Peter Poland picks out some of the best cruising boats under 30ft, arguably the ideal size for coastal and occasional offshore sailing
Cruising boats of around 30ft can often become a ‘boat for life’. Having graduated from dinghies to small cruisers, many sailors decide that something around 30ft will give them enough space, headroom, comfort and seagoing ability to see out their sailing days.
Sometimes a crew of young children may push them into something bigger for a while, but many sailors find that around 30ft is an ideal size for coastal and occasional offshore sailing.
Budget is also usually an important factor. Some GRP cruising boats around 30ft date back to the 1960s. But times change and precious few new models of this size are being built today.
So if you want a 30-foot cruising boat you’ll probably end up with a second-hand yacht and can be looking at age differences of up to 60 years; with correspondingly different prices. Some sailors relish the process of renovating an older yacht, while others want one that is in good condition and raring to go.
When you start looking for a good second-hand cruising boat around 30ft, the choices are wide and varied. There are so many options that it’s easy to become confused. Not only were a lot of different models built, the variations between types, styles and levels of performance became more defined around the 30ft mark.
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Best cruising boats under 30 feet: Focusing the search
As time passed three different types evolved: middle of the road family cruisers (fin, twin and lifting keel); older style long keeled cruisers; and lighter cruiser-racers (often IOR-influenced after the late 1970s).
So it becomes ever more important to have a clear idea of what size and type of cruiser you want. As we often said to clients who were considering buying one of our Hunters, you need to answer some basic questions before deciding on your ideal yacht: what sort of sailing are you planning?; where?; with whom?; and how often? We reckoned that many people ended up by buying bigger boats than they actually needed.
Three of the earliest GRP production yachts built fell into the 28-30ft bracket and – even if a degree of restoration work is necessary – all are excellent designs.
The Dutch 9.10m Pionier 9 – often spelt Pioneer 9 in English – was designed by van de Stadt and the first production GRP yacht in Europe. More than 600 were built after the first was launched in 1959. UK versions were moulded by Tylers and finished by Southern Ocean Shipyard in Poole.
The Pionier’s hull configuration of a fin keel and separate spade rudder was well ahead of the game at that time. With a beam of just 2.4m she’s not spacious by modern standards but a practical four berth layout, generous cockpit, displacement/length ratio (DLR) of 235 and sail area/displacement (SA/Disp) ratio of 19.1 combine to make the Pionier a good seagoing yacht and a delight to sail.
A well maintained example makes an excellent performance cruiser, as confirmed by one owner on a discussion forum who wrote: ‘The Pionier 9 is a strong and seaworthy boat. Aziz was sailed single-handed non-stop from UK to US [from Milford Haven to Newport in 1971 in 45 days] by Nicollette Milnes-Walker – the first woman to achieve this…
‘My father and I have owned our Pionier 9 for about 32 years now and she still sails well against more modern boats and the quality of build means they suffer very few problems.’
Best cruising boats under 30 feet: Long keel designs
The great British designer Kim Holman was responsible for two other exceptional yachts in this early GRP era; the 1960 Elizabethan 29 and 1964 Twister 28. Unlike the Pionier, both of these have traditional long keels.
The Elizabethan (built by Peter Webster) has a graceful counter while the Twister (moulded by Tylers and finished by various builders such as Uphams and Universal Shipyard) hangs its rudder on a transom stern, and the latter is a smidge wider (8ft 1in), longer on the waterline, (21ft 6in) and heavier (9,968lb). Both have four berth layouts with amidships heads and both are a delight to sail.
I was lucky enough to be a regular crew on an Elizabethan in the 1960s, and enjoyed regular sailing on a Twister this century. If I had to risk a comparison I’d say the latter has few equals when slicing upwind in a blow into a chop, while the former is one of the most slippery ladies I have ever steered downwind. Both sail in classic regattas and are snug and practical to live aboard – albeit without stern cabins.
Both attract admiring looks wherever they sail. They’re high on my list of all-time favourites and make great buys if you don’t want a floating caravan and don’t mind a bit of maintenance work from time to time.
Earlier Twisters have a high-maintenance wooden coachroof, while later ones are all GRP. And – as with any elderly yacht – look for one with a replacement engine and renewed rigging.
Peter Webster came up with another timeless yacht in 1968. The Elizabethan 30 (and later 9m sister, both designed by the great David Thomas) were fast cruisers inspired by the Half Ton Cup.
With a beam of 9ft 3in, it offers reasonable space down below while a generous ballast ratio of 48%, SA/Disp ratio of 19.2 and moderate DLR of 235 ensure excellent performance and easy handling; especially when compared to modern cruisers with wide sterns and towering topsides. What’s more, it is a lovely looking yacht.
Hugo Morgan-Harris of consulting surveyors Saunders Morgan Harris told me; “I brought my Liz 30 in 1998 as a classic GRP cruising/racing boat. She had an old RCA Dolphin petrol engine, rotten alloy mast, tired rigging and no deck fittings.
“The interior was a mess and all of the systems were original. As I was boatbuilding at the time I thought that I’d have a go! Now we have a new Yanmar 2GM, electrics, nav gear, Lewmar windows, toilet, fridge, wireless auto helm, boom, vang etc.”
If you can buy a tired boat cheaply enough, this sort of investment is worth the money. Having owned and loved the boat for some 20 years, Hugo sold her and bought and restored (in his garden!) a tired Sigma 38. So, like many others, he has stuck to David Thomas designs.
Best cruising boats under 30 feet: Wide beam accommodation
As the 70s got under way, the high profile Half Ton Cup seemed to cast its spell over ever more 30ft cruisers. The Nicholson 30, Ron Holland-designed Nicholson 303, Doug Petersen-designed Contessa 28 and Contention 30, Fred Parker Javelin 30, Dick Carter-designed Carter 30, S&S-designed She 31 and Kim Holman-designed Hustler 30 and UFO 31 all offered wide beam accommodation, fin keels and well above average performance.
Some were better built than others. For my money the Tyler-moulded and Landamores-finished Hustler 30 or Nicholson 303 are the pick of this bunch if you are in the market for a 30-footer that sails well (albeit twitchily on a heavy weather reach or run with too much canvas aloft), has a good seagoing layout and looks classy.
Reverting to more classic long-keelers built around the same time, I came across an internet thread that sparked a flurry of interesting comments. The opening post was: “I am looking to make a first yacht purchase and would appreciate thoughts on the variations between a Victoria 30, a Halmatic 30 or a Nicholson 31. I am keener on the more classic style of yacht than on newer boats and [want] a long keel; with a view to longer or ocean trips in the future.”
Those looking for a boat of this character should have these three on their list. The John Sharp-designed Halmatic 30 (and similar Barbican 30) is 22ft 10in on the waterline, has 9ft 6in beam, draws 4ft 6in, displaces 9,000lb with a 50% ballast ratio, 338 DLR and 15.95 SA/Disp ratio.
The Chuck Paine-designed Victoria 30 has a canoe stern and similar dimensions but is appreciably lighter at 8,867lb with a 31% ballast ratio and DLR of 311. Raymond Wall’s classy Nicholson 31 (30ft 6in), on the other hand, is a little longer, wider (10ft 3in) and heavier (13,005lb) with a ballast ratio of 37% and DLR of 411. Like the Halmatic 30, it has a transom-hung rudder giving the look of an elegant overgrown Folkboat or Twister.
My favourite from this trio would be a well-maintained Nicholson 31. One owner put it well, responding to the thread: “I can’t give an unbiased opinion, because I’ve owned my Nic 31 from new in 1982…
“She has sailed transatlantic (Maine to Ireland, averaging just over 5 knots for the entire, comfortable, passage) and was great for living aboard for six seasons (cruising three months at a time) in northern European waters. Fabulous boat… Almost any used boat will need to be updated. Just start with a good foundation.” Which about says it all.
He later told me “We had a variety of weather conditions [on the transatlantic trip] and the combination of full keel and great sail balance allowed the wind vane to steer straight in all but the lightest air, even downwind… She’s the perfect small blue water (for two to four crew) and coastal cruising (for two) boat.”
However as designs progressed and production methods evolved, going offshore ceased to be the sole preserve of old fashioned-style long-keel boats. Many modern family boats such as a Westerly, Hunter, Sadler, Moody, or more recent Beneteaus, Jeanneaus and Bavarias in the 28-32ft size range offered ample scope for coastal and offshore cruising.
The advantage of this type of boat is that it tends to be newer, more spacious, easy to handle and can also be easier to sell when the time comes to move on. There is a much wider choice because they were made in the hundreds. Once again condition and equipment are important.
The Bill Dixon-designed Moody 31 (LOA 30ft 9in) Mk1 and Mk2 models (with fin or twin keels) were built from 1983 to 1991 and are good examples. A beam of 10ft 6in, weight of 9,966lb, ballast ratio of 37%, DLR of 270 and SA/Disp ratio of 15 put it firmly in the camp of modern, capable and roomy family cruisers.
Despite highish freeboard, it looks sleek and well styled. And of course its modern layout with aft heads, stern cabin and practical L-shaped galley was an instant hit with cruising families. One owner said “I had always fancied a Contessa 32 but after a trial sail, my wife was not impressed. Too uncomfortable! At the Boat Show we saw the Moody 31. My wife liked the space and comfort and it looked a good sea boat to me. Not as fast as the Contessa perhaps but I wasn’t really a racing man.”
This owner later proved his Moody 31’s ability offshore by joining a Royal Cornwall YC rally to the Azores. On the racing front, I used to crew on a fin keel Moody 31 Mk1 that picked up plenty of pots in Hamble-based handicap races.
A member of the Moody Owners Association endorsed the Moody 31’s qualities saying he had owned his 31from new in 1990, adding: “We have sailed the local rivers and across to Holland, Belgium and France. The boat is almost a member of the family and… it’s large enough to accommodate six but can be sailed single-handed.
“It’s a sturdy boat that will hold up against many faster types if sailed correctly. The oversized 28hp engine will push it through a steep chop at 6 knots. Over a quarter of a century, I discovered how well the boat has been made… It has never let me down and I love sailing her.”
Westerly Konsort 29
Westerly came up with one of its most successful 28-30ft cruisers in the 1980s. Over 700 of the ever-popular Laurent Giles-designed Konsort 29 were built and these tough cruisers are still much sought after.
Its vital statistics of 10ft 9in beam, 8516lb weight, 37.5% ballast ratio, 229 DLR and 15 SA/Disp ratio are on a par with many of its contemporaries.
The Konsort’s conventional accommodation – featuring amidships heads and aft galley and nav area – is practical and solidly finished, making it an archetypical middle-of-the-road family cruiser.
And for those who prefer a deck saloon offering panoramic views from the warm and dry, the Duo version also has many attractions.
A former commodore of the Westerly Association told me that when he bought his twin keel Konsort he sought out a boat that incorporated the revised hull reinforcement system Westerly adopted after early production.
He added that: “The boat sails well provided there is sufficient breeze to get her going. A cruising chute helps in light airs. When the wind pipes up the performance is good, with a reef in the main around Force 5. The Konsort is very much a cruising boat so we have never expected her to point high, but you sail according to the characteristics of your boat. When required the 24hp Bukh diesel will take care of any lack of wind.
“We sail in the English Channel, the Channel Islands and adjacent coast of France. We have had no unexpected problems with the boat… a choice well made and never regretted.”
The later 30ft 6in Westerly Tempest, designed by Ed Dubois, was a very different concept. Its unusual accommodation featured two double cabins aft and a heads compartment in the eyes of the yacht. By Westerly standards, its sales total of 107 wasn’t a runaway success. But it has a lot to offer; as does its revamped Regatta 310 near sister.
The Sadler 29 was another winner from the 1980s. Martin Sadler told me: “The 29 appeared at the 1981 Earls Court boat show. She was offered with fin or twin keels and the mix was about 60/40 in favour of the latter.
“Our demonstration boat had twins and it surprised people how well she sailed [understandable because these twins are shapely, well positioned and draw 3ft 8in]. The design concept of the 29 was to achieve a larger internal volume for overall length than the Sadler 25 and 32, and she has accommodation very similar to the 32.”
Designer David Sadler got the balance between comfort and performance right: 28ft 5in overall, waterline 22ft 10in, beam 9ft 6in, weight 8,200lb, 41.5% ballast ratio, 307 DLR and 14.68 SA/Disp ratio. Sailors loved her and around 400 were built.
Her spacious accommodation with amidships heads, good galley and chart table and cosy quarter berth appealed to traditionalists and modernists alike. What’s more the inner mouldings conceal enough foam buoyancy to make the boat float and sail if flooded, if the foam’s still sound.
One Sadler 29 owner summed up what to look for, saying: “The advice when buying boats of this age is to spend a bit more on one that has been sorted, ie recent new engine, sails, standing rigging, cushions etc, rather than getting a tatty boat cheaper, and then spending a fortune.
“We like the foam filled construction, not least because it massively reduces condensation compared to other boats I’ve sailed (and slept) on. The downside is the boat is rather smaller than other 29-footers down below.”
The later Stephen Jones-designed Sadler 290 never achieved the same number of buyers. Its builders folded after around 40 were produced. But that does not detract from this exceptional boat’s performance. Both twin and fin versions have lead keels and sail superbly. If you see one for sale, take a look. But it won’t be cheap.
Best cruising boats under 30 feet: Sportier cruisers
And what about the sportier cruisers of the 1980s and 90s? The Hunter Impala 28 (1977 onwards) has many fans to this day – Timothy Long became the youngest sailor to circumnavigate Britain solo in 2020 sailing an Impala. Designed as an Offshore One Design by David Thomas, the Impala still makes a competitive racer.
But don’t overlook its attributes as a fast cruiser. The interior is practical and simple: twin berth forepeak, enclosed heads to port amidships, galley aft of the main bulkhead to starboard and two settee berths with two pilot berths outboard in the saloon. Originally Impalas came with an outboard in a well; but most now have inboards.
The later Hunter Horizon 30 is an elongated cruising version of the Impala, with a new deck and counter stern. The interior is dramatically different, with twin berth forepeak, saloon settees and aft galley, heads compartment and double aft cabin.
Thanks to the superb performance of Thomas’s twin keels (3ft 10in draught with bulbed bases), most buyers chose this option. Its moderate 9ft 3in beam gives good handling and its 43% ballast ratio, 234 DLR and SA/Disp ratio of 19.8 provide sparkling performance. Indeed a twin-keeler took third overall in its CHS class against racy fin-keelers in one Round the Island Race.
Those looking for a beamier fin keel cruiser-racer might find the Thomas-designed Sigma 292 of interest. It didn’t sell in large numbers, compared to the Sigma 33, but shares many of its qualities. The Thomas-designed Hunter Channel 31 (30ft 9in) is an exceptionally quick twin-keeler and a delight to sail and live aboard; but sadly only a few were built.
And finally, going back a few years, Chris Butler’s Achilles 9m also sold well and excelled in the 1984 OSTAR, finishing in 30 days. This sporty fin-keeler has a DLR of 190, SA/Disp ratio of 15.5 and a 43% ballast ratio. A tidy example makes an excellent budget cruiser-racer.
Best cruising boats under 30 feet: Lifting keel options
If you prefer a lifting keel boat around the 30ft mark, the Tony Castro-designed Parker 31 that was built by Parker Yachts between 1987 and 1993 is worth a look. For a high performance yacht, it offers good accommodation with double berth cabins in the forepeak and aft as well as a spacious heads.
Its vertically lifting keel has a wide wing at its base giving a low centre of gravity, a ballast ratio of 32.86% and a draught of 2ft (keel up) and 6ft (keel down). Yachting Monthly said ‘… the performance and handling are remarkable. She is very fast, unexpectedly stable and finger light on the tiller.’ The drawback is that Parker only built 30 before introducing the larger 325 and 335 models then ceased trading in 2009.
The Dick Carter-designed Southerly 95 also offers variable draught, albeit in a heavier and less performance-oriented 31ft 7in cruiser. Its cast iron grounding plate and pivoting keel give a ballast ratio of 46% and a draught of 1ft 10in (keel up) and 5ft 2in (keel down).
So with its transom-mounted rudder and its keel lifted, the 95 is ideal for drying out in secluded creeks. Down below, it offers two berths in the forepeak, a U-shaped saloon settee (convertible to a double berth), an aft heads and aft quarter berth. Most unusually, it also has an inside wheel steering position in addition to a tiller in the cockpit. It was first built in 1980.
As a general rule however, any lifting keel system on an elderly yacht needs close inspection before buying. Whether it pivots, swings or moves vertically up and down it is prone to a lot more stress and strain than a fixed keel. It can also suffer from impact damage. A thorough survey is advisable.
Class association benefit
One big advantage of these British built yachts around 30ft is that almost all have active and helpful class associations. When you are considering the purchase of a yacht whose original builder is no longer active – as is sadly the case with all these British-built yachts – a well run association is a treasure trove of helpful information and advice.
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This feature appeared in the May 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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