Contessa 32

Contessa32250BBy Paul Howard

When British naval architect, David Sadler, drew the lines of this design in 1972, he gave the Contessa 32 a unique profile. At a time when cruising boats sported springy sheer lines, this racer/cruiser appears at least at first glance, to have a reverse sheer. In fact, the bow is higher than the stern, with the lowest part of the deck just forward of the cockpit. Other distinguishing features of the Contessa 32 are long overhangs, a narrow, tucked-up stern, low topsides and a narrow beam to length ratio. Below the waterline, Sadler has penned a moderate fin keel, with a skeg-supported rudder on a deep vee cross-section. In Britain, the Contessa was built at the Jeremy Rogers Boatyard, and was voted “Boat of the Show” at the 1973 Boat Show in London, England. Based on this initial success, the Rogers yard in Lymington went on to manufacture over 700 boats between 1973 and 1982.

In 1973, J.J. Taylor president, Alan Nye Scott, had a Rogers-built hull and deck shipped from Britain so that Taylors could produce a set of moulds for Canadian production. The Contessa was an instant success, and when the production run ended in 1990, 87 32s had been built.

Offshore cruisers will be interested to know that the fibreglass lay-up of the Canadian-built 32 meets the same Lloyd’s specifications as the British boats. Boris Sam, who joined J.J. Taylor in 1970 to build the Contessa 26, comments on the 32’s robust construction. “The hulls were constructed in two halves, with the gelcoat and a layer of 1.5 oz. mat. Above the waterline we used three layers of 18.5 oz. Fabmat.

“Below the waterline we added an additional layer of 18.5 oz. Fabmat, followed by another two layers at the keel, and with five layers of the same mat added at the chainplates for the shrouds and backstay. Next, the entire laminate schedule was covered with another layer of 1.5 oz. mat.”

Lastly, as Sam explained, the two halves of the hull were joined with another five layers of mat. “It’s hard to believe the amount of fibreglass that went into that boat!” said Sam, who now lays up power boat hulls at Medeiros Boat Works in Oakville, Ont.

The primary difference between the Canadian and British models is in the interior. While the overseas boat had an all-wood finish down below, J.J. Taylor used white fibreglass headliners, as well as mouldings for the galley, head and main salon furniture, which was finished with wood trim. Consequently, the Canadian boat was slightly lighter in weight, the interior brighter, and production time shorter.

Declan Mackell, a transplanted Irishman who now lives in Etobicoke, Ont., bought Sean-ois (Gaelic for Mother of Wisdom) in 1975. In July 1977, he sailed away on a 50,000 mile, single-handed circumnavigation, before returning to Toronto in 1983. He carried no furling gear, but with 12 sails in the lockers, he often poled-out twin running sails in the Trade Winds. Mackell reports his best day’s run was 186 miles, on the Canary Islands to Barbados passage. “I didn’t touch the helm for 14 days,” he said, “as the twin sails and wind vane did all the work.”

The toughness of the Contessa hull was tested on Mackell’s world tour when he ran into a 40-foo whale. Mackell was cooking below during the daytime, as his boat charged along at six to seven knots, when there was a loud noise, and the boat rolled violently to its beam ends. When Mackell came on deck, the obviously stunned whale lay momentarily at the surface near the boat before it swam off. Remarkably, at the point of impact there were no more than a few lines of crazing in the gelcoat at the waterline.

In another episode, Mackell was asleep in his bunk when a cargo ship passed so close to him that the freighter’s bow wave filled the jib and broke the forestay. After he was thrown from his bunk, he scrambled topsides to jury rig so he could sail to his next destination.” Sean-ois was displayed in the 1984 Toronto International Boat Show, when Mackell joined the crew at J.J. Taylor. Today this circumnavigating 32 is based in Sault St. Marie, Ont.

Mackell later bought another Contessa 32, Ashlin, launched in 1989. Modifications were made to make the boat lighter and more airy. He used no teak in the interior, added a mid-ships hatch in the coachroof, made the forward bulkhead only partial between the head and the vee-berth. Other modifications included filling all the cavities, including the cockpit coamings, behind the liners and other inaccessible areas, with foam insulation.

Readers of Adlard Coles’ Heavy Weather Sailing (International Marine) will be familiar with the remarkable sea-keeping qualities of a British built Contessa 32 that raced in the infamous Fastnet Race and gale of 1979. Of the 303 starting yachts competing in six divisions, only 85 finished. In a period of nine wind-whipped hours, 15 lives were lost, five yachts sank, and a further 19 were abandoned. Much of the Fastnet was sailed in 35 to 40 knot winds, with several hours of mean speeds of 55 knots, gusting to 65 knots or higher.

The Contessa 32, Assent, was the sole yacht of the 58 starters in the (smallest) Class to finish and, as Coles writes, “put in a very good corrected time in relation to her size.” Assent was a sailing school boat, with one instructor and four students aboard. Coles relates that it drove to windward at about 60 degrees off the wind, doing about four to five knots, luffing up to the crests, then bearing away in the troughs. At one point, the boat was knocked down, and its mast head was in the water for about 10 seconds before it righted itself. Coles writes that the crew did well with “…high morale…plenty of sleep and light meals which could be taken easily, mostly carbohydrates — bread and honey, flap-jacks, all washed down with fruit drinks…. Assent had no electronic instruments; distances were recorded on an ordinary Walker’s log streamed from the taffrail.”

The cockpit of the Contessa 32 is long and comfortably arranged, with high backrests and excellent protection from the elements. Tiller steering was standard, though most boats have wheel steering. The side decks are wide, and the fore deck is clear and easy to work on. The bow comes to a very sharp point, with a long overhang forward.

The interior of the Contessa 32, however, is a disappointment to those expecting to find roomy and airy accommodations. After all, this is a early-70s British design. Although the boat has a stated headroom of 6 ft. 1 in., this height is only found at the foot of the companionway; beyond this spot, headroom quickly reduces to about 5 ft. 10 in. in the main salon. The galley is immediately to port, at the foot of the companionway, with a decent number of cupboards and stowage, and adequate counter space. Early models had an L-shaped galley, while later models (from 1982 onwards) had more of a U-shaped dinette, with seating for four or five that converts to a smallish double berth. A single settee/berth sits opposite this dining area. Forward, a narrow head, with stowage opposite, divides the main salon from the companionway.

Early boats were fitted with a 24-horsepower Farymann diesel, although in later models the Bukh 20-horsepower was standard. Various other boats were outfitted with the Volvo 2003 28-horsepower, or the three-cylinder Yanmar diesel.

When Terry Kirkland won a small lottery prize he decided to buy a Contessa 26. A few years later, when he won a second larger lottery jackpot, he purchased a Contessa 32. Gerta Woodbury bought Kirkland’s Contessa 26, Millennium, which she sailed on Lake Ontario for several years. When she heard Kirkland was ill with cancer, Woodbury flew to Vancouver to visit, and cruised on the Contessa 32, Millennium II, while there. After their sail, Kirkland insisted that Woodbury should have his second Contessa, which he willed to her. Financial arrangements to purchase the boat from the estate were made. Sadly Kirkland died five days after her departure. After it was trucked from Vancouver to Toronto, Millennium II began its new sailing life at the Mimico Cruising Club in Etobicoke, Ont.

“I really like the low freeboard and solid feel of the boat,” said Woodbury. “I gladly sacrifice interior volume for that sense of security.” And at 5ft. 2 in., this skipper reports that she has plenty of room for her needs.

Originally published in Canadian Yachting’s Summer 1996 issue.


LOA – 32ft.

LWL – 24 ft

Beam – 9 ft 6 in.

Draft – 5 ft 6 in

Ballast – 4600 lbs

Sail area – 417 sq ft

Engine – 20 hp Bukh

Berths – 5

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