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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
This is a review for a 1976 San Juan 21 Mark II. I bought my boat 4 years ago and had a hard time finding reviews for it at the time, so I am just returning my bit of info into the intertubes for others to find. I won’t be monitoring this post reliably.

The SJ21 is a “good old boat” in that the maker is no longer around, but many of these were produced and they are not especially hard to come by. There is still a solid following of these boats and there are several racing classes out there still active. I contribute and use the SJ21 forums and they are a great resource which is attractive if you are a new boat owner in that you can get support if needed. This wasn’t my first boat, but it was my first boat of this size and complexity, so the forums have been invaluable.

Mine is a Mark II, distinguished from the Mark I by the fact that coach roof and the deck are all at one level continuous to the edge of the boat. The Mark I has a more traditional look with a raised coach roof, though presumably less interior space. There are Mark IIIs that look the same as the II, but I am unsure of what differences exist. Mine was built in 1976 is a mid-lifecycle example.

San Juans are moderately well built compared to some other cheaply made boats, though I am sure there are higher quality boats made. The fiberglass is relatively thick and the construction feels durable. The deck and transom have balsa cores which, like all cored hulls, can be a problem if not properly maintained. This is not unique to the SJ21, it is a generally accepted build practice to add strength to the deck by sandwiching a ¾ inch piece of wood between two skins of fiberglass. When bolts or other hardware are put through this sandwich, water will eventually creep in if not properly handled and rot out the inner wood. More on this later.

It is a light boat compared to many of its competitors which make it quick in light airs. The reason it is light is that the keel is only about 400 lbs. It is a retractable keel that swings up into a raised trunk inside of the cabin. When fully retracted, the boat only draws about 12 inches of water, allowing it to beach easily. This aspect is great for my use as it makes shore stops effortless. It also means you don’t need to keep a dingy or tender onboard, assuming you live where sandy shores are the norm. The retractable keel also makes running aground a non-issue as you can just crank up the keel. If you are gunkholing and already have the keel up and you run aground, just step out and push it off.

There are downsides to the light keel as well though. This boat is very tender. I primarily cruise and day sail with my boat. The best days sailing to me include steady wind where we make solid progress without having to mind the tiller constantly. I started on small boats and know how to handle them, but sometimes you just want to drink your beer and not actively sail. Certainly there are days that this happens, but a heavier keeled boat would be more stable in heavy or confused wind. I didn’t realize now much difference some weight makes until I had my parents onboard recently on a pretty windy day. These winds would normally have me turning upwind and minding the mainsheet in gusts, but the extra weight allowed the boat to take gusts without healing excessively. I assume this is what a heavier keel would do. Conversely, if you are new to sailing and want to learn to sail competitively I think the tender nature is a good thing as it will teach you to sail better and more efficiently.

The cockpit on the Mark II is reasonably spacious and one of the reasons I liked this boat. The Mark I has even more cockpit and less cabin space which might be attractive if you primarily day sail. I can fit my wife and two kids on board with no problem, though 4 adults are too much. My son (11) and I have ample room to maneuver; he even lays down to sleep regularly.

The mainsheet is on the floor at the stern of the cockpit when traditionally rigged. I have tried other rigs, but like the factory mainsheet rig best. I have re-rigged my boat to lead all the lines to the cockpit. This is not uncommon and a nice upgrade when done well, but the quality can vary and it means more holes in the deck for potential leakage if not done properly. There are no safety stanchions on this boat and going forward in moderate seas can be a bit harrowing. Even with lines led aft, this seems inevitable.

There is a lazarette in the back of the boat for storing gas, anchors, etc. It is sealed off from the rest of the cabin so you can store semi-noxious materials there without concern. The original transom has a built in motor mount though many replace them with retracting mounts. The standard mount requires a long shaft outboard, which I have and works great. Many racers use a 2 horse motor, but I have a 2-stroke 4 horse Yamaha that is awesome and I wouldn’t want any less engine on the back. In my experience, when you need an engine, it is always better to have a little extra umpf and the 4 horse is plenty.

The cabin on an SJ21 is moderately cramped. If you are coming off a sunfish, it will feel like a palace and in general when I got this boat it felt huge compared to my previous boats. However, humans are fickle beings and now it feels small at times. There are two coffin berths where the majority of your body is under the cockpit seats while lying down. These double as the general seats when below. There is no standing headroom.

The keel trunk sticks up in the middle of the cabin and you pay for the convenience of shallow water depth by this intrusion. This limits cabin floor and storage space as well since you must have containers that can fit between the trunk and bunk if you want to store supplies for a cruise. There is a compression post and a forward v-berth with a forward hatch above for ventilation and pulling sails down. Two boxes are built into the hull, one for a house battery and one just for general storage. Under the v-berth is also a shallow storage area.

The floor of the cabin is the bottom of the boat and there is no false bottom. In turn there is no plug for draining water which was new to me. Thus when water finds its way in, you must bail and sponge it out. Water will get into the boat through the keel trunk depending on the waves, wind and the last time you replaced the keel gasket on the bottom of the boat. Not a lot of water, but it happens.

There is a basic electrical system that consists of cabin lights, accessories and running lights. Most boats will have neglected this and it will need repair/replacement if you intend to cruise. Racers won’t need any of this. The battery box is slanted at the same angle as the side of the boat and makes securing the battery a chore. Re-wiring the boat is not complicated though I guess it depends on your electronics skills.

In general, this boat should be considered a competent daysailor with the potential for overnight excursions. I sailed my family of four to Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout on the NC coast, sleeping overnight at Shackleford. We all fit, but the wife has since declared she has no interest in doing it again. Me and the boy have done a 2 night trip to the coast since and loved it. Just think of it as car-camping in a hard topped, spacious tent and you will be happy. If you want to hang out below in a yacht, you will be disappointed.

The other important aspect of the keel set up is trailerability. The boat sits very low on the trailer, below the roof line of my Toyota Highlander. It is light and thus doesn’t require a real truck to pull (see Toyota Highlander). We have a reasonably steep ramp at my marina and I have never had a problem with my front wheel drive 4-cylinder. It also tows well as a result of its low profile.

Putting in and taking out is easy since you do not have to have a deep water ramp and no tongue extension is required for this boat. I have never had a boat with the keel trunk on the bottom as many of the SJ21 peers have, but hitting the slot on the trailer seems like it would be tough compared to the ease with which the SJ slides on.

I believe time spent sailing is directly related to how easy a boat is to set up, particularly a sailboat. Therefore, I leave mine on a trailer at a marina with the mast up at a local lake. If I had to set up the mast every time I wanted to sail, or to deal with a significant keel that make loading and unloading a problem, I would sail less. This boat is easy to hook up and drop in if you leave it with mast up. It takes me 30minutes from pulling up to my boat, to pulling sails up after having parked the car and motored away from the dock.

My trailering set up allows me to sail often on a local lake, but I can also strike the mast and set her up for a 2-hour coastal haul if needed. I can easily put up and take down the mast now that I have practice and I use the jib down haul I installed a brake. Once mastered, you can have her ready to ride in about 30 mins and another 30 mins to set her back up. Keeping it at my house or off site storage would quickly sap my interest (not to mention the waiting family) in day sailing unless I devoted the whole day.

Parts are no problem with this boat as there is still an active aftermarket and most parts have found modern replacements by major manufacturers. I have completely restored my boat from stem to stern by myself in my garage, including new paint, hardware and running/standing rigging. The boat is exactly 21 feet and I have been able to shoe horn it into two different garages for the winter on a homemade lift. I successfully dropped and re-fit the keel by myself as well. Working on any boat of this size is a lot of work and not for those with a passing fancy, but the SJ21 does not pose any specific challenges.

When looking for a SJ 21 to buy, much of the advice used for other boats applies. That said, the cored deck and transom to me is the most critical. Don’t trust the guy selling. Have him pull the lower gudgeon to see if he has properly sealed it, or if there is water intrusion in the transom. Make your purchase contingent on drilling several small holes from inside the cabin up into the deck, but not penetrating the deck to check on the core. White wood is good, dry brown wood is okay, wet or soggy mush is a potential deal breaker. I wouldn’t personally buy one with more than a third of the deck containing any moisture. Sure you can re-core the deck, but it will cost you much more than finding a better boat. Thankfully my deck was in great shape despite my ignorance, but I had to completely rebuild my transom (it sucked).

Sails are expensive. I am still using the original sails that came from the manufacturer and wish I had haggled down the price more as a result. They work, but are tired. Check out all the hardware, is it original? If so, it should probably be replaced and is a bad sign for core issues if the owner has never re-bedded them.

In general I think the SJ 21 is somewhat unique in its class. There are an abundance of 21 foot pocket cruisers, but only a few other large scale manufactured boats offer the flush keel in this length. It does well in races in light airs, but is pretty tender in heavier air. I think it is a great boat to step into from dinghies given the easy of trailerability and the ability to overnight. Just do your homework and don’t buy a deck re-core project unless you know what you are doing!



1,142 Posts
Hi, Kuriti. *waves* Good review. There's also a few others on the SJ21 if you click Boat Reviews under the Quick Menu, upper left of the page. I'll copypasta my review there to here, in case the mods move this to the Boat Reviews tab above, which is not the same as the Boat Reviews tab upper left. Do Not Ask.:rolleyes:

Excellent first boat. Good for daysailing on protected waters, or longer cruises for hardy souls in reliable conditions. The SJ21 came in two versions: a doghouse coachroof (Mk1) or a flush deck (Mks 2&3). The former has a longer cockpit (seats 5) but small interior; the latter has a shorter cockpit but more space below. Sitting headroom, barely; not much stowage. Keel winch awkwardly located in the V-berth.

The SJ21 sails like a big dinghy & is best treated that way. Its sailplan is balanced, with slight lee helm in low winds and slight weather helm above 18 kts or 20 degrees of heel. The boat generally rounds up if overdriven. It prefers winds between 6-15kts and has a narrow groove of 10-15 degrees of heel. It moves well in light air. The flat bottom and swept keel mean the boat points only so-so. It is very quick from a close reach to a deep reach but gets a little loose in a following swell. It is not overly prone to broaching, and indeed the SJ21 has no glaring vices at all.

The SJ21 sails brilliantly on main or reefed main only, and we have survived 50 kts that way on flat water. Its bluff bows make it slam a bit to windward and struggle in chop. With the keel up, the boat floats in 8" of water and is easy to launch and, at ~2000# on the trailer, a small vehicle can tow it.

Build quality is so-so. Most common problems are wet balsa in decks and transom; leaking portlights; and wobbly keel pivot bolts. It is a simple boat to maintain and inexpensive to own. Typically sells for $2000-3000 USD. Look for upgrades like backstay adjuster, improved mainsheet system, braking keel winch, larger stern cleats, and rebedded deck hardware with proper backing plates.

If sailing qualities are more important than interior space or foul-weather hardiness, the SJ21 is a good choice.
All I'd add to that review is we lived on the boat during two road trips to California and out to Catalina Island. I really can't recommend that sort of lifestyle for most people. The SJ21 is absurdly tight below, and what space it does have is poorly utilized compared to other boats of this size. Still, we had a blast both times.

3 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Hey Diarmuid! I didn't realize that review was yours. I read it long ago and always remember the line about heeling as my son is climbing the gunnel in a gust. I thought a review on the SJ21 forum would be viewed as biased, so just pitching in my 2 cents for anyone else. Basically, I didn't want to work yesterday morning....
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