In a Class of Their Own

The J/44 fleet sets an example for what the sport is really about at Block Island Race Week.

After one day of delay and a late start due to weather, the 27th Storm Trysail Club Block Island Race Week kicked off Tuesday afternoon. 16 classes and 146 boats competed in the time-honored event, the dominant theme of which is hard racing with fine competition and time for daily camaraderie in complete informality. In 1965, more than 175 boats and 1,200 sailors flocked to Block Island, Rhode Island, for the first ever race week. Since its first major success, the event has been an early season fixture in New England.

After waiting out the weather, teams were more than ready to get the racing underway. As the week went on, teams continued to battle for a top spot on the podium on the water and trade stories over mudslides and Mount Gay onshore.

J44 class sails up
The J/44 class with matching class spinnakers set on the downwind leg.PhotoBoat.com

One class that embodied the spirit of Block Island Race Week was the J/44 class. This year the class welcomed a new boat into the competition, and bid adieu to another seasoned member; all had stories to share from the week. The class is a truly unique group of one-design racers. Dues to the class enable sails to be bought by the group, instead of individual teams, and those sails are rotated each day to a different boat in order to keep the racing as fair as possible.

It was Jim Bishop, who has been with the class since it's early days and owns Gold Digger who came up with the idea of class owned sails. He also highlighted passing his love for the class and its unique policies along to his own son, James Bishop Jr.

“The boats are dead even, any boat can win any day and it’s all based on tactics and boat handling.”

- Says Don Rave of J/44 Resolute, which he owns with his brother, Rick.

Thursday afternoon Payne’s dock was buzzing with activity as the J/44 class threw their annual Block Island Race Week “Block Party”. The crews aboard the 7 competing boats were joined by family and friends to celebrate great competition and socialize with other class members.

The class truly lives out what original builders, Rod and Bob Johnstone, had dreamed of when they designed the first J-boat in their garage with a meager budget. With a tradition of sailing with family onboard as crew, the first J-boats were technical on the race-course but just as much fun to day sail.

Just like the Johnstone brothers sailed the first J-boats with their sons, the J/44 class boasts crew that spans generations. George Holt, a high school sailor, and a trimmer aboard Gold Digger, joined his parents onboard at his second Block Island Race Week. "I got to sail with both of my parents for the first time today, and that was something I've never done before," he says, "I'm getting to know everyone here, and while you race against each other and get competitive, at the end of the day everyone shows up to have fun."

J/44s with flags up
With boats that remain in families for many years, the fleet has a lot of personality.Stephen R Cloutier

Resolute, a staple member of the class since 2005, was able to witness the class rally together in support of their team after they lost their rudder during the treacherous Around the Island race. The crew of Resolute was modest about their ability to handle a tough situation in fog and heavy air without disaster. "Everybody pitched into to help us, Bishop offered us a replacement rudder, everybody in the class sticks together." The team also cites the great staff on site at BIRW, especially Shawn Adam, who realized what had happened and worked to get the Resolute back into the dock safety.

By the end of the week, it was the brand-new member to the class,* Kenai*, skippered by Chris Lewis that was honored with the top spot on the podium. Lewis and most of his crew hail from Texas, and this is their first Block Island Race Week.

“The 44 class is very close, we all support each other. We share parts and have a lot of camaraderie between us. It makes the sailing a lot more fun because at the end of the day, we all do this for fun.”

- Chris Lewis

Making the top spot wasn’t easy, Lewis remarked that several boats in the class had finished races in the number one position, and the competition was tight. In a culture where one-design racing features a percentage of professional sailors and funded programs. The J/44 class and its members brings the original reason for the J-boat and the true spirit of Block Island Race Week back to the forefront of sailing.