J 105

J105250Nov2By Graham Jones

Sitting quietly at its mooring, the J/105 has a mean and hungry look. With low freeboard, a soaring double-spreader fractional rig, open cockpit and an ergonomic deck layout, the 105 is a highly strung thoroughbred, ready to charge out of a starting gate.

There is, on the other hand, a kinder, gentler side to the J/105 – the Jekyll and Hyde of the cruiser/race class. To civilize the foredeck, J-Boats has installed a Harken roller furler for the class jib and larger genoa. As well, an optional 48-inch Edson wheel will not jam up the cockpit when racing or cruising. And, to top it off, the 34-foot 105 (the number represents 10.5 metres) comes with the cruisiest of all cruising options: a dodger and a transom-hung swim ladder! The 105, then, is half beauty and half beast and boasts one of the highest ratios of speed to comfort on the boat market today.

As the first of J-Boats decimetre line of racer/cruisers (launched in 1991), 105 is perhaps the seminal bowsprit sport boat. The J’s retractable carbon-fibre J-Sprit and asymmetrical spinnaker (now known as a gennaker) are popping up on a host of copy-cat designs like the Melges 24, C&C’s SR 25 and the Johnstone 18. Even racer/cruiser multihulls like the Canadian-built Contour 30 Mark II have joined the fray and now come equipped with bowsprits and gennakers. With more than 100 boats built so far (three are presently sailing in Canada), the 105 has clearly established a new-boat trend.

Although the 105 was the first of the Johnstone family’s sprit boats, the 105’s younger siblings are dominating the sport boat market as well. The arsenal of J’s metric boats now includes: the 26-foot J/80 (see CY Review, August 1993), the 30-foot J/92, the 39-foot J/120, the 43-foot J/130, and 53-foot flagship long-range cruiser, the J/160. The concept behind the J decimetre line is to produce boats that are fast, strong, fun and easy to sail shorthanded while racing in PHRF and One Design fleets or while cruising with dodger raised, sails furled and swim ladder swung off the transom.

Last month I was lucky enough to be invited out on board Ted Reilly’s new J/105 Highlander for a mid-week club race at Toronto’s Ashbridge’s bay Yacht Club. In many ways, Reilly is the archetype of the breed of sailors that are flocking to boats like the 105. Following a successful J/24 career spanning a decade. Reilly decided that he had enough of drysailing a One Design keelboat and was now looking for a larger boat that could both zoom around the cans but could also come fully loaded with an autopilot, GPS and other electronic goodies. Having raced in a fully tweaked and drysailed J/24 sans bottom paint, Reilly was searching for a design that would not be glued to the water in light air nor out of control in a blow. In essence, he wanted a performance boat that, while under autopilot with a teak cockpit table set in the ready position for cocktails, could sail circles around a fully crewed J/24. We headed out for a maiden club race on a typical Lake Ontario spring evening — downtown commuters were heading home in sweaters and light jackets, but Reilly’s ex-J/24 team was suiting up in full foul-weather gear, preparing for battle. As we mounted out of the harbour under the 105’s 20-hp Yanmar, the warmth of the city ebbed and the air temperature plunged a further half a dozen degrees. I thought briefly of donating my wet pants!

After we raised the J’s Dacron main (standard with slugs in lieu of bolt rope), Reilly pointed the 105’s America’s Cup plumb bow towards the racecourse, sheeted in and suggested we each fasten our seat-belts as we took off. In 21 knots of breeze, Highlander accelerated on a broad reach under main alone as we were overtaken by a gust and I felt the boat rise up out of the water as the knotmeter surged. Call me crazy, but the faster this boat went, the more it seemed we were lifting out of the water. Racer/cruiser designs of an earlier era, on the other hand, tend to sink lower and push more water as they approach hull speed. Yet, because of a fast hull shape, low wetted surface, narrow waterline, stiff, light hull and a supercharged sail plan, the J/105 is hitting boat speeds that seemed impossible 15 years ago. Heavy, slow and sluggish are not the most appropriate adjectives to describe what I felt that evening. Slippery, quick, functional and responsive, on the other hand, are much more apt.

As we charged along to the starting line and committee boat, I was impressed with the fact that while the 105 is almost 35 feet long, it doesn’t feel big. What I mean by this is that the 105 is not intimidating or awkward to handle. Because it is a light displacement design, the 105 will not produce the enormous loads typical on a 35-foot masthead cruiser. For example, with a headsail that is barely bigger than an all-purpose genoa on a C&C 29, the winches on the 105 are not as big as steel drums. A lighter boat will produce lighter sheet loads and this in turn makes the 105 easier to handle for a crew of two than a CS 27.

There was little doubt that the 105’s 153 per cent PHRF genoa was staying in its bag during our club race. In its place, we went head to wind and hoisted a 100 per cent tri-radial Mylar class jib onto the Harken furler. As the RC hoisted the white shape to begin our start, Reilly called for his pit man to roller furl the jib so he could she better at the start. Heresy, I thought to myself. Soon after, I realized the wisdom of this technique. Under main alone our skipper had a full view of oncoming starboard tackers and could still out-manoeuvre the rest of the fleet. Charging upwind on the first beat, it became apparent that the 105 has similar speed to the earlier J/35. A PHRF handicap of 75 makes the 105 rate around three to six seconds a mile slower than a 35.

We were seven in total, and as rail meat, my role consisted of planting my bum on the hull-deck joint and enjoying the ride. During the five or six tacks up to the windward mark, our eager crew was able to grind in the 100 per cent headsail as if it were a storm jib. The owner, behind a wheel for the first time in a race situation (“Drive it like a car, Ted!”), was able to both steer and play the fine trim of the mainsheet in the puffs.

The 105’s designer, Rodney Johnstone, has carefully located the mainsheet and Harken windward-sheeting car within arm’s reach of the helm just for this reason. Although I was just a body during the race, I was watching carefully to see how a champion J/24 crew would handle the 105. The crew’s jobs are made simpler thanks to a fully Harkenized deck layout. All hardware is in the correct place for efficient sail adjustment. The rig, a tapered double-spreader section from Hall Spars, is bendy and controlled with a powerful Sailtec hydraulic backstay. While the 105 lacks running backstays, the spar features swept-back spreaders which helped to keep the forestay quite straight for pointing in the evening’s brisk air. In the strong gusts, we were able to blade out the main with the backstay to make it super flat and to keep the 105 on its feet.

Shrimping with the gennaker

By the top mark, we were eagerly anticipating a supersonic reach with the 105’s 107-square-meter monster asymmetrical spinnaker. Drawing on its J/24 technique, the crew set up the gennaker for a companionway launch. Unfortunately, the long trip from the hatch and out to the end of the J’s carbon fibre pole proved to be a bit, well, too long. To make a long story short, we ended shrimping with a large blue and fuchsia net for a good part of the leg. One of the crew members teased wryly as we hauled in reams of sopping nylon, “Maybe Ted should change the name of his boat from Highlander to Highliner!”

Like any manoeuvre in sailboat racing, especially one in more than 20 knots of breeze, setting the 105’s gennaker requires a bit of practice. The net of our first reaching leg is a massive PHRF mountain of nylon that is significantly larger than the 105’s 77-square-metre One Design class sail. Most new owners are opting for the monster, as it is known, because it provides performance off the wind while reaching or running in up to 18 knots of true wind. Had we go the monster up and running (ahem), we would surely have been planning at 12 or 13 knots.

I spoke over the telephone with Jeff Johnstone, the son of the boat’s designer, and he told me how, with the big gennaker up, he frequently sails for hours on end at sustained speeds of between 12.5 and 13.5 knots. At this speed the 105 is on a full plane and is creating a big, foamy rooster-tail. As Hans Fogh, the Eastern Canadian J-boat dealer would say proudly in his Danish accent, “The 105 is fast like hell! But it’s also a comfortable boat for the ’90s.”

Highlander sleeps four, with two in a forward V-berth and two on settee berths in the main salon. J-Boats is offering as well what they call a Euro-style interior that differs from the standard layout. This interior option allows for the addition of one or two quarter-berths at the expense of either one or both of the 105’s cockpit lockers. The 105 has a straightforward interior that will appeal to sailors who have never owned a boat with either window curtains or a microwave. Inside, the main salon is bright and decorated (probably not the right word) with off-white Formica low-maintenance bulkheads. If you were hoping for a teak forest complete with towel and wine racks then perhaps the 105 is not your style. There is a splash of the traditional boat interior, however – the cabin sole boards are teak and holly.

With its spartan interior, the 105 is definitely not a boat-show boat and admittedly not intended to compete on the floor beside the floating living-room racer/cruisers of yesteryear. The 105 has, however, upped the ante in this class. I predict, in 10 years, sailors will look back at the innovative design, layout and sailing characteristics of this boat and label it a classic. Clearly, the 105 has initiate a shift in yacht design towards speed, comfort and something that’s just simply a howl to sail.

Originally published in Candian Yachting’s June 1994 issue.


LOA            34 ft. 6in.

LWL            29ft 6in.

Beam             11 ft.

Draft            6 ft. 6in. (shoal) 5 ft. 6 in.

Displacement            7,750 lbs




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