She has been superseded by younger siblings, but does the Elan 31 look or behave like an outdated model? Not in the least, says David Harding
On the cover of PBO back in July 1999 we featured a boat from a builder in eastern Europe that few sailors in the UK had heard of.
The name Elan was known to some in the boating fraternity through skiing, because this Slovenian company had been making skis, as well as gliders and gym equipment, since the 1960s.
Boats were in the line-up too, but on a relatively small scale and designed by Elan’s near-neighbours, J&J, primarily for their home market.
By the late 1990s, Elan had decided to expand their boating horizons. Among other things, that meant working with a designer who had an international reputation, and the man they chose was Rob Humphreys.
Elan initially still hedged their bets, however: our cover boat, the 295, was marginally narrower than she would otherwise have been to make sure she could fit between the pile moorings in Istria.
After testing the 295 I got to know her pretty well because some friends bought one.
I raced with them on and off over the course of a few seasons, in a wide range of conditions and against many different boats. She was quick most of the time.
Light airs and a chop didn’t suit her, and she struggled when it really blew.
I spent many hours on deck with tensioning tools and a Loos gauge. She was a good boat, with limitations.
More Elans from Humphreys followed, increasingly geared towards the Western European market.
In the UK, the 333 and 40 sold well, establishing themselves as competitive boats under International Rating Certificate (IRC) and earning a reputation as fast, well-mannered all-rounders once a few teething problems with the 333 had been resolved.
Later models included the 37 and 31, the latter replacing the 295.
Both are among the prettiest boats to bear the Elan name. They’re moderately proportioned and forgiving fast cruisers that, in the right hands, have been regular winners on the race course.
Mike Bridges’ 37, Elaine, is well known in Solent racing circles and, further west, Kudos, owned by Ian and Lynn Foster, has long been one
of the boats to beat in Poole.
The current Kudos replaced the Fosters’ earlier boat of the same name, a Bolero quarter-tonner. Ian and Lynn wanted to move up, but
not too far: more space, pace and comfort were the objectives in a boat that would be competitive without involving vastly more hassle or the need for an army of crew.
By this time, thanks in no small part to the efforts of fellow yacht-club member Jim Macgregor, the Elan brand had established a strong following in Poole and the 333 had taken over from the MG 335/346 as the popular cruiser/racer in this size range.
The 333 was too big for the new Kudos. The newer 31, on the other hand, was just right, so Ian and Lynn did their homework, decided what they did and didn’t want the new boat to be fitted with, and took delivery of hull number 42 in 2003.
The 31 was exactly what Elan needed to succeed the 295: a stiffer, faster, more competent all-round performer that was a better cruiser and easier to sail into the bargain.
She’s pretty much the same length as her older sister (the 295 was over 30ft), but a few inches beamier, with a fine entry and the point of maximum beam carried well aft – though not to the extent seen on later designs, such as the twin-ruddered Elan 310 and 320.
Apart from being a massive leap forward from the 295, the Elan 31 was distinctly sportier than the 333.
Humphreys said at the time: ‘Our experience with the 333 promises to imbue the 31 with similar versatility, although her genetic make-up does have slightly greater leaning towards performance.
‘This is not just to widen the smile of the racer at the expense of the cruising man: if a smallish boat can display an unusual turn of speed, then it also benefits an owner’s cruising aspirations…’
No surprise, then, that Kudos is regularly seen to be mixing it on the race course with the 333s among other larger and higher rated boats, though that’s not because the Elan 31 is a faster design in absolute terms.
After all, she is significantly smaller.
The performance of Kudos can be attributed to a number of factors.
For a start, she has been optimised over the past 10 years or so. Ian used templates to fair the keel and rudder and refine their profiles.
The sail plan has been worked on, the deck hardware was chosen and positioned carefully, and details that make a difference of a few seconds around the race course have been addressed.
Add a thoroughly competent and mostly longstanding crew, and a helm who tends to point the boat in the right direction, and you have a boat that can usually be found towards the top of the results list.
She wasn’t super-fast straight out of the box across the board, however.
Light-airs get-up-and-go was in short supply to start with, as I remember from some early racing in the Solent.
It wasn’t helped by the fact that the 31s – and they weren’t alone – had been coming out of the factory well over their designed weight. Nor does she carry a particularly large rig.
Since those early days, Kudos has been tweaked to the point where she has few weaknesses around the course, not that it’s not all full-crewed racing.
Ian and Lynn regularly take part in short-handed passage racing, and they cruise as well.
The other Elan 31 in Poole, just a few berths along from Kudos, is more frequently seen in cruising mode.
Martin Boobyer, who joined us for our sail, bought Bliss a few years later. He chose a more cruising-orientated specification together with the race pack because the racing kit included things like bigger winches that also make life easier for cruising.
Elan 31: speedy comfort
Despite having raced on and frequently against Kudos, and having seen her through the lens on many occasions, I needed a sail to refresh the memory, so I headed out with Ian and Lynn for a spin around Poole Bay.
An easterly 13-14 knots gave us a reach down the Swash Channel, a beat towards Bournemouth, a shy spinnaker reach to the East Looe
and another good beat against the tide back into the harbour.
As soon as we set sail, impressions were of a reassuringly obedient, well-balanced boat with a rudder that you could trust to do its job.
We set off on a two-sail reach, and if you want to test a boat’s balance and rudder grip, sailing fully powered-up with the wind on the beam is a good way to do it.
This is when tillers often pull shoulders out of sockets or rudders simply give up even with careful sail trim, but there was none of that with
While I would ideally like a little more balance on the rudder blade, as would Ian, the point here is that the helm hardly loads up as the boat heels.
The helm is comfortable, in control and not sailing with the handbrake on by dragging the rudder sideways through the water.
Hardening up on the wind we saw high 5s on the log, nudging 6 on occasions and 4.5 knots on the exit from tacks through around 75°.
With a full racing crew on the rail, Ian is happy with 6.3 knots upwind and can maintain 5 knots through a clean tack.
Since keels generally lose efficiency as boat-speed drops, it was good to see that the Elan’s keeps working pretty well.
In profile view it’s almost the same as that on the 333, the proportional reduction in weight being achieved principally through a narrower
In other words it’s similar in length and depth, but thinner.
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Keels were iron as standard; Kudos’s lead keel was an upgrade costing around £1,000 extra.
To see just how tolerant the keel was, I tried pinching the boat on the wind to just short of the stalling point.
She kept going with most of the headsail luffing and the speed down to less than 2 knots, and that was in a short chop that made the exercise more challenging. In flat water we could have pushed it even further.
Many boats would have given up and started sliding sideways long before this.
When we resumed a normal close-hauled course, she got straight back to business without so much as a twitch from the rudder.
After throwing in a few tacks, we set the kite and headed back towards Sandbanks. Probably more by luck than judgement we turned for home at a point that gave us about the closest angle for the AP spinnaker.
By taking all the usual precautions like dumping the kicker, easing the sheets and bearing away as a gust approached, and with the tenacious rudder doing its job, we stayed firmly on track the whole time.
The log rarely dropped below 6.5 knots and occasionally showed mid-7s when we had a little help from a wave.
As it needs to be on a performance boat of this size – well, boats of any persuasion, as far as I’m concerned – the mainsheet is easily controlled from the helm.
Kudos has a Harken windward-sheeting car, a replacement for the Lewmar original supplied with the boat and something that Ian considers well worth having.
It’s mounted immediately forward of the tiller, so the 4:1 mainsheet with its 3:1 fine tune falls readily to hand – either for the helm when the boat is being sailed short-handed, or for the mainsheet man with a full crew.
The 32:1 backstay is split both sides to cleats by the traveller.
Not liking the original bifurcated arrangement, Ian designed and fitted this one himself, taking it to a central point on the stern.
It was subsequently adopted as standard by Elan for the 31.
In terms of hardware – mainly from Harken – and where it’s fitted, the cockpit works pretty well. The only aspect that’s not absolutely
spot-on is its width in relation to the overall beam.
This is one of my hobby-horses, because to my mind it’s fundamental that the helm should be able to lean back against the guardwires when the boat heels.
If the coamings are too close to the guardwires, gravity tries to pull you back inboard.
It’s nearly right on the Elan 31 – better than on most boats – but the best option I found was to dip between the guardwires (a more practical solution on a long leg than when short-tacking, perhaps).
Comfort for both helm and crew has been improved by the use of 1×19 wire rather than the original 7×19 for the guardwires.
They were covered in plastic when the boat arrived, and that’s a no-no for Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) racing, so Ian stripped the plastic only to find that the 7×19 was horribly uncomfortable for the helm to lean against or the crew on the rail to dip underneath on every tack.
Details on deck include swivel cams for the split kicker that Ian engineered using carbon baseplates and Harken cams to achieve exactly the right angle of rise.
A toerail in teak rather than alloy not only looks nicer; it also makes life easier on the back of the crew’s legs, though it doesn’t provide attachment points wherever you want them.
Blocks for the tweakers are tapped into the aluminium plate laminated into the flange that forms the hull-to-deck joint.
As Elan point out in the original brochure, where they were keen to stress the 31’s structural integrity, the joint is bolted, glued and laminated.
Other deck fittings are tapped into plates in the deck laminate as well, which is fine until you want to remove a stainless steel machine screw that has been in contact with aluminium in a salty environment for a few years.
One point that should not pass un-commented upon is the Elan 31’s keel-stepped mast.
There’s no space to go into the pros and cons of deck-stepped versus keel stepped here, but suffice it to say that the latter is often favoured on performance boats.
Some people don’t like them because it can be hard to stop water getting down below around the partners. Ian has solved that with more engineering ingenuity involving double-sided and self-amalgamating tape.
Accommodation on the Elan 31
Compared with the newer Elans in this size range, the 31 has a much more traditional feel down below.
The joinery, in mahogany, looks less modular and more built-in, with some nice detailing. I would be surprised if building the Elan 31 wasn’t a good deal more labour-intensive.
It’s not exactly old-school, however. An interior moulding runs the whole length of the boat, forming the bunk fronts and the landings for much of the joinery, and there’s a moulded headliner too.
What matters on a boat like this is that the layout works, that it’s a pleasing environment and that everything inside the hull is fitted so as to ensure structural integrity.
It’s three out of three as far as the Elan 31 is concerned – or at least it appears to be at this stage.
Impeccably though she has been maintained, Kudos has covered a few miles over the past 10 years, so any significant weaknesses would probably have shown up by now.
Most of the changes to the Elan 31 during the production were relatively minor.
For example, the fuel tank on Kudos is in the cockpit locker, to starboard, whereas on Bliss it’s further forward and to port, beneath the berth in the aft cabin – a better position for trim.
The engine itself was changed after a year or two.
On early boats like Kudos, Elan fitted a shaftdriving Yanmar, later moving to a Volvo saildrive. Other changes included a switch from Sparcraft to Seldén for the rig.
Pretty well everything else of note stayed the same.
Despite her slim lines, the Elan 31 provides a good 6ft (1.83m) of headroom at the aft end of the saloon.
Berths are adequately proportioned for most people and there’s nothing the Fosters have found not to work.
Lynn likes the polyethylene water tanks under each saloon berth, with their large inspection hatches so they can be cleaned out.
Ian points out that the doors to the heads and aft cabin are on the narrow side.
It’s a function of the wide side decks and moderate beam. Members of our resident ‘Is it big enough?’ test family, the Amplegirths, might have to breathe in and squeeze. The rest of us won’t have a problem.
Below the sole boards, the load from the keel-bolts is spread by substantial steel plates and a grid of fore-and-aft and athwartships members.
Ian and Martin both tensioned the bolts of their keels after about three years as a precaution, Ian’s engineering background telling him that they should be checked once the laminate had cured and been under compression for a while.
Borrowing a torque-wrench and breaker bar, they tweaked them up to the tension recommended by Elan, reassuringly finding that none was worryingly loose.
lan and Humphreys have changed direction with the new models in the performance range, going down the route of chined hulls, broad sterns, twin rudders and asymmetric spinnakers. The 31’s replacements, the 310 and now the 320, are fun to sail and, in the right conditions, impressively quick. At the same time, for all-round racing and cruising, and especially for handicap racing in tidal waters and in winds that are often on the lighter side, the more moderate style of boat with a conventional spinnaker can still be hard to beat. However her successors evolve, the Elan 31 sets high standards: she’s both competitive on the race course and easily managed for short-handed cruising. Pretty, well mannered and well built too, she’s the epitome of the true all-rounder.