Released in 1971, the Contessa 32 is a sea kindly cruiser/racer with a proven blue water track record and good all-round sailing performance. Built by Jeremy Rogers Boatyard in the UK, the boat is the successful big sister of the popular little Contessa 26 that entered the boat scene five years prior. Designed by the same duo of David Sadler and Jeremy Rogers, the eye-catching Contessa 32 is more than just a big version of her folkboat-inspired sibling. Like the 26, she brings speed, seaworthiness and affordability to the table but her design is an interesting mix of the old and the new by combining the traditional narrow beamed, full ballasted hull of the english cutter with the fin keel and skeg of more modern racing yachts, a novel configuration at that time.
One of the best loved production cruiser/racers around, her enduring popularity is due in a large way to an active and enthusiastic class association and her continued successes on the racing scene. Her reputation was no doubt aided by a tale of her survival in the disastrous gale-whipped 1979 Fastnet Race around Britain in which she was the only entrant in the smallest class of 58 boats to escape unscathed. Over 700 boats have been built in the UK, 87 in Canada, and she is still in limited production today.
The release of the Contessa 26 in 1966 saw Jeremy Rogers Boatyard in Lymington, England make the switch from traditional wooden boats to fibreglass production. The fibreglass 26 footer was a resounding success for the yard and led to repeated customer demands for a bigger boat. Jeremy Rogers and David Sadler, one of his boatyard customers and the designer of the 26, once again got together over the Roger’s family dinner table to design a larger boat with the aim of replicating both the seaworthiness and the racing success of the 26. Changes in the racing rules from RORC to IOR rules at this time encouraged a variety of new hull shapes and designs.
Although Sadler and Rogers went for the new fin keel shape and skeg for more speed they retained the narrow beam and ballast that gave the Contessa a high degree of positive stability, unlike many boats of the time where stability was sacrificed for speed. If the Contessa is rolled or capsized she will immediately right herself and this feature is thought to have contributed hugely to her survival in the 1979 Fastnet race.
The first Contessa 32 built, Contessa Catherine, owned by David Sadler, had immediate success on the racing circuit (and is still racing competitively today). The second boat, Red Herring, was owned by Rogers himself and went on to win her class in that year’s Cowes week. The Contessa’s debut at the London boat show that year saw her awarded the “Boat of the Show” award and when continued success on the racing scene followed her fate was sealed. The orders came flooding in.
More than 700 boats were built, alongside the Contessa 26, at the new premises for the Roger’s boatyard until the yard fell victim to the recession in 1983 and went out of business. At this point the Contessa moulds were sold and Rogers had to rebuild his business from scratch. Luckily, ten years later Rogers had the opportunity to buy back the moulds and was able to restart production on a limited basis. The first of the new Contessa 32’s was launched in 1996 and producion continues today. Also, at least one other Contessa 32 is known to have been built by Macbar Marine in the UK
Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, like the Contessa 26 before it, the 32 was built under license at the J. J. Taylor boatyard in Ontario, Canada. In 1973 the president of J.J. Taylor had a Rogers-built hull and deck shipped over from Britain from which they produced a set of moulds for Canadian production. In total, 87 Canadian Contessa 32s were built before the yard closed its doors in 1990. There is little difference in the Canadian boats other than a modified interior.
The Contessa 32 is very easy on the eyes with a beautiful sheerline that looks deceptively reverse from some angles. The bow is fine with marked overhangs and she has the narrow, tucked-up stern favoured by IOR designs of that era. The hull has pronounced tumblehome and the cabin profile and overall freeboard are low. This means less wind resistance but also results in less headroom below, another feature the 32 has in common with the 26. Below the waterline the 32 has a moderate fin keel, skeg-hung rudder and a deep forefoot. Blending of the keel into the hull gives the lateral stability of a full keel and the skeg supports, strengthens and protects the rudder which is solid fibreglass. The ballast is internal lead.
The accommodation inside is fairly standard. Entering from the companionway there is a small galley to port and a navigation table to starboard, with the engine mounted inboard aft under the cockpit and a seagoing quarter-berth alongside it, aft of the navigation table. The main cabin area has provision for two settees berths, the berth to port is a smallish double with a center section which folds up into a table. Forward is small head to port opposite a wet-locker to starboard and a v-berth up front. The UK boats were finished in teak while the Canadian boats have moulded liners.
Ventilation is considered a weak point, despite having overhead hatches above the main cabin and v-berth. Maximum headroom is 6’1″ but only at the highest point forward of the companionway, headroom elsewhere is around 5′ 10″.
On deck, the 32 has a fair sized and comfortable cockpit with deep coamings which gets wet often. There are sturdy teak grabrails and double lifelines as well as a small bulwark forward which offers some added security.
The Contessa 32 is robustly constructed and though the years has proven to be durable. The hull and deck of the UK boats are built from solid GRP, while the Canadian boats use a balsa-cored deck. Both meet Lloyd’s hull specifications.
Though the solid fibreglass deck avoids rot and reduces delamination risk, there is a noticeable flex in the deck without the stiffness provided by the balsa coring. The mast is keel-stepped so there are no problems with sagging.
Contessa 32 owners mention the forgiving nature of the boat, the responsive helm and beautiful windward performance. She has a seakindly motion, and according to John Kretschmer in his review of the Contessa 32, she is a ‘wet’ boat affectionately known as “a submarine with sails”.
Her ballast of 4,500 pounds is nearly 50 percent of the overall displacement, so she has great stability and is able to carry full sail up to around 25 knots when other boats are reefing furiously.
Leaky hatches and a leaky inspection plate on the water tank in the bilge are common problems. Repowered boats are desirable, particularly those with the three cylinder Yanmar diesel engine. New boats are available from the Jeremy Rogers boatyard at around 110,000 British pounds plus VAT. For those looking for a used model there are generally a variety on the market, mostly in the UK. A current search of the boat market has prices of between 15,000 and 51,000 British pounds depending on age and condition. Prospective buyers are recommended to contact the active class association (see link below) or the Jeremy Rogers boatyard itself which is still producing and also refurbishing the Contessa 32 (see link below).
» Contessa 32 Class Association, official website.
» Jeremy Rogers Boatyard website, Lymington UK
» Contessa 32 review by John Kretschmer, Sailing Magazine, Nov 2008
» Contessa 32 review by Paul Howard, Boats.com, May 2002
» Contessa 32 article on Wikipedia