The evergreen modern classic is 40 years old and still in production
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Contessa 32, the evergreen David Sadler cruiser-racer that has become a design classic. It is, I suppose you might say, the Austin Healey of yachts.
The Contessa 32 has long been outstripped by much faster and more commodious designs, but to its devotees – and I’m among them, as my husband and I used to share a CO32 – there’s nothing quite like it.
Since Jeremy Rogers built the first in 1971, approximately 650 have been made. Other makes topped that easily: some 900 Westerly Centaurs were built in the Seventies and Eighties, but fewer of those are still on the go and they don’t command anything like the same following or secondhand value.
Hull no. 1 was Contessa Catherine, built for David Sadler. No 2 was Red Herring, which Jeremy Rogers built for himself. Both boats are still well loved and well sailed and, I believe, were among the 100 or so Contessas that gathered in Lymington for the anniversary celebrations.
The Contessa 32 owes its legendary status in large measure to the infamous 1979 Fastnet Race, when the stoical design carried on racing after so many had capsized or been abandoned. Its stability characteristics went on to become a gold standard. Alan Ker, then aged 23 and racing with some young friends, finished 1st in class in his father Willie’s CO32 Assent, racing to the last despite a couple of knockdowns.
Contessas have been sailed far and wide. To take Assent again, Willie Ker has circumnavigated Iceland, sailed to Greenland and Baffin Island several times, cruised to the Antarctic and up to Alaska and Russia, returning via the Great Lakes and Labrador – and most of his sailing has been single-handed.
That’s the sort of confidence the Contessa 32 inspires, and with good reason. She’s a great upwind boat, easy to get in the groove and impeccably behaved – though less biddable, and sometimes a bit of a handful downwind. The small, high aspect ratio mainsail makes reefing in a blow a cinch; the knack is to get the headsail and main well balanced, and then the old girl will pretty much handle anything.
So passionate are owners that many never crave anything else. As an example, take John McCann, pictured above, who I met at the muster. He and his father bought their CO32, Cosantes (it’s an anagram), in 1973. The boat has gone through three generations of the family, as he now owns it with his daughter Anna.
Of all the class, Cosantes has been the longest in family ownership. I asked John if he ever thought of changing. “I was never once tempted to change,” he says. “We have had tremendous fun in her and there are only two or three weekends in the season when she’s not used.”
The Contessa 32 is still being built – expensively. Jeremy Rogers’s new Calypso was at the Southampton Boat Show last year with a price tag of £149,000. I was mildy upbraided on Saturday for writing in the magazine that the cost was ‘insane’, but…c’mon…it’s a mad price for a little 32-footer.
Still, there are those for whom only a Contessa 32 will do, and as a former cult member I totally get that. It’s certainly not an age thing. The latest CO32, Tahani, has been built by Jeremy Rogers for one of the younger class members, 32-year-old Scottish engineer Corrie McQueen.
Corrie is highly experienced; she sailed through the North West Passage with well-known Australian racer and adventurer Alex Whitworth on his 33ft Berimilla. She intends to do the Fastnet Race in August in her new boat.
The Contessa 32 is the oldest class still in production, asserts Anthony Burdall, one of the organisers of the 40th anniversary celebrations. I think he’s right. One of the Amel designs did cross my mind as a possible rival, but I don’t think any of the original Seventies Amels are still in production from the same moulds.
Unless you can think of an older design that’s still on the go?