Growing the Sport with ‘Perfect’ Sailboats’

Published on August 26th, 2015

Rod Johnstone of J Boats shares his thoughts on how sailboat designs need to be appropriate for sailors’ needs…

What J Boats tries to do is create high performance sailboat designs that sailors can afford to own. We want to be part of the new excitement we see in sailing and sailboat racing. We think our design philosophy fits in well with this new enthusiasm….to provide a more perfect sailboat for as many sailors as possible. As a designer I believe that getting people sailing starts with a great sailboat.

To me the “perfect sailboat” is a vehicle with which sailors of any skill level can safely enjoy the complete range of the sailing experience – from hair-raising speeds in heavy wind to ghosting along in almost no breeze – and want to come back again for more as soon as possible. Sailing provides you confidence and desire as “Captain of your own ship and Master of your own fate” to conquer the forces of nature.

This is the valuable sensation that got most of us hooked on sailing in the first place. Whether you are 8 or 80, you just need a little sailing skill and a sailboat seaworthy enough to enjoy this experience. The “perfect sailboat” can help you do this in the wide range of wind and waves that nature can throw at you at sea. This can be the hook that starts any adventurous soul on a life of sailing.

Speed is an extremely important element of the “perfect sailboat”, especially for racers, but versatility is equally as important. This means the boat must do a lot of things well. What I am really saying is that the “perfect sailboat” is a synthesis consisting of many (sometimes competing) elements to obtain the desired result, which is “great feel” and great performance.

Usually, speed must be compromised slightly to achieve this balance. Boats designed for extreme speed are seldom used for recreational sailing and do not have widespread venues for competitive racing. Extreme speed requires extremely expensive boats – not likely to be popular in a challenging economic climate.

The “perfect sailboat” must excel in its ability to make fast time to windward. This means it must have a proper hull shape, and plenty of stability and an appropriate sail plan to achieve excellent windward performance in everything up to extremely heavy winds and big waves. A sailboat that meets these criteria is generally suitable for family sailing and racing. A sailboat that does not perform well to windward in all conditions leaves its skipper and crew far more vulnerable to the vagaries of nature as well as a lee shore.

A barn door flying a large bedsheet will go downwind pretty well. So the real fascination for me has always been going to windward. Like most people, I am a creature of my environment which is Stonington, Connecticut and Fishers Island Sound where I have sailed all my life. The current here runs from two to three knots and sometimes the wind gets very light. The “perfect sailboat” needs to be able to deal with this, especially with the wind on the nose.

The “perfect sailboat” will provide sailors the ability to choose their own level of danger and excitement, and delight in the experience. There is nothing more satisfying than sailing a boat that will do what you want, when you want, without making you look bad – say, when you need to make a downwind landing in tight quarters at a dock in twenty knots of wind.

The key elements are control, balance, and simplicity. A sailboat that is easy to control is, by definition, well balanced, and will help you “look good” in many circumstances. This can be the difference between your friends and loved ones wanting to sail with you again and your worst “Captain Bligh” moment as you lose control of your boat and lose your crew – maybe permanently.

The degree of perfection of your sailboat is proportional to the tug it exerts on you just to go sailing. Part of this tug is simplicity – not only the controls, but also how easy it is for a shorthanded crew manage the boat. Can the boat be cruised or raced easily with a minimal crew, or is it too dependent on a large number of highly competent crew to be successful… or even usable The latter might break speed records and get the headlines, but the former gets more use because of its simplicity, versatility, and affordability.

Comfort is another important feature of the “perfect sailboat”, usually ignored in extreme racing boats. Ergonomic comfort of a nice place to sit and the ability to move around easily to sail the boat is one aspect of comfort. The other is sea kindliness, or the motion the boat in waves. These both add up to real comfort. This has nothing to do with “all the comforts of home” which are so highly touted at boat shows on boats with spacious interiors at the dock in calm water. The real test comes when you have to sail the boat in big wind and waves.

I am talking about sailing here – not motor-sailing. You can sail anywhere on the “perfect sailboat” without an auxiliary engine. If cruising is your passion, the “perfect sailboat will get you safely from point “A” to point “B” under sail if there is any wind at all. An auxiliary engine may be required in dead calms or in crowded rivers and harbors once you get to your destination, but your sailboat’s degree of perfection is inversely proportional to the percentage of time you rely on your auxiliary for propulsion. Cruising designs do not need to be slow under sail.

To quote the late Uffa Fox, famous British Sailor and Designer, “Owners must praise their vessels, and owners of slow boats praise their comfortable motion in a seaway, quite forgetting that their vessels are comfortable in a sea because they are so slow….It is the speed of a fast yacht that makes her uncomfortable, but as her owner can, by shortening sail, reduce her speed, he has the choice of a fast, but uncomfortable passage, and a slow comfortable one, while the owner of a slow yacht has no choice.”

Specialization of any sailboat design for a particular race, box rule, handicap rule, or point-to-point speed test is usually necessary to achieve success in those racing events. Unfortunately this limits the boat’s usability and desirability. It will only tug you to go sailing when it’s time to go racing in the particular races where the boat is competitive. Hardly anyone really sails these boats for fun. So their value is best preserved by parking them in boatyards on jackstands between big regattas.

J Boats has avoided the “extremes” in our boat designs. We like to think that our boats can be sailed anywhere sailors feel competent to go. Even our new lift-keel 23-foot J/70 has offshore capability – not that we are recommending ocean passages on it. The ability to go safely out of sight of land is enough.

When J Boats creates a new design we try to make it more “perfect” than anything we have done before. Alan Johnstone (Chief Designer) and myself (his assistant) are always asking ourselves whether this is really newer, better, or different than what else is available. Will the owner want to use this boat a lot? Will his/her family and friends want to go sailing on the boat too? Would we want to own one ourselves? Is it reasonable to believe that other sailors would like to own one too? If the answer is “yes” to all these mundane questions, then we are closer to having designed the “perfect sailboat”.

We measure our own success on how frequently owners of our designs sail and race their boats. I think that most sailors agree with this world view of sailing and racing sketched above. Recent economic times have made boat ownership difficult for many, but I am confident that we can overcome this with new designs appropriate to sailors’ needs.

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