Seahorse Magazine interviews Rod Johnstone

* SEAHORSE had the opportunity to speak with one of J/Boats co-founders, Rodney Johnstone, as part of the “innovators” series in the sport of sailing. Thanks to writer Carol Cronin and SEAHORSE for this awesome interview!

The most broadly successful performance yacht designer of the last 35 or so years has achieved that status through a laser-like ability to lock onto the requirements of a target market and then deliver the ideal product for it — and which also works off the shelf.   Carol Cronin unravels the creative force that is Rod Johnstone.

SEAHORSE: We all know the story: a budding yacht designer builds a race-winning boat in his garage, then teams up with his marketing-savvy brother to create a family business— which just entered its fourth decade. So, any profile of Rod Johnstone, co-founder of J/Boats, should focus on less well-known details. Childhood, design inspirations, favourite boats? Seated on the properly distanced cockpit seats of Rod’s brand-new J/99, I spent two hours enjoying a wide range of stories — too many to fit in here.

There was the time he fell in the water at six months old — an inauspicious start to a sailing career. The 1970s races he can still recount, tack for tack. Chasing his future (second) wife all the way across the country, just to drag her back to Stonington. Each golden thread led to another worthy tale, because there’s much more to this guy than just J/Boats.  So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rod Johnstone — mostly in his own words.

Childhood sailing:

Rod was born in 1937 and spent childhood summers in Stonington — where, after World War II, “every family had a Lightning”. He claims the home-built Johnstone Lightning class sailboat was the heaviest: “The old boats were fir plywood decks with canvas over them, but you couldn’t get regular plywood — it was all used up by the US Navy. So, what did my father get? Masonite, which is like three times as heavy! And that’s what we sailed on from 1947 until I went away to college.” (Rod graduated from Princeton- Class of 1958.)

Nevertheless, despite its weight, Rod credits that Lightning with instilling an early love of sailing in him and his two brothers. “My father was so much fun to sail with, because he had the right attitude. He was the best sailor around here, but his ego never showed; he was always very humble about it. That environment really influences you a lot when it comes to what you like to do.”

Learning and teaching:

Rod majored in history at Princeton, though he says math’s might have been the better choice. “Math’s was a total bore to me; that was the problem. My parents always wanted me to be well rounded. So, I took that to mean that I was supposed to not be bad in anything. I love studying history, but I’m a really slow reader. If I’d been brave, majored in math’s, it sure would have been a lot easier.”

As a member of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), Rod spent six months after graduation at a field artillery school in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. “That’s the furthest west I’d ever been until I went out to get Lucia and bring her back to Stonington in 1971. But that’s another story…”

When I asked how he met his first wife, Franny, whom he married right after college, he pauses for one of the baritone chuckles that foreshadows another fond memory. “I was a member of the Tiger-tones, a singing group at Princeton. In March of 1957, we were hosting a girls’ singing group and I was responsible for making sure they had accommodation somewhere. I also had the option of assigning blind dates. So, I did a little advance research, and fixed myself up with my first wife and the mother of all my children!” He laughs again. “That worked out pretty well.”

After the Army Rod and Franny moved to upstate New York, where Rod taught history at the Millbrook School. “I really loved that job. That’s where Jeff and Phil [Johnstone] were born.” (Jeff is now President of J/Boats, and Phil is the company’s legal adviser.) But, now Rod also started fiddling around with boat designs, which made him realize he needed more education.

He signed up for the Westlawn School of Yacht Design’s correspondence course, though he never officially completed the curriculum. (However, they would eventually award him an honorary degree.)

Once kid number three was on the way (Al, J/Boats VP and designer), the family moved back to Stonington. Rod ran a brokerage office and they had two daughters, but the marriage broke up in the late 1960s.

Then in 1971, at a yacht club party, his sister pointed out a cute girl and suggested he introduce himself. “I am totally chicken about stuff like that, so I went up and got myself a cup of coffee. She was sitting with her parents. So, I said, “Hi Tessie, how are you doing? They weren’t about to introduce me. They knew I had five kids… and I wasn’t married.”

He soon retreated to his own table, but the very next night, thanks to a boat engine that wouldn’t start, Rod and Lucia met up at a cocktail party. After three weeks “where I didn’t let her out of my sight”, Lucia (with two kids from her own previous marriage) went back to her assistant headteacher’s job in California.

“I said, I’m coming out to bring you back to Stonington on October 15th. “`She didn’t say for sure that she was coming [back], because I don’t think she was sure that I was going to come out there. But I just kept making plans, told her when my plane was gonna arrive.”  They married in November 1971, three months after that first yacht club meeting.

Honeymooning on a 505 In Bermuda:

After the wedding Rod spotted a brand-new Parker 505 and talked the owner into inviting them out. First, the guy Rod describes as “an archetype of an RAF pilot, handsome guy with a moustache” and he invites Lucia to put on the trapeze harness. “She takes off with this sailor and I was thinking, ‘Am I making a huge mistake here? I’m standing on the dock and my new wife is going off with this handsome Englishman!'”

After the 505 returned the owner then crewed for Rod — a test. “He said, ‘You’ll do, you can take the boat.’ Lucia had never been on a trapeze before, but she took right to it.”

Back home they bought a cheap kit boat and drove it to regattas. There were plenty of husband & wife teams in the 505 class, though probably no others with a blended family of seven kids. Rod says they had a wonderful time but were always too small to be competitive.

At one of their first regattas they capsized in very cold water. But, thanks to brand-new wetsuits, they could self-rescue and continue racing. “But, on the next leg the race committee came out and said, ‘We’ll give you your points for last.'”

All these years later, Rod’s voice still conveys a mix of disbelief and disgust. Finishing last was not in Rod’s DNA, so they sold the 505 and bought a 470.

But now they were too heavy for the top of that fleet. After a very hot and light CORK Regatta (and a bad gybe that prompted Rod to call Lucia an “elephant”), “we’re all taking our boats apart, everybody smiling and having a good time, like they do at regattas. Lucia’s smiling, too. But, between gritted teeth she tells me, “Rodney, I’m never going to get on this goddamn f#$%ing boat again!”

Rod admits now he was privately pleased. So, he quickly signed on 14-year-old, 90 1b son Jeff as crew. Father and son did well together. “The most memorable sailing events were when my kids were my crew.”

But Lucia still wanted to race, too. So, Rod decided to build a boat they could compete on as a family. That was the genesis of the fabled J/24. They launched their little 24-footer RAGTIME in May 1976 and immediately started winning all over the Off Soundings Club summer series. When someone asked to buy it, Rod realized other families wanted to sail together, too. Then, brother Bob came sailing, and the rest is J/Boats history.

Early designs:

Before RAGTIME, Rod had already designed “a couple of small boats”. First, he reminisces about a 9ft dinghy that he built with 10-year-old Al. “That’s the boat Al started sailing, and he won a few races. It swept away in a storm off our dock; who knows where it went, but it wasn’t going to sink because it had so much flotation!”

Next, he mentions an 11-footer that “you might call to be loosely classified as a Moth,” designed while he was teaching at Millbrook. “The building of that boat is what made me realize I needed to take a course. I won’t say too much more about it; it sailed perfectly well but looked like hell and I knew that I wasn’t doing it right. I knew what I wanted; I just had to learn to draw the lines of a boat.”

Erasers, calculators, planimeter:

Early on Rod says, “I went through a lot of erasers. It was all pencil drawings. No computers, not even a hand calculator — not until after I’d designed the J/24. I think one of the reasons I did so well was I could do a lot of that stuff in my head. Everybody else was on their slide rules.”

His most useful tool was a gift— and a piece of history. “My first wife’s mother gave me a planimeter; it was her father’s, and he’d been an engineer. Crosby Steam Gauge and Valve Company, 1888, it says right on it. I didn’t even understand what it was until I started taking the Westlawn course and they said, ‘You’ve got to have one of these because it makes everything so easy.”

“This one was really sophisticated; you could read the results in either inches and feet, fractions, or…” his voice drops, reverently, into a bass register, “millimeters. It was the key instrument to get the areas of irregular enclosures. Now they’ve got electronic planimeters… AutoCAD basically.”

When I ask how long it took to design RAGTIME, Rod shakes his head. “Many years. I actually built a model, 24in long, in 1965. I hollowed it out and made a sailing model. Guess who I made it for?” Jeff, I guess. He nods, grinning. “And, he probably doesn’t even remember!”

Design process:

For any new design, Rod starts with “how long the waterline is going to be. For the J/24 I wanted something that was as big as I could build in my garage — and at least 23ft 9in because that was the minimum length for entering the Off Soundings Yacht Club’s races!

“It’s a numbers game,” he continues. “You can’t just eyeball it, right? You can’t. Guys used to start with a shape they would do by eye, but at some point, somebody has to determine how the boat’s going to float and visualize the three-dimensional shape. Otherwise, it’s going to take you a lot longer than it should. The most important thing is to know how long the waterline is going to be, plus what the maximum section of the hull is going to be. Just think of the boat going through the water,” he continues. “The thing that the water has to get around. How is the water going to get there most efficiently, and then how can it get away most efficiently?”

Sailing well upwind was his first priority, because “a barn door with a bedsheet on a pole will sail downwind.”

The next decision is “what kind of heel angle are you going to tolerate? And when you heel over, your whole hull has to have fewer wave-making characteristics. Wide-ass boats (that look like big wedges of cheese) that go around the world, they’re not designed to go upwind — and they don’t. They go like hell downwind, but they don’t go upwind. So, you have to decide the variables.” He shrugs. “That’s how I design, anyway. For me it’s easy. I’ve always figured that out from my experience sailing.”

I ask how long it took to design a new model, and Rod has to think about that out loud. “Well, I could design something quick and dirty and have it to you by… maybe not tomorrow, but pretty close. If I don’t have to please anybody else, they go a lot quicker. All the research… if I were doing nothing else, I could probably do it in four months. Before computers, more like six months. The lofting and the drawing, so somebody can build it, that takes a lot of time. I spent three weeks on my hands and knees to loft the J/30 in 1977!” He says laughing. [Ed. note- today, son Al prints it out on mylar sheets in less than an hour]!

Favourite design:

Forty of Rod’s designs have been built since J/Boats started. Asked for his favourite, he quickly names the J/105, because it’s simple and can be raced well and cruised well. “You can just handle it with fewer people. That’s what really prompted the asymmetric spinnaker, because people were complaining about the J/35s. Most J/35 owners had to have 10 people on the rail to be competitive.”

The advent of carbon tubing then made the retractable sprit possible. He adds, “made out of aluminium or wood or fiberglass, it would be just too much weight.:

The 105 started the J/Sprit revolution, but the original priority was price. In the early 1990s a US tax on boats over $100,000 had put a major dent in the new boat market. “We definitely had to come up with our luxury-tax beater.”

What turned the boat into one of J/Boats’ bestsellers, though, was that asymmetric spinnaker. “You could race with half the number of people, that’s what really sold it.’ A harder sell was the PHRF committees, who thought the new asymmetric spinnakers should be the same size as symmetricals. “You needed a 20 per cent bigger area to have the same efficiency as a symmetrical chute. You get more efficiency reaching, and not as much running. It took a while to convince them we weren’t trying to hornswoggle them.”

After years of dealing with local handicapping, Rod has developed a theory. “If you’re really a good sailor, you’re better off having a well-established production boat with a rating that they can’t possibly change. Right now, that’s the best boat for PHRF racing.” The last J/105 Rod owned was a 2008 boat that he and Lucia cruised to Maine. Add a boom tent, open the hatches and Rod claims 7.0 ft headroom. “for two people, that worked really well. It’s a great sailboat.” The only reason he hasn’t bought another one is the class restriction on professionals. But, as he’s explaining he realizes, “I’m actually not a professional anymore!” (He stepped away from a paid J/Boats position in 2015, though he still consults.) I could almost see the thought-cloud forming above his trademark wide-brimmed hat.

Regrets:

Even with so much success Rod still has a few regrets. He designed an incredible forty-two 12-Meters for the America’s Cup. But, “not a single one ever got built, and I never published anything. I wish I could have been a part of that.”

[Ed. note- Rod also designed a few dozen AC 75’s.  Truth be told, between Rod J and Angus Melrose and his famous International 14 naval architect friend Ian Howlett, they were the first team to create the super-long, super-narrow, giant-rigged AC 75 designs that ultimately won the America’s Cup in 1995. Guess who that beneficiary was? 

Peter Blake! Because, when Rod and Peter were discussing Whitbread/Volvo Race designs in 1992, Rodney was also explaining to Peter how to make a faster AC 75 boat. Well, for you students of America’s Cup history, you may recall that Team New Zealand showed up in San Diego, CA for the 1990 America’s Cup with a wide, short, dinghy-like design from Bruce Farr. It did not do well. In fact, it got killed. 

Peter asked Rodney if he could take those design ideas with him. As a very honorable person (backed up I am sure by Pippa Blake, Peter’s wife) Peter had asked Rodney’s nephew, Stuart Johnstone, at the time if he could remove himself from the nascent J/65 Team Whitbread/Volvo project and take on the role of Team New Zealand syndicate Chief in 1993. Stuart said “yes”, of course. Guess who was the beneficiary of that research?

The American yacht designer Doug Petersen and Team New Zealand. Peter’s collaboration with Rod, Ian, and Angus for the “new” super long waterline, maximum lead bulb keel, giant-rigged AC 75 became the new standard of AC 75 design…the net result?  Team New Zealand’s Peter, Rod J- influenced, Petersen design called BLACK MAGIC crushed Dennis Conner’s USA-designed YOUNG AMERICA in five straight races. The irony of that match was Stuart’s good friend Kevin Mahaney, a J/24 World Champion from Northeast Harbor, Maine had the closest boat to Rod J’s concept. But, still not extreme enough! The rest is history…. New Zealand’s BLACK MAGIC won 5-straight races with margins averaging over FIVE MINUTES! The largest winning margins in modern America’s Cup history! That’s how the America’s Cup went Down Under to New Zealand. Thereafter, J/24 World Champion Ed Baird teamed up with Team ALINGHI and won it for Switzerland! Funny how the world works…but Rod J. definitely had a hand in winning the America’s Cup, whether he knew it or not! And, ironically enough, another J/24 World Champion- Terry Hutchinson- is spearheading the New York Yacht Club’s current American Magic campaign! Yet another J/24 World Champion leading the world of sailing!]

Rod also wishes he could have been more involved in the aforementioned Whitbread/Volvo Race. The closest he got was working on a one-design class ahead of the 1993 race. “The idea was to build eight boats, and Peter Blake was going to put the teams together and put them through their paces. He was one impressive guy… so knowledgeable, and very good at managing people. You could just tell by sitting in the same room.  Peter gave me all of his proprietary wind matrices from the 1989 race, when he won on STEINLAGER 2. But we never got to build it. In 1991, there was a huge recession in Europe and the USA, plus the luxury tax. Too bad, because it would have been great fun. It was going to be like a big J/70, without the lifting keel. The entire structure built around a frame for the keel, lead on the bottom. We even had talks about whether we should make the sprit retractable!”

When I ask what he’s most proud of, he assumes I’m still talking about boat designs and runs down a list. “The J/90, that was an incredible boat. I owned mine longer than any other J/Boat, five years. It was fun to sail, and we had lots of adventures! The other designs I’d be the proudest of are the J/35, J/44, J/80. And, of course, the 160.”

I rephrase the question: how about life-wise? And then I spoon-feed him the most predictable answer: building a family company. “No, take one step backwards,” he says firmly, holding up a hand like a stop sign. “Just building a family. That’s what I’m proudest of, if you’re talking about everything. I’ve been lucky in a lot of ways,” he continues. “I’m lucky because I love sailing with all my kids. Even my daughter Pam, who was never really into sailing.”

She asked me recently, “Dad, when are you going to take me sailing?” He laughs. “We all have a lot of fun together.”

Next adventure:

Two hours go by in a flash, and as we wind up our conversation, Rod checks the dock for his nephew, Clay Burkhalter. Clay (an off-shore veteran) is prepping the J/99 (seen above L-R: Rod, Jeff, Al J.) for an offshore adventure to Bermuda, to deliver an owner and his friend to his 65-footer that got stuck there. “Then, Clay and I will sail this boat back.” A Bermuda 4-2, I joke. “Yeah, a 4-2 is much more fun than a 1-2. Also, when you can pick your weather between here and Bermuda, that’s always nice.” He pauses until he’s sure he has my full attention, then adds, “I never get tired of this. That’s why I got this boat.” As I turn the recorder off and we stand up from our cockpit seats, Rod’s still sharing memories. Even though it’s time to go and my brain is full. “You should write a book,” I tell him. “You underestimate your influence on the sport!” Because, there’s definitely a lot more to Rod Johnstone than a 24-footer that barely squeezed out through a standard garage door. And, all those designs that followed. Thanks again for Carol Cronin’s amazing Rod J interview for SEAHORSE magazine!

Rod on board his J/99 ‘JAZZ’

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