stability isn’t everything it is the only thing

John Vigor, a reviewer of “good old boats” in Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere (1999 Paradise Cay Publications) lists the Alberg 30, Albin Vega 27, Allied Seawind 32, Bristol 27, Bristol Channel Cutter 28, Cal 20, Cape Dory 25D, Catalina 27, Contessa/J.J Taylor 26, Contessa 32, Dana 24, Falmouth Cutter 22, Flicka 20, Folkboat 25, Frances/Morris 26, Nicholson 31, Pacific Seacraft 25, Person Triton 28, Southern Cross 31 and Westsail 32s as blue water cruisers/ pocket cruisers. To this list add Etap 26i and the Mac26x.

There is a saying involving boats that stability isn’t everything it is the only thing. More weight aloft, stiffer mast and greater sail area make the sailboat less stable.  Mast rotation gives up to 30 percent more power and normally will be engineered to be shorter than a fixed mast.   Practical Sailor quotes an X owner as saying

“She is fast enough to be pleasurable, forgiving enough that I can be stupid, balanced enough that I can be lazy.”

Skipper error or unknown reason, Mac26x boats are self righting when fully ballasted and will right themselves or are easy to right when the ballast tank is completely empty. It is the partially full tanks where capsize may create righting problems. Owners report that it is a very difficult to knockdown the vessel, perhaps not even possible under sail.

Image973Because all cruisers can capsize in sufficient seas, the safety from storm often afforded a large boat comes primarily from the speed she can make. Small planing boats like Cal 20s and Macgregor 26x vessels can also operate at those speeds, all be it with less of the shore-like home accommodations possible on a large cruiser.


This is a reprint of the January, 1997 Offshore Magazine article reviewing the MacGregor 26. It was written by noted sailing author Robby Robinson and photographed by Peter Serratore: The boat was supplied by our dealer, Arthur Rieders from Havencraft of New England.

(Photos are not included to save downloading time)

Two Boats in One

I have a dream. It’s a recurring dream. Every five years or so I get bitten by a bug-what about powerboat speed in a sailboat I could love? How about doing that 26 miles to Santa Catalina in an hour – in a cruising sailboat? I’ve chased the dream up Maine rivers on a 19-foot Rowley skiff fitted with cutty cabin, mast, centerboard and a 75-horse Merc. I’ve followed it to Nantucket to water-ski behind a 37-foot diesel-powered sloop.

I’ve been cruising my boat for years at five knots, under sail and under power – five knots no matter which way the wind blows or how hard I press on the throttle. What would life be like if that average were 15 knots? or 20? And then the answer came in a call from Offshore: “Go to Marina Bay to try the MacGregor 26X.” In a heartbeat.

Conventional wisdom says that a motorsailer is a boat that does neither thing well. MacGregor feels that this is a boat that breaks that mold, that this is both a true sailboat and a true powerboat. The snotty conditions on test day would really tell us.

Ballast When Needed

My heart beat fast as I parked the car. Flags were snapping like assault weapons this October afternoon, and foam was streaking the bay flecked by 18-25 knot puffs from the northwest. Art Rieders of Havencraft in Sudbury, Massachusetts, showed me aboard. He’s a long-time sailor as well as a 28-year MacGregor dealer, and we wondered about whether to brave it, even in relatively protected Dorchester Bay. Then the wind diminished a bit – just enough – and we took the plunge.

I was curious about how this light, near-flat-bottomed boat would handle the brisk crosswind challenging our exit from the slip. Art dropped the centerboard six inches and enjoyed masterful control as he maneuvered her out of the tight basin. Once we were outside, no sails up, the boat heeled 10-15 degrees under the pressure of the wind on the mast alone. Stability was one of my big concerns.

A conventionally keeled sailboat is “self-righting” (ask the Smeetons who were turned turtle off Cape Horn in their heavy 45-footer what “self-righting” really means) due to ballast hung at the bottom of its keel. The MacGregor has no keel. She’s a centerboarder.

With her foil-shaped centerboard pivoted down she can sail without making much leeway, but the board weighs just 30 pounds. That hardly makes her “self-righting.” Her stability stems from her hull form (relatively hard chines and flat-bottomed mid-sections), and from water ballast.

Water ballast is neat – open the valve and she ingests 1500 pounds of water. It completely fills its tank, can’t leak, and won’t move. The weight of the water is down low where it works best to counteract the heeling force from the sails. When we opened up the valve the ballast came in and, in eight minutes or so, the tipping under bare poles was no longer happening.

Let out the water and the package you have to pull behind your car becomes 1500 pounds lighter. Run the water out of the boat and you boost the power-to-weight ratio enough to sustain twenty knots with a 50-horse outboard in a boat that sleeps six.

Water ballast can be installed when you need it, and it’s free. By adding to her displacement, the MacGregor adds significantly (between 40 and 50 percent) to her stability.

But Can It Sail?

We talked it over and reefed the main before setting sail. Having 50 horses, as opposed to the normal sailboat’s pitiful auxiliary, made keeping her into the wind less than the normal hassle. The puffs still had plenty of weight to them. We sailed main-alone for a bit. She stood up well despite my efforts to dip the rail by driving her off against a tight-trimmed sail.

I could see worry lines around Art’s eyes because this was the kind of weather where you break things. He gave thumbs-up on the jib, though, and with the roll of a drum we doubled our sail area.

I was still experimenting with stability. I moved to leeward, opposite Art. We’re about the same size, balanced weights. Then I tried to bury the rail under reefed main and half-rolled jib. I couldn’t. The air was a touch lighter; I couldn’t summon anything much over 15 knots, but the boat stood much straighter than I’d expected.

You can free the motor from the MacGregor’s twin rudders for sailing, but we elected just to shut down and tilt the outboard out of the water. Even with that amount of resistance in the steering system, I found her responsive to the helm as we rounded onto the wind and headed for smoother water under the lee of the UMass Boston campus.

Jamming the boat tight onto the wind didn’t work well. She had neither the reserve power nor the weight to maintain momentum through the mid-sized chop at a tight angle to the breeze. Cracking her off an added ten to fifteen degrees was the answer. When I sailed further off the wind she picked up speed and life and seemed to make less leeway. My prescription for getting the most to windward out of her is “foot” off and go fast over a slightly longer distance rather than pinch her close to the eye of the wind.

She had a slight desire to round into the wind, a slight “weather-helm” of the kind that most helmsmen prefer in a boat sailing upwind.

The more she heeled the more she tugged to weather. That’s typical, too, and the helm never became excessive.

She presented no problems carrying her way when we tacked, maintaining good momentum and turning through the eye of the wind. Sometimes light boats get stopped by wind and waves before they can complete a tack, but not the 26X. The jib (standard-sized and smaller than the optional genoa) proved a handful to trim in this breeze, though. Every sailboat could use bigger winches!

We ran out of sailing room so reached off toward Boston Harbor with the wind on the beam. I was tempted to shake out the reef, but we weren’t sure that the lulls we were getting were permanent. On a reach the boat lifted and surged with the kind of power that makes sailing a rush. With more sail and less weight, I’m sure that she would start shooting out curtains of spray and showing her planing stuff, but reefed down as we were, we just got glimpses. A quick gybe — it’s easy to control the mainsheet mounted just forward of the wheel on the steering column – and we were running back the way we had come.

The water ballast started to impress me. We had very little of the “death-rolling” that’s common in conventional boats when they run before the wind in a seaway. That undulation from windward dip to leeward lean, from leeward lurch to windward wobble comes, at least in part, from the pendulum effect of a heavy weight on a long keel. Centered internal ballast improves on that situation a great deal; our ride seemed almost “on rails.”

She’s a sailboat. Refinable, tunable, equippable, she can be improved, but she has all the basics and they’re arranged to quicken a sailor’s heart at her possibilities.

… And Can It Power?

Happy not to have to reconnect the motor to the steering we turned the key, furled the jib, and rounded into the wind to drop the main. Draining the ballast tank can be done at anything over eight knots, but I couldn’t resist opening her up.

Bouncing across the still-stiff slop lingering behind the dying breeze she seemed just short of a true plane. Spray over the weather rail was nastier and more persistent than under sail, but otherwise she sat firm and happy as the speed mounted to around 18 knots. Art had remembered to raise the board. “Leave it down at this speed and she can get a bit squirrely.” Steering was firm, tracking consistent, even in the cross-chop, and Castle Island was coming at us fast.

I looked at Art questioningly. I saw no worry lines as he nodded, so I put her into a power turn. Not much lean, no skidding.. .just full power through the full 180 degrees. By now the ballast tank must have been about empty (Art says it takes about six minutes). The bow came down, the spray shot lower, and the speed picked up to 20.7 as we slid onto what felt like a “real” plane with the lift off the bottom doing the work and the engine thrusting straight ahead.

I throttled down to see how long we could stay on plane. From the max (5500) back to around 3500 we kept skipping along, but after that the bow wave seemed to pile higher and the stern sink deeper as the speed (now about 14) dropped sharply too.

The breeze was dying and Art was anxious to sail again under the full mainsail. A stubby plastic cleat (no winch) on the mainmast and slippery, skinny halyard frustrated my efforts to get full tension when I hoisted the sail. Looking at the scallops and wrinkles along the luff I noted that there are no slugs to hold the sail in place. That means that when you let it down it needs to be wrestled and collected to be kept onboard.

You can’t expect a boat that sells, with trailer and sails, for $17,000 to be loaded with gold-plated yachting gear, but there are places on the 26X where the sailing systems are not as elegant as the design, engineering, construction, and potential of the boat as a whole.

Innovations Abound

Her accommodations are attractive. With minimal conversion she can sleep six in a pinch. The dinette not only seats five but is raised so that all have a good view of the outside world. Those deep, dank caves we used to call sailboats can’t hold a candle.

The head is enclosed, the galley has a niche for an alcohol stove, the 48-quart cooler is removable so you can pack it at home, and all of the interior cushions and mattresses come up to make down-stairs clean-up as simple as turning on the hose.

Trailering has been made, if not foolproof, at least ridiculously easy. A forward ladder on the custom-built trailer makes it a three-step breeze to get aboard (and why haven’t other manufacturers adopted this simple and good idea?). “Goal posts” guide you in on a landing and you drive the stem right to the rubber stopper on the winch post with full engine control. MacGregor pride in being the lowest trailer on the market is justified when you see how that keeps the tow vehicle out of the water and still floats the hull easily with no tongue extension. Mast up (by hand or with the slick custom winching system) and you’re set. You can raise and lower the mast underway for fixed bridges or just for kicks.

Light construction cuts both ways. It opens up the boat’s sparkling performance, but does it render her seaworthy? It makes her affordable, but it makes you wonder.

Roger MacGregor’s best argument – that he knows his materials – is the more than 36,000 boats he’s built. I can look at the quarter-inch bolts closing the hull-deck joint and imagine them zippering through the hull flange under the loads imposed by big water, but there are 36,000 places where he can point and say, “it doesn’t happen.” I don’t expect the 26X to be overly forgiving of sailor error, or to have the massive “strength in reserve” of its heavier counterparts.

How does the boat handle its dual roles? She’s a responsive powerboat with good sea manners, but don’t expect a canyon runner. With more attention to her sailing systems she could be a fine sailboat. As equipped, this boat has light-duty gear that often cries out for an upgrade (an upgrade that owners can make). Is she set for Cape horn? Is she self-righting? These are questions, but the one I wanted to ask Art was, “How soon can I have one in my driveway?”

Reprinted from “OFFSHORE” Jan 1997, Publisher Richard Royer,

Editor Peter Serratore

The boat was prepared by Havencraft of New England, and had a 50 HP Mercury outboard, and a custom 150 % roller furling genoa. The weather conditions in Boston were as follows: winds about 20-25 mph, clear and 1-2 foot chop, air temp 45 deg. F and water temp 44 deg. F. We had one reef in the main and the jib extended about 110%.

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