THE CRACK O’ Noon

Cruising World - - Off Watch - Herb Mccormick is Cruis­ing World’s ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor.

Forty years ago this past sum­mer, a naval ar­chi­tect named Rod Johnstone put the fin­ish­ing touches on a sail­boat he built in his home in Ston­ing­ton, Con­necti­cut. The size of the boat was dic­tated by the length of the garage in which it took shape: 24 feet. Lit­tle did Johnstone know, that ves­sel, even­tu­ally called the J/24, would be­come an un­qual­i­fied suc­cess. More than 5,000 of them would be built. It would launch a fam­ily busi­ness, J/boats, that has in­tro­duced dozens of new mod­els and is still go­ing strong. It would even be in­ducted into the Amer­i­can Sail­boat Hall of Fame.

And in the sum­mer of 1986, one of them, hull num­ber 3,688, be­came my first boat.

Ac­tu­ally, that’s not quite ac­cu­rate. With my high school pal, Ian Scott, I was the co-owner. Many Js have funny, ir­rev­er­ent names, and we fol­lowed suit by call­ing ours Crack O’ Noon, in tongue-incheek honor of when our days sup­pos­edly be­gan.

When I be­gan search­ing for a cruis­ing boat af­ter a cou­ple of sea­sons, Ian bought me out. But he still has the boat, and we’re still cam­paign­ing her all these years later.

Johnstone con­ceived of the J/24 as a cruiser/racer, and in those first years we owned her, we did man­age a Spar­tan cruise or two (the boat has seated head­room, a V-berth and a cou­ple of long set­tees but no head or gal­ley). Hey, we were young and happy to be on the wa­ter.

Be­sides, what we re­ally pur­chased the boat for was to race her, which is the rai­son d’être of most J/24s.

Rac­ing a J/24 is a bit of a chal­lenge. With the stan­dard five-per­son crew — re­mem­ber, the boat is 24 feet long — ev­ery maneuver is highly chore­ographed so ev­ery­one isn’t crash­ing into one an­other. Our lo­cal fleet in New­port, Rhode Is­land, is one of the most com­pet­i­tive on the planet, and has pro­duced a siz­able num­ber of the class’s world cham­pi­ons over the years. Need­less to say, we’ve seen a lot of tran­soms in the three decades we’ve been rac­ing the boat, but ev­ery once in a while we pull off a vic­tory, which al­ways tastes es­pe­cially sweet.

We gen­er­ally race on Thurs­day nights, and while we take things fairly se­ri­ously, we don’t go over­board: There’s al­ways a big cooler of beer and ice on board for a pre-race li­ba­tion and a cou­ple of pos­trace rounds. (That’s why they call it “beer-can rac­ing.”)

Last sum­mer, we also joined the crews of 20 other boats for the ves­sel’s 40th-an­niver­sary race. It was sup­posed to be around Co­nan­i­cut Is­land, but when the breeze foundered, the race com­mit­tee switched to a short­ened course on the East Pas­sage of Nar­ra­gansett Bay.

The fleet was stacked and in­cluded a cou­ple of world champs: Brad Read, a two-time win­ner, and the cur­rent cham­pion, sail­maker Will Welles (sail­mak­ers are no­to­ri­ously good rac­ing sailors). Also on hand was Jeff Johnstone (now the pres­i­dent of J/boats), one of Rod’s kids and, like all the sib­lings, a very ac­com­plished sailor.

The start of a yacht race is crit­i­cal, and Ian, at the helm, nailed a nice one, just along­side Read’s Fly­ing Squir­rel (we were at least in good com­pany). But the first wind­ward leg, up to a buoy near a lo­cal land­mark known as the Dumplings, was a bit of a bear. We played the right-hand side of the course, but a pair of boats on the other side en­joyed an ideal left-hand wind shift and led ev­ery­one around the mark.

From there, it was a long down­wind spin­naker run to a mark off of Half­way Rock, just off Pru­dence Is­land. In rather light air, it was a try­ing leg. When most of the fleet went right of Gould Is­land, we went left and picked up a cou­ple of boats. Still, as we rounded the mark to be­gin the longish beat to the fin­ish line, our po­si­tion was de­cid­edly mid­fleet.

The left side of the course again paid div­i­dends, and nat­u­rally, we fa­vored the right (stub­born­ness is one of our crew’s col­lec­tive traits). Back and forth we tacked, but to lit­tle or no avail. We crossed the fin­ish line in 14th place, happy to have a hand­ful of boats be­hind us.

Still, we’d ac­com­plished our goal, which was to pay homage to a great lit­tle boat aboard which we’ve had plenty of laughs and good times over the years. And the cooler, of course, was well-stocked. As we made our way back into New­port Har­bor, we hoisted some cold ones in honor of Rod Johnstone’s illustrious garage cre­ation.

For over three fun-filled decades now, we’ve cam­paigned our J/24 in the com­pet­i­tive fleet in New­port, Rhode Is­land.

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