Nic Compton looks at the 25 yachts under 40ft which have had the biggest impact on UK sailing
There’s nothing like a list of best small sailing boat designs to get the blood pumping.
Everyone has their favourites, and everyone has their pet hates.
This is my list of the 25 best small sailing boat designs, honed down from the list of 55 yachts I started with.
I’ve tried to be objective and have included several boats I don’t particularly like but which have undeniably had an impact on sailing in the UK – and
yes, it would be quite a different list if I was writing about another country.
If your favourite isn’t on the best small sailing boat designs list, then send an email to email@example.com to argue the case for your best-loved boat.
Ready? Take a deep breath…
25 of the best small sailing boat designs
Laurent Giles is best known for designing wholesome wooden cruising boats such as the Vertue and Wanderer III, yet his most successful design was the 26ft Centaur he designed for Westerly, of which a remarkable 2,444 were built between 1969 and 1980.
It might not be the prettiest boat on the water, but it sure packs a lot of accommodation.
The Westerly Centaur was one of the first production boats to be tank tested, so it sails surprisingly well too. Jack L Giles knew what he was doing.
Only 32 Colin Archer lifeboats were built during their designer’s lifetime, starting with Colin Archer in 1893 and finishing with Johan Bruusgaard in 1924.
Yet their reputation for safety spawned hundreds of copycat designs, the most famous of which was Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s Suhaili, which he sailed around the world singlehanded in 1968-9.
The term Colin Archer has become so generic it is often used to describe any double-ender – so beware!
Designed by David Sadler as a bigger alternative to the popular Contessa 26, the Contessa 32 was built by Jeremy Rogers in Lymington from 1970.
The yacht’s credentials were established when Assent, the Contessa 32 owned by Willy Kerr and skippered by his son Alan, became the only yacht in her class to complete the deadly 1979 Fastnet Race.
When UK production ceased in 1983, more than 700 had been built, and another 20 have been built since 1996.
Cornish Crabber 24
It seemed a daft idea to build a gaff-rigged boat in 1974, just when everyone else had embraced the ‘modern’ Bermudan rig.
Yet the first Cornish Crabber 24, designed by Roger Dongray, tapped into a feeling that would grow and grow and eventually become a movement.
The 24 was followed in 1979 by the even more successful Shrimper 19 – now ubiquitous in almost every harbour in England – and the rest is history.
There are faster, lighter and more comfortable boats than a Drascombe Lugger.
And yet, 57 years after John Watkinson designed the first ‘lugger’ (soon changed to gunter rig), more than 2,000 have been built and the design is still going strong.
More than any other boat, the Drascombe Lugger opened up dinghy cruising, exemplified by Ken Duxbury’s Greek voyages in the 1970s and Webb Chiles’s near-circumnavigation on Chidiock Tichbourne I and II.
It’s been described as the Morris Minor of the boating world – except that the majority of the 1,000 Eventides built were lovingly assembled by their owners, not on a production line.
After you’d tested your skills building the Mirror dinghy, you could progress to building a yacht.
And at 24ft long, the Eventide packed a surprising amount of living space.
It was Maurice Griffiths’ most successful design and helped bring yachting to a wider audience.
You either love ’em or you hate ’em – motorsailers, that is.
The Fisher 30 was brought into production in 1971 and was one of the first out-and-out motorsailers.
With its long keel, heavy displacement and high bulwarks, it was intended to evoke the spirit of North Sea fishing boats.
It might not sail brilliantly but it provided an exceptional level of comfort for its size and it would look after you when things turned nasty.
Significantly, it was also fitted with a large engine.
It should have been a disaster.
In 1941, when the Scandinavian Sailing Federation couldn’t choose a winner for their competition to design an affordable sailing boat, they gave six designs to naval architect Tord Sundén and asked him to combine the best features from each.
The result was a sweet-lined 25ft sloop which was very seaworthy and fast.
The design has been built in GRP since the 1970s and now numbers more than 4,000, with fleets all over the world.
There’s something disconcerting about a boat with two unstayed masts and no foresails, and certainly the Freedom range has its detractors.
Yet as Garry Hoyt proved, first with the Freedom 40, designed in collaboration with Halsey Herreshoff, and then the Freedom 33, designed with Jay Paris, the boats are simple to sail (none of those clattering jib sheets every time you tack) and surprisingly fast – at least off the wind.
Other ‘cat ketch’ designs followed but the Freedoms developed their own cult following.
The old joke about Hillyards is that you won’t drown on one but you might starve to death getting there.
And yet this religious boatbuilder from Littlehampton built up to 800 yachts which travelled around the world – you can find them cruising far-flung destinations.
Sizes ranged from 2.5 to 20 tons, though the 9- and 12-ton are best for long cruises.
Blondie Hasler was one of the great sailing innovators and Jester was his testing ground.
She was enclosed, carvel planked and had an unstayed junk rig.
Steering was via a windvane system Hasler created.
Hasler came second in the first OSTAR, proving small boats can achieve great things.
Moody kicked off the era of comfort-oriented boats with its very first design.
The Moody 33, designed by Angus Primrose, had a wide beam and high topside to produce a voluminous hull.
The centre cockpit allowed for an aft cabin, resulting in a 33-footer with two sleeping cabins – an almost unheard of concept in 1973 –full-beam heads and spacious galley.
What’s more, her performance under sail was more than adequate for cruising.
Finally, here was a yacht that all the family could enjoy.
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Charles Nicholson was a giant of the wooden boat era but one of his last designs – created with his son Peter – was a pioneering fibreglass boat that would become an enduring classic.
With its long keel and heavy displacement, the Nicholson 32 is in many ways a wooden boat built in fibreglass – and indeed the design was based on Nicholson’s South Coast One Design.
From 1966 to 1977, the ‘Nic 32’ went through 11 variations.
In the beginning there was… the Rasmus 35. This was the first yacht built by the company that would become Hallberg-Rassy and which would eventually build more than 9,000 boats.
The Rasmus 35, designed by Olle Enderlein, was a conservative design, featuring a centre cockpit, long keel and well-appointed accommodation.
Some 760 boats were built between 1967 and 1978.
Lyle Hess was ahead of his time when he designed Renegade in 1949.
Despite winning the Newport to Ensenada race, the 25ft wooden cutter went largely unnoticed.
Hess had to build bridges for 15 years before Larry Pardey asked him to design the 24ft Seraffyn, closely based on Renegade’s lines but with a Bermudan rig.
Pardey’s subsequent voyages around the world cemented Hess’s reputation and success of the Renegade design.
It was a fantastic endorsement for a long-keel yacht designed by Holman & Pye 40 years before.
Expect to see more Rustler 36s in the 2022 edition of the GGR!
It was Ted Heath who first brought the S&S 34 to prominence with his boat Morning Cloud.
In 1969 the yacht won the Sydney to Hobart Race, despite being one of the smallest boats in the race.
That was followed two years later by the Sadler 29, a tidy little boat that managed to pack in six berths in a comfortable open-plan interior.
The boat was billed as ‘unsinkable’, with a double-skinned hull separated by closed cell foam buoyancy.
What’s more, it was fast, notching up to 12 knots.
Another modern take on the Contessa theme was the Sigma 33, designed by David Thomas in 1979.
A modern underwater body combined with greater beam and higher freeboard produced a faster boat with greater accommodation.
And, like the Contessa, the Sigma 33 earned its stripes at the 1979 Fastnet, when two of the boats survived to tell the tale.
A lively one-design fleet soon developed on the Solent which is still active to this day.
The boat Joshua Slocum used for his first singlehanded circumnavigation of the world wasn’t intended to sail much further than the Chesapeake Bay.
The 37ft Spray was a rotten old oyster sloop which a friend gave him and which he had to spend 13 months fixing up.
Yet this boxy little tub, with its over-optimistic clipper bow, not only took Slocum safely around the world but has spawned dozens of modern copies that have undertaken long ocean passages.
What are boats for if not for dreaming? And James Wharram had big dreams.
First he sailed across the Atlantic on the 23ft 6in catamaran Tangaroa.
He then built the 40ft Rongo on the beach in Trinidad (with a little help from French legend Bernard Moitessier) and sailed back to the UK.
Then he drew the 34ft Tangaroa (based on Rongo) for others to follow in his wake and sold 500 plans in 10 years.
The Twister was designed in a hurry.
Kim Holman wanted a boat at short notice for the 1963 season and, having had some success with his Stella design (based on the Folkboat), he rushed out a ‘knockabout cruising boat for the summer with some racing for fun’.
The result was a Bermudan sloop that proved nigh on unbeatable on the East Anglian circuit.
It proved to be Holman’s most popular design with more than 200 built.
Laurent Giles’s design No15 was drawn in 1935 for a Guernsey solicitor who wanted ‘a boat that would spin on a sixpence and I could sail single-handed’.
What the young Jack Giles gave him was a pretty transom-sterned cutter, with a nicely raked stem.
Despite being moderate in every way, the boat proved extremely able and was soon racking up long distances, including Humphrey Barton’s famous transatlantic crossing on Vertue XXXV in 1950.
Wanderer II and III
Eric and Susan Hiscock couldn’t afford a Vertue, so Laurent Giles designed a smaller, 21ft version for them which they named Wanderer II.
They were back a few years later, this time wanting a bigger version: the 30ft Wanderer III.
It was this boat they sailed around the world between 1952-55, writing articles and sailing books along the way.
In doing so, they introduced a whole generation of amateur sailors to the possibilities of long-distance cruising.
The origins of Westerly Marine were incredibly modest.
Commander Denys Rayner started building plywood dinghies in the 1950s which morphed into a 22ft pocket cruiser called the Westcoaster.
Realising the potential of fibreglass, in 1963 he adapted the design to create the Westerly 22, an affordable cruising boat with bilge keels and a reverse sheer coachroof.
Some 332 boats were built to the design before it was relaunched as the Nomad (267 built).
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