It’s been more than three decades since I last set foot on a J/35, but walking down the docks at the County Marina in Cheboygan, Michigan, I’m feeling, as Yogi Berra once famously said, “déjà vu all over again.” Among the marina’s slips are 13 survivors of the one-design sportboat invasion: Battle-worn J/35s and their owners gathered 15 miles southeast of Mackinac Island for the class’s North American Championship.
Yes, a number of the boats have bits of modern gear: carbon tillers and spinnaker poles, new instrumentation, laminate sails and modern lines. It all seems cosmetic. With boats, especially, age is impossible to mask. The copious hardware mounted about the deck, the beefy rod rigging, the unmistakable profile — the J/35 is, without a doubt, a product of the 1980s.
As I study which halyards lead to where, it’s obvious this championship will require me to tap a skill set from years past.
With the symmetric spinnaker, there are sheets and guys and their lazy counterparts — a far cry from the simplicity of the modern asymmetric. Gigantic overlapping headsails take a lot longer to grind home after a tack than the nonoverlapping jibs used on newer boats. Then, there’s the task of choreographing 10 people every time something happens. A consistent crew is prized among owners, especially when racing on the championship’s short, labor-intensive, windward-leeward courses.
I've been invited to join Greg Whipple, from Grand Blanc, Michigan, and his crew aboard Whiplash. Whipple races in the Detroit area, and the crew delivered the boat north as part of the Port Huron to Mackinac Race two weeks earlier, which is the case for other teams from Detroit. The Chicago-area fleet used the Chicago to Mackinac Race as its feeder to Cheboygan.
Whipple has been in the class for a long time, but for this event, most of his crew are new to the boat. He walks us through maneuvers as we motor out of the harbor for the first race of the series. Once sails are up, with the wind spiking into the upper teens, much of our pre-race time is consumed by a sail change from the No. 2 jib down to the No. 3. It’s a reminder of how long a sail change takes, even with a rail full of helping hands.
Once racing, we get a good start and hold our own, upwind, before the fun begins.
Across the fleet, foredeck crews are assimilating to an old-world order at the pointy end. Most newer crews survive the heavy-air spinnaker sets, but there’s plenty of chaotic jibing, shrimping and spinnakers flagging aloft.
"Having the same crew is a big deal," says Bill Wildner, whose boat, Mr. Bill's Wild Ride, is always the one to beat. If there were a reward for having the most seasoned crew, he would've won that too. His youngest, newest crewmember joined the squad 14 years ago. The crew's age range goes from Mike Zanella, 67, to Eric Weston, who joined the team 26 years ago, when he was 16.
“I’m very fortunate I’ve had the same guys stick with me — and it’s not just for sailing,” Wildner says. “ We have a blast the rest of the time as well.”
With boats, especially, age is impossible to mask. The copious hardware mounted about the deck, the beefy rod rigging, the unmistakable profile — the J/35 is, without a doubt, a product of the 1980s.
The wind moderates the second day and eventually fades to a whimper on the third and final day. The Whiplash crew, and most of those on other boats that struggled the first day, hit their stride, and crew work dramatically improves. The race committee delivers nine races over three days, which amounts to 18 spinnaker sets and drops. That's enough to make veterans of any crew in one weekend.
As with any grassroots regatta, the overarching social experience transcends the racing itself. The Whiplash crew meets regularly for breakfast at Alice's Restaurant, a great dive with a menu a mile long. Coincidentally, Cheboygan, a city with fewer than 5,000 full-time residents, is hosting a music festival the same weekend as the regatta. Bands play from early afternoon and well into the evening, and for the thirsty sailors, there's the Cheboygan Brewing Co., which has been serving suds since 1882.
The biggest draw to this year’s championship, however, is the omnipresence of designer Rod Johnstone. At 81, Johnstone still sails his own J/35 in Maine. He might not be as quick on his feet as he once was, but his stories and enthusiastic wit make him the star of the show.
Dean Fitzpatrick, the mastermind behind the North American Championship, remembers calling Johnstone’s house one Thanksgiving morning. “His wife answered and said she was making dinner for him and their kids,” Fitzpatrick says. “But, she put him on the phone anyway, and when I told him about the event and that we hoped he’d attend, he said, without hesitation, ‘I’ll do it!’”
He didn't just show up to shake hands though. For the final day of racing, he jumped aboard Sheri Dufresne's Firefly. "It was amazing," she says. "He was so giving of his time. We even had him sign the boom."
Afterward, Johnstone stopped by every boat to chat with owners and sign his name on the interior. The entire Blackhawk crew signed a hat for Johnstone that he wore for the rest of the event. He spent a lot of time with us aboard Whiplash.
“That was so cool having Rod stop by to talk with us,” Whipple says. “For most of us, it’s likely his visit will be remembered long after the event itself fades.”
Pulling off an event of this caliber, let alone drawing a fleet of this size, is a feat. Even with 13 boats, the J/35 class championship is the envy of a lot of 30‑plus‑year-old one-designs.
The venue had its challenges too: There’s no yacht club, and it’s being held in early August, earlier than the traditional September date. And, with the Mackinac races serving as feeders, it’s part of a two-for-one event. North Star Sail Club, located downlake in the Detroit area, hosts the event “off-campus,” so to speak, and shuttles race-committee gear, boats and personnel north to make the event successful.
Fitzpatrick no longer sails competitively, but still maintains an unparalleled passion for the J/35, its people and its class association. He regularly corresponds by email with 172 people, which includes 45 J/35 owners from: Chicago; Milwaukee; Duluth, Minnesota; Ohio; New York; Annapolis, Maryland; and Toronto. Despite the mountain of work he puts into this event, he deflects all praise with humility. “I just make the calls,” he says. But he does acknowledge, “Nothing ever just happens.”
When the J/35 was conceived in the early 1980s, there was no real consideration of the measurement rules of the time. Johnstone had another idea in mind. “As with all of our boats, we worked to create a one-design racer, but it just happened to rate well under IMS,” Johnstone says. Yet, one of the first J/35s ever built won its division in the 1984 Bermuda Race.
The J/35 is an offshoot of the J/36, which debuted in 1980. The J/36 came fully loaded, with a complete interior, wheel steering, etc., and the $84,000 price reflected that. “Then the recession hit in 1982,” Johnstone says. “We couldn’t sell any more 36s. And the big thing was the number of hours we were spending on the J/36 to fit all the options. The J/35 was easy. We made everything optional except for the diesel engine and four bunks below.”
J Boats sold the base boat for $49,500 back then, and when the first boats were delivered in 1983, it was clear they had a winner. The boat rolled up a string of victories beyond the '84 Bermuda Race, including Mackinac Races, the Monhegan Race and Miami to Montego Bay. American Tony Lush raced one in the 1984 OSTAR, a singlehanded transatlantic race. It carries a PHRF rating of around 72 in most PHRF fleets.
By 1988, J/35s were getting more expensive to build, Johnstone says: “With the 35, we ended up competing with ourselves in the used-boat business. This happened with the J/24 and J/30 as well. When you get to a certain point where a new boat costs twice as much as a used one, it’s hard to sell new boats.”
Once production ceased in 1992, 330 J/35s had been built.
Yes, there are challenges to owning a 1980s-vintage fiberglass craft. The hull is balsa-cored, so buyer beware: A moisture meter is a sound investment.
“If you can find one that’s not all wet, you’ve done well,” says Wildner, who recently stripped the skin off his rudder, dried it out and rebuilt it. “I was tired of fighting the blisters,” he admits.
Blackhawk had its stern replaced as a condition of purchase before Amie and Tim Ross bought it. It had fallen victim to a bungled DIY repair involving particleboard that attempted to deal with high moisture content. The boats can be refurbished without too much time and money, however, and parts are readily available, either with a direct replacement or its modern equivalent.
While many sailing thoroughbreds of a similar vintage have been put out to pasture, converted to cruising boats or left to decay in their slips, the class has persevered, with centers of activity in Chicago, Detroit and Annapolis. Any time I ask a J/35 owner, “Why this boat?” I hear the same answer as I would for any other older design with a devoted following. The appeal is the level of competition, the presence of like boats in their area and the lower cost of getting into one.
Yet, there are intangible reasons that link those who sail it with Johnstone’s creation. Amie and Tim’s relationship is founded in their love of the 35.
They met on match.com, Amie says. She had posted a picture of herself on a boat she was racing, and he had posted one of himself with a car.
“He saw my picture and wrote, ‘Nice boat.’ I responded with, ‘Nice car!’”
Tim had never sailed before. Amie talked him into trying it out, and in short order, they were sailing together in a Mackinac race. During the race, the owner’s son got sick, and they had to retire. “While we were ashore, Tim told me that this race was going to cost us a lot of money,” Amie recalls
“He said, ‘We’re going to have to buy our own boat so we can finish the race.’” That boat ended up being a J/35. Besides a few local races, they’ve since completed a pair of Port Huron to Mackinac races.
There’s also Ron Rabine, a barrel-chested man with rosy cheeks and a big smile buried in a thick gray beard. “He would often sail with us,” Amie says. “He even let us braid his beard. One time, he was flying the kite, and one of the other crewmembers suggested he move to get his weight in a better place, and he said, ‘When I’m flying the kite, I don’t weigh anything.’ So we started calling him our deck fairy.”
Rabine’s connection to the J/35 came while running some races at a J/35 championship out of Cheboygan back in 2002.
“I had heard a bunch of love songs on the radio on the way up and bought a ring at the local Kmart that used to be just down the road from here,” he says. The race committee boat he was assigned to had a Gaelic name that translates to “love of my life.” The coincidence was too great to ignore, so he proposed to his wife, Terry, just as the fleet rounded the weather mark.
She said yes, of course.
The appeal is the level of competition, the presence of like boats in their area and the lower cost of getting into one.
Distracted, he pooched the starting sequence for the next race. “I was off by a minute,” he says. “But I stopped the sequence, admitted the mistake over the radio and also said, ‘I just proposed to Terry.’”
The entire fleet broke out in applause. The following year, he picked up a permanent spot with Mr. Bill’s Wild Ride. He’s been a fixture ever since.
Ken Schwandt operates Kent Sail Co., a three-person sailmaking business. His father, Kent, got him involved in the family business when he was 11, sweeping floors and keeping the loft tidy. They built mostly cruising sails, but got involved in the now-defunct MORC class with a Lindenberg 26. In 1988, the elder Schwandt bought a J/35. Son Ken now makes class-legal sails, including wardrobes for three teams at the North Americans — including Wildner’s.
The Schwandt family tradition continues with his son. “When he was young I tried to put him in junior sailing,” Schwandt says. “But he said he’d rather skateboard. He’s 30 now, and he came back and said, ‘Hey, can I go sailing with you?’”
He's now a regular with Mr. Bill's Wild Ride, and so long as Wildner keeps winning, he'll have no problem keeping the consistent crew required to win. It's a code of competitive sailing: Good teams keep good crew.
When Wildner bought the boat 26 years ago, he thought he’d have the boat for five years at most. “I’ve sailed a lot of different boats when they first came out — J/105s, J/120s — thinking I’d make a move, but I like the way the J/35 sails,” he says. “It’s a better sailing boat and a great platform to race.”