Peter Poland shares his expertise on British-built second-hand yachts costing less than £30,000, which are comfortable and seaworthy...
You might think £30,000 sounds like a lot of money for a ‘starter boat’. But tracking down a comfortable and seaworthy yacht that’s 30 foot long, less than around 40 years old and capable of taking a crew on coastal cruising trips costing less than £30,000 on the second-hand market can be a challenging project.
It’s stating the obvious, but sailors who are happy with smaller yachts have far more to choose from. In the days before the ‘smallest’ new starter boat became a costly 30-plus footer, many builders used to offer popular ranges stretching from 20ft to 32ft.
But if you are looking for the best 30 foot boats within a £30,000 budget, you will have to start delving into the realms of older yachts.
14 of the best 30 foot boats
Those looking for smaller GRP starter boats – myself included – often settled on the ground-breaking 26ft Westerly Centaur. Between 1969 and the early 1980s, 2,444 were built; outselling any other British production cruiser.
To a large degree its success stemmed from the exceptional space, headroom and comfort that it offered in its day. Three layout options were available and – more by luck than judgement – I bought the most popular.
It had a twin berth forepeak, enclosed heads compartment, L-shaped saloon settee with drop-down table, linear galley to starboard and twin quarter berths aft. Thanks to designer Laurent Giles’s thorough tank testing, the Centaur’s twin keels also broke new ground.
These tests showed a substantial loss in efficiency when keels were aligned exactly fore and aft. So the LG team settled on splayed and identical (as opposed to asymmetric) keels with a 2° toe-in.
I bought my second-hand Centaur as a floating cottage from which to follow and photograph the successes of our Hunter Sonata and Impala 28 One Design classes in the late 1970s.
The Centaur did a great job. It sailed adequately, motored well and provided excellent overnight accommodation. And it still will today; especially if you find a tidy example with refurbished headlining panels and a recent engine.
Going back to 1963, the evergreen Nicholson 32 is another candidate for a seaworthy and comfortable cruiser that just keeps going. Peter Nicholson sketched out his ideas for an all GRP Camper & Nicholsons fast cruiser that he hoped would become the new ‘people’s boat’.
He envisaged a quick and seaworthy hull, a distinctive two level coachroof (featuring a raised doghouse aft) and a spacious and nicely fitted out interior.
His father, CE Nicholson, drew the lines and Halmatic was signed up to mould the boat. Peter Nicholson planned the marketing and prepared the brochure: which was probably the first GRP yacht brochure produced in the UK. Jeremy Lines took on the day to day running of the project and the Nicholson 32 hit the sailing scene in 1963.
Success was instant. The Mark 1 version sold at £4,900. This may not sound much, but apply about 60 years worth of inflation and this comes to around £109,000 (+VAT) in today’s money. Which was a lot for a 32-footer.
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But it’s as one would expect for a high quality yacht with a lead keel. Interestingly, the LWL had been fixed at 24ft – the holy grail for offshore racers – because this was the minimum permitted length for RORC events.
The first 32 produced, aptly named Forerunner, did well in Solent racing with Charles and Peter Nicholson on board. Then the young Claire Francis made the headlines by sailing her Nicholson 32 Gulliver single-handed across the Atlantic.
And the success story just ran and ran. Jeremy Lines continued to mastermind sales, control changes and liaise with Halmatic until the final couple of years, when Halmatic took over the whole project with the Mark X and Xl versions.
From 1963 to 1981, the 32 was in continuous production and including a few built under licence in Australia, around 400 were built. Peter Nicholson summed up the 32’s success by saying: “I think the most important thing about the 32 was that owners felt very safe in her in really bad weather.
“We had numerous letters and comments about this from people who had been caught out.”
Nicholson 32 Mark X and Mark XI
Over the years no fewer than eleven new ‘Marks’ of the 32 were introduced, incorporating numerous changes. Many of these related to small details but some were more significant, such as scrapping the pilot berth and pushing the saloon settees further out to make space for an occasional double berth.
The Mark X (introduced in 1972) and Mark Xl featured an all-new deck moulding and raised hull topsides, resulting in major changes and a completely new look. With extra headroom and space provided by the raised topsides, the ‘dog-house’ part of the coachroof became longer and lower.
At the same time the cockpit changed dramatically (it could now accommodate a wheel) and the companionway moved from its unusual but practical offset position to the centreline.
Down below, the galley and chart table changed sides, the chart table changed orientation, the saloon became more spacious and the amidships heads area got a bit bigger. While many liked the new Mark X look, others preferred the more traditional profile of earlier models. You pays your money (usually more for a Mark X or XI) and you takes your choice.
‘The evergreen Nicholson 32 is a seaworthy and comfortable cruiser that just keeps going’
From a personal perspective, I like the Raymond Wall designed deck and coachroof on the Mark X and Xl. But I’ve always admired Wall’s designs, especially such beauties as the Nicholson 35, 43 and 55. And after an enjoyable test aboard a 1969 Mark 8 version, I concluded that: “A ‘classic’ such as a Nicholson 32 will not suit everyone.
But if you want a boat with character, a boat that will look after you, a boat that just feels so good (whether sailing or relaxing down below) and a boat that will turn heads wherever she goes, then take a look. A Nicholson 32 is not just a boat; it is more a love affair and a way of life.”
To give an idea of prices today, I came across a couple of Mk 8 versions (1971 and 1972) asking £9,000 and £9,500 and two Mk Xs (1972 and 1974) asking £12,950 and £24,500.
Prices vary a lot depending on condition, spec and engine age etc, and a professional survey is advisable – as is the case when considering the purchase of any elderly boat. A visit to the Nicholson 32 website and becoming an associate member (£15) also gives access to a prodigious amount of information.
As the 1960s slid into the 70s, a new British-designed and built 32ft contender – the Contessa 32 – hit the market in 1972. And, like the Nicholson, it has become a popular classic.
However, having been launched eight years later, several new design features gave this 32-footer a very different look. The 1970s ushered in a new generation of yacht design.
The most obvious changes are beneath the waterline. Instead of a traditional long keel, the Contessa followed the new trend of fin keel (albeit a long one by modern standards) and separate skeg-hung rudder.
From a performance point of view, drag is reduced and manoeuvrability increases. But the Contessa’s vital statistics are surprisingly similar to the Nicholson’s, with the same LWL (that magical RORC minimum of 24ft again) and 5ft 6in draught. And her beam is only 3in more.
But when it comes to weight, there’s a substantial drop from the Nicholson’s hefty 6,198kg to 4,309kg. Yet the ballast ratio remains around 50%.
The Contessa’s finer ends and reduced underwater body explain the overall reduction in weight and mean that she is smaller down below – and quicker that the Nicholson. The 1972-designed Contessa 32 soon became a top seller with a reputation for seaworthiness, performance and classic good looks.
‘Synonymous with the word “safe”, many Contessa 32s have girdled the globe’
Around 700 were built and she’s still in demand today. Prices range from £14,000 (a 1972 example with original engine) to £27,000 (with newer engine) to £36,000 (a later example with newer engine) to ‘six figures’ for a recent boat. Jeremy Rogers Ltd still builds new 32s.
The word ‘safe’ has become synonymous with the Contessa 32. Many have girdled the globe. Others have raced across the Atlantic, a recent example being Amelie of Dart built by Jeremy Rogers’s new company.
Stephen Gratton entered her in the 2005 Amateur Single Handed Transatlantic race and raised over £50,000 for an MS charity. Jeremy Rogers told me: “He took 30 days to do the crossing, which was an extremely rough and testing one.”
Then Ker took to the ice and Assent completed successful cruises to the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. Contessa 32s, it seems, can take their crews anywhere.
The Contessa 32’s layout is similar to the earlier Nicholson 32 design, albeit slightly less voluminous. In the saloon, the main U-shaped settee converts into a double berth, thanks to a slide out panel.
The chart table is full sized and forward facing, with a secure quarter berth aft. The galley is a seagoing wrap-around U-shape that provides plenty of work-surface.
“Cooking and navigating at sea are safe and simple”, one owner told me; “You don’t get thrown around too much if it gets rough. She has a gentle motion at sea. She doesn’t bounce around and catch you off balance.”
Like the Nicholson 32 and other cruisers of this era, the Contessa’s heads compartment is amidships, between the saloon and the forepeak.
This isn’t as palatial as the aft heads compartments on beamy contemporary cruisers but when the heads are forward, valuable saloon space aft at the widest part of the yacht is not sacrificed.
Rival 32 and Rival 34
At much the same time, the Rival 32 (1971: 200 built) and Rival 34 (1972: 174 built) hit the scene and also made their names as reliable and capable offshore cruisers. Designed By Peter Brett, the Rival 34 was an extended version of the already successful Rival 32, having a slightly deeper afterbody and longer overhangs to give steadiness in a seaway.
There were two basic hull versions, one with a deep keel at 5ft 10in and a shallow one with 4ft 8in draught. The Rival 34’s prowess in offshore sailing was soon put to the test. Four Rivals (a 31, two 32s and the first 34) entered the inaugural AZAB race (Azores and back – around 2,500 miles).
Then Brett lent his own deep keel Rival 34 Wild Rival to a young naval officer, Geoff Hales, to enter the 1976 OSTAR (Observer single-handed transatlantic race). Hales told me that it was one of the roughest OSTARs ever. “Out of 126 entries, only 76 finished. Wild Rival took it all in her stride and we finished 23rd… and we won overall on handicap.”
Hales said that the 34 was so well balanced that she often sailed herself (with the Aries self-steering disconnected) and that the high bow proved its worth in the heavy head seas.
The only damage was a split mainsail, caused by a knock down when Wild Rival was hit by a rogue wave during a storm when winds touched 60 knots. “Needless to say,” Hales added, “Wild Rival was straight back on her feet!” What’s more Wild Rival is still racing today and a regular competitor in The Classic Channel Regatta.
I’ve crewed on a Twister twice in this splendid event and admired Wild Rival racing round the Île de Bréhat … and she’s already entered for 2022. To get a professional opinion on how the Rival 34 has stood the test of time, I contacted Scottish yacht designer and surveyor Ian Nicolson.
When I heard he’d changed his championship winning Sigma 33 for a Rival 34, I was keen to hear his opinions on his latest and less sporty steed.
Ian said: “Restoration of my Rival 34 was a middle of the road job. I worked on her over three and a half winters and now she’s more comfortable, but these boats tend to be basically safe and not a lot was needed structurally. I’m pleased with the new book-case which has a traditional teak grating front!”
‘The most obvious changes of the 1970s’ new era of yacht design are beneath the waterline’
And what about her handling and performance? Ian added: “When I get our Rival into a tight marina berth with half a gale on the beam, I wish she had the short keel of the Sigma 3 for swift, tight turning.
“But when I am out alone and have not linked up the autohelm, the Rival’s steady plod in one predetermined direction is an asset. In squally conditions the Sigma needed firm handling and we won races by keeping the boat on its feet, while others were broaching.
“There is none of this problem with the Rival. If I had a choice for Scotland I would go for the deep draught version.”
Many other Rivals have gone on to cruise long distances. The design has a distinctive sheerline, and the interior, although smaller than some modern 34-footers, is particularly well fitted out for serious seagoing. On the second-hand market, I found 1978 and 1979 32s on offer at £16,000 and £17,500 (with a replacement Beta 25) and a 34 at £29,000.
The Sadler 32 is also worth considering. Designed by David Sadler, around 300 were built between 1979 and 1989. It’s interesting to compare dimensions with Sadler’s previous Contessa 32 design. At 31ft 6in overall the Sadler 32 is slightly shorter.
But her LWL is the same: namely the old RORC minimum 24ft for offshore races. Fin keel draught is also the same at 5ft 6in (shoal draught and twin keels were also offered), but beam is a foot broader at 10ft 6in.
Displacement is similar at 4,309kg but the ballast ratio is a slightly lower 44.2%. However the Sadler’s extra beam and form stability compensate for this. The Sadler’s masthead rig is also a similar size to the Contessa’s.
So what does this all add up to? Being a more modern design, the Sadler’s increased beam, higher freeboard, cambered side decks and straightened sheer definitely pay dividends down below.
The Sadler is a more spacious boat than the Contessa. Her fin keel is also a bit shorter, so there’s a small saving on wetted surface. This was borne out by early successes on the IOR racing scene.
I recall Cowes Week dices in our Impala 28 against the Sadler 32. We tended to edge ahead when off the wind (especially in a blow) but were hard pressed to hang on to the Sadler beating to windward in a stiff breeze.
Martin Sadler also sailed a 32 in the 1979 Fastnet and came through it with flying colours. Unlike the Contessa 32 Assent that completed the course, Martin decided to rest his crew and retire to Cork after surviving the ferocious front unscathed.
When it comes to looks, you enter the realms of personal taste. The more modern Sadler profile is perhaps marginally more functional than the Contessa’s sweeping and classic look.
But the Sadler 32 will be a dryer boat to sail as a result of this. Typical asking prices vary from £15,000 to £24,000 subject to boat and engine age.
Westerly Longbow and Westerly Renown
In 1972, Westerly asked Laurent Giles for a new 31-footer. And in its various guises, this makes a very popular first cruiser. It started life with a fin keel, as opposed to the ubiquitous and successful twin keels that had helped establish the Westerly brand.
So in 1972 the Westerly Longbow hit the scene, to be followed a year later by its ketch rigged centre cockpit sister, the Westerly Renown.
These two models have the Centaur’s signature knuckle in the bow and small ‘step’ in the roof line; but the extra five feet in length gives a generally sleeker appearance. They also took performance to a higher level.
The Longbow in particular is a powerful performer. She can surprise more modern cruisers in club handicap races – especially in a breeze – after which her crew can lie back and relax in traditional Westerly comfort.
The Longbow’s accommodation is spacious, featuring an L-shaped saloon settee arranged around a table to port. Two alternative galley positions were offered; one forward in the saloon and one aft. And a decent sized heads is amidships.
All in all, it’s an extremely practical and pleasing sea-going interior with plenty of wood to enhance the ambience. The centre cockpit, with wheel steering and optional ketch rig, Renown added a separate twin berth stern cabin to the equation.
Of course this is small compared to the palatial pads found in the wide sterns of many of today’s broad beam cruisers, but it is genuinely ‘separate’ and accessed via its own companionway at the back of the cockpit.
The Renown’s saloon is slightly shorter than in the aft cockpit Longbow, but remains a cosy and welcoming lair, with the galley aft to starboard and chart table to port.
Sales of these two fin keel cruisers level pegged, with the Longbow chalking up 265 compared to the Renown’s 273.
Westerly Berwick and Westerly Pentland
But customer demand for twin keels won out in the end, and a couple of years later Westerly launched the Berwick (aft cockpit) and the Pentland (centre cockpit) sisters.
Their efficient twin keels reduced the draught by around a foot – enabling upwardly mobile Centaur owners to retain their drying moorings and to continue creek crawling as they graduated from 26 to 31ft.
And, like their fin keel sisters, the Berwick and Pentland had sensible seagoing interiors. Sales between aft cockpit and central cockpit versions were also similar, with the aft cockpit Berwick winning at 309 to 241.
As sales continued to boom, the interior layouts of these successful 31-footers were occasionally tweaked. And towards the end of the run – as with other Westerly models nearing their sell by date – the fibreglass furniture mouldings gave way to an attractive (and more costly to build) all wood look.
Interestingly, the final total of these 31-footers built is evenly split between fin and twin keelers at around 540 of each. And that’s a lot of 31-footers. Today’s second-hand prices vary between around £10,000 to £18,000; depending on age and condition of boat and engine.
One of the last classic Laurent Giles cruising yachts designed for the Westerly range was the Westerly 33/Discus, produced between 1977 and 1984.
Many regard this 33ft hull – with its well-proportioned keel (giving a 40% ballast ratio), generous displacement (6,848kg), and sensible beam (providing ample comfortable space below) – to be the best of the lot.
As usual, there are choices of keel (fin or twin), rig (sloop or ketch) and cockpit position (central or aft).
But it is the accumulated experience of thousands of Giles-designed Westerlys that makes these 33-footers a cut above the norm – with desirable small details such as backrests that move to become solid lee cloths for sleeping at sea.
Around 300 were built and asking prices vary from around £20,000 to £25,000.
Westerly Fulmar 32
In 1979, perhaps influenced by the success of racier cruisers imported from France, Westerly decided to step up a gear in the performance stakes and go for a new look and a new designer.
Out went Laurent Giles and in came the young Ed Dubois. It was a bold move, but Westerly pushed ahead in 1980 with a replacement for the popular 31ft Longbow family.
The result was one of Westerly’s most popular and enduring models; the Fulmar 32 (1979 to 1992: 437 built). Like her 26ft sister the Griffon Mk I and Mk ll (1979-1989, 329 built), Dubois’s Fulmar 32 enjoys excellent performance and handling qualities in both fin and twin keel formats.
And, being 6ft longer than the Griffon, she has classier and more elegant lines. Westerly gambled that extra performance would not deter its existing customer base, but rather boost existing brand loyalty while attracting new converts to the marque.
With fin or twin keels, the Fulmar took off. She also became a favourite with sailing schools requiring a spacious, seaworthy and stable floating classroom. The Fulmar’s seagoing interior layout, long cockpit and ability to take heavy weather in her stride make her the ideal workhorse.
With a sail area of around 560ft2, beam of 10ft 11in and ballast ratio of around 42% she offers a fine balance between cruising comfort and good performance.
Despite her long cockpit, the Fulmar’s interior volume is extensive. Her traditional layout – with twin berth forepeak, amidships heads, straight-sided saloon settees, big galley, sensible chart table and aft quarter berth – works well at sea.
It is not dissimilar to the Contessa 32’s accommodation, but more spacious. And many reckon that a well-sailed Fulmar will see off a Contessa 32 under sail in many conditions.
An impressive 437 were built and current prices vary between around £21,000 and £35,000 depending on age, condition and whether they have a replacement engine.
Best 30 foot Moody boats
Many Moodys can also fit under the £30,000 ceiling, including earlier Primrose designs (Moody 33, 30, 36, 33S, 29, 333) and early Dixon designs (Moody 27, 31, 28). Most of these were offered with fin or twin keels.
There are far too many to go into detail here, but the excellent Moody Owners Association (moodyowners.org) contains information galore.
Best 30 foot boats: Yacht broker favourites
To get an experienced yacht broker’s view, I asked Andy Cunningham of Michael Schmidt and Partner (based at Hamble Point) for his favourite boats selling at under £30,000.
He also mentioned the Victoria 30, Westerly Fulmar and Hunter Channel 32 twin-keeler – with the proviso that the last three can sell for more than £30,000 when in top condition.
Sharing Andy’s bias towards David Thomas twin keel designs, I would also mention the Hunter Horizon 232 twin-keeler as owned by 82-year-old Murdoch McGregor who won the British Yachting Awards 2021 Sailor of the Year accolade for his epic solo round Britain trip.
And its later, larger sister the Ranger 245 found almost unprecedented approval from the testers at PBO. David Harding wrote: ‘There was a lot to like about this spirited little ship back in 1996 when she had just been launched as the Ranger 245.’
Andrew Simpson, PBO’s associate editor at the time and not one to lavish praise on a boat unless it was well earned, concluded his test in 1997 with the words ‘a cracking little winner if ever I saw one’. The choice is far wider when looking for a small yacht priced under £30,000. So it’s impossible to list all the likely candidates.
Buying a 30 foot boat: Top tips
As a rule of thumb, it’s important to seek out a model with the backing of an active owners association. Rallies and social gatherings are fun and of course there’s extensive valuable information available.
A pre-purchase survey is also important; as are any recent invoices for major items such as engine and standing rigging replacement to show insurers.
Regarding standing rigging some insurers stipulate inspections on change of ownership, further inspections thereafter and rectification of faults found. So it’s sensible to check this with your insurer first.
Navigators & General, which has been insuring yachts since 1921, states on its website: ‘We will generally require surveys on boats greater than 23ft which are over 20 years in age. Once satisfactorily completed we will not ask for another for at least five years.’
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This feature appeared in the July 2022 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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