The story of the Canadian Contessa begins with a man named Jack Martin, a former army engineer, a determined businessman and an innovator who watched for the latest trends and was quick to take advantage of them. He was Canada’s largest builder of steel truck bodies by the 1960s and he latched onto fibreglass when it came onto the scene. He was also a keen sailor. It was only natural for him to build fibreglass sailing boats alongside his fibreglass trucks and vans.
It was Jack Martin who brought the Contessa 26 to Canada in 1969 and made it one of the most popular sailing boats on the Great Lakes. He built 254 of them over the next 10 years before handing the company over to business professor Gary Bannister, who took the Canadian total to 352. “We tried for one a week,” said Martin’s son Roger, who ran the company in the late 1970s. “We never lacked for orders.”
The Canadian Contessa 26 was a popular boat right from the beginning, largely because of its excellent design, traditional sea-worthy character and high-quality build. True, they were expensive boats to build and to buy, but the owners often kept them for decades and were sorry to see them go.
Hundreds of Canadian Contessas are still sailing all over the world, 45 years after they were first built in Toronto. Tania Aebi was the brave (or naïve) 18-year-old girl who set off from a New York pier in 1985 and circumnavigated the world solo in Varuna, No. 324. Another American teenager, 19-year-old Brian Caldwell, followed her example 10 years later in Mai Miti Vavau, no. 148, laid down in Toronto in October, 1975. He sailed 27,000 solo miles in 16 months before returning home to Hawaii.
Other Canadian Contessas have sailed across the lakes and across the oceans to South America, to Europe, Polynesia and Australia. A quick check of the Canadian Contessa registry shows dozens of locally built Contessas in the Great Lakes, those huge freshwater seas that are a sailor’s paradise. Many Contessas have made their way down the North American coasts from the icey waters of Newfoundland and Alaska to Florida, California, the Caribbean and Mexico. A surprising number are registered in landlocked states, Minnesota, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Arizona and even Utah. My boat, Whimsy, No. 156, is moored in Toronto, 500 feet from its birthplace, but it has been to Bermuda and back, without me on board, not yet anyway.
Jack Martin was wandering around the Earls Court boat show in 1968 looking for a fibreglass boat to build as a sideline to his truck business when he spied a pretty little pocket cruiser on the Jeremy Rogers display. The Contessa 26 seemed the perfect boat for Lake Ontario, that giant inland sea with dozens of yacht clubs and thousands of keen sailors. It was a modern, improved derivative of the popular Folkboat and, most important, it was made of fibreglass, the material of the future. Martin was so impressed that he sought out Jeremy Rogers, struck a deal and ended up taking home a set of moulds with a complete boat inside. That boat became JJT No. 1, the first of 352 boats that were built in Canada over the next 21 years under the Contessa 26 and JJ Taylor 26 names.
With the moulds in hand, Martin looked for an established boat business where he could build and sell his new Contessas, preferably with a showroom, a chandlery and a dock to tie up his new boats. The solution was to buy JJ Taylor & Sons Ltd., a long-established boat builder that was located on the Toronto waterfront next door to his home sailing club, the National Yacht Club.
JJ Taylor was one of Canada’s most-famous boat builders with a long history of world-class racing boats, police launches, patrol boats and mahogany motor cruisers, the kind of boat with deckhands on the bow and martinis in the stern. They even made Martin’s 39-foot Rhodes, a classic 1930s sloop, long and skinny. But JJ Taylor specialized in wooden boats and the era of the wooden boat was over by the late 1960s. That was not a happy time for a conservative company with aging owners and little interest in new materials. It must have been a huge relief when the young and innovative Martin appeared on the scene with his scheme to buy the company and convert to fibreglass.
Martin needed a capable manager to run his plant and build the boats. He chose well, a good friend and a former rear-commodore of the National Yacht Club named Allan Nye Scott. He was a keen sailor, a charming man and extremely knowledgeable about boats and fibreglass. A chemist by training, Al Scott worked on epoxy resins for United Carbide for many years while racing his 1920s R-boats for pleasure. Scott jumped at the chance to get involved with boats full time. He bought a minority share in Martin’s boat company and was appointed president, moved into the manager’s quarters on the second floor of the JJ Taylor chandlery, converted the company to fibreglass and spent the next five years building Contessa 26s and later Contessa 32s. Roger Martin is quick to praise Scott for the success of the company. “A lot of the credit has to go to Al Scott,” he said, adding that he was behind most of the innovative ideas in the Canadian Contessa. “Father was the financial guy and the sounding board.”
Many of Scott’s ideas were tailored to suit local Canadian conditions. The sun shines more often than it does in England and the winds tend to be lighter during the mid-summer sailing season. After being cooped up for the winter, Canadians want to spend time outside in the cockpit, enjoying the sunshine while cooking on the barbeque. That meant that Scott could chuck the lazarette at the stern of the boat and use the extra space to lengthen the cockpit to a full seven feet for sunbathing or the family picnic.
He made many subtle changes to the rigging to reflect the lighter mid-summer winds. He lengthened the mast and the boom, and moved the forestay mount a foot further forward right up to the bow to suit the large genoas that Canadians tend to use. He moved the main-sheet traveller to the cabin roof in the first few boats, but the idea didn’t work out and he soon went back to the bridle arrangement at the stern. He experimented with plywood, balsa, aluminum sheet and synthetic core materials and, most significantly, he designed a one-piece moulded interior that could be dropped into the hull before attaching the deck. In a subtle change that few would think of, he removed 390 pounds of ballast because Canadian boats are designed for fresh water and ride a few inches lower in the water. As a final touch, he moved the remaining 2,300 pounds of ballast further back to re-balance the boat.
Perhaps the most obvious difference, and certainly the most controversial in certain circles, was the adoption of a five-pointed crown logo on the mainsail, replacing the familiar CO logo. The CO remained on the bow until it was replaced by the crown in 1984, the year the name of the boat was changed from Contessa 26 to JJ Taylor 26. That avoided a possible licensing dispute after the original Rogers’ company was sold to a new owner.
Martin did well with the company until 1979, first with Scott as manager and then with his son Roger. But it was time to move on. The original JJ Taylor plant had been torn down and the Contessas were being squeezed out by the booming truck business. That was when a longstanding friend of the Contessa happened to come by Martin’s truck plant looking to buy the boat.
Gary Bannisters’ love for the Contessa goes back a long way, to 1970 when he was working on his postgraduate economics degree and recently married. At the time, he just wanted a boat or the makings of one, never realizing that he would one day become primary owner and chief executive. As the story goes, nobody at the JJ Taylor plant liked the smell of fibreglass resin, so Scott would lay up his boats in the open air on the roof of the building. The staff were in a big hurry to go home one Friday night and neglected to tie down the bare Contessa hull they had just finished. The inevitable happened. A storm came up in the middle of the night and blew the hull right off the roof and down 20 feet to the yard below. The side of the boat was crushed but Bannister bought it anyway. He took the wreck of a boat to a nearby expert who promised to fix the damage, but that repairman was deep in debt and fighting off his creditors. The second inevitable happened. The bailiffs seized the boatyard and everything in it. Bannister and his wife Judith weren’t about to put up with that, so they sneaked into the barn very, very early one morning, loaded the hull onto a borrowed Lightning trailer and drove off as fast as they dared before anybody would notice. It was all perfectly legal Bannister owned the boat after all but it was an exciting start to Contessa ownership, so exciting that they are still talking about it 45 years later.
Bannister worked on that boat in his back yard for five years, and then sailed it for 10 years before selling it to a friend. “She was beautiful,” he said later, “as pretty as a picture.” It was an enduring relationship because he wound up buying the whole company and building 98 more of them.
The 1980s were challenging times for Bannister and the Canadian boat industry. By 1979, the Contessa 26 design was 13 years old and consumer tastes were changing. Full-keel pocket cruisers were no longer fashionable and buyers were looking for a roomier boat with fin keel, full head room, double bunks, more space below and all the modern gadgets, from refrigerators to hot running water, showers and even a decent chart table. It was hard to find more space in a boat that was only 7.5 feet wide, so Bannister concentrated on the one area that he could do something about, the cozy 5 ft 8 inch headroom. And so started a major redesign of the Contessa 26 in 1980 with hull no. 300.
The Bannister boats are clearly Contessas, instantly recognizable by their humped companionway, their transom rudder and their narrow hull. Under the water, they still have the full keel of the Rogers’ boats, but line a Rogers Contessa next to a Bannister boat and a dozen little differences begin to show up. None are very large, but they do produce a more comfortable, sleeker boat that is better suited to typical Canadian conditions.
Bannister lowered the cabin floor by two inches to address the headroom issue, added a second hatch over the galley, opened up the portholes and lengthened the companionway hump. He replaced the cast iron ballast with denser lead to lower the floor, he redesigned the deck and cabin moulds, and he added a handy anchor locker at the bow. He strengthened the rudder with a third pintle and a guard to make sure floating lines didn’t catch between keel and rudder and he experimented with an extra pintle at the bottom of the rudder to add strength and rigidity, an idea that didn’t work out.
The Bannister boats were highly regarded, but they couldn’t survive the serious downturn in the market in the late 1980s that wiped out most of the Canadian boat business. Nobody blames Bannister or JJ Taylor for the failure of the company because scores of other boat builders went under at the same time. “The market just dried up,” Bannister said. “The whole boat business went to hell in a hand-basket.” So he paid off his bills, locked the doors and walked away, never to return. As for the moulds and the tooling, nobody knows what happened to them. No doubt they were cut up by the landlord and thrown into a dumpster.
But JJ Taylor did leave on a good note. As a swan song, Bannister fabricated 14 friendly gargoyles that grace the corners of the local baseball stadium. As he said years later: “It was a fun last project for the company.”-30-
By Oliver Bertin
Owner of Whimsy, JJT 156