Etap 21 Yacht Review

Issue: December 2003

The Etap 21 shown here is Peter’s seventh yacht. He and Lucy loved their Cavalier 37, but in the two months they have owned their Etap 21 they used it more often than they used the Cavalier in the last two years of owning the boat. Peter and Lucy are not ordinary sailors. Based on Sydney’s Pittwater, they figured that if they were being honest with themselves their holiday time would allow only limited cruising, as far afield as Port Stephens in the north and Jervis Bay in the south. 

For such trips they were happy to consider a small boat and were prepared to order from France a Pogo Mini-Transat 6.5m racer. The 15-month waiting time put them off and then they saw the Etap 21 ‘ which has a Mini Transat-style hull ‘ the decision was easy. There are two versions of the Etap, the fixed-keeler shown here and a trailable model. Like the Transat racers she has plenty of beam aft and twin rudders. 

Unlike them she has a modest rig (note the roach-free main and fixed backstays) and a neat and comfortable internal fit-out. Unlike them, too, she shares with the rest of the Etap range that unique virtue of being virtually unsinkable. There are other benefits. Peter reports that the foam-filled construction also makes the hull very quiet when sleeping aboard (the slop/slap of water on the thin hull of a small boat can make sleep difficult) and it also eliminates condensation. Peter is a design architect and he is a big fan of the Etap’s engineering detail. 

Note how the stanchions slot into the feet, which also support the tubular toerail. The shroud support struts in the cabin are exquisitely detailed, as are the rudder connecting linkages. The internal mouldings are superb; even the stowage areas are fully lined. Aluminium pads are moulded into the skins to take the loads of aftermarket deck fittings for, say, the asymmetric. 

The builders give you reference points so you know where to drill. A particularly nice touch is the reefing system. On the port side of the main the red reefing line runs through small blocks attached permanently to the sail, one each in luff and leech areas. This is the second reef. On the starboard side is a blue line (or was it green’) also runs through two small blocks; reefing should be fast and easy and winches are not needed. The auxiliary on Peter’s boat is a 5hp Yamaha with fine-pitch prop: ‘Plenty of power’, he said. The layout below does not need a lot of description, as it is open-plan with a vee-berth up front and quarter berths aft. There is a chemical toilet under the cushions forward. 

The cooker is a two-burner metho stove. The sink is connected to removable 10lt plastic jerrycans. Storage space is enhanced by two large removable fabric bags mounted on the hull sides; you can pack your gear at home, carry them on board and set in place for use. The tabletop can also be set in place in both the cabin and the cockpit, and stows away when not needed. As on the bigger Etaps, the mainsheet traveller bridge can be removed when the party get under way in the cockpit. 

The day before we sailed the Etap I had been out on a Beneteau 57, a very fine yacht with electric winches and a bow thruster and electric furlers and interfaced electronics. It is good to get things back into perspective on a boat like the Etap. The mainsail flicks up in a second, the mooring is dropped and off she sails. It takes the owner perhaps a minute to hank on and hoist the jib. At 1100kg the Etap is not race-boat light and she has a conservative rig, but she kicks up her heels and responds cheerfully to any change in wind strength. 

The twin rudders make the steering a bit heavier than a single setup would be, but the advantages quickly become obvious. We had a sea breeze, which ranged from zero to about 15 knots and back to zero in about 30 minutes. At one point there was no perceptible wind and the Etap started to circle. With the first breath of breeze the onlookers could sense on cheek, earlobes or neck the little boat snifffed the breeze and accelerated. 

As the wind builds she heels initially, then the cast-iron bulb keel stiffens her up. And just when you think you may need to reach for the traveller to ease a bit of pressure you realise that the leeward rudder is biting deep into the water and keeps the boat tracking straight. This is the most memorable aspect of the Etap’s behaviour; because the rudders are inclined to the vertical at rest (i.e. their lower tips are canted outwards) the leeward rudder is more or less vertical as the boat heels and it is also pushed deeper into the water as the leeward bilge submerges (and the windward rudder lifts clear.) As a result directional stability is exceptional, vital on short, light hulls, which can get out of sorts when tiller, mainsheet and the skipper’s brain get out of phase with sharp gusts and lulls. Handling the Etap is simple. 

The helmsman can step easily between tiller and mainsheet traveller in the course of a tack. There is a nice Spinlock sliding tiller extension, but with three sailing the skipper did not need to move too far outboard. It was easy to sit on the windward gunwale at quite high angles of heel. At quiet times the crew can stand in the companionway and reach all the control lines. But this Etap is more than just a small, light boat. It is a truly modern hull, short and beamy with twin rudders, and it has the potential for coastal cruising in the right hands. 

The owners of this boat, experienced cruising sailors, intend to do exactly that. People race boats like this ‘ admittedly more extreme (both the boat and the people) ‘ across the Atlantic. A German couple with a young son sailed an Etap 21 around the World. It took three years ‘ the son was two years old when the voyage started, five when it ended. No one is quite sure where they stowed everything. 

This is a delightful and refreshing boat to sail: ‘It gets you back to sailing again’, says Peter, back to the fundamentals. It is a reminder that the real joy of sailing lies in the undiluted responsiveness of a small, light boat. But it has the potential, whether you use it or not, to take you further than you might have thought practical in such a small craft. And because of the qualities of its foam filled hull, it will presumably also do its best to bring you home again. 

Words by Barry Tranter