48 North J/120 Review
By Paul Bieker
The J/120--- it's a well rounded interpretation of a truly wholesome racer/cruiser. The J/120 is the new 40 foot racer/cruiser from the Johnstone clan. My only previous experience with any of the Johnstone boats was in a J/24 about four years ago and other than that I've formed my vague opinions of the boats based on pictures in the press and views from aboard other boats. Needless to say, I was pleased to have the opportunity to learn a little more about the newest member in a line of boats which has created such a solid niche in the performance production boat market.
I've seen the new J/120 on the water on several occasions during the spring keelboat racing on the Sound and have been impressed by her solid performance: winning first in class and first overall in Possession Point and placing in the top three in class in most of the other long distance races in which she was entered. I was told by friends that the boat was a racer/cruiser, however I was seeing upwind performance similar to that of an IMS forty foot racer! Downwind she has displayed performance that would easily allow her to sail away from a typical IMS 40 . I also noticed that her good performance was not limited to any specific range of wind strengths. The boat seemed to move well in both heavy and light conditions. What's more, the J/120 was doing all this with a crew of six or seven rather than the customary ten to twelve people that you would expect to see on a boat this size. The reason for this is that the boat was designed with enough stability to carry her sail plan comfortably without a bunch of living ballast on the rail and you don't need a lot of crew to handle the asymmetrical spinnaker in maneuvers. Seeing all this performance, I figured that the J/120 must be as much of a dual purpose racer/cruiser as the J/24s I used to sail. I was wrong.
Stepping aboard the boat I was immediately impressed with a deck layout which showed that obvious attention that has been given to cruising comfort. Having spent a good portion of my life on extended cruises, I know that cruising comfort is determined as much by the little details as it is by the general configuration of the boat. Here I was seeing a comfortable, uncluttered cockpit with a coaming sufficient to keep the helmsman's bottom out of the salt water in most conditions, but small enough to allow him to sit outboard when he wishes. There are molded-in coamings for a good sized cruising dodger. The rigging is simple and clean, with most lines led to winches on either side of the companionway. The pulpits, gates and lifelines look stout enough to handle offshore service. Lazarettes (yes that's plural) provide plenty of deck gear stowage. However, this deck layout also looks like it would work well in a racing situation. The main sheet is double ended with a winch on either side of the cockpit so that the mainsheet trimmer can sit outboard. With a large 48" wheel, this means that the helmsman and mainsheet trimmer sit side by side upwind, the best arrangement for efficient sailing. My only negative comments regarding the deck layout is that those nice lazarette hatches don't seem very weathertight and there are no dorades to provide ventilation while out at sea or in port on a rainy day.
The hull shape of the boat strikes me as being surprisingly moderate. In general, I would describe the boat as somewhat beamy, with powerful, broad sections. What struck me most about the hull was the fullness of the bow. It is startling when standing on the foredeck. This is not a typical fine, point upwind, death roll downwind style racer/cruiser bow! This is a broad bow that should allow the boat to be driven hard on reaches and in heavy air downwind, especially in the big waves offshore. Combine this forgiving hull shape with a D/L ratio of 134 and a SA/D ratio of 22.7, and you have a boat that should provide a not-too-scary giggle fest for her crew downwind in a breeze! The only negative aspect to this hull shape will be racing upwind in a chop.
She will probably be a bit slower than a more fine bowed craft in this condition, however she will be drier and more seaworthy in extreme conditions.
The general construction of the boat is typical J/boat: fiberglass skins with a balsa core. However, the layup is done with the resin infusion process, basically meaning that the boat is layed up dry, vacuum bagged, and then the resin is injected into the laminate in a carefully controlled procedure. This process should give lightweight, strong, and uniform laminates.
The rig on the boat I reviewed was a carbon mast from Hall spars. The level of finish on the rig was beautiful and it has been given slightly swept back spreaders to make the mast less prone to pumping fore and aft. I suspect that the running backstays provided are not necessary in anything but rough seas upwind. The down side to the swept back spreaders is that while making the mast less prone to pumping it also makes the mast bend less adjustable than in rigs with in-line spreaders. This limits the ability of the crew to vary the draft of the main to suit different sailing conditions. The only thing about the rig that bothered me was that the section looks too stiff for the boat, meaning that the mast bend is even less adjustable than it might otherwise have been. The carbon mast is 120 pounds lighter than the aluminum mast that comes standard with the boat. Taking 120 pounds out of the rig on this boat probably increases the stability about as much as putting 700 more pounds in the keel, one of the reasons why this boat can sail fast without using crew for ballast.
Down below the J/120 is straightforward and very nicely appointed. There has been a refreshing restraint from what I call Eurostyle miniaturization. There is one nicely detailed head near the mast, with a molded easy to clean liner. There are two staterooms, one forward and one aft, both with enough space to dress and undress without having to squirm on the bunk like a landed fish. The owner's stateroom forward has its own door into the head, has room for two people to move around at once, and a seat for sitting down and reading when somebody needs some time to themselves during a cruise. The galley is in what I believe is the proper location, within arms reach of the companionway. It has plenty of places to brace oneself out at sea, and a moderate amount of stowage. Just aft of the galley is my favorite thing about the interior. The area aft of the galley has been left open and is easily accessible from the galley, providing a great pantry and stowage area for longer trips. Lesser designers would have packed an awkward quarter berth in that space. The access provided for working on the 38hp Yanmar diesel is very good. The fuel capacity of 22.7 gallons and the water capacity of 75 gallons are what I would consider just adequate for coastal cruising. Additional tanks and/or a watermaker would have to be added for longer cruises. Opposite the galley is a modestly sized navigation station.
The base price for the J/120 is $163,000 which seems reasonable for the level of quality of the design and construction apparent in the boat. However, a fully equipped package for cruising and racing (with the carbon rig) will cost closer to $230,000. One nice thing about the boat is that the racer/cruiser J-boats have a reputation for holding their resale value over time, so you can tell your spouse that its an investment!
Looking at the boat as a whole, I think it represents a well rounded interpretation of a truly wholesome racer/cruiser. It's fast, it's easy to sail, and it's comfortable. It looks to me like Rod Johnstone has done a bit of cruising since he first started designing his J/boats.