Throwback: The Restoration Of J/29 Hull #171

Editor’s note: to get our new blog going, we’re importing articles we’ve written in the past about our sailing adventures together. This article was written by Rich and was published on the J/Boats website, where it remained linked from the main page for many years. Rich and Lisa owned Jeoaprdy from 1996 through 2002. This article was written at the end of 1998, and  Jeopardy would go on to bring us years of adventures, including first place at the 2001 J/29 North American Championships.

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Without specifically setting out on the task, during the last two years I have found myself determined to bring my J/29, Jeopardy, as close as possible to a new condition. It’s a challenge I have grown to love as much as sailing her.

It has been a unique road to boat ownership. The summer of 1996 found me just six months into my career after college. As an undergraduate, I had been studious to a fault, and ever since reluctantly entering “the real world” I had lamented the opportunities for irresponsibility and recklessness I had squandered in college while studying. I found the real world entirely too confining once I got out, and within weeks began to fear I would suffocate from the monotony of professional life. I needed more.

Since I had cruised with my family since I was 2 or 3 years old, getting more active in sailing was a natural escape from reality. I began by taking part in day sails aboard a coworker’s Morgan 384. The next thing I knew I owned a boat and had become a dedicated yacht racer, both as crew and skipper. I think the intensely analytical process resulting in boat ownership came about is a way similar to this:

[In cockpit of Morgan, after full day’s sailing and swimming, beers in
hand.]

Morgan Owner: “You should buy a boat, Rich.”

The idea was of course ludicrous. I was only 25 and had been working less than a year. It would suck up all of my spare time and decimate my finances. Insanity.

Me: “Good idea.”

Well, that was that. Given the enormous financial burden and responsibility such a decision entailed, perhaps more analytical rigor would have been appropriate, but hey, what can you do? With the deep introspection and financial analysis completed, the next logical question was posed: what to buy? The due diligence for this was
equally exhaustive: Step one: what needs did I have a boat? I decided that it had to be 1) faster than nearly all boats its own size and 2) comfortable on weekend cruises. What fit the bill? The family had for a brief period owned a J/24 while I was in high school. It had berths, and we tended to pass most other 25 footers. J/24 it was! (A decision again demonstrating the rich rewards yielded by my exhaustive research!) And so, having invested the full 5 minutes of soul searching, the quest for my new J/24 ensued. Beyond browsing the ciassifieds, the Morgan owner and I took a drive or two through boat yards looking for J/24 prospects. It was on one such ride that I stumbled across J/29 hull #171. She was, of course, not what we were there to find, but I was instantly smitten with her.

Those who are familiar with the design of the J/29 will know that she is a very large 30 footer. A beam of 11 feet (one foot less than a J/35) produces large, open sidedecks and a surprising amount of room below, if not headroom. I remember finding this design odd – a cabin with 4 berths, sink and storage space, but no headroom! But the more I thought about it, the more Herreshoff’s oft-repeated contention that one should only go below on a yacht to sleep or make love began to make sense. The concept of the boat began to grow on me: build a large, solid racing 30 footer, and keep the price low by keeping the boat simple. And low the price was – I couldn’t believe it. They were only asking marginally more than a nice J/24, and she was so much more boat. Her price was still twice what I had initially planned to spend, but if the insanity of buying a boat to begin with had been so appealing, surely the insanity of buying a larger, more expensive one must be doubly so.

After briefly flirting with another listed J/29, and the standard theatrics of a yacht purchase, the deal was sealed and I took delivery of Jeopardy in October. Her survey had revealed that while she was sound, hull #171 had not enjoyed the best maintenance and much gear had not been updated in an eternity. Her first trip was therefore a tow over to Muller Marine, where she was hauled out to begin the surveyor’s recommended repairs. Most of these involved removal and replacement of degraded balsa core in the hull and deck. A faulty repair at the sheer of the hull had been leaking for years, dissolving a Y2 square foot section of coring into rot. Similary sized areas of core had to be replaced on the transom and under the primary winches, which were re-bed on solid glass. In addition, her stantion mountings were reinforced and a mounting box installed for the number two battery.

Thus buttressed, she was commissioned shortly after the fall boat show and I enjoyed my inaugural voyage as a yacht owner. If Jeopardy’s maintenance had been neglected, my skills as a helmsman had been no less so. While years of cruising had built generally good seamanship, they had not exposed me to much helm time. The rest of that first fall was spent learning how to steer and generally having a great time with the boat. Countless late night and evening sails with friends helped to establish a strong emotional bond with the 29.

I didn’t do much work on Jeopardy for the balance of that Fall. My initial impressions of boat work were negative and were thus limited to the greatest possible to degree. Probably the only other noteworthy modification that fall would be substitution of stereo speakers for the broken compasses on her cabin top. The following spring, though, would bring more incentive to work on the boat when I tried my hand at racing Jeopardy and found myself instantly hooked on the regatta scene.

Registering for that first regatta meant I could no longer put off Jeopardy’s most badly needed maintenance. The bow pulpit had corroded badly at the base and was on its way off. The handrails were loose and leaked and would pose a hazard to tacking crew, and it was finally time to replace the name on her topsides (for years hull #171 had weathered the indignity of being called Sting.) Newly inspired, I set to work making these modifications and a few others. Her wire main halyard and boom lift were swapped out for more modern synthetic materials and her vang purchase was doubled with a cascade. In addition, her forward hatch, rapidly degrading, was swapped out in favor of a new one and a new VHF was installed and tested. Finally, my girlfriend Lisa did me the honor of christening the newly named yacht with a bottle of Killian’s smashed over her stem.

The odyssey of her deliveries to and from Deltaville and the weather which contributed to them are best left for another sitting, though it will suffice to say they are worthy of their own novel and, above all else, amply proved the sturdiness of the J’s construction. Probably nothing endeared me more strongly to Jeopardy than the way she handled herself in 35-40 knot winds and seas large enough to shake her outboard from its mount.

Our results at this first regatta were predictable. I was piloting poor Jeopardy in the first race of my career, her mast tuning was completely arbitrary, and her sails, brokerage listing claims to the contrary, were lamentable. (Her Sobstad genoa provides a good example. The listing said something like “new in ’95! Only used 5 times!” but its leach was hooked like a ’78 Camaro’s spoiler. Now, since we know a seller would never understate the hours on a listed boat’s sails, I’ve enjoyed picturing what those 5 races must have looked like. Maybe they had reacted to forecasts of impending typhoons by recruiting 15 linemen as rail meat instead of staying home. Or maybe that’s how the portholes came to leak – from being completely submerged for the entire beat of 5 races. Other J/29 sailors would later recognized the sail as having been bought second hand from an S2 owner. Out of a five boat fleet, we got a couple of fourths, and then a string of DFLs. Not a very successful start.

Yet, oddly, rather than swearing off racing, I was determined to try again. I suppose one reason may have been a need on my part to avenge the indignity of it all, but just as much I think I found the whole game of making this 14 year old J/Boat a winner again irresistible. I had fallen in love with her. She deserved better.

Since it had already been a forgone conclusion that the Main had to go, a new one was already on order when Jeopardy returned to Annapolis. Once cleaned up and repaired after her delivery adventures, Jeopardy began to receive upgrades intended to make her a competitive racer. Although the Sobstad genoa was nasty, it could be recut and used as a heavy #1. My sail rep and I agreed that the next genoa should be a 0-14 knot sail, and another order went in. We agreed on a paneled genoa as 3DL just didn’t offer benefits commensurate with the price increase for PHRF racing. My rep re-tuned the rig, and in the process discovered that the lowers weren’t even mounted on the right chainplate attachments. Jeopardy hereafter began a steady upward climb in performance. Her crew was developing a great deal, and she displayed good light air speed both up and downwind. Although improvement was gradual, I was pleased to see us finishing mid-pack by the end of the season. By the time Jeopardy was hauled out in October of 1997, after a full year in the water, I was sure she had a lot more potential.

Since Jeopardy spent at least as much time entertaining and cruising as racing, I had ideas for non-performance related improvements to her as well. It was therefore during the following months ashore that Jeopardy received her most comprehensive refit to date, virtually all by my own hand. I decided to begin by reconditioning her interior wood surfaces and re-bedding leaky deck hardware.

The process began with the removal of all sails, cushions, supplies, and running gear except the spar and halyards. Over the following weeks, nearly all of Jeopardy’s deck hardware was removed, including her clutches, handrails (which had again acted up), genoa tracks, Main traveler track, tiller, rudder, rudder gudgeons, halyard turning blocks and other assorted hardware. The holes left in the deck were temporarily sealed with silicone and taped over, while the process of removing degraded balsa core from the deck began. This process varied depending on how much degradation had occurred. First, a small piece of stiff wire was inserted into the hole from below to gauge the firmness of the coring. Any that was soft was removed, a process which could be completed with the wire for limited areas of rot. In other cases, the hole in the bottom of the deck needed to be widened to gain further access. With the exception of the aft end of the genoa cars, this was not terribly common. After the rotten core was removed, the repair would be completed by sealing off the bottom of each hole and filing it from above with epoxy resin. A new hole was then re-drilled through the hardened epoxy and the hardware fitting was installed once again. The upper rudder gudgeon was the exception; so much core was rotten underneath it that it had to be repaired professionally.

During the same period, the process of re-conditioning the interior wood began. Although discolored after years of neglect, the floor boards were solid. Surprisingly, an initial attempt at removing the discoloration via sanding went nowhere. Sensing that bigger guns needed to be brought to bear, a chlorine based product was purchased in the hope of bleaching the grayness out, but this product was also sent whimpering away in fright. Finally, a two-part acid treatment was resorted to, which ate anything in its path and bleached the wood completely blonde. In fact the product was so potent that many sections of floor had to be retreated when a few seconds’ longer application on a nearby section resulted in a different color tone.

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With the floor progressing, attention turned the rest of the furnishings. Initially, the plan had been to simply sand down and refinish these surfaces, but two problems interfered with this. First, years of leaks through the shroud chainplates had discolored the main bulkhead with black streaks, which were again beyond the reach of plain bleaching compound. Second, where the acid cleaner came into contact with the lower edges of the furniture, it had already eaten all coatings in its path. The project had now taken on a life of its own: every interior wood surface needed to be acid treated to the same tone (again at times involving significant amounts of re-work to match tones), re-sealed, and re-finished. Complicating the process was the fact that the yard had turned off the spigots for the winter, meaning water for the process had to be hauled in bucket loads from the restroom a football field or so away, then hauled up to the cabin top 9 feet up. The acid process took a bucket of water per square foot section. Good for the heart, I suppose.

Once all the interior teak had been bleached nearly white, it was sanded, re-sealed with two coats of sealer, and finally finished with 3 coats of rubbed effect varnish – a process not completed until spring. Jeopardy’s teak companionway steps received similar treatment, though these could be brought home and disassembled, making working conditions easier. The companionway’s metal frame was aiso disassembled and polished to remove surface corrosion.

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This project soon spawned others. With so much effort exerted to make her interior teak attractive, it seamed a shame to accent it with old, ragged cushions. These were therefore stripped and re-covered with new fabric. Along every dimension of the project I sought to keep Jeopardy as close to “original” as possible. A call to the yacht’s builder revealed that the vendor who supplied the original fabric was no longer in business, and so another marine fabric was chosen from a national vendor.

This accomplished, the painted interior surfaces became the weak link down below: it seamed a shame to have done all of this, only sleep under a dull, dirty headliner. Soon all of the interior topsides aft of the companionway, the entire forward cabin, and, finally, the headliner itself were being sanded in preparation for being taped off and painted. A tough, enamel topside paint was chosen (which later proved to be remarkably durable) and a single coat applied. Application of this glossy interior paint had a totally unexpected but very welcome side affect: it significantly brightened up the interior of the boat.

Companionway

For all of this, probably no single piece of the yacht required more man hours to refurbish than the tiller. Made of solid oak, it ate sheets and sheets of sandpaper before finally yielding to bare wood. Bob Muller reported that he’d seen a number of accidents caused over the years when tillers would fail at the extension mount, spinning the unfortunate yacht into another’s topsides. His concerns dually noted, the mounting point for the tiller extension was strengthened with two layers of fiberglass, before being carefully drilled out to accept the mount for a new extension handle. Two coats of thinned UV resistant varnish were added before another 6 or so full coats were laid down. Finally, the fiberglassed section was sanded and whipped with nylon string to finish off the appearance.

With the below decks refit progressing well, more work began above. As a vendor began sewing a new set of line bags, an abortive attempt was made to re-finish the topside teak. Years of neglect had deeply pitted the wood, however, and much of it responded poorly to attempts at sanding or chemical treatment. While nearly all of the cockpit fittings were retained, the companionway trim, handrails, and forward toe rails had to be discarded. In the interest of an “original” restoration, new pieces were custom fabricated from solid teak using the old as guides, and were subsequently mounted and re-finished. Similarly, her porthole glass was beyond repair and was discarded in favor of new, again fabricated using the old as guides. As all of these projects progressed on deck, Jeopardy’s topsides were buffed and waxed and her bottom was sanded in preparation for new paint. Finally, her disintegrating outboard engine mount was replaced.

Jeopardy’s third season then began much as her first had, with a launch at Bert Jabin Yacht Yard and an immediate haul out back at Muller’s where her bottom was repainted and several detail projects completed. Delays in vendor delivery of many of the afore-mentioned parts, as well as a week’s worth of rain delayed her ’98 commissioning, and her first scheduled event was therefore canceled in favor of the Annapolis to Miles River race. The two nights preceding the race were a frenzy of activity, as all running rigging, sails and gear needed to be re-installed, and her rig needed to be tuned.

During the winter, plans for Jeopardy’s refit had not neglected performance enhancing projects. New two-piece halyards had been assembled and two new sails built during the winter: a 13-20 knot genoa (replacing the celebrated 5-race Sobstad) and a 6-20 knot running spinnaker, which finally completed Jeopardy’s race inventory.

Perhaps encouraged by the lavish treatment she had received over the winter, Jeopardy didn’t fail to disappoint: she won her first race of 1998, earning her intrepid helmsman his first ever race award. Perhaps better, she rounded out the victory by coddling her crew during the night on warm, dry bunks while competing crews pitched tents or curled up against the dew on deck. The J/29 may be a little slower and less responsive than newer sport boats, but the design does have its advantages!

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Jeopardy would go on to have a remarkable year. Interlaced with numerous evening and weekend cruises, she took firsts in three out of five of her 1998 events. As delighted as we were with these results, we’ve been equally happy with her range of talents outside of racing. Her expansive deck space has proven to be boon for hosting large groups of friends, and her genoa sail plan allows simple de-powering for understaffed cruises: put up the 100% jib. Rather than unnecessarily aging the race #3, I struck upon the simple device of buying used J/1 05 jib and cutting it down. The luff length is ideal, and the AP jib’s cloth weight and depth are better optimized to lighter conditions than the heavy air #3. More “modern” non-overlapping sail plans don’t offer this option for shorthanded sailing. Combined with a virtual necessity for dry sailing, these “sport boats” have become purpose-built race items. If Jeopardy were used similarly, she would have seen less than half of the use she has since we bought her. And for all of the exhilaration of our regattas, it was while hosting friends on warm, breezy nights and enjoying cozy, double-handed weekend cruises that our most memorable bonds with Jeopardy have been formed.

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Jeopardy’s refit continued throughout 1998. The rubbed-effect varnish used on her flooring proved too soft to stand up to a frantic crew of 8, and was thus replaced with a tougher gloss finish. While the new sails certainly helped performance, she still suffered from a point and speed deficit in medium/ heavy air. Near the end of the year she was hauled out for a keel fairing (during which a whopping 100 Ibs of lead had to be ground off of the port side of the keel). Her hull centerline was also faired and these two changes completely changed her personality in a breeze. She could now hold speed and point with the best 29s on the bay yet remained competitive in light conditions.

Presently, Jeopardy is hauled and covered with a second major refit under way. The variety of projects currently in flight includes replacement of her forward cabin flooring and reconditioning of her spars. She is scheduled to take part in the Annapolis NOOD next spring, the most significant event of her newly rejuvenated career.

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