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dynamic duo 2 – the j/70

boat test

dynamic duo 2 – the j/70

Last week, Mr. Clean sailed the new VX-One and J/70 in Lake Norman, NC. Part one of this report was a review of Brian Bennett’s little lead-assisted dinghy, and here’s his slightly delayed wrap up – a close look at the hull number one of the Johnstone boys new J/70.

As we were pulling in from my test sail aboard the Bennett boat, I hollered to the boys on the J/70. “How about a ride?” J/Boats Carolina dealer John Killeen tugged on the tiller and pointed at the dock, and I needed to take about three steps to go from the VX to the J/Boat. Door-to-door service is rare these days, but I’ll take it.

It makes a review better when I can sail on two new boats in a roughly similar genre within a few days of each other – one boat’s features make you aware of the other’s, and the similarities and differences between two designs tell you more about their real intended target than comparing them to older benchmarks. I knew within 5 seconds of taking the helm that the design brief for these boats was worlds apart, and that instead of competing, they might very well complement each other.

First, though – the boat:

There is nothing extreme about the J/70, and there’s nothing really cutting edge or innovative about it either. J/Boats first real entry into the sportboat market is quite conservative, in fact, as you’d expect from the most successful manufacturer of one-design keelboats in history.

When getting aboard it is impossible to miss noticing the high boom; there’s enough room for an NBA player to duck through on a tack. It will certainly make the boat safer to sail, though It’s the only feature that takes away from an otherwise aggressive (for a J/Boat) and low-slung look. The flat-black-coated spar package – a beefy sprit, boom, mast, and spreader package from Southern Spars – helps dial the sex appeal right back up. This thing clearly belongs more to the ‘black sheep’ side of J/Boats; the progeny of the same streak that produced our two favorite J/designs – the 90 and the 125.

Lake Norman isn’t known for its big breeze, so we were glad to have around 8 knots with a few puffs to 12 or so and a few lulls down to 5 – a great sample to see what the new production sporty could do in a varied range. I didn’t get to light the boat up, but learned enough to guess at how she’ll deal with heavier air.

Moving out of LNYC’s windless little bay, the new J/Boat dipped her shoulder to the new breeze and surged forward like a TP-52, wake streaming aft, straight and true…HA! Fooled ya. Just the real story here!

Settling into the helmsman spot, you learn that the J is stable as hell for a 22 footer, a result of a big bulb and relatively flat bottom. Backstay, traveler, and mainsheet are all nicely set up with good Harken running gear mixed with Ronstan cleats. Their positions, along with pretty much everything else on deck, would be extremely familiar to any Melges 24 sailor –because they are roughly the same. Even the eensy little winches, which look so out-of-place on a sportboat, are similar to the winches that came with some of the early 24s back when the M24 still came with bow pulpit, nav lights, a DC panel. The J/70 – also like the old Melgi – comes with cushions for the cabin. “You can overnight in your new race boat….” Yeah, right. Actually they have a great use, as I learned when taking out a 2 year-old niece on a 1993-built M24…they turn the cabin into a great toddler’s crib while you plane around in the breeze.

Pushing upwind through a few tacks, the boat feels about the same weight as a 24, and considering the published spec has now put the boat at almost exactly the weight of a Melges 24 – around 1750 pounds – that certainly makes sense. Even without any hiking, the boat heels differently than the Melges, presumably because so much more of the narrower J’s weight is in the keel. That makes it a calmer drive than a Melges or any of the smaller, lighter sporties – it doesn’t have the twitchiness they do, and it tracks like a train. The boat’s narrow shape helps it feel slippery upwind, and in the 8-12 knot range that we were out in, I enjoyed having the traveler and backstay in my hand for constant gear shifting. They offer far more sail shape precision than the auto-depowering square top and bridle arrangement on a lot of the new sporties, but there’s no doubt they complicate the sailing and add weight, while at the same time reducing effective sail area and efficiency for a set rig height. But those features accomplish something else important: They make it possible for any J/Boat sailor to step on the 70 and feel comfortable with the controls in just seconds. quickly through tacks.

We got on the breeze as we left the shelter of the bay, and the J went to full power fairly quickly on the Dacron Quantums. I worked the traveler to get the helm nice and dead, and the boat felt like, well, a sportboat with a J/pedigree. As befits her narrow hull and moderately chorded foils, the J has a wide groove and really likes going upwind. I’m guessing the boat has a pretty even uphill polar curve, because even in minor puffs of 12 knots, she carried her speed well up into the skinny angles. There was no speedo aboard and my trusty Speedpuck was back in Michigan, but the boat moved well, with enough weight to carry momentum through the lulls and enough power to accelerate through chop or after a tack. Getting across the cockpit is a snap, and crew sits legs out upwind like most every other J/boat, with the only ergonomic faux pas being the Harken winches getting in the way all the time.

I bore off for a little downwind fun, and the high-clewed kite went up easy enough. It’s masthead but very easy to handle, and I reached off at a hot angle to get her popping. In an average breeze of around 9 knots, the boat was easy to get up to 10 or 11 knots, though seat-of-pants VMG course was more of an ‘up to 8 and a half or 9 and burn down to 7.5 or 8’ thing with the apparent at 90-100 degrees. It’s way early to know just where the transition is going to be between high and soak mode for best VMG, and our flat, reachy Q kite was cut with a preference for the high road. It also remains to be seen at what speed you’ll transition to the deep, tack line out, rotate-to-weather course that J/80s sail in winds up to hurricane force. I’m guessing it won’t take long for someone to come to a moderate regatta with one of those J/boat specialty kites with all the area up high, looking like a symmetric, and kick all the reachers’ asses.

It’s definitely at the heavier end of the sportboat spectrum, the same space occupied by the poor-selling Rocket 22 and Flying Tiger 7.5. It definitely digs a bigger hole in the water than any of the new generation of sportboat.For such a small boat – it’s a hair under 22 feet long – the J/70 is pretty tolerant of weight placement upwind and down, thanks to so much of the balance coming from that big keel. In general the balance is exceptional under either kite or jib, and that high cut kite can be carried pretty damned high for point-to-point courses. Those who expect to sail these boats on that kind of course in PHRF will want to invest in a ‘screacher’ to run out on the pole for tighter angles than 90 true, where the boat will be underpowered with the jib but overpowered with the kite.

Market Makers

The J/70’s manners are so polite that it’s almost dull – but it isn’t. It’s a reasonably lively, quick sportboat that can be flung around easily by 1,2,3, or 4. It’s priced reasonably as well – the latest is around $45k all up, though that will no doubt creep up a bit as things get going. That compares favorably to the Melges 20 (around 50k) and the 24 (north of 60), and like the Melges, the J is built in the good old US of A.

Aside from a few details like the almost comically high boom and unnecessary winches, the only problem I have with the boat is how unoriginal it is. A longtime friend who raced his M24 for years in Charleston before selling it last year grabbed me in the parking lot of the Charleston Yacht Club the other day for a quick summary of the J/70. I gave him an explanation that I’ll reproduce here because it’s probably the best one, even though it’s based on a completely fictitious conversation (I think!). I told him that it almost seemed like the Johnstones called up 50 of their most valued J/Boat clients from a mix of every J Class and invited them to a banquet room with a Melges 24 sitting in the middle. They asked each J sailor in turn what they would keep or change in the design to make it the right boat for them. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but hopefully it’s illustrative.

J/105 Owner: “It’s too wide. That’s just too far to get from one side to the other in a gybe without falling over.”

Jeff Johnstone (writing furiously): “Narrower. Gotcha.”

J/100 Owner: “There’s too much kite, I’d never be able to see to leeward, and it’ll be too easy to shrimp the kite.”

Jeff Johnstone: “Too much kite, make foot shorter and higher. Gotcha.”

J/24 Owner: “I love the backstay. Keep that in.”

Jeff Johnstone: “But then you can’t have a square head main.”

J/24 Owner: Not even a tiny bit flat at the top, just to look good?

JJ: “Tiny bit of square head main. Gotcha.”

J/80 Owner: “I dig that keel lifting crane. Keep the crane, the mount, the cover, and the Delrins. But is there any way we can make it faster?”

JJ: “We could probably hook a motor to it somehow. Maybe if we put set it up to use a portable drill on the winch shaft…”

J/90 owner: “Rudder is sweet.”

JJ: “Right on.”

J/80 Owner: “I dig that companionway spinnaker bag.

JJ: “You sure you don’t want a takedown line/bag retrieval system? Ok then – companionway launch it is.”

J/125 Owner: “Didn’t the Melgi recently go to a zipper luff jib with an adjustable halyard? Let’s do that.”

JJ: “Set up purchase for jib halyard. Check.”

J/35 Owner: “It looks like that bow and jib furler are constantly under water, and the furler compartment is taped over with duct tape to keep it out.”

JJ: “Design new, more watertight underdeck furler. OK.”

J/24 owner: “I dig that trailer – make one like that.”

JJ: “We can do that.”

J/44 Owner: “That torpedo bulb and kelp cutter looks like a pain in the ass, and the foil is pretty skinny. Can you make a keel that doesn’t catch pots or weeds?”

JJ: “Sure”

You get the idea. The boat is as close to a Melges 24 as you can get without being from cheese country. It is a little cheaper, a little slower, and a little less extreme.

At first glance, it seems silly to launch a new boat that’s so similar to a 20-year old design, especially when it’s a boat that has seen participation dropping since the heyday of 100 boat Worlds and 70-boat Key Wests (though those numbers are regularly exceeded in Europe). So why build something so similar? This is where the genius of the Johnstones comes in.

They don’t need to go out on a limb. The did that twice in recent memory, with the same 125 and 90 that we love so much. Both boats were ahead of their times, extreme and fast and wet. And despite both becoming cult classics and winning all over the world, both flopped spectacularly from a commercial standpoint. It appears that J/Boats have learned their lesson.

The reason they don’t need to build a supercar is that they are not really interested in poaching the Melges or Viper fleets to build their own – they do not need sportboaters. They are most obviously targeting the people that own, have owned, or have crewed on a J/Boat long enough to love it. So the J/70 is slower than a 20 year old design just a foot longer? Big deal. Compared to what thousands and thousands of J/Boat owners have been sailing for decades, this thing has, as the J/Boats PR team said a few weeks ago, “afterburners.”

It will sell like hotcakes – in fact it already is. We’re told they’ve taken orders for 100 boats already and it ain’t just fluff – assuming the quality and consistency is there for the early adopters, this might become the fastest selling sportboat in history, and we are already expecting big fleets in 2013 in South Florida and Charleston.

With plenty of cheaper, faster options that already have fleets on the market, why would all these past J/boaters buy a J/70?

Because the boat is plenty fast and plenty of fun. Because they’ve always been treated like family by J/Boats. Because they know J/Boats will spend what it takes to grow fleets and support their customers. Because J/Boats understands how important marketing is, and how to do it right. Because if they’re anything like the other boats, the J/70 will still be racing in 50 years.

Meanwhile, the J/70 is going to help move get hundreds of bodies out of 4 knot shitboxes and into sportboats. And for that most of all, we give it the Anarchist seal of approval.

Double Talk

Now that I’ve finished reviewing both the J/70 and VX-One, it’s time to compare and contrast them. First, the Top Gear comparison:

The VX-One is a Formula Ford 1600, or maybe a top-end shifter cart. It’s fully enveloping, only knows how to get you fast and full of adrenaline, and can be thrown on a trailer and towed with a VW rabbit.

The J/70 is a hot hatch – maybe a Golf Type R or a Subaru Impreza STi. You can still take it on longish trips with the kid, but when you wind it up on track day it leaves you with a grin a mile long.

Finally, there is the multiple choice test. Stand in front of a Melges 24 and ask yourself what your honest impression is. Do you:

  1. Nod off a little in boredom, snidely saying “what is this ‘soak mode’ shit?”
  2. Get a little wide-eyed and shaky, mumbling “I think that’s a little too much boat for us. Or
  3. Run through your walnut-lined study, screaming “they’ll ruin our gentlemanly sport!”

If you answered 1, go to Bennett. If you answered 2, go to Johnstone.

If you answered 3, go cruising.

Photos thanks to Adam Coker/AuthenticExposure.com and a big thanks to J/Boat Carolina and Bennett Yachting for having us out for a sail