Her reputation as an able passage-maker makes the Elizabethan 31 highly sought after by cruising folk, but she’s also a spirited performer, says David Harding

Product Overview


 Elizabethan 31: the solid offshore cruiser

 Elizabethan 31: the solid offshore cruiser

In many sailors’ eyes, two of the most important qualities in a serious cruising yacht are generous displacement and a long keel.

Even people who are quite at home with lightweight, fin keels and fractional rigs tend to adopt a more conservative approach when venturing offshore.

If you’re going to be thousands of miles away from marinas, boat-lifts and repair yards there’s something inherently reassuring about a keel that’s part of the hull rather than bolted onto it.

Plenty of weight can be comforting, too: quite literally when it comes to a boat’s motion in a seaway, quite apart from the extra substance it implies.

For these reasons among many others, the Elizabethan 31 has long been a firm favourite among sailors planning to do more than hop around the coast or across to the near continent.

The deck of the Elizabethan 31 sailing yacht

A flush deck forward of the coachroof and granny bars at the mast indicate that the Elizabethan 31 was designed for offshore sailing. Credit: David Harding

She’s not big by today’s standards, especially for offshore work, but if you want to go a long way in a capable boat that costs a relatively small amount of money, she deserves to be on a list alongside the likes of the Rustler 31, Nicholson 32 and 31, Halmatic/Barbican 30 and Rival 31.

Given the length and number of passages she has made, including one non-stop from the Canaries to Uruguay, her offshore credentials are beyond reproach, yet she doesn’t warrant attention only by those planning to sail off into the sunset.

She makes a superb coastal cruiser as well, as Steve Kendall has discovered during his nine years with Fedora.

Plans to sail further afield, which he had in mind when he bought her following a spell with a Corribee, were put on hold by the arrival of twin boys.

Nonetheless, he has still managed to cruise the West Country as far as Land’s End from his Dartmouth base and has beat his way into 45 knots of wind.

‘The headlining was falling down,’ Steve recalls, ‘but the boat felt quite safe’.

Elizabethan 31: sprightly performer

Despite the Elizabethan 31’s reputation as a go-anywhere cruiser, she’s neither as heavy nor as long-keeled as some of her obvious competitors.

Kim Holman’s Rustler 31, for example, displaces nearly three-quarters of a ton more and has an appreciably deeper forefoot.

Designed a few years later, in 1968, the lighter Elizabethan has a keel that’s cut away at both ends, under the forefoot and forward of the rudder to create an aperture for the propeller.

‘Very daring in its day’, says David Thomas, the designer.

A yacht with white sails

In a fresh breeze the Elizabethan 31 is both fast and well mannered. Credit: David Harding

As I found during my sail with Steve, this combination of lower weight and reduced wetted area gives her a much more sprightly performance than one might expect at first glance.

Steve has seen more than 8 knots on the log, one owner claims to have hit 11 knots and on our early-spring outing in Start Bay we got Fedora semi-surfing at just under 8 knots in a modest sea.

As testing conditions go, we couldn’t have asked for much more.

Winds that ranged from a zephyr to 30 knots in a couple of hailstorms led to our constantly changing our sail plan, from full canvas right down to a double-reefed main and well-rolled genoa.

When the breeze finally steadied for a while at 24 knots or so, we found one slab in the main and half-a-dozen rolls in the headsail to be about right: Fedora stomped upwind with speeds in the mid-5s showing on the log, tacking through just under 90° and showing
no signs of excessive leeway.

A deck of an Elizabethan 31 sailing yacht

Treadmaster covers most of the deck and cockpit: on some boats it’s
non-slip deck paint. Tiller steering was always fi tted as standard. Credit: David Harding

Heeling readily to 20°, she then stiffened up as the 44% ballast ratio made itself felt, only dipping the cockpit coamings if pressed hard.

She made life easy for the crew, remaining well-balanced and light on the helm.

The nonstandard wheel steering gave a less precise feel than the tiller, however, especially as it was a hydraulic system with four full turns from lock to lock.

Steve has since converted Fedora back to a tiller, which makes more sense with a transom-hung rudder.

It also lends itself to use with a windvane self-steering.

Downwind, she maintained a steady 7.1 knots in flat water and was surprisingly eager for a long-keeler to break into a semi-surf on some of the smaller waves.

The galley on the Elizabethan 31 yacht

Elizabethans originally had their galleys either in the saloon or to starboard by the companionway. This is one of many variations. Credit: David Harding

The other non-standard feature on Fedora is the rig.

Her original owner, who fitted her out, acquired one from a Moody 33.

Being slightly larger it should boost her light-airs performance, though as on many boats designed before the days of roller-reefing headsails the genoa is too high in the clew to allow the right sheeting angle, even with the cars moved all the way to the aft end of the tracks.

Leaving a couple of rolls around the headfoil is the simplest answer.

A berth on a boat

Pipe cots on each side of the saloon can be used for stowage or for sleeping extra crew. Credit: David Harding

As you would expect with a masthead rig and a long keel, she hove-to happily, slowing down to just over 1 knot.

From here she could be gybed round with the sheets pinned in to carry on sailing.

Under power, as under sail, Fedora was far nippier than most long-keelers.

Driving a two-bladed fixed prop, the 20hp Bukh (now replaced with a 25hp Beta) pushed her along happily at close to hull-speed and brought her to a standstill again in short order with minimal kick.

She turned tightly either way in ahead and, unlike many long-keelers, could be steered in astern.

Steve says the only difficulty in astern is swinging the bow through the wind until she’s moving pretty fast.

Finding the ropes

The long boom allows the mainsheet to be taken to a track across the aft end of the cockpit, where it’s easy for the helmsman to reach but out of the crew’s way.

A pair of self-tailing Lewmar 40 primary winches handles the genoa sheets on Fedora.

Beneath the winches are two lockers in the coamings each side, which make full use of the space.

Whether it’s binoculars, a hand-bearing compass, sunglasses, snacks or sail ties, somewhere to keep relatively small items that you want close at hand is invaluable yet rarely provided on most boats.

Larger items are swallowed by full-depth lockers beneath the seats.

The starboard one runs forward to a stowage compartment reached from abaft the chart table.

A saloon on a boat

For offshore sailing, the layout with settee berths in the saloon and the galley and chart table aft is hard to beat. It’s not as open or roomy as some, but far more practical in a seaway. Pillars on each side make excellent hand-holds. Credit:” David Harding

Crawling into the locker gives access to the gearbox and the aft end of the engine.

High coamings and a deep cockpit combine to create a feeling of great security in the Elizabethan 31, though the low sole means that water tends to flow in through the drains when the boat’s moving at more than modest speed.

Cockpit seats are 2.13m (7ft) long and there’s a good leg-bracing width between them.

On deck, the arrangement is eminently practical and reflects the boat’s offshore pedigree.

The flush deck forward of the shrouds allows easy movement and granny bars by the mast provide security: all the halyards are here, handled by a pair of Gibb 7 winches.

Continues below…

On Fedora, grip underfoot is provided by Treadmaster. Some boats use non-slip deck paint.

Either way, it can be replaced or renewed and, combined with the teak rubbing strake and ample woodwork, means that a modest amount of TLC can keep the boat looking fresh several decades on.

Other sensible features on deck include a Samson post abaft the anchor locker and a couple of vents.

The Elizabethan’s unconventional appearance is largely down to a vertical step in her topsides above the toerail: the stanchions and
genoa tracks are mounted a few inches below and outboard of the deck.

It’s an arrangement that allows the height of the coachroof to be kept to a minimum and makes the flush deck possible further forward without unacceptable restrictions to headroom below decks.


Because many Elizabethan 31s were completed by their owners, the fit-out and arrangements below decks vary from boat to boat.

The two standard layouts, however, formed the basis of what most people chose: either a dinette to port in the saloon opposite a linear galley, with a quarter berth on either side of the companionway, or the more traditional seagoing arrangement of settee berths in the saloon and the galley and chart table aft.

Fedora has a variation on the latter, with the chart table to starboard and galley to port.

The standard seagoing layout had the galley to starboard and chart table to port over a quarter berth.

A chart table on a boat

A good-size chart table with plenty of room for pilot books and instrumentation. Credit: David Harding

Fedora’s galley is separated from the saloon by a half-height bulkhead.

Opposite is the good-size chart table where Steve, an electrical engineer, has fitted a new switch panel.

He also plans to rewire the boat having found corrosion in the original wiring.

Pillars extending from the inboard side of the galley and chart table up to the deckhead are especially welcome features that are rarely to be found on modern designs.

As well as being useful hand-holds, they give you something to loop your arms around so that you can use your hands while holding on to other things or climbing into your waterproofs.

A toilet on a boat

The heads is between the saloon
and the forecabin. Credit: David Harding

Between the galley and chart table and the main bulkhead, the 1.87m (6ft 1.5in) allows length for a settee berth to starboard and another one to port, where the table can be lowered to create a double.

Pipe cots each side can be used as extra sea-berths or for stowage.

Headroom is just over 1.83m (6ft) beneath the coachroof and stooping height for most people further forward, where light is also
limited because of the absence of windows, although there is a hatch in the foredeck.

Stowage throughout is good, especially outboard of the saloon berths where lockers extend to the underside of the decks.

Beneath the sole boards is useful space for heavy items like tins of food.

Steve has kept Fedora in fine fettle for a boat that’s decades old, helped by the fact that she was well-fitted out to start with.

Some home-finished Elizabethans are rather more basic.

Verdict on the Elizabethan 31

Elizabethan 31s tend not to change hands that often. They’re boats that people are prone to keeping for a long time – like the owner before Steve, who had Fedora for 18 years.

Steve has chartered modern yachts up to around 12m (40ft) and likes their family-friendly below decks arrangement with separate sleeping cabins in the stern, but he still prefers the sea-keeping qualities and the smooth, slam-free motion of the Elizabethan 31.

Sail plan of the Elizabethan 31

Sail plan of the Elizabethan 31

Much about the design points to plenty of practical offshore experience on the part of the designer and builder.

At the same time, her spirited performance under sail and manoeuvrability under power make her better suited to weekending and coastal cruising than some long-keeled heavyweights.

If you have never considered a boat like this, you might be pleasantly surprised by what the Elizabethan 31 has to offer.

History of the Elizabethan 31

In terms of cruising yachts, the Elizabethan 31 is where it all began for designer David Thomas.

He had been asked by the Elizabethan’s builder, Peter Webster, to check the lines of the Elizabethan 23 before the plug was finalised – ‘we tidied it up a bit’ – then commissioned to design the next boat, a 31-footer.

The lines drawings of the Elizabethan 31 are dated 24 November 1968.

Accommodation plan of the Elizabethan 31

Accommodation plan of the Elizabethan 31

Quickly establishing herself as a capable offshore passage-maker, the Elizabethan 31 was also built in small numbers as a centre-cockpit ketch before being used as the starting point for the Elizabethan 33, which is essentially a 31 with an extended stern.

Production stopped at Peter Webster’s Lymington yard in 1976 after around 40 of the standard 31s and four of the ketch-rigged motor-sailers had been built.

The moulds of the 31 then passed through various other builders, including Lifeline Mouldings in Kent, and several more boats were built up to the 1980s.

Most, like Fedora, were finished by their owners.

The original engine was a 15hp Watermota, though many boats have since been re-engined.


LOA:9.45m (31ft 0in)
LWL:7.37m (24ft 2in)
Beam:2.84m (9ft 4in)
Draught:1.40m (4ft 7in)
Displacement:5,080kg (11,200lb)
Ballast:2,540kg (5,600lb)
Sail area (main and foretriangle):40sq m (430sq ft)
Sail area/displacement:13.70
Displacement/length ratio:357
Engine (original):Watermota 15hp
Headroom:1.83m (6ft 0in)
Designer:David Thomas
Builder:Peter Webster and others