By Bill Wagner
Tate Russack was looking for a small sailboat he could trailer to major regattas around the country. The Annapolis resident liked everything about the new J/70 sloop and pulled the trigger on purchasing one when he learned enough had been sold to sustain viable one-design racing.
“J/Boats has upped the ante on the sport boat market with this design. It’s easy to sail, but highly competitive,” Russack said.
Russack was pleasantly surprised to see 23 boats show up for the Fall Brawl, hosted by Eastport Yacht Club in early November. He is downright shocked that a whopping 39 boats will be on the start line at Quantum Key West 2013, making J/70 the largest fleet at the annual midwinter regatta.
“It’s really amazing how fast this class has exploded,” he said. “This regatta is filled with a bunch of top-notch sailors. Having a fleet as competitive as this is great; what better way to gauge yourself?”
Russack and his team on Diesel won the EYC Fall Brawl, a very competitive two-day event that ended with the top three finishers separated by just five points. North Sails professional Allan Terhune served as tactician for Russack in Annapolis and will do so again in Key West.
“Allan is unbelievable, like a gift from the sailing gods. I can’t tell you how many times we had a bad start and Allen brought us back by calling all the wind shifts,” Russack said of Terhune’s performance at the Fall Brawl.
While Russack was the winner of the only J/70 regatta held to date, he is not the favorite here in Key West. That’s because several renowned professionals such as Tim Healy, Kerry Klingler and Dave Ullman have joined the class.
“We’re ready for the regatta. We’ve done a lot of work with the boat and practiced to hone our skills,” Russack said. “It’s an extremely competitive fleet and all we can do is sail to the best of our ability and let the chips fall where they will.”
Designed by Al Johnstone, the J/70 is a 22-foot sport boat with all carbon-fiber rigging and an asymmetrical spinnaker that gets the boat planning downwind in about 14 knots. Russack said the boat “lends itself to highly technical sailing” in terms of tuning the rig and adjusting the sail trim to fit certain conditions.
“These boats are really fun and exciting,” Russack said. “When you put the spinnaker up, it’s like going to warp speed. The boat just takes off. It also has very good acceleration upwind.”
The J/70 has taken the sailing world by storm with J/Boats having already sold 350 of the small one-design racers. Rod Johnstone, founder of J/Boats, said the company felt there was a void in the market for a club racer that could be ramp launched and garage stored, and clearly that assessment was correct.
“The J/70 is stable enough that an average sailor can handle it and seaworthy enough that it can be raced in any venue,” Johnstone said. “It’s got a great cockpit that easily fits four people and steers really well. We were very disciplined in keeping the boat simple and economical.”
Many top-notch skippers that have captured major championships in other one-design classes have jumped into the J/70, including Klingler (J/80), Healy (J/24) and Ullman (Melges 24). Johnstone said J/Boats had sailors of that caliber test drive prototypes and offer input for improvements.
“When the wind hits the sails of this boat it really responds. It’s a fast, lively boat that planes quickly downwind and points well upwind,” Johnstone said. “We feel it’s a good family boat because you don’t need a bunch of experts to sail it safely.”
Key West will serve as the inaugural midwinter championship for the class and will mark the largest gathering of J/70s to date.
“Key West has always been a tremendous showcase for any new design and we are looking forward to really launching the J/70 to a wider audience with great competition at one of the world’s most renowned regattas,” Johnstone said. “We debuted the J/24 in Key West back in January, 1978 so this is like going back to where it all started for our company.”
Brian Keane, a past winner at Key West in both the J/105 and J/80 classes, is among the owners impressed enough to buy a J/70 and is eager to test his new toy against such a deep fleet.
“It’s truly amazing for a brand new boat to be the largest class at such a quality regatta as Key West,” Keane said. “I’m really impressed with the caliber of sailors in the fleet. This is going to be hot competition and a lot of fun.”
Klingler noted that all the owners are still learning the boat, particularly how to handle the oversized spinnaker that will be critical to success. Johnstone, who will be racing with son Jeff, said he is “prepared for mayhem” in the inevitable windy conditions. His other son, current J/Boats president Al Johnstone, was the chief designer of the J/70.
Ullman has a somewhat selfish reason for joining the class. Obviously, the West Coast sailmaker wants to sell his product to this suddenly burgeoning market. Ullman, who is calling tactics for Ohio resident Joseph Colling in Key West, could not think of another class that has grown so quickly.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, especially in what was considered a down market. J/Boats found the right niche and the right time,” said Ullman, who did not hesitate when asked why the design has been so successful. “Price point, quality of construction, timing. They just hit it all. Apparently, they’ve had this on the boards for a while and picked the right time to go.”