History of San Juan Sailboats and the Clark Boat Company.
1960 - 1984


INDEX - Right place, Beginning, Trailer Sailor, Eastern US, SJ24, 1975, SJ21,
Line up, SJ23 & SJ28, SJ7.7M, SJ34, Gardener Sailboats


San Juan 23s are actively sold today with prices ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 depending on whether the boat is on a trailer or not.  A good trailer can cost that much!  I am told that many use a modified Catalina 25 trailer for a San Juan.  Eugene (Gene) Adams of Port Gardener Sailboats at PO Box 269, Mountlake Terrace, WA 98043 (formerly 2241 Franklin Road, Mt.  Vernon, WA, 98273) has purchased the rights and owns the molds to build SJ23s, SJ21s and SJ7.7 meter boats by special order.  Mt.  Vernon is just east of the port of Anacortes and the strait of Juan De Fuca, for which the boat as well as the adjacent U.S.  island archipelago is named.  Both his firm and Fred Rehm Sailboats, 1900 North Lane, Camden, SC, 29020 will assist you in locating those hard to find parts for boats no longer in mass production.  Clark Boat Company.


The Right Place at the Right Time

A trio of factors combined to put the right people at the right place and time to create the Clark Boat Company and the San Juan line of boats.  In the late 1960’s, in Kent, Washington, near Seattle, Bob and Coral Clark were building small one design racing dinghies, including Thistles and Lightnings.  As the 1960’s waned, a new space age material (no, not “TANG”) was proving its worth in boat building.  Thirdly, a new type of sailor who was neither a hardy, working waterman nor a Vanderbuilt aristocrat was taking to the high seas.  A young, growing middle class in North America was discovering that you could do more with water than drink and bathe in it.

The Clarks moved from Toledo, Ohio to the Seattle area in the early 1960’s to start a fiberglass boat building business.  While Coral worked as a nurse supervisor, Bob set about making the Clark Boat Company into a viable business.  The three sons, Don, Dave and Dennis, were busy attending school, but found time to help out whenever they could.  The first boat with the “Manufactured by Clark Boat Company” label affixed to it was a Lightning, and it was one of the first fiberglass Lightnings on the market.  They also built OK dinghies, 505’s and Clark Star class boats took first and second in the World’s in 1970.

In The Beginning

Coral Clark in “Learning to Sail - The Hard Way”, tells a bit of the early story of the Clarks and sailboats, circa 1939.

"We were married only a short time when Bob arrived at the tennis court to announce he bought a sailboat….being from North Dakota, I said what’s that? …I soon found out!  We put her in the water at the Toledo Yacht Club and proceeded to learn how to sail.  In those days you didn’t buy a book about it - there were none!  Nobody told me to ease the main sheet to avoid catastrophe.  We went over so often we were known as the 'Splash Clarks.'  By Fall we were good enough to try our first regatta.  The swells were so big we couldn’t see the masts of the other boats.  We had really learned.  We didn’t capsize once.

The Pearl Harbor invasion came and Bob joined the Marines.  While he was gone I put a new canvas deck on our little boat and sold her.  Bob was most upset when he got home.  I was paying $2.50 per month for garage storage for the boat and that was a lot of money in those days.

After the war, Bob returned home and had to have another boat.  Four members of the Toledo Yacht Club were building Lightnings.  Bob started ours in the basement, but after getting the ribs cut, we decided we needed a garage to finish it.  It dawned on him that he would never get her out of the basement after it was finished.  So the cement block garage came first, and then the sailboat!

She was a beautiful mahogany planked, solid oak keelson.  685 brass screws, all plugged.  It weighed 1200 pounds.  She was supposed to weigh 700!  Most of the fittings were home made and the halyards were manila rope.  We had a lot of fun in that boat.  It was stable as a rock.  We raced avidly, but not as avidly as after we started the Clark Boat Company in 1960."

All the Clarks were involved in one design racing, later on primarily through their boat building efforts.  The success of their sons, though primarily Dennis, would influence the design of the 21 in ways that clearly separated it from the competition.  Dennis was later to become a class champion in four separate classes, including the International 14 and the Thistle.  Dennis still races today, primarily in Lasers.  In addition to racing, boat building was something the Clark family did, and did well.

The three sons were all interested in some phase of the boat business.  Don had a degree in engineering, with additional training in Naval Architecture.  He started down the design path.  Don was very involved in the design of a number of their boats.  Dave had a degree in Management and he entered the sales and marketing side of the business.  Brother Dave was no-nonsense, the business head of the brothers.  Dennis was the young hot-shot sailor, who made a serious run at an Olympic berth in the Flying Dutchman Class.  Dennis started the Clark Sails Loft in 1971.

Glass Reinforced Plastic Fiber (GRP-Fiberglass) was in serious marine use for most of the decade.  US builders Hinckley and Pearson were fully engaged in glass boat construction.  Hinckley started to build their prestigious Bermuda 40 in fiberglass in 1960, and the material was proving durable in the marine environment.  With fiberglass as a moldable building material, billed as maintenance free, companies could mass produce and sell boats at a reasonable cost and profit.

The growing American middle class had the disposable income to explore new interests.  For many, that interest was sailing.  In addition to interest, there was also increased opportunity.  There were many new flood control and power plant impoundments that were complete or were taking shape across the country in the 1960s, meaning that you didn’t have to live near a natural body of water to enjoy water sports.

The age of the Inexpensive Trailer Sailor

Into this environment springs the Venture 21.  According to “Practical Sailor”, “The age of the inexpensive trailer sailor began with the Venture 21 in 1965.” The success of the Venture caught many other builders off guard, but they eventually responded.  There was the inevitable wave of imitators, including the Catalina 22, the Santana 21 and the Cal 21, and our hero, the San Juan 21, all the designs were finalized in 1969.

The first trailer sailors were designed for the first time sail boat owner.  They were a way to ease people into sailing without the burden of having to rent a slip or pay for club membership.  It also appealed to the free 'spirits’ who wanted to explore a different body of water every weekend.  The plan was to get people to buy a trailer sailor, have them enjoy, and then move them up into a larger and pricier boat in the same line.  This was a successful model employed by the automakers for many years.

Boats built by the Clarks typically followed some common manufacturing methods of the time.  There was gel coat applied to a hull mold, followed by a hand laid up hull.  This means that San Juan hulls are typically solid, in contrast to boats that were manufactured with a 100% chopper gun method.  The interior ‘pan’ would be a formed in a mold with a chopper gun.  This is a cheaper way to make components and was used on less critical items, such as the hull pan or liner.  The interior pan was then laid into the hull and attached to it, often using a fiberglass resin and strand mixture.

The decks were typically balsa core sandwich construction: a fiberglass deck and a fiberglass interior overhead surrounded a balsa core.  This allowed for a strong yet light deck.  The down side of this construction is that, left un-maintained, the deck fittings will leak water into the balsa, which will then rot and lose its’ strength.  This leads to, at best a soft deck , and at worst, an unsafe condition and an ugly mess.  The 21 decks overlapped the hull, and these were ‘pop riveted’ together.  The interior seam was glassed over, while the exterior was hidden by a screwed on rub rail.  Another interesting practice was the that Clarks vacuumed their hulls and liners together.  They would spread a lightly catalyzed putty called thicksol over one surface, put the hull and liner together, and connect vacuum pumps on the two for twenty four hours.  This gave them one of the first no void hull to liner assemblies.

Later boats would have a better joining of the deck to hull joint.  The SJ23, for example has a hull to deck joint consisting of a flange that is sealed and bolted to the deck.  The hull flange is actually an extension of the top of the hull, turned inwards to create a lip that the deck rests on.  The deck is mechanically fastened with machine screws through the toe rail.  The toe rail adds a tremendous amount of reinforcement to this area.

In addition to above average construction, Don Clark, designer of the San Juan 21, couldn’t help but add some features to the Clark boat that would ultimately set it apart from her contemporaries.  Many builders took the low performance-low price ratio a bit too far for the race bred Clarks.  Often the late sixties trailer boats had a keel that was more akin in appearance to a thick slab of wood or a cinderblock than to the slick NACA foils you see on keels of today.  The San Juan 21 has a fiberglass skinned, foil shaped keel and rudder, something taken for granted today but a real rarity at the time.  In addition, the San Juan’s swing keel retracts completely into the hull, allowing for the ultimate in easy trailering and shallow water launching.  The third unusual feature was gasketed keel trunk, to minimize turbulence from the keel slot when the keel was in the down position.  And they couldn’t help but race them.  The Clarks organized the first San Juan 21 Championships in 1971.

The Clarks had the design and were confident they had a winner, but they needed to hustle and have a little luck to make the Seattle Boat show in the winter of 1970.  In the fickle early days of trailer sailing, to miss the current market was to miss a tide that might not come back.  The first San Juan 21 was barely ready in time, but it was a hit, with seven orders taken at the show.  The San Juan 21 Mark I was designed for the Northwest, where rainy day sailing is a common occurrence, and ventilation down below was nice but not essential.  Hence, the first Mark I had no forward hatch.  This contributed to a strong foredeck but little air circulation if someone actually tried to sleep down below.  Some later first generation boats had a large round, screw in deck plate added for ventilation.  The 1973 re-design of the Mark I deck added a forward hatch as well as softening the line of the cockpit coaming.

Another early comment about the SJ21 was that the entry was quite broad, which made the boat pound in chop.  The dilemma was that in such a small boat with a narrower cross section, if someone went forward to the bow pulpit to step off or set an anchor, the bow would sink too low.  The boat was designed to address the difficult trailering and launching that affected some other sailboats in this length range.  To be easy to trailer and launch, the SJ21’s narrow beam and completely retracting keel allowed the boat to ride low on the trailer (between, not above the wheels) and launch in 2 feet of water.  The seven foot beam, while a dream for trailering, gives the SJ21 a more tender feel than some of her contemporaries, something dinghy sailors didn’t mind, but it did affect some first time sailboat buyers.  Everything is a compromise, and so it went with the SJ21.  Albeit a very successful compromise.

The San Juan 21 proved a great success, and by 1972, the Clark Boat Company had produced 400 of the sprightly craft, with another 250 projected for the following year.  Overall, 2600 San Juan 21’s would be produced, and while not matching the 10, 000 Catalina 22’s produced; it was a success by almost any measure.

The San Juan 21, along with their successful production of Lightnings, Thistles, the International 14 and the C-Lark, had enabled the Clark Boat Company to gain a reputation as a producer of well made, easily sailable boats that provided a solid value for the family sailor.  It also gave the firm a cash flow that would allow expansion.

The Eastern US

The Clark Boat Company saw big possibilities in the eastern US, and began a push toward a larger East Coast presence.  Don Clark in particular saw that SJ21’s had sold well in the east, despite the additional expense of trucking them across the country from Kent, Washington.  In the mid 1970’s the little 21 was becoming a significant player in small sailboat sales in the Carolinas and Florida.  Middle Tennessee also showed strong interest and Clark responded to this East Coast interest by searching for a site for an East Coast Factory.  By late 1970, it was evident that the Clark sons could manage the western operation, so Bob and Coral moved to New Bern, North Carolina to assist with the management of the new eastern factory.

In 1972, the Clarks (Bob and Coral) helped for the Blackbeard Sailing Club, which would be incorporated in 1974 and bought its land in 1975.  The club is still a hotbed of San Juan racing.  In 1973, the Clarks sponsored the first “In the water” boat show that the eastern North Carolina area had ever seen and were busy promoting one design racing (in the San Juan 21) in the southern region.

The San Juan 24

Riding the success of the SJ21, the Clarks embarked on a larger boat, a true keel boat, and 1972 saw the birth of the San Juan 24.  The SJ24, unlike the SJ21, was designed outside the Clark ‘house’, by Canadian Bruce Kirby.  He is most noted for his design of the later Laser and was commissioned to design a racing keel boat that would be competitive in the IOR Quarter Ton class.

The Clark Boats Company, still located in Kent, Washington, had been building Kirby’s Mark IV International 14 for a few years.  Don Clark was president of the company and chief engineer, so he had been dealing with Bruce.  Dennis Clark had won some major championships with the Mark IV.  Suffice it to say that the Clarks and Kirby knew each other quite well.

When IOR (International Offshore Rule) boats became popular in the late 60s and early 70s the Clarks decided they wanted to get in on it.  The International Offshore Rule was the popular, (and now practically extinct), rating rule that let boats of a certain rating race as equals, even if they were of different designs from different manufacturers.  When the SJ24 was designed, features like the pinched in stern and tiny transom were a result of designing to the IOR rating.  Kirby recalls the SJ24 as “one of my favorite wee yachts, and still my most successful design, except for the Laser.“ As a side note, Kirby’s Sonar is gaining fast and will probably overtake the SJ24 in a couple of years.

Previously, Kirby had been asked by another builder to design a Quarter Tonner.  This boat was designed under the Mark I version of the IOR, but the builder could not put the financing together and the project was scrubbed.  At the same time, the late Peter Barrett, Olympic gold medal winner, and for a time president of North Sails, was familiar with Kirby’s efforts with the IOR.  The Clarks had spoken with Peter about IOR in general and Quarter Tonners in particular, and said they were interested in building such a boat.  Peter suggested they talk to Bruce as he had already been working on a ¼ ton boat.

Don Clark called Bruce and the project was on.  IOR had now progressed to the Mark III version, so the boat Kirby had previously designed was out of date.  This meant a clean slate and a fresh start for the Clark boat.  Don Clark put two important restrictions on Kirby.  The boat could not draw more than four feet, or be wider than eight feet.  These were fairly severe restrictions in terms of maximizing performance and were imposed to make the boat more popular in areas with a depth problem (read: East Coast) and for those who wanted to trailer the boats, as eight feet was the common upper width limit at the time.

Kirby recalls ”Looking back after 30 years…I feel that Don's decisions might have been right, as the boat became remarkably popular, and in fact the restrictions might not have hurt performance very much.  More beam would have helped with stability by getting the crew further outboard, and later Quarter Tonners were much wider.

The comparatively shallow draft did not seem to hurt in light winds, where the boat has always excelled, and a deeper keel would have added to wetted surface and perhaps slowed the boat down under these conditions.  Upwind in fresher air a deeper keel was bound to have been better.  But a shallower keel is always faster downwind.”

The SJ24 was the first keel boat Kirby had designed, and so he was breaking new ground.  In doing his research, Kirby polled his various friends and connections in the sailing community, particularly his old friend George Cuthbertson from C&C.  George helped Bruce to understand some of the terminology in the rule and text books.  Bruce’s goal was to stay within Don Clark’s restrictions and design a boat that would result in a rating of 18 under the IOR rule.  As the boat was to be sailed in many places where conditions are predominately light, Kirby gave it a rounded or semi-circular sections to give it minimal wetted area This type shape does not give much form stability, so he put a relatively heavy keel on the boat.

The rig was typical of IOR masthead rigs of the time – short boom, and big fore triangle.  The San Juan 24 was one of the first to use the swept-back spreaders to help lock the mast in and help the backstay provide really good tension on the forestay.

Kirby confesses to being nervous about his first keelboat’s performance.  “I was particularly happy when Don Clark phoned me after the first sail in the boat to say that it had all gone very well, in particular, I asked him what the wake looked like and he said "what wake?”

The relative unseaworthiness of some boats designed to exploit the extremes of rating rules would be proven later in the decade during the Fastnet Race.  The San Juan 24 both suffers and benefits from being designed to this rating.  Up wind the SJ24’s handle like a dream, but dead downwind under spinnaker, she can be a little ‘squirrelly” based on the narrow underbody in the aft sections.  Still, the boat proved to be (and continues to be) extremely safe and popular.

The designer recalls “The statistic about the SJ24 that I have always liked is that in the mid-70s, when IOR was popular world-wide, the SJ24 was the most measured IOR boat in the world by far.  There were hundreds of them with IOR certificates because nearly everyone who bought one had the boat measured so he could race in Quarter Ton events.”

As with all prototypes, SJ24 Hull #1 would have some peculiarities.  Actually the Clark Boat Company didn't work in engineering changes on a particular schedule, and while they kept good records, all boats were kept in one book, so a new deck on a SJ24 might be in the book between changes to other San Juans.

The first SJ24 had teak rails not anodized aluminum and teak hand grabs on top of the cabin.  She also had no reinforcement on the bottom between the galley and the dinette and has as molded fiberglass face on a 3/8" thick bulkhead at the forward end of the galley.  Later SJ24’s had other differences as well.  Clark Boat Company dealers referred to the Flat Transom model as Mark 1 and the Wedge Transom as Mark II, so a boat with a flat transom with motor mounting track is an earlier boat, while a molded wedge on transom for vertical mount of scissors type motor mount is a later boat (probably a post 1975) around hull 645.

Also, the forward hatch changed on the SJ24’s (as they did on the SJ21’s and other Clark designs).  A fiberglass hatch is indicative of an earlier boat, while a smoked forward hatch is a later boat, starting around hull 877, 1978.  In addition, Clark changed from the round tube spreaders to a tapered foil spreader, again around 1978.  There were a few with inboard engines.

Regardless of the variations, the San Juan 24 continued to be a hit throughout the 1970’s.  It enjoyed significant success on the IOR ¼ ton circuit, and has enjoyed 30 years worth as a one design, with fleets across the country.  As hull number 1000 rolled off the line in 1978, the boat’s IOR days were heading to a close, but its’ one design future was (and is) bright.  The magnificent San Juan 24, the most popular Quarter Tonner ever, along with the SJ21, allowed the Clark Boat Company to lay claim to playing in the big leagues among performance keelboat builders, as they had done in the performance dinghy business in the late 1960’s.

Also important is the fact that the Clarks continued to sail their boats.  “We find it is important to sail our boats to know the rigging, tuning and fitting placements necessary for ease of competitive sailing, and good family cruising.  We encourage our workers to sail also, so that they will have a good knowledge of the sport that supports their position in the company” Don Clark.

Don and wife Jerie won the Yachting Cup regatta in 1972 and 1973, and were second in 1974.  Dennis and Don continued to sail the Thistle, with Dave crewing occasionally and sailing his San Juan 21 as time allows.  (Bob and Coral claimed Dave was the best crew they ever had.)

1975, Big Changes

1975 was another big year for the Clarks and their San Juan line of boats offering the customer options while minimizing big cost changes (totally new molds) was a Clark business philosophy from early on.  Most of the San Juan line would be available in fixed or swing keel configurations, and the 21 would even have deck options.  The SJ21 and SJ24 continued to sell well and two versions had been developed to cater to different needs of the boat buying public.

Changes on the SJ21

A radical redesign of the deck on the SJ21 led to the Mark II in late 1974.  This occurred around sail number 1000.  The hull remained unchanged, but the deck was transformed to allow for more interior cabin room.  The cabin sides were now flush with the sides of the hull, the cabin came 18 inches further aft, and the foredeck was now one continuous line from the mast to the bow.  This produced a boat that had far more interior room and a flat stable foredeck.  All things come at a price, and the SJ21 cockpit was reduced to account for the increase in cabin space.  Both Mark I and Mark II were produced concurrently, until the last of the regular run Mark I’s was produced in 1977.  After that, only a few Mark I’s were produced on a special order basis.  The San Juan mythology has Mark I’s as better race boats, and Mark II’s as better cruisers.  The results don’t seem to bear this out, as Mark II’s have been quite competitive, particularly in working sails division.  Boat weight can make a critical difference, but the Mark II’s weights have fallen in the admittedly wide range of Mark I weights.

Changes in the Line Up

SJ30 - Also in 1975, designer Bruce Kirby again teamed up with the Clarks to develop the San Juan 30 – ½ tonner.  This big San Juan was designed to build on the success of the SJ21 in One design and PHRF racing and the SJ24 in IOR racing.  The Clarks wanted to follow up the SJ24 success with a Half Tonner.  Kirby did a lot of work on the project but all the way through the Clarks were concerned that it might not be wise to spend the money on the bigger boat, so the project was put on hold for a while.

Kirby, however, had grown fond of the design, and had one built by the Gougeons.  It was their first major mono hull project and they did a great job.  The boat was the 30-foot Accolade, cold molded in cedar and finished with varnished topsides.  In addition to being a beauty, she was fast.  The boat won a lot of races in the summer of 1974.

Kirby recounts…"The first time she was off the dock we were still installing the navigation lights because the race was to be a 60 mile overnighter.  We used a flashlight taped to the backstay as a stern light.  The rules said the engine had to be in working order and it was, but there was no exhaust system, so I'm glad we didn't have to use it!  We won class and overall in the Riverside - Stratford Shoal race by 22 minutes corrected time in a large, mixed fleet."

Accolade also won class in the 230 mile Vineyard Race by 36 minutes, and beat all of the boats in three of the five classes above them.  The racing success sold the Clarks on the design.  They bought the mold over which Accolade had been built, added 5/8th of an inch to it (the thickness of Accolade's skin) and made the plug for the SJ30 from that.  They offered two interiors - one just like Accolade with upper and lower quarter berth and only a head forward of the mast, and a "cruising" version with more normal layout.  Both seemed to work well and the SJ30s won a lot of Half Ton and other IOR events.  Because the production boats came out heavier than Accolade we were able to put the rig up a bit to meet the Half Ton rating.

Like the SJ24, the SJ30 has aged well.  Going to weather, the San Juan 30 not only keeps up with modern boats, but it beats most of them.  A San Juan 30, with the sails trimmed right, can outpoint an Olson 30, which is very important, since its performance downwind is not so good.  She has a strong masthead rig and a PHRF of 165 and a modest stand up interior that sleeps 6.  There is an SJ30 near Kirby’s home in Connecticut that wins a lot of silver ware every summer, including class on Block Island Race Week once or twice.  Most of the SJ30’s ended up on the west coast where they continue to win.  It is reported that an SJ30 has sailed around the world.

SJ26 - 1975 also saw the debut of the Don Clark designed San Juan 26.  The SJ26 was primarily a shoal keel/centerboard boat which was an attempt to tap into the large trailerable cruiser market.  It did have a deep keel option.  With its shallow draft and easy launch capability, it was targeted toward an East Coast audience.  For racing, the San Juan 26 has a PHRF rating of 246, which is not much faster than the 21, and certainly behind her little sister, the SJ24.  Because it's designed to be trailered, it has a real small keel and a short mast (the main sail is approximately the same size as a J22).  It was not much of a racer, which might not be a problem for many boats, but people expect a San Juan to be able to hold her own on the race course - and the SJ26 doesn’t.

The SJ26 had standing head room, and a head compartment.  The advertised weight was 4400 pounds, so one needed more than a "rice burner" pickup to pull them.  The SJ21 had done well in the east, in part, due to the shoal friendly nature of its swing keel.  And the company hoped that the shoal draft SJ26 would be another East Coast hit, but such was not the case.  The SJ26 did not fit the race boat culture of Clark, and was deemed by some as not attractive.  In 1979, the more race friendly SJ7.7 would replace the SJ26.

1976 was spent promoting the line, focusing on the new San Juan 30 and the San Juan 26.  In addition, the Clark Boat Company was looking for designs to ‘fill out’ the line and fill in the gaps between boats.  During 1976, Don Clark was at work on another shoal keel-centerboard cruiser, the San Juan 23, as well another large racer-cruiser, the San Juan 28.  The SJ21 and SJ24 Classes were experiencing strong interest in racing on both coasts, and the factory supported these efforts.

1977, The San Juan 23 & 28

SJ23 - The San Juan 23, one of 1977’s new entries, was a scaled down SJ26, with a large cabin and smaller cockpit than many of her contemporaries.  The SJ23 was advertised at 2700 lbs., with 960 of that in the keel/centerboard, although many boats ended up heavier than that.  She was advertised with over 5 feet of headroom and accommodations for 5.  With a PHRF of 240, she was at least as fast as the SJ26, and much easier to trailer.  The SJ23’s also came in a fixed keel/tall mast version, although the vast majority were of the keel/centerboard combination.  The SJ23 showed its Clark racing heritage by offering some items not usually found on cruising boats of that era - items like a mid boom traveler and racing blocks.  The SJ23 was solidly built, featuring a hull to deck joint consisting of a flange (an extension of the top of the hull) bolted to the deck.  The hull flange is actually turned inwards to create a lip that the deck rests on.  The toe rail adds a tremendous amount of reinforcement to this area.

SJ23 Class in Seattle (early 1970s) - If we are liberal in our definition of "class," well then we had a really fun bunch.  It takes a lot of work to keep an organization going, to stay in touch and finally to find time to actually go sailing.  Kids help, then get in the way, then detract from available time to sail as they age.  Now that they are out of the house, theoretically there is more time for sailing.  In reality, well.... 

"The bent here in Seattle was more toward a cruising approach, with a couple of gigs every year to have one-design low-key races.  The emphasis was on fun.  During good times, we tried to schedule a cruise per month to somewhere, so we could shame one another into going sailing.  If you did not go, they would tell stories about you!  We had nice potluck dinners, lots of idea sharing and tip/mistake demonstrations and all of that.  Tony Hansen taught everyone how to analyze and repair anything on a 7.5HP Honda.  Buzzy was the racing whiz.  I got blamed for anything Clark did wrong.  As you can see everyone had a job.  Maintaining a strong fleet helps to retain boat value and build a viable recreational platform.  A group trip to a challenging place such as Barkley Sound, Desolation Sound, Hot Springs Cove, etc.  can seem much more attainable with a group effort (flotilla).  One time we sailed to Hot Springs Cove to meet with two former SJ23 owners who graduated to boats around 30 feet.  We had a lovely drive to Tofino, and greeted the beat-up, fogged-out old 23-ers at their arrival and served them lattes from our galley.  Good trip, lots of fish, good memories, and no, they don't wear clothes in the hot springs, so loose your beer belly.  It is all worthwhile, but again, it takes a concerted effort to sustain a club like this.  Blake Island, Sucia, San Juans, et al, Mats Mats Bay, Fort Flagler, Hood Canal, Andrews Bay on Lake Washington, are all good destinations for cruises and company.  If you had el Toros for tenders like we did, you have boat racing when you get there.  It's all good.  But it takes work."  Glen Moore.

SJ28 - The other new 1977 boat, the San Juan 28, and later the San Juan 29, was a large racer-cruiser designed by Don Clark.  More than 300 San Juan 28s were built after its introduction in 1978.  It became one of the most popular boats in the Clark line.  The difference between an SJ28 and SJ29 is really nothing more than the builder.  The SJ28 was built by Clark while the SJ29, a SJ28 with a few cosmetic changes, was built by the successor, San Juan Manufacturing.  There is a rumor that the SJ28 was simply a downsized version of the San Juan 30, but this is not true.  The SJ30 was Bruce Kirby design, and while there is a family resemblance, the SJ28 is a different boat.  A quick look at the under body of the hull confirms that.  A year after her introduction, the SJ28 finished second at yachting's One-of-a-Kind-Regatta in Annapolis, finishing only behind a San Juan 24.

The lay-up of many Clark Boats continued to consist of high-quality gel coat with a skin coat of cloth, or mat, plus roving.  Hulls were hand laid solid fiberglass.  Generally the hull thickness at the bottom is 7/16"; topsides are 3/16".

In a 2003 article in Practical Sailor, Don Clark comments that, "Sheets of mat were used, along with small amounts of chopped mat laid by hand between the roving.  Few of our boats had blister problems."

As with others in the line, the SJ28 featured balsa cored decks and marine plywood in areas where hardware was attached.  And as with the SJ23, the hull-deck joint is an inward turning flange on which the deck sits; the two sections were bedded in polysulfide.  Unlike the SJ23, the SJ28 had a solid glass toe rail.

A shortcoming that the SJ28 shares with the SJ23 (and the 21 Mark II) is the use of a wooden bulkhead inside the cabin to which the chain plate is attached.  This deck-chain plate joint will almost certainly leak if not regularly maintained and that section of bulkhead is susceptible to rot.

Practical Sailor summarizes their recent review of the boat by saying, "The SJ28 was designed and built by a company whose owners were performance-oriented and comfortable sailing boats to their limits.  She displays good performance…the cockpit is large enough for four to six…or a race crew, to sail with elbow room.  It's small for dockside entertaining….more than 20 years after their construction, the living quarters in our test boat showed little sign of wear, despite the boat's hard use as a racer and cruiser.  There's good headroom and cabin space, augmented by the ability of the saloon table to stow up against the main bulkhead."

1979, San Juan 7.7M

1979 saw the introduction of the San Juan 7.7.  With the IOR rule no longer a factor, and the San Juan 26 not performing as hoped, Don Clark decided to fix the shortcomings that the IOR rule had imposed on the popular SJ24.  Her narrow beam, a requirement for trailering, had significant limitations.  Her downwind performance had always been an issue due to her narrow aft sections, sometimes inducing the dreaded 'death roll’.  A death roll is one thing on a Laser.  It is quite another on a SJ24 foot keel boat.  The bar for Don Clark’s new design had been set very high.  He had to design something faster than the famous SJ24 and something that would challenge the new challenger from the east, the J-24.  .  The result was a whole new race boat in the mid 20 foot range, the San Juan 7.7.

In the days before extensive computer testing, exact ballast amount and placement was often a designers’ best guess until sea trials had been completed.  The SJ7.7 was 3200 pounds with a 9.5 feet beam.  She came only with a fixed keel, and was a bit under ballasted at the outset.  On the east coast in particular, light weight is essential for light air performance, however, the SJ7.7 as initially design, was simply over powered.  The fix was a keel ‘shoe’ which was added to the bottom of the keel.  The shoe added 4.5" of keel extension and 125 pounds to the weight.  The 7.7‘s fixed keel drew four feet without the shoe, approx 4’ 6” with it.  The halyards on the SJ26 had been external, but the halyards on the SJ7.7 were internal.  Both masts pivot for stepping.  In fact, the mast sections for the SJ26 and the SJ7.7 were the same.

The SJ7.7 has the same stick as the SJ26, but less sail area because of the fractional rig.  It is also 1000 pounds lighter, and the performance improvement over the SJ26 was nothing short of incredible.  The performance improvement over the SJ24 was not so dramatic, however the downwind stability was distinctly better.

The racing future for Clark boats continued to look promising.  The 1977 San Juan 21 Eastern Nationals at Columbia, SC had drawn an amazing 58 boats.  The 1980 and 1981 events at Columbia and Charlotte, had drawn 70 and 63 boats respectively.  Yacht Racing Magazine had featured Galen Freeman’s San Juan 21 in “From the Experts”, and by 1978, Clark Sails was the largest sail loft in the Pacific Northwest.

In an effort to meet customer needs (and wants), the Clark Boat Company would often produce specialty versions of their boats.  One such event happened in 1981 and is related by San Juan sailor Steve Freeman.

Steve and Bob Lee, both San Juan Sailors in the New Bern area, had agreed to deliver a San Juan 21 boat to Sarasota, just north of the Sarasota Sailing Squadron.  Part of the deal was that Bob and Steve could use a boat belonging to this Marina in the San Juan 21 Mid Winters.  Steve had brought along a new set of sails to use in the regatta, fully expecting to be quite competitive.

In the first race the boat seemed sluggish on each tack, and Steve and Bob noticed that boats just came up to Leeward and sailed on passed them.  Despite their best efforts, Steve and Bob could not figure it out the whole day.  They could get no boat speed despite all of their best tactics and techniques. 

At the conclusion of the day, they headed back to the dry stack marina, which was a new concept at the time.  They were watching how things worked.  We saw one San Juan being taken out of the water with a fork lift.  What was unusual was the fork lift had a cradle on its forks.  The San Juan was floated onto the cradle and it was lifted out and put in a space in the yard.  Next to be taking out was our loaner for the race.

Well the fork lift just drove to the take out spot, lowered its steel forks into the water, and the boat was brought back, stern to the dock, and lifted out with the forks only.  What was such an impression on Bob and I was that the boat we had take to Florida was on a trailer with rollers everywhere instead of a couple of bunk boards covered with carpet, like we all know.  At EVERY roller the hull was indented at least 1/2 inch.  Well....when the fork lift came up with our San Juan, the boat just kind of rocked like Grandmas rocker on a hardwood floor.  We walked up just under and to the side of the boat and could not figure out why NO dents....  especially with all the weight was on just a few inches of hull .  At this moment the driver saw us and realized we had used this boat and then asked, "how did she do for you in the race?"  "You know she has a double or triple thick bottom...and probably weighs about 1,000 pounds more!"  At that moment...Bob and I were exonerated for our racing inability and as for racing the next day....NOT.  We packed up and went back to North Carolina.

1980, San Juan 34

In 1980, the company introduced the largest sailboat yet, the San Juan 34.  This is another Clark boat that was well ahead of her time.  She is foam cored with rod rigging, standing 49' 6".  The keel drew six feet, so she is a bit deep for the East Coast.  Many owners have described the SJ34 as bullet proof and very fast.  The SJ34 generally has a 130 PHRF.  Many of the SJ34's were intended as racers with pipe berths, but others were cruising class with more finished interiors.  The lay out is classic with forward V berth which is quite long.  The head a little cramped for showering but not bad.

The SJ34 was produced by Clark for only two years, 1981 and 1982.

Clark sold their company in the spring of 1984 to San Juan Manufacturing.  The bankruptcy of this group led the boat molds and rights to be split between two groups, one on the west coast and one on the east.  The Eastern group used the molds to make a very limited number of boats in the Tanzer factory in Edenton, NC until 1988.  These groups continued to make boats until 1988.  Boats made in mid 1984 and after would be post Clark.  There were a very few SJ23's made with the new style galley, but it is doubtful any made it to the East Coast.

At the time of this writing Don Clark runs a bicycle shop in Ventura Beach California and Dennis owns a cabinet making shop in Gig Harbor, Washington.  Dennis still sails actively, most often in the Laser Class.

A trio of factors had combined to put the right people (the Clarks) at the right place and time to create the San Juan line of boats.  Bob and Coral Clark, later joined by sons Dave, Dennis and Don, took a small builder of other people’s designs and made a competitive, full service boat company whose designs live on today on the race course and the cruising grounds, and quite often on both!

The preceding article was written by Mike Robinson based on interviews of a number of folks, including Gene Adams, Bruce Kirby and the two articles cited from "The Practical Sailor", one of which is "Learning to Sail the Hard Way," by Coral Clark.

(Dates indicate when a boat was first built by ANY Builder)
NAME/TYPE       LOA First Built
  Imperial / Metric  
GEARY 18 18.16' / 5.54m 1928
LIGHTNING 19.00' / 5.79m 1938
THISTLE 17.00' / 5.18m 1945
BLUE JAY 13.50' / 4.11m 1947
505 16.50' / 5.03m 1954
C-LARK 14.00' / 4.27m 1964
SAN JUAN 21 20.50' / 6.25m 1970
SAN JUAN 24 24.00' / 7.32m 1973
SAN JUAN 21-2 20.50' / 6.25m 1974
SAN JUAN 26 25.11' / 7.65m 1975
SAN JUAN 23 23.00' / 7.01m 1975
SAN JUAN 30 29.86' / 9.10m 1975
CROWN 34 33.80' / 10.30m 1975
SAN JUAN 29 28.83' / 8.79m 1976
SAN JUAN 28 28.67' / 8.74m 1977
SAN JUAN 23-2 23.00' / 7.01m 1977
SAN JUAN 7.7 25.75' / 7.85m 1979
SAN JUAN 34 33.83' / 10.31m 1980
SAN JUAN 33S 33.10' / 10.09m 1981


"I owned Port Gardner Sailboats.  My brother and I were brokers in Everett, Washington and together we were the last dealer for "San Juan Sailboats".  We were involved with the factory in trying to help them put out a saleable product but the owner stayed in his office and had no idea what was happening in the shop.  He decided to install one piece windows in the boats, from 23' on up, in a way that made the boats difficult to sell as the windows were not in proportion with the hull lines.  When I ordered my SJ34 I made them use conventional windows.  Eventually they went broke and a new company bought them.  We had great hopes at first but unfortunately the new company had no idea about sailboats either.  For example, we bought a SJ23 that came with drywall screws in the toe rail instead of stainless steel screws.  The stainless screws were in stock!  It's not hard to understand why they also went broke. 

By this San Juan Sailboat's bank merged with US Banks and recalled their loan.  The bank merger didn't want the molds, only money.  The bank tried to abandon the molds and the landlord told them no.  I made them an offer they could not refuse and got the molds, parts and rights.  After that I had a small boat building business that made up for the low volume in the parts business.  I moved a mobile home onto the property, to convert to a shop to build boats.  This gave me the ability to build a sailboat if anyone wanted one.  In 2013 I sold the boat building and parts business as I am at a stage in life where I do not want to work all the time.  It cuts into my sailing time!"

Gene Adams

Return to Techtip Index