|Bob Johnstone: Creating Better Boats|
The story starts in the summer of '36. Two-year-old Robbie in his first sailboat race puts down the tiller and says "No!" to his father's pleas of "push-pull", thus blowing a huge lead in the Annual Parent-Child race in Stonington CT. The parent couldn't touch the helm during the child's lap of the race. In grade school, he daydreamed boats, doodling sailboats in the margins of his notebooks...with an "RJ" on the sail. True story. Could this preoccupation with boats have been the start of a life-long effort to make amends to his father?In the Summer of '42, Mom decided to let Robbie and a friend sail one of two family 16' Scamp keelboats while she and Aunt Ginny supervised from the other. The kids got off OK, dodged the first pile of rocks, then ran aground on Sandy Point. Not being able to approach in a boat of the same draft, Mom sailed back to the mooring, jumped in the dinghy and rowed a half-mile back to rescue the little darlings. Next day undeterred, Robbie was tidying up the boat. He noticed a pile of excess line in the cockpit that seemed messy, so pulled out his handy sailing knife and cut off the tail of the mainsheet. Such a neat child! Course, one couldn't let the mainsail out downwind after that.
A couple of weeks later when they knew everything there was to learn, the two intrepid young adventurers, ignoring an inner breakwater limits set for beginners (which of course they weren't anymore), took off on a pleasant 10-mile sail the length of Fishers Island Sound and back. They couldn't understand why Mom was so upset, calling the Coast Guard, etc., when all was in complete control aboard ship. Parents were difficult sometimes.
Time on the Tiller
Apparently the axiom is true, that the person that makes the most mistakes, progresses fastest. All those days of sailing paid off when it came to organized sailing: Wadawanuck YC's Junior Championship 5 years running, the ECRYA Midget & Junior Championships, the ECYRA District Lightning Champs and Sears Cup semi-finals then Finalist in 1951.
Building a Boat
His boat-building started at age 13, helping Dad & Mom build a Lightning in their Glen Ridge, NJ garage. This created another learning opportunity...as to what not to do. It was a varnished solid mahogany boat with masonite decks that was 300 lbs. overweight, leaked like a sieve and was a challenge to get around the race course. One crew member had to pump the entire time...which may have put him on track to become Chairman of the Environmental Defense Fund. It further accelerated Bob's tactical education and set his mind to looking for better ways to improve performance. Reducing weight was high on the list. He first turned to his Uncle Dave as technical guru. Dave, known for swallowing cigar stubs in the heat of a race, was a brilliant MIT Graduate who would capsize his Lightning MOJO on a sand beach before a race (This was 1946!) and polish the hard white enamel bottom using rottenstone. There's recent evidence that this is more effective than today's 600 wet/dry sandpaper routine.
His fondest memory of powerboats was family picnics and daytrips on Grandpa Stuart's 24 foot Sea Beaver called SALT ACRES built by Palmer Scott. This was a Lyman type boat with hardtop, having a top speed of about 20 knots, which was quick in the 1940's.
Coach, Teacher, Harbormaster
Since the 1952 Sears Cup finals were to be sailed in Lightnings, Bob was hired by the Indian Harbor YC in Greenwich CT to coach their Junior Racing Team and "supe-up" their club Lightning called "Indian Belle". It worked, the IHYC with Skip Purcell as skipper became National Junior Sears Cup Champs.
During the summer of '53, as sailing instructor & Harbormaster at the Hay Harbor Club in Fisher's Island NY, he met his wife, Mary McAvoy on the club dock. She was a nanny for kids that took sailing lessons from Bob. She started taking care of Bob, too...three years later they were married.
Oats Before (B)oats
Other than a few Intercollegiate regattas, a summer as paid captain of the 54' Herreshoff yawl YAWLCAT cruising the North Channel out of Charlevoix MI and a short-lived fantasy, flying to Mamaroneck NY in response to a Yachting Classified Ad to work as a foreman in Bob Derecktor's Boatyard: Life among boats was interrupted by getting a History AB at Princeton, a short stint at Ft. Sill OK and 17 years in oats. Quaker Oats to be exact, starting as a sweeper in the world's largest cereal mill in Cedar Rapids Iowa.
Colombia & Venezuela
At age 23, he was assigned overseas as Plant Manager of Productos Quaker S.A. in Cali, Colombia. Two years later he became CEO for operations in Colombia and Ecuador and later took on the same job in Venezuela. Highlight was trudging through the poor barrios on the hills surrounding Medellin, interviewing housewives on how they made arepas; and as a result, creating a process that duplicated the homemade "bread" of Colombia with an instant mix called ArepArina. Sailing in Colombia was limited to model Star boats in Club Campestre water traps and talking local fisherman in the banana port of Santa Marta into lending them one of their log canoes. The urge to improve boat performance was alive and well. With Mary holding one paddle down as a leeboard and Bob steering with the other, they actually sailed a canoe upwind with flour sack sails...much to the locals' surprise.
Venezuela with its fantastic beaches offered even more opportunities for sailing. Bob started a Sunfish fleet at the Guataparo Country Club in Valencia and was two-time Venezuelan National Champ with Mary not far behind in 5th. The weekend routine started on Friday night with 2 Sunfish on a trailer behind their Ford Falcon, grilled fish and Polar beer at an open beachside restaurant, then tradewind racing off the beach from a beautiful resort such as Puerto Azul or Camuri Grande.
Maine Sailing Vacations
Vacation time from South America in the '50s and '60s was spent on Little Cranberry Island Maine, cruising with 3 small kids and chartering boats from friend Bob Hinckley. Wouldn't you know that at the end of each cruise, he'd come back with a list for Bob H. of how the boat's performance could be improved. Something along the lines of, "How about moving the mast forward to get rid of that weather helm on the Hinckley Pilot?"
Transferred back to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, he became Quaker's Product Group Manager of Ken-L Ration and Puss'n Boots brands in North America earning Quaker's Marketing Man of the Year award for launching a $30 million product called Ken-L Cheeseburgers. Cheese makes hamburgers better. Even dogs knew that. It took over the market lead from Gainesburgers. He later commuted from Wilmette as Quaker's futurist, Director of Market Strategy & Analysis. Weekends were spent frostbiting on the Skokie Lagoons and sailing out of Wilmette Harbor. The family crew won the US Rainbow Nationals in '67 and '68. Bob and son Stu won the '69 Penguin Internationals. Then, going outside the family for a couple of 220+ pounders, he placed 6th in the '72 Soling Olympic Trials on San Francisco Bay.
This was getting a bit too serious. So getting back to family sailing, he involved everyone in a big Ford wagon, towing two 470s, deck to deck, with a Zodiac on the roof. The entire family unit competed in regattas across the country. Bob with Mary on the wire was in one boat, Stu & Drake in another with Peter & Helen running the Zodiac tender. That's togetherness! Bit cheaper than a 2 boat America's Cup campaign.
Giving Back to the Sport
As Secretary/Treasurer of the United States Olympic Yachting Committee, Bob founded the US Youth Sailing Championship and was Regatta Chairman of the inaugural event at the Sheridan Shore YC in 1973. He became a Director of US Sailing and Chairman of its One Design Class Council and Industry Council. With two sons as instructors, he started SAIL Wilmette, which has become one of the largest community sailing programs in the US.
Entering the Boat Business
Entry into the sailboat business can be dated from when Bob called Hoyle Schweitzer to become the first Windsurfer dealer in Illinois. No one else was carrying the product and it looked like a fun boat. Having started a 26 boat Soling Fleet and 29 boat 470 Fleet, the handwriting was on the wall. Nobody was surprised when Bob accepted an offer to become VP Marketing of AMF's (Hatteras, SlickCraft, Wellcraft) Alcort Division, which made the popular Sunfish. But, within 18 months, he concluded that two brothers with a unique new boat and $20,000 could do a better job than a 2 billion dollar corporation that couldn't be persuaded to pursue his vision of a high performance 24 footer as the next step up for all the Sunfish, Hobie and Laser sailors. Funny, the guys at Harley-Davidson, another AMF Division, had a similar problem.
J Boats, Inc.
The rest is not only history, but also a popular case study now being taught at both Harvard Business School and University of Virginia. In February 1977, following a business strategy developed while at Quaker, Bob with his yacht designer brother Rod founded J Boats, Inc the world's leading performance brand of sailboats with licensed builders in the US, Japan, Australia, Argentina, South Africa, Italy and France. The idea was to follow the Rossignol model in skiing, the leading performance brand at the time...not follow the herd by copying designs that sold at boatshows. First design was the ubiquitous J/24. 11,000+ boats and 35 designs, from 23 to 53 feet, later...the founding brothers Bob & Rod are still very much involved creating new sailboats. 17 of their designs have been awarded either Boat-of-the-Year, ISAF International Status or American Sailboat Hall of Fame honors. 35% of all boats racing at major Race Weeks in America are J boats. The 2002 ISAF World Sailing Champs for men and women were held in France in two of their designs, the J/80 and J/22.
Day-to-day operations at headquarters are managed by 3 members of the next generation. Bob retains his 50% ownership of the Company and his strategic marketing role. Residing on Beacon Hill in Boston with his wife, the Rev. Mary Johnstone, they spend July & August in Northeast Harbor, Maine, where Bob is presently Commodore of the Northeast Harbor Fleet.
Retired From Racing?
Hardly! It's too much fun and is the best way to stay in touch with owners, and constantly evaluate the performance and quality of J Boat product offerings. In 2009 he won Downeast Raceweek for the 3rd consecutive year in his J/100 TERN, a 33 foot dayboat that is the 34z of the sailing world. Still just a kid at heart, trying to make boats perform better!
With boats playing such a large role in the Johnstone family lifestyle, much of the J Boats design strategy and one-design class rules evolve out of family experience.
Input from the next generation, also immersed in boating, is highly valued as they carry on the tradition. Time on the tiller had an impact on their accomplishments as well. Son Stuart was College Sailor-of-the-Year (the Heisman of Sailing), set up J Boats operations in Europe and later became a founder of BOATS.COM. Drake placed in the top 3 of the US Youth Championship and a few weeks after graduating from Yale, co-founded America's top-rated sailing school, J World. Peter, a US Youth Champion in Sailboards, became a Connecticut College All-American and Hall of Fame inductee, resurrected Sunfish-Laser, helped create the 49er and Escape, was instrumental in getting both the Laser and 49er selection as Olympic classes, and founded Gunboat Catamarans... building 48 to 90 foot carbon fiber catamarans in South Africa. The late Helen J. taught at J World, had top 5 finishes in the Women's International Keelboat and US Youth Championships and crewed for Dad in winning the 2007 Maine Retired Skippers Race in his J/100 TERN.
Motorboat Enters Picture
Since 1996, togetherness aboard ship for Bob and Mary has been less on a sailboat than day trips and short cruises in powerboats named GRACE. They started out with a 1993 soft-top Dyer 29, which was a 40th Anniversary present to Mary. The boat's design by Nick Potter (an avid sailor and NYYC member) also happened to be 40 years old. The idea of a motorboat was to extend the boating season in Maine and explore the many harbors and rivers around Boothbay Harbor. Sailing in cold waters was best in July & August. Mary, at the time, was serving as Vicar of the Episcopal Church in Boothbay.
This did not detract from Bob's involvement in the continued development and campaigning of his beloved Js: A new J/42 designed for live-aboard cruising, a J/120 with retractable bowsprit, a carbon-fiber rocket called a J/125, several J/105s and the J/100.
Powerboat Design Evolution
Naturally enough, with his penchant for always trying to make a boat "better", it wasn't long before Bob went back to Dyer with his drawing for a better Dyer... a modified hard-top model, inspired by Maine lobster boats. These workboats have cut-away bridgedeck sides under a hardtop, rather than cabin-cruiser type enclosures. This open design allows a lobsterman to tend traps while still at the wheel. He added a decorative "Adirondack" stern seat on which Mary could cruise the waterfront with sunhat; redesigned interior components; then had powercat designer, John Kiley, design lifting strakes fore and aft to stabilize the boat at speed in a following sea. With their Dyer 29 now perfect, what was left to improve upon? There were faster boats and maybe prettier boats, but not enough so to justify making a switch. The Dyer also made sense because it was light enough at 8,000 lbs. to be easily trailed on the road between Charleston Winters and Northeast Harbor Summers and easy enough to manage for Mary to do so alone. Can't beat that!
J Boats Powerboat?
With the next generation capably managing day-to-day J Boat operations at Newport headquarters, Bob's' yacht designer brother, Rod, was motivated to create a powerboat for himself: a 30 foot, jet-powered craft named RIPPLE. With both brothers independently messing about in motorboats (in addition to their J sailboats), the thought of a "J Boats" powerboat was discussed. Their conclusion was that this would not be the right move from a brand strategy viewpoint. Rod's boat was experimental in a number of ways. And, Bob was content with his Dyer. When it came to applying J Boat corporate resources behind new product development, the brothers' enthusiasm for great new J sailboats took precedence as well as any available J staff time ...and still does. The most recent example being the 31 foot J/95 which got an unprecedented hat trick by being awarded the 2010 Boat of the Year by all three leading sailboat magazines, SAIL, Sailing World, and Cruising World. This boat features a bronze centerboard and double rudders to sail beautifully in less than 4 feet of water.
It wasn't until the Summer of '02, that Bob, inspired by son Peter's Gunboat Catamaran venture and with more time available after transferring his J Boat Southeast dealership to Teddy Turner Jr., addressed the idea of creating the ultimate motorboat. The world certainly didn't really need another motor boat and he didn't need to own another boat company. Unless, of course, a design could be created that had more appeal than what was currently available (eg. prettier, faster, more seaworthy, quieter, more comfortable, more versatile, more fun to drive). The first challenge would be in finding an experienced powerboat designer, to avoid a protracted development period, who, based on previous designs, had demonstrated having an eye for creating a great new signature look. Not easy!
Birth of the 34Z
The list of candidates narrowed to one: Doug Zurn of Marblehead MA who is generally credited with designing the prettiest boat at the time under 40 feet: The Shelter Island 38 foot Runabout for singer Billy Joel. Even that was no guarantee: The 2nd Challenge was, could Doug come up with that unique, beautiful design to top current offerings on the market? Launch of a boat and a company both hinged on the answer. It came after 14 rounds of emails. Doug became, the "Z" with a spectacular 34 footer, called the 34z.
The 34z's "ornamental design", the signature look that Bob was after, is now covered by a US Patent. No point to encouraging the copycat problem Hinckley continues to have with its Picnic Boat*.
MJM Yachts LLC
Having achieved the right look with the 34z, the next step was founding MJM Yachts, a South Carolina LLC, and taking on the 3rd challenge of finding a high quality, high-tech builder who could produce a 34 footer, strong enough to go offshore at 50 knots with twin 440s that was still light enough to trailer between Charleston and Northeast Harbor. While the boat's structure is designed to take those speeds, the idea of twins was subsequently dropped because it defeated the concept of fuel efficiency, 25 knots seemed to be plenty fast for most people's cruising, modern diesels are very reliable and some great storage space would have been lost.
With sons Stuart and Peter assisting, as a founder of Boats.Com and a principle of Edgewater, potential powerboat builders in the US were contacted. No experienced hi-tech builder could be found. For the most part they were building low-tech, heavy boats pushed through the water by larger than necessary engines guzzling outrageous amounts of fuel. None had the experience with the high tech build processes needed to pull off the concept.The answer to this challenge was ultimately found with Mark Lindsay and Boston BoatWorks, a builder for more than 30 years primarily of offshore racing sailboats, which had also built an America's Cup boat in the Nevada desert and high performance powered catamarans.
What does the acronym MJM stand for? The answer is the trademark mJm. Instead a long name shortened to an acronym, why not go with a brandname that had artistic balance at the end of a cove stripe?. Whimsically, we say it's a towel monogram for Mary's initials. Or, Mary Johnstone's Motorboat. Spending more time on "Mary's" boat, after all, was the impetus for this new boat-building project and the GRACE of creating and maturing in boats together.
MJM Tops 100 Boats in 6 Years
The successful launch of Company, starting with the 34z in August of 2003 (65 to date) was followed in 2006 with the 29z (34 to date) and now in 2009 with the 40z (12 to date). MJM has become synonomous with fuel efficiency, ease of handling and exceptional comfort. Very few boats have come back on the market. Owners are enthusiastic about their boats and the quick, responsive and personalized service they are getting from Boston BoatWorks... not something they'd have with an overseas yard or even from a large conglomerate.
*Footnote: The Picnic Boat Connection
Bob nearly built his then ideal powerboat in Maine 18 years ago. At the Yachting booth at the Annapolis Sailboat Show in the early 1990s, Hinckley's new owners with the two Bobs (Hinckley & Johnstone) were brainstorming opportunities for new boats. Bob J. described his recent plan of coming up with a "Picnic Launch", conceptually starting with a design similar to John Dwelley's 32' DELIGHT, the local water taxi in the Southwest Harbor area. He had gone so far as to get an estimate of tooling cost from North End Composites in Rockland and had talked with Dave Stainton of the Cranberry Boatyard about building them. Having decided not to pursue the project, he commented to Bob H. that maybe Hinckley should take a look at the concept, being in the area. They did. Small world! So, maybe it's Bob J's turn.