Forty years ago this past summer, a naval architect named Rod Johnstone put the finishing touches on a sailboat he built in his home in Stonington, Connecticut. The size of the boat was dictated by the length of the garage in which it took shape: 24 feet. Little did Johnstone know, that vessel, eventually called the J/24, would become an unqualified success. More than 5,000 of them would be built. It would launch a family business, J/Boats, that has introduced dozens of new models and is still going strong. It would even be inducted into the American Sailboat Hall of Fame.
And in the summer of 1986, one of them, hull number 3,688, became my first boat.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate. With my high school pal, Ian Scott, I was the co-owner. Many Js have funny, irreverent names, and we followed suit by calling ours Crack O’ Noon, in tongue-in-cheek honor of when our days supposedly began. When I began searching for a cruising boat after a couple of seasons, Ian bought me out. But he still has the boat, and we’re still campaigning her all these years later. Johnstone conceived of the J/24 as a cruiser/racer, and in those first years we owned her, we did manage a Spartan cruise or two (the boat has seated headroom, a V-berth and a couple of long settees but no head or galley). Hey, we were young and happy to be on the water.
Besides, what we really purchased the boat for was to race her, which is the raison d’être of most J/24s.
Racing a J/24 is a bit of a challenge. With the standard five-person crew — remember, the boat is 24 feet long — every maneuver is highly choreographed so everyone isn’t crashing into one another. Our local fleet in Newport, Rhode Island, is one of the most competitive on the planet, and has produced a sizable number of the class’s world champions over the years. Needless to say, we’ve seen a lot of transoms in the three decades we’ve been racing the boat, but every once in a while we pull off a victory, which always tastes especially sweet.
We generally race on Thursday nights, and while we take things fairly seriously, we don’t go overboard: There’s always a big cooler of beer and ice on board for a pre-race libation and a couple of post-race rounds. (That’s why they call it “beer-can racing.”)
Last summer, we also joined the crews of 20 other boats for the vessel’s 40th-anniversary race. It was supposed to be around Conanicut Island, but when the breeze foundered, the race committee switched to a shortened course on the East Passage of Narragansett Bay.
The fleet was stacked and included a couple of world champs: Brad Read, a two-time winner, and the current champion, sailmaker Will Welles (sailmakers are notoriously good racing sailors). Also on hand was Jeff Johnstone (now the president of J/Boats), one of Rod’s kids and, like all the siblings, a very accomplished sailor.
The start of a yacht race is critical, and Ian, at the helm, nailed a nice one, just alongside Read’s Flying Squirrel (we were at least in good company). But the first windward leg, up to a buoy near a local landmark known as the Dumplings, was a bit of a bear. We played the right-hand side of the course, but a pair of boats on the other side enjoyed an ideal left-hand wind shift and led everyone around the mark.
From there, it was a long downwind spinnaker run to a mark off of Halfway Rock, just off Prudence Island. In rather light air, it was a trying leg. When most of the fleet went right of Gould Island, we went left and picked up a couple of boats. Still, as we rounded the mark to begin the longish beat to the finish line, our position was decidedly midfleet.
The left side of the course again paid dividends, and naturally, we favored the right (stubbornness is one of our crew’s collective traits). Back and forth we tacked, but to little or no avail. We crossed the finish line in 14th place, happy to have a handful of boats behind us.
Still, we’d accomplished our goal, which was to pay homage to a great little boat aboard which we’ve had plenty of laughs and good times over the years. And the cooler, of course, was well-stocked. As we made our way back into Newport Harbor, we hoisted some cold ones in honor of Rod Johnstone’s illustrious garage creation.
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Herb McCormick is Cruising World’s executive editor.