Coastal Cruising Review

Performance Cruising….trying out the new J/42

by Thomas A. Norton

She looked good at the dock, clean, all business. How would she handle? I couldn't tell about the wind out on the Bay, but in here, at the marina in Melville, it felt brisk. It was a late fall day, clear, sunny, and cool. There were only two of us. Could we handle this 42 footer, and how would she perform?

Jim Johnstone hopped about getting things ready: sail cover, sheets, winch handles, instrument modules. Ah, youth! I tried to look helpful. "Start the engine" he instructed. I was standing at the helm and found the controls down by my calf. I slid the small Plexiglas panel aside and turned the starter key. The diesel fired up at once. I felt useful.

We dropped our lines. Jim backed her off the dock and turned around to motor out of the harbor. Outside, I steered while Jim hoisted the main. He was doing all the work, it seemed. The sail filled and we bore off down the Bay. I killed the engine. The log was showing 7 - 7½ knots, close reaching under full main with practically no heel. The wind was from the west-southwest about 15 to 20 knots. We were in the sheltered waters of East Passage of Narragansett Bay, heading towards Newport, Rhode Island. The sea was calm, just a slight chop. "The jib?" asked Jim. I nodded and he unfurled the 100% working jib and trimmed it. Our speed jumped to 8 something with practically no increase in heel. I looked back at our wake and liked what I saw. No lumps, no churning, just a little foam. I had two fingers on the big leather covered wheel. This was turning out to be fun. Jim lounged at the forward end of the cockpit, under the blue dodger. "It's better than the office", I suggested. He just grinned.

We were out to test sail the J/42, the newest design from the board of Rod Johnstone, Jim's uncle. What's unusual about her is that she's a complete redesign of an older model, specifically for "performance cruising." Most sailors know about the commercial success of a long line of J/boats and of their outstanding racing performance. They expect a J/boat to perform well, but believe that some performance must be sacrificed in order to produce a good "cruising boat." The perception is that good cruising boats are comfortable but slow, and that good racing boats are fast and uncomfortable because they must be light in order to go fast. Light boats tend to toss you about uncomfortably. One's understanding of "comfort" varies, but what most sailors have in mind I believe, is generous accommodations coupled with easy motion. Racers will accept a spartan boat that bounces around providing it gets them to the finish line first. In the design of the J/42 Rod Johnstone set out to combine speed with comfort. He used a proven hull form, updated to include the latest speed inducing technology, plus seagoing niceties developed from many miles of offshore sailing and cruising. Any designer would jump at the chance to improve an earlier design. There's always something one would like to change to make it better.

I had talked with Bob Johnstone, another of Jim's uncles, who lives in Maine. He handles the marketing for J/Boats. I asked him how the J/42 came about. "Well", he said, "we wanted to reach out to the cruising couple. We saw an opportunity in the 40 to 42 foot range to be better than. . . ." (some well-known designs).

They looked at their J/40 designed in 1985. It was a good design, that had a good layout with two heads. It was a popular model with 80 sold. They felt they could improve the design. The options were to redesign an old hull with known, low resistance, characteristics, or to design a new one whose performance might not measure up. They opted for the J/40 hull form and decided to lengthen it by 2 feet, and then to add "state of the art" keel and rudder. Rod added the extra 2 feet aft leaving the bow and mid-sections pretty much the same. This permitted longer lines and a better run. Extra width at the deck aft, as well as the extra length, allowed a storage space for the raft, jerry cans, drinks, or whatever. It also provided deck space clear of the helmsman where, I noticed, Jim perched in comfort while I steered.

The keel they decided to use is similar to the one on their hot J/130, a deep fin with a flattened bulb extending aft of the trailing edge, with a rockered bottom. Draft is 6.6 feet, and there is a shoal version drawing 5.5 feet with 500 pounds more lead in the bulb. The balanced spade rudder is larger and has a higher aspect ratio than the one on the J/40. The mast is also 18 inches higher. This means a bigger, more effective, high aspect ratio mainsail. The jib dimensions remain the same, but the spinnaker is set at the masthead so it, and the "snuffer sock" whicht houses it, stays well clear of the headstay. These changes to the mast, underbody and appendages are partly responsible for the superior performance of the J/42, as well as her carbon fiber mast option and her weight. The hull is laid up using the "SCRIMP" process that infuses the laminations with resin so that 60% is glass fiber and 40% is resin, instead of the other way round. The result is a stronger hull that weighs less. The weight thus saved is used for better accomodations and more lead in the keel to produce more stability. That's just what you want in a fast cruiser. You notice the added stability as soon as you get out on the water. She feels and acts like a much bigger boat.

Gannet, (hull No.1), the J/42 we were sailing , did extremely well in the no spinnaker class of the New York Yacht Club cruise against a respectable fleet. She won all five races she entered ~ handily. She was sailed by a crew of three in moderate to light air which averaged 10 to 15 knots.

I asked Bob what he liked best about the boat. "The sense of control", he said, "the ease of handling, her predictability and solidity. She has a low center of gravity. She'll do 7.2 knots upwind with just the main and the 100% working jib. For cruising, you don't need an overlapping genoa which restricts visibility and is a pain when tacking." I also asked him what kind of problems he was running into, if any. "Well, he told me, in terms of marketing, we have a communications problem. We have trouble convincing potential buyers who haven't seen or sailed the boat that, while she's fast, she's not meant to be a 'racing machine.' I suspect that's because of our record with other models we've produced." He's right, of course. You look at her, and you sail her, and you say to yourself: "Ha, I can win with this one!" But then you go below, and see all that cherry and stuff, and you're amazed that a boat that performs so well can have such an outstanding interior. I'm sure the truth will come out when she's better known.

There's nothing radical about the J/42 layout below, just a lot of well thought out details. Take a look at the accommodation plan forward, a private stateroom has its own head and lockers. Note that the mast is stepped out of the way in a corner of the head. Amidships, in the main cabin there are two settee berths, navigation station, a very well laid out galley, and another head with hanging space for foul weather gear. Note the space between the drop leaf table and the bulkhead which avoids anyone being trapped at dinner. In the galley the cook is braced at sea by the sink counter. He does not have to hang from straps in front of the stove. A piece of the counter between the sink and the ice box lifts down to form a seat for the cook facing aft, within reach of stove, sink, and ice box; a nifty arrangement. Aft, another stateroom with double berth, lockers, and seat is tucked under the companionway and cockpit.

Finishes below are classic with teak and holly cabin sole, off white Formica vertical surfaces, and varnished cherry trim with molded corners and oval door trim for a custom look. There are many operable ports and skylights as well as a couple of "dorades" for excellent ventilation. Small but important details, such as the vertical stainless steel pipe at the corner of the galley give you a place to hold on to. The stainless steel grabrails are strong and practical. These kinds of details demonstrate familiarity with life at sea. It's a very attractive, seamanlike interior.

When I talked with Bob Johnstone, he remarked that there was no wood on deck to maintain. This surprised me, because I hadn't missed it. Normally I would expect a teak toerail instead of a perforated aluminum one, and a little teak trim here and there, like you find on most other J/Boats. Naturally not having to maintain any wood means more time for cruising.

The deck layout is pleasing and practical. When cruising, I can visualize two popular spots other than at the wheel steering the boat. One is in the forward corners of the cockpit sheltered by the dodger. The other is the one I mentioned earlier on the deck aft of the steering position. A main instrument console is located over the companionway and there are two instrument pods angled into the cockpit coamings for better visibility for the helmsman from his own cockpit. Again, nothing radical, just all very well worked out.

Jim Johnstone and I continued to close reach till we were able to tack west between Prudence and Conanicut islands. Gannet came about with ease as Jim sheeted the jib on the new tack. It was now blowing closer to 20 knots and we were really moving. You wouldn't have known it however unless you looked at the steam gauge. She heeled only slightly and was easy on the helm. I tacked back and forth a few times to get the feel of how she turned. In fact, I got so absorbed that I didn't notice we were sailing way off the wind. Jim called it to my attention and I got back on course. It was getting late, so we eased sheets and headed back. We rounded the bell off Melville and headed up into the wind to furl the jib and drop the main. Again Jim did all the work. All I had to do was fire up the engine and hold her steady, not a difficult task. We motored back to our berth and tied up. I was allowed to help him straighten things up, which gave me a chance to poke around on deck and down below. We went ashore and I thanked Jim for the sail before heading home.

As I think about this trial of the J/42, I realize how easy everything was. I need not have had any concern about the two of us handling the boat. Jim could have managed by himself. Although spry, I am no youth and yet I could see myself taking a J/42 offshore with the help of a less experienced wife, or perhaps a teenage grandchild. In case of trouble or injury, one of us could easily bring her back. If a boat will do that, and be comfortable at 7 or 8 knots sailing almost straight up, and capable of more when racing, then you've got a real "performance cruiser."