $200,000-to-$300,000 custom jobs that make up most of its class is not quite like the family Ford winning Le Mans, but you get the idea.
The J/41 is the family project of the Johnstones of Stonington, Conn. and Newport. It is a direct descendant of a fast 24-foot sloop called Ragtime that Rod Johnstone built in his garage in Stonington a decade ago. Ragtime proved to be such a good little boat in her first summer of racing on Block Island and Long Island sounds, winning almost every race she entered, that people wanted to buy her. When they couldn't, they wanted to duplicate her. One thing led to another, and J Boats Inc. was born, a partnership of Rod, 48, the designer, and his brother, Bob, 51, the businessman.
Until Ragtime, the Johnstone brothers were serious weekend sailors of moderate means who raced Lasers and Solings and 470s around the buoys of their home harbors. They were typical of serious small-boat racers everywhere, except that they won more often than most. They hoarded their vacation time to compete in regional and national regattas.
By the early '70s, however, each, separately—Rod in Stonington, and Bob in Wilmette, Ill.—was reaching that time in a sailor's life when he has to choose between racing small boats and seeing his family once in a while. In fact, it was Lucia, Rod's wife, who precipitated the development of the J/24 by refusing, after one particularly miserable regatta, ever to go out on the trapeze of a 470 again.
For a while thereafter Rod substituted his 14-year-old son, Jeff, as crew. "I put him on the helm and I got out on the trapeze," says Rod. "And we were awesome. The only problem was, I was going to regattas with Jeff and leaving Lucia at home with the other kids. The summer of '741 realized my small-boat sailing career was coming to an end. There was no way it was going to be a happy family experience if that kept up."
Today the Johnstones make their living from boats, and not just the borrow-from-Peter-to-pay-Paul, hand-to-mouth kind of living that the volatile business of quality boats often produces, but a rare sort of living, with fame and fortune and the respect of their peers included. J Boats has been the marine success story of the last decade. The triumph of a J/41 in the SORC is merely dessert. The J/24, built from a Ragtime mold, was the boat that put food on the table.
The J/24 is the most actively raced class boat of its size in the world, with 124 fleets in the U.S. and about 40 more around the world. When young hotshot sailors have worked their way through Sunfish, Lasers, Hobies and 470s and are ready to move on to something bigger, the J/24 is where they usually go. "Scratch an SORC skipper and you'll find a former J/24 sailor," says Rod, and then he ticks off the names: John Kolius, Dave Ullman, Buddy Melges, Eric Duchemin, Charlie Scott and so on.
J Boats Inc. was launched officially in February 1977, when Rod and Bob Johnstone became partners. It was their jointly held conviction that if what they wanted was a boat that was fast enough to win races, large enough to accommodate their families, comfortable enough to spend a night or two aboard, and cheap enough to own and still send children to college, then a lot of other people must want such a boat, too.