A boat both of and ahead of its time, the Express 27 is one of the legendary combinations of Carl Schumacher design and Terry Alsberg constructionand proof that quality keeps its value.
Those who sail ultra-light displacement boats have had a natural mantra ever since Bill Lee coined it years ago: "Fast is Fun." Like most slogans, it's catchy; like many it doesn't tell the whole story. True, by the early '80s, ULDB pioneers like Ron Moore (Moore 24) George Olson (Olson 30), and Bill Lee (Merlin and the Santa Cruz sleds) had shaken up the IOR establishment and made home town Santa Cruz a speed-seekers' Mecca. Still, most ultralights at that time were "one-way wonders" with no real ability to go upwind. And, from construction to tuning, from accommodation to handling, most entailed some form or another of compromise or trauma.
To Terry Alsberg, a worker at Moore Sailboats, the need for "the ideal production ULDB" was so clear that he formed a company of his own, hired designer Carl Schumacher, and began work on what became the Express 27. Displacing just over 2,400 pounds, the E-27 was less of a drag racer than the typical ULDB, and more a boat to get you around a triangle in "express" fashion. Other things were unusual, too: Headsails were trimmable via single-action (#10) winches, the boat was trailerable behind a small car, and two people could step and lower the mast. Most of all she was nimble and dinghy-like to sail, yet big and tough enough to race offshore.
Launched in 1981, the boat was popular from the outset. Before a recessionary economy and the realization that "we'd been building custom boats and selling them at production prices" caused Alsberg to close in 1988, 117 were built. Class Commodore Jason Crowson says, "Today the E-27 is the strongest one-design on San Francisco Bay, with up to 25 boats on the line every race." There's also a big fleet in Detroit, a new young fleet in Oregon, and boats sailing in local races (mostly in PHRF fleets) in a dozen additional states and two Canadian provinces.
Says one Marblehead (MA) sailor who has owned three E-27s, "It's hard to top the value. You can have great sailing for a season, plus a trailer and all the costs of campaigning, for what most guys in boats this size spend on a new spinnaker."
But there's more: "Hardly ever use motor." "Great sitting headroom." "After a dozen seasons of hard campaigning there's not a stress crack anywhere." "The rock stars say these boats are competitive no matter how old they are."
And the boat has been clocked at 20 knots! If you're looking for a boat for "camp-out" cruising, the E-27 is a possibility. If you're after a racing boat that delivers superior speed, fulfilling performance, and the promise of top-flight competition (all at an affordable price), she deserves a serious look.
Carl Schumacher died in 2002, at age 52, having proved himself one of the great yacht designers of the modern era, and depriving the sailing world of many more years of his artistry and easy-going expertise.
Schumacher worked in the office of Gary Mull before going on his own in the late '70s. It wasn't until he made his mark by designing, building, and sailing Summertime Dream to victory in the 1979 Quarter-Ton North Americans that he got his first production commission...from Alsberg. "Terry and I started off with the idea of building a boat the same weight as a Moore 24, but two feet longer," Schumacher said in a 1985 interview in Latitude 38. "But we eventually decided on the largest possible boat that could use a single speed (Barient 10) winch for the jib, which turned out to be 27 feet."
Robert "Bump" Wilcox, an East Coast sailor/dealer who raced at Santa Cruz on one of the E-27's first outings remembers, "Their Wednesday night races almost always consisted of a beat, a tight reach, and a run. I can remember Scarlett O'Hara, the Doug Peterson-designed 43 that went on to win the SORC. She beat us to the weather mark by at least a quarter mile. Half way down the shy reach we planed by her carrying our kite while she was wallowing along under genny. I turned to Carl and said, 'You might just have something here.' I could only imagine what the guys on Scarlett were saying, being passed by a 27-footer."
The E-27 offers two major refinements on the ULDB archetype: her upwind performance is better, and she's better-behaved at speed.
A hefty ballast/displacement ratio nearing 50%, a painstakingly lowered center of gravity, a judiciously sharp entry, and augmented form stability are among the things that helped Schumacher create a boat that sails well to windward. So, too, do her narrow footprint, reduced windage, easily-controlled sailplan, and modified V-sections aft (which aid sail-carrying without measurably increasing drag.)
Those sections (inspired in part, Schumacher said, by Aussie 18 skiffs) also help the boat plane quickly and controllably.
"Dropping the centerline profile but still maintaining the tight turn at the topsides resulted in powerful stern sections, a long waterline, easy longitudinal lines, and a transom that won't drag," Schumacher explained.
Place an oversized rudder as far aft as possible, and the result is "sports car" control under the most taxing conditions. Says one San Francisco sailor, "It can blow pretty hard around here. I used to own a Soverel 33. I won the 'Wipe out of the Year,' for both quantity and quality. Now that I'm sailing an E-27, my white knuckles have disappeared. I can be doing 15 knots and be on the edge of breaking the chute and I'll be sipping a beer."
"The interior," writes Schumacher, "was designed around the idea that the crew of four would be able to sit comfortably inside the cabin. This is why the seats were placed on each side of the middle of the boat. By giving the seats no other function, they could be engineered as a couch." Slatted backs fitted with cushions make the settees loungable. The pipe berths aft are fitted with quick-drying trampoline cloth. There's a step-upon cooler, portable head, and tiny nav table. Stove and sink are to port. The bilge (just 5" deep) will take a teacup or two before overflowing. All of the furniture weighs just 150 pounds.
If anyone built a production boat using vinylester resin and vacuum-bagging before Terry Alsberg, we don't know who it was. In his "aw shucks" manner the builder credits pioneers "from the Vikings through Columbus right up to the Herreshoffs" with being concerned with weight. "But people worry—did we leave something out or make it flimsy to make it light?"
First among builders, even the pound-parers of Santa Cruz, Alsberg answered those worries scientifically. His laminates were strong because of the resin and glass that went into them and the chemical compatability between them. "By going with a better resin, one that adds about $300 onto the price of an Express 27, we get a laminate that's basically twice as strong." Today a host of builders are using vinylester (and epoxy) resins. Alsberg, greatly to his credit, took the first step.
Both structural engineers, Schumacher and Alsberg collaborated on some additional construction elements: S-glass was preferred for its properties, but, due to its price, was used in the E-27 only for reinforcement in the way of local loads; fiber orientation (i.e. the use of unidirectional and knitted fabrics) was, however, exploited to achieve the best in strength/weight properties. For example, the hull laminate is primarily built of two plies of 9-oz. unidirectional E-glass knitted together. The boat is cored with Klegecell in the hull and end-grain balsa in the deck.
Blisters have never been a problem. "The best glasswork I've ever seen," is a repeated review from owners. Alsberg's pioneering has stood the test of time.
Vacuum-bagging wasn't a production operation in 1981, either. One explanation why Alsberg was able to get the results that he did comes from his remarkable "non-production" work force. Says Wilcox, "As opposed to the sort of migrant laborer you might find in boat plants anywhere around the world, Alsberg attracted dedicated sailors. Everyone was excited to be on the cutting edge. And Wednesday's they'd close early and every single guy would head out to race in the beer-can series. The guy who put the cleat on the deck during the afternoon shift was out there using that cleat in the evening."
Twenty years of hard sailing tend to confirm both the superiority of construction methods and the fact that boats built "by sailors for sailors" tend to have things in the right place, and well-secured.
The E-27's bonded and bolted hull/deck joint (reinforced with a slotted aluminum toerail), molded-in transom steps, and man-overboard tube in the transom are further examples of construction details large and small that set the boat apart.
Today's sport boats sport some advantages. They are built even lighter than the E-27. The stability born of a bulb on a strut is superior to anything achievable 20 years ago. Some modern flyers have higher sail area/displacement numbers than the E-27's admittedly sparkly 24.9. Some have displacement-length ratios even lower (if such a thing can be conceived) than 84. Yet the E-27 is still one of the best-performing sailboats available today.
One of her virtues is her slippery shape. When the wind is a wisp she has proven to be very easily driven, and has bested bigger and smaller competitors alike. When the wind blows over 14 or so, she is also at her best. Quick to plane, easy to keep on her feet, manageable, and remarkably stable for such a narrow (8-foot beam) boat, she has consistently sailed well, even up to her West Coast PHRF rating of 129.
Jason Crowson won the 400-mile Coastal Cup one year in a drifter, and was second in a blow the next. "Off the wind in moderate air, however," Crowson says," the sailplan is a bit too small to be truly competitive. Some boats have gone to a masthead spinnaker to help combat that."
One-design racing has proven a definite spur to improved performance. Sailmakers and "performance gurus" around the Bay area tend to gravitate to the class. Says Scott Easom, "My team has compiled the most championships since the inception of the class. My advice is be as light as possible. Keep what weight is aboard centered over the keel. As the wind builds, start sliding that weight aft. When the class changed from a 1,000-pound crew limit to 880, we sailed the boats differently. Primarily that meant flattening the sails more. The most critical element here is rake."
Dave Hodges of Larsen Sails offers some advice on driving: "When you're falling off the back of a wave and it's a choice to either feather up or power off, I find that in very breezy conditions it's faster to head up. In medium air I find it better to drive off. The Express handles waves better than most boats."
Says Olympian Jeff Madrigali, "The key to sailing an E-27 upwind fast is sailing her flat—10 to 15 degrees—without stalling the sails. The trend in the class has been to go with more and more rake. This, coupled with flatter mainsail designs, has produced better speed in moderate and heavy air."
Racing the boat, you'll notice that a crew of five fits easily in the 6.5-foot cockpit, that most of the "strings" are easy to pull, that sails are small enough to be affordable, and that there are more than a few good sports in the class from whom to take steering lessons. Truly, the number of top-level racing sailors concentrated in this relatively small production fleet is a tribute to both Schumacher and Alsberg.
The E-27 bears out one of the most attractive elements of the ULDB credo: "Light boats are simple boats, and simple boats are fun to sail."
The E-27 is typically powered by a bracket-mounted outboard engine. (As one owner's comments suggests below, a 4.5-hp. might be on the small side.) The bracket has a stem, which slides down into a molded hole near the bottom of the transom. Newer versions of the boat have a molded swim-step transom. This makes it easier to mount and unmount the outboard, as well as for swimmers to climb aboard.
The E-27 was ahead of her time. Many modern boats are built like her, and the heretical "light makes right" credo has become much closer to orthodoxy than it was in days of old. But take a look around at the one-designs that have come and gone since Alsberg sold his first 27-footer in 1982. Why have these 117 E-27s seen them come and seen them go? Materials and workmanship, certainly, but there's also the fact that Carl Schumacher didn't design spartan, crew-punishing boats, even if they were meant to be round-the-buoys or offshore one-design racers. He made accommodations that were actually sensible and comfortable, even in small boats, while never forgetting weight concerns. The secret was in knowing which shapes fit the body, which materials were both comfortable and lightweight, and in knowing what to put in and what to leave out. As a consequence, the Express 27 makes a good boat to sneak away on for a few hours or a weekend. It can act as a family boat, with more capabilities than a razor-edge racing boat, whose charm can wear thin very quickly. And family boats, even blisteringly fast ones, tend to have staying power.
Finally, there's the matter of money. In its last years of production in the late '80s, a new Express 27 cost $24,900. Today, 15 years or so later, the asking prices for the handful of used Express 27s we found on the E-27 owners' website averaged $18,400, with a low of $17,000 and a high of $22,000. We found no E-27s listed for sale elsewhere, and suspect that there's a fast turnaround when one of these boats comes up for sale.
Round the buoys racing (with an occasional offshore adventure) may not be everyone's formula for sailing bliss, but to those who want good competition, superior performance, and a quality sailboat that wears very well—and goes very fast—the E-27 is one of the better bargains available today.
The owners' website mentioned above, www.express27.org, is active and useful, with a message board, race schedules and results, and lots of useful data and photos.
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Click here to view "Express 27 Owners' Comments."