Bob Johnstone ’56 has always been all about sailing. Some of his earliest memories include cruising through the Stonington, Conn., harbor with his parents at the helm of their sailboat. In the offseason during elementary school, he would draw pictures of boats and doodle his initials on the sails. He started sailing on his own at age 8, began racing in his early teens, then joined the student yacht club at Princeton. His summers were spent teaching or coaching sailing.
“I lived from one summer to the next,” Johnstone said. “It was just me, the elements, and the wind. [Sailing] took me away from anything that was going on on land — it provides you with a wonderful escape.”
After Princeton, sailing became mainly a weekend activity for Johnstone when he accepted a job with Quaker Oats. But after nearly 20 years in that field, he stepped back toward his first love, accepting a marketing job with AMF Alcort, which made the popular Sunfish sailboat at the time.
Johnstone made vital connections with boat dealers across the country. At the time, he also was a member of the Olympic sailing committee, where he became acquainted with many of the top sailors around the country.
Johnstone came up with a revolutionary idea for a 20-to-30-foot boat that could be sailed without leaving its operator soaking wet. It would include a couple of bunks and a cooler, too, “so a young family could go out and cruise on it for a weekend or a week — almost like a camper,” Johnstone says.
At the same time, Johnstone’s brother, Rod ’58, happened to be designing a boat in his garage that was in line with Bob’s vision. When Bob pitched the idea and AMF turned it down, he decided to leave the company and start his own venture with Rod. They created J/Boats, with Bob serving as president and Rob as vice president and designer.
“I contacted Rod and said, ‘OK, I’ll work full-time on this thing and let’s see what we can do,” Bob says.
And during the next year, they did a lot — with help from Bob’s connections in the industry, extensive market research, and the Johnstones’ firsthand knowledge of what consumers wanted, they were able to sell 750 boats during the first year. Almost 40 years later, J/Boats remains a leading brand in the industry, with 14,000 boats sailing in 40 countries. It’s not uncommon to attend a big sailing competition, or “race week,” and see J/Boats accounting for about 30 percent of the boats on the water, Bob says.
J/Boats’ ability to expand far beyond its base in the United States was key to the company’s success. “One of the great things about sailing is the friends you meet — what we were doing is kind of what Facebook is doing today,” Bob says. “We were creating a network of people, and the common denominator was the boat they were sailing.”
Later this month, Bob and Rod will be honored for their contributions to the sailing industry with both Mystic Seaport’s 2016 America and the Sea Award and an induction into the National Sailing Hall of Fame.
“I feel blessed that I’ve been able to make a living from something that I feel very passionate about,” Bob said. “[Sailing] has brought me so much joy, and it’s been with me all my life.”