Pocket World Girdler: Contessa 26
A posse of young adventurers made the Contessa 26 a legend. "Classic Plastic" from our April 2012 issue.
For a boat to become legendary, it doesn’t have to be particularly fast or of groundbreaking design. It only needs that special spark that captures the sailing world’s hearts and minds long enough for it to go down in history. A number of boats with that quality come quickly to my mind—the S&S 34, Flicka 20, Swan 38, Valiant 40—but none holds the same place in my memories as the Contessa 26.
I grew up reading of feats accomplished aboard Contessas by Tania Aebi, Brian Caldwell, and John Kretschmer, so when the Australian adventurer Jesse Martin asked if I’d like to deliver his Contessa 26 from Grand Bahama, in the Bahamas, to Panama and through the Canal, I jumped at the opportunity.
The Contessa 26 was drawn up in 1965 by Jeremy Rodgers, who’d built Folkboats for a number of years, and David Sadler, who had ideas on how to improve the design. They took the classic Folkboat, modified the keel, added more sail area forward for racing performance, changed the layout and deck structure, and built it of fiberglass instead of wood. Four decades later, the popular and widely loved vessel is still safely taking sailors to the far reaches of the globe.
Right away, the Contessa 26 proved itself a strong, seaworthy vessel. It performed well in the Round Britain and Ireland Race and the OSTAR solo transatlantic race, but the brave little boat really became famous when 18-year-old Tania Aebi chose the design for her solo circumnavigation in 1985 and her adventures in Varuna were published in Cruising World. In 1996, Brian Caldwell sailed a Contessa to become the first to circumnavigate under the age of 21.
The Contessa 26 is good-looking, with low freeboard and a narrow beam. For such a small boat, it has a large cockpit, which is nice for having guests aboard and daysailing but a potential danger when filled with water at sea. When sailing, the Contessa heels over quickly, but it soon steadies up and can carry full sail in up to 20 knots of wind.
It doesn’t take much wind to get the boat moving, and it can comfortably make 120-nautical-mile days on passages. After sailing the boat upwind for 300 miles through the Bahamas, I’ll admit that its upwind performance isn’t impressive, but it makes up for it with its ability to survive almost any storm.