J24 History

J24 US Legends Regatta 2003 – by Dave Reed

It’s the opening night of the J/24 Silver Anniversary Regatta in Newport, R.I. One after another, J/24 “legends” take the stage and offer up a story or two. “He loves to tell this one,” someone in the crowd whispers to a friend. On stage is 1984 world champion Dave Curtis, telling the crowd of 600 or so about the time he, Bob and Stu Johnston, and Major Hall spent Block Island Race Week racing and sleeping on the 24-footer, just so the boat’s designer Rod Johnstone could say it comfortably accommodated four live aboards.

Rolph Turnquist, 55, of Hamel, Minn., and John Gjerde, 54, of Delavan, Wis., the longest-running co-owners of a J/24 and founders of Fleet No. 1 (Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka), follow up with one about the day they went to pick up their first boat from builder Tillotson-Pearson. As they inspected their new ride, hull No. 7, they noticed the stanchions were too small. Says Turnquist: “Everett [Pearson] says, ‘No problem. I’ll be right back.’ He goes and raids the naval shipyard and eventually comes back with a car full of stop and yield signs, saws off the posts and gives us our stanchions. They’re still on the boat today.”

Others in the crowd have heard that story, too, which is no surprise—when the same people share a common 24-foot interest for 25 years, they’re bound to hear the same tales ad nauseam.

Our team only goes back 15 years, but I always end up telling the one about our first trip to the Midwinters. There was no way we were going to make weigh in so a few of the “bigger” guys (not me, by the way)had the 1,500-mile, 26-hour drive to starve and shed excess pounds. For a little assistance, they dosed up on Ex-Lax before hitting the road. They arrived in Miami, living on fumes, but still overweight. They hit the streets running and threw in an hour of shooting hoops just to be sure. Bingo. We made weight and headed to a nearby Fuddruckers for double servings, but the laxative was lurking like a hungry gremlin. While the racing was excellent, their attention was clearly elsewhere for the first two days.

Years later, making weight to sail in the Silver Anniversary’s Silver fleet is again an issue for Ian Scott’s team on Crack of Noon, but age has granted us a bit of wisdom. Rather than drop as much as 6 pounds apiece, a week before the regatta, we collectively agree,

“Screw it. We’re sailing with four and we’ll each take a day off. ” Then, before returning to the business of rehashing the evening’s race, Scott says, “How about passing up the Doritos and one of those green things?”

Barring the Star class, few other one-design keelboat classes have bred champions like the J/24. Even today, as many one-design classes discourage sailmakers and professionals from joining their ranks, J/24 sailors embrace them unconditionally. Rifle off 10 household names and many of them learned how to put together winning campaigns, teams, and boats from racing J/24s. As proof, consider the roster of world champions alone: John Kolius, Jim Brady, Dave Curtis, Ed Baird, Ken Read, Francesco de Angelis, John Kostecki, Larry Klein, Vince Brun, Chris Larson, Bill Fortenberry, Terry Hutchinson, Vasco Vascotto, Kazuyuki Hyodo, and Brad Read.

On the first day of the Silver Anniversary regatta, five of these world champs and eight past class champions and players jump aboard 24s for the Legends Regatta, a day of flashback racing. For some, including Sunfish great Dick Tillman, Curtis, and even designer Rod Johnstone himself, it’s been years since they’ve actually steered one in a race. Onboard a new powder blue Ragtime, named after the original 24 built in 1976 [and later chainsawed to pieces], Rod Johnstone has assembled his original crew. Three generations of Johnstone are on another blue boat. Ken and Brad Read each reunite their world championship crews. Larson and Hutchinson have talented pick-up squads, as does Tillman, Curtis, Pat Connerney (Rolex International Women’s Keelboat champ), and Don Trask (West Coast J/Boat) dealer. At the helm of hull No. 7 is Gjerde and his 25-year crewmates. Fortenberry pulls hull No. 2 (the only J/24 built with running lights recessed into the bow) out of retirement and sails it in its original configuration—complete with vintage deck hardware and Dacron paneled sails.

They sail four close races, and as expected, the new-school teams have little mercy on the old timers. Reigning world champion Brad Read triumphs on the water, beating Larson, Hutchinson, and most notably his older brother Ken, a six-time J/24 world champ. The younger Read has long lived in the shadow of his brother, but at least for one brief moment at the opening ceremonies that all changes. “I’ve been dreading this moment my entire life,” the elder Read tells the crowd. He laughs, and genuinely welcomes everyone to the “Brad Read Kicks Your Ass Regatta.”

Over the next four days, the fleet will be treated to six races, with three days of racing around inflatable marks on Rhode Island Sound and one 18-mile circumnavigation of Conanicut Island. For the buoy-racing portion, 71 boats are spread across three divisions. Fifty boats sign on to sail against Read and his co-skipper Tim Healy on US Watercraft in the Silver Fleet, which requires crews to weigh in; 19 teams prefer to sail the Regatta Fleet, which requires no weigh-in; only two boats will go head to head in the non-spinnaker Anniversary Fleet. It’s too bad not all the legends stick around because those that go home miss one hell of a regatta.

Multiple general-recall starts were once a way of life in the J/24 class, but the race committee doesn’t waste any time pulling out its black flag on the opening day. After a few warm-up starts, a six-leg race gets things rolling. Thomas Barbeau, a 26-year-old Shark Catamaran sailor from Quebec, wins the opener, but Read and Healy (driving) are close on his transom. After Day 2, and three more races, Read and Healy are on top with two firsts, a second, and a 13.

The around-the-island race is a welcome change of scenery. It was on this same racetrack in ’79 that 60 teams sailed the final race of the first J/24 Worlds. It was a wild race highlighted by wipeouts and 40-knot squalls. Bill Shore’s team survived a wicked broach and won, but it was Charlie Scott, of Annapolis, Md., who took home the first world title trophy.

This year, the breeze is tamer, but 80-plus boats fight for a spot on an absurdly long starting line. Those who time their approach perfectly [and others with luck] get away clean, and are led the entire way by Mark May and his crew from Ossining, N.Y., on Tramp.

There’s a surprising twist at the end of the four-hour race, however. Scott Milnes’ Sugar Plum, the Silver Fleet’s most battle-worn boat, finishes fourth and moves into second, 2 points behind Read and Healy’s US Watercraft. There’s a 21-year age difference between the two boats—a testament to the J/24’s one-design caliber—and with one day to go there’s an underdog to rally behind. Milnes, a residential contractor, a family man, and a force in Newport’s Laser frostbite fleet, says Sugar Plum hadn’t seen new sails in four years, but before the regatta, he and his sisters convinced their mother that new rags for the Silver Anniversary would be a fitting tribute to their father, Peter, Newport Fleet 50’s most beloved sailor, who died in 1999.

At the J/24 Golden Anniversary, however, Milnes will undoubtedly be telling the story of how he let the Silver get away—but you heard it here first: “We’d never actually been anywhere near Brad, or in contention at a big event like this, but with the new sails, we had great speed all week so I was confident. In the first race on that last day, we needed to start at the boat to get right, and that’s where Brad started, too. There was a hole at the boat that we started to go for . . . and then suddenly there was no hole. We fouled someone, had to do our circles after starting deep, and then we had nowhere to go but left, and the wind went right. We finished 40th that race. It was my one bad start all week, but at least we came back and won the last race outright.”

‘76

Rod Johnstone’s garage built prototype ‘Ragtime’ is launched.

‘77

First production J/24 is built, J/24s overwhelm MORC Int’Is in Annapolis

‘78

First Midwinters in Key West, J/24 Class Assoc. is formed, 68 boats attend first NAs in Newport

‘79

Charlie Scott wins a stormy Round-the-island race to win the first Worlds In Newport, fleets form in Australia, UK and Sweden, hull No. 2000 built

‘80

J/24 wins “Breakthrough Boat” award from Sail magazine, fleets form in France, Switzerland and Italy, Worlds go to San Remo, Italy, John Kolius wins

‘81

J/24 achieves International Class status, Mark Bethwalte wins Australian Words, J/24 featured in Championship of Champions regatta.

‘82

John Kolius wins San Francisco Words with 500 kilos crew weight, 19-year-old local John Kostecki is second

‘83

Ed Baird edges out IJCA chairman Bob Johnstone to win Sweden Words Dave Curtis wins J/24 gold medal at PanAm Games

‘84

Dave Curtis wins coldest Worlds (Poole, England in Nov.), 23-year-old Ken Read wins his first NAs, hull No. 4000 launched

‘85

Ken Read wins Worlds in Japan, Heidi Backus and sisters win first Rolex Int’l Women’s Keelboat Championship, Read and Backus win Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year awards

‘86

Ken Read wins 2nd world title on home waters of Newport

‘87

Class approves use of Mylar in genoa and a 400 kilo crew weight limit

‘88

Class approves new rule for boat weights and measurement certificate process, John Kostecki wins Worlds in Australia

‘89

Larry Klein wins tiebreaker over Kevin Mahaney to win Kingston Worlds

‘90

Jim Brady wins Worlds in Ireland

‘91

J/24 selected for Nations Cup, Dick & Linda Tillman retire after 10 years running class office, Steve Podlich named executive director

‘92

Hull No. 5000 is launched, Read bests a fleet of 81 boats to win Annapolis Worlds, Hank Killion is honored for his years as class chairman

‘93

Chris Larson tops 103-boat fleet at the Europeans in Monaco, Ken Read gets hat trick with wins at the Midwinters, NAs and Worlds

‘94

Ken Read wins 6th world title in a 13 year-old boat, earns 2nd Rolex award

‘95

J/24 elected to American Sailboat Hall of Fame, amateur Steve Thomas from Hawaii follows up a win at the NAs with a 2nd behind Bill Fortenberry at the Worlds in Rochester, NY, J/24s featured In the PanAm Games in Argentina, Betsy Allison wins third consecutive Rolex Int’l Women’s Keelboat title

‘96

Chris Larson stages biggest comeback in J/24 worlds history, coming from 22 points down to win in Sardinia, Dennis Ellis honored for work as Technical Committee chair

‘97

98 J/24s compete in Key West at 20th Midwinters, Worlds go to South America (Buenos Aires) for the first time.  Johnstone Family awarded Sailing Industry Leadership Award by SAIL Magazine.

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