2010 July 1

Sweet sailing and sporty design make for a popular racer

If you just go by numbers, the J /105 is an unqualified success, a runaway best-seller in an industry that hasn't had enough best-sellers in the last 20 years. With nearly 700 hulls launched, it is one of the most successful big boat one-design classes of all time. There are well-organized fleets around the world and many regattas have a separate J/105 class. And the most impressive number of all is 18-the number of years the J/105 has been in continuous production. But that's the funny thing about the J/105: It's really not a numbers boat at all. Ask anyone who sails a 105 what they like best about the boat and they will tell you the same thing: It's just a flat-out sweet sailing boat. And that's the reason, of course, that the numbers are so impressive.

Designed by Rod Johnstone, the J/105 broke new ground when it was introduced in 1992. It fused the West Coast fast-is-fun philosophy with an East Coast ethic of simplicity and clean lines. It was the first keelboat to feature a retractable sprit and true pole-free spinnaker sailing. The cockpit is comfortable and manageable-there's just a single set of primary winches. And while the boat offers great performance, especially off the wind, it doesn't have a hint of squirrellyness in its DNA. It's easy to sail, fun to sail and at times downright exhilarating to sail. Those are traits that you can't define by numbers. This review will primarily look at the older J/105s, those selling for less than $100,000, and there are plenty of them on the used boat market.

It's not a stretch to say that the success of the J/105 may have sparked the daysailer revival of the late 1990s and early 2000s. This boat features many of the same design characteristics sans the elegance. Of course that means sans the exorbitant price tag too. It's not to say that Js are cheap, as you can expect to pay around $100,000 for a 10- to 15-year-old J/105 in excellent condition.

The J/105 is a boat that's easily sailed by two and rewarding to sail for an afternoon. You don't have to be a serious sailor to own a J/105. Many are set up with roller-furling headsails; in fact, furling gear is part of the class rules. But it's also a great boat to campaign seriously both as a one-design and, as the Brits say, a handicapper, and you don't need to have deep pockets to be competitive. True crossover designs are the hardest to make work, but when they do they usually become trendsetting, and that's the case with the J/105.

First impressions
Like most Js, the 105 does not make a stunning first impression. In fact, it looks plain; an easy boat to saunter past in a marina filled with plain white fiberglass boats. However, a closer look reveals a simple but wonderfully efficient deck design with a generous cockpit. The hull form is low and narrow, with a very low center of gravity. The entry is fine despite long ends, and the beam is held all the way aft, but it is done subtly. Rod Johnstone's designs will be among those remembered and studied by future naval architects, as they're wolves in sheep's clothing.

The 105, named for its metric length of 10.5 meters, has an LOA of 34 feet, 6 inches. The waterline length of 29 feet, 5 inches translates into an overhang ratio of 15%, which seems almost quaint by today's blunt-nosed standards. Naturally the rudder blade is located well aft. The standard draft is 6 feet, 6 inches, and although a shoal-draft model is available, only severe depth limitations would induce me to buy one. The narrow keel foil has a torpedo bulb to keep the ballast as low as possible and minimize wetted surface area. The ballast-displacement ratio of 44% is a big part of the reason the 105 can carry sail while other boats are on their ears or shortened way down. The displacement of 7,7750 pounds translates into a sail area-to-displacement of 24. Yes, the 105 is a really fast boat.

What to look for
Probably the first thing to look for is whether or not you want a wheel or a tiller, because the choice changes the nature of the cockpit. The tiller and hiking stick were standard, but quite a few boats opted for the Edson wheel option.
The next item to inspect is the sail inventory. Strict class rules dictate just three sails-the main, jib and asymmetrical chute-and for most of us those are all the sails we will actually need. (Sometimes a second asymmetrical spinnaker is allowed.) Most J/105s have been sailed extensively, and unlike some used boats that rarely left the slip, the sails on used J/105s fall into two camps: tired or recently replaced.

The J/105 is a solidly built boat, but there are few items to inspect carefully. Some boats have reported issues with the chainplates, or more specifically with the bulkhead supporting the chainplates. Be sure to check for signs of leakage and make sure there is no delamination in the bulkhead. Also, the forward hatch was easy to open past 180 degrees, at least in the early boats. Make sure it is not cracked. Some boats have had problems with the rudder bearings binding. Also, the seal around the retractable sprit should be inspected for signs of leakage. Naturally, all age-related items should be carefully inspected, including the running and standing rigging. Most J/105s on the used market are in good shape, a reflection of the simple but efficient design, quality of original construction and consistent owner care.

Most J/105s, and those considered in this review, were built by Tillotson Pearson International. TPI pioneered the scrimp process of resin infusion where the fiberglass and coring are laid up dry. The hull is then sealed in plastic and a vacuum removes the air. The resin is then added, and drawn back into the lay-up by the vacuum. This system allows for strict control over resin-to-glass ratios and eliminates voids or buildups. J/105s were sold with 10-year transferable hull warranties, although most used boats will have exceeded that by now.
The hull includes a matrix of robust floors that help to support the keel bolts. The aluminum I-beam maststep keeps the mast out of the bilge, and is incredibly well supported with through-bolts through two floors. The bulkheads have wide, six-inch tabbing through 360 degrees. The deck coring is balsa and vinylester resin is used throughout the boat. The hull and deck are joined with Plexus, a powerful chemical bond that is stronger than the actual laminate. Plexus eliminates the need for through-bolting. The advantage of this system is that it's much less prone to hull-and-deck joint leaks, which are nearly impossible to repair without major surgery.

On deck
The deck layout is clean and efficient. The tiller is placed well aft, nearly on the transom, and the extender-hiking stick is vital. The cockpit is the classic T-shape and the mainsheet traveler is forward of the helm and scooped out of the cockpit seats. One suspects if the boat was designed today, the traveler would be lower, probably scooped out of the sole. This arrangement works well with the tiller, but does seem a bit crowded with the wheel. The self-tailing primaries are well forward, near the end of the jib tracks, well set up for short runs and quick tacks. All halyards and sail controls led aft to jammers on either side of the companionway, which is large. There's a serious bridgedeck for both structural support and to keep green water out of the cabin.

The nonskid is aggressive, although it may be worn on older boats. The lifelines are not all that well supported and when going forward one needs to pay attention. Of course, with a bit of planning, you don't go forward often. The chute, the snuffer and the sprit can be easily controlled from the cockpit. Many boats have a Hall Spars double-spreader mast with Navtec rod rigging, a Quick Vang and a Sailtech hydraulic backstay adjuster. Most boats are also set up with Harken roller furling on the headstay. As noted above the J/105 is genuinely optimized for short-handed sailing and a crew of two or three can often keep up with a fully crewed, comparably sized IMS boat.

Down below
The interior is not the reason you buy a J/105. In fact, you buy a J/105 despite the interior. It's not that it's uncomfortable, but the J/105 knows its priorities: it's about sailing all the time and occasionally sleeping aboard after a race. Dropping below, there are two settees port and starboard and two small quarterberths/storage areas aft. The headroom is only 5 feet, 5 inches except under the open companionway. Just behind the main bulkhead there is a small galley to starboard and nav station opposite. A big cooler serves as the icebox. The head is just aft of the V-berth, which is actually quite large and includes a hanging locker to starboard. There is decent storage under the berths and the white finish keeps the boat bright.

Most North American boats have 18-horsepower Yanmar diesels, while the boats built in France usually have a similar Volvo 2020 model. The J/105 is a straight shaft boat, not a sail drive, and the class rules include a Martec folding propeller. Access to the engine is good from behind the companionway and through either quarterberth. The fuel capacity is 10 gallons, and that tells you something about what the J/105 is designed for.

I have done a fair bit of sailing aboard J/105s. I did a boat test when the boat was introduced back in 1992 and have sailed aboard various boats in Biscayne Bay and the Chesapeake Bay. The J/105 loves wind. Once the breeze tops 10 knots the boat comes alive upwind and it's easy to push along to weather at 7 knots. The 105 hull shape is able to punch through chop without losing momentum, the bane of many sport boats. The helm is light, although I profess that I prefer tiller steering. The 105 can carry a lot of sail upwind, although it likes to sail flat and reefing is almost always faster.

Off the wind is where the 105 truly shines. In 15 knots true, reaching speeds of 10 knots plus are not uncommon. When the wind pipes up to 20 true the J/105 sails under its asymmetrical chute like a well-trained husky before a sled. Talking about sleds, it is not uncommon to blast along at 15 knots with fingertip control. You really have to screw up to broach.

Longtime readers of the Used Boat Notebook will have realized just how much I like the J/105. It is an essential sailboat, it's all about sailing fast, under control and with minimal fuss. The boat is well made and seems to be holding up very well as a used boat. The J/105 one-design class is alive and well. And with prices beginning in the $60,000 dollar range, it represents a fine value as well.

LOA 34'6"
LWL 29'6"
Beam 11
Draft 6'6"
Displacement 7,750 lbs.
Ballast 3,400 lbs.
Sail Area 577 sq. ft.

PRICE: The J/105 has been around for 18 years, and there are plenty of boats to choose from. As a result the price remains competitive, especially for such a terrific sailing boat.

DESIGN QUALITY: Rod Johnstone hit a home run with the 105, and the success of the one-design class echoes this: fast, easy to sail short-handed, and well mannered.

CONSTRUCTION QUALITY: J/Boats did, and still does, a fine job of building the 105. Some construction issues in older boats have been addressed in the new boats.

USER-FRIENDLINESS: In context, the J/105 is extremely user-friendly for a performance boat. It is not a cruiser, or a racer-cruiser, and nobody ever said it was.

SAFETY: Quality construction and a tendency to stay upright even in wild conditions make the 105 a safe boat. The deck is not all that easy to navigate.

TYPICAL CONDITION: Most J/105 owners seem to take care of their boats. If you want to stay competitive you have to keep the boat in good shape, and upgraded, and that works to the used boat buyer's advantage.

REFITTING: Not the easiest boat to work on. However, your options for change are limited by the strict class rules anyway.

SUPPORT: The J/105 class, www.j105.org and J/Boats, www.jboats.com, offer good support for new 105 owners. The class site is continually updating news about the boat and events.

AVAILABILITY: With almost 700 boats built, there is always a good selection of 105s on the market. And, because of the popularity of the class, they are located in most major sailing areas.

INVESTMENT AND RESALE: The 105 has held its value, and I suspect it will continue to do so, especially as new boat options became less viable. A successful one-design class will always ensure a good market for the boat.