Last week, we were sailing back into Newport Harbor after a Tuesday night race over by Jamestown, and my crew pointed to a white sloop ahead and asked, "What kind of a boat is that? Some kind of a J/Boat?"
Observant as I like to think I am, I suddenly focused and did a double-take, realizing that a brand-new racing design was sailing slowly into the harbor just ahead of us. And, yes, it was a J/Boat. The new J/111—a serious racing design from the company that, more than any other, has launched successful one-designs from 22 feet to 44 feet long over the last 30-plus years.
The company promo shots at JBoats.com show a boat that looks powered up and fast, with a race-oriented deck layout. But seeing the boat in the water with my own eyes, even with the jib down, I noticed some other things. Especially how narrow the boat appears, less than 11 feet on deck, so I surmised that it must have a powerful ballast package below the waterline. And despite the sleek hull, I could see that the cabin is high enough that it could have standing headroom as advertised.
You can see the 111's open transom from this photo, and it's pretty evident how big the wheel is, too. I imagine the helmsperson has no trouble sitting outboard to steer the boat upwind.
J/Boats has some experience with boats like this in the 35-foot range, going back to the J/35, which was a runaway success as a one-design starting in the late '80s and still offers good class racing in parts of the country. Then in 1992 the company launched the J/105 with its novel extendable bow sprit and small, roller-furled jib, and that's a continuing success story. More recently, the IRC-influenced J/109 [see designer's comment and correction at the bottom of this post] has done very well, and one wonders what niche could be left for the 111?
In addition to looking at the more aggressive, modern look of the 111, take a look at some of the numbers and you'll see that the boat aims to fill a performance gap in the J/Boats lineup. Compared to previous 35-footers, this is really a bigger boat. The J/105 doesn't have standing headroom, nor quarter berths, and by modern standards is somewhat underpowered. It weighs less than the 111, but has a waterline that's three feet shorter. The J/109, which is faster than the 105 and has a more serious cruising capability, weighs 2000 pounds more than the 111 and has a waterline two feet shorter.
It's not all about horsepower, but that's a big factor. The 111 has a published displacement of 8,900 pounds on a 32'6" waterline, and it has an upwind sail area to displacement ratio of 28. If J/Boats' designers Al and Rod Johnstone have succeeded at increasing performance dramatically while maintaining easy handling for modest-sized and even shorthanded crews, they'll sell a number of these boats.
With a little luck, my next J/111 encounter will be from within the cockpit and perhaps after that I'll hazard a guess about whether the boat will reach one-design critical mass one day.
P.S. I spoke with J/Boats president Jeff Johnstone soon after posting this story and he said 33 boats have been ordered, including seven in Europe, where he expects to start building later in the fall from a second set of tooling for spring delivery. I might get my chance to go for a sail sometime soon, too.
J/109 clarification re ORC influence: According to Al Johnstone, designer of both the 111 and the 109, my comment that the 109 design was IRC influenced was incorrect. Obviously, my recollection was flawed, and his note, which follows, reminded me of another rating rule that I hadn't thought much about for a while (IMS):
"As designer of both the J/109 and J/111, I can state that the 109 design was not at all influenced by IRC. At the time (2000), I did spend a little time making the hull friendlier to IMS. This effort eventually paid off for some owners in Italy who set up the boat with symmetrical kites and raced in local and national IMS events. That the J/109 design became and remains extremely successful under IRC (class win at recent 2010 US IRC nationals) was/is attributable to both good fortune & timing. The boat seems to fall into the sweet spot for IRC for a boat her size. A moderate cruiser/racer that does both well and is not extreme... most Js rate well under IRC for their size for these same reasons."