Balboa 26 Used Boat Test
Designed by Lyle Hess, this unsung, affordable pocket cruiser offers a big bang for the buck. Capable of trailering to windward and skimming through shallow water, it offers all the versatility of todayís trailer sailers at one-tenth of the price. The swing-keel hinge pin and rigging deserve a close look, however, and a cosmetic makeover can require some serious sweat equity.
As with all of Lyle Hessí designs, the Balboa 26 statistics reveal the underpinnings of a seaworthy coastal cruiser. The Balboaís 3,600-pound displacement includes 1,200 pounds of ballast, by no means a lead mine, but the B26ís 8-foot beam was carried well aft, and its reasonably full sections contributed form stability and helped make the little sloop a seakindly performer. With 293 square feet of working sail area, the B26 is close in potential performance to the Excalibur 26, Cal 25, and Columbia 26, all vaunted designs of the same era.
The Balboa 26 is a bargain-priced pocket cruiser thatís stood up well to the test of time. Even after three decades of use, these $4,000-$15,000 boats still remain a popular choice for those with a big dream and a small budget. Its swing keel, shallow draft, and ability to be trailered upwind to cruising destinations all over the country make it more versatile than your average 26-foot, plastic production boat.
Part of the mystique of the Balboa 26 is its birth on the drawing board of legendary pocket-cruiser designer Lyle Hess, whose love of small, functional cruising sailboats dates back to Blackfoot, Idaho, when a boy daydreamed of ocean sailing even though the Snake River was the only water in sight.
Finally arriving in Long Beach, Calif., in 1928, Hess and 11 siblings set out to carve a new life amidst a Southern California in transition. At 16, Hess designed and built a hard-chine, 17-foot, vest-pocket cruiser and explored Catalina Island with his brother, Lee. Boatbuilding proved to be a labor of love, but the housing boom associated with the end of World War II proved more lucrative. Lyle Hess dove in, spending the post war years as a family man, house builder, and part-time yacht designer.
The advent of fiberglass and collaboration with die-hard wooden boat aficionado Larry Pardey, moved Hess back into a full-time commitment to sailboat design. Pardey chose Hessí Renegade design as the boat heíd build and eventually sail with his partner, Lin.
At about the same time, Larry Pardey introduced Hess to Richard Arthur. Arthur saw him as the right designer to create a fiberglass "folk boat" in Southern California, and Arthur Marine kicked off production of the Hess-designed Balboa 20 and 26 in 1972. Their instant popularity lives on today.
A key part of the Hess design credo was that a sailboat must have the sea-keeping ability to take a crew offshore and return them home safely. As with all of his designs, the Balboa 26 statistics reveal the underpinnings of a seaworthy coastal cruiser. The Balboaís 3,600-pound displacement includes 1,200 pounds of ballast, by no means a lead mine, but the B26ís 8-foot beam was carried well aft, and its reasonably full sections contributed form stability and helped make the little sloop a seakindly performer. With 293 square feet of working sail area, the B26 is close in potential performance to the Excalibur 26, Cal 25, and Columbia 26, all vaunted designs of the same era. But with a swing keel, short rig, and retractable rudder that can morph 5 feet of draft into a 30-inch shoal water gunkholer, the Balboa 26 is both a skinny-water cruiser and a proficient coastal passage maker thatís capable on all points of sail.
A molded toerail and nonskid pattern works in conjunction with cabinhouse handrails and a single lifeline to help insure that the crew stays on board. The trade-off associated with spacious accommodations is a wide cabinhouse that all but eliminates the sidedecks. Cleats and chocks are small but adequate, and the cockpit works well for a couple. Put more than three aboard, and thereís a scramble to find deck space to alleviate the crowd in the cockpit.
The mast step features a hinge that helps in the stepping and un-stepping process, an essential part of the trailer sailorís routine.
The aft lower shrouds on these boats are set well inboard and fastened to a chainplate thatís attached to the cabinhouse. The acute angle between the shroud and mast increases the loading on the wire and hardware.
A close, point-by-point inspection of the standing rigging should be carried out annually, and care needs to be taken while stepping and un-stepping the rig to make sure that the turnbuckles are not bent during the process. Most riggers feel that a 10-year lifespan is about all they can recommend for average recreational use. Many older boats have standing rigging twice that age, and relying on such rigging is sailing on borrowed time. Itís a dangerous and costly wager to make. All it takes is for one small component to fail and the rig will end up over the side.
The layout aboard the Balboa 26 makes it a fine warm-weather boat, with a huge companionway hatch that opens up the interior and provides lots of light and air, a useful trait at anchor or sailing in light-air conditions. Shelter from sunlight can be provided by a convenient collapsible bimini top that arches over the cockpit and companionway. Itís ideal when at anchor, but when underway it can creates excess windage.
The saloon is surprisingly spacious for a 26-foot boat. A dinette to port converts into a big berth, and when the table is up, it works as a nav station, dining table, and an all-around good spot to hangout, read, or swap yarns with cruising friends. This portion of the cabin has the feel of a bigger boat, despite the swing keel slot, which is well hidden by a molded liner shell. Pans and liners are a mixed blessing in that they offer a smooth surface for cleaning and aesthetics, but they hide access to parts of the inner hull skin and bilge that makes the cleaning or re-bedding of leaking hardware fasteners more difficult.
The galley is minimal: a one- or two-burner, fixed stove; small sink with an ice box to port; and a locker for pots and pans to starboard. Itís basically enough space for a backpacker to feel pampered, but by no means an optimum set-up for those thinking of longer-term, comfortable cruises.
The same holds true of the head arrangement, which, in this era of discharge regulations, has evolved into a dedicated location for a port-a-potty. Its location adjacent to the V-berth offers ample motivation for frequent trips ashore, or at least a yearning for the days of a cedar bucket. Originally there was a marine head and a sink, but fitting a holding tank is tough. It still irks us that while the worst polluters can buy credits to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules, sailors—an easy target, it seems—will never be able to exchange hours spent under wind propulsion for an overboard discharge or two in remote, well-flushed bodies of water. Trying to put a holding tank in a small vessel with barely enough room for a 20-gallon water tank almost inevitably gives a boat the ambiance of an outhouse.
A couple of months ago, Practical Sailor had the chance to sail a 30-year-old Balboa 26 thatís still being used by the Florida Keys Bareboat Charter Co. (www.pagancharm.com) in its active charter trade in Marathon, Fla. The fact that this old vessel can still be counted on to perform day in and day out is a real testimony to good boat design/building and the value of a simple, easy-to-refit sailboat.
As we cleared the tight confines of the small marina using the transom-mounted 9.8-horsepower, long-shaft outboard, we were reminded that the ease of "going sailing" is inversely proportionate to the size of the boat.
The outboard auxiliary performed well, but maneuvering in reverse took some practice. It became easier once we were accustomed to having a prop situated astern of the rudder rather than ahead of the blade. As we motored away from the marina, it was clear that an 8- or 9-horsepower outboard provided plenty of push. In fact, those interested in saving some weight, money, and fuel could do just fine with a 6-horsepower, long-shaft model.
All it took was the removal of a few sail ties and an easy halyard hoist, and the manageable mainsail was up and trimmed. A tug on the leeward jib sheet spun open a big, 150-percent genoa that was tamed by a Harken headsail furling system. It was a butter-smooth operating furler that was easy to deploy and retrieve.
Less than five minutes after leaving the dock, we were fully powered and reaching smoothly through the turquoise water of the Florida Keys, watching a dolphin slip by in the shallow water.
The 15-knot puffs were fine on a reach, but when we trimmed and steered closer to the wind, it was clear that a little less genoa would decrease heel and actually improve the boatís ability to go to weather. We bore off, blanketed the genoa with the main in order to depower the sail and wind in a few turns on the furler. This reduced the genoa to about a 120-percent and made the beat more efficient, giving us a couple of tenths more boat speed with less heel. We had the swing keel almost all the way down, and the soft touch of the helm convinced us that the center of effort and center of lateral resistance were right where they belonged.
Off the wind, a cruising spinnaker would have livened up the show, but the big genoa did keep us moving efficiently until we steered deeper than about 135 degrees and the mainsail began to choke off the flow over the headsail. Rolling in some of the genoa and setting a whisker pole would be another good way to deal with deep sailing angles.
The boatís responsive helm made each tack quick and efficient. Line leads, winches, and cleats were in the right places and with the fairly new set of sails, the 30-year-old sloop offered 90 percent of the performance of most new pocket cruisers, yet carried a price tag less than 25 percent of a new boat price.
The down side of an older boat, especially one with a swing keel, is that there are usually plenty of little things to fix. When it comes to the Balboa 26, the swing keel should regularly get a close look. This includes pulling the swing keelís pivot pin every couple of seasons and inspecting it, as well as the surface that supports the load. The lift cable will eventually fray and will need replacement, along with the hand-crank winch used to hoist and lower the keel. Rigging wire and hardware may look fine, but after years—maybe decades—of use, it can be an accident waiting to happen. Any inspection of the standing rigging should also include a close look at the lifelines, stanchions, and pulpits.
Tackling the cosmetic refit of a three-decades-old sailboat is more about paint than polish. Gelcoat crazing, blisters, and cracks can be fixed with epoxy fillers and primers, and one- or two-part topcoat paints can yield a better-than-new finish if the applicatorís skills and availability are up to the challenge. Hiring a boatyard to do the job can cost more than the purchase price of the boat, so before you commit to a long-in-the-tooth Balboa 26 (or other oldie but goodie), determine three things: How extensive a refit is required; who will do the work; and how much it will cost. If your answers are, "entirely renew the finish on all exterior gelcoat, myself, and very little," and you have minimal painting experience, we suggest the following: Buy an old, tired dinghy, such as a small Dyer or Montgomery, and give it the makeover you have in mind for the B26. If, when youíre finished, you like what you see and you still enjoy the hands-on effort of the do-it-yourself approach, you are indeed ready for a bigger challenge. If you arenít as enthused with the idea, consider a B26 that costs more but has already made the pilgrimage to the co-polymer fountain of youth.
One big plus of the Balboa 26 is Hessí cult-like following, which has engendered active ownersí groups. Discussions range from traveler upgrades to great adventures of the sort that very few boats in this price range can offer.