The Contessa 32 celebrates its half-century this year. Elaine Bunting traces its enduring appeal for adventurous sailors.
Alan Ker on the Contessa 32
“We were prepared for a very rough night but we didn’t have any inkling how rough it was going to be. As we passed the Scillies the wind was picking up from the west and as the front came through there was heavy rain. That cleared and it became bright moonlight over an extremely stormy sea. At that point we were starting to say: ‘Well, that looks like page 49 of Adlard Coles’s Heavy Weather Sailing’.”
It was August 1979 and Alan Ker was taking part in the Fastnet Race with a crew of friends. Aged 23, one of the youngest skippers, he was sailing his father’s Contessa 32, Assent. The Contessa 32 was a small yacht even then, a nutshell by today’s standards, 32ft overall but only 24ft on the waterline, nipped in and narrow at the stern, slender amidships, with a long fin keel.
Yet the attributes of this pint-sized cruiser were what protected Ker and his crew. The Contessa was knocked down beyond horizontal, as many yachts were, but she righted herself after about 10 seconds. Ker kept driving her 60° off the wind under three-reefed main, steering over the crests. He sailed back into Plymouth, the only finisher in a class of 58 yachts. With no VHF radio, he was unaware of the scale of destruction behind.
In the inquiry that followed, the Contessa 32 was found to have an angle of vanishing stability of 156° compared with 117° for a contemporary Half Tonner. With such an endorsement of the boat’s seaworthiness, a design that began life as a modest coastal cruiser-racer instantly gained an all-weather reputation. Even 43 years later, this is still one of the most sought after small yachts for voyages and adventures of the most extreme kind.
Star qualities of the Contessa 32
For Kit Rogers, the Contessa 32 is almost in the blood. He was just a toddler when his father, Jeremy, built the first boat in Lymington in 1970. The design had been drawn by David Sadler the previous year as a larger successor to the popular Contessa 26. Contessa Catherine, hull No1, was built for Sadler himself. No2, Red Herring, was Jeremy Rogers’s and launched in 1971 (both boats are still going strong, several owners on).
From its beginnings, the Contessa was billed as a cruiser-racer. The design was an immediate hit. Jeremy Rogers campaigned his boat very successfully during the 1971 season and when sistership Contessa Catherine had her formal debut at the Earls Court Boat Show in London in early 1972, she was voted Boat of the Show (the class’s 50th anniversary celebrations were planned for 2021, but have been rescheduled for this summer).
Despite its star qualities, though, no one could have predicted the Contessa business would still be providing for the Rogers family more than 50 years on. Today, Kit Rogers and his wife, Jessie, both experienced ocean sailors, own the moulds and run Jeremy Rogers Ltd, specialising in new builds and refits of this dauntless one-design. On average, the company builds one new yacht each year and refits three or four more.
Only a handful of designs this old are still in production. Examples include the much smaller International Dragon (1929), the Folkboat (1942), the Drascombe Lugger (1968), the Tradewind 35 (1975) and the Rustler 36 (1980). Of those, none has been so numerous as the Contessa 32. At least 700 Contessa 32s have been built, making it the most successful one-design cruiser-racer of all time. Most are Rogers builds, but in total they were built by five different yards, including around 100 built under licence in Canada.
Back in 1971, a new Contessa 32 cost £5,950. Today, a new build Contessa from Kit Rogers will set you back no less than £275,000 plus VAT. Those wanting refits to bring older Contessas to near new condition spend small fortunes, too. Kit Rogers says a typical refit at the yard is “between £100,000 and £200,000”.
The boat is, he says, “not that different. The layout is the same, construction the same way but [with] more attention to detail and better joinery. We can’t compete with mass produced boats so have gone down the route of a very high standard. We don’t use veneered floors, there are dovetailed joints, we use the best materials and equipment that we can.”
The price of a new Contessa could easily buy you a yacht that feels twice or three times the size. A Pogo 44, for example, starts at €270,000; a Hanse 460, gigantic by comparison, is from €270,000. But that isn’t the point: for a steady stream of new owners and still-bewitched aficionados, no other yacht will do.
While Jeremy Rogers was establishing the Contessa 32’s prowess as a Solent racer, where it soon gained its own class at Cowes Week (it still has), others were seeing its potential far beyond that. It was immediately eligible, and suited to, a new species of long distance offshore race, and in 1972 Royal Marine commando Mike McMullen raced across the North Atlantic in the OSTAR in his Contessa 32 Binkie II.
In 1979, the reputation of the boat was cemented in yachting history by the Fastnet Race inquiry, and the Contessa began to be thought of more as an ocean pugilist than a coastal racer. In 1984, American John Kretschmer took the Contessa 32 Gigi from New York to San Francisco, rounding Cape Horn on the same route once plied by the Clipper ships.
He wrote about the voyage in his book Cape Horn to Starboard and of enduring a storm that knocked the boat down to 130°. ‘We were in way over our heads and it was the Contessa 32 which bailed us out time and again,’ he recalled. In his talks and subsequent interviews he lauded the boat’s virtues, gilding its image of invincibility.
Meanwhile, Assent was being sailed far and wide, often single-handed by her owner, Willy Ker. A former Army officer and farmer from Somerset, Ker had bought his boat in 1976. In the early days, Ker and his son, Alan, cruised and raced the boat together. In 1977 they both did the Fastnet Race, Willy as skipper. Two years later, Alan skippered her to the finish despite the devastation of that notorious race. But in the years that followed, Assent was to see and survive even worse weather.
During the Round Britain and Ireland Race in 1978, Willy Ker began thinking of exploring further north. He sailed the following year to the Faroe Islands and followed that with a circumnavigation of Iceland. Over the next decade, he returned to the far north and across the Atlantic. In the 1990s, he sailed south to Antarctica.
Until his final voyage alone aged 85, Ker covered over 100,000 miles in Assent, sailing to the Arctic, Antarctic, from Easter Island to Hawaii, and on numerous occasions to Greenland and Baffin Island, very often single-handed. Ker died in 2019, aged 94, but we occasionally spoke about his voyages and he once told me: “We think she’s the best boat ever, and we’ve got tremendous faith in her. She really is the sweetest boat to sail.”
In nearly 30 years’ of cruising and racing he often encountered severe weather. She was knocked down three times, he said, but only ever to the horizontal, and she always righted herself promptly.
“The worst knockdown, undoubtedly, was in 1987, when I was returning across the Atlantic with a crew. We were about 200 miles off Cape Farewell and the Coastguard said we would get north or north-west Force 10 plus.
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“I stupidly took everything down and lay ahull under bare poles. Now, I reckon that was the worst thing to do; you’re a sitting duck. A lot of water came in and knocked everything out.
“Afterwards, we ran downwind, but it was pretty hairy, I can tell you.”
Ker’s experience was that the Contessa is best reefed down and kept driving on. “You can stick more or less anything with three reefs and the jib rolled well in,” he said. “If it gets really nasty, I roll the headsail away. I don’t think I’ve ever set a storm jib.”
The easy handling virtues of the Contessa have attracted scores of adventurers over the decades – and still do. In 1993, 15-year-old Seb Clover chose a Contessa 32, Reflection, in which to make a record-breaking solo transatlantic. He was shadowed by his father, sailing another Contessa 32, Xixia.
The following year, the owner of Chanson de Lecq, Jo Hunter, was presented with the Ocean Cruising Club’s Award of Merit and the Royal Cruising Club’s Medal for Seamanship following a solo voyage from South Georgia to Cape Town and then across the Southern Ocean to Australia. She was dismasted during this and sailed 1,700 miles to Fremantle under jury rig.
The impregnable nature of the yachts encouraged the Joint Services Sail Training Centre in Gosport to buy a fleet of nine Contessas during the 1970s. Over the next two decades MOD servicemen and women sailed them all over Europe, across to Greenland, around Scotland, up the fjords of Norway and to the Fastnet Rock and back many times over.
Assent’s new life
When Willy Ker died three years ago, his beloved Assent was put up for sale. The first to step forward was the Rogers family.
Assent now belongs to Kit and Jessie Rogers. She was brought back to their yard in Lymington, refitted like new and has been transformed into a boat for family adventures. In 2019 Kit returned Assent to the Rolex Fastnet Race, where she was the smallest yacht in the fleet, racing with his brother, yacht designer Simon Rogers, and two of their children, Jonah and Hattie.
Theirs is far from the only Contessa 32 being sailed by the next generation. The design has a perpetually refreshing fan base of millennial voyagers and vloggers as well as retirees aspiring to solo feats.
“You can’t really pigeonhole typical owners,” Kit Rogers says. “In the 10 years we’ve had such a range of them, from a 30-year-old woman, to a Brazilian sailing a boat with a reinforced hull in the Amazon, to a young Norwegian man.
“Most of the boats we work on are for adventures and people going places.”
They know that this pretty little thing is a tough old boat. In the words of a retired member of the Royal Armoured Corps Yacht Club, the Contessa 32 is “like a tank. They are bulletproof, small inside, never on an even keel, forgiving when the going gets bumpy and a thrill to drive fast. But, most importantly, the kettle is always on!”
Owners Stories: the modern Contessa 32 adventures
Lucy Te Moananui Nerissa K
Originally from the UK, Lucy met her husband while travelling in New Zealand and has settled there. A lifelong lover of the water, she is a world champion SUP surfer who says she always dreamed of sailing across oceans and her big goal is to enter an ocean race.
“I did a lot of research and read many books. I wanted a small yacht that was easy to sail solo and short-handed but also a proven oceangoing vessel. A few boats seemed appealing but the Contessa 32 kept cropping up in my reading. Not only was she a capable offshore boat in a smaller size, she had simply stunning lines.”
Lucy found the Canadian-built Contessa 32, Nerissa K, lying in New Zealand, and bought her. “Sailing off the coast of the South Island of New Zealand can be harsh. We can get big swells, it’s often cold and southern storms from the Antarctic pass through regularly. The Contessa handles it well, she is easily balanced, stable and surfs downwind with control,” she says.
“I get compliments wherever I go, when those in the know hear she’s a Contessa 32, the interest rises a notch. I can sail her with ease on my own and she doesn’t feel oversized, yet in 3-4m of ocean swell I still feel safe. I enjoy the simple life and would rather have five winches to service than 10: maintenance and repairs are easier on a smaller vessel.”
Pierre Huglo Fresh Herring
French philosophy teacher Pierre Huglo realised a lifetime ambition between 2018 and 2019 by sailing his Contessa 32 single-handed round the world with no engine and minimal equipment in the non-stop Longue Route race.
“I chose a Contessa 32 because I wanted a boat in which I can have complete confidence while sailing alone across any ocean. I wanted a boat able to sail in any conditions of wind and sea, that would give me independence and self-reliance. With 50% ballast ratio and a very strong construction the Contessa gave me this confidence and now I’ve sailed 72,500 miles aboard Fresh Herring I know she never deceived this confidence I had in her.”
Mike Loubser Coconiño
When he retired, Mike Loubser, a doctor from South Africa, sold his 42ft Simonis design and began looking for a new boat. “I was looking to simplify, find a boat that was seaworthy, capable in bluewater but simple enough that I wouldn’t be spending all my time tinkering with pressurised hot and cold water, complex electrical systems, a large, powerful rig, or always be looking for crew,” he says.
He chose a Contessa built by Jeremy Rogers in 1980. He likes the fact that deck work is easy to accomplish but admits: “You have to come to terms with how small this boat is below deck. The lack of space in the living quarters takes some getting used to – optimal use of space is essential.”
For him, the heritage of the Contessa is a huge draw. “I liked the reputation of being well-mannered. To top it all off, the Contessa has lovely lines.”
Contessa 32’s Appeal
What is it about the Contessa 32? Even for a superfan such as me, its appeal is surprisingly hard to define. It’s cramped down below, without full headroom, the saloon is snug, the forepeak berths short, and the galley and heads both quite poky.
Interior volume and liveaboard luxury is not what the Contessa is about. Its cherished characteristics are the distinctive sheerline, narrow, waspish stern and overhanging counter, a low freeboard – which dips to just 71cm outboard of the cockpit, and mild tumblehome. The combination is pleasing to any eye, and one of the lovely things about owning a Contessa 32 is how often your boat is complimented.
My husband and I used to co-own Gauntlet (CO900). This was my husband’s second Contessa, sandwiched in ownership between larger oceangoing yachts, as is often the case.
Like any smallish boat, the Contessa has a quick motion, but her long fin keel and deep forefoot shrug aside a head sea. She can be a bit of a submarine, but I’ve never known her to slam or pound. When the going gets tough, the Contessa excels and it has the most beautiful sailing manners upwind, with a knack of making you feel like Ben Ainslie.
The high aspect mainsail is simple for one person to hoist and reef. The Contessa is ‘human sized’, and this is the prime reason the design remains so beloved among short-handers. The downsides? It is not a marina boat; close quarters manoeuvring can be sporting. It can also be a handful downwind. Under spinnaker, a barber hauler is needed to stop the sail taking control and pulling you round.
Still, these are trifling things on a boat whose famous capabilities flatter your ambitions. Wherever you go, people recognise the boat, and its epic reputation rubs off on you.
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