J109 upwind08

J/109- A Right & Proper Racer-Cruiser?

SAILING ANARCHY Review- By Scot Tempesta

Many have tried; most have failed in the quest to build a right and proper racer/cruiser.

While there are a few bright exceptions, most fall disappointingly short in one category or the other. Of course, the category where most of them fail is as a racer. The main culprits can often be narrowed down to these unfortunate characteristics: Too heavy, poor layout, small cockpits, and weak sail plans.

I had the chance to test sail one of the latest entrants into the R/C arena, the new J-109, courtesy of Jeff Trask and the So Cal J-Boat Dealer, Sail California (www.sailcal.com). In typical fashion, J-Boats have done a good job, through their national advertising, in presenting this boat as a very attractive product, so I must admit I already liked the boat, at least in pictures, before I had actually seen it. I guess that advertising stuff really works.

We sailed out of Newport Beach, and upon first seeing the boat, my initial thought was that it is a handsome, well-proportioned, modern-looking boat. Stylistically, while still clearly a J-Boat, the 109 exhibits a slightly more progressive look than previous efforts. It is worth noting that this design was a collaboration of Rod Johnstone and son Alan, with Alan assuming the lead chair. At a touch over 35', the first impression is that it is a big boat, with a good sized cockpit, long but low cabin house, big rig, sprit, almost plumb bow, and enough freeboard to tell you there is going to be plenty of room below. While the stern section is not substantially different from, for example, the J-120, it is not quite as squatty and did not seem to drag like some (all) J-Boats do. A subtle difference. The cockpit had a pretty slick removable "dockbox" locker just aft of the helmsman - a pretty neat way to quickly go from cruise to race, at least a little bit. The 109 has plenty of high-quality standard equipment; (including Harken winches, adjustable genoa tracks, and RF unit), folding prop. Just in case you forget that it is a racer/cruiser, it even comes with a dodger!

There is however, one thing that stands out in a pretty undesirable way, and that is the wheel. It is big, which is good, but it is not recessed into the cockpit floor! So the thing stands up high, looking goofy without being sunk down like it should. Couple that with a huge pedestal and the look is out of place given the sleekness of the overall appearance. It might not be a big deal to most, and I know that they don't normally put wheels in wells, but I expect more out of J Boats, especially at the price. More on that later.

I then ventured down below, because I wanted to get a quick first impression after the largely favorable topside one, and here the boat does not disappoint either. While not overwhelming from any perspective, i.e., luxury, size, ergonomics or finish, it is very well done. There are two staterooms, one forward, and one aft, port side; with the head not where you expect it to be - it is aft instead of forward. Traditionalists will likely take some time getting used to this. The nav station, galley and main salon area are about as you would expect - nice, and functional. Fit and finish of the woodwork (varnished cherry wood), headliner, floors, doors, and systems all looked to be of high quality. Not Swan quality, but this isn't a Swan, nor is it meant to be. Overall it appeared to be a very livable interior, designed and executed for some very comfortable weekending. Hard to imagine the boat not succeeding in this task, at the very least.

We fired up the 27 h.p Yanmar Diesel (with sail drive) and shoved off. The engine could not have been any quieter, and the boat accelerates quickly under motor. Also, the turning radius of the boat is remarkably small, and backing up under power was a breeze. Hell, we put the throttle down while coming back to the slip, and I'm sure we were doing 6.5 knots - going backwards! It seemed exceptionally maneuverable - a consideration for those who will choose to anchor out and harbor hop.

It was a run out of Newport Harbor, so we stuck the main up - an easy task with slides - pulled the 5'5" carbon sprit out and hoisted a 105 sq. meter J-105 asymmetrical spinnaker up in breeze anywhere from 6 to 12 knots. This boat, hull #32, was not yet fully commissioned (hence the borrowed 105 kite), so we had no instruments to verify any numbers. Better wait for the big-buck glossy magazines to tell you that stuff. But I can tell you that jibing down the bay, the boat felt remarkably lively and responsive. You could square in the puffs, and the boat did not die. This boat is not sluggish, and does not feel anything like the typical J-Boat - a good thing, in our estimation. With a displacement of just under 11,000 pounds, and a SA/DSPL ratio of 21, the boat should be in the zone for good performance. It went through the water cleanly, and really felt very nice. Dare I say it felt quick, given the parameters of what it is? Time and the racecourse will indeed tell the ultimate story.

The three of us, myself, Trask and Bill Matchett, jibed probably 15 times or so, and it is, as are most all sprited, asso, no runners-type boats, a snap to jibe. I can't for the life of me imagine why anyone would build a boat like this (or any, for that matter) without a sprit. Frankly, this feature alone, because the boat becomes so much easier to use for a small crew or family to sail than a standard pole and gear, makes it much more desirable than some of it's competition, notably the Beneteau 36.7 and C&C 99. More on that, too.

We had a 155% genoa on the furler, so we dropped the kite, unfurled the sail and beat back to windward. The sails on this boat were Ullman; Kevlar genoa, Dacron main, and they looked quite nice. This is not an endorsement but if they were mine, I'd be pleased. Take a look at the picture of the genoa, and you'll see what I mean.

Upwind the boat steered like an absolute dream - very light touch, very little helm, and very responsive. This is the kind of boat that you want to steer because it feels so nice. The boat seemed to have plenty of power, and even when we had breeze at around 10-12 true, with no one on the rail, the boat didn't heel excessively, in fact seemed to go quite well. A 7' draft and about 4,000 pounds (with a squished bulb at the bottom) in the keel didn't hurt here, I reckon.

Right about then, I'm thinking that I really like this thing, but there must be something I don't like! Honestly, if there was something that was out of place, I didn't see it. I found it well thought-out, well executed, and well built. I liked the looks of the boat, I liked the way it sailed, I liked down below. No new ground is broken here, nor would we expect there to be: J-Boats produce a conservative product. Rather, the 109 would appear to be one where the sum of its parts does indeed equal a greater whole. Granted, I was on the boat a total of a couple of hours, but first impressions are usually correct. And my impression of this boat is that it is a significant total package for a serious racer cruiser.

Now here's what I alluded to earlier, and it is what I don't like: the price. A full up, out the door J-109 will set one back just over $200,000. That is an amazing amount of money for a 35', and significantly more than the most immediate competitor, the Beneteau 36.7. According to Trask, about 50 grand more. I'll grant you the 109 is a SCRIMP, fully cored boat with a carbon sprit, and the 36.7 is not, but 50 grand is 50 grand. That is a new Porsche Boxster. If the 109 had a carbon rig, I think the price difference would completely justified, but as it is, it is a sizable price difference.

Is this boat worth it? A reasonable analogy could be BMW - their cars always seem to carry a price premium over some of their competitors, and it is sometimes hard to see why, yet in the end, they almost always seem worth it.

Is the 109 in that league? The marketplace will ultimately decide, but I suspect that the buyer who can truly afford this type of investment in a boat of this size and purpose will likely decide that it offers more than the competitors and despite the price premium, will chose the 109. Isn't that why they buy BMW's?