The American designed Jaguar 27 became one of the most popular UK-built cruisers of its size, as Peter Poland reports


Boat testing is fun. But testing in the Ionian under an October sun is even better. Quite a few years ago I was invited to join a flotilla as part of an assignment to test the Jaguar 27. I jumped at the chance, despite never having been on a flotilla holiday and, in my ignorance, dismissing the whole notion as being ‘for beginners’.

Put simply, flotillas are great fun, totally stress-free sailing for crews of greater or lesser experience alike; and the Jaguar 27 (originally built in the US as the Catalina 27) is one of the most successful early GRP cruisers of its size.

A well maintained example can offer great value for money.

The company we sailed with in Greece, Sailing Holidays, started life in the 1970s as the Flotilla Sailing Club offering flotilla holidays aboard a fleet of Jaguar 27s and UFO27s. It was a great success. One of the company’s engineers, Barrie Neilson, became a flotilla leader and then eventually took over the company, changing its name to Sailing Holidays in 1987.

Unlike most charter operators who use OPBs (other peoples’ boats) – paying owners a cut of the takings – Neilson believes in owning his 165-boat fleet. This way he controls a rigorous maintenance schedule.

Jaguar 27s were the smallest yachts in the fleet until they were sold off in about 2015, which made the Beneteau 311s and 323s the smallest. Neilson said he moved up a size because couples now want a proper shower and double cabins. The fleet goes up to Beneteau 50s.

Our flotilla of 11 Jag 27s set sail from Corfu to roam the Ionian under the skilled but unobtrusive guidance of a team of three – all under 30 years old – who lived aboard their slightly larger lead boat. What then followed was a relaxing succession of trips – some as long as 20 miles, others as short as ten – from port (after breakfast) to bay (for lunch at anchor) to port (for sundowners and tavernas).

And while getting to know the fascinating cast of characters on the flotilla, I was also able to get a real feel for the boat and its abilities.

Jaguar 27 design and variations

The Jaguar 27 has proved to be ideal for short-handed or leisurely family cruising. Designed by Frank Butler as the US-built Catalina 27, large numbers went on to be built and sold by various companies around the world.

Jaguar 22. Photo: David Harding

Catalina Yachts has been one of the leading American builders for many decades. Its current range includes the 315, 355 and 385. Early Frank Butler-designed models – the Catalina 22, 25 and 27 – were built in the UK under the names of the Jaguar 22 (right), 25 and 27, and all sold in large numbers.

The 22 has a pivoting lifting keel while the 25 was offered with swing, fin or twin keels and 27 with a choice of twin or fin keels. The UK builder was Eric Birch and the boats were successfully marketed under the Jaguar banner from the mid-1970s to the mid-80s.

The UK Jaguar Yacht Owners’ Association says that British Jaguar 27s were built in Essex by Eric Birch from the early 1970s. To this day, buyers of old Jags get excellent back-up and information from this association. And because cruisers of this vintage tend to be of heavier displacement and solid construction, well-maintained Jaguars do as good a job today as they did when first launched.

When it hit the market, the Jaguar 27’s sleek lines, elegant sheer, swept fin keel and balanced spade rudder gave it a sporty image. A version with a transom-hung rudder was also made. We sailed fin keel versions drawing 1.32m/4ft 4in while a twin keel version (drawing just 0.2m/8in less) was later introduced in the UK.

Not surprisingly, these ‘twins’ soon gained a reputation for good sailing performance. Unlike many twin keelers of the mid-1970s, the Jaguar 27’s deeper draught makes it surprisingly efficient and owners speak highly of its windward performance. One owner wrote on a Forum: ‘I have sailed my Jaguar 27 [a twin keeler] with a family of five for several seasons. She points well, has a balanced rig, feels very safe and is easy to handle. [She has] decent keels so sails well but can also ghost up the creeks. there’s a good internal layout [and] a decent sized cockpit.’

Unlike many British-built yachts of the 1970s the Jaguar 27 made extensive use of internal GRP mouldings for both its furniture modules and the hull side and deck-head linings. These may look a little clinical, but they do away with the cost and hassle of renewing droopy ageing headlining panels or stripping and re-varnishing tired and water damaged plywood bunk sides.

Layout down below

With a couple of rolls in the main and the genoa, the Jaguar sails very comfortably with little heel.

The internal layout is largely dictated by these internal mouldings. The boat I sailed had the MkI layout that features a dinette (convertible to a wide berth) and quarter berth to starboard with a linear galley to port opposite the dinette. The owners’ association points out that the later MkII version has an L-shaped galley aft to port beside the companionway, which leaves space for a saloon settee/berth opposite the dinette.

Both versions feature the same functional heads compartment amidships that my co-skipper on the flotilla – a leading barrister who cooked me breakfast everyday – and I found perfectly adequate for basic requirements. The heads compartment on the flotilla Jags also had a washbasin with pressurised water.

Ahead of this, there’s a V-berth in the forecabin. Despite being 1.88m (6ft 2in) tall, I passed out comfortably in this berth each night. But it might have been a tight squeeze if there had been two of me there. The barrister chose the quarter berth and slept well. For a UK boat, I’d consider the ‘aft galley’ version because the extra saloon settee could be useful in less clement weather.

My friend John Goode (contributor of PBO’s seamanship and navigation articles for many years) and his wife, Rosie, were allocated the prototype of the revamped Jaguar 27. This featured a far bigger forecabin with large double berth, a spacious separate heads with a proper shower and a quarter berth aft. The galley was still a good size but the saloon was smaller and there was no dinette.

This new prototype is an eminently suitable model for warm weather cruising – those who cruise in the Ionian spend most of their time in the cockpit. Where the sun shines (invariably), the breeze blows (occasionally) and the cabin is only used for stowage, sleep, cooking and occasional forays into the heads/shower compartment, Sailing Holidays’ bold experiment in small boat accommodation won a lot of friends.

John Goode said: “If any of these modified boats ever come onto the market they would be a great buy.” Several more Jags were converted to this popular layout before the fleet was finally sold in around 2015.

Sailing Holidays’s clients get a thorough initial briefing on every aspect of the Jaguar 27

Back to the standard layout: being in the Ionian, we spent almost all our time in the cockpit – with or without the bimini deployed. The cockpit is around 2.44m/8ft long and an ideal width to brace yourself comfortably when the boat is heeled. The coamings are also nicely angled and comfortable to perch on. Cockpit stowage is good with a voluminous lazarette aft, a deep locker to port and a shallow locker to starboard to take ropes etc.

The companionway is worthy of mention because the sliding hatch is unusually wide and the aft bulkhead is not vertical but angled forward. In sunny climes this gives excellent ventilation down below and a comfortable backrest when lounging in the cockpit. But on a wet and windy day a sprayhood becomes a necessity if you want to sail with the washboards out and the hatch open and still keep the interior dry.

The masthead rig features a large headsail and relatively small mainsail, both roller reefing. Our Jaguar had a split mainsheet system spanning the aft end of the hatch, which worked well. However many standard Jags have the mainsheet anchored at the rear of the cockpit.

The mast is held up by cap shrouds and fore and aft lowers that are anchored well inboard. This gives a tight sheeting angle for upwind sailing.

And unlike many modern boats with aft swept spreaders, the Jaguar’s cap shrouds are in line with the mast; so the mainsail can be set much squarer on a dead run. Which can be very useful.

On deck, these flotilla Jag 27s differ in some details from the standard production models. They have robust stainless steel bow platforms for stowing the anchor and boarding when moored bow-on to a quay. On their transoms are bolted equally robust stern platforms that also accommodate a fold down swimming ladder. Both these bow and stern additions double up as beefy bumpers, protecting the hull from the occasional excess of enthusiasm over technique when mooring bow- or stern-on to a concrete quay.

Performance under sail

Despite a fairly shapeless in-mast reefing mainsail, the Jaguar 27 slips along at a respectable speed in a good breeze

I greatly enjoyed sailing the Jaguar 27. On the one day when the wind blew strongly, it was a delight to be reacquainted with the easy and steady motion of a heavier boat – as opposed to the less forgiving and more bouncy motion of a fat modern lightweight.

Thanks to the hull’s easy lines, moderate ends (compared to modern wide-sterned boats) and healthy ballast ratio, helming in these conditions was never demanding. A DLR of 297, ballast ratio of 40% and Brewer Comfort Ratio of 25 suggest a stable yacht with better than average performance.

Even though our in-mast reefing mainsail was shapeless and roach-less and the well-used reefing genoa did not set flat enough, the boat sailed satisfactorily to windward. And when we bore away on a reach to see what she would do in these conditions, the Jag took off at around 6 knots.

All in all, this day with a stiff breeze showed the Jaguar to be a comfortable and capable performer. As a crew of just two elderly sailors we found sail handling simple and steering a pleasure. What’s more even the least experienced crews in the flotilla coped with this boisterous upwind blast and made port with tales to tell and satisfied smiles on their faces.

In lighter airs, our Jaguar performed easily if unspectacularly. The batten-less and roach-less mainsail would never win regattas. But the recently fitted 17hp Volvo 2002s was always on hand if we needed to get a move on, giving ample punch. Handling under power was straightforward so long as the helmsman kept a firm hand on the tiller when going astern.

John Goode summed up his Jag 27 experience well: “While there are many online reviews available that detail the finer sailing performance of a standard Jag 27 (pointing ability, tacking angles, speed on different points of sail, etc) this wasn’t a priority for those of us who chose to join this particular flotilla. The iconic Jaguar 27, with its safe sea keeping qualities and ease of handling under sail, fitted the bill perfectly.”

Having sailed Jaguar 27s since the 1970s, Barrie Neilson told me: “I suppose the Jags are the story of my life! We have kept Emerald Girl for old time’s sake. The main feature of the Jag [era] was that we were all young! In a sense it was a bit like a floating Woodstock with Greek music and dancing. We didn’t need electronics or even VHF. We were totally self-contained and everything was repaired if we didn’t have a spare.

“All but one of the Jaguars (once there were 80) were sold off as we all grew a bit older and felt that an inside shower might be nice now and again. The little plastic shower bags on deck had had their day. I have no doubt that they are still popular with the younger generation.”

And I have little doubt that for those looking for a tough, elegant little cruiser at a modest price, the same popularity would apply to a well-maintained Jaguar 27.

LOA: 8.18m (26ft 10in)
LWL: 6.63m (21ft 9in)
Beam: 2.69m (8ft 11in)
Draught (fin keel): 1.32m (4ft 4in)
Draught (twin keel): 1.11m (3ft 8in)
Typical displacement: 3,113kg (6,850lb)

Other American yacht designs that made the jump to UK builders

Legend 36 (photo by David harding)

Luhrs Marine, a subsidiary of the American Hunter Marine, set up a factory in Portland, Dorset, to build a selection of its Legend cruisers for the European market. Most of these comfortable cruisers offered well-ballasted bulbed twin keels as an option and the Legend 33, Legend 36 (pictured) and Legend 356 proved particularly popular. Luhrs was finally hit by stiff competition from French and German yacht builders so in 2006 decided to re-consolidate its production back in the USA.

Blue Jay, J109 (photo David harding)

J boats have dominated sectors of the yacht racing scene since the 1970s and are still going strong. The first J – the J24 – was also built in the UK by Westerly, and large numbers were sold. Even its greatest fans would not call the J24 a family cruiser, but a reasonably priced second-hand example can make a splendid day-sailer and occasional club racer. The J109 (pictured) is a very different type of boat and many were also built outside the USA – this time in France. It was one of the earliest yachts to offer an asymmetric spinnaker on a retractable bowsprit and makes a splendid fast cruiser. It also has a habit of burning off the opposition on a race course. Not cheap – but a fantastic boat for the keen cruiser-racing fraternity.