When she was launched in 2003, the Sadler 290 was probably the roomiest and most powerful 29ft twin-keeler ever built – and David Harding reckons she still is
Few production cruising yachts deserved more attention when they were launched than the Sadler 290.
This was a boat the likes of which had never been seen before.
She was destined to be something special from the outset, and she lived up to expectations in every way.
In fact, she exceeded them, and not only because the original brief had been for a boat that would be the modern equivalent of the Westerly Centaur.
As boats sometimes do in their formative stages, the Sadler became bigger and more powerful as the design evolved.
And as a former Sadler employee turned yachting journalist who happened to know everyone involved in the project, I was in the privileged position of seeing that evolution take place.
Having been involved in the development of the Starlights 14 years earlier, I had some idea of the potential in the design and I was more than eager to see how the new Sadler turned out.
Although the 290 was a Sadler by name, the new Sadler company was unrelated to those that had gone before. The design encapsulated many of the same beliefs and ideals nonetheless.
It would be a sailing boat first and foremost: tough, fast, capable, comfortable and designed to cover the ground quickly and confidently in all weathers.
At the same time it would offer more interior space than almost anything else of similar size that could lay claim to being a sailing boat.
Maintaining the Sadler continuity was the fact that Stephen Jones was chosen as the designer.
Jones had been responsible for the Starlights, which were widely recognised as setting new standards in performance cruisers, and the Sadler 290 would be a development of a similar concept.
A Sadler 290 man
One owner who found the Sadler 290 to be exactly what he wanted is Peter Kinver, who bought Java Blue second-hand in 2015.
Peter had previously owned a Sadler 29, which I sailed with him a few years ago from his home port of Looe. He’s also a leading light in the Redwing fleet in Looe (that’s the Uffa Fox-designed National Redwing dinghy).
Peter’s first cruiser, coincidentally, had been a Sadler 26 that washed ashore near Looe, having been adrift for two days.
He restored it and sailed it for about a year before buying a twin-keeled Sadler 29 that he kept on a drying mooring in the river.
By then he had already seen the Sadler 290 as a new boat at the Southampton Boat Show. When the time came to move up from the 29, it was an easy decision to make.
As he explains: ‘I wanted something bigger and faster without going over 29ft because of the cost of marina berths. I thought about a Sadler 34 but it would have cost £1,000 a year more in berthing fees.’
The benefits of twin keels
He was mindful of marina costs because the plan was to keep his next boat in a marina in Plymouth for a few years.
Lovely though Looe is as a place to sail from – and it’s sadly overlooked by most cruising sailors heading along the coast – a half-tide mooring does have its limitations.
Being able to step aboard and sail away at any state of tide would allow Peter to make much more use of the new boat.
Nearly all 290s are twin-keelers however, and as things have turned out, he has been more than happy to have two keels.
As he observes: ‘It’s good being able to dry out in the Isles of Scilly’. Islands were involved in Java Blue’s earlier life, too.
Peter initially saw her for sale in Guernsey – which has since been a racing destination with the boat – only to find when he enquired that she was already under offer.
Then, 12 months later, she appeared for sale with a broker in Plymouth and he bought her.
‘The boat came to me!’ he says.
Many factors contribute to make the Sadler 290 a very different sort of twin-keeler to most. For a start, the keels are in lead rather than cast iron.
Because lead is so much denser, they can be a slimmer and more efficient section.
The centre of gravity is much lower because they’re bolted on to moulded spacers, so all the weight is in the bottom half of the keels.
The resulting power and righting moment is enormous compared with most twin-keelers – and fin-keelers too, for that matter – allowing the Sadler to carry a healthy spread of sail and to have a hull shape that, in typical Jones style, needs to provide little in the way of form stability.
No hard turn to the bilge is necessary.
The waterline beam is narrow in relation to the overall beam by cruising-yacht standards, leading to a deeper canoe body.
Since stability comes from the weight in the keels, not from the hull shape, the hull is free to do what it should do: to slip through the water easily and retain its balance when the boat heels, because the immersed section remains undistorted.
The Sadler 290 is no lightweight, but wetted area is kept to a minimum by another feature that’s widely used by the designer in his cruising yachts: the displacement skeg.
Despite the 290’s wide stern at deck level, there’s less boat to stick to the water back here than you would think.
These factors combine to create a boat that simply sails the socks off most cruisers of similar size.
More ballast, more sail and a narrower waterline make a boat faster in both light and heavy airs, and more comfortable into the bargain.
One factor that Peter notices compared with his Sadler 29 is the absence of thudding and banging from the windward keel.
That’s because the keels are mounted further down the hull, closer to the centre-line, than on a typical twin-keeler.
They tend not to break the surface when the boat’s hard pressed, saving banging as well as extra drag.
Other clues to the Sadler’s performance potential include the notably fine entry.
Few cruisers are more delta-shaped than this one.
Going back a generation or two in designs, fuller forward sections would be needed to prevent nose-diving downwind in heavy weather.
Here, the buoyancy is provided by the ample freeboard instead.
The gunwale is by no means high by modern standards, but it combines with the relatively deep hull to provide well over 6ft (1.83m) of headroom in the saloon – more than respectable for a sporty cruiser of this size.
It also contributes to the exceptionally high AVS (angle of vanishing stability) of more than 140°, placing the Sadler 290 among the very small number of boats under 9m (30ft) to achieve Category A status under the RCD.
The interior volume is vastly greater than on the Sadler 29, whose hull is also shorter because the stated length includes the transom-hung rudder.
To say that the 290 is very different would be an understatement.
As Peter points out, she’s a bigger boat and ‘more of a handful – not as docile. You get much more room and performance but she’s not as directionally stable.’
As I found out on my first test in 2003, this isn’t a boat you can leave to her own devices.
There’s no skeg in front of the rudder as on the earlier Sadlers and the Starlights (the displacement skeg being something different), and the Sadler 290 will quickly wander off if you let go of the tiller.
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It took a little fiddling to get the Neptune to fit on the transom and involved removing the stern door, which he doesn’t miss.
During my sail when the Sadler 290 had just been launched, I was more than impressed by her performance.
Second time out, in fresher conditions, we rarely dropped below 8 knots with the wind abaft the beam and consistently exceeded 6 knots to windward.
It was a brand new, unladen boat with a clean bottom, sails straight out of the loft and a crew that included the designer, builder and sailmaker, but it still wasn’t bad going for a twin-keeled cruiser.
She felt different from the other Sadlers and from the Starlights, perhaps a little more twitchy and with a helm that was extremely light most of the time before loading up as the rudder gripped tenaciously in the stronger gusts.
This time we had a slightly weedy bottom because an injury meant that Peter had been using the boat less than usual and was unable to keep it as clean as he would like.
Java Blue was also fully laden with cruising kit, so we didn’t quite match the earlier performance but I was reminded that the Sadler 290 is quick and extremely enjoyable to sail, and gives
you one of the most comfortable helming positions from the windward coaming that you will find on any boat.
Verdict on the Sadler 290
The Sadler 290’s combination of space and pace in a boat of this length is extremely hard to match. There are compromises, of course.
A fine bow makes the foredeck pretty narrow. On the other hand, the broad stern combined with the sensible width of the cockpit allows the wide side decks to run all the way to the transom.
On so many boats, the cockpit is made as wide as possible, so it feels insecure in a seaway and you have to step into it to get to the stern.
At the same time it means that space further aft is limited by the swing of the tiller. That’s where the seats on each side on the stern rail come into their own.
As a concession to cruising convenience, the mainsheet is taken to a bridle on the coachroof forward of the companionway.
Many of us would prefer a traveller in the cockpit, but at least the sheet can be reached from the helm.
Peter has also replaced the original wire strops with longer strops in Dyneema to reduce the downward pull and give a better sheeting angle.
In the cockpit, a large locker to port swallows most of the usual gear, and the seats are close enough together for leg-bracing in a seaway.
Below decks the layout is unusual for a relatively modern boat in placing the heads between the saloon and forecabin, as was the norm until a few decades ago.
While not everyone will approve of this arrangement, it moves the saloon further aft into a beamier part of the boat.
It also allows the galley to be tucked away to port by the companionway steps, where it’s extremely secure and right out of the way.
A proper pillar handhold is at its forward end – a rare and useful feature. Abaft the chart table to starboard, the aft cabin is generous for a boat of this size.
By contrast, and as you would expect, the forecabin gets narrow towards the bow. The quality of joinery on 290s depends partly on who built them.
Sadler Yachts contracted the first boats to Rampart Yachts. Others, including Peter’s, were fitted out by Lauren Marine and later boats by Hillyard in Littlehampton.
With all the changes that affected her during her all-too-short production run, the Sadler 290 had a history that could only be described as chequered.
There’s no doubt that her potential was never realised, and the demand must surely remain for boats like this today.
The good thing is that there are owners like Peter who appreciate these remarkable boats for what they are.
Alternatives to the Sadler 290 t0 consider
Hunter Channel 31
Hunter Boats and David Thomas arguably did more than any other builder and designer to show that boats with twin keels could really sail.
Some of the early twin-keelers went sideways almost as fast as they went forwards, but builders such as Hunter and Sadler did much to change that as well as offering twin keels on bigger boats.
Plenty of Hunter’s Channel 32s and 323s had twin keels. They were also offered on the Channel 31, which came later and was Hunter’s second boat over 30ft (9m).
The Hunter factory had previously been too small for boats of this size, the stretched versions of the Impala 28 (the Horizon 30 and Crusader 30) being the biggest in the range, but a bigger factory allowed expansion.
Originally due to appear at the London Boat Show in 1999, the Channel 31 was delayed by a year to allow time for refinements.
In the words of David Thomas, the 31 was ‘right down the middle between a club racer/one design and a cruiser you can sail anywhere’.
She was conceived to be pretty quick, and carried a big mainsail, but cruising concessions included the standard self-tacking jib.
Owners could choose an overlapping headsail if they wanted. A souped-up version, to be known as the 303, was planned but never built.
Under sail, the 31 is fast and rewarding; well balanced, stiff and responsive.
If she has a weakness it’s that the rudder struggles for grip when she’s seriously hard pressed, particularly downwind, when the well-swept spreaders make it hard to de-power that large mainsail.
Below decks she’s plusher than many of the earlier Hunters thanks to the styling by Ken Freivokh.
As David Thomas put it, ‘we gave this boat the things the Sigma 33 doesn’t have – more ballast, a proper keel and a new-fangled interior.’
Brand loyalty tends to be strong among boat owners, so it’s no surprise that owners of one Sadler will often look at another one when considering their next move.
Launched in 1984, the Sadler 34 was the longest and latest of the Sadler models from the original Sadler Yachts.
Whereas the 25, 29 and 32 were designed by David Sadler, the 26 and 34 were by his son, Martin, who founded the company.
The 34 soon established a reputation as a fast, well-balanced and supremely capable offshore passage-maker, distinguishing herself in multiple trans-Atlantic races as well as the Azores and Back (AZAB), Round Britain races and others.
She was also chosen to undertake a number of global circumnavigations.
In what had become a Sadler tradition by the time she was launched, she was built with the well-proven double-skinned hull that incorporated enough closed-cell polyurethane foam to keep her afloat in the event of major structural damage.
This was put to the test on one occasion, when a 34 was run down by a ship in the English Channel. She floated low in the water but lived to tell the tale.
Multiple keel choices were offered to potential buyers, including deep and shallow fins, twin keels and a centreplate.
Later fin-keelers were given new, low-cg keels designed by Stephen Jones to improve their stiffness.
With her relatively slim hull, the Sadler 34 is not the most spacious of boats below decks and the aft cabin is essentially a generous quarter berth, but it is otherwise a comfortable and practical layout.
Westerly and Ed Dubois were another builder-and-designer team to shake up the image of the twin-keeled cruiser in the 1980s.
The earlier Laurent Giles-designed Westerlys, including the Merlin’s predecessor, the Konsort, had sailed better than they were often given credit for, but Dubois took the performance
to a new level.
The Merlin is widely considered to be one of Westerly’s under-rated designs. She was launched in 1984 as the first model to have an owner’s cabin in the stern.
It was a good size and, combined with the spacious heads, roomy saloon and surprisingly sprightly performance, got her off to a good start commercially.
Like most Westerlys, the Merlin went through several incarnations and the 28 later evolved into the Merlin 29, with the addition of a sugar scoop and an inboard rudder replacing the transom-hung original.
Then, in 1993, all the aft-cockpit Westerlys were given the ‘Regatta’ treatment: masthead rigs gave way to fractional rigs (though the Merlin had always been fractional anyway) and Ken Freivokh was called in to re-style the interiors.
The Regatta 290, as the Merlin 29 became, found a limited market but can make a great second-hand buy.
Had the Merlin been styled more sympathetically from the outset – the forward end of the coachroof especially – she might have acquitted herself rather better in commercial terms.
She would struggle to match the Sadler 290 for performance but, being up to 20 years older, can be found for a lot less money.
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