A North American Championship fleet of 69 35-foot one designs is nothing to be ignored, even if it were not a record, which it is. So I turned to Alan Johnstone to ask, not about the moment, but about the beginnings that brought us to the 2007 regatta at Annapolis Yacht Club, on the waters of the Chesapeake.
(Congrats to Tom Coates, tactician Chris Perkins, and their San Francisco Bay crew on Masquerade, repeat winners at Key West Race Week and defending NA champions, who went from five points down on Sunday morning to five points up on Sunday afternoon and the close of racing.)
If you've been around, you remember when one-design racing in larger keelboats seemed like an impossible dream. We're well beyond that now. But it's a strange beast, if you think about it, the J/105. In about the same overall length, other boats have standing headroom, space for dining, perhaps even a second private sleeping cabin. You don't buy a J/105 for that. This boat was targeted from day one at the sailor who knows that he doesn't often sleep aboard or entertain aboard except perhaps in the cockpit, which is also where he spends his sailing time, so let's have a large, generous cockpit and enjoy our sailing. Another way to say that: the J/105 is not a lowest-common-denominator boatshow boat.
In 2007 there's a buzz around big daysailers (define "big"), and it's no stretch to figure that the J/105, designed in 1992, was a bellwether. The boat is still in production, though no longer in boom-town numbers, and it is supported by a strong class association.
• Alan Johnstone now leads design and engineering at J/Boats, where the 105 was designed by Rod Johnstone, the fellow who famously built the first J/24 in his garage (24 feet, because that fit the garage, and we should note that Rod's nephew Clay Burkhalter, recently 12th in the Transat 6.50, pitched in on the build – this deal went from family project to family business).
• The first success story of the J/105 class was San Francisco Bay, where J/Boat dealer Don Trask built Fleet 1. If you don't know "the Don," think of him as one of the few people who know how to actually promote and grow sailing. (When Don was building Lasers from a West Coast factory, Northern California had four times more Lasers per capita than any other sailing center.) You can find Don Trask's very personal recollections of the J/105 launch here.
So we begin. In the words of Alan Johnstone:
"In the early 1990s the economy was not so good—there was a recession on—and there was a tax placed on new boats costing over $100,000. Nobody was selling big boats. Orders for our J/44, even the J/40, came to a screeching halt. So we needed a boat that fit that climate. It was a good time for a fast boat as close to $100,000 as we could make it. My cousin, Peter, was racing I-14s, and the idea for the sprit was born there. The jump was to apply it to keelboats. That was a departure, but my uncle Bob thought it would make for easier sailing with less crew. And a lot of Rod's designs are family-centric—easy to sail in a wide range of conditions—so that would fit.
"We took the first J/105 to a PH regatta, and of course the boat looked funny to people with the sprit and with non-overlapping headsails. There was some snickering. We came dead last, but we knew the boat was cool because, the week before, we had sailed it with four people in 20 knots of wind and hit speeds in the mid-teens. This configuration was going to make performance sailing much more attainable, and we built a production strategy around it by introducing other sprit boats and demonstrating a commitment. The J/80 helped the J/105 succeed.
"We built 30-40 J/105s the first year, probably 20 the next year. They were going to everyday guys who just wanted to have a good time at a competitive event. Eventually we had a group of excited owners out there, and they wanted one design racing, and they generated the grassroots momentum and it just snowballed. 105s started attracting more aggressive, more competitive sailors, and eventually it got tagged as a one design racer.
"So you see that it took a few years for the fleet to achieve critical mass. Our biggest years for production were 1997-2003—one year we popped out 130 J/105s, almost two and a half boats a week—but the J/105 Class Association was the real driver. It's still all about the enthusiasm of volunteers who just love their boats."