Is the Sadler 26 the ultimate small yacht or just an overgrown dinghy? Rachael Sprot steps aboard to find out
Sadler 26: the little boat with big attitude
I’ve always been a fan of small yachts. They’re exponentially cheaper to buy and maintain, the loads are lower, making them safer for new crew, and the shove ‘n’ go boat handling saves a lot of hassle in marinas.
But even by pocket-cruiser standards, 26ft is tiny. And although extraordinary voyages are made on tiny boats, I’ve always thought you’d need an MBA (Masters in Bunk Arrangement) to cope in such confined quarters.
Would the Sadler 26 change my mind?
I joined John Dickson on his Sadler 26, Ella, to find out. John sails Ella on the south coast and English Channel with his wife, Nao, and children, Ollie, 13, and Georgina, 10.
He seizes every chance to head out, sometimes just with cockerpoo, Maggie, for company. The first thing I noticed when I stepped aboard Ella in the river Hamble, was that she didn’t baulk at my weight, as I was expecting.
She may only be 26ft long, but with over 9ft of beam there’s plenty of form stability. The real secret behind her feeling of buoyancy, however, is that her double-skinned hull is filled with foam.
Scarred by the terrible loss of life of the 1979 Fastnet Race when several yachts sank, Martin Sadler, David Sadler’s son, designed the 26 and 29 to withstand significant water ingress.
Although their unsinkability was never officially established, in one test the 26 was sailed through overfalls under full sail in a Force 5 with the seacocks open and half full of water, which sounds pretty conclusive to me.
Folkboat DNA in the Sadler 26
Like all successful species, the Sadler 26 is the product of evolution. Deep in her ancestry you’ll find the Folkboat, but you’ll have to go via the Sadler 25 and Sadler-designed Contessa 26 to find it.
There’s still a hint of her Nordic origins in the high bow and swoosh of sheer, although the full stern looks somewhat truncated. The underwater profile is sea-kindly and a transom-hung rudder has a full-depth skeg providing protection and directional stability.
There were several keel options. Most were built with twin keels, but there are also deep and shallow-fin keels and lifting keels. The twin keels are relatively fine and deep in order to preserve sailing performance to windward.
Aloft, there’s a masthead rig with large overlapping genoa and respectable ballast ratio of 41%.
The construction technique is quite different to modern balsa or foam-cored hulls. The outer skin is full strength and the inner skin is a moulded lining.
Apparently the foam wasn’t originally considered essential for strength but it does play an important role in this regard, providing extra stiffness.
The strategically placed pockets of polyurethane foam don’t just provide buoyancy, they also insulate the hull, reducing condensation and noise.
Around fittings such as keel bolts there’s no foam: the two skins meet to form a solid layer of GRP.
The major downside of this construction method is that it could be expensive and complicated to repair if water seeps into the foam, which may become increasingly likely as these boats age.
A pre-purchase survey will be important to identify any problems.
On deck, the coachroof remains in proportion to the rest of the yacht, the curved top softening the outline.
Two pairs of rounded portlights, one small and one large, are easy on the eye.
A teak handrail accentuates her lines and breaks up the otherwise large expanse of gelcoat. The teak rubbing strake is another attractive detail which also covers the hull-to-deck join, which is bolted and glued together.
The moulded toerail gives a secure foothold, but the scarcity of scuppers means that water collects on the sidedecks, especially if you’ve slightly altered the trim by adding too much weight in the bow or stern, which is easy to do on a small boat.
The stanchions drop into sockets in the toerail, which seems like a neat solution, but means that if you have any abrupt encounters with the dock you not only bend a stanchion, but might damage the deck-moulding too.
Some boats, including Ella, have fitted bolt-on stanchion bases instead. The sidedecks are wider than you might expect thanks to her beam, with room to stand by the shrouds when coming alongside.
There’s a proper anchor well to keep muddy chain sealed off from the vee-berth. Look closely enough at the cockpit though, and you start to have a sense of where Sadler’s priorities lie. It may look unremarkable, but it’s an excellent working area when sailing, both comfortable and functional.
The square shape of the cut-off transom is a compromise worth making, allowing room for three adults or a few more little people. The benches are the perfect width to brace across when heeling, even for those of us with short legs.
The transom-hung rudder positions the tiller well aft, so that it doesn’t dominate the space.
Standing with the tiller in hand, there’s a clear line of vision forwards even with the sprayhood up. The deep coamings make a comfortable backrest.
The recessed storage cubbies are a useful feature often missing on larger yachts.
When beating to windward, the coachroof gives shelter from a full bombardment of green water.
The only drawback is that the traveller position is directly in front of the companionway hatch. Owing to the small mainsail though, it’s relatively easy to manage.
A good use of space
The starboard-side cockpit locker swallows up gear and houses a stainless-steel fuel tank. Ella had a large removable panel to give better access to the back of the engine, gearbox and stern gland, which is a very practical modification.
A 90-litre flexible water tank lives under the cockpit sole, making good use of otherwise redundant space. Slide back the companionway hatch and you reveal a bright, compact interior.
Immediately to starboard of the companionway is the galley with a small sink, coolbox and boat cooker. The previous owner had dispensed with the full-sized oven and put extra stowage beneath the hob.
Locker space is minimal here, but if you’re not too ambitious about what you cook, the space is perfectly adequate. The top of the engine box provides additional work surface for food prep.
A spacious quarterberth runs under the port side of the cockpit and a cleverly designed nav table pulls out above it on older models.
In a neat metamorphosis, the saloon table drops down to create a double bunk. The starboard-side bench is too short to be a full-sized bunk, unless you push through into the hanging locker forwards as some owners have done.
Beyond the main bulkhead is the heads compartment with wet locker opposite.
The vee-berth gains a feeling of additional space from the raised coachroof and large foredeck hatch above. It’s not a plush interior, but the inner mouldings have aged well and provide plenty of storage beneath.
The foam insulates each stowage compartment, meaning that items stored under bunks suffer less condensation and mildew.
The major drawback of the interior is headroom. John is 5ft 6in and can stand up in the cabin, but if you’re much taller you’ll be spending most of your time stooped over – many people would find the maximum headroom of 5ft 10in restrictive.
Without totally destroying the proportions, it would be hard to achieve more headroom on a boat of this size and for those with longer legs, the similarly constructed Sadler 29 is worth considering.
The original engines were 10hp Bukhs and then 9hp Volvo Pentas. Ella had a more recent 20hp Beta Marine.
It’s a tight fit in the engine compartment, but the enlarged access panel in the cockpit locker allows most jobs to be conducted in situ. It gave an impressive 6 knots through the water at 2,000 RPM.
‘I’m really glad of the extra power,’ said John. ‘When the kids have had enough and you’re fighting the tide and you just want to get home, she can do
She was pretty nifty when it came to tight turns in the river Hamble, employing all the leverage of her transom-hung rudder. Although Sadler is renowned for producing yachts that sail well, I confess I was a little dubious about the 26.
There’s a lot of yacht crammed into 26 feet and with the twin keels too, I wondered what had been sacrificed in the quest for interior volume and a moderate draught.
But after hoisting the main and unfurling the 140% genoa on Southampton Water, she set off impressively.
Despite only having 7-8 knots of true wind, she made 4 knots with ease and the helm was feather-light.
In fact, she was so well balanced that we gave up helming entirely and just tweaked the sails to adjust the course.
She made 35°AWA when the wind held, slipping off to 40°AWA when it decreased.
It was a slack tide and the chartplotter showed crisp, right-angled tacks. She was a pleasure to sail.
Compact but clever
Tacking a boat with a big foretriangle is harder work than modern, fractional rigs, but she’s small enough that most of the genoa sheet can be pulled in by hand.
Downwind there wasn’t enough breeze to put her through her paces, but she ghosted along at 3 knots in only 5-6 knots of wind. It’s a fairly modest sail area, but she still felt responsive and moved with a sense of purpose.
For singlehanders and families alike, you don’t want too much power anyway.
Underpinning all of that, there’s a feeling of seaworthiness and the design is well-proven. Sadler 25s and 26s have been used successfully in short-handed events such as the AZAB and OSTAR.
One of the pleasures of small boat sailing is that you’re more likely to sail the boat to its full potential. It’s much less arduous to play with the control lines so you can experiment with twist and car position without breaking into a sweat. But the boat needs to be responsive to sail in the first place.
On the Sadler 26, performance has been preserved to the right level: she’ll reward an ambitious sailor and take care of a novice.
In the summer, John and the family use the boat for hybrid sailing holidays. He’ll deliver her to the West Country or Channel Islands alone or with friends, and then they’ll join him for a week of cruising, perhaps taking a holiday cottage for a few days to give themselves a bit more space.
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As the children grow up they might consider upsizing, but John is pragmatic about the fact that they may not share his passion for sailing. If not, he’ll continue to enjoy the solitude of solo sailing without the stress of handling a larger yacht.
The compression of space on a small yacht means that every centimetre matters and each element of the design has to be carefully weighed.
I was impressed by how little was missing from the Sadler 26. Things work harder by multi-tasking and ingenious transformations turn chart tables into sleeping areas and bunks become dinner tables. So you can have it all on a 26 foot boat, just not at the same time.
There’s a can-do attitude to the Sadler 26. It’s a boat that can be sailed solo or with a family. The inherent buoyancy inspires confidence for those venturing further afield, or you can creek crawl and escape the marina scene locally.
She has all the facilities of a bigger yacht, albeit not simultaneously. The accommodation is well-laid-out and will just about allow for the routines of normal life. I wouldn’t attempt a Sunday roast on board but knowing the kind of people who sail these boats, it’s probably been done.
For all her merits though, it’s the sailing performance that stands out for me.
How many boats out there can accommodate a family of four and offer safety and seaworthiness at only 26ft? Not many. And how many of those will be fun to sail? Even fewer.
Overgrown dinghy? Absolutely, in the best possible way.
Expert opinion on the Sadler 26
Ben Sutcliffe-Davies, Marine Surveyor and full member of the Yacht Brokers Designers & Surveyors Association (YDSA) www.bensutcliffemarine.co.uk
Back in the day I used to own a Sadler 25, and my friend’s dad ordered one of the 26s off-plan and was certainly not disappointed with the level of fitout. Whilst many have stood the test of time, there are some niggles you need to be aware of.
In my view, and the view of many other surveyors, the infill foam is actually an essential part of construction, bonding the outer hull moulding to the internal moulding.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges with the 26 today is where the foam has absorbed water. This causes softening of the structure, both externally and internally, and should not be ignored.
This is common with twin-keel versions that have taken the ground regularly, which will result in softening around the keel root externally and movement of the internal framing near the keel fastenings.
I’d strongly recommend seeing the craft lifted and tip tests undertaken on the keels to see what deflections are occurring, both inside and outside.
Other issues include moisture in the deck pad due to the wiring of deck instruments, rotten ply where the chain plates have been fitted internally, seriously worn fastening points on the stem cap for the forestay, and the overloading of the rudder skeg on the twin-keel versions, where there has been repetitive grounding.
Alternatives to the Sadler 26
The Mini Cooper of the sailing world, there were almost 800 of these little yachts built over a period of almost 30 years and they’ve gained a cult following.
A mould was exported to Canada where several hundred more were built as the Taylor 26, after a trademark dispute.
Remarkably, the lines were never drawn as such, but a mould was made from a Folkboat hull and a few adaptations made to give a higher freeboard and slightly more internal volume.
Unlike the Folkboat, the Contessa 26 has a masthead rig and large overlapping genoa. The cockpit is small, even for a boat of this size, but having the mainsheet at the aft end of it makes the space there more usable.
Sail area-to-displacement ratio is low but a lot of that weight is in the keel. They aren’t renowned for their light airs performance, but the wetted surface area is less than you might imagine, thanks to the short waterline length and narrow beam.
In fact, the Contessa 26 often features in podium positions for Round the Island Race and has won a few too.
The encapsulated long keel and transom-hung rudder are attractive features, and the solid deck eliminates the problem of a soggy core.
The price you pay for an attractive boat that sails well is accommodation. There’s only 5ft of headroom except directly under the raised companionway moulding.
There were three original layouts, A, B and C. All had two 6ft 6in saloon berths and 6ft 3in vee-berths.
The main differences were that there was no heads compartment in layout A; the loo was positioned between the vee-berth. This brought the vee-berth aft and created space for a proper anchor locker. On B and C configurations, a starboard heads compartment pushed the vee-berth right forward. A and C have the galley amidships; it is aft by the companionway on layout B. There’s no room for a saloon table and it’s minimalist-style living.
The Contessa 26 is incontestably pretty and has proven to be a bulletproof offshore cruiser boasting many high-profile circumnavigations.
They command a premium because of their deserved reputation, but won’t suit everyone.
Very much of their time, they’re nonetheless sought-after for 21st century adventures.
Until recently, I’d never heard of Trapper, but when my sister bought a Trapper 500 a few years ago, I wondered why they weren’t better known.
They produced several pokey performance-cruisers in the 70s and 80s with nice lines and a good turn of speed. The 300 was designed by Bruce Kirby, who also drew the Laser dinghy (enough said), and based on a successful Quarter-Tonner, but they were aimed at the cruising market.
The 300 is a fin-keeled, masthead sloop with a semi-balanced spade rudder. The bow is razor-sharp and there’s a neatly tapered stern.
The saucer-shaped hull profile is much wider at deck level than it is at the waterline, creating space on deck and increasing buoyancy when heeled, but with minimal wetted surface area in light airs. The cockpit is compact but deep and safe.
The traveller location right in front of the companionway hatch might be frustrating on long passages if you’re often going in and out, though it’s less of an issue when coast-hopping.
The internal layout varies between the Mk 1 or Mk 2 but both have comfortable saloon seating and a saloon table.
On the Mk 1 version the galley is by the companionway, on the Mk 2 it occupies the port side of the saloon.
There’s a standard heads and hanging locker arrangement forwards of the mast and full-length vee-berth. Largely composed of interior mouldings, the insides of many remain in good condition.
If you want something that’s rewarding to sail, looks pretty and has enough space for minimalist cruising, they’re a really good option, and often better value than higher- profile designs.
The Griffon is unmistakably Westerly, with a high coachroof and square-cut transom utilising every inch of boat length.
She was the first Westerly designed by Ed Dubois, and has a more streamlined look than the older Laurent Giles models.
Although she’s still a bit boxy to the eye, the rewards are reaped below where there are two-and-a-half double bunks and 5ft 9in headroom all the way forward.
There’s the usual vee-berth arrangement, generous saloon with pull-out seating that converts to a double, and an almost double bunk in the port quarterberth.
The Mk 1 version had a fold-down saloon table and sapele joinery. The Mk 2 had a sturdy fixed table with folding leaves and teak woodwork.
The galley occupies the starboard side as you come down the companionway and beneath the starboard side of the cockpit there’s a large locker. On deck, the cockpit is larger than average with the mainsheet position aft.
It will comfortably accommodate four for sailing, and six for cockpit drinks with the tiller up. Halyards and reefing lines lead to the cockpit, making her suitable for singlehanded sailing.
Most of them were bilge-keelers but a few had fin keels. They are reported to perform well for this keel configuration and have plenty of sail area, but pointing probably won’t be their forte.
If creek crawling and getting away from it all is more your thing than haring round the cans, and you’re looking for a boat with a nice temperament that’s comfortable for longer periods of time and gentle on the crew, here she is.
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