It was 28 years ago that designer Rod Johnstone began assembling the prototype J/24 in his garage in Stonington, CT. He was intent on owning a good family boat that could both race proficiently—inshore and offshore—and cruise on occasion. Rod had no aspirations of creating a business, let alone a pivotal one-design sailboat at the time, nor did his brother Bob who worked at the time in marketing for AMF Sports. By coincidence, Bob had been trying to convince his employer that the sailing world wanted a dual-purpose keelboat. After Rod went out and won a bunch of races with his new creation, the idea began to catch on. When boat builder Everett Pearson of Tillotson Pearson (now TPI) said he was looking for a small keelboat to build, it all came together and the first J/24 was launched in March of 1977.
A quarter of a century later, the J/24 is a worldwide fixture in the sport of sailing with fleets active on five continents and builders turning out new boats in those same regions. In its first two decades, the J/24 accomplished for sailing what the VW beetle did for driving in the ‘60s and ‘70s—it put more people out there, in this case on the water, enabling them to enjoy their chosen pastime. Now there's hardly a marina you can enter worldwide where you don't see the distinctive flush deck and fractionally rigged profile of this ubiquitous one-design.
Last week, 52 J/24s congregated to celebrate the silver anniversary of the boat and do battle for the class's national championship honors on the murky, tide-driven waters of Charleston, SC. For the occasion, boats materialized from as far away as Vancouver, Canada, Vermont, Texas, Chicago, and Michigan. Some of the boats themselves were over 20 years old, which is testimony to the success of the class and its design. And though many of the faces and names have changed since the early days of racing in the J/24 arena, the caliber of competition remains high and the attitudes occasionally cutthroat. Consequently, general recalls on the starting line are a class hallmark, and in Charleston, individual recalls occurred on every start except those that featured generals.
With a cold front stalled just offshore in the Atlantic, the Charleston Yacht Club's race committee relied on back-to-back days of strong northeasterly winds to accomplish nine, five-leg races over three days. Strong ebb tides moving against the wind flow for the duration of the regatta meant moderate chop throughout the course as the fleet jockeyed for open lanes and clear air.
Tony Parker, a 23-year-veteran of the class, jumped out to a decisive lead with four other boats in the first race, and grabbed the win. But in Races Two and Three, Parker fell deep and finished 18th both times. His inconsistent scores were par for the course since almost everyone in attendance posted scores that were all over the map. For those who had more downs than ups, there was plenty of barbecue and Sam Adams beer onshore that evening, and Bob Johnstone was on hand to cut the first piece of an enormous cake baked expressly to commemorate the J/24's 25th birthday.
The following day the racers encountered even stronger easterly breezes and as the competition evolved, it became clear that one team held an advantage. Tim Healy, a sailmaker from Newport, RI, and the reigning J/24 Midwinter Champion had arrived with a seasoned crew and a mission on its collective agenda. They intended to win the regatta and thereby qualify for the J/24 World Championships, slated for Kingston, Ontario, this summer. Healy's team started the event with a fourth and a sixth, and closed out Day One's third race with a bullet to end up one point out of first place, just behind Mark Hillman's group aboard Tribal Pleasures. In the building breeze on Day Two, Healy and company essentially took over.
Four races were conducted on that second day, and the Rhode Island-based team easily won the first two. They posted a fourth in the third contest that day, finishing behind Waldek Zaleski's Twins, Mike Ingham's Brain Cramp, and Rudy Wolf's Ing Direct (in that order), widening their overall margin over second place to 19 points. Then they got what they thought was a seventh in the last race of the day. Sailing back downwind to the dock, Healy and his team had a good feeling about their progress thus far.
That's when things turned a little "surreal," as one of Healy's crew later put it. While crossing the finish line in the day's final contest, Healy's boat allegedly hit the pin mark. He and his crew didn't find out until 15 minutes after they'd reached the dock that the race committee had protested them for touching the mark. Because a competitor who finished closely behind said he witnessed the infraction, Healy and his crew lost the protest and picked up an additional 53 points. Ouch!
Healy's fall from grace, coupled with the fact that every race counted in the overall scoring, changed the dynamics at the top of the leaderboard. Going into the final day, the top prize was within the reach of at least six boats. Andy Horton's Vermont-based crew aboard Money Shot held the lead with 41 points. Behind them in succession were Max Skelley's Fat Boyz with 55, Ing Direct with 64, Healy and company with 70, and Brain Cramp and Tribal Pleasures with 74 each.
Just to keep things interesting, Mother Nature threw in a little twist for the last day of racing. Where once relatively consistent winds registering in the teens graced the course, now fitful zephyrs bedeviled the fleet. Coupled with an increasingly strong ebb tide, the whimsical conditions made for tough racing. The upshot in the day's first contest was that several of the leaders dropped back, particularly Horton who finished 13th and Skelley who picked up 14 points.
Horton went into the final race with 54 points, almost a sure bet to beat Skelley with 69, Wolf's team on Ing Direct with 73, and the Brain Cramp team with 77. But that contest turned out to be the strangest to date. The current out-pulled the wind at times and the fleet spread out on the beats taking refuge on both sides of the channel that ran through the racecourse. The race committee wisely shortened the event and finished the boats on their second downwind leg to ensure that the race had a conclusion. The competitors slowly converged on the finish line like ants heading for a discarded lollipop.
James Howard's Georgia-based team on Classic took the gun. It was only their second single-digit finish in the regatta. Among the leaders, Skelley dropped out of contention with a 25th and Brain Cramp picked up a 15th, but the worst hit was Horton, whose team fell to second overall when they struggled to post a 28th-place finish. Rudy Wolf's group aboard Ing Direct carded a sixth place, which vaulted them in front of Horton to win the event by three points. It somehow seemed fitting for this weird conclusion that a Canadian had won the 2002 J/24 US National Championship.
So, how's the health of the J/24? Well, it's only appropriate that we give the final word to Tim Healy, since so much else appears to have been taken away from him at this event. "Lately my concern and some of my time has been going into helping grow the J/24 Class. But I think people should have had a good feeling about the class from this event. I think it was a good turnout….I thought they [the organizers] did a great job, especially in making the fleet feel welcome....But the big thing with the class is to get the membership back up and regatta participation seems to be rebounding. The Worlds in July will have 75 boats and the bigger regattas like the East Coasts and the Midwinters are pulling well too. So it looks good, overall." You could say that's a not a bad outlook after the first 25 years.
How We Won the J/24 Worlds by Brad Read
Good Lanes and Bad Lanes by Brad Read
Modern Modifications by Dan Dickison
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