So it’s time to tell how all this came about, meaning we’re back where we began, sailing with Rod Johnstone, playing hooky from a boat show. Lots of people know the story, sort of, that the first “J/24” was built in a garage. But it wasn’t simple, and it didn’t come easy. In fact, it’s a pretty messy story.
Looking back even farther, it was quite an undertaking when Rod, age 9, and Bob, age 12, built Lightning number 3,310 in the family garage. Of course, they didn’t go it alone. The initiative and most of the work came from their dad, Robert A. Johnstone—a runner-up in the 1926 Sears Cup—who couldn’t have known that history (building a boat in a garage) would repeat itself in the next generation. And then some. Rod gained confidence in his skills as he moved into his teenage years. “I was building models in shop class while my friends were doing bookends,” he says. Then came Princeton, where he was captain of the sailing team and turned down a try-out on the America’s Cup hopeful, Weatherly, “because I was getting married; but it got me thinking.” What the young man really wanted to do was design boats. But how do you do that?
Design dreams aside, Johnstone graduated with a degree in history, another passion, and entered the military with his engineering streak still itching. He says, “I was an officer in the field artillery, and trigonometry was right up my alley.” Then came a stint teaching history in a private school and drawing boats that never got built. “But I had summers to myself. When I realized I needed to learn more, I started the Westlawn correspondence course. That was the day of slide rules, and people don’t use slide rules anymore. Whenever I go to high schools, I like to show a slide rule and ask, Who knows what this is?”
In 1962 Rod and wife Frannie settled in Stonington, Connecticut, to raise five kids while Rod launched a career as a yacht designer. Fat chance. His first day job was running a boat brokerage. Then came a job planning and scheduling the installation of components on nuclear submarines. The marriage failed. Rod started a sailing school. Then he went to work selling display advertising for a sailing monthly. “That introduced me to the industry,” he says. Skip to 1971 and a new marriage, then 1972 and a new house with (drum roll, please) a three-car garage. “My dad was my inspiration,” Rod says. “He was a businessman, and he built a boat.” Rod and sons were soon repeating family history, building a rowing/sailing dinghy in the garage. There was a lot of dinghy racing along about this time, mostly in 505s and 470s. The whole family was sailing, but not together. That fed family dramas, and Rod soon felt motivated to build a boat that would bring the family together.
And there was all that garage space. “And none of my kids had ever been on a keelboat.”
The mission was simple, he says: “To create the largest, fastest boat we could build in the confines of our garage.” On December 26, 1974, Rod Johnstone and all the little Johnstones set to work, and just over two months later the outer shell was laid up. It was a time of family legends. The boat was going to be named Ragtime (Rod’s a banjo picker), and the way Phil remembers it, “I’d come home from school, particularly in winter when I had time on my hands, and go straight to work in the garage. Building Ragtime took time out of my youth, but it was a good way to hang out with dad.” An Etchells 22 mast, minus 40 inches, became Ragtime’s mast. Deck gear came from the Soling that brother Bob had campaigned in the 1972 Olympic trials. The family pitched in again on casting the lead keel, and then—
And then, nothing. The keel sat neglected outside the garage for nearly a year. Eventually, there was money to resume. On May 1, 1976, 29 months after construction started, Ragtime was rolled out of the garage, taking paint off the door jambs as she went. Then came a “hull raising” by a couple dozen family and friends who hand-lifted the hull and placed it on the waiting cradle and keel, allowing Rod’s wife, Lucia, to crawl underneath with a bucket of hot fiberglass to bond hull to keel.
History records that the act took less time than the celebration. History also records that in the boat’s first race—also the first time a headsail was hoisted aboard—Ragtime finished half an hour ahead of second place, without setting a spinnaker, and went on to win 19 of 21 races entered in 1976. “It dawned on me that I had something special,” Rod says. “My old dream of becoming a professional sailboat designer seemed achievable.”
At last. But, as to boatbuilding, there is no other field of human endeavor in which good design and market success are less perfectly correlated. And then came Bob.
Big brother Bob in 1976 was a knot of frustration. As Marketing Director for AMF Alcort he had been asked to conduct market research to help the company choose its next sailing product. Just for just-fers, he threw in something resembling his brother’s 24-footer, and lo and behold, that produced the response spike of the survey. But when he tried to convince the company to build a version of that boat, they hemmed and hawed and elected to build an off-the-beach catamaran.
Bob says, “I was a month from my fortieth birthday and wondering what to do with the rest of my life.”
Rod says, “Bob called and declared, ‘These guys are never going to get going. Do you want a partner?’”
With Bob came marketing savvy. Right brain, meet left brain.
Your correspondent sailed on J/24s when they were the hot new thing, and I remember Bob’s early ad campaigns. I joked at the time, “They make me want to salute the flag, eat apple pie, and buy a J.”
As I was writing this piece, the missives that came in from Bob assured me he hasn’t lost his touch. When I told him I intended to use “A Brand of Brothers” for the title, he chewed on that, and soon I received an email advising, “One of the strengths of J/Boats is that there really were three “brothers.” Rod, myself and Everett Pearson. Each brought unique gifts. Respectively, design, marketing and efficient production. Everett really started the production sailboat revolution with the Pearson Triton in 1959. If it hadn’t been for Everett, if he hadn’t been up to the challenge of ramping up to 36 boats a week within a year, J/Boats would not have launched with momentum.”
But he was, and it did. Orders poured in before the first production J/24 was even launched, thanks to the success of Ragtime. Bob’s son Stuart now remembers Ragtime as “the fastest lopsided garage boat in history.”
Yes, folks, in the comfort zone of 2010, the Johnstones tease each other about the shortcomings of their early boats. The J/24 is still a major one-design class, but I don’t think Rod would re-create those cockpit ergonomics for the trimmer today, no way. Bob, in a fit of nostalgia, decided he just had to have J/24 number 5,000 when it came down the line, so he bought it, and raced it, and got the %^&@ beat out of him. He asked, “How could we have foisted this on people?” That is, he asks the question with a wry grin, knowing exactly how, and knowing how far they’ve come.
Rod waited a long time for success as a designer, so imagine those heady, early days of J/Boats. He recalls, “A guy would call up from Flathead Lake and ask to be a dealer. Bob would be on the phone with him, and I’d be looking at an atlas trying to find Flathead Lake.” Every time J/Boats projected a number of boats to build, their carefully-chosen, high-energy dealers sold more boats than projected.
That was a nice problem, and by selling a gazillion J/24s, the Johnstones earned the capital to gradually upgrade the line. That too was part of the plan, along with building cored hulls that would stand up to tens of thousands of miles of trailering, with the result that a properly-prepped 1977 J/24 is still competitive in 2010, when more than 5,300 J/24s sail every year in 150 fleets in 40 countries. The Johnstone family has grown considerably.
As Rod and I sailed back across Narragansett Bay, working our way through the mooring fields toward the Newport waterfront, I testified how I once sailed through Fiji’s islands and reefs, lots and lots of reefs, on a circumnavigating J/46. I liked that boat (coveted that boat), and sure, we put the autopilot to work. But there were times when we hand-steered for sheer pleasure, half a world removed from Aragorn’s home port.
Rod seemed satisfied with the story, and we were back. Here was the dock. But wait. Another boat was in our space, and apparently they planned to be there a while. I looked at Rod. Rod looked at me. Then he grinned, pulled in the mainsheet and said, “I guess we’ll just have to keep…on…sailing.”