Contessa 26 Tech Notes

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Why We Chose the Contessa 26

“Amazing Grace”

As A new owner I am hesitant to speak out and yet I feel a need to add a few thoughts to this discussion. I have worked with engineers from time to time and have seen them reach for perfection and feel a lessened sense of satisfaction when it proved unreachable, as it usually does. As a writer and translator I have struggled with poetry being brought from one language to another and see the compromises made to protect sense of the work. We can feel satisfied that we have chosen a creation which has an overwhelming history of success. One can say that there are improvements which would render her safer, yes. Could one not say of many other boats that they are wanting and nothing further can be done? Contessas have made crossings and that is not in dispute. Failures are few with her and that is also not in dispute. We are all a cautious lot, we sailors, and we thoughtfully chose this for our partner. Can improvements be made, certainly, and they should be. The sea is in constant flux and we should be too. Change not for changes sake but for safety and improvement. I chose her for me, not because I was a good sailor but because she was. Yours Aye, Patrick

“Lucy Ann”

I got this whacky idea while sailing from So. Bristol, Maine, USA back home to Yarmouth, Maine. It wasn’t a long trip at all and became much shorter (in time) when the wind piped up to 35kts with gusts much higher. We were sailing our custom Islander 33 (11000#) with new Furlex roller furl and all the below comforts of a cheap motel suite. When raising the mainsail earlier, I noticed that the topping lift was hanging on by a thread and made the old mental note to replace it once we were back home. Not a good decision if, in fact, it was a decision at all. After an hour of motoring, through a calm, the wind came up nicely and we were on a good beam reach (making a solid 7 kts) until we rounded Fuller Rock and the howlies began. Time to reef, Right? Wrong! The topping lift was now serving as a very effective tell-tale. A crew of two old duffers could lose some important body parts doing that drill in a heavy sea. We rolled the Furlex (with high-tech foam luff) and proceeded on at 8+kts with a humungous weather helm and ragging main. Our next trick was to hang a left at Chebeague Island’s East End Point and head into the eye of the breeze towards home. We tried it for a few harrowing minutes (with rail buried and super weather helm) and then fired up the iron spinnaker, lashed the boom to the lifelines, and rolled up the headsail. After picking up the mooring and downing four fingers of single malt, Laraine (she had a wine cooler)and I both concluded that we needed something that either of us could handle under the worst conditions. When you’re getting a bit long in the tooth, it’s best to plan ahead. The boat would have to be a small, tough, masthead rig, with a very secure foredeck and it couldn’t cost a fortune. We cleaned up the “moose” and instantly put her on the market.
While killing time in one of our local boatyards, I looked again at the Contessa 26 named “Charisma” that had been somewhat abandoned in her spot for many years. Down below was mess but the engine looked like it just came out of the box. I got the tools and gave her a quickie survey and found cosmetic crap only with no structural problems at all. I asked the broker about her and he suggested a “crazy” offer. I made a very crazy offer assuming that it would at least start the negotiations. No negotiations – it was accepted. BTW, the engine awakened after a five year sleep after a few turns and a slurp of new diesel fuel.

I’ve already blatted about some of the weak points so here are the strong points.

1. Soft chine (wineglass cross section): Without flat bilges, and with a narrow beam, the hull sees very low loads in heavy going. The hull is designed for going through waves vs. pounding on top of them. This makes both hull and rig loads quite low.
2. Glassed hull to deck attachment. Nothing beats this for keeping things together. All the bolts and 5200 in a horizontal flange arrangement can’t beat glassing for strength and keeping out water.
3. Off-the-stern rudder: One less hole through the hull. Easy to inspect/repair. Gives superior steering for a long keel boat and very light helm.
4. High toe rails = secure foredeck: Sliding over the side takes determination and planning.
5. Deck stepped mast: There are two schools of thought here and each has viability. I prefer deck stepped for several reasons based on sea experience that I won’t bore you with.
6. Lack of companionway slider: Small boats in heavy seas always take water through the sliding hatch even when fitted with a sea hood. Keeping dry below decks is a priority on a small boat.
7. We also didn’t need the room. We sail alone. Five berths just gave us more space to store the junk that we shouldn’t have brought aboard anyway.
8. And finally, I wanted a boat that sailed as well as a Pearson Ensign. I had spent ten years racing these little darlings and longed for similar performance. With the exception of being a bit slower to tack, the overall feeling is the same with exceptional windward ability. That’s it. Sorry to be so wordy. Merrill


As to my personal choice of the Contessa 26, it started with my owning a Catalina 22 and sailing it in and around San Francisco Bay. I purchased the Catalina as an inexpensive experiment to see how my new family took to sailing. I had been sailing solo in a Hobie 14 since the mid 70’s. The experiment went well enough and the cheap little “Chevrolet” of a boat proved to be a surprise. The Catalina is fast and responsive and, after adding pulpits, lifelines, reef points, jack lines, downhauls, etc, etc, was safe enough to take my family on the bay. At one point we were able to beat into 32 knots of wind against a 4 knot tide. The wave conditions in the bay are very short and very steep. Frankly, for a dirt cheap boat, I was impressed.
The engine that drives the weather, during the summer in San Francisco, is the difference between the cool offshore air and the hot inshore air in the Central Valley of California. The sea air is typically 55 deg and the inland air in July is usually over 100 degrees in the afternoon. This causes a whopper of a convection wind that pulls cool Pacific breezes through any gap in the coastal mountains. The local sailors say the Valley sucks. I have experienced temperatures as high as 117 degrees in the Central Valley. This according to a book on local weather written by the retired head of the NOAA, with the delta t. up to the high 9’s, winds as high as 65 knots stream under the golden gate bridge and through the San Bruno gap onto San Francisco bay. Many a day we have set out on a beautiful morning with fair winds in the forecast only to find ourselves rail down, two reefs in, and punching into almost vertical 8 foot seas by 1 pm. about 2 pm it is usual to receive on the vhf a revised weather forecast alert from the Coasties. there is comfort in knowing that they are on their toes but discomforting to know the wind speed has not yet peaked for the day. the next usual event is to start the run for home, scan the horizon and find that there is no one else on the bay except a 60 footer practicing for the Transpac and we are 2 hours from home port. home is almost dead down wind and if you leave up way too much sail the Catalina will peg the steam gauge surfing the following seas.

Oh my, I’m rambling, back to the selection process. i want to expand my sailing horizons and my wife wants more head room and a more sea kindly motion (she’s only 5’1” which played right into my hands). this left the door open for me to go shopping for a stout boat that would take care of an idiot caught out in blow in the approaches to San Francisco bay. I also wanted to be able to trailer to the pacific north west and to Mexico for life has seldom allowed the time to get to these fabulous sailing areas at 4 knots.

My interest in Contessas started when i read L. A. Coles book about the 1979 disaster of the Fastnet race in the U.K. If the man knows what he is writing about, the Contessa 32 appears to be one of the best boats for surviving in the worst of conditions. Having studied cruising boats for years and knowing of the fine reputation of the Folkboat, I started considering the 26. The 32 is too large to trailer and out of my budget range allocated for hobbies. Subsequently I realized that I had found the perfect boat for me.

I have watched the ads in the bay area off and on for years. Suddenly a Contessa 26 appeared for sale for the first time ever. She was completely gutted for a refit in anticipation of the single handed Transpac. after a few weeks of negotiations, i convinced the owner to allow me to do the refit and thus reduce the sales price. I am looking forward to a long and mutually beneficial relationship between my “new” boat, short wife (great spouse, great crew, great friend), and myself. Steve Stewart