By: Scott Way
Standing out from the crowd is hard. It's even harder in an industry full of manufacturers. Boating has multiple builders for everything, from entry level fishing boats to boutique luxury yachts, meaning there is no shortage of options for prospective buyers. It's rare for a company to occupy a niche without having a collective of copycats or hangers-on. For J-Craft Boats, a small Canadian manufacturer that builds a single specialty ski and sport boat, they are in a world of their own. If the name sounds familiar, that's because J-Craft was once a household name in the waterskiing scene of the 70s and 80s. Their 'classic California ski boat' was more than just a look-- it was a vibe and a lifestyle. J-Crafts were prized pullers for barefoot waterskiers and slalom racers, and were equally coveted by speed demons looking for something fast, fun, and affordable. They once cruised alongside brands like Rayson Craft and a couple others, but those days are gone. Their ultra low-profile hulls were, and are once again, unmistakable. Their color schemes were intentionally basic but instantly recognizable. Their nearly flat bottomed hulls made almost no wake, making them mysterious 70 mph enigmas. Blink, and you‘d miss one, with no wake to show where it had gone. In their own way, J-Craft had few, if any, imitators.
Sadly, the ebbs and flows of the industry took a toll. The company disappeared under financial woes in the early 90s, leaving die-hard skiers on shore without a desirable replacement. Then, thanks to a partnership with Gordon Bay Marine, the brand resurfaced once again in 2018. Gordon Bay occupies its own slice of heaven, perched along the shores of ultra-lux Lake Joseph where reclusive celebrities occupy sprawling estates. It’s also where the tiny town of MacTier sees a population boom from 2500 in the winter to 25 times that in the summer. Lake Joseph is part of 'The Big Three,' which also includes Lake Muskoka and Lake Rosseau, and it is one of Canada's prime boating destinations. In other words, it is the ideal J-Craft playground.
And so the 'J' is back, doing what it does to revive the ski and cruising culture of yesteryear. The revival hasn't always been smooth, mainly due to industry and economic factors beyond the company's control, but they have remained steadfast blazing a new trail through the industry. For J-Craft President Chris Holmes Jr., the company is well on its way to leading ski shows on balmy summer nights once again.
We spoke with Holmes about J-Craft's revival and how the company has navigated the last couple years. What he gave was a truly thoughtful glimpse into a special brand. When asked about the obvious challenges of 2021, Holmes was honest.
"I personally think a lot of people aren't really telling the truth. I think a lot of people keep it positive. At best, by being a startup, if it wasn't for some of the subsidies we had it was very, very difficult when (the pandemic) first hit. Our whole premise was getting kids back on the water. We have a program that we're just implementing now that camps and schools are getting back underway. We just sold our first camp boat a couple days ago. We've only been in business two and a half years, and we've only been building boats for about two years. So March was very hard. But we got back, we built more boats for camps and schools. We had to retrofit everything. Lots of costs hit us. So we're doing ok right now. Having said that, we had a fantastic year. But the market conditions, which were fine if you had product to sell, were our biggest challenge, along with production. I think you'll find with most manufacturers, it's production and parts supply right now."
J-Craft builds only one model -- the 21SS- and it is the entirety of the company's essence. There are only a handful of colour choices, and the interior is spartan by design. It deliberately avoids unnecessary fluff like temperamental electronics and gaudy neon lights. The 21SS is simple and effective. If you've spent any time in Ontario waters, you know its shape. Every J-Craft sports an incredibly shallow draught and nearly flat bottom hull, a short rounded foredeck, long cockpit, and an elemental interior. There really is nothing else like it. It exists for two purposes - to provide pristine conditions for watersports, and for going fast. It's a specialty boat, and it does what it does. Nothing more, nothing less.
"We are a full-on ski/sport boat," says Holmes. "Our ski part of it is barefoot, and it's to die for. It's fantastic. And our slalom skiing is fantastic. And there are limitations after that. Our wake is very small, so that's a problem in some cases for wakeboarding and surfing. But it's phenomenal for your neighbours and their dock."
A boat built with such specific function isn't common, especially when current trends glamorize versatility as if every boat has the value and function of three boats. So we asked why J-Craft remains such a reverent brand for Canadian boaters, and why skiers continue to adore in its simplistic design and basic features.
"It's fun to drive (laughs). I've had a lot of inboard ski boats, a lot of MasterCrafts, a lot of Malibus, Supras. But I tell you, one thing that they aren't, is that they aren't fun to drive. They're a purpose-built phenomenal ski boat, or surf boat, or wakeboard boat. But they're not fun to drive. And the difference between that and a J-Craft is that for slalom and barefoot skiing, and for all around fun skiing, there's nothing more fun to drive. That's why we use the term 'ski/sport boat,' because when you're done skiing you can race down to the town docks for lunch, or down to your friend's place on the lake. It's fun to drive. Some people think wakeboard boats are cool, and they are, and technologically they're fantastic, but they're not fun to drive. If someone tells you they're fun to drive, I really don't see how or why."
As for who's snatching up production slots with new orders, it seems that, like much of the industry, what was once a well-defined customer base is now rapidly changing. "If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said it was a guy between 45-65 and used to own a J-Craft or always wanted one and wants the retro racer kind of thing. But we've found that our gamut of buyers is now equally women and men. We sold a boat in the spring to a lady on Lake Rosseau because her father had a J-Craft, and so she wanted one to relive that time. It was one of the most rewarding and fulfilling sales because, to have her come in and design her boat was awesome. We're finding younger people, older people, it's all over the place."
With hope that the first quarter of 2022 will bring some normalcy back, it wouldn't be unreasonable for J-Craft, like many others in the industry, to deviate from their roots. We asked Holmes if they might buck tradition and overhaul the 21SS to appeal to a larger audience. Would they take a page from other wakesports manufacturers and add the now-normalized glitz and glam?
"No (laughs). But we are doing lots with colours. We're reaching out a little more. We've always stayed tried and true with basic colours, red, blue. We keep it simple. This year you're going to see a lot more flake and new colours. It was me kicking and scratching not wanting to do it, but the demand from dealers encouraged us to try new colour schemes. So we're going to have some boats that look like other ski boats, which I don't necessarily like personally, but the demand has asked for it. "
As spring 2022 approaches, Holmes and crew will be looking to expand production, albeit with perhaps a few tweaks to the recipe. Demand is at an all-time high, and J-Craft intends to be there to capitalize. But question for many manufacturer remains how they'll acquire the materials needed to meet the demand.
"We're growing, we've made a decision to double our production. Before August 1st we'd built 21-22 boats. We did about 12 last year. So we were looking to double our production. We're also looking to pick up some other products that we'll release later that we're already working on. But, other than the natural growing pains of a business, like staffing, training, supply issues, we're doing ok. Now we're trying to buy ahead. We've had to stockpile gel coat, resin, acetone, fibreglass. We're buying in bulk. We can't rely on 'just in time' buying. That's what we've done to get these 24 boats done, and we're still scrambling for parts (laughs). We don't have enough to finish the 24 yet. But, you have to do it somehow."
Sensing the possibility that small changes could be possible for the 21SS design, one had to ask what experiments might be afoot behind factory walls.
"(laughs) We got short shipped a couple weeks ago and we scrambled and grabbed what colours we had on the shelf and made a boat. I tell you, we wouldn't have done it normally, but man does it look good. It's arctic white with gun metal silver flake, backed with sea blue. It gives the flake a little more depth and colour. The colour just bleeds through at different angles. It's amazing. I thought it would be a nice looking boat, but I love it. "
We love it too.
You can get more information about the revitalized J-Craft on their website, and you can visit their dealers Gordon Bay Marine and Desjardins Marine. (*Special thanks to Darby Copland, Ryan Jones, and Chris Holmes Jr. for their time and effort putting this together)