Peter Poland considers the reasons why ‘plastic fantastics’ are now being welcomed into the fleets of traditional classic yachts…
Sprawled, glass in hand, in the cockpit of my friend James Stock’s beautiful Stephen Jones-designed Mystery 35, I pondered on the eclectic fleet of elegant flag-bedecked classic cruiser boats that surrounded us in Paimpol Harbour on the North Brittany coast.
These ranged from elderly wooden yachts to early GRP classics such as Swans, Nicholson 43s, 36s and 32s, Twisters, Contessas, Nordic Folkboats et al.
Originally known as the Classic Regatta Anglo-Breton (CRAB to its friends), I was lucky enough to be participating in the renamed Classic Channel Regatta 2022 race round the Île de Bréhat.
I’d crewed on James’s previous classic – a Twister 28 – in the 2013 and 2015 editions of the race. But purists might ask what any GRP yacht was doing in a fleet of classic cruiser boats. Surely they should all be wood?
Why were several ‘plastic fantastics’, albeit beautiful, seaworthy and speedy examples, gatecrashing such a gathering?
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Our Mystery 35, although a recent design, was deemed to be a ‘modern classic’ – along with the Spirit range – by the organisers of the event.
What makes a classic cruiser boat?
Times are changing. While the British Classic Yacht Club (BCYC) restricts membership to owners of wood or steel yachts above 30ft and designed before 1970, Classic Channel Regatta chairman Bruce Thorogood told me that its doors were open to two groups of classics of wood, steel, aluminium or GRP.
These comprise designs from before the end of 1968, and later yachts designed before the end of 1974.
He said: “Boats built as one-offs or in limited series are considered classic unless there’s a reason to exclude them. For GRP production boats, the design needs to be approved by the organisers. Many GRP yachts were still traditional looking, being derivatives of designs that could have been built in wood.”
Bruce added: “To my mind it’s absurd to reject all GRP boats when it has been the major boatbuilding material for over half a century and many very fine designs have been built in GRP. I think hull material is irrelevant; it is all about style and quality.”
When it comes to size, the Classic Channel Regatta organisers accept a minimum length of 7.5m for cross-Channel events and 5.4m for inshore regattas – so boats like Vertues, Folkboats, Stellas, Twisters and Contessa 26s can join the fun.
Like many old age pensioners, I started sailing and racing in wooden yachts. These were the norm in the post war years up to the late 1960s; and would now all be termed as classics.
First up came a beautiful Robert Clark designed 60-footer called Lara; my grandfather’s pride and joy. Then I graduated to prancing precariously on the narrow and unfenced foredeck of a Solent Sunbeam, closely followed by an International One Design (IOD).
A bit later, I turned to cruiser-racing on a South Coast One Design (SCOD) then my father’s Sandy Balfour-designed and Berthon-built 36-footer Matchless.
Shortly after, I horrified my parents by setting off, aged 22, to sail across the Atlantic in a 25ft Buchanan-designed Wind Elf Mk2. Despite our ineptitude with a plastic sextant, my friend and I made it to Barbados in one piece and discovered the joys of Mount Gay rum.
Those were halcyon days and I was fortunate to have sailed such a wide variety of splendid wooden yachts. But when I came back down to UK earth and took up boatbuilding, I plunged headlong into the GRP age.
Everything was changing and fleets of new production boats were flooding the market; many of which are now old enough to be found at Classic Channel Regattas.
Why buy a classic cruiser boat?
So why should today’s sailors with a yen to sail a classic consider a GRP yacht rather than a wooden one? And why should they buy a GRP classic rather than a far beamier, more modern design? If you are considering which model might appeal, you can do a lot worse than look at its displacement/length ratio.
This is a reliable indication of a yacht’s character as designer Ted Brewer succinctly explained: “The D/L ratio [DLR] is a non-dimensional figure derived from the displacement in tons [measured in lb] divided by .01 LWL [in feet] cubed, or, D/(.01 LWL)3. It allows us to compare the displacement of boats of widely different LWLs.”
As DLR examples Brewer puts a light cruiser/racer at 150-200; light cruising auxiliary 200-250; average cruising auxiliary 250-300; heavy cruising auxiliary 300-350; very heavy cruising auxiliary 350-400.” A Nordic Folkboat pitches in with a DLR of 249.
The most obvious reason for choosing a classic is its special charm and handling. It looks and sails very differently to a modern lightweight cruiser. And a GRP classic is likely to cost far less to restore (if this is indeed necessary) and maintain than a wooden one.
Its engine, rig and electrics might need replacing at some stage; so seek out a re-engined example. Then its topsides may need cutting back and polishing or painting.
But these expenses tend to be one-offs compared to the annual rituals on a wooden yacht. An onset of osmotic blisters is normally less onerous than the cost of a yard’s labour replacing planking, frames, ribs, and deck beams should a wooden hull become structurally unsound or rotten.
Of course purists who have the wherewithal or who are skilled DIY chippies won’t be put off by this cost. But many more will. An owner of a GRP Twister once told me “Beware the danger of being ruled by your emotions and optimism. A classic in sound condition is a beautiful thing. A ‘dog’ will cost you a shed load of money.
Know your market. Does the cost of the work and equipment needed make sense when added to the purchase price? Doing it yourself – if you have the skills and can spare the time – gives you huge leeway. Paying a boatyard may ruin you!”
James Stock, my Twister skipper at CRAB 2013 and 2015, summed up the dilemma well, saying: “I favour GRP for a classic yacht – but with lots of wood embellishment – on the grounds of managing maintenance and cost.
“But thankfully there are still those with deep pockets sailing classics constructed in wood who are the custodians of these fine boats.”
He admitted to enjoying the comments of passers-by who paused to admire his Twister’s sheerline, elegant proportions and varnished bright work, saying: “It makes the hard work with a varnish brush worthwhile.”
Now his Mystery 35 receives even more admiring looks. He even gets requests for trial sails from people interested in buying their own ‘modern classic’ Mystery 35.
Which classic cruiser boat to choose?
So if you fancy joining the fray in a GRP classic, where should you start? The likely candidates cover two types of yacht: the long-keel developments of earlier cruisers and of the bionic Nordic Folkboat; then the later and sportier fin and skeg yachts, such as early Swans, S&S She 31 and 36, Centurion, Contessa 32, Albin Ballad, Norlin 34 and 37, Scampi etc that came to the fore in the late 1960s and early 70s.
The most influential design that spawned countless GRP long-keelers is the Folkboat. In the early 1940s, the Swedes launched an international competition, challenging designers to come up with a new sailboat class.
The brief was to design a cheap, fast, attractive and seaworthy racer that could also double up as a capable family cruiser.
Of around 60 submissions, no single design was considered ‘right’ enough to be an outright winner. So the organisers asked designer Tord Sunden to combine the best aspects of the final favourites into one yacht. Which became the Folkboat.
Originally the design featured a counter stern. But this would cost more to build, so Sunden removed it; replacing it with a jaunty transom.
Bow and stern overhangs balanced sweetly and a keel ‘cutaway’ forward reduced wetted surface while a rounded underbody and slackish bilge produced a hull that stiffened up dramatically in a breeze.
A 50% ballast ratio, DLR of 249 and lovely lines helped the Folkboat sail and handle beautifully under full sail while many modern cruisers are reefing to retain control.
Initially Nordic Folkboats were built of wood with clinker planking. Then in 1977, the class allowed GRP as an alternative construction. Around 1,000 of these have been built (and are still in production).
However even its greatest fans will concede that this delightful and potent little package leaves much to be desired when it comes to comfortable accommodation.
Modified versions such as Jester and Eira completed the first ever OSTAR and many others have crossed oceans; but the standard Folkboat is hardly a palace… even by 25-footer standards.
So in 1966 Sunden came up with a solution, designing one of the most successful Folkboat developments; a beautiful boat that will grace any classic yacht gathering. The International Folkboat (IF Boat for short) is longer overall (7.87m) and on the waterline (6.04m) and heavier (2,150kg) compared to the Nordic Folkboat.
It also has a higher ballast ratio and a higher Sail area/Displacement ratio to boost performance. Add a self-draining cockpit and an outboard well or small inboard engine and you have a far more versatile yacht. Proving the IF Boat’s appeal, over 3,000 were produced.
Down below, the IF Boat offers far more usable space than its Nordic ancestor. A forepeak with two 6ft-plus berths, longer settee berths in the saloon, a small heads, a rudimentary galley and improved stowage space all add up to a feasible family cruiser; even if headroom is only 4ft 8in.
‘The Folkboat was an influential design that spawned countless GRP long-keelers’
And its performance, seaworthiness and easy handling make the IF Boat as accomplished on a race course as it is on lengthy cruises. One owner summed up its appeal, telling me: “I have owned my boat for 17 years. I was invited to crew on one and allowed to helm; and from that moment I was smitten.
“She sails easily in very light winds and doesn’t really need to reef until Force 6. The helm is beautifully balanced throughout… I’ve yet to meet a sailor who didn’t appreciate sailing one.
“However, all boats are a compromise. The IF Boat has low freeboard and a long keel, which means she makes virtually no leeway even in strong winds.
“The trade-off is that she is a wet boat in a swell and does not have standing headroom below decks. However I am 6ft 2in tall and am quite comfortable in her, with a choice of three bunks that I fit.”
Much the same applies to van de Stadt’s Folkboat derivation; his GRP Invicta 26. Introduced in 1964, this sweet-hulled long-keeler probably influenced the Contessa 26 that hit the scene two years later.
The late, great Jeremy Rogers admitted to me that he liked the keyhole companionway detail. However he didn’t replicate the Invicta’s split level roof, so the Contessa 26 missed out on a bit of extra headroom. Van de Stadt also flattened off the Folkboat’s keel base so the Invicta dries out on the level.
Down below, the accommodation works well. Instead of shoehorning two berths into a small forepeak, van de Stadt designed saloon settee berths that extend into trotter boxes. As a result, the forepeak is given over to a WC and stowage.
Two quarterberths aft make for comfortable sleeping while the galley and chart table areas amidships are practical and easy to use at sea. Given the modest volume inside any Folkboat derivative, this layout has much to recommend it. And, dare I say it, I prefer it to the Contessa’s.
There were two versions of the Invicta; the Mk1 and Mk2. The latter has a slightly raised deck line which increases interior space. It also has a little less sail area than the Mk1, which was aimed more at the keen racer.
Either way, the Invicta is a lovely little yacht and would grace any classic gathering. What’s more it sails straight and fast. A little gem.
Meanwhile Lymington-based Jeremy Rogers was hatching a plot to make his own long keel GRP cruiser-racer. He was already building successful cold-moulded wooden Folkboats and – together with the owner of one of these – he decided to take the GRP route and produce a modernised variation.
Rogers told me he butchered one of his cold-moulded Folkboat hulls to make the plug, cutting out the transom, inserting wedges into the open hull and pushing the sides outwards. It creaked and got wider until it looked right. He then levelled and lifted the sheer, allowing for the addition of small moulded bulwarks.
This raised the freeboard and increased the overall length. He and David Sadler then tidied things up, adding a low profile and attractive roof (with a keyhole companionway) and straightening the keel base. So in 1966 the mighty Contessa 26 was born.
The first of the class, Contessa of Lymington, cost her owner £2,416 and 10 shillings. David Sadler took No5 while Vernon Sainsbury (the business angel who funded the project) bought No6.
The Contessa was an instant hit and orders flooded in. The final total of boats built exceeds 750, including the Taylor-built versions in Canada. Then as now, the Contessa 26 has wide appeal. Some win races such as the Round the Island while others voyage across oceans.
Given her globe-girdling reputation, it was a shame that when I tested a Contessa 26 I had to make do with a wet, windy and cold winter’s day on the Solent rather than sliding into a palm-fringed bay in the Caribbean.
But she didn’t disappoint. She was a delight to sail. She’s pretty, seaworthy (with a DLR of 301 and ballast ratio of 42.6%) and offers easy handling, speed aplenty, stability and adequate accommodation.
True, the space and headroom down below are less than on similar length long-keeled yachts that I have sailed, such as the SCOD, Nicholson 26 and Wind Elf (that carted me across the pond); but everything is there and works.
Fans of classic cruiser boats may dream of a gleaming wooden hull, but prefer the convenience and relative economy of GRP.
British designer Kim Holman also joined the early charge into GRP long-keeled cruisers. His Elizabethan 29 (DLR 406, ballast ratio 43%) and Twister 28 (DLR 447, ballast ratio 46%) designs both ruled the roost in Junior Offshore Group (JOG) cross Channel races in the 1960s and now join the fun in today’s classic events that allow GRP yachts to rub shoulders with the wooden fraternity. And when it comes to sweet lines and elegant profiles, neither lowers the tone.
The Elizabethan 29 went afloat in 1960. Unlike many Folkboat-style long-keelers of the day, Holman ignored the functional transom stern. Instead he gave her a graceful counter (hence the extra 3ft of length) and this balances perfectly with her bow overhang.
He also gave her a split-level roof, which increases headroom at the aft end of the saloon. Thanks to these traditional traits, she has the looks of a classic; albeit a GRP one. Down below there’s enough space for an enclosed heads amidships with settee berths in the saloon and twin berths in the forepeak.
The galley and chart table are aft at the foot of the companionway. All in all, it is a practical layout and comfortable at sea. I spent many happy days (and nights) as a junior crew member thrashing a Liz 29 around the Channel on JOG races in the 1960s.
As in many early GRP boats, her interior finish is functional rather than fancy. But everything works. And her sailing qualities are, as you would expect, exceptional.
Holman’s Twister 28 is equally desirable as a GRP classic yacht. When I was crewing on the Liz back in the 60s, the Twister was our bête noire. We could usually outsail them on a reach or a run; but when it came to a beat – especially in heavy weather – it was a different story.
The Twister’s extra waterline length, beam, draught and weight gave her power that we could not match. Our counter stern may have been prettier, but we got fed up with watching her less refined transom.
Holman designed and built the first wooden Twister for himself in 1964. She was nigh on unbeatable. Then Tylers built GRP hulls and various yards finished these off, adding a wooden deck, superstructure and interior.
Finally, in 1970, Tylers developed an all-GRP version that sold in large numbers. The Twister I sailed on regularly was one of these – beautifully finished by Universal Shipyard on the Hamble.
‘It’s hard to quantify the joy of steering the Twister 28’
Her owner James Stock told me: “If you want a Twister, buy an all wood or all GRP example. The wood deck on GRP hull versions can involve a lot of maintenance work.”
It’s hard to quantify the joy of steering this boat. The helm is relatively firm but you don’t need to do a lot with it. A Twister knows where to go and sailing upwind is a finger and thumb job. It naturally follows the wind and if you wrench the helm too much, you just put on the brakes. It’s close-winded and very quick.
The accommodation is equally pleasing. There’s nothing unusual about the layout (which offers standing headroom). There’s a twin berth forepeak, amidships heads and hanging locker, saloon settee berths with trotter boxes, spacious navigation area (standing room only) and galley aft.
The overall ambience is snug and comfortable; mainly because the bilge is deep so you step down into the interior. All in all, it is a pleasant place to be, especially if you are in a well finished example with plenty of woodwork.
Combine the Twister’s comfort with its easy but fast sailing qualities and lovely looks and you have the near perfect small GRP classic yacht. About the only drawback is the price. These yachts are much in demand.
If a similar sized but less pricey GRP long-keeler appeals, the Alan-Hill-designed Cutlass 27 is worth a look. Launched in 1967, it sold in good numbers and has achieved favourable boat test reviews; although it never acquired the Twister’s star status.
The accommodation is conventional for its era, although finish varies because several were home-completed by DIY builders. So check carefully. But if you find a nice one, it will give you classic long keel sailing and a steady motion at sea on a modest budget.
Laurent Giles Vertue
Perhaps the most iconic long keel classic cruiser of this size is the Vertue. Indeed, when I was planning my 1968 Transatlantic jaunt, this little beauty was at the top of my list. I had read epic tales of ocean crossing adventures in books such as Humphrey Barton’s Vertue XXXV.
But there was one problem. Second-hand Vertues cost a lot in those days. However if you now like the idea of joining the classic circuit in one of these tough little Giles-designed masterpieces, you don’t have to buy a wooden one.
Several of the GRP Vertue 2 class were built by Bossoms Boatyard. An extra plank had already been added to earlier wooden models’ topsides to provide more room down below and there were a few small changes to facilitate GRP construction.
But it is quintessentially a Vertue, sharing its legendary sea-keeping qualities. It would not look amiss in a classic fleet.
After Camper & Nicholson entered the word of GRP production yachts in the early 60s with the successful Nicholson 36 and 32, they decided a smaller sister would complement the range.
The Nicholson 26 (introduced in 1968) is in many ways very similar to the Nicholson-designed SCOD. At 26ft 7in it’s around 8in longer; yet its more rakish bow overhang means its LWL is a foot shorter.
It draws 3in less and is 3in narrower than the SCOD yet, at around 10,000lb, weighs about 800lb more. But despite its weight, the Nicholson 26 is a fine performer.
Its cut-away forefoot helps reduce wetted area, yet its deep and heavily ballasted keel gives stability galore. And its deep transom-hung rudder provides plenty of bite.
I spent a couple of enjoyable seasons racing on a Nicholson 26 on the JOG circuit and we were often among the leaders.
True, the fancy fin keelers had not really appeared on the scene yet, but there was still plenty of keen competition, both English and French. She was fast to windward and no slouch downwind under a large masthead spinnaker.
The 26 not only had a comfortable motion; it also offered living comfort down below. Like its ancestor the SCOD, the Nicholson 26 has a raised doghouse section to the coachroof.
This, combined with a deep bilge, means the headroom is good. There’s also space to put the weight of the water tank amidships, beneath the cabin sole, contributing to stability and a pleasing motion.
The layout is conventional and, in true Nicholson fashion, nicely finished. A galley (to port) and chart table are at the bottom of the companionway steps, the saloon offers two good settee berths and plenty of locker space, and the twin berth forepeak lives ahead of an amidships heads area.
All in all this practical and pleasing layout, combined with Folkboat-style weatherliness and performance, make the Nicholson 26 a delightful all-rounder – provided, that is, you can live without today’s aft double cabin and heads/shower compartment. Over 60 were built, so it’s worth checking one out.
With his popular Hurley 22 design already selling in large numbers, Ian Anderson was asked by West Country-based Normand Boatyard to re-work his earlier wood-built Sirius design for GRP construction.
This became the Bowman 26. Several boats were built by the Normand Boatyard before the rights were sold to Emsworth Marine Sales who commissioned the Emsworth Shipyard to handle the manufacturing.
The Bowman 26 is yet another example of how elegant the transom-sterned and long keeled Folkboat style can look. And – being the true artist that he was – Anderson gave his design an attractive doghouse-style coachroof.
This, combined with a lovely sheer and deep bilge, enables the Bowman 26 to look attractive yet still fit good headroom and comfortable accommodation into just 26ft.
Her dimensions of 26ft LOA, 19ft 10in LWL, 8ft beam and 4in draught are typical of the type. Her all-up weight of 5,062lb (with around 50% ballast ratio) is moderate rather than heavy for a long-keeler, giving a DLR of 289.
But although the turn of her bilge is relatively firm and high (hence the lighter displacement), there’s room to squeeze one of her tanks under the cabin sole.
The Bowman’s interior layout is almost identical to the Nicholson 26 (galley and chart table aft, heads amidships and V-berth forepeak), but she is almost half the weight.
Little surprise then that Anderson’s elegant creation performs well. His Hurley 27 was a later development and had a longer coachroof, increased freeboard and was 800lb heavier, increasing the DLR from 289 to 324.
Two other popular Folkboat developments of a similar size came from the pen of Alan Buchanan: the Diamond 27 built by Thames Marine and the Halcyon 27 by Offshore Yachts.
The latter was by far the most popular, and large numbers were built before production ceased in 1975.
The Halcyon 27 has a 20ft 3in LWL, beam of 7ft 8in and draught of 4ft. So she’s very similar in terms of dimensions to many other enlarged Folkboat derivations.
She weighs 6,720lb and – as is usual with these long-keelers – has a healthy ballast ratio thanks to a 3,000lb keel.
And, like the Bowman 26, the Halcyon boasts a chunky little doghouse on top of a longish coachroof. So there’s plenty of headroom.
The Halcyon was competitively priced and offered a compact masthead rig, practical accommodation, above average performance and an undoubted ability to stand up to a strong wind in a seaway.
So it’s easy to see why she appealed to sea schools as much as to private owners. Several Services sailing clubs bought Halcyons for sail training, and many are still out there – with thousands of miles under their keels – doing the same job today.
So make sure you find out where your prospective purchase has been before signing the cheque. Some Halcyon 27s have had harder lives than others.
Another desirable but often overlooked Folkboat descendant that hit the scene in the 1960s was Fred Parker’s Folkdancer design.
Having started life as the Hamble One Design then the Warsash One Design, this attractive yacht’s name was changed to the more self-explanatory Folkdancer when Russell Marine took over the marketing.
In those days Des Pollard’s firm (famous for numerous Alacrities and Vivacities) held a prominent position in the small production cruiser world, so its involvement gave this successful Parker design a welcome shot in the arm.
‘The Folkdancer is the unsung hero of the Folkboat dynasty – well worth a look’
Like Buchanan with his Wind Elf design, Parker gave his Folkboat derivative a short counter, so the rudder was not transom-hung.
And he came up with an interesting split sheer for the Russell Marine boats, which increased accommodation space in the forward part of the hull yet kept the cockpit at a comfortable lower level.
When it came to the sail plan, he plumped for a masthead rig, to give a better handicap in the RORC rule era into which the boat was born. In its day, Parker’s own boat Norsue picked up a lot of pots. The experience gained from these campaigns was analysed and incorporated into the GRP production design that followed.
So I suspect that anyone who buys an old Folkdancer, improves its deck gear and treats it to a suit of modern sails could have some fun in club or classic regattas. Thanks to its counter stern, the 27ft Folkdancer is longer than a Nordic Folkboat, but its waterline of 19ft 8in, beam of 7ft 6in and draught of 4ft are similar.
Its all up weight of 5,040lb and ballast ratio of 55% puts it in the Nordic Folkboat’s moderate displacement camp. Compared to, let’s say, the Nicholson 26 the lighter Folkdancer has sleeker underwater lines.
However, despite its far from plump hull form, the Folkdancer is surprisingly spacious below. The attractive and short roof combined with the forward raised sheer gives reasonable headroom and two accommodation plans were offered.
One is fairly simple with a basic galley, five berths and a loo between the forward V-berths. The other sacrifices one berth but gains an amidships WC compartment and larger galley aft.
Over the years some owners will have added modifications of their own. So a close inspection (and survey) is needed before buying. I reckon that the Folkdancer is the unsung hero of the Folkboat dynasty – well worth a look.
Moving on a few years, the Contessa 32 (designed in 1972) is another superstar.
A moderate beam of 9ft 6in, ballast ratio of 47%, DLR of 306 and comfort ratio of 27.7 make it a well-balanced yacht and its seaworthiness is well proven.
It made me feel my age when the class recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
There were several Contessa 32s in the Classic Channel Regatta’s 2022 race round the Île de Bréhat and we saw rather too much of them from our Mystery 35.
Our excuse was that we were not carrying a broad-shouldered symmetric spinnaker.
Two class winners in the 2022 Classic Channel Regatta are also excellent all-round classic GRP cruiser racers – a Norlin 37 won class C (followed by a Comfort 34) and an Albin Ballad 30 won class D (followed by an Armagnac and a Contessa 32).
Which makes the best classic cruiser boats: wood or GRP?
So if you want to enjoy your own classic cruiser boat – whether wood or GRP – firstly, you need to accept that you will not be getting a wide-bodied hull with a spacious aft heads and you won’t be able to enjoy a secluded stern cabin.
If you need these features, look elsewhere. But many people have sailed enough to realise that they don’t spend half their life in the loo and that secure single berths are best for sound sleeping on a yacht at sea.
And maybe you enjoy sailing a fairly heavy long-keeled yacht with a moderate beam and relish the sensation of guiding a well-balanced and stable hull on its way through the waves rather than fighting the helm or recovering from broaches. In which case a modern wide beam lightweight probably won’t be for you.
What about maintenance costs? All boats siphon cash from a sailor’s pocket, and by and large the older ones are the greediest. In the field of classic cruiser boats a GRP yacht offers the best of many worlds.
Of course it will still cost money to run and keep up to scratch, but rarely as much as a wooden one. Yet you still have the satisfaction of owning a yacht that sails like a classic and attracts many admiring glances.
And now – thanks to the Classic Channel Regatta and other similar events – you can sample the unique atmosphere and camaraderie of classic yacht gatherings and regattas.
As modern volume production designs continue on their remorseless way towards plumb ends, wide beam (often carried well aft), shallow hulls and slender fin keels, I foresee a rosy future for classic cruiser boats and the lucky sailors who love them.
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