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Johnson 18 FAQ

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With 500 other One-Design classes to choose from, why the Johnson 18?

It fills the gap between more conventional dinghies and the double-trapeze rockets. Likewise the gap between a JY-15 or Vanguard 15 and a Viper or Melges 24. It is a two-person sportboat that can be sailed from dock or beach, with no trapeze, that is stable and sturdy enough for family sailing, and strikes a balance between simplicity and performance.

Why does the Johnson 18 look so different?

It is the first computer-optimized racing-style dinghy. The Johnson 18's features were deliberately chosen to maximize strength, speed, and comfort while minimizing complexity and cost. It is not simply a copy of other popular dinghies stretching back through time. Sailors are very tradition-minded. For example, the first planing dinghy was designed in 1928, yet it took over thirty years for new classes to incorporate this advance in design. Thirty years from now, most spinnakers will be asymmetrical and transoms will be archaic... and Johnson 18 #1 will still be sailing!

What is it like to sail?

Johnson 18's are very well balanced, and steering takes only a very light hand. The cockpit is laid out with racing in mind, with controls for the mainsheet, boomvang, cunningham and spinnaker halyard run right to the skipper, and with the jib sheets, jib furler line and spinnaker controls readily accessible to the crew. The Johnson 18's wide beam offers stability and confidence in heavy air.

The best answer is "Try it and see...." Descriptions really don't do it justice, but here's one anyway.

What does the term "one-design class" mean?

Simply that all boats are the same in essential detail: hull shape, sail plan, spars. This has several advantages- the boats are uniform in building for minimized expense, the rigging and tuning procedures can be standardized, and for racing it means that skill is the winning factor. The Johnson 18 Class is a rigid one-design. Each owner is allowed some variation in the deck hardware (such as blocks and cleats and their placement) but in all other respects the boats are identical. (more info)

How fast is the Johnson 18?

Reality check... the Johnson 18 is neither a catamaran or a double-trapeze rocket. But it is pretty fast, especially on a spinnaker reach. We have passed Hobie 16s flying a hull! The Portsmouth number, a handicap rating which primarily measures its performance on windward/leeward race courses, put it slightly slower than a Thistle and slightly faster than a Lightning. Faster than Lasers, Snipes, Flying Scots, 470s, Laser 2s, Albacores, Daysailers, JY-15s, Coronado 15s, Vanguard 15s, Capri 16.5s, M-Scows, Designers Choice, C-Scows, Rhodes 19s, Mobjacks, Holders, Interlakes, Windmills, Jet 14s.... the list goes on.

If you are familiar with PHRF handicap ratings, the Johnson 18's calculate initial rating would be 181.2

"At the club racing level, in heavy air the Johnson 18 will often beat boats that are rated as much faster because the faster-rated boats are more likely to capsize...." (Steve C.)

In short it's pretty darn fast under most conditions, eye-popping fast under just the right conditions (those Hobie cat sailors were shocked to be passed by a monohull) but with a great deal of form stability and no trapeze, it is not scary-fast, nor is it intended to be!

Who is sailing the Johnson 18?

Couples, singles with friends, parents with kids, parents getting away from their kids, older teens bored with club trainers, and a few hotshot sailmakers. There are a lot of beginning sailors, and many of them are active in racing.

"This class has a very low *stinker* factor. All the sailors here are friendly and helpful." (Tracie Paullin)

You must be pretty athletic!

The Johnson 18 is a boat for those who enjoy being physically active, but it doesn't require a great deal of athleticism. It's stable enough to not need lightning-quick reflexes or droop-hiking.

"Not as athletic as I'd like to be. But my wife and I have sailed our Johnson 18 in 25-30 knots of wind. And we'll do it again, because we both enjoyed it!" (Doug King)

With no trapeze, doesn't it take a lot of weight to be competitive?

The boat definitely rewards hiking in a breeze. But it's also comfortable and easy to hike on, and stable enough that when you get a little tired, you don't have big problems trying to keep it under control. Class racing so far has strongly suggested that a wide range of crew & skipper sizes are competitive. At one Midwinters a skipper & crew weighing 270 lbs (123kg) combined won in heavy air (25 + knots), on Chesapeake Bay we see teams weighing 350 lbs (159kg) winning drifters.

The asymmetric spinnaker is just a gimmick, right? (what is this "spinnaker" thing?)

Every high-performance open class, and most of the new multihulls, have adopted the asymmetric 'chute. They produce a lot of horsepower without creating a big headache for the crew.

The asymmetrical spinnaker provides for exciting downwind sailing and racing, and allows for more novice crew who might not be comfortable flying a conventional spinnaker.

The spinnaker and it's stowage bag are one of the best things about the boat.

How much do Johnson 18s cost?

Recent boat-show price (fall, 1998): $9,350.

Second hand boats run frm $7,500 to $10,500 depending of course on condition and equipment.

A set of new racing sails (main, jib, spinnaker) are approximately $1,650.

Is the Johnson 18 a good boat for first-time sailors?

Yes and No. It is stable enough to walk around on, and has no bad habits like getting caught in irons or broaching. The Johnson 18's responsiveness give instant feedback for quick learning of sail trim, and the acceleration and overall perfomance make learning fun.

On the other hand, a beginner who is not interested in performance, doesn't want to get wet, and insists on bringing a picnic basket and/or cooler, should get a heavier, slower boat and learn to cope with getting caught in irons.

What does the Johnson 18 Class Association offer?

The Class Association provides an organized background for sailing, basically getting people together. It administers the class rules for racing. The Jn-18 Class Ass'n publishes a newsletter, collecting and disseminating information concerning rigging or sailing the boats, such as the best way to rig the boom vang or kicking up the rudter in light air, and lists used Johnson 18s for sale. The Class Association charges nominal dues. It is a non-profit organization.

How big is the Johnson 18 Class?

A bit over a hundred boats (as of 1998).

If I'm a serious racer, shouldn't I get a boat with a larger class?

Perhaps. Size isn't everything. You should get a boat that you enjoy owning and sailing FIRST.

"Every Johnson 18 owner we know sails for fun as often, or more, than they race. They are easy to trailer, and responsive enough to hone your skills without intensive practice." (Doug King)

Where are there active Johnson 18 fleets?

Johnson 18s are sailed all over the US, and there are boats in Canada and Mexico. Fleet One is in central Minnesota at White Bear Lake. Other fleets are in Southern California, Chesapeake Bay, Seattle, and the Florida Gulf Coast. Fleets are forming in many other states.

What are the Johnson 18s good points?

  • Two person sailing (skipper plus crew) so you can spend more time sailing and racing instead of looking for crew.
  • Cutting-edge "sportboat" with planing hull, open transom and a wide beam for stability, The first computer-optimized dinghy design.
  • Simple rig sets up quickly and easily.
  • Retractable carbon fiber bowsprit and asymmetrical spinnaker which provide both amazing speed and ease of use.
  • Hiking straps instead of an intimidating trapeze.
  • Convenient roller-furling jib.
  • Comfortable rolled side tanks for hiking or relaxing; no corners and few cleats, no centerboard trunk, very few knee-knockers or shin gougers. A crew-friendly boat!
  • Retractable centerboard and rudter for easy beaching.

Is the Johnson 18 a good boat for leisurely, romantic sailing on lazy warm afternoons?


Doesn't the lack of a transom get you very wet?

The Johnson 18 is kind of a boardboat in that you sit low to the water. The lack of a transom makes it very easy to climb back in after a swim, and it is self-bailing instantaneously. This is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary feature- racing dinghies have been reducing the transom since the early 1960s.

"The open transom is a tremendous advantage because in anything but a drifter you are rushing along with water cascading across the deck and out the back." (Kathie King)

Can I singlehand this boat?

Yes, several owners singlehand regularly. It's a little tricky to do spinnaker takedowns alone in more than 10-12 knots of wind.

On the other hand, most fleets have long lists of people volunteering to crew (we keep suggesting they buy one of their own).

What are the Johnson 18s bad points?
(See how honest we are?)

  • WAVES: If you don't like to get wet, you won't like it.
  • It's bit heavy (but workable) for a beach dolly.
  • Doesn't have a lot of stowage.
  • Competition in races can be tough. Greg Fisher and JJ Isler are among the skippers stepping into the Johnson 18. (1995 Nationals and 1996 USSA Womens Doublehand Championship)
  • "Needs a trapeze or two." (Chris Hanke, Int'l 14 champion)
  • "Too stripped-down. I like a lot of adjustments to play with." (anonymous Lightning sailor)
  • "Looks too cool. I spend too much time talking with people about it when I'm trying to go sailing" (Doug King)
  • "The worst thing about it is that I have to work too many weekends!" (Rick P.)

Adtitional on One-Design Racing boats which are different in design or size is often done using a time allowance or handicap. This is confusing for the competitors because there is no way to tell at any given point how one is doing in the race, it is essentially unfair because the variations between boats give one or the other a definite advantage under varying circumstances, and it imposes an adtitional burden on the race organizers.

Classes which race with no handicap yet do not require the boats follow the same design are called "open" or "development" classes. They tend to have much larger amounts of sail area and be more difficult to handle, as the boats are developed or improved for speed above all other considerations. This makes them a great challenge, and lots of fun, but expensive, since you have to buy a new boat every few years. Typically the designs for hull shape and sails evolve in cycles, and every few years there is a "breakthrough boat" which demolishes the competition. A well-known development class is the Twelve-Meter which was raced in the America's Cup from 1958 to 1987. Other development classes are the Moth, the International 14, the Cherub, and the International America's Cup Class

Some classes are very rigid one-design, such as the Laser, wherein all boats are as alike as can possibly be assured. Even the blocks (pulleys) must be of the same brand. This does not allow for improvements in materials over the years, nor any variation for individual preference. Others allow modifications to the deck layout, running rigging, or slight variations in rig, hull, rudter, and centerboard; right up to the point where competitve owners buy several different masts and/or centerboards. The Johnson 18 Class chooses a place between these extremes.

How technical is rigging and sailing a Johnson 18?

It is very simple to rig in ten steps:

  1. Walk the mast back, put the pin through the mast step and mast base.
  2. The shrouds can be left attached at all times and need not be readjusted.
  3. Attach the swivel at the head of the jib to the mast, and lift the mast vertical.
  4. The mast and all it's rigging, plus the jib, weighs about thirty pounds (14kg), so it doesn't take an Olympic weightlifter.
  5. Now hook up the tack of the jib to the roller furler.
  6. Attach the boom to the gooseneck on the mast.
  7. Bend on the mainsail.
  8. Tie on the jib sheets.
  9. Tie on the spinnaker halyard and sheets.
  10. Attach the rudter and tiller.

The only "tuning" to be done on the Johnson 18's standing rigging is adjusting the tension on the upper and lower shrouds. Mast rake is fixed by the jib luff wire. Jib luff tension can be adjusted at the tack, although many owners just leave it as the sailmaker set it.

There are only three sails- no "heavy air jibs" or "wave jibs" or "flat-cut reaching spinnakers" or "light air sails."

The Johnson 18 is very responsive to adjustments of the cunningham, the traveler, the mainsail leech tension (adjusted with either the sheet or the vang). This means that you have a lot of options for underway tuning, and also that the boat is very controllable, easily depowered in gusts. On the other hand, many racers center the traveler, forget the adjustments, and do quite well by concentrating on the basics with just the "sheets and stick!"

Aren't there comparable boats much cheaper?

That depends on what you mean by "comparable." There is no racing-style planing dinghy with a spinnaker available new at a lower price. Most are significantly more expensive.

"The Johnson 18's equipment, hull design and asymmetrical spinnaker make it more comparable to a Melges 24 than to any sailboat in the 18 to 19 foot category. A new Melges 24 costs upwards of $40,000!" (Bernie Smith)

There are second-hand Johnson 18s available. Compared to second-hand boats in other classes, the oldest Johnson 18 was built in 1994, and obviously boats which are much older will be much cheaper. Would you rather sail or do repair/rebuild/refinishing work?

"A cheapo is going to be frustrating to race, especially in a large class with lots of hotshots in new boats. Consider safety also- many older racing-style sailing dinghies are not self-bailing, and most are lacking in flotation." (Eric H.)

Isn't the spinnaker too big?

It can be handled by normal sailors in 30+ knots of wind. Too big? Don't think so.

"Gybing with an asymmetrical simply involves the crew easing the old spinnaker sheet and pulling in the new spinnaker sheet - all from the cockpit and without any work on the foredeck." (Bernie Smith)

Isn't the spinnaker too complicated?

It's more complicated than the jib and main, but far less so than a conventional spinnaker. Setting and dousing the sail are the trickiest parts, but with a little practice even novices can do it well enough to hang with the racers.

"I have taken people for crew who not only have never handled a spinnaker, but never been on a sailboat before. They could set, fly, and douse the asymmetric 'chute with calm simple instructions. All said they enjoyed the adted speed and the change in scenery." (Doug King)

Isn't the spinnaker too small?

On a reach, the Johnson 18 can plane when whitecaps first appear, say around eight to ten knots of wind. Very few other classes plane this soon!

Isn't the spinnaker not good for sailing dead-downwind??

Asymmetrical spinnakers have a reputation for being somewhat slower than conventional spinnakers downwind. Depending on conditions, a boat rigged with a conventional spinnaker may have an advantage on a straight run downwind. However, boats rigged with asymmetricals have several clear advantages including ease of use (both setting and gybing), less crew effort, the ability to sail at much higher angles to the wind, no tendency to broach in gusts, and no"death-roll" (windward capsize).

"When racing, we pay lots of attention to gybing angles. This makes the leeward legs as exciting and tactical as the upwind legs." (Steve C)

What is this "trapeze" thing the Johnson 18 doesn't have?

A trapeze, in the high-performance sailing definition, is a harness worn by the crew which attaches to a wire going up the mast. The crew (and in some classes the skipper too!) is supported by the trap harness with his feet on the side of the boat, and his (or her) entire body out over the water. This provides a great deal of leverage to hold the boat level against the force of the sails trying to tip it; allowing much larger sails and thus higher speeds. As one can imagine, the trapeze requires a bit of dexterity (not to mention skill on the part of the skipper to keep from dumping the trapezer into the water). When tacking, the crew must swing inside the boat, unhook, cross to the new windward (up) side, hook onto the wire on the new windward side, and swing out again. And trim the jib while doing so...

We feel the Johnson 18 is much more enjoyable, even if it loses something in top-end speed, without a trapeze. This does not make trapeze boats bad, just more complicated and demanding a higher level of concentration, dexterity, finesse, and adventurousness. If it appeals to you, go for it! Further info from classes with traps- Cherubs, 505, Fireball, International 14, 470, Hampton, Flying Dutchman

"I've heard racing sailors from other classes say that the Johnson 18 is underpowered."

It is true that the Johnson 18 prefers 4 knots of wind or more. Since most crews are hiking and the boat is planing in ten knots of wind or less, it's hard to see why anyone who had actually sailed one in any real wind would claim this. Sailing any boat in drifting conditions is a special skill, not necessarily related to any other skill except patience.

How about the Spinnaker?

The spinnaker is a sail, usually very large relative to the boat, used only when going downwind. The word is thought to originate from a British yacht of the 1870s, the Sphynx, which flew a light-wind sail reputed to be one acre in size (unconfirmed). The blue and yellow sail in the top two photos in our Picture Gallery is a spinnaker. The asymmetric spinnaker is simpler than a conventional (or symmetrical) one because the supporting pole does not need to be attached, or detached, or raised, lowered, or swung fore & aft, when handling the sail.

Furthermore the asymmetric spinnaker generates more drive for its sail area because of its longer leading edge. For further discussion see the Cherub web site and the J-105 web site.

"I've also heard them say the Johnson 18 is too heavy."

It's possible that the Johnson 18 is overbuilt by the standards of other classes. However, it is not a boat that flexes on the trailer, nor do you have to step gingerly aboard. The Johnson 18 Class Association is willing to challenge any other centerboard racing class to a demolition derby...

Where does the Johnson 18 fit into the category of other J-boats?

If you're thinking of the J-24, J-30, etc. sorry but that's a different group entirely. They are designed and marketed by the Johnstone family. They are fine boats but bear no relation (except that some of the newer ones also have an asymmetric spinnaker). The Johnson 18 was originally built and named by Skip Johnson of the Johnson Boat Works family, which began building racing scows in 1896 and was recognized for over a hundred years as one of the foremost builders of racing boats in the Midwest.