Note added on October 12, 2011: “All of the points that I discuss below are still valid. I had a great time on my Contessa 26 and think that she was a great boat. Since my plans changed to include a longer period of time living aboard I bought the slightly larger Sirocco and gave up the shallower draft and some of the easy handling of the Contessa 26. I am glad that I didn’t have the larger, deeper boat in the rivers or on the Gulf Intracoastal waterway, as the deeper draft would have prohibited me from visiting some of the places that I went. I still heartily recommend the Contessa 26 for anyone considering a small cruising boat.”
The boat that I chose for this voyage is a Contessa 26. This boat is based on the venerable Folkboat–the hull is largely similar and retains the good sailing qualities that made the Folkboat such a well-loved and long-lived design.
When I started my search for a boat I had a few criteria that I had come up with based on my previous experiences with other sailboats. I have sailed since I was 5 and have had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time on a wide variety of boats. Keeping past experiences in mind I decided to search for a boat with the following attributes: an outboard rudder; tiller steering; full keel; transom stern; moderate overhangs; relatively narrow beam; and a draft of no more than 4.5 feet. I wanted an outboard rudder for ease of inspection and service–it’s not always possible to drop an inboard rudder if major work is required. The outboard rudder is as simple as it gets, and a tiller does nothing to complicate the steering system besides lending itself to easily setting up a self-steering gear. I had previously owned a Pearson Vanguard, which has a cut-away full keel and really made me a full-keel convert. The Contessa has a similar cut-away keel with an attached rudder, but it is proportionally longer than the Vanguard’s was. If anything I find that this just improves the boat’s sailing characteristics, and the protection that the long keel affords the rudder is invaluable. I wanted a transom stern mostly because I don’t have fond memories of hanging from my knees, head first over the rail trying to clean under the counter other counter-stern boats that I have sailed on. I have found that a boat with long overhangs will tend to hobbyhorse in short seas, especially when a bit of weight gets put into the ends, as is inevitable when cruising. Speaking of short seas, that is why I wanted a narrow boat–they cut through the waves where a beamier boat gets stopped dead in her tracks expending energy to throw water out to the side in great sheets of spray. I spend a lot of time going upwind, and I have found that a relatively narrow boat goes upwind with smaller loads and keeps driving ahead when the going gets rough. I wanted to keep the draft of the boat moderate because I envisioned spending a good deal of time coastal cruising and keeping the draft under 5 feet opens up a lot of anchorages.
The Contessa 26 met all of the above criteria in a boat that is well built and good looking to my eye. That’s not to say that Cavendysh is the perfect boat–she is a compromise like any other boat. For instance, she isn’t really big enough to feel like “home”. I feel like I am perpetually camping out. Cavendysh is a very capable sailboat and has seen me through some rough conditions (late October on Lake Michigan comes immediately to mind), but she is fairly wet. The deck is almost always covered in spray even on gentle days. The self-draining cockpit is a bit too low, so water splashes back up the drains at sea. I have to close the cockpit drains if I have more than two guests onboard for a daysail. I haven’t really figured out a good anchor-handling solution yet, so I have a temporary roller mounted on the pulpit for hoisting and storing the anchor. The tight foredeck has stymied any simple plan to put a strong bow roller in place. The engine access is less than ideal, with the main access being through the cockpit floor. This arrangement can be terribly inconvenient at times and also causes the engine to get dripped on regularly because the gasket leaks and the cockpit usually has water in it from the drains. The access doors to the cockpit lockers are too small to stow large pieces of gear, such as my dinghy. Finally, I haven’t found a way to make the companionway truly watertight, and when water does get in it drips directly on the bunks. These are all relatively minor complaints, though, and can mostly be fixed with a bit of creative thinking and project work.
Overall, the little Contessa is a wonderful all-round boat. She sails like a dream and has no real bad habits. She sails well to windward without wearing me out or pounding. And, she just fits well. I can brace comfortably across the cabin or cockpit no matter the angle of heel. When I reach for a handhold, there is always one within reach. The bunks are narrow to the point of being a bit confining, but they are of generous length, which is great because I like to sleep on my stomach and stretch my toes out. At 5’10” I find that some production boats don’t have enough room for me to do that. I am very happy with my pocket-sized Contessa.