Westerly Classics

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Westerly Classics

(First published in WOA magazine No. 63, Winter 1999 – a special review of Westerly’s Classic models)

Your editor is a hard man! He has asked me to write about the boats that I think of as “classics”, but allows me a maximum of four. Of course everyone will disagree with me on the final selection, but here is how I cut the list down from the original 15 semi-finalists.

Just what is it that makes any yacht a “classic”? The answer lies in her popularity, but there are a number of ways to judge that. The obvious one is numbers built and years alive as a design, but just as valid are handling and performance. Finally we must not miss out the odd boats whose place is not so easily pigeon-holed, but nevertheless have “special” written all over them.

Of course the very marque is a classic in itself, and yet why is a Westerly so instantly recognisable? The 70s designs have a very obvious family resemblance with their knuckled bows, square cut coachroofs and teak rubbing strakes. Later designs only shared the teak rubbing strakes, and came with an ever changing variety of broad caveta stripes and coach roof style lines. Evolution is probably the key, with each boat looking similar to the last, but the last looking very different from the first.

Handling has evolved too. Good manners may well have had a big influence on the success of Westerly overall. Wooden boats and many early bilge keelers handled like haystacks, only going about with much concentration and backing of jibs. Even the Westerly 22 was better than that while the Fulmar, Seahawk and Typhoon push the boundaries of perfection.

So let’s get down to cases. In the first category, numbers built and longevity of design, the Centaur is the clear winner with 2,444 built over 12 years. In the same class are the Konsort (704 over 14 years), the Griffon (454 over 11 years) and the 1970s 31s (Pentland, Berwick, Renown and Longbow) with 1088 built in just 9 years. And there are more, with the Seahawk, Corsair and Sealord and their derivatives still going strong 16 or 17 years after they left the drawing board. The last and far from least in this category is the Fulmar, of which “only” 450 were built over 17 years.

The Fulmar leads us into the next category: handling and performance. Was there ever such a lovely boat to sail? Doesn’t she have the most delightful manners, doesn’t she have buckets of effortless speed, and can’t she be wriggled into the tightest spaces as easy as kiss my hand? Yes, yes, yes and yes again, but she’s not the only one. The Merlin, Typhoon and Oceanmaster all belong in this group too.

The Merlin was the first twin keeler that behaved like a fin, the Oceanmaster is a piece of cake to sail and berth by yourself (quite something at 48 feet). The Typhoon, Oh! the Typhoon! This is the Fulmar beater. Even faster, stiffer, better mannered than the Fulmar, she also accelerates better in Force 1s.

The “specials” are the Pageant, Tiger, Westerly 33/Discus and the Conway. Why so? Well, the Pageant almost comes into category 1 as 551 were built over 10 years, but it has more to do with interior volume and handling. They are so roomy (modern 23s are way behind), and stiff as a board so you can push them hard into the nastiest weather.

The Tiger is not so roomy, or to put it another way has just as much room as the Pageant in a longer hull, but…. a Tiger won the cruiser division of the Round the Island race one year, and why on earth does a small fin keeler sell for such high prices? Because their owners love them to bits. It’s an amalgam of handling, speed and interior design.

The Discus is the “Mark II” Westerly 33, and both have an unparalleled reputation for seakeeping. I know of three that have survived Force 12s. Interior design is a factor here too, as the saloon of these boats is a personal favourite, bafflingly combining space and coziness.

The Conway was Westerly’s flagship for 9 years, and yet they are as rare as hen’s teeth on the market today. This is probably the result of their being the perfect boat to take round the world. I have always suspected that there is a positive fleet lying for sale in Pago Pago.They are tough boats with two heads, two cabins and a good saloon.

Now to the designers. The league table so far is 8 to Ed Dubois, 6 to Laurent Giles and one to John Butler (the Tiger). It seems a bit mean to leave out the likes of Commander Rayner, lan Proctor, Rod Johnstone, Mike Pocock, Chris Hawkins and for the latest designs, Ron Holland, as they have all done sterling work for Westerly. Their boats are good, even excellent, but designing a classic is not an every day event, and cannot be done to order.

I feel a conclusion coming on. There are 3 boats that figure in all these categories, the Centaur, The Fulmar and the Corsair, and one which I cannot bear to leave out, though she doesn’t rate a mention in category 1, the Typhoon.

In time honoured reverse order then, the Typhoon (sadly even I can’t push her further up the ratings). She deserves her place for her handling alone. The feel you get from her great “Destroyer”wheel is so precise and so positive. She will surf down the waves with her spinnaker controllable right through to Force 6 (and beyond – but you need a hot crew and a storm kite for 7s and 8s). Also she has a really good layout with heads by the companionway, a big galley and forward and aft cabins.

In third place is the Corsair, which has only had a passing reference so far. Their place in history is assured by length of service; Corsair Is – 106 in 4 years, Corsair IIs – 52 in 4 years, and finally the stretched version, the Oceanranger – 11 years and approaching 100 built … so far. Behind the figures lies the perfect cruising boat. Big enough for 8 people even on the morning after the night before, handy enough to be single handed, sensitive enough to sail in the lightest of zephyrs and tough enough to sail round the world.

Second is the delightful Fulmar. Thousands have been introduced to sailing in these yachts, asthe sea schools love them for their vice free handling and strength of build. Individual owners would say it’s their vice free handling, their speed and their layout. Wives will cite their vice free handling, the comfort of the saloon and the number of lockers. Racers will say they are stiff upwind, steady downwind, are quick and have vice free handling. Ah! you will say, it must be their vice free handling then. No it’s not, it’s that they are a delight to sail in every weather, short or long handed, upwind and down.

The crown goes to the Centaur of course (you knew it would). They aren’t the most beautiful boat and they aren’t the fastest. But 2,444 built in 12 years certainly makes them the most popular British cruising boat ever. Their long waterline and short mast ensure world class seaworthiness and a decent turn of speed when pushed. You can park them anywhere on their twin keels. They are just about indestructible (each boat has been sorely tried by a succession of novice owners over the years). They are and always were fantastic value for money. There is a choice of three interior layouts. Big deep cockpit, wide side decks and high coachroof make for child friendliness. They have the biggest engines this side of Sunseeker, which gives massive confidence to nervous sailors.

So there you are, I cut it down to four after all, but we should remember that every boat is a classic to her owner, and it never gets easier to say goodbye to the last one, even though the next one is just the bee’s knees.”