A solidly built cruiser with a sporty edge and twin-keel option, Hunter’s Channel 31 has been impressing since her launch 22 years ago. David Harding sails one to find out why
Brand loyalty is often strong among boat owners. If you find a boat you like, there’s a good chance that, when you come to move up or down, you will buy another one from the same builder. In Kevin and Maggie Cullimore’s case, it was moving up to the Hunter Channel 31.
Their first family cruising boat was a Hunter Ranger 245, which they bought in kit form at the London Boat Show in 1998.
Kevin fitted it out in the space of a few months and they sailed it for five years before two growing children dictated that a bigger boat was in order.
They were fortunate enough to find a Hunter Ranger 27 that had hardly been used.
Like Kevin, the owner had built it from a kit. Then he found out that his family actively disliked sailing, so it had to go. Kevin re-built much of the interior and it became his family’s boat for several years.
They cruised extensively, crossing to the Channel Islands on occasions, and were more than happy with their second Hunter.
No matter how settled you think you might be, however, life has a way of making you reconsider – and that’s exactly what happened to Kevin and Maggie.
On a visit to the East Coast one day, they stumbled across a Hunter Channel 31 bearing a ‘for sale’ sign.
‘We hadn’t been planning to buy a bigger boat’, says Kevin. ‘I had always wanted a 31 but didn’t think I could afford one. Still, seeing this one, we decided to have a look anyway.’
As chance would have it, they learned from the broker that the owner of the 31 was looking to move to a smaller Hunter.
So Kevin sent all the photos of his 27 – the fact that he had fitted a TV in the saloon proved to be a major selling point – and the 31’s owner visited Poole to have a look.
A deal was done, the new owner of the 27 sailed it back to the East Coast and Kevin sailed his new 31 from Woodbridge home to Poole.
That was in 2013, since when he – usually with Maggie, sometimes solo or with friends – has continued to cruise Freya widely.
It’s all a far cry from Kevin’s early trial-and-error adventures with his Eclipse that he trailed to the Mediterranean and sailed to the Balearics.
Getting Freya to the condition she’s in now has been an ongoing process.
When, like Kevin, you’re of a practical disposition, you know what you want to do to your boat and you get on and do it.
This has involved everything from modifications to deck hardware to building new joinery down below and fitting a stern gantry to support solar panels, aerials and a radar.
The process of fitting out and making changes to his smaller boats is largely what encouraged Kevin to stick with Hunters when the time came to move up.
As he told me: ‘Having had two previous Hunters I was pretty impressed with the way they were built. I’ve drilled through quite a lot of them and found them well made. And no other twin-keeler really compares with them.’
His 245 and 27 were both twin-keelers, as is the Hunter Channel 31.
In places like the Channel Islands and the Isles of Scilly it can open up a lot of options to be able to dry out, and Kevin doesn’t consider it a significant sacrifice in performance terms to sail a twin-keeler.
The difference between the sailing ability of fins and twins is undoubtedly less with the Hunters than with many earlier generations of cruising yachts.
David Thomas’s designs earned the designer and builder a reputation for creating boats with twin keels (or twin fins, as they liked to call them) that sailed remarkably well.
The Hunter Channel 31 and the earlier 32 (which became the 323) were among the larger boats you could buy in twin-keel form, along with some of the Westerlys, Moodys and Sadlers.
The Hunter, however, was distinctly more sporty in nature than most of the alternatives. She was also sportier than most of the earlier Hunters, excepting those conceived as One Designs such as the Impala, Formula One, 707 and Van de Stadt’s HB 31.
David Thomas was conscious that he had probably pushed the performance aspects of the design as far as Hunter would accept, and was half expecting to be asked to reduce the size of the mainsail for the twin-keeler at least.
His design was substantially heavier than many of the Hunter’s Continental competitors: he wanted her to have a good ballast ratio for stiffness, and that in turn called for generous displacement to support the extra weight in the keel(s).
As he told me at the time: ‘You can have the displacement as long as there’s enough sail area to go with it. A cruising boat with a miserable rig is a miserable compromise. So why not have a big rig? It’s what a cruising boat needs. That way you can have good light-weather performance in a heavyish boat.’
In essence it’s the same philosophy that Stephen Jones applied to the Sadler 290 – another powerful twin-keeler that’s heavier than a typical modern cruiser of similar length, yet a good deal faster too.
By the standards of the day (after a year’s delay, she was launched in 2000), the Hunter Channel 31 has a broad stern, which in turn called for a fuller entry than on many of Thomas’s earlier designs.
It all added up to a boat with a potent performance potential, as I learned on speaking to Thomas about the design and sailing with him on a breezy day in the spring of 2000.
‘It’s right down the middle between a club racer/One Design and a cruiser you can sail anywhere,’ he said. ‘It’s an offshore cruising yacht that will look after the crew.’
Choosing the right compromise
With the standard self-tacking jib, the option of twin keels and a few other concessions towards cruising, the 31 proved popular as a fast cruiser.
Nonetheless, with its slippery shape and relatively narrow waterline, the hull offered potential that Hunter had planned to make the most of with the introduction of a souped-up derivative to be known as the 303.
It was due to have a taller, double-spreader rig with inboard rigging to allow an overlapping genoa, balanced by a deeper fin keel in lead. In the event, the 303 was never developed and few 31s have been raced seriously enough to show what they’re capable of.
The boat I tested back in 2000 was a fin-keeler although, rather incongruously, it was fitted with a fixed two-bladed propeller that caused turbulence over the rudder and would have knocked a good deal off our speed.
On the whole I was impressed by the performance in a gusty 15-25 knots of breeze: under full main (with just the flattening reef pulled in) and self-tacker we clocked 5.5 knots upwind with the boat proving to be nicely balanced.
She stiffened up markedly at around 15° of heel, spun on a sixpence when asked to and exhibited few vices. Downwind we clocked 8.5 knots in a squall, provided I could keep her going in a straight line.
I couldn’t do that all the time because the rudder would lose grip unless we were almost dead downwind.
As soon as the wind came on to the quarter, she rounded up: the large mainsail combined with the generous sweep-back on the spreaders generated more power from the leech than the rudder was able to cope with: it was a choice of run or round up.
Hunter used the rudder from the HB 31 on both the 32/323 and the 31. I had already sailed the 323 in breezy conditions and found no issues.
Perhaps because of the broader stern and the more powerful mainsail, the rudder – to my mind at least – didn’t work as well on the Hunter Channel 31.
Unlike the demonstrator I sailed, with its fin keel and fixed prop, Kevin’s boat has twin keels and a Brunton Autoprop.
He had an Autoprop on the 27 and, amongst other things, likes the extra knot or knot-and-a-half it provides even on tick-over when he’s motor-sailing. It was one of the first additions he made to the 31.
We also had much less wind than on my earlier sail: a gentle 8-10 knots most of the time.
Since we had to cope with a few late-season whiskers below the waterline, we were never going to break any speed records but the whiskers were at least partially offset by Kevin’s new sails.
For downwind sailing he uses a cruising chute, and two years ago added the cruising equivalent of a Code 0.
He finds this particularly useful, as do many owners of boats with self-tacking jibs. On one memorable occasion, he flew it all the way from Guernsey to Dartmouth.
‘We had one of the most beautiful sails with the Code 0. We put it up and didn’t touch it all day, making 5.5 to 6 knots on a flat sea, in glorious sunshine and surrounded by dolphins.’
On the day of our sail, it nudged us along at up to 6.8 knots with the wind on the beam.
Even in these lighter conditions I was reminded why I had reservations about the rudder, the blade needing a little more balance to my mind and stalling occasionally if asked to do too much out of the ordinary.
That said, a rudder’s feel is a very subjective issue, and one on which I had lengthy conversations with David Thomas.
Verdict on the Hunter Channel 31
It’s easy to see why the Hunter Channel 31 hits the spot for many cruising sailors who enjoy sailing a boat that looks after them and really does sail.
She combines performance and robustness with a much more stylish arrangement below decks than found on earlier Hunters.
That’s because Ken Freivokh was commissioned to design the interiors on the later models.
He transformed them from basic and functional to still-functional yet infinitely more appealing.
Structurally, Hunter kept things simple with solid laminates and a single interior moulding forming the companionway, the engine tray and bearers, the heads and the base of the galley – ‘all the messy bits’, as Hunter put it.
Everything else was in timber and bonded to the outer hull.
On Kevin’s boat, the joinery is in cherry but there’s much more of it than on a standard boat.
Kevin has added lockers each side in the saloon above the back-rests where originally there were simply fiddled shelves.
He has blended them in so well that you would have no idea they weren’t original, and has done the same in the aft cabin.
He has even fitted several small drawers and made sure that not a cubic inch is wasted.
The time involved for a yard to do something like this would make it prohibitively expensive, but Kevin’s work shows what you can achieve if you have the skill and are prepared to devote the time to it.
‘I like messing around with woodwork’, he says.
Since he’s also more than adept with electrics, he has fitted three solar panels on the stern gantry – a total of 200 watts that will generate 67 amps on a sunny day.
Having owned Freya since 2013, Kevin has spent nearly 10 years refining her to create the cruising boat he has always wanted.
‘I don’t think we will ever change boats now,’ he says. ‘I’ve got this up to where it’s got to be, and if I bought another one I would have to start all over again. I’ve been through all that before.’
When you have a capable and well-sorted boat like this that will take you anywhere quickly and comfortably, dry out upright when you get there and look after you whatever the weather, why would you want to change?
Expert Opinion on the Hunter Channel 31
Nick Vass B,Sc B,Ed HND FRINA MCMS DipMarSur YS, marine surveyor
The first thing that I notice when surveying British Hunter yachts is the spacious and airy interiors and the Channel 31 is the best of the lot, having been designed by Ken Freivokh, who was responsible for the stylish later Westerly Regatta interiors.
The 31 has a particularly large aft cabin. These are underrated yachts that suffered a kit boat stigma let down by some poor home finishing.
If you do buy a home-completed version, interior trim can easily be put straight, and the factory finished boats were well made and so easily comparable to the Sadler 290, Westerly Regatta 310 and Moody 31MkII.
A joy to survey, and to maintain, as access to critical items such as seacocks, stern gland, tanks and keel bolts is so easy.
Keel bolts are substantial and don’t tend to give trouble and Hunters don’t tend to get osmosis.
Hunter rudders were of a strange resin construction over a steel frame without a GRP shell. I have found several where the steelwork rusts but this has not led to failure and at least they don’t blister or come apart.
The Hunter Channel 31 was introduced in 1999 as a replacement for the 32 which had replaced the Horizon 32.
However, the 31 was designed as a lighter faster cruiser/racer and came as a One Design racing version called the 303 which had a deep lead fin keel.
The Hunter Channel 31 was offered with fin or twin keels. Yanmar 2GM20 engines are reliable and there are plenty around.
Ben Sutcliffe-Davies, marine surveyor and full member of the Yacht Brokers Designers & Surveyors Association (YDSA)
Like all of David Thomas’s Hunter boats, the design of the Hunter Channel 31 concentrated on structure and build; the use of woven rovings over normal chop strand hold testament to the longevity and strength of these craft, which do hold their value well.
At the time of build, Hunters were certainly not the cheapest boats available for their size.
A common issue I’ve had when surveying these vessels is the moulding arrangement for the tiller area. It can suffer from wear and some light stress.
Some of the moulding returns have air voids in them from build, as woven rovings are not as easy to tuck into tight corners.
I have seen issues where owners have added extra batteries but have not thought through the right location for them.
Engine maintenance is also sometimes lacking due to the tight access. Many have the deep sea shaft seal so be aware of their age.
They usually need replacing after seven years so make sure you check them and the service record.
The decks are normally a foam core so don’t tend to suffer in the same way as yachts with a balsa core, but still be aware of deck fittings and stanchion points; check for overloading which can be common.
The Hunter Channel 31 has ring beams and yard staff can struggle to identify the correct points to locate cradle supports.
I have seen a few boats with small areas of delamination where the boat was incorrectly supported ashore.
Alternatives to the Hunter Channel 31 to consider
This exceptionally roomy and powerful twin-keeler is shorter than the Hunter but extraordinarily spacious and a remarkable performer too.
Her twin keels are cast in lead and bolted through moulded spacers to ensure a particularly low centre of gravity.
This enables her to carry a generous rig for good performance in light airs despite her relatively heavy displacement, while the slim profile of the keels contributes to a degree of hydrodynamic efficiency rarely seen in the twin-keeled world.
It’s also rare for boats under 9m (30ft) to achieve RCD Category A status, the Sadler’s AVS (angle of vanishing stability) of 140° being a major factor.
She was designed by Stephen Jones and launched three years after the Hunter by a Sadler company unrelated to earlier incarnations of Sadlers.
Jones gave her an exceptionally fine entry, with reserves of buoyancy forward being ensured by the high freeboard.
Her stern is even broader than the Hunter’s and her twin keels mounted further down the hull. This almost eliminates the banging and thudding that can afflict twin-keelers upwind in heavy weather, while minimising the additional drag caused by a root breaking the surface.
The large rig is of high-fractional configuration with an overlapping genoa to maintain drive in light airs.
On deck, the fine bow limits foredeck space but the wide sidedecks run all the way to the transom. The long cranked tiller is the dominant feature in the cockpit.
The layout below decks is unusual for a modern design in placing the heads between the saloon and forecabin, harking back to the arrangement widely seen in the 1970s and early 1980s.
That allows the galley to be moved well aft, alongside the companionway steps, where it’s right out of the way and not in any thoroughfares.
It’s probably one of the most practical and secure galleys on any boat under 40ft.
The detailing varies according to where the boats were fitted out: various yards were involved at different times.
Westerly’s smaller sister to the Storm 33 was launched in 1987, overlapping with the popular and long-running Fulmar. All were designed by Ed Dubois.
Both the Storm and Fulmar had been conceived as cruiser-racers but, since few Storms were ever raced, Westerly realised that a change of emphasis was needed for the Tempest and aimed her firmly at the cruising market.
A fin keel was standard, though some owners reckoned it needed to be heavier and that the twin-keelers were stiffer.
Either way, the Tempest is no slouch. She has a gentle, easy motion combined with a respectable turn of speed for a relatively heavy boat.
Handling qualities are widely praised and the long cockpit, combined with a companionway that extends well forward, means you can almost reach the mast without having to go on deck.
The accommodation is unconventional and not for everyone. Westerly used the broad stern to fit-in twin double aft cabins, moving the heads to the bow abaft a large sail locker that opens into the heads via a door and to the deck via a hatch.
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With this locker in the bow and the aft cabins being well forward of the transom, the total cabin space is relatively short and the saloon too small for some tastes.
Cockpit stowage is also restricted by the stern cabins. A few boats were later built with a conventional forecabin.
From 1993, the Tempest evolved into the Regatta 310 with a re-styled interior designed by Ken Freivokh, but very few were sold.
Newer, lighter, sportier and more expensive than the British twin-keelers, the French-built RM is a boat that does things differently.
Plywood is used for the hull because of its strength, light weight and durability among other qualities.
The deck and coachroof are moulded, largely because plywood would give a very angular finish.
Everything about the RM 890 is geared around ruggedness, sailing ability and functionality.
She comes with a choice of bulbed, high aspect-ratio twin keels paired with a single rudder, or a deep T-bulb fin with twin rudders.
A genoa on a stemhead-mounted outer forestay can simply be rolled away rather than reefed when the wind picks up.
Like Westerly’s Tempest, the RM has a mainsheet traveller across the stern.
The tiller places the helmsman forward and close to the headsail winches for easy singlehanded sailing. Below decks the finish is painted plywood.
Privacy isn’t a priority – a few curtains are the order of the day – but the RM’s famous utility room to starboard, where many boats would fit another aft cabin, tells you exactly where the priorities lie.
A large forward-facing window gives an excellent view out. Just mind your footing on deck.
Sailing performance is hard to fault and the handling crisp and responsive.
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