In 1980 Santa Cruz was well on its way to becoming mecca to the pilgrims of ULDB racing. At six years of age the Moore 24 was the stalwart of the production genre, the Santa Cruz 27 faithful were busy surfing those indestructible boats into the record books, and the rapierlike Olson 30 was nearing the pinnacle of its popularity. Cementing the ultralight displacement boat's niche in the great scheme of things was Merlin, Bill Lee's three-year-old and already legendary 67-footer, whose 1977 Transpac record crossing of 8 days, 11 hours has yet to be broken.
In the opinion of fledgling boatbuilder Terry Alsberg, however, the ideal production ULDB had yet to be built. "I saw the need for a boat in between the Olson 30 and the Moore 24," says Terry, whose apprenticeship at Moore Sailboats taught him how to build quality sailboats. "I felt the Olson was kind of a small, big boat. It had more of a big boat feel--you need a grinder and tailer on the winches and a large person for the foredeck. The Moore 24, while more nimble and easy to sail, I thought was a bit small for offshore racing. What I was basically looking for was the ultimate weekend warrior's boat--a boat for the Bay or ocean with the room and comfort of an Olson 30 and the performance and ease of handling of a Moore 24." Terry and his entrepreneur brother, Peter, commissioned Carl Schumacher to design the boat.
"We started off with the idea of building a boat the same weight as a Moore 24, but two feet longer," says the Alameda-based Schumacher. "But we eventually decided on the largest possible boat that could use a (single speed) Barient 10 for the jib winch, which turned out to be 27 feet." Once that was determined, other design parameters began to fall into place: large V-berth, deck-stepped mast and its attendant subdeck support structures, chart table and simple galley counter, comfortable seating for four, 6 1/2 feet of cockpit to allow sleeping--and enough room on the back for an aluminum lawn chair.
Influences for the design came from many quarters. The Moore 24's lines; Carl's years of sailing Santa Cruz 27's (which were ceasing production about that time); and the design philosophies of L. Francis Herreschoff were a few of the more significant ones. What he eventually came up with was a 27'3" fin-keeled sloop with V-sections at the turn of the bilge to improve stability, a fullness forward to prevent submarining and an oversize rudder to keep the whole package under control on all points of sail. The 9/10 rig carried a jib and sheet winch (production boats went with Lewmar winches) the same size as the Moore 24, which made it so a person with sub-gorilla upper body strength could efficiently work the foredeck. With its 8-foot beam and 2,450-lb displacement (about 400 lbs more than a Moore 24), the boat was easily and legally trailerable with a small car, and two people could easily raise and lower the mast. "I was really pleased with how it turned out," says Schumacher.
So were the Alsberg brothers. In its sea trials, the prototype--the wooden-hulled #0 from which the mold was made is still sailing out of Stockton--fulfilled its promise in every respect. After going through about 100 different names, Terry finally decided on one that connotes "the fastest means possible." He called the new boat the Express 27.
Hull #1, Jr. Morgan's Voojum, was launched in July of 1982 and the class has been growing at the rate of about two boats a month ever since. Actually, "growing steadily" doesn't quite do the Express 27 phenomenon justice. Judging from the comments of owners and crew, the following the boat has developed in four short years borders on a new religious cult. People are almost fanatical in their praise of everything from performance and ease of handling to the class organization and finish of the boat, and with good reason. Constructed to the ABS (American Bureau of Shipping) scantling rule, the Alsberg brothers use vacuum bagging and vinyl-ester resin to lay up the foam and balsa-cored hull. Vinyl-ester, said to be dramatically stronger and much more elastic than polyester resin, has lived up to expectations in the Express boats. Gary Clifford (hull #3) has done about every ocean race going in the last four years, and there is not so much as one stress crack anywhere on his boat. This commitment to quality construction makes for a little more expensive boat--a sail-away Express 27 runs in the ,000 range--but one that holds its resale value well.
The boat's performance record over those four years speaks for itself: winner 1984 Pacific Cup (San Francisco to Hawaii); winner 1985 MORA San Francisco to San Diego Race; winner Rolex Cup, 1985 Antigua Race Week; and the list goes on and on. Says one enthusiast, "It is one of the few one designs that can be sailed by non-rock stars and at the same time be competitive under any handicap rule with any other boat." Beyond handicaps, almost everyone who has sailed an Express has at least one story of how they kept up with or overtook bigger boats, often many times bigger. During Antigua Race week, an Express beat the 81-ft maxi Kialoa boat for boat on one race. In last year's Pacific Cup, Gary Clifford remembers being only a couple of hours behind Merlin after four days at sea. Clifford, who often calls the shots from a lawn chair duct-taped to the stern pulpit, says Light 'n Up's speedo doesn't register above 12 "because the sensor comes out of the water about then," but Merlin was reporting 25's and 27's "so we must have been doing that at least." Their best day's run on the 11-day crossing was 320 miles, which meant they averaged 13 knots for 24 hours. That wouldn't be a bad showing for a 60-footer, let alone a boat with under 24 feet of waterline!
While the prospect of scudding across the Pacific at such speeds--especially at night--might prickle the hairs on the backs of most of our necks, Express 27 owners take it all in stride. The hull design and that big rudder make for easy control on a plane. As Mik Beatie found out the first time he raced Beth!, however, the sensation takes a little getting used to.
"On our first Bay race the wind was really blowing as we rounded the weather mark on the Berkeley Circle. I didn't want to blow the brand new 3/4-ounce chute to ribbons, so I was all ready to just pole out the jib. Bill Clute and Donny Anderson, who had been sailing Expresses for a while, were aboard though. They said, 'You just hang onto that stick,' so up went the spinnaker. That boat accelerated like death on wheels. I thought we were going to keep right on going up University Avenue. For the first couple minutes it was sheer terror, but then I realized that here we were, doing about 13, and that boat was totally under control. It was a real eye opener."
So is the boat's upwind performance. Paula Blasier feels the 27's most remarkable performance is in very light or very heavy winds, and that contrary to what some people might think, they go to weather with the best of them. Nowhere, she says, were these qualities more evident than during the recent Coyote Point race where 30-know winds and a contrary tide combined to do a real Cuisinart job on most of the competitors. While many of the boats were barely under control, says Paula, "the Express 27s were charging along like little soldiers. They might as well have been IOR battlewagons."
Beyond racing, though, beyond even the class organization and camaraderie, Expressophiles are enamored of the boat for itself. "My personal idea of a successful sailboat design," says sailmaker and Express 27 sailor Kame Richards, "is that, when you're out sailing on the Bay by yourself, and there are no other boats around--and you're still having fun--then it's a good design. All the rest is just icing on the cake."
Normal crew complement averages five, says fleet captain Don Baker, although some boats go with four and he often carries as many as seven. Don's wife Valerie, who does foredeck on Salty Hotel, is one of many women who enjoy the manageable rig on the boat. There are currently close to 20 boats in the local fleet, about a dozen of which actively race in the class' 13-race, three-throwout series. Other active fleets are in Tahoe, Los Angeles, Texas, and of course Santa Cruz. The boat is fast gaining a following on the east coast. The fleet also has a national championship, held this year in Ft. Worth, and enjoys a large midwinters participation--as many as 20 boats--here on the Bay. "When Tahoe freezes and Santa Cruz silts in," says Kame Richards, "everyone comes to sail the Bay."
The success of the Express 27 has certainly put the Alsberg Brothers on the Santa Cruz map. The 100th 27 is due for completion this month, and there seems to be no end in sight to the growth of the class. In four short years, the Express 27 has become the boat to beat in its size range, with every prospect of enjoying that distinction for a long time to come. Its appeals are many, its drawbacks few, its devotees fanatical. "Once they discover the Express," says Paula Blasier, "people really become junkies."