2008 November 10
By John Kretschmer
One-design that’s as good as new with an active racing fleet and Johnstone-designed style and speed
The J/29 is an enduring favorite in the usually fickle world of one-design racing. Boat speed has always been the mantra for one-design sailors, and today’s boats have pushed this concept to another level. A friend who campaigns a Melges 24 recently told me that his crew clocked 18 knots surfing down modest waves. And they weren’t even pushing the boat. Speed usually means employing the very latest go-fast technology, something that rarely ages gracefully. Nothing seems older than outdated performance boats. Just picture the many IOR boats from the early 70s lying forlornly in marinas all over the country. Old boats are slow, or so the thinking goes, so what good are they? Unfortunately for the new-is-better crowd, the J/29, although “old,” is anything but slow, especially if upwind sailing is thrown into the mix.
Introduced in 1982, the Rod Johnstone-designed J/29 was considered the logical step up for sailors who cut their teeth blasting around the buoys in J/24s. Although the J/30 was already in production, J/24 sailors were looking for a larger version of what they already loved, basically a bigger, faster J/24. They didn’t need a boat with accommodations, and they didn’t want to pay for it either.
The J/29, which sold for around $30,000 when new, offered affordable, high-level, one-design competition with enough of an interior to make an overnight or even a weekend ocean race doable. Built by Tillotson-Pearson in Fall River, Massachusetts, about 300 boats were launched during a five-year production run. Today there is still an active class association, and one-design fleets are thriving. The J/29 is also a terrific boat to consider for spirited daysailing, if racing is not your cup of tea.
Johnstone has always had an uncanny ability to design incredibly fast boats that manage to sail well across the spectrum and also maintain a handsome bearing on the water. Many of today’s fast boats are almost garish in appearance with their plumb bows and abrupt hull shapes designed for downwind flying. It’s as if they are craving attention, like a teenager’s tattoos, declaring, “Look at me I’m fast.” I suspect in 10 or 15 years, these boats will look completely outdated, replaced by the latest and greatest ideas for generating boat speed.
Johnstone’s boats on the other hand look like boats, not platforms designed to skid across the water faster than the next platform. And as we all know, most sailing is upwind, an area in which his boats often excel. The J/29 is able to carry a full main in 15-plus knots, making 6.5 knots of boat speed.
The 29 began life as a modified J/30 and the rakish lines are quite similar. On the 29, however, Johnstone lowered the freeboard, redesigned the keel and trimmed the weight. Although it has 4 inches less LOA and the same 11-foot beam, the 29 weighs 1,000 pounds less and has almost as much sail area. Naturally, the 29’s vertical center of gravity is lower than the 30’s. And although most 29s were built with fractional rigs, a masthead rig was an option. Simplicity was hard-wired into the boat: From an outboard motor for auxiliary power, to the outboard rudder, to a lack of runners on the fractional rig, the J/29 has always been a boat that you can jump aboard and sail because not a lot of set-up is required. The boat sails well under main alone, and even with a moderately size genoa, the loads are rarely excessive. It is an easy boat to sail well.
The J/29 was never intended to be a ULDB, at least in comparison to West Coast boats, and the construction reflects this philosophy. The similarly sized Olson 30, for example, displaces just 4,000 pounds, while the J/29 tips the scales at 6,000 pounds. Within the framework of being a performance boat, the build is actually rather robust. The hull and deck are balsa cored and joined on a typical inner flange, incorporating the teak toerail where applicable. Tillotson-Pearson, which has since pioneered the SCRIMP manufacturing process, has always done good glass work, and the 29 has some interesting beefed-up specifications. The main bulkhead, a well documented problem in the J/24, and the keel floors are actually culled from the same scantlings as the J/36.
A large fiberglass molding is used as a floor and furniture pan, which helps stiffen the hull and originally streamlined the manufacturing process. The high-aspect outboard rudder is attached to the transom with stainless steel pintles and gudgeons. Most of the deck hardware is through-bolted and accessible, an important feature on a boat where the fittings may need to be replaced and updated due to regular racing wear and tear.
What to look for
The J/29 has held up extremely well over the years, considering that most of the boats have been sailed hard and often put away wet. Of course, since many 29s are almost 20 years old all age-related problems should be thoroughly inspected before making a decision to buy. Don’t overpay for an impressive but old sail wardrobe. In fact, you should consider new sails a given when buying a J/29 because nothing breathes life into this racer like new sails. This is where the boat’s simplicity makes it appealing.
The rudder pintles and gudgeons are a bit on the light side, and should be replaced if they look at all suspicious, although on the 1983 model I climbed through in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, they were clearly original and in good condition. If the gudgeons have been leaking, be sure to check the transom for delamination since some water may have penetrated the core. Several of the deck fittings on the boat I looked at were cracked, including the aluminum cleats. The hatch cover was also cracked, apparently from being stood on, and the teak handrails were loose. These are all areas that should be carefully examined since deck fitting problems often metamorphose into deck delamination problems. A bit of stomping around revealed some degree of delamination around the sheet winches and in the cockpit.
Inside the boat, the molded liner was cracked in several places, obviously from the hull being tweaked now and then. The tabbing on the other hand, at least where I could see, was in good shape. The chainplates also leaked and had soiled the main bulkhead. J Boats had its share of blisters, and some have suggested that the constant fairing of its hulls by owners contributed to the problem by skimming away at the gelcoat. This seems rather unlikely since blisters begin in the laminate. But even so, it is a good idea to find out if and when an epoxy bottom repair job was done.
Because of the J/29’s racing pedigree, the deck is well-designed for ease of handling, but the cockpit is not especially comfortable since you actually sit on the aft deck more than in the cockpit, which can be wet to say the least. The mainsheet traveler spans the cockpit and is easily controlled from the tiller. The sheet winches are forward of the traveler, making it a bit awkward for a singlehander, but the boat is ideal for a couple when not racing. The tiller head is stainless steel and the tiller itself is oak and robust. Dual compasses are often set into the coachroof bulkhead, and there is room for instrument displays as well.
Double lifelines were standard. The stanchions bases are backed and well-supported, but are often the source of leaks. The pulpits are a bit undersized, and the original nonskid is likely to be worn nearly smooth. Naturally, the headsail tracks are close inboard, and all boats will be set up with spinnaker gear since the 29 predates J Boat’s introduction of the retractable sprit. The mast and boom were built by Sparcraft in 4060 aluminum sections. The fractional rig has an air draft of 47 feet, 6 inches while the masthead rig is 4 feet shorter.
The interior of the J/29 is spartan but functional. Low freeboard and a sleek, low-slung coachroof results in a distinct lack of headroom-about 5 feet, 4 inches. The layout includes two quarter berths aft and two settees in the main cabin, perfect for a racing crew. The forward locker may be a sail locker, or it may have been converted into a double berth. Some boats were fitted with manual heads, although most will have porta potties. At least the boat complies with EPA regulations. The galley originally consisted of an Igloo cooler and a sink. There is actually a fair bit of teak below, including veneers on the main bulkhead, a teak-and-holly sole and teak companionway steps. I imagine that when refinished the boat can look rather smart.
Although an inboard diesel was an option, J Boats emphasized outboard motors when marketing the boat, again stressing the simplicity theme. As a result most boats have outboards, which are really very practical. Mounted on a transom bracket, a relatively small and light engine pushes the boat at 6 knots. It is also easily removed or stored below for racing. Another advantage of an outboard is that when it is broken you can pop it into the trunk and take it home or drop it off at the shop.
This is what it’s all about with a J/29. The boat is fast on all points of sail and truly excels upwind. By all accounts, with the rig tuned the boat can carry a full main and No. 1 genoa in 15 knots true while making 6.5 knots and staying on her feet. The J/29 sails better under mainsail alone than other comparably sized cruiser/racers do with a main and headsail. Trimming up the main generally requires keeping the top battens parallel to the boom, unless it is extremely light, and then the leach must be opened to prevent stalling. In heavy going, the sail needs to be flattened with the backstay and the mainsheet eased to reduce weather helm and excessive heel.
Typically headsails are changed before the main is reefed, and the boat is quite stiff in 25 knots with a No. 3 and full main. Reefing the main is reserved for gales. According to the J/29 class association, it is common to fly a No. 1 genoa in up to 20 knots apparent before dropping to the No. 2. The boat handles beautifully under spinnaker, sustaining surfing runs in double digits without undue stress. This point can’t be overemphasized; the J/29 is a very controllable, well-built boat that can sail at exhilarating speeds without the accompanying heart palpitations.
The J/29 represents an excellent value if you’re looking for solid performance but can’t bear the thought of new boat prices. With a proud pedigree, good company support, an active one-design class, and prices hovering on either side of $20,000, the J/29 is hard to beat.
Sailing World Review
J/29 Class Website