Designed by David Sadler and Jeremy Rodgers in the 1960s, the classic little Contessa 26, like her popular sibling the Contessa 32, is one of the better known and loved British productions yachts, with around 650 cruising the world today. She’s a pretty boat, built from fibreglass, and owes her looks to the Swedish Folkboat whose elegant and seaworthy design influenced so many cruisers of the era. Although not speedy by today’s standards the Contessa was a fast boat for her time and established a reputation as a one-design racer with an active class association.
She’s proven very capable, and despite her size and cramped 5′ 8″ of headroom, her blue water pedigree includes several circumnavigations and a score of Atlantic and Pacific crossings. The Contessa 26 association tells us that those who buy her are traditionalists and keen sailors who appreciate her easy-to-handle and dependable performance.
The Contessa 26 was conceived in 1965 in Lymington, England from a collaboration between Jeremy Rogers and David Sadler over many late night sessions around the Rogers family dinner table. Jeremy Rogers was traditionally a builder of wooden boats and of the classic Swedish Folkboat in particular. David Sadler, one of his Folkboat customers, had the idea of tweaking the Folkboat design to give it a horizontal base to the keel so that it could ‘dry out’ upright, as well as fitting a masthead rig and a large genoa to improve racing performance. Although the design was Sadlers, Rogers has stressed that the Contessa 26 would never have been produced without the financial backing of Vernon Sainsbury of the Sainsbury grocery family who was an avid yachtsman and took a leap of faith in providing the funding for the tooling.
Rogers decided to build his modified Folkboat out of GRP and the Contessa 26 saw his boatyard change over from wood to fibreglass production. Before this Rogers had only used fibreglass for dinghies. The first boat Contessa of Lymington was manufactured and released in 1966 and, along with the next few boats off the line, was an instant hit on the racing circuit. The Contessa’s boat show debut was a tremendous success and her winning formula of good looks, easy handling, seaworthiness and affordability brought the orders rolling in. It didn’t hurt her popularity that the first few boats clocked up a number of early racing successes in both short and long distance events including a Round Britain win by Binkie, the smallest entrant there, and a twenty-fifth placing in the 1972 OSTAR (Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race) by Shamal. As a nice touch, thanks to the hand they had played in her production, David Sadler and Vernon Sainsbury sailed away in hulls number five and six respectively.
In total the UK production was around 400 boats. Jeremy Rogers’ boatyard built 350 from 1966 until 1977 when the yard decided that these small boats were too labour intensive to be profitable and sold the moulds to Chris Carrington. A few more boats were built by Carrington before the moulds went to Maclan Marine who produced only a few more in 1977 and 1978. The Roger’s boatyard had also sold a set of moulds in 1969 to J. J. Taylor in Toronto, Canada who produced the Contessa 26 under licence, also making the transition from wooden boats to fibreglass production. The Canadian Contessa 26 had an identical hull but a modified deck moulding with a larger cockpit area, short aft deck and no lazarette. There were also minor differences to the interior layout. Due to problems with the license these boats were renamed the Taylor 26 from 1984 onwards and around 400 boats were produced in total before J.J. Taylor ceased business in 1990.
The two recorded circumnavigations, by Tania Aebi in Varuna (described in her book “Maiden Voyage”) and Brian Caldwell in Mai Miti Vava’u, were both in the Canadian version of the boat and there has been some debate amongst owners over which is the better version, with both camps claiming the superior design but with no hands down winner.
The Contessa is a masthead sloop with a deep keel cut away at the forward end and the horizontal base which allows her to be dried out easily. Like the Folkboat, she has graceful lines, low freeboard and an acutely raked transom with a distinctive rudder shaft mounted to the hull. Her other distinctive feature is the exaggerated ‘hump’ at the aft end of the coach roof and keyhole companionway which replaces the standard sliding companionway hatch. This is a feature more commonly seen on modern offshore racing boats as it makes for a stronger and more waterproof companionway, as well as reducing production costs. However, it means some stooping to get below and with no overhead hatch to let in light, the interior can be dark and a little oppressive. And with only 1.73 metres of headroom below, the stooping doesn’t end at the companionway. Her short waterline and narrow beam results in only four and a half square metres of living space inside, however the cabin feels secure and ‘cocooned’ from the elements which for some is no bad thing.
The good news is that the berths are generous at between 6’3″ to 6’6″ depending on the interior layout so there is plenty of room for lying down. The Contessa 26 was originally offered with a choice of three layouts A, B or C. Layout A featured a twin v-berth with the head inbetween, the cooker and chart table opposite each other amidships and two large quarter berths aft. Layout B featured the galley to port by the companionway, two settee berths in the saloon, the head in its own compartment and a double berth forecabin. Layout C featured a two berth forecabin, the head in a separate compartment to starboard, a hanging locker opposite to port and a gimballed cooker amidships with the chart table opposite and two quarter berths aft.
On deck the 7′ 6″ beam creates some limitations with a small foredeck and narrow side decks, but a raised bulwark offers security when going forward in nasty conditions. There are also plenty of sturdy grabrails and lifelines. The cockpit is small and deep and protected by coamings but can get wet. It has been acknowledged that the cockpit in both versions is too large to be truly bluewater suitable, and in fact the Canadian boat has a larger cockpit than the British, but this fact does not not seem to have held back her owners.
The Canadian version of the 26 used the same British-made hull moulds but with a modified deck mould. In 1983 J.J. Taylor’s Gary Bannister redesigned the deck mould and interior further. Headroom was increased by extending the ‘hump’ above the companionway further into the cabin and a hatch was added amidships for improved light and ventilation. Canadian Boats prior to 1983 had no anchor locker at the bow, cast iron ballast instead of lead, no teak and holly sole, and different positioning of the water and waste tanks.
The Contessa was hand built from fibreglass and the British version has a solid fibreglass deck with no coring, an advantage for older boats as it avoids the risk of core rot commonly found in balsa cored decks of this age. The early J.J. Taylor boats appear to have been built with either a 3/8″ plywood or balsa core. Some flex is apparently noticeable in the foredeck but overall construction is robust. Her mast is stepped on deck and supported from below by a deck beam as well as a main structural bulkhead to prevent compression sagging, another issue common to older boats with deck stepped masts. The first three Contessa 26 built, and many others from the early years, are still going strong, testament to the quality of the fibreglass construction.
As reflected by her racing successes the Contessa’s windward performance is excellent and she is surprisingly fast for her size as well as being responsive and well balanced. Thanks to her small size and rig, the Contessa 26 is easy to handle in just about any conditions, making her popular with single-handers. Her large, transom mounted rudder is also particularly good for self-steering systems. Her narrow beam means that she is tender initially but with half her weight in her keel overall stability is good. ‘Reef early and reef often’ is advice that is given by some Contessa 26 owners although others maintain that this is only the case if using an original oversized (130%) headsail and that she performs admirably under a more modest 100-120% headsail with full main.
No major flaws have been identified. There are generally several Contessa 26s for sale on the used boat market somewhere in the world at any one time but popularity remains high and is reported to be increasing in the UK thanks to the extremely active class association and the Contessa’s ongoing success on the racing scene. Prices range from 5k-16k UK pounds or up to $18k USD for a used boat. Prospective owners are recommended to contact the Contessa 26 class association in either the US/Canada or the UK (see links below).
» Sailing Today ‘What makes the Contessa so special? April 2007 by Peter Poland
» Contessa 26: A tradition in fibreglass by Paul Howard
» The Contessa 26 – A Brief History (Contessa 26 Class Association) by Peter de Jersey
» The Contessa Corner: A site for owner’s, sailors and dreamers (USA and Canada Group Site)
» Jeremy Roger’s Boatyard, UK Contessa 26: Introduction