Racer? Cruiser? There's no sense splitting hairs when sizing up this fine-sailing boat. A boat review from our February 2010 issue

February 11, 2010

If you ain’t got performance, you got nothin’. It’s been a consistent theme for J/Boats over the years. According to designer Alan Johnstone, the 31-foot J/97 is no different. It’s an introductory boat to its larger cousins, the 35-foot J/109 and the 40-foot J/122, and all of them aim to satisfy a wide variety of uses, from high-powered regatta racing to family cruising.

The J/97 is intended to be decidedly untwitchy, even when driven by inexpert crews, and the sail plan aids in the boat’s versatility and forgiving nature. It steals a page from the shorthanded offshore racers of recent decades, featuring a 105-percent jib and a powerful mainsail that’s easy to control from the helm using the adjustable backstay, boom vang, and the mainsheet system’s rough- and fine-tuning tackles.

Johnstone chose to use a 105-percent jib because it’s more powerful than a self-tacker while remaining quite easy to sheet from the helmsman’s seat or by crew in the cockpit forward of the mainsheet. The jib rolls up quickly and easily, too.


J/Boats long ago refined its carbon bowsprit, which carries a large asymmetric chute and retracts into a self-draining tube. With no pole to fool with, handling the spinnaker is quite simple, and although the J/97 won’t sail as deep as one flying a conventional chute, a boat like this sails faster tacking downwind anyway.

Overall, I found that the deck plan is clean and functional. Its ergonomics provide comfortable positions from which to winch, drive, or lounge. You can sit in the cockpit and enjoy good back support, and you can stretch out along the full-length seats into which the traveler is set flush. When sailing the boat flat, the crew will often sit up on the wide coaming; when the boat’s heeled, they’ll slide out onto the side deck. Cockpit seat tops feature inboard lips that can retain cushions and provide good footrests. A 15-inch-high bridgedeck stands as a buttress against any possible downflooding, and the wide-open transom will drain any shipped water instantly. It also provides a large space for a life raft, and it can be closed off with a removable athwartships seat.

The standard boat features a racy smooth sheer aft. Both cruisers and racers headed offshore may want to add toerails there for added security. When they sailed the boat, Boat of the Year judges also felt that the high camber to the cabin top around the mast was less than ideal, although one rarely needs to work there because the running rigging leads logically to secure winching positions in the cockpit. The crown also helps to provide 5-foot-11-
inch headroom below while the hull retains a low profile.


J/Europe in France has been building J/Boats under license since the 1990s using the well-known SCRIMP resin-infusion-system. Its experience building the J/109 and J/122, says Al Johnstone, has led to a new interior plan. The J/97 utilizes outboard chainplates and unidirectional composites running across the deck in the mast area to remove the need for a main structural bulkhead at the mast. Moving the forward bulkhead 32 inches forward allows the J/97 to retain the V-berth while gaining saloon, head, and storage areas aft.

A two-burner gimballed stove with oven swings in the galley. A single deep sink sits near the centerline. Aft of the galley and under the cockpit, there’s a comfortable double-berth cabin. A number of opening ports provide good ventilation throughout. The settees are well positioned and sized for sea berths, but judges noted that bolts protruding from furling gear mounted on the cabin top weren’t capped and could contribute to head nicks. Johnstone later pointed to a rush to get ready for the boat show and says that any protruding bolts will be capped on all future boats. Storage spaces aren’t huge, but they’re adequate for short cruises and are augmented by hanging duffel-bag “lockers” that are easy to remove. The overall layout should prove effective for both around-the-cans racing and coastal cruising.

Construction materials and standards of structural assembly and finish appear to be of high quality. J/Europe infuses the balsa-core hull and Divinycell-core deck with polyester resins. Some experts have questioned the longevity of balsa core and the fastening of deck to hull with Plexus without the use of fasteners, but J/Boats has been using these construction methods for a very long time with good success. The hull comes with a 10-year limited warranty.


A fabrication of stainless steel imbedded in the lead keel is tied to the boat with 10 bolts. There’s no real keel sump, encouraging crews to keep their bilges dry since bilge water can then migrate up along the hull sides when the boat heels. The keel’s near-vertical leading edge may not take too kindly to rock ledges, but that’s the tradeoff that J/Boats is willing to accept to provide a boat that not only performs well in light air but also can handle heavy conditions offshore.

If the proof is in the pudding, the J/97 proves a treat. The boat points high and maneuvers like a hummingbird while remaining simple to handle. It can clock near wind speed in light to modest air. Acceleration is immediate, but the J/97 isn’t fussy and can be pinched up without dying. The tiller remains fingertip light thanks to the balanced high-lift rudder and smooth bearings. The boat also powers easily at 6.5 knots or better. One warning: With no stops on the rudder on our test boat, the blade developed considerable leverage when backing under power. Johnstone reports that rudder stops are standard and that our test boat has since been retrofitted with them.
Although not strictly a racer, the J/97 offers sparkling performance with a workable and attractive interior. The boat can easily be customized to fulfill the needs of a wide variety of people, whether they’re jaunting off to Catalina, racing around the cans, or heading off with the kids for a weekend or longer vacation. Wherever you’re headed, the J/97 will provide the joy of sailing.

Steve Callahan is a frequent CW contributor.


LOA 31′ 6″ (9.45 m.)
LWL 26′ 6″ (8.08 m.)
Beam 11′ 0″ (3.35 m.)
Draft 6′ 4″/5′ 5″ (2.11/1.65 m.)
Sail Area 498 sq. ft. (46.3 m.)
Ballast 2,900 lb. (1,316 kg.)
Displacement 8,600 lb. (3,901 kg.)
Ballast/D .33
D/L 206
SA/D 21
Water 26 gal. (98 l.)
Fuel 13 gal. (49 l.)
Holding 12 gal. (45 l.)
Mast Height 49′ 0″ (14.94 m.)
Engine 20-hp. Volvo w/ saildrive
Designer Alan Johnstone
Sailaway Price (base) $190,000

J/Boats Inc.
(401) 846-8410


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