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Salt water in their veins

A long-lasting love of all things nautical runs in the blood of the boatbuilding Johnstone family

Peter Johnstone remembers the day J/Boats became an undeniable fact of his life.

Bob Johnstone, co-founder of J/Boats, is the patriarch of a family that has spent a lifetime on the water.

“I gave up my bedroom for the very first J/Boat office,” says the 45-year-old son of Bob Johnstone, co-founder of J/Boats, the world’s most prolific builder of one-design keelboats. “I learned at a very early age the sacrifices of starting up a company. I got moved up to the attic.” He was just 12 years old.

Today, Peter is a second-generation boatbuilder, the founder and CEO of Gunboat, a maker of high-end luxury sailing catamarans. He grew up with salt water in his veins, resin in his hair and business buzz in his ears. Suppers at the Johnstones’ were the rough equivalent of going to business school for six years, Peter says.

“You were listening to the struggles of a growing business, learning what it takes to succeed in probably one of the most difficult industries in the world,” he recalls.

The Johnstones are one of the dynasties of modern American boatbuilding, a family that has not just talked the talk of family boating. They also have walked the walk, introducing their children by immersion in the pleasures and challenges and opportunities of boats and sailing and the business of boating.

Founded by brothers Bob and Rod in 1977, J/Boats started with the popular J/24 one-design based on Ragtime, the hot-shot racer Rod designed and built in his garage. The Johnstones since have sold more than 12,000 boats at prices ranging from $10,000 to $2 million, designing and marketing them while licensing others to build them.

Bob and Rod keep a hand in design and marketing. President Jeff Johnstone and chief designer Alan Johnstone — Rod’s sons — have managed operations and sales from Newport, R.I., since 1992. Bob’s son Stuart has returned to head up marketing and business development after a long stint in Internet technology and the world. (He founded and served as technology consultant and publisher of the e-mail newsletter Scuttlebutt.) Bob’s third son, Drake, serves on the J/Boats board.

A family activity

Mary Johnstone is shown in an MJM powerboat. The initials MJM Yachts stands for 'Mary Johnstone's Motorboat.'

Peter, the youngest of Bob and Mary Johnstone’s children and a “free spirit,” as mother Mary, an Episcopal priest, describes him, has gone his own way, although it never has been far from the water. When he turned 18, Peter was asked what he planned to do with his life. “I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m going to be messing around in boats,’ ” he recalls.

“The Johnstone family really have brine in their blood,” Mary, an accomplished one-design sailor in her own right, says a friend once told her. “They were born in the wrong century.” The friend thought they ought to have lived in the time of the great 16th and 17th century navigators; Mary isn’t so sure. The Johnstones surely are adventurous spirits — nurtured from an early age at the tillers of boats — but this has served them well in the 20th and 21st century business world. Risk-taking seems to have been an “innate quality” of the Johnstones, honed and refined as the family sailed together on the racecourse, on ocean voyages and on picnic outings, Mary says.

Son Stuart agrees. An entrepreneur who has been on the forward edge of computer and Internet technology, he says his years of one-design racing sharpened his decision-making skills and his ability to minimize risk and maximize return. “You have to learn to sail faster,” says the 1980 College Sailor of the Year and two-time intercollegiate All-American at Tufts University. “You can’t worry about failure, but you have to be able to see problems coming, respond quickly and recover. You have to be willing to take risks. Sometimes it pans out; sometimes it doesn’t.”

Learning to live with that and enjoy the good times at J/Boats, weather the bad ones and trust that “things will come out all right” is one of the secrets of staying with a very tough business, Mary says. In lean times, Mary and Rod’s wife, Lucia, put in long hours at the J/Boats offices in lieu of staff to curb costs. It’s part of being in the business.

Son Peter’s résumé includes stints at Johnson Outdoors, updating new product processes; EdgeWater Power Boats, turning around its predecessor company, which had gone bankrupt, and rebranding it; Escape, developing and marketing (as president) a new entry-level sailboat; Sunfish Laser, reviving (again, as president) the bankrupt company and taking Laser to the Olympics; and his own company, Johnstone One Design, marketing and co-developing the One-Design 14 with a retractable bowsprit. Today Peter builds his Gunboat 48- to 90-foot carbon fiber catamarans in China and at a new plant he’s setting up at the old Buddy Davis yard at Wanchese, N.C.

Peter says he learned a lot about the marine business from being immersed in it at home as a child, but he also credits his passion for sailing to his parents, who gave him “free rein” to explore the waters off Newport by himself. By the time he was old enough to do this, the older children were away at college, Bob was immersed in J/Boats, and his and Mary’s parenting style had loosened up a lot after rearing the first three, Peter says. “Their parenting style was perfect for me,” he says, and he made the most of it.

“We kept him supplied with boats,” Bob says. “He’d take them out at age 12 to Brenton Reef Tower [at the entrance to Narragansett Bay] and back. We let him and his friends take a J/24 to Buzzards Bay regularly. He was totally immersed in boats.”

Peter recalls his dad giving him quick navigation briefings before these outings. He’d help Peter chart a course and would caution him about hazards, adverse tides and winds. “He’d say, ‘Here’s $50. See you in five days,’ ” Peter says.

Pretty soon, he was delivering boats for his dad, and it wasn’t unusual for Bob, Mary and Peter to cruise together on J/24s, taking them back and forth to races, boat shows and other events. Around the Johnstone home, boating was never just a business. It was a family activity — a “lifestyle,” as Mary describes it — incorporating business and pleasure.

Racing and cruising

Early in Bob’s career, when he was a marketing executive for Quaker Oats, the family lived in Colombia and later Venezuela, where Mary and Bob started a Sunfish racing fleet on Lake Guataparo, which also became sailing waters for Stuart and Drake. Every year, the family came home for a month of R&R and spent time at Mary’s mother’s “Shangri-La” in Islesford on Little Cranberry Island, Maine. They’d spend time with grandma, then charter a Hinckley sailboat and cruise the Maine coast with the children — Stuart, Drake and Helen at the time.

“It was a great adventure for the kids,” Mary says. They’d trail the children behind in a Dyer Dhow when they got too noisy — they loved it — and let them sail it in anchorages. “Those were wonderful years,” she says.

“Family together against the elements” — that’s how Bob describes family cruising. “It breeds mutual respect and healthy relationships, resourcefulness and exercising judgment with regard to wind and waves and navigating,” he says. “It’s great training for life. You have to make decisions without knowing for sure whether you’re right or not.”

Back in Chicago in the late ’60s, Mary and Bob and the three older children raced a 24-foot Rainbow in the nationals. Then Mary, Bob and Stuart campaigned a Soling. At the Soling nationals, Bob remembers rounding the windward mark in first place when Stuart — then just 10 or 12 — turned to him and said, “OK, Dad, don’t blow it.” Bob says he knew then it was time to give Stuart his own boat.

In the early ’70s the family threw themselves into 470 racing. They bought a station wagon and trailered around two 470s and a Zodiac — one of the sailboats for Mary and Bob to race, the other for Stuart and Drake, and the Zodiac for Helen and Peter to tow the racers to the course and tool around while the others competed. “[Sailing] certainly has brought us together as a family,” Mary says.

Convinced of its benefits, Bob promoted youth sailing, founding the U.S. Youth Sailing Championships in 1973. In 1981, Stuart, Jeff and Drake co-founded the J/World sailing schools to teach and promote sailing — racing and cruising — to all comers.

‘They’d kill me’

The Johnstone family has been cruising and racing for decades.

For all the romance that surrounds family businesses, they can be bruising places. Peter, who had developed a retractable bowsprit for his One-Design 14, came to J/Boats offering himself as an employee, along with his bowsprit design. “I got a call from my brother,” Peter says. “He said, ‘We’re not going to hire you, but we’re going to go with your idea.’ ”

Peter says 90 percent of J/Boats models during the last 15 years have carried retractable bowsprits. “There’s no bitterness,” he says. “It’s the best gift I could have received.”

Peter likes to run his own show. He likes to move fast to incorporate innovations, which isn’t always possible in a family business. His catamaran company has no formal board; he queries knowledgeable customers for their response to new ideas and decides accordingly. “I could never fit in with my older cousins and siblings on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “They’d kill me.”

Peter says he does value his father’s advice about business decisions because of his vast experience. “Dad is a great sounding board,” Peter says. He gave Peter lots of great advice when he was turning Sunfish Laser around. However, Peter wasn’t so happy with the advice he got on opening a yard in Wanchese. “My dad was not so keen on our going to North Carolina,” a powerboat and sportfishing mecca. “He said it would be a big mistake.”

Peter says that at one time Wanchese and its environs could boast of having 20 of the best sportfish builders in the country. The recession has decimated their numbers, but the work force has stayed. “I’ve got 1,000 to draw from and they are jacks-of-all-trades,” Peter says. They do “exceptional work,” and labor rates are a third of those in the Northeast, he says.

Johnstone patriarch Bob, now 78, has not lost either his interest in marketing boats or his deft touch in sniffing out new markets. Peter says he and his dad were talking about going in together on a Down East-style powerboat, but in the end Peter deferred to his dad, which probably was wise because Bob already had a vision for a stylish, fuel-efficient, comfortable, easy-to-handle powerboat that he and Mary could take out together. Mary and Bob’s boating still is about family, but with a little different focus.

Having inculcated boating in their own children, they now want to take the grandkids out. Bob’s mJm Yachts — the mJm is for “Mary Johnstone’s Motorboat” — are 29-, 34- and 40-foot cruisers on which you can host a “family gathering for picnics, cruising and day trips,” Mary says.

Mary and Bob have raced as a family, cruised as a family and voyaged as a family. Now Mary would like the two of them to be able to go out for the day with the grandkids — on a boat.

See related story:

- Like father, like sons

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.