Contessa 33 – An Article!!!

I’m not the only Contessa 33 owner out there!! There’s a great article posted on TheMailSail.com discussing the history and design of the 33. I’ve linked to it here.

Any other Contessa 33 owners out there, please leave me a comment!

By Cathy Brown

Challenged to improve on Contessa 32 and Sigma 33 Rob Humphreys triumphed.The Contessa 33 might have seemed like an impossible design brief to anybody but Rob Humphreys. The new model, introduced in 1983/84, was intended as a more modern replacement for the evergreen Contessa 32, which had been in production since 1971. It also aimed to improve on the Sigma 33 – launched some four years earlier, and already established as an outstandingly successful one design cruiser racer.

To take on two such iconic designs and advance significantly on them both was quite a challenge, but Humphreys succeeded magnificently. The tragedy is that less than 20 Contessa 33s were built before builder Jeremy Rogers’ company hit financial buffers.

The moulds were reportedly sold to a Greek concern, but it seems no boats were subsequently built and it is not known what eventually happened to them – a great pity.

There is, not surprisingly, some obvious similarity between the Contessa 33 and the Sigma: similar dimensions, both fin-keeled, both with fractional rigs with swept back spreaders, similar displacement, and so on, but as always, the devil is in the detail.

Having owned a Sigma for 16 years, and loved it dearly, I feel well qualified to admit that the Contessa scores over it in a lot of ways. The build quality is generally higher, as ought to be expected as the initial price was also higher than the Sigma, which owed some of its success to offering remarkable value for money.

The Contessa has a lead keel, which makes it stiffer than the Sigma with its cast iron fin. It has a keel stepped mast, whereas the Sigma’s deck stepped mast has been something of an Achilles heel. And the Contessa’s rig has jumpers which stop it flexing above the hounds like the Sigma’s does, making the rig altogether more powerful upwind.

Another design improvement is that whereas the Sigma has a flat bilge, in which a very little water goes a very long way, the Contessa has a much more practical sump arrangement. The interior of the Contessa 33 was designed by Conran Associates, and represents a significant step on from the more traditional layout of both Contessa 32 and Sigma 33.

American ash, complimented by cream-coloured laminates on drawer fronts and locker lids in the chart table and galley areas, gives a very light feel. The galley is tucked to starboard of the companionway, extending under the cockpit.  There is plenty of locker space, a decent-sized sink, a gimballed cooker and a large coolbox. The top of the coolbox forms the main work surface – and this is where the headroom is lowest, which is not ideal, but that is just about the only criticism reviewers of the boat could find, when she was launched.

And pushing the galley back like that means the saloon is unusually spacious for a boat of this size, with settee berths on either side, and a generous drop-leaf table with a bottle rack in its centre section. The chart table is to port, immediately inside the companionway, with a double quarter berth behind it. The mast is hidden away behind the forward saloon bulkhead.  There are two more berths in the forepeak. Between the saloon and the forepeak, the heads compartment has the marine WC facing forward, separated from the mast by a partial bulkhead. It is not exactly spacious, but more secure in a seaway than the more usual inwards facing heads. To starboard is a smart washbasin unit with a mirror-fronted locker.

So the Contessa 33 is a true cruiser racer, with all the cruising comforts expected in her day. But what really sets her apart is not her home comforts, but her sailing ability.She is tiller steered, and the large cockpit works equally well fully crewed or short handed. The mainsheet traveller divides the space, with room for helmsman and mainsheet man behind, and plenty of space for the trimmers to reach the primary winches at the front of the cockpit and the halyard and spinnaker winches on the coachroof.

Side decks are wide and slope at a comfortable angle for sitting out. The transom folds down to provide a bathing ladder, and gas bottles are stored in the open at the stern. There are spacious cockpit lockers for fenders, warps etc, too.

And one of the neat features of the Contessa 33, which I can’t understand why has not been more widely copied since, is the way the sliding hatch over the companionway extends aft beyond the washboards, providing extra protection from rain, spray, and even “greenies.”

Powered by a Volvo 2002 18hp diesel, driving a two-bladed folding prop via a conventional shaft drive, the boat is handy and manoeuvrable under power, but it is under sail that she really comes into her own.

The Contessa 33 is one of those rare boats that performs well in all conditions. Her design might now seem slightly old-fashioned – an IOR-influenced teardrop shape with a nipped in stern and a sleekly raked bow, in contrast to day’s plumb-bowed, wide-sterned flying machines. But she remains an extremely pretty boat, by any standard.

And she also remains extremely competitive under IRC (especially now with age allowance) and especially upwind in winds less than 10 knots, when there is very little else on the water that can trouble her on handicap.

And she is an absolute delight to sail, light and responsive on the helm, and virtually taking herself upwind. You don’t have to be a genius helmsman to look very good in one of these, especially if provided (as they usually are!) with a well-trimmed suit of state of the art racing sails.

Vital statistics:
Designer: Rob Humphreys
Builder: Jeremy Rogers
LOA: 33′
LWL: 29′
Beam: 11’10”
Draught: 6′
Displacement: 8,245 lbs
Ballast: 3,485 lbs