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On Sailboats: Maine tradition vs. Europe avant-garde

The Sabre Spirit and Etap 28s come from different drawing boards, but both serve their niches well

The Sabre Spirit and Etap 28s come from different drawing boards, but both serve their niches well

Collecting intelligence about this fall’s boat shows, I recently sailed two boats that claim ease of handling and strong performance as their forte, but disguise these qualities with strikingly different looks: the new Sabre Spirit, a 36-footer with classic proportions defined by traditional New England styling, and the Etap 28s, a product of the European design avant-garde that opted for a modern appearance and created a ton of interior space out of thin air.

Belgian builder Etap Yachting NV has had a reputation for producing safe, unsinkable but not exactly exciting boats — something like the Volvos of the Sea. But that all changed when the company decided to streamline and update their offerings, meaning fewer models but more pizzazz.

Etap started collaborating with the Italian design studio Stile Bertone, and the first joint product, the 46DS, a deck-saloon cruiser with a hip interior, promptly won an innovation award in Europe. With this move Etap followed in the footsteps of Beneteau and designer Philippe Starck, who spiced up the interiors of several First models in the 1980s with rounded contours, built-in window shades, mahogany, and marble details. Replacing the older 26- and 30-foot models, Etap then introduced the 28s, again with Bertone’s styling, which called for an oak-laminate interior with an L-shaped galley and an enclosed head/shower, all wrapped in round shapes with accents of bold colors and stainless-steel. The forepeak is configurable, either as an open kids’ berth, enclosed gear storage or, after removal of the bulkhead, as a V-berth for an adult couple — hence the company’s claim that “the Etap 28s offers an astonishing amount of space for four to six people.” Captain and first mate enjoy some seclusion in the aft cabin, which has an athwartships double with sitting headroom.

The hull, designed by Mark-Oliver von Ahlen, has a long waterline and carries the maximum beam far aft. Von Ahlen attenuated the high coachroof with rounded cockpit coamings and oval portlights set inside a dark elliptical patch. Light cork and dark TBS non-skid surfaces also figure prominently in the appearance of this 28-footer, which surprises with 6 feet, 3 inches of standing headroom in the saloon. Of course, the Etap 28s is unsinkable like her forebears, thanks to the closed-cell foam found in the double-skinned structure and in cavities behind the settees or under the V-berth.

By contrast, the Sabre Spirit is consistent with the “Crafted in the Maine Tradition.” Sabre Yachts of South Casco, Maine, waited until this summer to join the fray of neo-retro daysailers that always looked like a good fit for the company’s product line. So why now?

“Our last survey showed that customers seem to sail less than we assumed,” says Bentley Collins, Sabre vice president of sales and marketing. However, not all become powerboaters, so it makes sense, Collins says, “to give them something simple, fun and elegant that rekindles sailing enthusiasm and satisfies the appetite for a bijou boat.”

Designer Jim Taylor delivered a vessel with classic proportions that are complemented by carbon spars and modern appendages, all in line with the genre’s trend. The Spirit’s slender hull has pronounced overhangs and a large 10-foot cockpit. The small coachroof is pleasant to the eye but limits standing headroom to 6 feet. Not lavish but more than is offered by other daysailers of similar size.

The interior — with full galley, enclosed head/shower and neatly executed carpentry — eloquently reflects the standards of Down East craftsmanship. But unlike the Etap, the Spirit has no aft cabin, so life below happens forward of the companionway. The captain’s quarters are the V-berth, while guests or kids have to occupy the settees in the saloon, which is perfectly fine because they are sized for adults.

Common to both approaches is the desire for easy and simple handling. Both of the boats I sailed had small self-tacking headsails on roller furlers. The sheets were reeved up into the mast, which reduces clutter but also creates tighter turning angles around the sheaves. Both were rigged with a stern traveler that kept the cockpit clean, and both had large mainsails for horsepower.

Sailing the Spirit from her mooring in Marblehead, Mass., Sabre’s deft execution of Taylor’s ideas became immediately evident. A deep fin keel and balanced rudder, a 48-inch destroyer wheel, and carbon spars made the ride pleasant and relaxed. Sailing to weather in light air, the boat readily accelerated in puffs with hardly any additional heel. However, returning on a deep reach, the small blade jib frequently hid behind the main, thus losing effectiveness. Collins promised a solution with a twinger, but personally I’d go for a removable Hoyt jib boom, because it addresses the self-tacking feature and the proper jib trim on a deep reach or downwind.

A lively breeze on New Jersey’s BarnegatBay was my backdrop for the Etap 28s, with its shallow-draft tandem keel and Bergstrom aluminum rig that uses swept-back spreaders in lieu of runners and backstays. The boat moved well upwind, stoically standing up to puffs with her 3-foot, 6-inch draft, even though I sensed more weather helm than normal for the prevailing conditions, an indication that shroud tension wasn’t yet fine-tuned. Downwind, I noticed the same jib issues as I did on the Sabre Spirit.

“It’s a compromise, since the owner wanted a boat for single-handing,” says Etap’s U.S. representative, Ludwig Hoogstoel. Proving this point, the one-line reefing system made easy work of shortening sail from the cockpit, a valuable safety feature that also took care of the extra weather helm. I also noticed that the test boat’s traveler cleats didn’t quite line up with the turning sheaves, and there was a sharp point where the aluminum tracks of the companionway meet. But these are two easily fixable items.

Both boats were fitted with Saildrives, which made them easy to maneuver under power. Dousing sails was easier with the Etap’s StackPack, while the Spirit had yet to be rigged with a lazyjack system.

I am fully aware of my fallacy of comparing an apple with an orange — i.e., a “large” 28-footer with a bent for family cruising and a “small” 36-footer that appeals to sailors who are comfortable with tradition — but the contrast simply was too tempting. I’d give Etap the nod for its courage to step off the well-trodden design path while commending Sabre for its smooth execution of the familiar daysailer concept. I believe both boats will find success in their respective markets, with practical self-tacking sail plans for short-handed sailing and/or optional larger headsails and asymmetricals. Yet the difference in appearance remains striking.

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.