What does a Contessa 32 with 6ft headroom and an aft cabin look like? Rachael Sprot jumps on board the Dawn 39 to find out

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Dawn 39: big sister to the Contessa 32
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Dawn 39: big sister to the Contessa 32

‘Pretty boat! What is she?’ I asked fellow sailing instructor Jane Sudlow-Arthur when she uploaded a photo of her new yacht.

It was fine-lined with a distinctly British look and uncannily familiar. I was immediately intrigued.

Like me you might not have heard of the Dawn Class 39, but you will know her little sister the Contessa 32, and the family resemblance is striking.

These two siblings had dramatically different fates, however.

Over 700 Contessa 32s were built and continue to be built in the Jeremy Rogers yard in Lymington.

An aerial view of a 39ft yacht sailing

Jane has replaced the Flexi-teek on deck with Kiwigrip. Credit: Richard Langdon

The Sadler-designed 1972 cruiser-racer achieved cult status thanks to its impressive seakeeping abilities and indisputably pretty hull.

Meanwhile only a handful of the larger version ever left the mould and they soon slipped into obscurity.

As with all great family sagas, the founding and floundering happened within a wider context.

Following on from the popularity of the Contessa 32 and its resilience in the 1979 Fastnet Race, an enthusiastic owner commissioned a larger version and funded the production of the mould.

David Allan Williams, who also designed the Whitbread Ocean 80s and Peter Blake’s Steinlager 1, was one of Contessa’s in-house designers at the time.

He drew the lines for the Contessa 38 making them exactly 6-foot longer to accommodate an aft cabin.

A woman sitting in a cockpit of a Dawn 39 yacht

Deep coamings make the cockpit feel secure, but there is little stowage besides the small lazarette. Credit: Richard Langdon

In the early 1980s a few dozen were built but the decade was to prove terminal for many British boat builders.

Continental upstarts like Jeanneau and Beneteau had ramped up their output, drastically undercutting their counterparts across the Channel.

Few yards survived the arid economic climate.

A couple of years into production of the 38, Contessa closed too, and the owners of the mould searched for a new yard.

Mustang Yachts took on the project, and at this point the design was slightly altered.

The 38 suffered from sub-optimal power handling owing to the placement of the propeller in the rudder aperture of the skeg so the engine arrangement was swapped to a sail drive.

The transom was also redesigned to give an attractive counter stern and the Dawn Class 39 was born.

Familiar similarities

The underwater profile is similar to that of the Contessa 32 but not identical.

There’s a substantial encapsulated fin keel, skeg-hung rudder and extremely high ballast ratio of 48%.

A deck and coachroof of a Dawn 39 yacht

The coachroof is roomy, with plenty of space for the liferaft and dinghy. Credit: Richard Langdon

The waterline length of the bigger boat is proportionally longer though. The Contessa 32 has a 66% WL length compared to 76% on the Dawn 39, which should give good hull speed.

The hull is balsa cored above the waterline for stiffness, as are the decks. Williams rounded the bilge in the forward sections to reduce pounding when heeled.

Jane testified to the success of this: ‘She sails brilliantly upwind, and never slams.’

The moulds exchanged hands several times and various hulls were produced through the 1980s and 1990s, some were home finished.

Elixir was one of the later hulls, laid in 1998 and fitted out by the commissioning owner over a 10-year period.

An aerial view of a yacht with a white sail

With a 76% waterline length, the Dawn 39 is fast through the water. Credit: Richard Langdon

He sold her shortly after her launch in 2008. Jane bought her in 2020 as a lockdown project.

There was a lot of cosmetic work to be done including stripping the Flexi-teek from the deck and replacing it with Kiwigrip.

A leaky cockpit sole turned into a much bigger job than anticipated.

As she stripped back the teak planking she discovered two more teak floors with an osmotic GRP base beneath.

A stint in the yard remedied the defect but did little to solve the mystery of why they’d been put there in the first place.

Dawn 39: Impressive performance

It was an overcast day in Brighton and we needed an early start from the marina to be back alongside before low water.

We slipped lines as soon as photographer Richard Langdon jumped aboard. ‘Pretty boat,’ he remarked.

Elixir reversed out of her finger berth obediently and we set off.

A device for rigging an inner forestay on a Dawn 39

Elixir has many modifications, including this set-up to rig an inner forestay. Credit: Richard Langdon

Even in a Force 3 there was a short sea state from the southwesterly wind but I barely noticed it thanks to her forgiving hull profile.

As soon as the sails were up, she set off with the easy stride of a long-distance runner.

Her 130% genoa gave just enough sail area to make 6.5 knots close hauled in 11 knots apparent wind speed.

The helm was beautifully light and she sliced through the Channel chop like a knife through butter.

As we bore away and the apparent wind dropped she slowed down, averaging 4.8 knots on a beam reach in 9-10 knots.

A Dawn 39

Most Dawn 39s have in-mast furling. Credit: Richard Langdon

It wasn’t the right conditions for an Oscar-winning performance, but for a classic boat in light airs she was impressively responsive.

With the swell behind us on the way back to the marina she indulged in a few rolls, as you would expect of a boat with a narrow transom.

Although we didn’t have the weather to really test her mettle, with 3.5 tonnes of lead ballast beneath and her similar hull profile to the 32 it’s safe to assume she’d remain composed when the weather ramps up.

Elixir has a keel-stepped sloop rig, but some Dawn 39s were configured as cutters with a staysail and checkstays.

Continues below…

Jeremy Rogers sailing a boat

Jeremy Rogers 1937-2022

Yacht racer and boat builder Jeremy Rogers has died at the age of 85. He was best known for building…

A removable inner forestay allows for the setting of a storm jib.

Most were equipped with in-mast furling which seems a little odd on a boat which is unashamedly retro in so many other aspects.

The double spreader rig is supported by cap shrouds, intermediates and fore and aft lowers.

A substantial tie rod transfers the load from the caps and intermediates to the hull, whereas the fore and aft lowers are supported by backing pads beneath the deck.

The shroud base is set inboard allowing passage outside them.

Function over lounging

The coachroof is unmistakably Contessa with its neat portlights and sweet proportions.

It’s a look which has aged well, unlike the plexi-glass which some of her contemporaries were sporting at the time. There’s room on top for a liferaft and well-lashed dinghy.

A kicker on a yacht

The kicker works hard to compensate for the traveller-less mainsheet. Credit: Richard Langdon

Unusually for a boat of this era, the traveller-less mainsheet is also on the coachroof.

It keeps the cockpit safe from swinging lines but the kicker works harder to compensate.

The sheet lead along the boom also increases friction, making a quick spill for a gust harder to recover from.

Its location on a winch by the companionway means it’s out of reach of the helm.

The hull and deck join in an upwards flange which forms the bulwarks, finished with an attractive teak cap rail.

A water tank on a Dawn 39 yacht

The water tank sits in the aft portion of the integrated keel. Credit: Richard Langdon

The cockpit is snug and safe with deep coamings. It’s somewhere I’d feel totally secure in a big seaway.

A bridge deck aft of the companionway creates headroom below but limits the length of the cockpit benches.

If you’re looking for a floating sun-lounger look elsewhere, but if you need to beat around a headland you’re in good hands.

With the sprayhood up it requires some agility to step up and over the raised deck before descending the companionway steps.

It’s one of the few features that feels outdated.

A collapsible cockpit table in a Dawn 39

Two collapsible cockpit tables results in flexible space for a boat with a modest beam. Credit: Richard Langdon

It can make the transition from above to below decks feel precarious although the sprayhood gives protection and it’s something that you quickly adapt to.

A good-sized steering wheel is mounted on a binnacle with the throttle control making power handling more comfortable.

The small aft deck beyond the coamings gives a working platform for operating the equipment on the stern, which in Elixir’s case included a windvane and wind generator.

It’s a safe, comfortable cockpit for offshore passages. But here’s the rub: there are no cockpit lockers.

A lazarette beneath the aft deck swallows up lines, fenders and jerry cans, but the access hatch is too small for bulky items.

Unless you have Alice in Wonderland’s Drink Me potion to shrink things like an inflatable dinghy before putting them away, you’ll need to keep them on deck or in one of the cabins.

Homely feel

It was with some trepidation that I stepped below on Elixir: home-finished yachts can be disappointing, but I was greeted with a bright, warm interior and neat joinery.

The saloon feels spacious and comfortable with an overhead hatch letting in light. You could easily seat six people for dinner, eight if you don’t need much elbow room.

The saloon on a Dawn 39 yacht

The framed bulkhead at the forward end of the saloon highlights the quality joinery. Credit: Richard Langdon

Elixir doesn’t have a permanent saloon table, instead Jane has installed two collapsible cockpit tables which can be arranged to form one large table or two separate ones.

It’s a flexible solution for a boat with a modest beam.

There’s plenty of stowage space beneath the benches and behind the seat backs, as well as in the lockers above the seating.

One attribute of the long, encapsulated fin keel is that the aft section is hollow.

The void creates a natural water tank once capped off and keeps weight low.

A chart table and electronics on a Dawn 39

A generous chart table points to the boat’s credentials with room to spread charts. Credit: Richard Langdon

The downside to this is that a severe grounding could puncture the void and cause rapid water ingress.

There’s a U-shaped galley on the port side of the companionway with good locker space outboard and a boat fridge in the countertop.

It doesn’t quite rival a modern 39-footer, but it’s not far off.

The nav station to starboard of the companionway is tremendous and hints at what the boat is designed for.

There’s a huge surface to spread charts and pilot books on, and Jane has a full set of UK folios beneath with room to spare.

A bunk on a Dawn 39

A full-width aft cabin, seen here from starboard looking to port, includes a generous bunk but headroom is limited beneath the cockpit. Credit: Richard Langdon

At the forward end of the saloon is an attractively framed bulkhead leading to a heads compartment to port and a large hanging locker to starboard.

The heads has GRP mouldings and a loo mounted on the outboard side.

It’s well-proportioned without being an extravagant use of space in a low volume interior. The vee-berth forwards could be used as the master cabin.

The space feels bright and well laid out with plenty of stowage space in lockers above the bunk and a locker hanging to starboard.

She hasn’t got the width up here that a modern boat would normally have, so the bunk is narrow at the foot end, which might not suit two tall crew.

Packaging issues

It’s the full-width aft cabin that the boat was designed for though.

The bunk extends from the centreline beneath the cockpit sole right across to the port side.

To starboard, aft of the door, there’s a small settee and large hanging locker.

Two women wearing lifejackets on a cockpit of a yacht

A raised bridge deck makes moving from cockpit to down below a challenge at times. Credit: Richard Langdon

The raised bridge deck creates headroom and a portlight lets in plenty of light, making the space much brighter than expected.

The bunk itself is generous in width and length, but the vertical clearance beneath the cockpit sole is very limited for whoever sleeps on the centreline.

Putting an aft cabin in a boat with such fine ends was always going to be a squeeze and some would say the compromise hasn’t paid off.

Engine access is a real strong point. The engine box beneath the companionway can be dismantled on two sides, and there’s top access to the sail drive beneath the bunk in the aft cabin.

Her performance under power was perfectly adequate for a proper sailing yacht.

Her 40hp Volvo Penta 2040 and two-bladed folding propeller gave 6 knots at 2,000rpm, though she struggled to make much more than that as we increased the revs.

A Dawn 39 yacht being sailed by two women

Built for offshore: cap shrouds, intermediates and fore and aft support for the double spreader rig. Credit: Richard Langdon

The long-ish fin keel and skeg hung rudder make tight turns not the strongest part of her repertoire.

In reverse you need to think a little harder about gaining steerage than on boats with a deep fin keel and spade rudder, but once established she tracked well.

There are three problems with the Dawn 39. Firstly, you need knee-pads in your pyjamas if you want to sleep two in the aft cabin. Secondly you need to share the forward cabin with all the equipment you can’t stow in cockpit lockers. And thirdly there aren’t enough of them.

For all her flaws there’s a lot to love.

With her high ballast ratio, excellent sea keeping credentials and windward performance she’ll make short work of ocean crossings and challenging tidal waters alike: this is a boat for going places.

But she’s also a boat for sitting in port and soaking in the praise of passers-by.

The soothing chorus of ‘pretty boat’ which follows you around will help distract from the bruised shins.

The design may not have been able to compete against the powerhouses of yacht production, but the handful which exist have a timeless elegance.

Perhaps more importantly though, their seaworthiness is beyond reproach.

Why wasn’t she as successful as her smaller sister?

Well, it depends what you’re measuring her against.

Compared with other 39-footers from the 1980s she was more expensive and offered less accommodation. But for people who want the Contessa 32 experience without the cramped quarters, she achieves the brief.

Given the huge Contessa revival of the past few years, I’d guess the Dawn 39 was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Success is always relative after all.

Expert opinion on the Dawn 39

The pedigree and seaworthiness of the Contessa 32 has resulted in much affection for this class amongst boat owners.


Ben Sutcliffe- Davies has been in the marine industry for over 40 years as a long- time boat builder, has been surveying craft for over 20 years and is a Full Member of the YDSA.

I have surveyed some of the 38ft versions of the Contessa which in terms of construction philosophy, is virtually the same boat as the Dawn 39.

Long keel lead ballast which is encapsulated is a luxury I also enjoy on my own yacht.

However, it is important to check its condition and ensure moisture has not gone inside the voids as a result of a grounding.

The skeg hung rudder also needs careful inspection as it is rare to find one without significant moisture ingress into the rudder blade and skeg.

As mentioned by Rachael Sprot, the Dawn 39, Elixir, has had her deck and topsides reinforced with balsa core, and any regular reader will know my warnings about deck and topsides needing careful inspection.

Use a small ball-pein hammer and moisture metre to check for any ingress.

Moisture around the deck fittings and poorly fitted deck furniture is a common issue so pay careful attention before deciding to buy.

Some of the bonding-in of the lockers does need careful inspection as it can be susceptible to light delamination.

Alternatives to the Dawn 39

Sweden 390

A Sweden 390 yacht sailing with white sails

The hull is light, stiff and well-insulated due to a full-depth balsa core. Credit: David Harding

When I first started out as a sailing instructor at UKSA we were lucky enough to have three Sweden yachts in the fleet.

The smallest one, Outreach, was my favourite. She was one of 73 Sweden 390s built between 1991 and 2006.

Unlike the larger Sweden yachts which are sleek and lean-looking, the 390 has beautiful curves. There’s a lovely touch of sheer without sacrificing too much interior volume and the generous 3.87m beam tapers beautifully to a neat stern.

Above and below decks the build quality was top class. The full-depth balsa core meant that the hulls were light, stiff and well-insulated.

Solid laminate replaced the balsa core in high-stress areas such as around the keel and in the join of the two halves of the hull. Plywood core and backing pads reinforce the deck in the way of winches and other fittings.

A steel beam transfers loads from the rig through to the bulkheads.

A yacht with crew onboard sailing

A deep fin keel and a shallow draught wing version were available. Credit: David Harding

Two deep lazarettes are just about adequate in terms of cockpit locker space, although like the Dawn 39 she lacks space for lots of bulky items.

Below the waterline there’s an exceptionally deep fin keel, although a shallow draught wing version was an option.

There’s plenty of lead ballast, a sail drive and a semi-balanced spade rudder.

The joinery below is gorgeous. Solid mahogany doors and teak sole boards stood up well to the rigours of life as a sail training boat.

The curves were carried through to the saloon with elliptical bench seats following the hull profile.

There’s a functional L-shaped galley to starboard of the companionway and enviable nav station on the port side.

The heads compartment is forwards of the mast with an ingenious five-sided shape which makes best use of the available space.

Jack and Jill doors provide access from the saloon or the vee-berth. Beneath the aft cockpit there’s an unusual single and double cabin layout.

It suited a sailing instructor needing a bit of space, and the flexible layout is also useful for anyone who sails with different crews.

But what suited me most as a sailing instructor was knowing she would purr through the offshore passages and give everyone on board a lovely sail.

Starlight 39

A man standing at the bow of a yacht

The impressive sailing performance and solid build made it a popular racer-cruiser. Credit: David Harding

Another British boatbuilder which fell victim to the 1980s was Sadler Yachts.

However, the Starlight 39, originally conceived as the Sadler 38, arrived on the scene when Sadler International picked up where Sadler Yachts left off.

Soon absorbed into Rival Bowman and then Rustler yachts, the Starlight brand has had several custodians over the years.

The 39 is a powerful racer-cruiser which has drawn praise for its solid construction and impressive performance under sail.

A trademark Sadler sheer line sets her apart from some of her continental counterparts.

She’s slightly broader than the Dawn 39 and carries her beam further aft giving more volume below decks.

The earlier models also had a bridge deck in the cockpit but this was reduced over time as people felt exposed making the transfer below decks.

The lead keel is bolted onto a laminated stub. The 2.09m draught hints at her upwind capabilities which are reputed to be excellent.

Most were built with the shallower wing keel, which was extremely popular and considered to a great success in terms of seakeeping ability.

The traveller runs right in front of the helm and binnacle, allowing the helm to respond quickly to gusts, but it does mean the steering pedestal is vulnerable to damage in the instance of a crash gybe.

The finish below decks is good quality but not luxurious.

Close-celled foam between the outer laminate and inner mouldings gives buoyancy, insulation and stiffness to the hull and deck.

There’s a standard double aft cabin and vee-berth arrangement, with uniquely in this selection, two heads.

At almost 9 tonnes, this is no-nonsense boat for serious passage making.

Ohlson 38

Sn Ohlson 38 sailing yacht

A sloop rig came as standard, although some were change to cutters. Credit: David Harding

If dockside drooling is high on the list of attributes you’re after, you don’t need to look much further than the Ohlson 38.

Designed in the late 1960s by Swedish naval architect Einar Ohlson, they were built in the UK by Tyler Mouldings from the 1970s through to the 1980s.

The most famous example was Robertsons Golly, in which Clare Francis completed the 1976 OSTAR.

At only 6 inches broader than the Contessa 32, the Ohlson 38 is a tiny slip of a thing so don’t expect much from the squeezed accommodation.

Many were home-finished so layouts varied, but think quarter berths and pilot bunks rather than aft cabins.

As is often the case with older yachts, the cockpit is generous with two long benches, a lazarette under the transom and a large locker under the port side.

The standard rig was a sloop, although some appear to have been converted to cutters.

She looks just as good out of the water as in, with a fine keel and deep V-shaped hull which should deliver a smooth ride in all conditions.

She’ll lack the form stability of the younger yachts in this selection but a long fin keel with plenty of lead gives her good ballast stability.

A substantial skeg and her deep hull profile will help keep her tracking despite the rather small rudder.

There are some cherished examples out there, and some which need a bit of cherishing.

With a proven track record on major ocean passages she’s a gutsy head-turner for interesting adventures.