J/Boats founders honored for sailing achievements

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Brothers Rod and Bob Johnstone arrived at the same conclusion independently 39 years ago before launching the perennially popular J/24 sailboat. The wave of baby boomers who were having so much fun sailing Hobie, Sunfish and other beach boats were marrying and having children, and they were primed for owning a performance family keelboat.

Bob Johnstone

Bob Johnstone

Rod Johnstone

Rod Johnstone

Rod, a writer, photographer and ad salesman for Soundings in 1974, already was building one for himself and his growing family in his garage in Stonington, Connecticut. Bob, transitioning into the marine business after 17 years in marketing and operations at Quaker Oats, had become marketing vice president at AMF Alcort, manufacturer of Sunfish, Hatteras, SlickCraft and Wellcraft boats. He hadn’t been able to convince the corporate brass that the market was aching for a versatile, easy-to-sail racer/cruiser/daysailer that was family-friendly, fun to race and fun to take friends out on.

Rod launched Ragtime in 1976 and cleaned up on the race circuit that summer, Bob recalls. The 24-foot design was a winner, so with $20,000 in seed money, the brothers formed a partnership, J/Boats. They enlisted boatbuilder Everett Pearson and in 1977 took the design to market.

Soundings’ founding publisher Jack Turner gave the Johnstones three free full-page ads to start. After six months, their fledgling company had taken orders for several hundred boats. By the end of 1977 the order book had grown to 700, and Pearson was turning out 30 boats a week, with six sets of tooling and six assembly lines. The J/24 was the first of J/Boats’ 40 designs — a total of 14,000 boats built, including 5,700 J/24s.

After a lifetime of building and racing boats, Bob, 82, who lives in Newport, Rhode Island, and Rod, 79, a Stonington resident, took home two armloads of silver this fall for their contributions to sailing. On Oct. 21, Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut, presented the brothers with its America and the Sea Award, and nine days later they were inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in Annapolis, Maryland, with seven other luminaries.

“Over the past 39 years, the Johnstone family and their company have influenced American yachting and the sport of sailing in incomparable ways,” says Steve White, Mystic Seaport president. “They have established a record of accomplishment that few will ever challenge, and they have instilled in countless Americans a passion for enjoying time on the water with family and good friends aboard good boats.”

The National Sailing Hall of Fame honors those who have made a significant impact on the growth and development of the sport of sailing. This year’s inductees “have at their root a joy of sailing that has inspired and affected countless competitive sailors and recreational boaters,” says Gary Jobson, hall of fame president.

The Johnstones say their designs reflected the kind of boat they wanted for themselves through the different stages of their lives. “I designed Ragtime for myself,” says Rod, J/Boats’ designer. “It was fun to take eight people out on the boat in 20 knots of wind with the main up. With other boats, if it was blowing 20 you wouldn’t go out.”

“Our strategy from day one was for our boats to be the best-performing boats of their kind out there, whether sail or power,” says Bob, who oversaw the business side of J/Boats.

Bob attributes the company’s success to:

• the boats’ performance and versatility as racer/cruisers

• adherence to strict one-design specifications

• branding (every boat carries the same nomenclature: the letter J with the model’s designation beneath it)

• getting dealers to race the boats, meet people and market the brand (80 percent are sold because the buyer saw one sailing or a friend recommended it)

Many models have a retractable bowsprit and asymmetric spinnaker for easier short-handed sailing. That innovation “changed the face of the sport and made it a lot easier to handle a boat with more power,” Bob says. “You didn’t need eight crew to do a spinnaker jibe.”

J/Boats builds 13 models from 22½ to 40 feet, and racing fleets continue to flourish. J/70s were the largest class at Key West Race Week from 2013 through 2016, Rod says. The scratch sheet for the 2016 regatta showed 54 entries in the class.

A second generation of Johnstones now manages J/Boats, but Rod still has a hand in designing boats. Bob, foreseeing baby boomers moving from sail to power as they age, founded MJM Yachts, which builds performance power cruisers that are economical to run and have the latest technology, including joystick maneuvering and gyroscopic stabilization. Bob, who with Rod grew up sailing Long Island One-Designs and Lightnings at the Wadawanuck Yacht Club in Stonington, says he built the first MJM model for himself and his wife, Mary. “I thought I’d be the last one to get a powerboat,” he says. “It evolved. We’re just getting older.” The MJM has become their cruising boat. (MJM, in fact, stands for Mary Johnstone’s motorboat.)

This year’s other National Sailing Hall of Fame inductees are America’s Cup sailors Ed Baird, Malin Burnham and Bill Ficker; world cruisers Exy and Irving Johnson; Tom Perkins, who owned and helped develop the 289-foot Perini Navi sailing yacht Maltese Falcon, a modern square-rigger that employed a DynaRig; and sailor, sailmaker and Olympic coach Dave Ullman.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.