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Elan E4 review: Elan's most fun yacht yet?

Jun 27, 2023

Elan’s smallest boat, the Elan E4 is a huge amount of fun, but would she make a sensible cruising boat? Theo Stocker set out to find her limits.

There are boats on which you want to play it safe, reef early and hunker down. The Elan E4 is not one of them; this is a boat that makes you want to get stuck in and enjoy some proper, fun sailing. The solid Force 5 gusting 6 that was pushing a lumpy sea into the Easter Solent off Portsmouth only added to the sense of anticipation as we setout for our test, and lines were rigged for the whopping asymmetric spinnaker.

I had in mind that I really wanted to see what this boat could do, having heard much about her predecessor, the Elan 360, of which is she is a very slight update, and reuses the same Humphreys- designed hull of the original Elan 350 from 2012. While the 360 was not perfect, it is a boat that one sailing friend tells me was ‘pretty much my dream boat’. The E4 itself has been around since 2018, but as we still hadn’t tested it, I thought I better get on one to find out if she really was as good as all that.

Chatting to the Slovenian-based Elan yard, they explained that the E4 aims to improve the quality of the previous model and to refine some of the sailing system. She comes with a retractable carbon bowsprit as standard, with a telescopic option to allow for higher-tension Code Zero sails at the half-way point. The single-point backstay has been changed for an adjustable split one and the German mainsheet has been switched to a T-sheeting arrangement to keep the cockpit coamings and sidedecks clear.

Fixtures and fittings have been improved too. The cockpit now has the option of a full-height or half-height fold down bathing platform, which helps to close off the aft end of the cockpit, and there are optional stowage bins (housing a fridge and a grill if you so wish) that double as helm seats. More grab rails, water systems and other cruising comforts have been added, as well as a general elevation of the interior fit-out quality. None of it amounts to earth-shattering changes, but together it promises to make an already good sailing boat into a more refined machine for racing and cruising.

The cockpit works well for sitting on the coaming – or down on the seats – even when heeled. Photo: Richard Langdon

Construction remains vacuum infusion over a closed cell foam core, with vinylester on the outer skin, and polyester or optionally vinylester on the inner skin, with solid laminate in loaded areas. Thanks to Elan’s ‘3D vacuum infusion’ the keel matrix is an integral part of the hull with chunky box sections for stiffness, to which the cast iron T-shaped keel is bolted with large steel backing plates.

A moulded foot chock lifts up on the plinth for extra bracing at the helm. Photo: Richard Langdon

Now, a boat test is only a real test if we find the edge of what a boat can and can’t do, right? Challenge accepted. For those of you that like this sort of thing, I can report that we did find the boat’s limits. The good news for those of you who would want to stay well away from the ‘ragged edge’, however, is that we had to set a silly amount of canvas to do so.

So it was that we found ourselves mid-broach in a gust of Force 6 with 128m2 of A2 asymmetric kite flogging above us, having buried the bow in the wave ahead, with just three people on board, none of whom has sailed together before. While this might seem like a recipe for disaster, it was in fact just a minor wobble. With Elan dealer Tim on the helm, I eased the sheets and we got our weight up to windward side, and the rudders quickly re-exercised their vast grip on the water. The bow pointed back downwind, the boat sat up, and we shot off in the right direction again, hitting 14 knots boat speed and settling to a consistent 9-11 knots, with a flat wake streaming behind us.

Toe rails are moulded into the deck. The sidedecks are wide and clear. Photo: Richard Langdon

Planing in a 34ft cruising boat certainly puts a smile on your face and adrenaline in your veins, but this is a boat that can handle that sort of thing. She gave us the confidence not only to give it a go, but to do so with far more control than most boats of her size would allow.

The sheer amount of control on offer is possibly the defining feature of how the E4 sails. Sailing back upwind with 23 knots over the deck, one reef in the main and full headsail, I couldn’t make the boat lose her grip even as I bore away with the sails pinned in; most boats will start to complain when overpressed, but the E4 just kept on going. Even at 45º of heel, the helm remained relatively light, without a trace of trouble. Only the numbers revealed that she wasn’t happy. Coming back onto the wind the boat was more content at 22º-30º of heel, pointing at 27-30º to the wind, making just under six knots when hard on the wind. Speed went up as we eased off, but the polars suggest we should have been hitting 6.5 knots.

A slightly fouled bottom, being over-canvassed, Standard dacron sails and too much toe-in on the rudders may have all been contributory factors, as well as a slight lack of feedback through the wheel due to the rudders being so well balanced. I’d have liked a little more ‘talk’ through the wheel to tell me when the boat was and wasn’t happy and balanced.

Sidedecks have been cleared thanks to changing the mainsheet lead. Photo: Richard Langdon

Interestingly, this boat doesn’t come with an emergency tiller. Instead,the steering system on each side is entirely independent of the other, joined together only by a tie bar, so that if one system is damaged, it can be uncoupled and steering continue with the other rudder. It’s through this bar that you adjust rudder toe-in – a control that Figaro sailors spend as much time tweaking as the sail setting.

The E4 also heels quickly. We were sailing the standard 2.15m draught version (there’s a performance version with a composite keel and lead bulb with an extra 20cm draught), but they both have just 25-27% ballast to displacement ratio, whereas many cruising boats are closer to 35-40%. The result is that the boat heels quite quickly to 20º and, when pushed, sits on her chines at about 30º of heel, again 5-10º more than the current generation of cruisers tend to.

The other factor that makes you feel utterly in control on this boat is the deck hardware. When we wanted more kicker on, there was sufficient purchase to pull this on by hand, even with the mainsail loaded up. So too with the towable jib cars – I could adjust these forwards without having to ease off the jib sheet first.

This boat allows you to get stuck in and enjoy some proper, fun sailing. Photo: Richard Langdon

For a racing sailor, you clearly want to keep control when pushing hard and making small adjustments. The nice thing for a cruising sailor is that this amount of grip gives you a wider margin for error and you know that the boat’s not going to bite your hand off if you get it wrong.

We did find some friction in unexpected places; the headsail, with below-deck furler, was very stiff to furl by hand until we eased the halyard and backstay right off. While I much prefer the deck layout of the ‘T’ mainsheet system that takes the sheet straight from the traveller car to the mainsheet winch, we found that moving the traveller under load, where the mainsheet blocks on the car and on the boom had to turn as the traveller moves, simply made it too heavy to adjust once sheetedin hard. Better blocks should solve this.

The test boat had a mechanical backstay tensioner; personally I’d opt for the rope purchase or the more powerful hydraulic tensioner to give a bit more adjustability under load. None of these issues are insurmountable, though, and deck hardware is easy enough to change.

The accommodation is finished in oak with an L-shaped galley to port and C-shaped seating on the port side of the saloon. Photo: Richard Langdon

Other than that, the layout on deck works well. The mainsheet winch and traveller controls are within easy reach of the wheel, and there are lifting foot chocks for the helm, that work both standing and seated, with the optional transom boxes providing an additional helm seat when running, though realistically, you’ll use the seat on the sidedeck, which is slightly raised to keep the helm’s backside dry when there’s water on deck. Sitting in the cockpit is comfortable when heeled, though a foot chock amidships, between the removable cockpit table sockets, would be a good addition.

We spent most of the time sitting up on the coaming, which is sloped for comfort, with grooves to provide bracing in the edge of the cockpit seat below. The boat could be easily sailed and trimmed from this position. A sleek sprayhood gave extra shelter, though in racing mode you’d do without this. Passage forward on the clear decks was easy and moulded toe rails kept feet on board without being uncomfortable for hiking out. My only gripe on deck was that the dimpled deck moulding wasn’t the grippiest. A slightly tighter or sharper pattern might be better.

The forward berth is more than 2m long and has large stowage lockers either side and below the forward berth. Photo: Richard Langdon

On the foredeck, the retractable bowsprit is accommodated in a clever extension of the anchor locker, meaning it remains outside the deck moulding and can’t be a source of water in the accommodation, which is common with retractable bowsprits. The anchor locker has a good drop, though the opening isn’t huge and wouldn’t hold fenders. A

Additional stowage is provided in a large hull-depth cockpit locker to starboard, though this becomes shallow stowage if you opt for the third cabin. There are no lazarette lockers (access to steering quadrants is through the aft cabin/locker), so the transom boxes would come in handy, especially for a liferaft if you wanted one. The gas locker to port has space for one bottle, and there’s a deck shower next to it.

Heading below, the impression continues that this boat is made for proper sailing; those who like a good seaworthy layout won’t be disappointed. At the bottom of the companionway there’s a decent L-shaped galley to port, and the heads compartment to starboard, which includes a proper hanging locker with an opening hatch and a hot-air heating duct to dry out damp kit.

The port aft cabin makes a comfy double. There’s a locker, shelf, and bins inboard. Note access to the steering quadrant in the aft bulkhead. Photo: Richard Langdon

Forward of the heads on the two-cabin version is a proper forward-facing chart table – an increasingly rare thing on a boat of this size. One little thing I really liked was the switch panel, with Simarine’s custom touch switch panel. Open it up and there are manual rocker switches for redundancy, and it also controls relay switches for the battery isolators so you don’t need to go fumbling around to power the boat up.

The real benefit of this is that you can fully shut your boat down when you leave, but still get remote access to the boat systems from your phone, and fire up the fridge and heating, or check for alarms before you get down to the boat.

The saloon is a simple but comfortable layout with C-shaped seating to port (with an infill to make a double) and a straight settee to starboard, the latter of which is shorter in the three-cabin version with the heads pushed forward and an aft-facing chart table.

There’s no stowage in the table, but there are high lockers at the aft end of the seating, and shelves behind, though these didn’t have fiddles. There are stowage bins under the chart table, and a number of lockers around it, plus a small amount of stowage under the C-shaped seating, though most of the space is taken up with water tankage of 185 litres. The 75-litre fuel tank is under the berth in the aft cabin. Headroom is good throughout, with 196cm (6ft 5in) at the bottom of the companionway, and 180cm (5ft 11in) at the forward end of the saloon.

The forward cabin doesn’t have the vast volume of some of the wide-bowed modern cruisers, but the double V-berth is still 205cm (6ft 9in) long, with full-height lockers either side. The aft cabin is similarly fitted out, with one large locker with shelving and hanging space. Engine access to the 30hp Volvo Penta below the lifting companionway steps was excellent, with access panels on all three sides.

The oak finish is attractive, and solid timber corners and edges give the fit out a sense of quality. The extra effort Elan has put into the level of finish makes this boat feel a notch above many other production boats.

This is Elan’s smallest boat and possibly their most fun. Rarely have I sailed boats with so much grip on the water. The deep rudders always seem to have more to give, without ever taxing the helmsman. While this was sometimes at the detriment of feel through the wheel to get the boat sailing her best, it did give us confidence to really push the boat, and confidence that she wouldn’t just let go and land us in trouble. If you want to rein it in a bit, you know the boat can handle so much more, which is reassuring when cruising. If you want to blast, the chances are you’d be near the front of any fleet you sailed in, albeit the T-keel means her IRC rating isn’t the best. Her light displacement of 5 tonnes makes her quick, but she would benefit from crew on the rail, which is slightly to her detriment for a cruising boat.

Elan’s smallest boat, the Elan E4 is a huge amount of fun, but would she make a sensible cruising boat? Theo Stocker set out to find her limits.LOA:LWL:Beam:Draught (Standard):Draught (Shoal):Draught (Composite):Displacement:Ballast (standard):Ballast (shoal):Ballast (composite):Disp/Ballast (standard):Displacement/Length:Sail Area (main and jib):SA/D Ratio:Water :Fuel:Engine :RCD:Designer:Builder: