Distance Racing Tips for the J/109

Distance Racing Tips for the J/109

One of the best attributes of the J/109 is its versatility: the boat is an excellent platform for competitive in-shore one design racing, and is also set up well for short-to-medium distance racing.  The appeal is simple–distance racing gives you more time on the water and you can do it with fewer crew.  But distance racing sparks a number of questions that must be answered before each race.  What sails should I use?  What rating system is best for the J/109?  Do I need to add any gear to the boat?  This article provides some of those answers for owners looking to try (or do better in) distance races with their J/109.

J/109 Growth Spurt with Staysail & Bobstay used during Stamford Vineyard Race


Choosing sails for one-design regattas is easy—the Class Rules specify what you can have: 1 main; 2 105% jibs; and 2 108 square meter (or smaller) spinnakers.  That’s it.  But distance races don’t have the same limits on the size or number of sails.  For example, under ORC, when obtaining a rating, the owner declares the largest sails with the boat and can bring a certain number of sails for each event.  Local PHRF fleets have different rules, as well.  So, what works best?


This one is easy.  Stick with the class mainsail.  Any sailmaker will tell you it is sized and constructed for a full range of conditions.  And the single reef point that is required by the Class Rules works well in most all conditions.  If you want an “offshore” main, you can ask for a second reef point that reduces the sail to an area that may negate the need for a storm trysail (check the rules for each race you want to sail on this because the requirements vary greatly).

Jib or Genoa?

Here is where the questions start.  The J/109 came from the factory with long jib tracks so owners could choose to use an overlapping genoa in handicap racing in lieu of the 105% class jibs.  But the larger headsails come with a stiff penalty under most rating systems.  Are they worth it?  It depends on who you ask and where you sail.

If your racecourse has a lot of upwind sailing or cracked off reaching in 0-15 knots, the genoa can be incredibly useful.  Most owners who use them opt for 135% to 150% of the LP.  The trick is to buy one with a rating penalty that makes sense for you.  Ask your sailmaker for the best option in your area.

If your racecourse is typically off the wind or in big breeze, the class 105% LP jibs are usually the best bet for most conditions.  Some owners use their class AP jib and have a “#4” for when the breeze really rolls in.  If you opt for the 105% jibs, be sure you have an extra block and sheet onboard for an outside lead when reaching.  The block can be attached to the base of a lifeline stanchion or a pad-eye secured to the deck.  (Both are legal under the Class Rules.) 


The spinnaker options for distance racing are seemingly endless.  Here are a few set-ups that seem to be working.

On Lake Michigan, the J/109 fleet has 10+ boats show up for the annual 290-mile Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac Island.  The fleet sails in a one-design configuration which dictates the inventory for the race. Significant portions of the race are often sailed in light air, so the fleet specifies use of a 120 square meter spinnaker and a Code Zero for close reaching. For when the really big breeze comes, most boats also carry a Class-sized 108 square meter spinnaker–nicknamed a “chicken chute” on the Lakes. The boats are also allowed to use a spinnaker staysail when running in 15+ knots TWS.  The sailmakers say the staysail adds 0.5 knots of boat speed when deployed properly.  

On Long Island Sound, there is no consensus for distance racing spinnakers.  Some boats stick with the Class-legal 108 square meter spinnaker and avoid the 3 seconds/mile PHRF penalty for sailing with a bigger spinnaker.  Other boats carry a full inventory of options: a 120 square meter A2, an A1 or A3 for reaching, a Code Zero for close reaching, perhaps a class spinnaker for heavy air, etc.  

In the Pacific Northwest, some boats carry an A1.5, which is an even-lighter version of the A2, for their super light conditions. 

Most owners believe that the larger spinnakers are beneficial in the medium wind ranges, but there is plenty of evidence suggesting a well-designed class kite can win on corrected time. 

No matter what you choose, all of the spinnakers can be flown off existing hardware.  You can attach a twing to a lifeline stanchion or pad-eye if you need leech tension on 

one of your spinnakers.  If you opt for a Code Zero, you should read the Class Rules on removable bobstays.  Some owners like the piece of mind that a bobstay provides when close reaching with a Code Zero.

When sailing the J/109 double-handed, you might want to consider spinnaker furlers or snuffers.

Drifter Sails

When conditions are really light, you have more options.  A “drifter” is a jib that is much lighter and smaller in total area, but close to full height of a jib when hoisted in the head foil.  This sail can be useful in the 0 – 3 knot drifting conditions, when the class jib is simply too heavy and stiff to make use of the little wind there is.

In lieu of the drifter, some boats will use the spinnaker staysail as a windseeker in drifting conditions.

Rating Rules

Opinions on handicap rating rules vary widely (of course).  But there are two main ones for J/109s in distance races:

PHRF: Most areas have a PHRF rating system that is well understood.  Generally, the class sails configuration rating is fair. If you adopt larger jibs or spinnakers, the rating can change dramatically (e.g., -9 for a 150% overlapping jib on Long Island Sound).  So, you might want to check with your rating authority before you order sails.

ORC: The ORC rating is more complex than PHRF as it better accounts for design attributes of the boat.  To obtain a rating certificate, you can use the J/109 manufacturer’s specifications or actual measurements of the boat (done by a certified measurer).  In addition, sailmakers must submit certifications for the sails you put on the certificate.  In addition, the ORC system provides different rating values based on the type of conditions sailed, courses, and wind speeds.  For this reason, the predicted performance is better matched to the actual performance, thus allowing boats to be more fairly rated relative to non-J/109 competitors. ORC ratings are more expensive than PHRF, but many prefer this as a more equitable rating system.


All of the configurations discussed above can be achieved without drilling any holes in the boat or adding hardware.  That means the boat will continue to be legal for Class one-design racing.  (Again, read the Class Rules on acceptable bobstays.)

If you decide to add hardware, you want to be familiar with the Class Technical Committee and its rulings, all of which are contained in the Forum.  If you are contemplating something another owner has not tried, ask the TC first.  It could save you headaches down the road. In short adding winches, jib tracks, jib cars, clutches etc. is not allowed and may be hard to remove for Class OD racing and hurt resale value.


Finally, a quick note on safety. Every distance race has its own requirements for safety gear.  Many are now based on the US Sailing Safety Equipment Requirements, which classify events by the waters in which they are sailed.  But be sure to check the NOR for each race.  You may find yourself needing more safety equipment than is required for class racing. 

Now get out there and go distance racing!


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