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From ad sales to J/Boats

As 1970 began, I had been working for five years in the planning department of attack- submarine builder General Dynamics/Electric Boat Co. and lived in Stonington, Conn. In March, I was informed that if I wanted to keep my job I would have to transfer to the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass. The alternative was no job.

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I accepted, but I was determined to quit after my extra per diem pay for moving expenses expired.

In June, my good friend Jim Eastland — knowing my sailing skills and my employment plight — arranged for me to meet three guys who wanted to start a sailing school at his yacht brokerage, Eastland Yachts in Essex, Conn.: Jack Turner, Scott Hyfield and Keith Taylor. Thus The Sailing School was born.

I quit EB and was out on the Connecticut River two weeks later giving sailing lessons. Soundings bought a 17-foot Sailstar Explorer centerboard sloop, and lessons were given out of Dauntless Shipyard. Half of the proceeds went to Soundings, which paid expenses for boat, dockage and advertising, and I kept the other half. I also gave private lessons to Eastland Yachts’ new-boat customers. I was listed on Jim’s “option sheet,” along with extra winches and custom cushions.

The school went so well that the question then became: What do we do to keep Johnstone busy this winter so we can run The Sailing School again next summer? They hired me as advertising salesman and distribution manager. My assigned territory was eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, later expanded to upstate New York and the Great Lakes. I also covered sailboat racing, took pictures and wrote articles on sailboat racing as the resident expert in that department. I created and wrote a monthly design section reviewing new sailboat designs. All were fun assignments.

I did my own ad layout, but relied on the incredible talent and patience of Bill Morgan, who converted ad salesmen’s hen-scratches into attractive display ads each month. In October 1976, Soundings gave me three consecutive full-page ads to jump-start the sale of a new 24-foot sailboat I had designed. I told Bill I wanted a large, bold, racy-looking “J” with a fat bar under it for my trademark. The boat would be called the J/24 and the company J/Boats. It took Bill about half an hour in the darkroom to come up with something we both liked, now one of the best-known trademarks in sailing.

My debt to Soundings is not only to the people I worked with and the scheduling flexibility to design and build boats in my garage, but for the opportunity to become a friend and acquaintance to many in the sailing industry as a result of my selling advertising every month for many years. Among the industry people who were my ad clients, the most important to the later success of J/Boats was Everett Pearson, whose company, Tillotson-Pearson, became the primary builder for J/Boats for more than 25 years. Others later became dealers or suppliers.

We had just put the first production J/24 in the Boston Boat Show, and I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to selling ads for Soundings. Jack was thinking ahead on my behalf when he said, “Look, Johnstone, you can keep half of your ad accounts until September. If J/Boats falls on its face by then, you can have all your accounts back. If not, I assume you will be out of here.” It was a generous offer I didn’t refuse. Who knows? If the J/24 had flopped I might still be working for Soundings.

In 1988, 11 years after leaving Soundings, I tried to call Jack to invite him to a boat-naming contest for a new 15-foot boat I designed for a new company called Johnstone Yachts. I found out he had just undergone heart bypass surgery. On the morning of the boat-naming party, I snuck into his room at Hartford Hospital long before visiting hours and found him barely conscious, hooked up to a maze of tubes.

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After I announced that the party for the boat-naming contest “is tonight” and that the winner would get a free boat, he smiled and declined the invitation. When I urged him to submit a name for the contest, he asked what the name of my new company was. When I told him, he said without missing a beat: “Hey, why don’t you just call it the JY 15?”

We considered more than 50 names at the party that night. All were rejected, so Jack’s name stuck. Once we got into production, Jack got the prize: a free JY 15.

Rod Johnstone was an advertising sales representative with Soundings from 1970 to 1977, when he co-founded J/Boats with his brother Bob with the introduction of the J/24.

See related articles:

- 50 years of Soundings - Jim Flannery

- Forever grateful - Eric Colby

- Pioneering at Soundings - Keith Taylor

- Heart and soul - Charles Barthold

- Out of the blue, into the mix - Steve Knauth

- Soundings flashbacks - Bill Tuttle

May 2013 issue