Do not adjust your binoculars, all you Sunset Hill onlookers: Those four dozen sailboats looping around a course off Shilshole through this...

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Do not adjust your binoculars, all you Sunset Hill onlookers: Those four dozen sailboats looping around a course off Shilshole through this weekend really are identical — or close to it.


They’re race boats being put through their paces by some of the sport’s most talented skippers in the J/24 Class National Championship regatta, hosted by Corinthian Yacht Club and sailed tomorrow through Sunday on Puget Sound.


The J/24 is a 24-foot sailboat with an interesting history: The prototype was built in 1977 by then-amateur boat designer Rod Johnstone, who turned $400 worth of wood and fiberglass into a 24-foot long, 9-foot-wide sailboat, “Ragtime,” in his Stonington, Conn. garage.


The highly responsive boat, crewed by family members, was a big winner at local sailboat races. Johnstone and his brother Bob capitalized, building a multi-million dollar company that launched the J/24 into sailing immortality: It’s now one of the most popular designs in the world, with more than 5,300 around the globe.


“It’s just a darn good design,” says Bruce Sherman, spokesman for the Seattle regatta. “It’s a planing boat, it’s fun to sail, and it’s very well built. They still look good, too. It’s not a design that looks old, or even classic.”


It’s also a favorite of racers: Some of the most famous sailors in the world have honed their skills on J/24s, either at local yacht-club races, national events like this one (last hosted here in 1994), annual world championships, or even the Olympics. Helmsmen from several recent America’s Cup boats were J/24 champions before moving up to the big boats.


Like sailors in other “one-design” racing classes, J/24 aficionados are fanatical about their boats: Rigging, sailing techniques and other refinements are always a hot topic for any group of avid sailors using the same equipment. Standardization also makes for exciting racing: With nearly identical hulls and rigging, every racer has more or less the same tools at hand.


This week’s races, which begin with a practice race around 5 p.m. tonight, will unfold in the waters north of Meadow Point and south of Richmond Beach. The boats will race a windward/leeward course with four or five legs — likely in a north-south configuration due to predominate winds. Racers can expect 10 to 12- knot northerly winds (in fair weather) or gusty, 12 to 25-knot southerlies, which rise when a low-pressure weather system moves up Puget Sound.


Most of the boats in the race are West Coast based, but several top crews from the East Coast also are expected. A favorite will be Tundra Rose, sailed by Keith Whittemore of Seattle, a local boatbuilder whose company, Kvichak Marine, builds catamaran ferries and patrol boats. Whittemore and his crew won the Italian national J/24 regatta last year. He has also been the top amateur at the J/24 World Championships twice.


Another top entrant is former national champion Chris Snow of San Diego, a longtime top competitor in J/24s and other one-design boats.


A practice race is set for around 6 p.m. today. The boats will launch out of Shilshole Bay Marina for the official races, set to begin by 11 a.m. tomorrow and 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. As usual, exact race start times are dictated by weather.


The J/24 Nationals are the first of two prominent sailboat regattas off of Shilshole this spring. The Laser North American Championships, hosted by Seattle Yacht Club, are June 17-20, with boats launching from Golden Gardens Park.


For more information and results: www.j24nationals.org.


Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at rjudd@seattletimes.com.