The Contessa 26 has a good reputation for performing well overall in the big races and Meow’s owner Chris Charlesworth has gone further than most to optimise her chances. Rupert Holmes asks him how – and why – he did it

A long-standing tenet of big fleet handicap racing is that either a very fast boat, or a very slow one, is likely to have an advantage compared with those in middle rating bands. This is regularly borne out in the JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race, which has been won by fast boats, most notably in recent years TP52s, and by some of the very slowest in the IRC fleet. Over the years successful small boats have included quarter and mini-tonners, as well as H-Boats, Folkboats and Contessa 26s.

Although inspired by the Folkboat, the Contessa, which dates from 1965, is even heavier and more underpowered than the Scandinavian classic. This results in a rating that’s typically 20 points lower than that of a one-design Folkboat.

In 2002 and 2003 Jeremy Rogers, racing with his sons, won the Gold Roman Bowl sailing Rosina of Beaulieu, and followed this up with another win in 2006. Five years later, Rogers’s nephew Nick, a double Olympic Silver medallist, achieved the same result in 2011 in Jo Hutchinson’s Sundowner, following it up with a 2nd place in the next race, both of which were windy editions of the event.

After the 2012 race Sundowner was bought by former professional offshore powerboat racer Chris Charlesworth, who renamed her Meow. “I identified the boat as being one with a good pedigree and a lot of potential, so it would be worth spending time and effort to get it absolutely right,” he says.

He recognised at the outset that simply having a low-rated boat is not enough on its own to be assured of success in the Round the Island Race – it was clear to him that a boat that was as well prepared as the professionally maintained TP52s at the other end of the fleet would have an advantage.

“Although the boat had previously been successful, it had been used hard and thrashed in strong wind races,” Charlesworth says. “Everything had to be replaced – even the bulkheads and chainplates needed attention.”

Refitted to a higher standard

While Meow’s age was clearly part of the reason for this remedial work being needed, a further problem was that when the boat was built the Dacron sails and polyester running rigging of the time were very stretchy, but with modern lines and sails, peak loads transmitted to the boat are very much higher.

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Meow therefore needed to be refitted to a higher standard than the original specification. This necessitated moving the genoa tracks from the bulwarks, where they were screwed in place and always leaked, to an inboard position where they could be bolted through the deck.

On the positive side, while older raceboats are renowned for bending in the middle when backstay is applied, Meow’s long keel ties the structure together, with the only movement possible in the overhangs. Nevertheless, the main bulkhead was removed and strengthened to take the compression loads from the deck-stepped mast.

The hull has also received a great deal of attention to get a perfectly fair finish. “There’s a lot of wetted surface area,” Charlesworth says, “so the finish has to be perfect.” He’s now happy with the result, having had the entire hull painstakingly faired and coated in Durepox by David Heritage Racing Yachts. As Meow is drysailed, antifouling is not needed and she looks superb in black and white.

Rig and sail plan

The most important changes beyond the structural work were to the rig and sail plan. “Sail area is a key issue for these boats and initially I optimised for a blow,” says Charlesworth. “This was partly because, as Sundowner, the boat had had 1st and 2nd places in the Round the Island in really windy years, but my first RTI was a very reachy one that the TP52s won. Other races that season indicated that more area in the mainsail and spinnakers was needed.”

After moving the boat to Cowes, where she is now drysailed from Shepards Wharf, Gerry Faram of Sailcare suggested working with North Sails might be worthwhile. This led to North’s Dave Lenz developing a trial suit of 3Di sails for the 26-footer, which at the time were the smallest the company had made.

To take advantage of the single furling headsail benefit IRC offers Meow and provide ample drive she has a 155 per cent genoa on a custom-made, low-profile, continuous line furling drum produced by Sailspar in Colchester. Although the furler lifts the tack of the sail off the deck, the genoa is cut to sweep the deck and take advantage of the end plate effect. Spinnakers include a Code 0 plus two symmetric sails, a reacher and a runner.

Optimising the deck gear

When he bought the boat Charlesworth asked Nick Rogers what he would recommend changing – he suggested moving the traveller to the coachroof, getting a new rig and replacing the tiller. Charlesworth appears to have little appetite for compromise, at least where raceboats are concerned, and has therefore put a huge amount of energy into getting the deck layout exactly how he wants it.

He says he spent a long time optimising systems, “especially the layout of controls and getting the purchases right and so on. After a lot of effort we think we’ve got it right now.”

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Two examples of his meticulous attention to detail stand out. First, he spent a great deal of time sourcing a small-diameter foil for the furler, one with only provision for one luff track, to minimise wind resistance and weight aloft. Similarly, a great deal of research was needed to find the narrow-diameter, two-speed primary winches that fit on the same pedestal as the original single-speed models.

Once Charlesworth had assembled the deck gear, he got Cowes-based Brett Aarons to fit the new hardware. Aarons sailed on board before work started so that he could add his considerable experience. Lenz also had a critical look over the deck fittings and, among other things, suggested the cranked stanchions on the foredeck that enable both the genoa and the Code 0 to sheet inside the rail.

Meow on the water

“These are difficult boats to sail well,” says Charlesworth, “you can’t pinch and they take a very long time to accelerate.” Among other things, he has done lots of work on rudder angles. “It’s a big rudder, but doesn’t give a great deal of feel,” he explains, “so it’s really hard to feel the difference between five and ten degrees of helm.” That’s a sharp contrast with a Folkboat, which points much higher and gives more feedback on the helm.

“I don’t think there’s anything I’ve overlooked now in terms of rating,” says Charlesworth and Meow is down to minimum weight, tipping the scales at exactly the builder’s original figures, whereas most Co26s with endorsed IRC certificates are notably heavier. She is therefore quick compared with other Contessa 26s, especially in light airs – winning the Nationals in five-six knots last year, as well as taking 3rd overall in the very light-airs Round the Island Race. “We haven’t sailed her much in more than around 15 knots yet and are looking forward to our first Round the Island in a big wind.”

Of course, successful owners are always looking for incremental improvements and when we caught up with Meow at the beginning of the 2015 season Charlesworth was talking of experimenting with small tweaks to the furler height and mast rake as the next stage of refining his boat’s performance.

Race successes

1st overall, Contessa 26 Association Spring Regatta

1st in Class 6, JOG Nab Tower Race

1st in Class 2, Royal Southampton YC Double Handed inshore series

3rd in Class 2, Spinlock IRC double-handed nationals

3rd overall, JP Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race

1st overall, Contessa 26 Nationals

See also our guide to the best routes to take in the Round the Island Race


The ultra-low profile furler that enables Meow to take advantage of the rating benefit IRC gives to 130 per cent furling genoas was supplied by Sailspar in Colchester

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One of the first changes to the Contessa 26 was a new coachroof-mounted mainsheet traveller, on the recommendation of Nick Rogers, her former skipper

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The original wooden tiller bent considerably under load – its carbon replacement is no lighter, but is considerably stiffer

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Proper backstay chainplates replace the original U-bolts through the deck

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This is an extract from the July 2015 issue of Yachting World