We recently had the privilege to go out sailing on the new J/88. The first one in the area just started sailing in the early 2015. Ben Braden, of Sail Northwest, took us sailing and he also happens to be the person who has been racing the boat, if you’ve seen it on the racecourse or on the pages of our Race Reports. We had a perfect afternoon on Shilshole Bay as the entire 48° North team put the boat through her paces in a steady 10-12 knots breeze with flat water.
The J/88 falls neatly into the design category that J/Boats has recently had success with (J/70, J/111): a family-friendly and easy-to-sail performance boat. Most people will look at these boats and think ‘racer.’ And indeed, they’re really great for that. But, if you take anything away from this review, it could be that these are not boats just for hotshots. J/Boats’ marketing folks use the phrase “sweet-spot” a lot in describing the J/88. And I have to say, I agree. So, let’s look at why.
The J/88 has a lot of good attributes from the world of big and small boats. At 29’ overall, with a displacement of 4,990lbs., this is a fairly substantial boat, for one with a performance pedigree. And, if you look at the displacement-to-length ratios of these recent designs, you see that the J/88’s Dspl/L of 115 is much closer to that of the 36’ J/111 (Dspl/L of 119) than that of the 22’ J/70 (Dspl/L of 91). We noticed this right away – stepping aboard, the boat barely moved under my 220 pounds. This would be the first of many indications that this boat feels like a big 29-footer.
We rigged up quickly – ease of use tends to be a design priority for J/Boats designs, and this is no different. The asymmetrical spinnaker rigging mirrors all of the similar designs, and with the exception of the creatively rigged jib in-haulers (WHOO-HOO!), most of the controls are in the places I’ve come to expect them. The most notable thing about getting set-up to sail was the ease of raising the mainsail, thanks to the Harken Battcar slugs and mast -track system on the deck-stepped Hall Spars carbon fiber rig. We motored out with the efficient little inboard diesel, and were sailing in no time.
As we filled the sails and killed the engine, the boat accelerated quickly. The helm was light and the boat was easy to drive. We took off to weather, and I was immediately aware of how big the groove was on a close-hauled course. Part of this is sails and tuning, but reading other reviews, I’m not the only one who had this first impression. It’s easy to keep the boat rolling and in the (you guessed it) sweet-spot. I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the J/70, which has foil designs that are very similar to the new J/88 (obviously in a smaller package). The light and responsive helm shared a lot with the J/70, with one exception: I felt like the transom-hung rudder on the J/88 had much more bite. We did not necessarily need to ease the sails to bear away in the 12 knots we had. Overall, the boat felt powered-up but very controllable.
I handed off the helm and began tweaking things – jib lead, jib in-hauler, backstay. The boat is certainly tunable. The mainsail has a small flat-top and significant roach, but these are enough to allow for a single adjustable backstay. There’s plenty of juice in the mainsail, though; enough to want a twisted shape. With that, the in-haulers had a big effect on our ability to point – being able to match the twisted leech profile in the jib and main, essentially “travelling” the bottom portion of the jib to weather – gave us several degrees of point we didn’t have before. Adjustments like that are also more typical of a bigger, racier boat. We sailed in various upwind modes – thin pinchy point, powered up with telltales streaming, etc. The boat seemed like a champ in all set-ups. Taking Ben’s advice, we sailed with a little bit more heel than I might have thought ideal for what is basically a sport boat design, but it produced great feel in the helm.
After some very enjoyable upwind sailing, we drove downwind and set the big masthead asymmetrical spinnaker. The kite went up easily, and I was struck again by the multiple personalities of the boat. While it
was responsive and easily driven, the J/88 had a very stable feel. The relative ease of handling and light loads were reminiscent of a smaller boat. Add to this the high speed potential, and I had the s-word in my head again: sweet-spot. Sailing downwind, we also played with the various modes. We sailed hot and fast, and even
tried to induce a little wipe-out, though we couldn’t really tip it over and the spinnaker didn’t collapse until we had our apparent wind ahead of the beam. In this mode, we were making 8-9 knots in the moderate breeze. Pretty fast, in other words. Then, we sailed deeply downwind, easing the tack line a little and rotating the kite as far to weather as possible. This VMG soak mode, like you would be sailing on the racecourse in those conditions, still kept us cruising at better than 7 knots. The boat simply felt comfortable doing it all. By all accounts, the boat likes bigger breeze, too, and should start to plane in only a few more knots of breeze than we had on our test day.
One notable aspect of the boat is what I found to be an extremely well designed and spacious cockpit. Once again, I found this a dance between a large and small boat design, and also somewhat a dance between racer and daysailor (or weekender). The helmsman sits on the deck, driving with a tiller extension and supporting himself with some sizable foot-pushes, in a fairly expansive space heading aft to the open transom. This
driver’s area is pure small sport-boat design. In contrast, ahead of the recessed traveler bar on the cockpit sole, you find actual cockpit seating. This would be a fine place for a headsail trimmer in many conditions, but it also makes the boat a friendlier platform for entertaining non-sailors. It’s comfortable, and gives you the secure feeling of a cockpit, while also (hopefully) keeping everybody’s tushies a little drier. We had five people aboard, and there was more than enough space for us.
I found the “feel” of the J/88 particularly unique. It’s way through the water felt stiff and stable; bigger than a 29’ performance boat in its motion. Conversely, the way it handled and maneuvered, all the operations on the boat, had a quintessentially small-boat feel to me. I think this is a boat that will show well in every context it could be used in the Pacific Northwest. My guess is that it’s going to perform to its rating across the wind range, and be at home around the buoys, as well as competitive in the local distance stuff – Straits, Swiftsure, even Van Isle 360. I know J/88 owners in other parts of the country have started to do some offshore sailing in the boat, and I don’t think that’s crazy. In fact, one of my takeaways from this sail test is that this would be an extraordinary boat for shorthanded offshore racing. Double or single-handed Transpac? On the J/88, I’d go without hesitation! And for our waters, it may take the cake as the ultimate Race to the Strait boat.
All of that said, again, the J/88 is not only a go-fast racer. It’s more than that, in my opinion. In the cabin, you find simple, but essential, accommodations. A real marine head, a sink, very good engine access, and sleeping accommodations for up to four, make this a boat capable of many non-racing applications. With it being so easy to sail (and sail well), the boat’s comfortable cockpit layout, and these essential amenities below, the J/88 would be a reasonable platform for a couple or small family to cruise for a weekend, or even a week in the islands that might involve an in-port shower and meal every few days. And for an easy sunset sail, throw a BBQ on the stern rail, bring the kids, and enjoy. It’s all part of the sweet-spot, if you ask me.