J-Boats returns to its racing roots with an innovative lightweight speedster
The J/125 makes you feel young all over again. Remember sailing a J/24 for the first time? The boat seemed to defy gravity, or at least friction, as it surfed down waves in perfect control, blowing by 35-footers in the process. This new 41-foot flyer, designed by Rod Johnstone, delivers a similar thrill in a larger, brilliantly conceived package. Innovative designs and engineering excellence are certainly the key factors in J-Boats' ongoing success. Another reason the company often seems one step ahead of the competition is that it takes consumer research very seriously.
J-Boats surprised many in the sailing industry, including me, when a few years ago it changed its focus, adding performance cruisers to its line of one-design racers. Emphasizing easy-handling small headsails with asymmetric chutes, clean deck layouts, large cockpits, low maintenance and Spartan but well-thought-out interiors, designs like the J/42 and J/160 helped usher in a new age of cruising whereby sluggish sailing was no longer acceptable. The company has once again checked the pulse of J-Boat owners and potential owners and the results are intriguing. After conducting an extensive survey, J-Boats recognized the need for a very high-performance boat in the 38- to 42-foot-size range that offered an easy-to-handle alternative to grand prix designs with large campaign budgets. The result is the J/125, which I tested recently.
Light, fast, strong.
At first glance the J/125 looks like other IMS 40-foot one-designs. However, a closer inspection reveals many differences, including a slightly softer look with less radical lines. In fact, the Johnstone brothers used the IMS rule more to determine what they didn't want in the boat than what they did. The J/125 was not designed to compete on the grand prix circuit where boats are often sailed by professionals and shipped to all corners of the world for one-design regattas. By its own admission, the J/125 is a big, fast, light, offshore racer/daysailer with minimal accommodations. Fast and light are the key words, and the numbers don't lie: LOA 41 feet; LWL 37 feet; beam 10 feet, 8 inches; draft 8 feet; displacement 8,350 pounds with a ballast ratio of 55 percent. To put it in perspective, the J/125 displaces nearly 3,000 pounds less than the Farr 40.
The J/125 is built by TPI Composites using its patented resin infusion SCRIMP process. The completed laminate, including stringers and floors, is placed in the mold dry. A vacuum eliminates air voids and then draws only enough resin to wet the laminate. The hull and deck are then post-cured in a closed oven at 140 degrees for 25 hours. The net result of this sophisticated construction method is a hull that has twice the strength of a conventional hand layup and is dramatically lighter. Just how light? Without the keel, engine, rig and hardware, the J/125 weighs 2,700 pounds. The laminate is composed of Kevlar and E-glass for the outer skin with biaxial and unidirectional carbon fiber making up the inner skin. CoreCell foam, which is thermoformed to the shape of the boat in a separate tool, is used between the skins. The bulkheads are also composite. The high-aspect keel is made from a nickel, bronze and aluminum alloy and the bulb is lead. The 10 keel bolts are stainless and the wide flange is well-supported by a solid E-glass and Kevlar backbone, although I would not be comfortable sustaining a hard grounding in a boat with a keel that is not supported with some kind of stub. A kelp cutter, which fits on the leading edge of the keel with a wand control on deck, is an interesting option. The rudder blade is reinforced carbon fiber as is the stock.
The double-spreader, fractionally rigged carbon fiber mast is built by Hall Spars and the luff is set up to accept either Antal sliders or a bolt rope. The boom is also carbon, with a vang attachment and a webbed strap for the mainsheet systemÑremember, shaving extra weight, even a mere boom bale, is the mantra. The maststep is a custom epoxy piece, attached to a molded centerline stringer with stainless bolts and a tapped aluminum plate. The 8-foot, 6-inch retractable bowsprit is also carbon and controlled from the cockpit with Harken tackle. The standing rigging is continuous rod by Hall Spars, and a Sailtech hydraulic backstay is also standard. A TuffLuff headstay foil is also standard, but the Harken headstay furling is a popular option. This illustrates the way the most people sail the J/125.
A huge, scooped-out carbon fiber wheel trimmed in black foam dominates the long, open cockpit. The wheel weighs just 4 pounds. The cockpit is well-set-up for sail control and offers good foot support and visibility at the helm. Standard primaries are Lewmar 48ASTs, with 44ASTs chosen for the secondaries and for the mainsheet winch, which is mounted on the aft end of the deckhouse. Harken Speed Grip winch handles offer even more power. The Harken Big Boat series mainsheet traveler, which is forward of the binnacle, can be easily adjusted from the helm. Harken Black Magic blocks are standard on the halyards, checkstays and turning blocks. The genoa and jib leads are load adjustable. The deck nonskid is excellent, but I thought the stanchions could be taller. Although the cockpit can accommodate a handful of crew, you really don't need themÑthe boat can be sailed efficiently with two people, which makes it quite different from its IMS cousins.
The interior is utilitarian. As Bob Johnstone told me, "If people want a cruising boat, they should buy the J/120." This boat places a high priority on the ultimate sailing experience, not liveaboard comfort. This boat includes four berths, a head, a hanging locker, a couple of drawers, a chart table, a sink, an Origo stoveÑin other words, just the bare necessities for sleeping aboard. Johnstone went on to explain that although the 120 and 125 are similarly priced, the difference is that the money that goes into a 120 interior is used in the higher tech construction of the 125.
The interior arrangement features sail lockers or optional adjustable pipe berths forward, followed by a head and hanging locker opposite. The galley is along the port main bulkhead across from a decent-size navigation desk, with room for repeaters above. The settees in the saloon serve as good sea berths. Most molded surfaces are finished with gelcoat. The headliner is a foam backed liner. Two quarter pipe berths are aft, with terrific access to the Yanmar Saildrive located between them. There are well-placed stainless steel handrails that run from the main bulkhead aft to the companionway.
The J/125 is powered by a Yanmar 20-horsepower diesel Saildrive. This is more than enough power for the boat and the 20-gallon fuel tank will probably not need to be refilled but once a season. Although the electrical system is basic, featuring two small gel-cel batteries and a Guest three-way switch, typical of all Js, the workmanship is first-rate and accessible.
J-Boats has every intention of creating a lively new one-design with the 125. They emphasize that it will be an owner-operated, family-oriented class that will work on a local level. Although the boat has a harsh rating under PHRF, the 125 is so fast that it will be extremely competitive under any rule. However, one-design racing will be the most fun with the 125. Establishing a successful one-design class is not as easy as one might think; careful control of the manufacturing process is paramount. The SCRIMP process allows J-Boats to keep the 125's weight tolerances to an astonishing plus or minus one percent of the total weight, and tight class rules have already been established. It is important for old boats and newer boats to compete on a level field if a one-design class is going to make it in the long run. J-Boats has a proven track record in developing and maintaining one-design classes.
On the water
Carol Dean, Ed Hershman and I joined Bob Johnstone aboard a new J/125 in the Annapolis outer harbor. Johnstone had been happily sailing solo with a No. 3 on a Harken furler and a full main. After slowing to let us climb aboard, we trimmed up and eased off on a close reach. My initial impression was simply how smooth the ride was despite a moderate chop. Johnstone explained how an important design consideration was to make sure the boat could be made ready for sailing quickly. "You can be away from the dock or mooring and sailing in a matter of minutes," he claimed, "and not just sailing, but rocketing along." Johnstone also insisted that although the boat can generate speeds that will go boat to boat with anything in its class, the J/125 can be easily handled by a couple. And not necessarily a young couple at that. Although I can't reveal ages, Carol and Bob, who together have more than 120 years of sailing experience, quickly popped the asymmetrical chute off the retractable sprit as Ed and I watched. What was even more impressive was the instant acceleration as the 125 powered up to more than 8 knots in the 10-knot breeze.
The steering was fingertip control and the carbon fiber wheel felt uniquely in tune with the rudder as a small adjustment produced an immediate course change. Carol and Bob scooped up the chute and brought the 125 up for some close-winded work. The boat consistently topped 7 knots well inside 30 degrees apparent, and at times eased into the 8s. I was very impressed by the 125's motion through the water. The combination of deep draft and low center of effort with an extremely light rig and hull, made for a great ride. Fortunately, the wind increased as we sailed toward the Bay Bridge. We cracked the sheets and blasted over 8 knots. The 125 never felt overpowered, or even skittish, even when we brought the boat back on the wind and again tracked along inside 30 degrees apparent without losing much speed. Unlike other similar one-designs, the helmsman can readily trim the main and, with a bit of stretch, the headsail.
With the J/125, Rod Johnstone has changed the great performance equation. He has managed to avoid the necessity of putting a lot of meat on the rail to keep the boat on its feet (although it will help at times). This translates into less crew, and while the sailing is still exhilarating, it can also be more spontaneous. The J/125 makes grand prix sailing an option for those who don't want the hassles of organizing a large racing campaign. The Johnstones have always appreciated sailing performance for its own sake, and the new 125 is destined to become another boat by which others are measured.