Class of 2016: Rod Johnstone

Published on October 23rd, 2016

Nine new members of the US National Sailing Hall of Fame will be inducted at a ceremony on October 29-30 in San Francisco, CA. Roger Vaughan provides this report on J/Boats co-founder and boat designer Rod Johnstone, one of the members of the 2016 induction class:

Rod Johnstone grew up sailing a homebuilt Lightning, then he raced Thistles, 505s, and 470s. He says they all had an influence on the lines he drew for the 24-footer that became J/Boats’ initial offering (J/24). But perhaps the biggest influence was a neighbor’s 30 square meter he was familiar with (LOA 43’ 6”; LWL 28’ 6”; BEAM 7’ 2”).

In the mid-1970s, he took that boat to watch a New York Yacht Club reaching start in strong wind, sailing to leeward of four 12 Meters (Vim, Columbia, Easterner, and Weatherly) to observe their performance.

“We just had our skinny little main up,” Johnstone recalls. “We were taking notes, and after 20 minutes, we realized we were keeping up with the 12s, doing 9 or 10 knots. We were planing! In those days, there were very few larger boats that planed.”

He went back to work on the 24-footer he was drawing, aiming for a keelboat that would plane and be stable. “Planing doesn’t rely on how fat the stern is,” Johnstone says. “It’s how flat the hull is ahead of the keel. The J/24 has dead rise, but heel it 15 degrees and it’s flat.”

He had additional motivation for working on the 24-footer. During one very hot, light wind 470 regatta Johnstone sailed with his wife, Lucia, as crew, she lost her balance at one point. “I can’t recall what I said, but the word `elephant’ was used,” Johnstone says. “At the awards, she was smiling, but muttered she’d never set foot on the 470 again.”

Rod shared the emphasis on performance with his brother Bob. “But a sailboat is a want, not a need,” he says. “Performance isn’t just speed, it’s about a boat doing what you want when you want to do it. Balance is key. It pleases me to know an average person can sail a boat of mine and get the same kick out of it that I do. A lot of non-racers sail our boats.”

Rod’s son Alan has been chief designer at J/Boats since 1985. Sometimes they independently tackle a new design, then superimpose them on the CAD machine. The difference is often measured in millimeters. “Either I brainwashed him, or he brainwashed me,” Rod Johnstone says.

For a complete list of inductees… click here.

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