Maybe this has happened to you: You’re on a country road, driving to a wedding (or family vacation or business conference), and you pass a sailboat on a trailer with a “For Sale” sign. It’s not a big boat. It’s not a small boat. But it’s just about right for launching a small adventure with your young family, or maybe you’re looking to downsize. You can’t resist stopping for a closer look. Incredibly, the sign reads “$600,” including a nearly new trailer and an old 4-horsepower, two-stroke outboard that “runs like a top.” You write down the number and drive away, thinking: “Somebody is giving away a perfectly good boat.”
Chances are that “steal of a deal” is a Roger MacGregor-designed Venture 21, and if not, it’s probably one of the many copycats riding the trailer-sailer boom that MacGregor’s little boat ignited. The Catalina 22, the Santana 21, and the San Juan 21 are just some of the boats that followed closely in the wake of the Venture 21’s introduction.
The concept for the Venture 21 came out of MacGregor’s master’s thesis in the Stanford University MBA program. The first hull was introduced in 1965, but full-fledged production didn’t begin until 1967. Several thousand hulls later, the last MacGregor 21 (the boat was renamed in 1980) rolled off the line in 1986 at the MacGregor factory in Costa Mesa, Calif. Today, with some 36,000 sailboat hulls behind it, the company builds just one boat, the hybrid sailboat/powerboat MacGregor 26x.
Although MacGregor sold fewer Venture 21s than its successor—the Venture 22, which later became the pop-top Venture 22-2—the 21’s easy trailerability and affordable price helped it maintain its popularity throughout the 1970s. Capitalizing on the fiberglass revolution in boatbuilding, MacGregor’s business-school project sparked a pivotal marketing shift that helped bring recreational sailing to mainstream America.
While the trailer-sailer boom is far behind us, the Venture 21 and its many look-alikes have renewed relevance today. With their discretionary spending sharply cut, younger sailors are taking the Craigslist-route into sailing, scouring the classified ads for boats that don’t require dock space but still have room for a family sail. Meanwhile, many owners of 30-plus-footers are considering downsizing to a boat that doesn’t require mooring fees and a hefty maintenance bill each spring. For better or for worse, in the dim light of a recession, a back-to-basics giveaway boat on the roadside begins to look awfully enticing. For these and other reasons, PS decided to take a closer look at the Venture 21, which, in many ways, is the epitome of “the boat with a price I couldn’t refuse.”
The Venture 21 was designed to be affordable, easy to trailer and launch, and fun to sail, with enough room below for storing gear, napping, or even spending a night at anchor. It was principally aimed at new sailors, but it also appealed to those who wanted to step up from an open daysailer. Its size, sail area, and hull design were tailored for lakes and bays with fickle breezes of less than 15 knots.
Seaworthiness and performance were important considerations but pragmatism and aesthetic appeal were the driving force behind its design features.
Although the boat’s low headroom and Spartan interior would not qualify it as a weekender today, it was initially marketed as a “cruising” sailboat. A sleep-aboard sailboat that could be hauled around the country behind the family station wagon seemed perfectly in tune with the wanderlust of the 1960s.
While the Venture 21 is regarded as one of the first modern trailer-sailers, no single design element stands out as particularly revolutionary or unique. Instead, MacGregor incorporated proven features that would not only appeal to serious sailors, but also would remain consistent with the public perception of what a good boat should be and look like. In the yacht market, the Cruising Club of America boats were still the aesthetic model. Carl Alberg’s popular Ensign, launched by Pearson in 1962, is a good example of a small boat that clung to the CCA philosophy and aesthetic.
The Venture’s heritage is more closely aligned with two daysailers that were enjoying a surge of popularity on the East Coast in the early 1960s: the 17-foot Day Sailer, designed by George O’Day and Uffa Fox in 1958, and, to a lesser degree, the Phillip Rhodes-designed Rhodes 19, first offered by O’Day in 1959. Both were built by the nascent O’Day Group of Fall River, Mass. The similarities in the three boats are most apparent above the waterline. All have a relatively flat sheer line and spoon-like bow overhang (or spoonbow), elements that predate the modern yachting era.
While the Rhodes 19 still carries fairly deep V-sections well aft, making it a capable performer in the chop typical of its New England home waters, the Day Sailer flattens out, particularly at the stern, giving it fast, near-planing speeds off the wind. Fox and O’Day later refined this feature, earning Fox a reputation as the innovator of the planing dinghy. With a modest V-shape and a relatively fine bow, the Venture 21 lies somewhere between the two Rhodes 19 and the Day Sailer.
The Venture’s swing keel gives it 5 feet, 6 inches of draft—even more than its popular big brother, the Venture 25—and retracts to allow the boat to float in about 15 inches of water. (The brochure says 12 inches.)
Although the original design called for a fractional rig with a 22-foot mast, this was later changed to a masthead rig, giving it quite a bit of horsepower for its era. At the peak of its production in the late 1970s, the Venture 21 enjoyed popularity as a racing boat, with fleets springing up on the Gulf Coast, the Great Lakes, and the Northeast, as well as its home waters of Southern California. Although some owners have gone to the trouble of re-routing running rigging, fairing the keel, adding travelers and vangs, and replacing the pinned turnbuckles with threaded turnbuckles, we’d encourage someone inclined toward performance to look at a more modern hull with an active racing fleet.
One of the most notable features is the boat’s 7-foot cockpit, as big as that found in the much larger and heavier Catalina 22. However, unlike the Catalina 22, the San Juan 21, and the successively longer Ventures (V-22, V-23, V-25) that widened the cabintop to provide more interior space, the Venture 21 preserves enough sidedeck for crew to move forward . . . with care. Many V-21s, like the one we sailed, never had lifelines; others have had their lifelines removed. The standard single lifelines—low and poorly supported by widely spaced stanchions—offer a modicum of safety, but these are still less than ideal. In our view, lifelines are not a deal-breaker on a 21-foot daysailer, but if you have small children, a boat that is equipped with lifelines with a supporting pushpit and pulpit would be preferable.
The cockpit has a small lazarette, presumably to store fuel for the small bracket-mounted outboard, but this leads directly to the bilge, a bad idea that presents a potential fire risk. The original boats came equipped with top-grinding winches with short T-tracks for the jib. The boat we sailed had only a single fixed-point for the jib sheet. The end-of-boom mainsheet has a 4:1 purchase that spreads the load to each corner of the stern, a basic setup that limits trim options. Some owners modified the leads and added a mainsheet traveler, although this entails either raising the traveler over the tiller, or moving the sheet forward on the boom; both are compromise solutions.
A modest 18- by 18-inch fiberglass bow hatch allows ventilation down below, as well as a place for sails to be passed down. There is no anchor locker or chain pipe. The boat we sailed had an 8-inch diameter screw-on PVC deck plate that was apparently used as a chain pipe.
Overall, the deck has a functional layout, fine for its primary mission, which is to enjoy some time on the water with very little hassle.
The biggest drawback to the Venture 21’s emphasis on trailerability and a 1960s aesthetic is the lack of headroom below. By keeping the cabintop and topsides profile low, MacGregor produced a boat that, in our view, is better looking than the slab-sided models that followed. However, the end result is a very cramped interior. The VW-camper-inspired pop-top on the Venture 22-2, which came shortly after the Venture 21, offered a compromise that was adopted by a number of boats in this size range. Gradually, the intrinsic appeal of a low profile gave way to market demands. (MacGregor’s current and only model, the M26x, is a classic example of the wedding cake look that eschews traditional aesthetics for the sake of comfort below.)
With two quarter berths and a V-berth, the Venture 21 technically could sleep four, but this sort of arrangement probably would be brief and acrimonious. Although you could pack a lot of gear under the cockpit, actual locker storage is limited. Some ambitious owners have added sinks, small galleys, 12-volt systems, and port-a-potties below, but the boat’s cramped headroom restricts its suitability for more than a few days of cruising. For the 20-something adventurer with aspirations of camp-cruising on one of America’s many inland lakes, it will do just fine, but more than a couple of days aboard a boat this size will be a sure test of any marriage.
During the Venture 21’s 15-year production run, from 1965-1980, the materials and construction methods used for its deck, rig, structural components, and keel went through several changes. Construction of the hull itself, however, remained virtually unchanged. The hull was hand laid up with woven roven and mat. The layup schedule was a single unit of alternating mat and woven roven. Owners do report flexing in some spots, although we noted none on the boat we tested. The early boats are fairly resin rich, so hull thickness is not necessarily a reflection of strength.
The earliest Ventures had a stick-built interior, with bulkheads and bunks made of resin-coated cuts of plywood that were laminated in place. These earlier versions make it easier for owners to modify or rebuild an interior, and this is almost an inevitable project, given plywood’s propensity to rot and delaminate.
By the mid-1970s, MacGregor switched to a molded liner, which accelerated production and eliminated issues of rot, but added about 200 pounds to the total weight. Large sections of the boat are enclosed and filled with foam—a touted safety feature—but it is nonsense to consider the boat unsinkable, as some websites and blog posts suggest.
About 50 V-21s featured lead keels. The poured lead was anchored to a steel beam, and the entire construction sheathed in fiberglass. This process was not only expensive, but it also presented significant corrosion problems, as water eventually migrated into the fiberglass-encased keel.
Most models have solid iron keels; corrosion, however, is still a problem with these keels, but they can be removed, ground-down, faired, and sealed with an epoxy barrier coat to provide many more years of service. This is the biggest “problem” with the Venture 21, and any buyer should take a close look at the keel and the related components.
The original deck was plywood core, but this was later changed to balsa. In either case, rot is a potential problem (particularly in areas of the owner-installed deck hardware), but none of the 14 owners of Venture 21s who participated in our survey reported significant problems with deck rot.
The hull-to-deck joint was initially a bolted and adhesive-bonded shoebox joint, in which the lip of the deck flange fits over the hull just like a shoebox lid. This was later modified to an outward turning flange joint, with the hull lip turning outward to present a horizontal bonding surface for the deck. In both cases, the joint was bonded with a polyurethane adhesive sealant such as 3M 5200, bolted together, and then covered with an extruded aluminum and vinyl rubrail. Neither joint is as rugged as an inward-turning flange, but this is method is typical for a boat of this size.
Early versions of the Venture 21 were fractional rigs, but the majority were masthead rigs with overlapping jibs. An off-center backstay and upper and lower shrouds add support to the 22-foot mast. Early boats, like the 1969 model that we test sailed, did not have spreaders on the upper shrouds. In windy areas, where mast pumping is a noticeable problem, retrofitting spreaders—or looking for a more suitable boat—would be a good idea. The chainplates are through-bolted to the hull, eliminating the typically rot-prone attachment to plywood bulkheads found in some larger boats of this vintage. The original turnbuckles are the fixed-adjustment type that allow 1/8-inch adjustment intervals, making it hard to tune the rig at sea, but impossible to over-tighten, a common novice error.
The two biggest problems cited in our owners’ survey were the hand-crank keel winch and the keel-retaining bolt. Although the keel winches on later MacGregor models are braked mechanisms that will not spin freely under load, the one on the Venture 21 is a common ratchet-type trailer winch. If it is let go under load, the handle can whip around dangerously. Many owners have replaced this with a braked winch—a good idea, although these winches will require more maintenance. The keel-retaining bolt is a 3/8-inch diameter bolt that is slipped through a hole in the centerboard trunk and a corresponding hole in the keel. It is used to lock the keel in place when sailing in deep water, preventing the keel from flopping back into the hull should the boat capsize or surf down the face of a wave. The retaining bolts are commonly bent during a grounding, and any boat with a bent one should be inspected closely around the hull and keel trunk for other signs of damage.
Overall, the construction is light, but adequate for the boat’s designed purposes. If the deck isn’t too rotten, and the swing keel and keel box aren’t shot, most any other potential problem on the Venture 21 is easily remedied by someone who is handy and has the time.
During its heyday, the Venture 21 was promoted for it speed. MacGregor touted its position as the first of the “hot retracting keel boats” and the “fastest of its type,” with “planing speeds at over 16 miles per hour.” In this age of ultra-light monohulls and multihulls with eye-popping sail area (see PS, September 2009 and May 2010), this sort of hype seems quaint, but if you compare the Venture 21 to other boats of its era, it is clearly no slouch (See “Venture 21 in Context,” page 11). Its sail area/displacement ratio puts it ahead of several contenders, and its hull form—as mentioned—does give it an ability to hit double-digit speeds in the right hands.
The boat we test sailed was handicapped by ancient sails and an outboard that could not be fully tilted out of the water. Although the boat had a masthead rig, the headsail was a fractional working jib. A 140-percent genoa, found on many boats, would have added about 25 percent to the total sail area. To windward, the boat tacked smartly through 90 degrees, although we’d expect a boat with good sails to point higher. The boat was initially tender on the wind, but once the full effect of the 400-pound keel exerted its influence, the boat settled into a comfortable heel. Despite the deep bellies in her sails, the boat handled gusts surprisingly well, and by adjusting the swing keel’s depth, testers could easily achieve a balanced helm. Off the wind in 12 to 15 knots of breeze, we were able to sustain speeds of 7 knots under working sails alone with the keel almost fully retracted. While not wind-in-your hair sailing by today’s standards, it meets our definition of fun.
After spending some time aboard the Venture 21, we were reminded how much and how little has changed since the boat was introduced more than 40 years ago. Most comparable modern “weekenders” with big cockpits and modest cabins, like the Precision 21 or Catalina Capris 22, offer much more in terms of safety, systems (limited as they are), and modern conveniences. And entry-level daysailers like the thermo-molded Hunter 216 offer more in terms of performance options, such as a sprit for the asymmetrical sail and rigging conveniences like a hydraulic lifting keel. If true small-boat performance with a potential for one-design racing is what you’re after, then a boat like the J/22 presents a more sensible choice.
While overall construction quality has improved over the past 40 years, most daysailer hulls (the Hunter 216 and the balsa-cored J/22 excepted) are still solid fiberglass and laid up by hand, an economical and forgiving method. Many daysailers with cabins are actually much heavier than the lightly built V-21, but they also have much better finish quality.
The bottom line with the Venture 21 is the bottom line. If you hunt around long enough, you are likely to pick up a sailaway boat with a trailer and outboard for less than $3,000—about the cost of a new trailer. The boat we sailed sold for far less, including the trailer and 4-horsepower Evinrude. If you are really patient, you can probably find a fixer-upper that someone will give to if you promise to drag it off their property.
Is this 40-year-old, mass-produced boat still a viable option for the entry-level sailor, or someone looking to downsize? No question about it. The Venture 21 is not a boat we’d recommend for someone with offshore aspirations or in places like San Francisco Bay where heavy air and a stiff chop would render it wet, slow, and uncomfortable. However, if you plan some coastal or lake adventures and are limited by a 2,000-pound tow capacity and a recession-era budget, then the Venture 21 definitely deserves a look.
There is one key caveat: Because it is easy to underestimate the amount of work required to revive barn-found boat, we would strongly urge looking for a Venture 21 that is in sailaway condition, rather than a project boat. Dealing with the iron keel alone can be a time-consuming project, and despite the boat’s interesting history, this adds little or no to resale value. On the good side, however, should you decide to embark on the restoration of a Venture 21, you will not be alone. Plenty have done it before, and given the boat’s irresistibly low price tag, more will surely follow in their wake.