Designed to turn heads, Austrian weekender, the Sunbeam 32.1, promises a unique combination of style and substance. Theo Stocker went to see if the concept delivered

Product Overview


  • Radical styling
  • Suited to how most people sail
  • Engaging, fun but easy sailing


  • Expensive for a boat you can’t cruise far in
  • Looks not to everyone’s taste
  • Helm lacked a little feel


Sunbeam 32.1 review: More than style over substance?

Price as reviewed:

£196,000.00 (Base price ex. VAT)

You’ll either love it or hate it. There is little doubt that the Sunbeam 32.1 is a Marmite boat, and that’s exactly what her creators set out to build. With a chiseled-out bow that’s more than a little shark-like, and wide bowsprit, or ‘flightdeck’ as Sunbeam are calling it, and an interior that is closer to a Bond villain’s mountain lair than a traditional yacht, this is one of the most radical-looking coastal cruisers to hit the water in recent years.

So what is it, and why does it look like that? Well, after 70 years of building everything from dinghies, through stylish-but-understated lake sailors, to 53ft blue-water cruisers, Sunbeam has a new hand on the tiller. Andreas Schöchl recently took over as the third generation to run the family shipyard which grew out of a carpentry business nearly 200 years old.

Competition is stiff in the boatbuilding world, and Andreas was bored of white fibreglass yachts that all looked virtually the same. He wanted to build boats that stood out. For a boatyard perched on the shores of the diminutive Mattsee in the foothills of the Austrian Alps, it made sense to focus on smaller boats sailed on the large European lakes, as well as in the Mediterranean and the continental Atlantic coast.

He started with a blank sheet of paper and began by outlining a typical sailing day for their intended buyers. This was based in part on feedback to their previous 28ft model, which was originally fitted out as a fully fledged cruiser, but customers wanted half the fittings ripped out.

Instead, they were looking for a boat that was quick to rig and get underway, that was simple but fun to sail, and was enjoyable for any friends they took with them, whether they sailed or not. It was to be a place where they could stay overnight occasionally, go out for a meal, anchor up and swim off the back if the sun chose to shine and then head home again.

The cockpit is spacious for a boat of this size. Photo: Richard Langdon

Sunbeam insist the Sunbeam 32.1 is a ‘weekender’, not a ‘cruiser’. It’s made for daysailing and short stints on board, and has taken much from the motor boat world, where this concept is already well-established. You just have to look at the stylishly stripped-out, open-plan interior, large cockpit and the beach club-style sundeck at the aft end of the cockpit (to call it a bathing platform would be doing it a disservice) to spot the similarities to our powerboat cruising cousins.

That’s all well and good, but does the thing sail, I hear you ask. Funnily enough, I was keen to find out too, and eager to get aboard such an unusual boat. So it was that I found myself stepping aboard in Southampton’s Ocean Village one unseasonably warm October day last autumn, not really knowing what to expect.

Might it be extreme, just a gimmick, or something else entirely? As fortune would have it, between the flat calm of the previous day and the impending storm of the following day, we stumbled across a few hours of perfect, blustery conditions.

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The clouds were rent asunder for long enough to allow sunlight to illuminate the white caps on the Solent. With the wind fluctuating between 10 and 16 knots, and building to a gusty to 21 knots, it was no steady breeze, but more than enough for the boat to show the boat’s mettle, and any chinks in its stylish armour.

Nosing out into Southampton Water, the industrial backdrop of grain silos, car carriers and oil refineries felt oddly apposite for this boat’s modernist lines, drawn by industrial designer Gerald Kiska (if you’re not familiar with KTM motorbikes, Google it and you’ll see the resemblance).

Far from being a raw and aggressive experience, however, the furling main obediently reached the end of the boom, the Code Zero spun off its furler, and we were on our way with total ease.

The helm is engaging and easily hits respectable speeds, even if a little more feedback would be nice. Photo: Richard Langdon

Radically reassuring

Radical it may look, but this is not some extreme machine that’s going to have you clinging to a stanchion and hoping for it all to be over soon. Rather, Slovenian naval architects J&J have drawn a hull that is surprisingly conservative. A displacement just north of 4 tonnes, while by no means portly, is not going to get you on the plane in a hurry.

Fairly full and rounded hull sections, coupled with a reasonable rocker plant the boat firmly in, rather than on, the water. The transom is wide, with twin rudders, but the hull chines are cosmetic rather than adding extra lumps of beaminess, though some of the volume aft is to support the engine, which is mounted behind the aft berth, rather than in the centre of the boat, as on most boats.

Forward, the bow knuckle clears the water at rest before raking aft dramatically below the foredeck, then shooting out again to a bowsprit. Underway, this takes on the appearance of a dreadnought bow, slicing beneath the wave, where the wide ‘flight deck’ at the bow, ostensibly the shape the deck would have been had the topsides not been hollowed out, keeps the spray off the deck and the boat remarkably dry.

Clear of Calshot, we were out into more open water, and a fresher breeze, but in 13 knots true and 17-18 knots across the deck, we held onto full canvas. Our test boat was fitted with a radially cut, leech-battened furling main, along with the standard self-tacking jib from Doyle. If you want more power, the backstayless boat comes with a square-top mainsail as standard, while an overlapping genoa is also an option (a second pair of winches would be mounted on the coamings and the sheet ducted aft for this).

All lines are led aft to the helm, leaving the crew free to relax. Photo: Richard Langdon

As it was, I was impressed with the set and the power of this smaller sail plan, at least in a Force 4 to 5. Sail controls are handled by the winches and clutches just forward of the wheels – no lines are taken to the companionway, leaving your guests to sip their Aperol Spritz in peace. We had powered two-speed Harken 40ST winches, so I was in no danger of needing a winch handle, let alone sailing gloves.

The mainsheet is anchored to a fixed padeye between the wheels – there’s no option for a traveller – so sail shape is handled by the kicker and while that probably cost us a few degrees of pointing, who’s going to argue when your boat looks this mean?

We could comfortably sit at about 30-34º to the apparent wind angle and making a good 5.7 knots through the water. Pointing to 28º was possible but at the cost of half a knot or so.

The bow is intended to cut through waves rather than shoulder them aside. Photo: Richard Langdon

Later, the wind built to 16 knots true and over 20 knots over the deck. Although we were clearly over-canvassed, the rudders, though not vastly deep, provided so much grip I could hold the boat comfortably on course at angles of heel beyond 45º. In fact, the only time I managed to lose this iron-fisted control was when pointing up to 60º to the wind with the Code Zero and full main in 18 knots of wind, and doing that’s just silly.

My only complaint is that I could sail the boat like this – badly, if you will – without the boat so much as letting out a whimper of complaint. Twin steel wheels on Jefa steering were tight and precise to a fault, but lacked feedback to tell me how the boat was feeling.

Composite wheels would lighten the feel and slackening the steering cable a smidgen might take a little friction out, or the blade rudders could be slightly less balanced. Either way, what was clear was that this boat was immaculately balanced; I could let go of the wheel on most points of sail without the boat biting my hands off.

A funny thing about the carved-out bow is that on board, it looked like we had a normal boat ahead of us. From the photos, however, that boat has the appearance of being marginally bows down. It’s hard to tell if this is just a purposeful slant from her twin chines, or if the bow lacked buoyancy when hard pressed. Not that it matters – this boat is RCD Category B and not intended for offshore sailing, and she positively laughed at the Solent wind-over-tide chop on our test day.

Downwind was fun with Code Zero up. She felt a little heavy in the stern. Photo: Richard Langdon

We did get a few wave slaps under the bow, and I wondered if the bow shape made for a wider hull form beneath the waterline for cutting down through waves. This is more than compensated for by the cutaway bow slicing through the waves instead of shouldering them aside.

Our upwind beat complete, it was time to head for home, but not before we’d been for a play in the waves developing off Gurnard on the Isle of Wight. In 18 knots breeze against a building tide, we set the Code Zero, pointed up to pick up some pressure and bore away down the waves, getting the boat to nudge over 9 knots, sailing at around 90º to 130º to the wind.

Catering facilities are good, if limited, but there’s a fair amount of stowage for food and drinks. Photo: Richard Langdon

Surges aside, 7.7 to 8.5 knots could be held pretty consistently, and far from being the fear-inducing spinnaker rides of old, the Code Zero kept life aboard feeling calm, and when it was time to pack our toys away, a bear away and tug of the furling line (the only time anyone pulled a rope), the sail was utterly compliant. What a great invention that sail is.

Clearly, a large part of the 32.1’s appeal is its appearance. Outlandish bow aside, there are a few features that set her apart. Liberated from the need to provide separate cabins below, the cockpit has been given ample breathing space, both in beam and length. Benches either side provide seating for six, while the fixed table allows crew to brace comfortably under the shelter of the spray hood. A bimini can be added to shade the cockpit forward of the mainsheet, and a separate sun sail can be extended from here to poles on the bathing platform at anchor.

With the engine pushed right aft, there’s plenty of space for a large transverse double berth. Photo: Richard Langdon

Clever touches

The platform slides out at the touch of a button, and the deck above it drops down into place, leaving a flush deck projecting 2m aft of the wheels without so much as a backstay to mar your suntan. On the foredeck there’s space for two more sun worshippers, the forward coachroof window providing a comfortable backrest between the two mouldings projecting the line of the coachroof forward – it was even comfortable to sit there with the boat heeled.

Stowage isn’t vast, with just one cockpit locker under the seat to starboard, but this is hull depth and reaches all the way aft, so there’s plenty of room for fenders, lines and a dinghy. Unusually, the engine is far aft and access is provided through a large watertight hatch in the cockpit sole, with additional access through the lockers and from below. This creates space for an aft berth, though it does move the engine’s weight close to the stern.

Large hull windows are well forwards, to dramatic effect when underway. Photo: Richard Langdon

Comfortable minimalism

Below decks, other than the heads compartment to starboard (which is a decent size and includes a shower, draining floor and decent stowage space), bulkheads have been done away with entirely, leaving a U-shaped saloon up front.

A table with folding leaves and bottle stowage is forward of the mast compression post, making the most of the hull windows facing forwards as much as outwards in the bow. Here there’s a short bed (150cm) which extends aft to 200cm and 150cm wide when an infill cushion is added. The galley isn’t for long-term cruising, but an induction hob will let you boil a kettle or cook some pasta.

A simple galley offers everything you need for basic catering and lots of stowage. Photo: Richard Langdon

There’s a fair amount of food and crockery stowage outboard of the galley. Other than that, there’s a hanging locker for jackets, lockers beneath the saloon seats, and cubby holes dotted around. Blinds cover the windows, but the views are so good you won’t want to close them.

The main berth for the boat is tucked, like a trendy loft conversion, below the companionway steps. Lying athwartships across the boat and making use of the boat’s full beam, the bed is 210cm long with the headrest cushion removed (200cm with it). Far from feeling pokey, LED lighting, ample headroom and a view out through the opening hatch into the cockpit make this a supremely comfortable space to be. There’s access aft of this into the engine compartment, as well as to the calorifier, heater and other systems.

A decent heads and shower even includes space for wet kit. Photo: Richard Langdon

Systems and structure

The boat carries 80L of water under the forward berth, aft of the optional bow thruster, and 80L of diesel. House batteries are below the aft berth, at least in the test boat, which had the coastal package of a 27hp Volvo Penta engine and saildrive – this was enough to push us along at 6.4 knots at 2,300rpm and a rapid 7.7 knots at 3,00rpm. A smaller 18hp is also available, though the boat comes with electric drive as standard, with an 8kW pod drive and 8.2kWh of lithium batteries providing a range of 1.5 to 2 hours at 4.5 knots. You can also double that by taking battery capacity up to 16.4kWh.

So how have they got away with this structurally? Well, the boat is hand laid up in polyester, with solid laminate below the waterline and foam sandwich above. A structural hull matrix takes the keel and rig loads, including longitudinal and transverse stringers up the hull sides, and this is bonded and laminated in, as is the interior hull moulding, adding a second layer of rigidity. The few bulkheads there are are fitted in the same way to maximise stiffness. It’s a bomb-proof way of building a boat, and allows the bilge keel version to take the ground, using reinforced rudders as a pair of hind legs.

Navigation is done on deck, but a Simarine switch panel offers optional remote access. Photo: Richard Langdon

Sunbeam 32.1 specifications

LOA: 9.98m / 32ft 9in
Hull length: 9.85m / 32ft 4in
LWL: 8.85m / 29ft 0in
Beam: 2.98m / 9ft 9in
Draught: 1.8m / 5ft 11in
Displacement: 4150 kg ( lbs)
Ballast: 1,245kg / 2,745lb
Ballast/disp: 30%
Displacement/Length: 167.6
Sail Area (main and jib): 56m2 / 603sqft
SA/D Ratio: 22.1
Engine: 27hp Volvo Penta
RCD Category: B
Price as tested: £313,000
Designer: J&J / Kiska

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I was very impressed with the quality of build and finish throughout . Though in some ways this is a simple boat, she is far from basic. With a price tag of £313,000 as tested, you’d expect her to be nicely built, and she was. I half expected the boat to be as radical a sailer as she is in appearance. If you want rocket ship, there are plenty of options out there, but this isn’t what the boat is about. The juxtaposition of radical design and conservative displacement and performance at first seemed jarring, but the concept makes sense; a refined and reassuring sailing experience with commendable performance and plenty of enjoyment. The steering system could do with a little tweaking to improve feel on the helm, and the coachroof could use a bit of grip tape adding here and there where the side decks are a little narrow when heeled, but these are minor things. I also felt the boat would sail better with the lightweight electric motor she was designed for rather than a 150kg lump of metal in the stern. That said, I was surprised with how well balanced, powerful and close-winded she felt with the sail plan of self-tacker and furling main, though I wouldn’t do without a Code Zero when speccing her up.