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Sierra 26

2008 November 10

Powerful one-design racer picks up where the Soling left off

A product of the design boards of the San Diego-based naval architects at Nelson/Marek, the Sierra 26 is built by California boatbuilder James Betts and is the definition of a no-nonsense sailing platform, with its wide and long America's Cup style cockpit, stiff carbon fiber hull built over an aluminum honeycomb core, and carbon fiber spar, boom, spinnaker pole, keel fin, and rudder. Displacing just 1,100 pounds, the clean potent form of the Sierra 26, a kind of a planing dinghy/keel boat hybrid, drew plenty of attention during its East Coast debut at last fall's Annapolis Boat Show. Indeed, it seemed to tug impatiently at its docklines, in contrast to its more sedate cousins with their high topsides, crisp canvas, shimmering stanchions and varnished rails.

Even a quick glance at the Sierra 26 shows that it was meant to perform. Despite its light weight, the boat still carries a 350-pound bulb at the bottom of a deep high-aspect-ratio keel, which allows it to climb to windward with amazing efficiency and provides a comforting righting moment when heeled.

Its powerful fractional rig with large main is supported by a single set of spreaders and rod rigging ending in titanium chainplates. The spreaders are swept aggressively aft, precluding the need for running backstays, or any backstays at all. The total upwind sail area is 340 square feet, providing a tremendous amount of horsepower on such a light boat. A conventional spinnaker, as opposed to the asymmetrical chutes that are all the rage these days, adds another 360 square feet of sail.

On deck
Many of the sail controls are led to a central cockpit console, which is within easy reach of both the helmsman and crew, and offers a good foot brace for the skipper and main trimmer when the boat starts to heel. A long slot at the partners allows for a wide range of mast rake. The spinnaker pole is stored on the boom, a la the Soling class.

The result of all these go-fast items is not just a boat that is fast and nimble, but a boat that is easy to sail. Out on an almost comically perfect Chesapeake October afternoon, the boat was powerful, well-balanced and smooth through the water; easy to drive and well engineered. Handling the slightly overlapping jib and large main was easy thanks to the careful placement of the lines. And the side decks, which are canted where they meet the boat's topsides, made for comfortable sitting. Tacking out from City Dock was a pleasure. The 26 came about efficiently and easily, quickly coming back up to speed after each tack.

Best of all, the fact that the lines are run under the side decks and sole means that the cockpit, in addition to being spacious, is refreshingly uncluttered, which is good both for racing crews and for just relaxing on the water. The boom may be a little on the low side for the raised-saloon crowd. But for all its aggressive appearance, the 26 does make a fine little daysailer.

In fact, designer Bruce Nelson said one of the things he likes best about the boat is that there is room for an extra crewman or passenger aft of the helm. Nelson, who is a veteran Etchells sailor and former class champion, said he has taken out his 11-year-old son on a number of occasions. "It's a good way to introduce new people to racing. They can see things up close, but stay out of the way."

Under sail
Of course, even daysailors like to go fast, and during our sun-soaked session on the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay in an 8- to 14-knot southeasterly breeze, we soon found ourselves on a mission, trying to find someone to line up against. The biggest smiles of the day came when we blew past a new 38-foot racer-cruiser and paced well against a 40-foot multihull.

And this was all in relatively light air. According to Betts, the boat loves the heavy stuff too, going easily to windward in a blow, and feeling in control down wind on a plane, even when hitting speeds of 20 knots and more.

According to Betts, the boat is designed to be a kind of next generation one-design, picking up in terms of materials and technology where boats like the Etchells and Soling left off. In that area it should excel. Already a number of boats are being trial-sailed on Lake Tahoe and in the San Diego area.

The boat will also work as a PHRF racer, assuming an understanding race committee. On the Chesapeake Bay, a bastion of PHRF sailing, the handicap racing gurus have been aggressive in accommodating nontraditional boats such as the Sierra 26, the Viper 640 and the Hobie 25. The 26 has already done well racing under the rule in San Diego.

At $75,000 the Sierra 26, is not cheap, but for those in search of shining performance, and a strong competitor around the buoys it would be hard to beat this good looking thoroughbred.