Contessa26250BBy Paul Howard

The Contessa 26 entered production in England in 1966 by Jeremy Rogers in Lymington, with several hundred built. Moulds for the Contessa were shipped to Canada in 1969, with the first of the boats completed later that same year. J.J. Taylor and Sons Ltd. had been building boats on their site overlooking Toronto Harbour's Western Gap since 1904. The Contessa would become the design to help this company change over from wood to fibreglass production. Taylor's yard was later taken over by the National and Alexandra Yacht Clubs when the manufacturer moved to Rexdale, in Toronto's dry-docked northwest quadrant. Other locally built boats from the 1960s, made of fibreglass but based on the lines of the Folkboat, are the Whitby 26 Folkboat and the Alberg 30. The family resemblance of moderate beam without pinched ends, pronounced sheer, long overhangs ñ especially at the bow - a long keel cut away at the forward end and a steeply raked rudder shaft attached to the keel is obvious in all of these designs.

The Contessa was known as a capable ocean cruiser from the outset of production in England. Many of these boats competed in the OSTAR (the Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race) and the Round Britain and Ireland Race. In the first three years of production 350 hulls were laid up. The 26 is easily recognizable by its massive outboard rudderhead with slabs of teak sandwiching the rudder, as well as a long curved tiller poking from the middle of the sandwich. The bubble at the aft end of the coachroof ñ where most vessels have a sliding companionway hatch -- is said to make the coachroof stronger and more watertight for rough ocean conditions. Headroom under the hump is 5 ft. 8 in.

The lack of light and air from a sliding hatch has always put me off the Contessa. I am 5 ft. 10 in. and have lived aboard on sailboats with less than standing headroom. But each has had a sliding hatch where I could stand upright with feet on the cabin sole and my head poking out the companionway hatch. I enjoy surveying the 360 degrees around the horizon from this vantage point.

As well, the Contessa employs a raked cabin bulkhead to allow one to climb the companionway steps without bumping onesí head on the coachroof. I also dislike the long stack of raked drop-boards, as they tend to let in more rain and spray than shorter, vertical boards, and must be kept closed more that the vertical type.

The boat feels closed-in, a condition many owners -- and later the builder -- have rectified with the addition of an opening amidships hatch. This cramped space reminds me of a comment made by a Frenchman who observed as he visited my British-built yacht: "Les anglais," he nodded knowingly as he surveyed the tight quarters of the main salon, "ils se cachent du temps!" (translation: The English hide from the weather.)

The interior, however, feels safe, protected and cocoon-like but definitely not open and airy. The Canadian version of the 26 was pulled from the same British-made hull and deck moulds until hull 300, in 1983. Then Gary Bannister, the principal partner of J.J. Taylor since 1979, redesigned the deck mould and some of the interior moulds. To increase headroom, he lowered the floor by lengthening the hump at the aft end of the coachroom to extend farther into the cabin. He also added a amidships hatch for increased light and ventilation. Other changes at the time included the addition of an anchor locker at the bow and a switch to cast lead ballast instead of cast iron, and the shifting of the water and waste tanks. The updated version also had a teak and holly sole.

The boat always had the option of an inboard diesel engine, with the 6.6-hp Petter first installed-- then, later, the 7-hp Faryman was standard. Halyards were lead aft on the updated version, with clutches and winches at the aft end of the coachroof. A third set of gudgeons and pintles was added to support the long blade of the rudder.

It was in 1984 that the Contessa had her name changed to the J.J. Taylor 26. "The name change made no difference to the buyers of the boat," said Gary Bannister. "And the Taylor name had always been associated with the boat." According to Bannister, Jeremy Rogers had gone bankrupt and the British Contessa moulds were destroyed in a fire. The company that subsequently purchased the rights to build the boat in the U.K., also claimed the rights in North America. After some legal wrangling, Bannister found that he had every right to continue to build the boat, only he was unwilling to suffer through a lengthy -- and costly -- international dispute. So, he simply changed the boat's name and continued production. Ironically, the Contessa never went back into production in the U.K.

Viki de Kleer of Toronto is the sole owner of Mollyhawk, hull number 163, built in 1975. As an avid sailor who often single-hands her boat, Viki is one of the few Canadian sailors to hold the prestigious Royal Yachting Associationís Yachtmaster's certificate ñ a much more rigorous level of competence than the Canadian Yachting Associationís Offshore standard. During her 18 years of ownership, she has added a amidships deck hatch, and the diesel has been changed to a Yanmar 9-hp. Viki also replaced the split fiddle-block mainsheet system with a traveller mounted across the aft end of the cockpit and supported on a stainless tube above the tiller. De Kleer says this arrangement not only gives better sail control, but also keeps the mainsheet from running across the cockpit.

She has also added roller reefing to the headsail and a jackstay to the foredeck for setting a storm jib. A bow anchor roller now pokes out at the starboard side of the forestay.

"There was always water on the side decks, as the scuppers were not the lowest point of the deck," she observed. New scuppers, at the right level, are now retrofitted.

De Kleer also had a third gudgeon and pintle added to the rudder, and a shoe is now bolted at the heel of the keel to overlap with the foot of the rudder. This addition prevents floating lines from snagging in the gap between the rudder and keel.

Varuna is the best-known Taylor 26, sailed around the world by Tania Aebi, the youngest woman to solo circumnavigate. Her stories were often featured in a U.S. sailing magazine in the mid-'80s, and were later published in her book Maiden Voyage.

In all, there were about 400 Contessa and Taylor 26s built in Canada, and the last rolled out of the factory just before it closed in 1990. "As a swan song for the company," said Bannister, "we constructed the 14 friendly gargoyles that grace the corners of the Skydome in Toronto." Micheal Snow, the artist who created the figures, sculpted them in foam. Then the boat builders at J.J. Taylor fibreglassed and finished them. "It was a fun last project for the company," said Bannister.

The Contessa/Taylor 26 is a much admired institution in Ontario, and its long production run make this boat a common sight. Its loyal owners are traditionalists and keen sailors who appreciate the Contessa's easy-to-handle and dependable performance.

Originally published in Canadian Yachting's June 1993 issue.

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