2016 was a record year for MJM Yachts and one that bestowed 3 honors on MJM Yachts Founder Bob Johnstone.
- Mystic Seaport's America & the Sea Award
- Induction into the National Sailing Hall of Fame
- Yachting’s “1 of 6 Influential Marine Industry Innovators”
It didn’t start out that well. In the summer of '36, two-year-old Robbie puts down the tiller and says "No!" to his father's pleas of "push-pull", thus blowing his dad’s huge lead in the Wadawanuck YC’s Annual Parent-Child race in Stonington, Connecticut. The parent couldn't touch the helm during the child's lap of the race. In 1999, 63 years later at a bar in Castine, Maine, after winning his first Maine Retired Skipper’s Race driving Steve White’s 55’ sloop Vortex, Steve’s wife, a psychiatrist, exclaimed, “That explains everything! You’ve been trying to make it up to your dad ever since!”
First Solo at Age 8
Fast forward 6 years to the Summer of '42. Mother Libby came up with a creative way to teach Robbie and a friend how to sail. The two 8-year-olds would sail one of the family’s two 16' Scamp keelboats, while she and Aunt Ginny supervised from the other. The kids got off OK, dodged the first pile of rocks, crossed the channel that goes to Watch Hill and went hard aground on Sandy Point. Not able to approach in a boat of the same draft, Mom sailed back to the mooring, jumped in the dinghy and rowed 400 yards back to rescue the little darlings. Next day undeterred, Robbie was tidying up the boat and noticed a pile of excess line on the cockpit sole. That didn’t meet his newly acquired standards for seamanlike neatness, so he pulled out his handy sailing knife and cut off the tail of the mainsheet. Such a neat child! Of course, it disabled the boat as one couldn't let out the mainsail downwind after that. A couple of weeks later, having learned everything there was to learn, the two intrepid young adventurers, ignoring an inner breakwater limit set for beginners (which of course they weren't anymore), took off on a pleasant 8-mile sail the length of Fishers Island Sound and back. They couldn't understand why Mom got into a snit, calling the Coast Guard, when all was in complete control aboard ship. Parents were difficult sometimes. Sailing became an obsession. His ticket to freedom. Back in suburban Glen Ridge, New Jersey, in grade school, he doodled sailboats in the margins of his notebooks...with his initials "RJ" on the sail.
Time on the Tiller
Apparently the axiom is true, “The person that makes the most mistakes, progresses fastest." All those days of sailing paid off when it came to racing. Following in his father’s footsteps, at age 13, he won the first of five straight Wadawanuck YC Junior Championships along with ECYRA Midget & Junior Championships, the ECYRA District Lightning Champs and Sears Cup semi-finals, then became a finalist in 1951.
His boat-building started at age13, helping Dad and Mom build Lightning No. 3310 in their Glen Ridge, New Jersey garage. This created another learning opportunity...as to what not to do. It was a varnished solid mahogany hull with an oak keel and masonite decks that was 300 pounds 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 skills and set his mind to looking for better ways to improve boat 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 grad 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 W/D sandpaper.
Bob’s fondest memory of a powerboat was family daytrips on Grandpa Rodney Stuart's 24-foot Sea Beaver called SALT ACRES, designed by Hubert Scott-Paine who had designed WWII PT boats. It had a hardtop and could cruise at 20 knots… quick in the 1940s and not unlike the looks of today’s MJM 29z.
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 Connecticut to coach their Junior Racing Team and "soup-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 and harbormaster at the Hay Harbor Club in Fisher's Island, New York, he met his wife, Mary McAvoy on the club dock. She was a nanny for kids who took sailing lessons from Bob. She started taking care of Bob, too...three years later they were married.
Almost a Boatbuilder in 1957
A few Intercollegiate regattas followed, along with a summer as paid captain of the 54' Herreshoff yawl YAWLCAT cruising the North Channel out of Charlevoix Michigan, and an early short-lived boat business fantasy, flying to Mamaroneck New York in response to a Yachting classified ad to work as a foreman in Bob Derecktor's boatyard: But life among boats was interrupted by getting a History AB at Princeton, a short stint as a Second Lieutenant at Fort Sill Oklahoma, and 17 years with the Quaker Oats Company. There, he started as a sweeper in the world's largest cereal mill in Cedar Rapids Iowa. Then, at age 23, he was shipped out overseas as Plant Manager of Productos Quaker S.A. in Cali, Colombia. Two years later he became CEO there and later in Venezuela. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come: 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. He wrote the first “Tuning to Win” article in One-Design & Offshore Yachtsman magazine on how to make a Sunfish go faster.
Maine Sailing Vacations
Then he was at it again when on vacation on Little Cranberry Island, Maine. From South America in the 1950s and 1960s, he'd come back after a week’s cruise on a SW 30 or Pilot 35 chartered from friend Bob Hinckley with a list detailing how the boat's performance could be improved.
Sweet Water Sailing
Transferred back to the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, he became Quaker's Product Group Manager of Ken-L Ration and Puss'n Boots brands earning Quaker's Marketing Man of the Year award for launching a $30 million product called Ken-L Cheeseburgers which took over market lead from General Foods’ Gainesburgers. Weekends were spent frostbiting a Penguin on the Skokie Lagoons and sailing a Sparkman & Stephens Rainbow out of Wilmette Harbor. The family crew won the Rainbow Nationals in '67 and '68. Bob and son Stu won the '69 Penguin Internationals. Needless to say, those boats were fine-tuned for better performance. Bob, Mary and future J/Boats partner and brother Rod, they placed 7th in the 1971 Soling Worlds. Then, going outside the family for a couple of 220-plus pounders, he placed 6th in the '72 Soling Olympic Trials on San Francisco Bay. Family sailing continued with 470s — Bob with Mary on the wire in one boat, Stu and Drake in another, with Peter and Helen running the Zodiac tender. The entire program was put inside, on top and trailed behind a huge Ford station wagon for a pre-Olympic regatta campaign.
Giving Back to the Sport
As secretary/treasurer of the United States Olympic Yachting Committee, Bob was founding Regatta Chairman of the US Youth Sailing Championship 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.
Boating Becomes Business
The start 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. He had found his calling. Nobody was surprised when Bob accepted an offer to become VP Marketing of AMF's (Hatteras, SlickCraft, Wellcraft) Alcort Division, which made his beloved 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 corporation. AMF did not want to invest in 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 the University of Virginia. In February 1977, following a ‘best performing brand’ business strategy he developed 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. First design was the ubiquitous J/24. Over 40 years, 14,000-plus boats, 40-plus designs from 23 to 65 feet are sailing in 35-plus countries. Twenty-one of their designs have received Boat-of-the-Year or Sailboat Hall of Fame honors. Thirty-five percent of all boats racing at major Race Weeks in America are J/Boats. Thanks to son Peter’s creativity with a one-design International 14 dinghy, J/Boats was the first to innovate the installation of a retractable bow sprit and asymmetric spinnaker system on a keelboat. Now just about all modern sailboats have similar systems.
Powerboats Enter the Picture
In 1996, togetherness aboard ship for Bob and Mary occurred less on a sailboat than on day trips and short cruises in powerboats. 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 and August. Mary, at the time, was serving as Vicar of the Episcopal Church in Boothbay. 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 pounds to be easily trailed on the road between Charleston, South Carolina, winters and Northeast Harbor summers and easy enough to manage for Mary to manage alone. Can't beat that!
J Boats Powerboat?
With the next generation capably managing day-to-day J/Boat operations in Newport, Bob's 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. The most recent example being the 23-foot J/70 one design, which is the most exciting sailboat phenomena since the J/24, with 1,200 sailing after 4 years.
It wasn't until the Summer of 2002, 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 need another powerboat 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… 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, this would be someone who, based on previous designs, had demonstrated having an eye for creating a great new signature look. Not easy!
Patented Signature Look
The list of candidates narrowed to one in less than 30 seconds: Doug Zurn of Marblehead, Massachusetts, 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 second 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 Bob was after, is now covered by a US design [atent. No point in 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 third challenge: finding a high-quality, high-tech builder who could produce a 34-footer strong enough to go offshore at 50 knots with twin 440s yet 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, 25 knots seemed plenty fast for most people's cruising, modern diesels are very reliable, and some great storage space would have been lost.
With help from sons Stuart, a founder of boats.com, and Peter, a principle of Edgewater Boats at the time, potential powerboat builders in the US were contacted. No experienced high-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 copious amounts of fuel. None had experience with high-tech composite build processes needed to pull off the concept. The answer to this challenge was ultimately found in Mark Lindsay and Boston BoatWorks. Mark had 30 years experience with offshore racing sailboats and had also built an America's Cup boat in the Nevada desert.
The Acronym ‘MJM’
What does the acronym MJM stand for? The answer is, “Instead of a long name shortened to an acronym, why not start with the acronym that had a ‘J’ in it and would look good at the end of the cove stripe… maybe with ‘m’s’ that look like waves?” The end result was “mJm.” Since spending more time on Mary's boat, after all, was the impetus for this new boat building project, Mary Johnstone’s Motorboat seemed the best unofficial, whimsical explanation. The rest, as they say, is history.
MJM Tops 250 Sold in 14 Years
The successful launch of the 34z in August 2003 was followed in 2006 with the 29z, in 2009 with the 40z , in 2011 with the 36z, in 2014 with the 50z and then the 35z in June 2017. The 50z was the 2014 AIM Publications Boat of the Year for a Down East Cruiser, 50 Feet or Over. And the MJM 50z was the first design worldwide to have a Seakeeper gyrostabilizer installed as standard equipment. MJM has become synonymous with fuel efficiency, ease of handling and exceptional comfort. The brand has led with other features such as side boarding doors and electric-powered fully-opening windshields and flush decks. 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 get with an overseas yard or even from a large impersonal conglomerates.
*Footnote: The Picnic Boat Connection
At the Yachting booth at the Annapolis Sailboat Show in the early 1990s, the two Bobs (Hinckley and Johnstone) were brainstorming opportunities for new boats. Bob J. described his plan of coming up with a "Picnic Launch"… along the lines of John Dwelley's 32' DELIGHT, the local water taxi in the Mount Desert Island 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 Cranberry Island Boatyard about building it. Ultimately deciding this would be too much of a distraction from J/Boats, he dropped the project… but suggested to friend Hinckley, “Maybe you guys should consider doing something like that, being right in your backyard.” They did.