2003 July 7

A speedy 35-footer with enough comforts to take cruising seriously

To say the J/109 promises a lot is something of an understatement. If another builder boasted that its new 35-foot boat might completely redefine the way you sail it would be subjected to a chorus of skepticism. Sailors don't suffer advice well, we're all experts, just ask us. However, this is not simply ad copy banter from an upstart company. No other builder in the sailing industry has a more impressive track record of innovation and engineering excellence than J Boats. When J Boats introduces a new model it is always intriguing to take a hard look at it and that's just what I did on a recent SAILING Magazine boat test.

The crew at J Boats openly admits that the new 109 is a further development of its highly successful J/105. "The 105 was designed for people who live close to where they moor their boat," explained Jeff Johnstone as we cleared Back Creek and eased into the gray waters of the Chesapeake Bay. "The 105 was specifically intended for easy, impromptu sailing without the need for crew. Drive to the boat, hop aboard, cast off and go for a two-hour sail after work. With its retractable bowsprit, asymmetric chute and big cockpit, we tried to create a boat for the way people actually sail, not the way we think they should sail. And the performance is great, almost in spite of itself it developed into a thriving one-design, with more than 500 105s worldwide.

"We have tried to maintain the simplicity and thrill of sailing in the new 109," Johnstone said. "But we have made a big step with the interior. You can cruise this boat."

The 109 is targeted for sailors who appreciate the sailing ethos of the 105 but also want to spend the weekend aboard without feeling like they're camping out and maintain the option of heading over the horizon. In other words, the 109 is designed to do it all, a true racer-cruiser, a dual-purpose boat that delivers both speed and comfort. Leave it to J Boats to try to find that elusive potion and make it work in 35 feet.

The details
The 109, like most Js, has clean, utilitarian lines emphasized by a flat sheer and nearly plumb bow that produces a long waterline terminating in a sleek stern step and swim platform. The cabintrunk is large enough to provide decent headroom below while still blending nicely into the linear flow of the deck. Below the waterline the wetted surface is kept to a minimum. The standard keel is a 7-foot variable chord, high-lift lead and epoxy fin with a bulbed flat tip that flares aft. A 5-foot, 9-inch shoal-draft keel is optional. The 109 displaces 10,900 pounds, nearly 3,000 pounds more than the 105, which is why it seems like a much bigger boat although it's less than a foot longer on deck. There is no need to worry about the 109's weight, however, a displacement-to-length ratio of 165 still translates into a very fast boat, and one that can stand up to a blow.

The 109 is J Boats' first design to be completely tooled and launched in Europe. Like all Js, TPI Composites did the engineering but the boat is actually manufactured by J Composite of Les Sables d'Olonne in France. J Composite is the licensed European builder for other J models. Like all Js, the 109 is molded with TPI's patented SCRIMP resin infusion process. This proven technology employs a vacuum to draw liquid resin into a dry layup resulting in a very high glass-to-resin ratio, somewhere between 65 and 70 percent. By way of comparison, a well-made hand-laid hull might have a 50-percent ratio. Hull thickness can be deceptive. Resin has little structural strength, it is primarily a bonding agent. A half-inch thick hull that is 70 percent glass is significantly stronger than a thicker, resin-rich layup.

To keep the 109 hull as light at possible it is cored with Baltek Contourkore end-grained balsa for a composite construction using biaxial and unidirectional glass fabrics. Vinylester resin is used on the outer layer of the hull and TPI offers a 10-year, transferable warranty against hull blistering. The main bulkhead is fiberglass, making it strong, flexible and ideally suited to carry loads from the spar and rig. The keel is bolted to a deep molded stub, keeping the vertical center of gravity as low as possible. The high-aspect balanced rudder includes a fiberglass reinforced plastic shaft.

On deck
Just past the channel markers we hauled up the mainsail, unrolled the 105-percent jib and canned the engine-ah, magic. The 109 sprang to life as we close reached toward the distant Bay Bridge. The aluminum wheel was huge, a 54-inch diameter Diamond Series by Edson, which made it easy to sit on the coaming and gain an unobstructed view forward. The helm was remarkably light, and steering was a two-finger affair. An innovative design feature allows the combination helm seat and cockpit locker to be removed for racing, thereby opening up the cockpit. You simply pop a couple of fittings and plant it onto the dock. It looked just like a dock box.

The Harken 6:1 mainsheet traveler, with an integral 4:1 fine-tune purchase is just forward of the wheel for easy access and efficient end-boom sheeting. All sail controls including the leads for the retractable sprit are led aft to work stations on either side of the companionway. The brilliance of the design is that an experienced sailor should be able to singlehand the 109 without a lot of fuss and this includes setting and dousing the asymmetrical chute with the assistance of a snuffer. At the same time, a racing crew can also campaign the 109, and judging by results in Europe, do very well under IRC and IMS.

A narrow bridgedeck keeps seawater from flooding below and two lockers provide adequate storage for lines and fenders. Winches and most deck hardware is by Harken and a cockpit spray dodger is standard.
The molded nonskid offers good traction and the side decks are surprisingly wide, this is where you notice the 109's extra beam in comparison to the 105. Forward, the toerails are molded to ORC standards, offering both security and low maintenance. There is a small external chain locker, although if your intent is to seriously cruise be sure to add the optional bow roller, which is also removable for racing.
Stanchions are tapered stainless with double lifelines and opening gates to port and starboard. There is no spinnaker pad on deck to trip over. The retractable, carbon sprit, which extends to 5 feet, 6 inches, slides into a now familiar but still ingenious housing on the hull. The 109 is J's first performance sprit design less than 36 feet built with a full cruising interior. The sprit and asymmetric spinnaker are key to the 109's short-handed performance ease.

The spar is a double-spreader anodized aluminum section from Sparcraft stepped on the keel. The mast has a white powder coat finish. According to Johnstone the decision to go with aluminum was two-fold: to keep the overall cost of the boat down and for cruising durability.

The working sail area is a generous 644 square feet. The standing rigging is continuous rod and Harken headsail furling gear and a Hall QuikVang are standard. The running rigging package is put together by Hall and includes Technora main and genoa halyards, Spectra spinnaker halyard and sheets, and XLS polyester main and jib sheets.

Down below
The 109 interior is not an afterthought. It's well conceived, nicely finished and surprisingly comfortable. I don't think I'd want to live aboard, despite what the nice folks at J proclaim in their brochure, but I sure would like to spend a summer aboard. The cabin is trimmed in cherry with a white vinyl headliner that tends to brighten things up. The sole is a composite simulated teak-and-holly that looks great, resists rot and is lightweight. All portlights excluding the one over the nav station open and there are two additional overhead hatches for more than adequate ventilation.
The two-stateroom, aft-head arrangement works well and lends a sense of spaciousness to what is really not a very large area. The forward stateroom includes a typical V-berth with full-length outboard shelves and two hanging lockers. The main cabin features settee berths with shelves outboard and good-sized storage lockers behind the seat backs. Most of the space beneath the settees is given over to tankage. A 35-gallon water tank under the port side is standard, with an identical tank under the starboard side a popular option for increasing tankage. A drop-leaf centerline table encapsulates the mast, and once opened, seats four or five comfortably.

The galley includes two forward facing polished stainless sinks, surrounded by a large fiddle with a carved handhold and dedicated trash locker underneath. A three-burner Force 10 LPG stove is standard. The molded fridge compartment is well insulated and has a single lid for efficiency. Refrigeration is an option and J Boats recommend the 12-volt Sea Frost system. If you opt for refrigeration a third 105-amp-hour battery is highly recommended.

Two lockers above the stove and a couple of drawers will store dry goods and utensils. Pots and pans are stashed in a cabinet under the stove and there is an additional locker beneath the drawers. Storing enough provisions for an extended long-distance passage will be a challenge.

The nav station is opposite the galley, just to starboard of the companionway steps. The chart table is fairly large, with storage underneath and on an outboard shelf. The electrical panel is outboard and placed high enough so that you don't accidentally throw switches when heeled on port tack. There is room for repeaters forward of the electrical panel and on the partial bulkhead. Below the hinged seat is a dedicated tool locker. The aft cabin is tucked away behind the galley to port. The berth is large and there is decent storage including a hanging locker and full-length shelf.

Most boats designated for the American market will have a 27-horsepower, three-cylinder Yanmar diesel with a saildrive gear. This is a terrific piece of machinery; reliable, efficient, yet when it does need work, it's easy to access. The 20-gallon fuel tank is located beneath the aft bunk. A 100-amp-hour Balmar alternator is a nice standard item. Access to the engine is good, especially for the fuel filters, and the saildrive eliminates shaft and stuffing box considerations. When we pushed the engine to clear the channel the GPS showed a speed of 6.5 knots.

Under sail
The winds were fluky; at times blowing steady at 12 knots and others dropping away to next to nothing. While these conditions would prove frustrating on most boats, the 109 simply goes with the flow. The overwhelming consensus among all aboard was the ride was silky smooth. Upwind in about 10 knots apparent we clipped along at 6-plus knots with no great desire to plant any of our rears on the rail. Easing off slightly, the wind picked up and we flirted with 8 knots. Impressive. Coming farther down we rolled in the jib, set the sprit and popped the asymmetrical. Pushing the wind back up to the beam, we managed to keep the boat moving despite the dying breeze. Just when we were contemplating giving up, the wind sprang back to life and the 109 really found its stride. We punched the speed over 8 knots several times.

The J/109 is capable of carrying overlapping headsails efficiently, but unless you plan to race, you probably won't need them. The 105's flat-cut furling genoa powers the boat through most conditions and setting and dousing the asymmetrical is so easy that it becomes more of a working sail than anything else. We eventually scooped up the chute, unrolled the headsail and sailed very high to lay the Back Creek channel markers. Hard on the wind the boat felt very steady, and surprisingly didn't pound into what had become a sloppy, powerboat-induced chop.

It had been a mere two hours of sailing, but two hours that left an indelible image in my mind. Simply put, the 109 is one of the sweetest sailing boats I have had the pleasure of testing-and I have tested a lot of boats.

Of course, you do get what you pay for, and the J/109 doesn't come cheap. To complete a reasonable collection of options and sails you will need to invest around $225,000 in order to slap your name and hailing port on the stern of a beautiful new J/109. But then again, few boats can completely redefine the way you sail.