A series of articles detailing the refitting of a 1975 Contest 33 mark II yacht. Here in part 1 we take a look at the searching and finding of the boat that started me on my journey back into the sailing life…


Back in the summer of 2010, I had the chance to do some filming aboard a yacht in the ‘Round The Island Race’ that takes place annually about the Isle of Wight in the Solent, UK. I was a cameraman working for local TV News and they wanted footage from one of the boats being operated by the Ellen MacArthur Trust. Little did I realise that stepping back aboard a sailing boat after many years would rekindle a love I once had for sailing.

Originally from England, my family moved to the USA and I grew up as a deck hand to my father on his small, home-built 23 ft sloop. We sailed in the San Francisco Bay and I learned as I went along. It was fun and I enjoyed warm days reaching in the breeze and nights bobbing at anchor, distant lights reflecting on the water.

In my later teens we repatriated back to the UK and I discovered art college, girlfriends and beer, followed in rapid order by a career, marriages and children. Sailing held little attraction and life took over.

Fast forward to that day I stepped aboard the Ellen MacArthur yacht, and I was hit with a brick wall of emotions and memories. As I leaned on the rigging to take stock of my surroundings, I realised that time had not dulled my senses. I knew what every line and sheet was for. I remembered what each winch and block did. I could have sailed that 34′ Gibsea straight off the dock – well, maybe with a little help…

Such was the experience I had that day, and in the weeks and months that followed, that I was able to resolve with myself – now at the tail end of my career – that I would love to get back into sailing. But how to go about it?


Because of my work as a cameraman, I was able to gain access to more sailing experiences, and teamed up with a few marine businesses helping to make promotional films. This was great for building a framework of ideas and possibilities. Old hands would regale me with their stories and point out the benefits of this design over that, the downfalls and mistakes to avoid, the beauty of the shear of a classic yacht. I learned and made my plans accordingly.

My dream boat must be between 30 and 36 feet in length and made of GRP, either a full keel or fin keel and skeg-hung rudder, encapsulated ballast with no keel bolts, solid glassfibre layup with no coring in the deck, and simple sloop rig. Realising that I was likely to want to go further afield than just sailing around the Isle of Wight, I reasoned that a heavier, stiffer boat was a good idea. One that would not have me heading for port once the wind got above a force six. This narrowed the field, but some careful searching would narrow the results down.

Cost was a large factor. I could either spend more to begin with and (hopefully) have less work to do as I went along, or I could buy a cheap ‘project’ and put the time and effort in from the start – knowing that by the time I got out on the water, I would have a seaworthy vessel capable of taking me across an ocean if I chose. I would know every inch of her hull, every nut and bolt, every pipe and wiring circuit. I was certain that it would be a great feeling of reassurance to know that every job was done, and done properly.


I went to look at quite a few boats in the beginning, and it quickly became evident that even boats above my price range needed work of some sort – even if they were simple jobs that had slipped someone’s mind over the years. Unless I bought brand new (impossible!) there was going to be some work involved.

I loved the wide side decks of the Rival 32 and 34 – but at what cost down below? I’m 1.9m tall and like a bit of room, so that was no good. The lovely Donald Pye designed Hustler 35 tugged at my heart strings – glorious lines and a long overhanging counter. But inside the cabin was akin living in a hallway. The Nicholson 35 I liked, but seemed out of my budget. I saw a Bruce Roberts home-finished 34 that had the bulkhead points etched into the hull like the frame of a WW1 cloth built biplane! And then I went to see a Dutch yacht that changed everything.


The Contest 33 was from the 1970s and had everything I was looking for: the solid GRP, the encapsulated keel, the stout displacement, the beautiful lines of a classic yacht and the room down below to move about in comfort!

The first two boats I viewed were earlier Uus van Essen designs and had the U-bolt chainplates anchored to the deck . The third Contest 33 I saw was a mark II from 1975 – hull 160 out of 180 – with further input by Dick Zaal – and had the chainplates bolted to the main bulkhead in a solid arrangement for strength and longevity.

She was called ‘Pinguin’ and lay in a marina in Kent, many miles from the Solent area where I hoped to be able to sail from. I saw her towards the end of the 2019 season, and she had been reduced from £18,000 to £14,500. Now we were talking!

The boat was right. Yes, she needed a lot doing to her and I had yet to discover that doing one job uncovered five more in the process, but I knew deep down that this was the right boat for me. I hated the name though, so that was going to have to change – along with just about everything else!

I realised that if I was going to offer lower than the asking price, I would not only need some good reasons, but that I would need to illustrate those reasons to the agent and the owner. I had to think of a way – short of getting a survey right away before the offer – to show that I was serious about buying her, and serious about the offer I was going to make, and why that offer was going to be much lower than they were expecting.

I decided that I would write my own ‘mini-survey’ and persuade them to sell her to me, right as the end of the season approached, with the prospect for the owner of another winter’s marina fees to be paid and no prospect of another buyer for months…

Find out what I did next in Part 2 – coming soon…