Contessa 26

By  Judith Wright Chopra
I chose a downright Contessa day to sail the 26 for this review. Lake Ontario in mid-September was releasing the frustrations of airless August, and at the docks and moorings of the Boulevard Club in Toronto, yachts were being tossed and caught on their lines like bucking broncos.
Soon, motoring out beyond the breakwater, the heavy motion eased and as we hoisted sails smartly, in spite of the wild activity beneath us, it ceased altogether. We were no longer climbing the faces of waves and sliding down their backs; we were slicing through them-carving a path smoothly and powerfully. It was a lively illustration of a vessel at its best, demonstrating the features that distinguish it from the crowd. The Contessa 26 is built to track in heavy weather; to make light work of ocean sailing; to be seaworthy and stable under any conditions. Sailors who make those demands on their boats have made it a classic. J.J. Taylor and Sons Ltd. have built 316 Contessa 26s in Canada. The Taylor company has been building boats in Canada since 1904, including the World War II Fairmile minesweepers. 

Designed by David Sadler, the two Contessa molds, the 26 and the 32, were brought to Canada in the early 1970s. Although J.J. Taylor ownership has changed hands since then, eight of the original 10 craftsmen in the shop have stayed, building the same boats in substantially the same way, with a few significant

improvements in their features. J. Taylor’s owner since 1979, Gary Bannister, has involved Contessa owners in design improvements. Recently, he invited Contessa 32 owners and prospective buyers to the Rexdale, Ontario, plant to see a mock-up lofting of the company’s next model, a 36. Designer Dieter Empacher returned to his Marblehead, Massachusetts, studio with their comments and suggestions to incorporate in the new design.

Contessa 26 InsideThe 26’s full-keel modified folkboat design has been updated and adjusted in the past two years, largely following the recommendations of owners, but its integrity has not been compromised. The new features on the latest edition of the J.J. Taylor Contessa 26 are a good example of the type of changes the design has undergone. The deck was redesigned in 1983 to allow the maximum five feet, eight inches of head room to extend farther into the cabin and to make room for an anchor locker in the bow. The headliner was also altered to allow easier access to the genoa track through- bolts. The 1984 26, built on a new interior mold after February , has shelves set into the V berth wider counters in the galley ( which also makes room for the gimbaled stove option) and the pipes leading from the head to the holding tank are covered.

These and other small adjustments are important enough improvements in an already well-loved design that two Contessa 26 owners have ordered new 26s for this season. Not willing to change designs or Jose any of the sailing and construction features of their first 26s, they have chosen to opt for the new features available on the 1984 boat. Says Jack Hernick of Toronto, “It’s the safest boat I could have on Lake On­tario or the Atlantic. With a roller-furl­ing jib I can singlehand my present boat in a 20-knot blow. The new boat, with the lead keel (earlier 26s had cast-iron keels), will be even stiffer. Now I can have more headroom, an anchor locker and a bigger engine.” (Hemick has chosen a Bukh eight hp engine option, although the standard engine is a Faryman seven hp. J.J. Taylor is currently trying out both as alternatives to the original British Petter engine which some owners found difficult to main­tain.) 

Contessa 26 OutsideHeadroom is mentioned with some frequency when discussing the 26 it. Doesn’t have comfortable standing headroom for anyone over five foot seven. What it does feature belowdecks, however, are compact accommodations appropriate for a narrow-beamed boat and suitable for sailors who plan to sail a lot as opposed to entertaining and long-term living aboard. 
A fairly standard arrangement is found below. Quarterberths are located to port and starboard, and owners re­port that adults-even those who don’t have headroom-find them adequate for a good night’s sleep. Behind the pad­ded, angled backrests ( quite narrow but, again, not designed for entertaining aboard) are shelves and Jockers with sliding doors. In the main saloon area, the large opening hatch is a new feature for light and ventilation. 
Moving forward, the galley, with stainless steel sink, freshwater pump and optional two-burner stove, is to port. The sink is narrow, but deep enough to be practical, and one of the 26’s two opening ports is sensibly located above the counter. To starboard a chart table tops the foam-insulated icebox. A shelf large enough to hold navigation tools, books and charts is tucked into the hull next to the table, and the second opening port is located above the shelf. 

Behind the main bulkhead to port is a hanging locker, and to starboard is the enclosed head with a folding teak door and deck vent. The 26’s forecabin con­tains the familiar V berth with cushion insert and opening hatch and, in the 1984 models, shelves built into the inte­rior liner. All of these interior fittings are well-finished, made of quality ma­terials that will take wear and yet be easy to maintain. Under the V berth and saloon sole are the holding and water tanks, and access to the hull. The 1984 26 includes a teak and holly floor-a big improve­ment, Hernick says, on those awkward pieces of carpet he used on his first Contessa. In general, the boat has just enough teak to create an impression of warmth without making the interior seem closed in and without requiring owners to spend more time maintaining woodwork than they do sailing.  Richard Herring, whose 26 Judy Bannister ( J.J. Taylor’s marketing  manager) and I sailed that Blustery September day, has the 26 owner’s characteristic loyalty to the design. Although nothing about the Contessa suggests racing or speed as a design priority, Herring says he found that in light air, with a super-light 170-per drifter, he could frequently take 1st or 2nd in his harbor City Yacht Club races on Georgian Bay. Learning to maneuver the 26 under motor posed a problem for one owner I spoke to, who commented that he avoided reverse whenever possible. The tortuous maneuvering required when docking and picking up our mooring on the day I sailed the Contessa, however revealed no such difficulty. Gary Bannister explained that the size of the 26’s rudder requires hemsmen to perfect a delicate technique, learning to make just the right adjustment without sending the vessel in the wrong direction. 

Contessa 26 OutsideWith ocean sailing as its designer’s priority, the 26’s through-hull fittings are all bronze; its hand laid-up fiberglass construction exceeds Lloyd’s spec­ifications; and its hull-deck joint is riv­eted every inch with stainless steel pop rivets. These features, J.J. Taylor says, make saltwater corrosion and holes in the hull less likely, and combined with the boat’s quality of finish are the rea­sons most owners say they buy Contessa’s more for the way they are built than for any other single factor. In the cockpit, which is where Contessa 26 sailors expect to spend most of their time aboard, there’s comfortable seating for four or five adults, more lockers for stowage and, for the short­handed sailor, halyards led aft. Teak grab rails, double lifelines and double­railed stern pushpit and bow pulpit attest to the fact that the boat’s emphasis is on heavy weather safety. The Contessa 26 standard price doesn’t include some of the features a cruising family or couple will require, such as the stove and dinette which are optional. With those exceptions, the standard boat (at $30,900 or $33,900 including sails two headsails, mainsail and mainsail cover docklines, fenders, anchor, rode and chain) would require little or no change and has complete standing and running rigging, including internal halyards, split backstay, Merri­man toggled turnbuckles, mainsheet blocks and genoa cars. 

This Contessa has inspired fierce loy­alty in owners who appreciate its pri­mary design features of strength and stability-and particularly among men and women who want a boat they can single-hand. It is also a graceful boat with a pedigree: in England it is known as the training vessel of the Royal Ma­rines and as an OSTAR competitor. Those who put a premium on a vessel that will allow them to sail anywhere, in any weather, will know they have found their boat.

Caption: When the wind and waves send racer/cruisers looking for shelter, that’s Contessa weather.
Originally published in Canadian Yachting’s April 1984 issue. 
LOA……………25 ft 6 in              
LWL…………….21 ft              
Beam…………..7 ft 6 in            
Draft…………….4 ft                  
Displacement ……….5,400 LBS
Ballast……………..2,300 ft 
Sail Area…………..304 ft2
Water……………….30 gal 
Head………………..20 gal
Engine………………Faryman 7- hp single- cylinder diesel 
Model……………….Contessa 26
Model Year…………1984

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