Southern Comfort

Albin Vega 27: she's modest, but plenty tough

A Review by John Vigor

This review is taken from a series of reviews of small seaworthy sailboats from John Vigor's book, Twenty Small Sailboats to Take You Anywhere.

In comparison

  • Safety-at-sea factor: 6 (Rated against the 19 other boats in the book, with 1 being the safest.)
  • Speed rating: Fast off the wind. Once holder of the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing.
  • Ocean comfort level: One or two adults in relative comfort; two adults and two kids in less comfort.

In short

  • Designer: Per Brohäll (1964)
  • LOA: 27 feet 1 inch
  • LWL: 23 feet 0 inches
  • Beam: 8 feet 0 inches
  • Draft: 3 feet 10 inches
  • Displacement: 5,070 pounds
  • Sail area: 341 square feet
  • Ballast: 2,017 pounds
  • Spars: Aluminum
  • Auxiliary: Conventional gasoline or diesel with variable-pitch propeller.
  • Designed as: Fast, light, ocean cruiser with berths for four adults.

You'd hardly guess by looking at one that the Albin Vega has earned herself a reputation for being an outstanding offshore cruiser. She's a modest-looking little fiberglass sloop, totally lacking the massive fittings, bowsprits, and laid teak decks that most people associate with real deep-sea boats. In fact, if you didn't know how tough she is, you might judge her to be rather frail. The slight reverse sheer gives her a humpbacked appearance from some angles (though not an unsightly one) but otherwise her general appearance is quite unremarkable.

Like so many of the world's seaworthy boats, the Albin Vega has Scandinavian origins. She was designed in Sweden in 1964 - the early days of fiberglass construction - by Per Brohäll, who obviously admired the long keel and skinny beam of the Folkboat. The Vega was given a short counter stern with an inboard rudder, however, instead of a transom and an outboard rudder, and her cabintop, raised in two sections, gave her more room below. Well over 3,000 Vegas were built in a production run that extended more than a decade, and thousands of them are now sailing all over the world.

Brohäll set out to design a boat that was light, fast, roomy, seaworthy, and relatively cheap. This was a seemingly impossible task because sailboat performance is the distilled essence of a series of compromises. What is seaworthy, for example, is not usually fast. What is roomy is not necessarily cheap. But Brohäll succeeded in producing one of those rare designs that exceeds most people's expectations in most areas. The one obvious thing the Vega lacks, in comparison with more modern designs, is space down below. But perhaps the comparison is unfortunate because modern designs deliberately sacrifice ultimate seaworthiness for interior space. The understanding is that today's roomy coastal cruisers will never need to fall back on the resources of seaworthiness an ocean voyager requires. Per Brohäll never had to make that compromise. From the outset, he aimed for seaworthiness.

It's the Vega's comparatively narrow beam of exactly 8 feet 0 inches that makes for snugness down below, of course. Nevertheless, the accommodations are comfortable for two adults on a long trip, and perhaps even for two adults and two children on a shorter vacation trip.

Basic Design

The Vega has a shallow hull with narrow beam and fairly hard bilges. Her keel is long, but not full-length, running for only about half the waterline length, from about the mast to the after end of the cockpit well. While there is more than sufficient length for good tracking, especially downwind in the trades, this keel reduces the surface area (and therefore friction) of the "traditional" deep-sea keel and helps the Vega perform better in light airs.

The rudder is attached to the aft end of the keel, but while this is a very strong way to support it, the rudder itself has revealed some weaknesses. There is no cutout in the rudder for the propeller, which, unusually, emerges from the deadwood under the counter but above the rudder.

The hull is solid fiberglass, said by the builder to be 3/8-inch thick at the sheerline and 1-inch thick at the base of the keel, but the deck and cabintop are cored fiberglass for lightness. It has been reported that you can press in the cabin sides with your bare hands. Of course because a panel flexes, it doesn't necessarily mean that it is too weak, but continual flexing will eventually cause fatigue and cracks, so in a boat intended for long passages at sea, you'd need to stiffen it with internal stringers or bolt on a large plywood or acrylic storm cover outside.

The caulked, internal flanges of the hull and deck are bolted together with 5/16-inch stainless steel bolts every 5 inches, which makes for a reassuringly strong joint and few leaks. The sheerline, as mentioned above, is reversed slightly to improve headroom below. It is actually almost a straight line from stern to bow, but the eye increases the humpback effect because it is trained to see a concave sheer in that spot. The bows, therefore, look lower than usual for the size of the boat and appear to lack buoyancy, but there is no evidence that such is the case.

The low topsides cut down on wind resistance, which means the coachroof must protrude more to provide adequate headroom below. Brohäll resisted the temptation to create a high, unsightly superstructure that would accommodate a standing 6-footer anywhere below. Instead, he placed a low cabin trunk over the head and the aft end of the V-berth, and then stepped it up another story to give 5 feet 10 inches of headroom in the main saloon and galley. The result is a fairly large superstructure, but one that blends pleasantly with the hull and avoids boxiness. The cockpit is self-bailing and small enough not to cause concern about pooping, but big enough for two people not to get in each other's way on long trips.

Early Vegas were powered by gasoline engines, the 13-horsepower Albin or the 15-horsepower Volvo. Later models carried Volvo diesel engines, including the 10-horsepower MD6A (which was generally thought not to have sufficient power) and the 13-horsepower MD7A.

But the really interesting thing about the Vega's power train was the Combi variable-pitch propeller, which was used without a transmission on the early boats. Even when transmissions were added at a later stage, the variable-pitch prop was retained. It was controlled by a single lever that changed the propeller pitch, from full astern to full ahead, without the need for a clutch. When the boat was under sail, the prop could be feathered for least resistance. It was reportedly a very efficient piece of machinery, but complicated and expensive to repair.

Accommodations

The Vega has comfortable bunks for four, two 6-footers and two of 6 feet 6 inches, but it would be a mistake to plan on long ocean crossings with four adults. Two would be plenty.

The accommodation layout is logical for a boat with a 23-foot waterline, starting with a chain locker up forward, followed by a V-berth and a toilet just forward of the main bulkhead. The head faces a hanging locker on the other side of the gangway and can be closed off from the main cabin, but remains open to the V-berth.

Aft of the main bulkhead are transom berths to port and starboard, the starboard one being 6 inches longer than the port one. The table between the berths fits into sockets in the cabin sole, so it can be yanked out and stowed - or dropped into similar sockets in the cockpit for sunset drinks and snacks.

At the after end of the cabin, under the sliding hatch, the galley divides itself into two portions, one each side of the companionway steps/engine cover. The cooker lives on the port side, and a sink and icebox on the starboard side.

Cubbyholes and lockers in the galley and the main cabin provide ample stowage space for gear and provisions for two people on an extended voyage.

As usual in a boat of this size, there is no dedicated chart table, and the cabin table supplied with the boat is unlikely to be steady enough for serious navigation business in a seaway. But a removable or fold-down plywood table could be made easily enough to fit over one end of a berth or over the icebox/sink area.

All the deadlights are fixed in place with rubber gaskets, which means you can't open them, so it wouldn't be a bad idea to add a couple of Dorade ventilators, although the existing ventilation system works better than most. If you're heading for the tropics, you'll need all the ventilation you can get.

The Rig

The Vega's rig is entirely conventional and easily handled. This masthead sloop has single spreaders and two lower shrouds on each side.

The mast and boom are aluminum, and neither is of excessive proportions, but the mast is stepped on deck, which brings problems in time because few designers or builders ever manage to compensate adequately for the enormous downward thrust a mast produces. The best way to transfer that thrust is to carry the mast down to the keel, but on narrow-gutted boats like this one it gets in the way so much down below that most buyers won't tolerate it. When it comes time to make repairs, however, they may live to regret it. We'll go into this a little deeper in a bit.

The main boom is quite short, yet the mainsheet traveler can still be placed aft of the rudder head, so the sheet is at the helmsman's fingertips. Single winches on the cockpit coamings can handle everything from the spitfire jib to a 150 percent genoa.

Performance

Initially tender, the Vega stiffens up at moderate angles of heel, and despite her shallow draft she works reasonably well to windward.

She is very handy indeed off the wind. A Vega called Little My III crossed the Atlantic from the Cape Verde Islands to Barbados in 14 days, 16 hours. Richard Henderson, commenting on the trip in his book Singlehanded Sailing (International Marine), says: "She reportedly surfed in the trade winds at speeds up to 13 knots, yet was dry, comfortable, and easily managed. Her excellent downwind behavior might be attributed to her well-balanced hull with flattish run, modest displacement, and moderately long full keel."

Her working sail area, while correctly proportioned for an ocean cruiser, is too modest to give her scintillating performance in light air, so it would be wise to carry a large nylon drifter and/or an asymmetrical cruising spinnaker if you're not planning to motor through the doldrums.

In general she has a reputation for being extremely well behaved, being easy to steer and staying under control even when hard pressed.

Known weaknesses

Here's what to watch for if you're contemplating buying an Albin Vega with ocean cruising in mind:

  • Weakness of the rudder. There seems to be a problem with the design and/or engineering of the rudder. John Neal, who sailed the Vega Mahina 14,000 miles in the South Pacific in the 1970s, lost his rudder while hove to in a storm. Check the fittings, particularly the heel fitting, and test the rudder for movement while the tiller is held firmly in place. (Ed - I have never heard of any other occurance of this problem.)
  • Oilcanning of the decks or cabin sides. The former may indicate delamination due to saturation of the core, the latter lack of stiffening stringers. (Ed - Again, I have not heard of this problem.)
  • Lack of control in reverse gear. The unusual situation of the propeller, aft of the rudder, seems to create difficulties with steering the Vega when she's in reverse gear. She will need to be moving astern at a fairly rapid clip before the rudder takes effect, and while she's building up speed there's no knowing where she might go. Probably it will depend on the direction of the wind - it often happens (not only to Vegas) that a boat going astern will weathercock downwind, that is, pivot from the propeller and point her bow downwind; and nothing you can do will prevent it. It's just a question of experimenting and getting to know your boat. It's not a serious flaw. Vegas don't spend much of their lives in reverse gear. (Ed = As with all long-keeled yachts, practice makes perfect.)
  • Compression of the deck and bulkhead beneath the mast. In Log of the Mahina, John Neal's story of his adventures in a Vega in the South Pacific, he tells how he discovered damage to the main load-bearing bulkhead. One of the two supports on the bulkhead had broken away and destroyed a 3/8-inch stainless steel bolt. The support had punched through the fiberglass cabin sole. Furthermore, the port side of the bulkhead had started a nasty warp at the top. Check the overhead beams that transfer the thrust of the mast to the bulkhead supports. They need to be much stronger than many builders make them. Check also the glue and mechanical bonds between the supports and the bulkhead. And be sure that the massive downward load from the bulkhead is properly transferred from the fiberglass cabin sole to the hull of the boat. (Ed - There have been many words about this "problem". Easy to strengthen, if needed, but many others state that it is caused by the rigging being too tight. Personally I have seen two Vegas with this so-called problem and both were rectified.)

Owner's Opinion

Tom Currier, a software engineer in Pembroke, New Hampshire, got to know Albin Vegas well when he used to deliver them around the coast for his father, who had an Albin dealership. But he got to know them even better after buying his own Vegas. He owned two - Resande and Skidbladnir (Little Liferaft) - for a total of seven years.

He has owned other boats and sailed on many more, but his opinion after all those years of experience with the Albin Vega was very firm: "Out of any cruising boat I've ever owned, she has the best sailing characteristics. She's a sweet boat, fast, and well balanced. She has no weather helm; you can always balance her with the sails alone. She also points amazingly well."

He said his Vegas felt stiff after an initial 10 or 15 degrees of heel, and didn't need a reduction in sail area until the wind got over 20 knots.

In 40-knot winds, with 12-foot seas, he found the Vega easy to handle under a storm jib and rolled-down main. "She just kept sailing," he said. "She's a very solid boat - though she was very wet, of course."

The engines in his boats were a Westerbeke 13 and a Yanmar 9 diesel. He found that the Westerbeke was a bit bulky and difficult to get to. The Yanmar was smaller, lighter, and easier to maintain. "It was plenty powerful enough."

Currier asserted that the variable-pitch propeller was very good when new - he loved it - but it wore out with age and was hard to get parts for. As people replaced the engines, they also replaced the variable-pitch setup with standard shafts and transmissions. (Ed - With the replacement of either the Albin Petrol or Volvo Diesel with the Beta Twin Diesel most of the above problems have been negated - An easy replacement)

He didn't think the cockpit was too big for safe deep-sea work. "I thought it was a perfect size, and its outstanding feature was the high coamings - they kept things inside the boat. There were good drains, and if you plugged them up you could take a bath in the cockpit."

Neither of the Vegas he owned ever had any problems with osmosis or delamination, and he never noticed any flexing of panels. "If somebody experienced oilcanning, it might have been the result of an inadequate repair job," he surmised.

As far as the mast compression problem goes, he felt the best solution was to fit a solid post from beneath the mast step to the keel.

"It's fairly evident when this problem crops up," he said. "I know some owners who have fitted compression posts and cured the problem. You can still get around the post."

For extended ocean voyaging, he'd recommend complete system rebuilds for the electrical wiring and the rigging, both standing and running. "None of which is a very big deal," he added.

Another Owner's Comments

This extract has been reproduced with kind permission of Good Old Boat Magazine, a Classic Boat magazine from the USA.

When we contacted Timothy Gill with our request for information on the Vega, he said, "You have struck the jackpot." He told us he "bought a time capsule from 30 years ago" when he purchased Kelva. She had previously had only one owner, and all original brochures and manuals came with the sale. The boat was in original condition inside and out and only had 247 nautical miles on the log and 14 hours on the original Albin gas engine. Some of Timothy's comments are from a letter which accompanied the drawings which we reproduce here:

"There are a couple of facts concerning the Vega that I thought may be of interest to your readers. One being the strange bow pulpit configuration. A lot of people would believe that it is made as such to accommodate the mast when lowered; but actually, being a Swedish boat, it was designed to accommodate the rugged coastline of the North Sea in Sweden when mooring bow to the coastline. It's actually a step-through for this purpose." Another fact that I thought was really interesting is the offshore capability of the Vega. Numerous ocean crossings have been made, including of course John Neal's South Pacific voyage and the Atlantic Circle voyage done by Jonny Birkelund in 1997. Birkelund's voyage was from Norway down the west coast of Europe to the Canaries then south across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back up the east coast of the U.S. and across the North Atlantic to Norway. All the miles were done single-handed with very little difficulty".

All this speaks for the strength and integrity of the Vega and its hull. Larsson Marine took great care in the layup of its hulls. The fiberglass was used in a translucent fashion so the builders could actually see through it and be assured that there were no voids in the layup.

"(On my boat) the 'dreaded' Combi-Unit has worked flawlessly. It combines the throttle and the propeller pitch into one function, which works wonderfully when picking up a mooring. The boat is a bit tender. However it stiffens up nicely at 15 degrees of heel. It is also quite a dry boat, even in rough conditions, partially due to high coamings in the cockpit. All in all, the Vega is affordable enough to be a great starter boat, but tough enough to take the oceans. It's a boat that I know I won't soon outgrow."