As we strolled across the grounds at the New York Yacht Clubs Harbour Court facility in Newport, Rhode Island, Al Johnstone described the design brief for his new J/97 racer/cruiser. I thought we needed an entry-level sprit boat thats a little more user-friendly, non-intimidating and family-cruiseable than the J/105, he said.
Structurally, the boat is impeccable. The hull is cored with end-grain balsa, set in vinylester resin and biaxial and uni-directional glass cloth. The SCRIMP resin infusion system optimizes laminate strength and saves weight. The bottom of the hull is stiffened with an integral stringer grid, and all bulkheads are glassed to both the deck and hull. The interior joinery is generally well executed, but not quite as sharp as what Ive seen on American-built J/Boats. The varnish work has a slightly plastic feel to it, and the edges of all the plywood bits I found aboard were unsealed. According to Al, the current plan is to shift production to the United States if the boat sells well here.
It was a gorgeous September daywarm and sunny, with a building 15-18 knot southwesterly ruffling the sparkling surface of Narragansett Bay. We rode the club launch out to J/97 hull No. 6, which had only recently arrived from the J/Europe facility in France. Within moments of dropping the mooring pennant, we were gliding out of the harbor headed for open water.
Sailing performance is what matters most to the folks who buy J/Boats, so Al knew he was skating a fine line in trying to tone things down on the 97. One thing he did to make the boat more family-friendly was move the mast back a tad to increase the size of the foretriangle and decrease the size of the main. The result is a rig that is easier to handle in a blow, but still provides plenty of power in light air. To improve stability he also kept the boat relatively wide (it is nearly as beamy as a J/105, despite being 3 feet shorter on the waterline) and lowered its center of gravity by concentrating ballast in the bulb. Though the main is indeed a tad undersized compared to other J/Boats, it still provided plenty of power as we maneuvered headsail-free out of the harbor and threw in a few tacks out on the bay.
Of course, the boat moves much faster with the jib up, but we had no instruments, so I cant really say how much. Independent tests aboard a J/97 in similar conditions in Europe yielded 6.5 knots of boatspeed upwind at a 25 to 30 degree apparent wind angle, which is close to whats predicted on the boats polar diagrams. The boat also moves well at wider angles and has tested out in excess of 9 knots broad-reaching under an A-sail flown from the boats 6ft retractable sprit. The boat has been clocked at 7 knots beam-reaching under working canvas alone.
Youd expect a boat with relatively fine, high-aspect foilsespecially one steered with a tillerto be a bit twitchy, but I found the J/97 to be amazingly well mannered. Let the tiller go while sailing upwind, and the boat rounds up slowly and steadily. Broad-reaching under working canvas, the boat again changed direction slowly and predictably when I released the tiller. After fussing a bit, I even got her to sail herself downwind for a while as I managed lines in preparation for our doublehanded spinnaker hoist. With the chute up, the tiller remained easy to handle even though the A-sail has nearly twice the area of the entire working sailplan and we now found ourselves in a rapidly strengthening breeze.
By the time we turned around and started beating back to Newport, the wind was over 20 knots, but we had only to play the main a bit to keep her on her feet, and the heel angle never became dramatic. Like all J/Boats Ive sailed, the 97 falls easily into a fast groove and is easy to keep on track. She showed no tendency to pound in the short chop, and her motion was smooth and comfortable.
Like its sisters, the 97 has a clean, simple deck layout that maximizes performance while minimizing the cordage that must be fiddled with. Al worked hard to make the cockpit ergonomic and comfortable for a helmsman seated to windward on the coaming. The coaming angle is perfectly pitched to receive rear ends when the boat is heeled, and theres a small lip on the edge of the cockpit seat to brace your toes against. The cockpit also features an open transom with a removable rear seata nice touch. There is plenty of room under this seat, between the twin adjustable backstay leads, to mount a liferaft, if necessary. In addition, there is a cavernous locker under the cockpit seat to starboard big enough to swallow a rolled-up inflatable tender.
Sail controls are well situated, with everything neatly at hand. The mainsheet tackle features both coarse and fine tuning controls and can be easily trimmed by either the crew forward of the traveler or the helmsman when seated to one side.
The boat can easily sleep four adults on the saloon settees and double berth aft, and theres room for another adult or two kids in the Euro-style open V-berth forward. On a cruise of any length, the layout will work best for a couple and one or two kids. Headroom is good, but a six-footer wont quite find the space to stand up straight.
The interior aesthetic emphasizes function over style. The boats performance has not been sacrificed to enrich or enlarge its accommodations, but the layout does the make the most of whats available. Both the galley and nav station are a little undersized, and storage space overall is limited. But the boat should be plenty comfortable on short coastal cruises.
The head, I should note, is perfect. The compartment is aft, where motion is minimized, and the toilet is oriented fore-and-aft, which makes it easy to use when the boat is heeled.
The J/97 is as user-friendly as any reasonably competitive performance boat could ever be. Though the J/97 is fast for its size and has already performed well on European racecourses, its helm is so forgiving and predictable that novices wont be scared by it. It deserves a serious look from any sailor who wants to get more serious about racing, but still wants to cruise weekends with the family.