The Sadler 29 is a tough, well-mannered family cruiser with a good dose of performance to boot, says David Harding
When it comes to building sturdy family cruising yachts between 20ft and 30ft (6m and 9m), Britain has a history of which it can be proud – particularly in that peculiarly British speciality of twin keels.
Mention of the traditional British bilge-keeler might once have conjured up images of boats like Macwesters and Snapdragons which, for all their solidity, roominess and longevity, could never be described as scintillating performers.
To windward it would often be a case of one step forward, two steps sideways.
Things changed, however, with the arrival of the Cobras and Mirages and, most notably, the later Westerlys, Moodys and Hunters – not to mention the Sadler range.
Here were boats that combined the practical benefits of twin keels – shallow draught and the ability to dry out unaided – with performance that, in some circumstances, was hard to distinguish from that of their fin-keeled equivalents.
Sailors from performance-dinghy backgrounds started sailing them with their families and occasionally racing too, with some surprisingly good results.
Better still, many of these designs – such as the Sadler 29, for example – came with a choice not only of fin or twin keels but of deep or shallow fin as well.
At this point I must declare an interest, having worked at Sadlers with the original Sadler Yachts during the Barracuda era, through the development of the Starlights and beyond.
For much of this time the Sadler 29 was the best-selling boat in the range.
It was the right size at a highly competitive price and had wide appeal.
People would often come along to have a look at the 26, only to go away having signed a contract for a Sadler 29: the difference in space was substantial, and available for a relatively modest additional outlay.
Strangely, the 29 was never my favourite.
I preferred the sailing qualities of the 26, finding her stiffer, faster for her size and more fun to sail, but then I never had to live aboard for a week with a wife and two kids whose priorities lay elsewhere.
The 32 was an older design offering longer legs yet little more accommodation for her extra length, so the 29 ruled the roost for many a year.
As the competition hotted up from over the Channel, we did lose a few customers to French offerings such as Jeanneau’s Sun Dream 28, the Beneteau First 285 and, later, to the Dehler 28 and other European designs.
By and large these alternatives were lighter and more dinghy-like than the Sadler, with beamier, flatter-sectioned hulls, roomier and often more stylish accommodation and a double aft cabin in a broader stern beneath a shallower cockpit.
One group of buyers would look at and try both types of boat before deciding.
A second would go straight to what we at Sadlers thought of as lifestyle accessories for Johnny-come-latelies; lightweight Continental cruisers that were all gloss and no substance.
They were fine for sailing around the nay or perhaps along the coast if you were feeling adventurous – we conceded that much – but not what you wanted for serious sailing.
Clearly we allowed no hint of bias to colour our judgement.
A third group came straight to Sadlers because they wanted a boat with a relatively slim hull, plenty of ballast, a comfortable motion, a nicely balanced helm, a high bow to keep them dry and a deep, sheltered cockpit with high coamings.
They could often find nothing better for the price.
Down below, the Sadler 29 offered the traditional British layout with a secure quarter berth and an arrangement that was tried and tested for seagoing use.
She couldn’t match the Westerly Konsort for internal volume but would disappear over the horizon upwind.
She cost less than the other Westerly of similar size, the Merlin, and was more sedate and conservative than the Hunter Horizon 27/272/373.
People who hankered after a Twister sometimes settled on a Sadler 29 because she combined modern practicality and manoeuvrability with offshore ability and a hint of tradition.
While the Sadler 29 was conceived principally a fast cruiser, rather than a cruiser/racer like the earlier 25 and 32, Martin Sadler rived her competitive potential by entering Sadler Two Nine in the 1982 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race.
With her lighter interior, lead-shoed fin keel, out board engine and experienced crew she was the first production boat in the 25-30ft (7.9m-9m) class.
As Martin recalls, “we finished a boat’s length ahead of a Contessa 38 after racing over 2,000 miles in a wide range of conditions.”
Our demonstration boats had roller genoas and twin keels, because that’s what people usually wanted and we thought it important to demonstrate the twin keels’ efficiency. Folding props, however, we deemed essential.
When writing Salders’ first-ever brochure for the whole range in about 1990, I borrowed heavily from the section on the Sadler 29 from the owner of a sailing school who had written to us about his 1983 example.
“We use her (she might say abuse her) for instruction….and she has proved superb for the job.”
He went on to say: “She is fast for her size, as we regularly demonstrate to larger yachts…she tacks well under either sail alone…..it emphasises her good balance and makes it easier to practise sailing alongside with confidence…
“As the wind increases she really comes into her own on all points of sail….by Force 8 or more we have three slabs in the main plus the storm jib if we are beating. We have quite a lot of experience in these conditions…
“Downwind in heavy weather she handles with a precision that continues to delight us. Even surfing at upwards of 12 knots, she remains fully controllable. Manoeuvrability is excellent too… complete beginners have no problem “parking” her after a little practice. Each year (our boat) crosses the Channel around 40 times, makes upwind of 1,100 practice alongsides, does at least 600 man-overboard drills, anchors repeatedly… and weathers a considerable number of gales, a few of them severe. We think she is exceptionally roomy for her size and her layout is admirably suited to a cruising life both at sea and in harbour.”
Sadler 29: The test of time
With unsolicited letters like this to quote from, plus some complimentary words from other owners and the yachting press, the section on the Sadler 29 almost wrote itself.
Plenty of experienced people rated the boat very highly.
She continues to attract a keen following today, so it seemed a good time to renew our acquaintance after twenty-something years.
Since swapping a salesman’s hat for that of a boat builder – a sort of poacher-turned-gamekeeper metamorphosis – I have tested the Sadler 25,26,32 and 34.
Now it was the 29’s turn.
It so happened that I was taking photos in the Solent one day when a rather smart Sadler 29 passed in front of my lens, heading west on her way home from the Round the Island Race under her shades-of- blue spinnaker.
One of the shots from the sequence was subsequently used in PBO and prompted Gemini’s owner, Peter Kinver, to get in touch.
It transpired that Peter and Gemini lived in Looe, where Peter also races a Redwing (the Uffa Fox-designed Redwing dinghy, not the Bembridge keelboat).
As I raced a Redwing for a number of years on the Dart, and had fond memories of taking her to Looe to do battle with the natives, one thing led to another and we agreed that the combination of a well-maintained, twin-keeled Sadler 29 and a picturesque Cornish fishing harbour could have the makings of a good feature in PBO.
As sometimes happens, it took a year or two before all the necessary elements could be slotted into place, but at last we managed to line them up.
Sailing a cruiser from Looe’s drying harbour means having shallow draught.
Twin keels – like Gemini’s – or a lifting keel are ideal, though some long-keelers and fin-keelers are also found on the moorings, living in wooden cradles that float with the boat and then sit on the bottom at low tide.
Peter’s previous boat was a Sadler 26 and before that he sailed an Anderson 22 from a mooring above the bridge, which meant lowering and raising the mast on every outing.
On the neap tide of the day we chose, Gemini floated at half flood.
We dropped the mooring, motored the few yards down the river and headed out past the Banjo Pier.
The summer sunshine and crystal-clear water set off the stunning backdrop of the town, with the wooded sides of the valley rising on either side, to make Looe look truly irresistible.
More’s the pity, says Peter, that so many yachtsmen head straight from Plymouth to Fowey without savouring the delights that Looe has to offer – but that’s a story for a future issue Looe has its own wind systems in certain conditions.
On the day of our outing the gradient south- easterly was displaced right inshore by a fickle succession of catspaws trickling down the cliffs from the north.
Slightly further out we enjoyed a gentle south-easterly for a while before it faded away.
A scan of the horizon revealed breeze well offshore and a boat spinnakering westwards, so rather than wait for the wind to come to us we fired up Gemini’s new Beta diesel and headed out to meet it.
As we motored, Peter explained that Gemini was one of the newer 29s, built in 1991 and incorporating the changes that Sadler had made later in the production run – such as the lighter-coloured interior moulding rather than the nicotine yellow of earlier boats, the grey laminates for the galley and chart table, the centre hatch, the angled bulkhead at the aft end of the coachroof, and the third window.
As well as the new engine, she had been treated to Tacktick instruments and a Sea Feather windvane self-steering system to complement the tiller pilot.
A competitive dinghy sailor in 470s, Fireballs and Lasers before joining the Redwing fleet (winning the national championship in 2012 and 2013), Peter likes his boats to sail properly – so although she’s a twin-keeled cruiser, Gemini is fitted with a Gori folding prop and is due to have new sails this season.
Eventually we hit the offshore wind band, motored into it a little way because it was moving in and out, and started sailing.
Conditions were perfect: around 14 knots of true wind and a modest chop kicked up by the wind against an east-going tide.
Gemini dug in her shoulder and got into her stride, making upwind at a comfortable 4.8-5 knots and tacking through just under 90°, though needing to be driven off to power through the seas from time to time.
I remembered why people thought her well balanced: even in conditions approaching the top end of what was comfortable for full canvas, she could be trimmed to sail herself upwind.
On the one occasion many years ago when I sailed a Sadler 29 with a deep fin, I noticed that she felt distinctly sportier and more powerful than the more popular twin-keeler.
Nonetheless, the two-legged 29 is no slouch and is undeniably a well-mannered and thoroughly agreeable boat to sail.
Less dinghy-like and, in her typically cruisey get-up, probably not as quick all-round as boats like the First 285 and Sun Dream 28, she fits into a middle group cruisier than most of the Continentals yet faster and more responsive than ploddy, high-volume cruisers of similar length.
Peter often overtakes cruising 32-footers with no effort.
In keeping with her cruising credentials, the Sadler 29 has a sit-in cockpit.
Those of us who prefer to helm from the coamings will find that they make a better perch than many boats have to offer, even if they are too close to the guardwires for comfort when heel increases.
It only loses grip when she’s seriously hard-pressed – if you hang on to the spinnaker too long, for example.
Upwind canvas is easy enough to manage, with the proviso that tacking a sizeable No1 genoa around a babystay is never going to be particularly quick.
The mainsail’s leech reefing pennants were led aft as standard but the luff cringles needed to be hooked on at the mast unless the optional cockpit-reefing system (all lines led aft) was chosen.
Going forward can be a little awkward because the side decks are narrow where they meet the coamings.
Otherwise it’s easy enough and the moulded-in non-slip provides reasonable grip.
Stanchion bases are set into ockets in the toerail, which is moulded as part of the biscuit-tin hull-to-deck joint.
An unusual feature is the deep bin for liferaft stowage beneath the cockpit sole. Undoing a few screws allows it to be lifted out for access to the after part of the engine.
Sadler 29 unsinkability
It’s often said that the 29 was the first model in the Sadler range to be designed for unsinkability.
Not so. She was the first to have a full interior moulding and closed-cell foam pumped into the void between it and the outer hull.
The idea was to create a strong structure with wipe-clean lockers and to increase the thermal and acoustic insulation for a dry, quiet and comfortable interior.
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Peter Poland looks at the history of keel design and how the different types affect performance
When Michel Dufour set up as a designer and builder of GRP yachts back in the 1960s, the Arpege 30…
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When the Sadler 26 replaced the 25 in 1982, it seemed logical to use the same approach and to increase the relative buoyancy to achieve unsinkability.
Not until 1988, by which time the Sadler 34 had also been in production for several years with the ‘unsinkable’ tag (later tested for real in a collision), was the 29’s interior moulding reconfigured to incorporate more foam at the expense of some stowage.
In boats that were used hard, water occasionally found its way between the mouldings – but the usual approach was to drill a few holes low down through the inner moulding to let it trickle out.
Structurally, 29s have generally stood up better than many, helped by the use of clear (unpigmented) gel coat below the waterline.
Accommodation on the Sadler 29
The inner moulding forms the basis of the accommodation, so the interior is inevitably less woody than some.
Standards of fit-out improved during the production run, later boats being appreciably better finished.
A few 29s were completed by their owners before Sadlers withdrew the kit options.
One oft-criticised area was the galley, though it was made more workable when the bulkhead forming the aft end of the coachroof was raked.
It’s a functional seagoing layout whose principal compromise is stowage volume because of the space occupied by the foam.
As well as the changes already mentioned, the companionway steps – originally a large, unwieldy one-piece moulding – were later made prettier and more practical in timber.
All told, the accommodation on boats like Gemini is a world apart from that of the early boats with their darker mouldings, smaller window area, marble-effect laminate in the heads and, more often than not, the brown check upholstery that most owners seemed to choose.
The interior was always OK – it just got better.
PBO’s verdict on the Sadler 29
Looked at objectively rather than through a lens tinted by partiality, the Sadler 29 is still a jolly good boat if you want one that’s tough, capable, sea-kindly, well balanced, manoeuvrable, agreeably responsive, respectably quick and available with a choice of keels.
She will continue to be in demand for many a year – and deservedly so
A tough, capable, sea-kindly, well balanced, manoeuvrable, agreeably responsive, respectably quick boat, available with a choice of keels.