A little cruising boat with big-boat seaworthiness and a dedicated following
The Nor'Sea 27 was designed by Lyle Hess, and that fact alone makes the boat worthy of a close inspection. Hess, who died in summer at age 89, was a master of creating handsome, spirited, ocean-going small boats. When asked in an interview many years ago what the common quality in his designs was, he thoughtfully replied, "I feel that any boat that points her bow out to sea should be designed so that the crew need not worry about a safe return." That is a sound and timeless premise, one that should be tacked to the wall in every yacht designer's office and one that is certainly fulfilled by the capable Nor'Sea 27.
Hess cut his teeth designing and building wooden boats. The shrinking wooden boat market forced him out of the business in the 1950s, but the burgeoning fiberglass revolution opened the door to his return as a yacht designer in the 1960s. He is perhaps best known for his designs of Lynn and Larry Pardey's boats and the Bristol Channel Cutter, built by Sam L. Morse Company. In the mid-1970s, Dean Wixom approached Hess with a seemingly impossible set of design parameters; he wanted a small cruiser, capable of sailing any ocean but also capable of navigating the interstate on a trailer. As the story goes, Wixom wanted a boat for exploring the Sea of Cortez without the hassle of sailing all the way down the Mexican coast. According to Chuck Malseed in an article in Cruising World in 1977, Wixom told Hess that a boat with big-boat seaworthiness and small-boat trailerability would open many interesting cruising grounds to sailors with limited amounts of time. Hess was up to the challenge and the result was the Nor'Sea 27, a classic pocket cruiser with an extraordinary resume.
Although Wixom eventually sold his firm and went cruising in his own Nor'Sea 27, his concept struck a nerve with sailors across the country. The Nor'Sea 27 is still currently in production, available in either kit form or as a complete boat, and more than 450 are already sailing the oceans and inland seas. And when I say sailing I mean it-four of these small but robust cruisers have circumnavigated, one via Cape Horn, and hundreds of Atlantic and Pacific crossings have been logged.
Most Nor'Sea 27s are, at least by definition, center cockpits. It might be more accurate to say that they have aft cabins. However you describe the boat, it is unique and appealing, especially to those who like the traditional, canoe stern look. Even a casual observer will quickly note the quality ethos that permeates every aspect of the boat. Although an aft cockpit model is also available, the salty little aft cabin sloop far outsells the aft cockpit model. Hess designed plenty of sheer into in the hull line and one of the most distinguishing features of the Nor'Sea 27 is a molded lapstrake hull. In the water the boat seems larger than 27 feet and although the bowsprit extends the LOA to 31 feet, the boat still has a stately bearing and undeniably sweet lines.
Below the waterline, the Nor'Sea has a classic cutaway full keel hull shape and the large outboard rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel with an aperture for the prop. This shape allows for a relatively shallow draft of 3 feet, 10 inches and still provides ample stability and a nice motion in a seaway. It is also about the maximum draft that can still be launched from a trailer, although in reality the relatively few Nor'Seas that are trailered are usually towed to boatyards and popped in the water. It takes a truck with some oomph to haul the 8,000-pound Nor'Sea 27-the boat was not designed to be trailer-sailed frequently but instead to be "transportable" between cruising grounds. The 27 was offered with either a tall or short rig, depending upon your sailing agenda. The tall rig sail area is just under 400 square feet and, at least on early boats, carried a bit more ballast than the short rig.
The construction scantlings of the Nor'Sea 27 are most impressive. The one-piece, hand-laid, solid fiberglass hull includes up to 22 layers of mat and woven roving along the stem, keel and stern sections. Hull thickness tapers from 5/16 inches at the turn of the deck to 3/4 inches at the keel cavity. Molding a lapstrake hull is not something a typical production builder would tackle; it not only requires a more sophisticated and expensive plug, it also takes a lot more time to laminate. The lapstrake hull does more than just look salty, it adds considerable strength to hull form, a time-tested technique that is proven by many lapstrake wood folkboats still sailing all over the world. The deck is cored with plywood and through-bolted to the hull on 6-inch centers. For the most part, stainless steel backing plates are used to reinforce deck fittings.
The internal ballast is lead and, as noted above, the keel cavity is thick fiberglass for those inevitable groundings. The large rudder is fiberglass over a foam core. The pintles and gudgeons are oversized and bolted through the thick transom. The bottom bearing is strapped to the trailing edge of the keel. The handsome tiller is made from ash and mahogany. A partial molded liner is used in the interior and all bulkheads are built from marine grade plywood.
What to look for
Although the early Nor'Sea 27s are approaching 30 years in age, in general the boat has held up extremely well. My friend Ed Hershman recently purchased a 1985 aft cockpit model in Marathon, Florida, and the surveyor was amazed at the condition of the boat, a tribute to first-rate original construction. Of course few Nor'Sea 27s are completely alike because many boats were sold in kit form. In fact, the boat is still available as a kit, and a nearly completed version that leaves the finishing trim to the owner is the company's most popular model. While the hull and deck are the same on all boats, the quality of finish can vary dramatically on kit boats. Not surprisingly, factory finished boats are the most desired. Another item to inspect is the diesel engine. Early boats were fitted with a nine-horsepower Farymann. Later the engine was changed to a two-cylinder Yanmar, a nice upgrade. Some owners have reported corrosion problems with the aluminum 30-gallon fuel tank.
As mentioned earlier, two rig plans were offered, however, the ballast was upped to 3,100 pounds for both plans in 1980 and has remained constant. The obvious factor to look for when considering a Nor'Sea 27 is the deck arrangement. Ed Hershman's boat is an aft cockpit model, although the center cockpit model has been much more popular and outnumbers the aft cockpit model by nearly 7-to-1. A few pilothouse 27s were also produced. However, if you have your heart set on finding a used Nor'Sea 27 you might have to take what you can find, as these boats are highly sought after and rarely linger on the used boat market. One final item that must be noted, although it concerns new Nor'Sea 27s: Several potential owners sued Nor'Sea Yachts in the mid-1990s when the company failed to deliver boats they already paid for.
The cockpit of both models is surprisingly comfortable and very well designed. In the center cockpit the tiller stretches over the aft cabintrunk house and companionway but it's a workable arrangement after you get used to it. Most boats include a husky teak and stainless or teak and bronze boom cradle that is also handy for supporting a cockpit sun cover. Not surprisingly the boat is well suited to singlehanded sailing and most 27 owners have led the sail controls aft. The triangular mainsheet system may not be the most efficient arrangement but it does keep the small cockpit uncluttered. And although the cockpit is by necessity fairly compact, it can accommodate three or four people without feeling overloaded. There is a large bridgedeck and a substantial companionway hood. Author Wayne Carpenter sailed most of the way around the world in his Nor'Sea 27 and his crew consisted of his wife, two small children and mother-in-law!
A molded bulwark, terrific nonskid, long teak handrails on the cabintrunk and well-supported stanchions with double lifelines lend a sense of security when moving about the narrow side decks. The bowsprit forward is not a structural part of the rig as the forestay is tied to the stemhead fitting, which makes engineering sense. The teak and stainless bowsprit, with two bronze anchor rollers, does, however, provide an ideal anchoring platform and the short stainless steel bobstay won't foul the rodes. Deck hardware is oversized, to say the least, and where necessary backed with stainless steel plates.
The single-spreader, deck-stepped spar carries a long boom, and although the boat is designed as a sloop, some cruisers have added an inner forestay for a staysail. The tall rig mast is just over 34 feet, while the short rig is 30 feet, 6 inches. The external chainplates are 1/4-inch by 11/2-inch stainless straps with five through-hull bolts. You would need dynamite to pull these out of the boat.
The center cockpit deck found on most 27s allows for a creative and functional interior plan. Let's look at this arrangement first. Forward is a small berth that can be used as a storage area or extended into a decent-sized berth by lowering it athwartship in the saloon. A centerline table with settees to port and starboard is next aft. The table on older boats could be raised and lowered on the mast compression post, while on more recent models it drops to form a large double berth. The enclosed head and stand up chart table are to port and the surprisingly large galley is opposite. The two single berths in the aft cabin are excellent sea berths. The aft cockpit model is similar except that two quarterberths take the place of the aft cabin.
The joinerwork on the fully finished factory boats is simply superb; Nor'Sea is proud of the fact that there is no visible fiberglass. The Nor'Sea 27 is reminiscent of the Bristol Channel Cutter down below with its blend of elegance and simplicity. One difference is that there is more elbow room in the Nor'Sea-the 6-foot headroom is surprising considering the overall low profile. The boat is loaded with storage compartments-more than 30 separate lockers can easily stow a month's provisions. A clever pullout shelf just below the chart table offers additional counter and working space. There are handholds throughout and bronze opening portlights and aluminum hatches. The interior is really quite stunning-a couple, or even a small family can distance cruise a Nor'Sea 27 in comfort.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Ed Hershman sailed solo from Marathon to Ft. Myers, Florida, a 100-mile passage that served as his test sail. "Believe me," Ed said, "I learned a lot, but I will tell you, this is one sweet sailing boat."
Hershman is typical of many Nor'Sea owners; he is stepping down. His former boat was a Catalina 400. "I was looking for a true bluewater boat in a small package. I looked at the Pacific Seacraft Dana 25, the Cape Dory 25D and others, but nothing compared to the quality and charm of the Nor'Sea."
Hershman encountered 25-knot winds and lumpy following seas as he passed under the Seven Mile Bridge and shaped a course northwest. "The boat clipped along at 6 knots, with very little stress, and sometimes more as we rode the waves. The helm was light and pretty well balanced."
The wind continued to pipe up and the tiller pilot was misbehaving, but Hershman was delighted with the boat. "Even when the wind clocked and we had more of a beam sea I was impressed with the Nor'Seas' motion. The speed on a reach was surprising. My only complaint was that I couldn't leave the helm long enough to prepare a decent meal." Hershman noted that his GPS touched 7 knots as he came up on the wind, which is good going in any 27-footer. He negotiated the tricky Marco Island Pass in the dark and dropped the hook for the night. "I was thankful for the 3-foot, 10-inch draft, especially after years of sailing with almost 6 feet on my Catalina, there just isn't as much stress. And when a passing powerboater slowed down and shouted, 'Nice boat,' well, that was the perfect end to a great day of sailing."
Hershman's shakedown trip pales when compared to some of the notable passages recorded by other Nor'Sea 27s, but it paints a picture of why the boat is so appealing. It is easy to handle, capable in a blow and easy on the eyes.
The Nor'Sea 27 is an intriguing, high quality, small cruising boat. Sure it is expensive-you can expect to pay anywhere from $35,000 to $80,000 for a used one, depending on the year. Yet this boat can fulfill cruising dreams on many levels. One summer you might haul it north and sail on pristine waters of Great Slave Lake in Northern Canada before schlepping it south to the Sea of Cortez for the winter. Of course, if those road trips are getting old, you might just sell the truck, clear Cabo San Lucas and head for the South Pacific.