Irwin 28 Sailboat Review

It’s been a while since I’ve done a boat review. What follows may quite possibly be more than you ever wanted to know about an Irwin 28 sailboat. Disclaimer: My own personal boat is an Irwin 28, so the review is admittedly biased by my firm belief that my favorite boat will always be the one that I own at the time. However, my biased perspective also assures that I know intricacies about the I28 that may not be apparent to those who haven’t spent significant time aboard this model.

Irwin 28 Review

Ted Irwin began building boats in his backyard at a very young age. He started professionally as a draftsman and part-time boat builder with well known racer and founder of Morgan Yachts, Charley Morgan. After learning on the job from Morgan and successfully racing some of his own designs, Ted started Irwin Yacht and Marine Corporation in 1966. He used his racing success and passion to inspire his early cruising designs. Though Irwin Yachts closed its’ doors in 1991 due partly to the luxury tax, Irwin sailboats are best known today for their large center cockpit cruising yachts. In fact, Irwin has built more cruising sailboats over 50’ than any other boat builder in the world. Over 6,000 yachts have been built and there are currently over 300 Irwin 52, 54, 65 and 68’s cruising the globe today.

While the focus of Irwin Yachts seemed to be on larger cruisers, they did dabble with smaller boats, including a 23, 24, 25, 27 and the subject of this review, the Irwin 28. I contacted Gene Gammons, long-time friend of Ted Irwin and Irwin Yachts project manager, who estimated that the Irwin 28 was probably first produced sometime in 1970, while the last hull was probably commissioned sometime in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. There were several variations, including mkI through mkIV. Early boats were mostly shallow draft full keelers with centerboards while most later boats seem to be fixed fin keel variants. The Irwin 28 has always been sloop rigged. As far as I can tell, there were only subtle changes (aside from the keel) between the versions and years.

Construction was typical for the production coastal cruiser in the 1970’s. The hull is a one piece molded fiberglass unit using alternate layers of hand-laid mat and 24 oz. woven roving. Although built to a price point, chopper guns and blown glass were not used in the hulls. Additional laminate was used in high stress areas. Floor timbers were hand glassed into all keel models. The deck is a one piece molded fiberglass unit with a plywood core for stiffening and insulation. The ballast of the fin keel version is pre-cast lead through-bolted with stainless steel bolts torqued to a reinforced keel boss. The rudder is supported on a partial skeg. Though not fully protected by the skeg, I prefer a skeg rudder over a spade rudder because it can add extra strength if constructed properly.

The mast and boom are anodized aluminum. Standard standing rigging is 1x19 stainless steel wire with single upper and lower shrouds. The single lower shroud arrangement is less then common than double lowers, but is no less sturdy. The shroud chainplates are mounted midway between the coachhouse wall and the toerail. These chainplates are one of the strong points of the Irwin 28, as they are heavy-duty steel strips extending through the deck and are bolted solidly to the hull grid down low. This setup, while prone to deck leaks, is more substantial than the common method of attaching chain plates to a knee brace or interior bulkhead as seen on many small coastal cruisers.

Deck hardware on the Irwin 28 is generally of good quality. Much of the hardware is sourced from larger boats in the Irwin line. The bow and stern cleats are nicely oversized for a 28-footer. Unfortunately, there is no midships cleat. However, one of the biggest drawbacks for the I28 as a cruiser is the lack of an anchoring platform or even an anchor roller. Oddly, there’s a rope/chain locker in the bow, but the only access is through the v-berth, not the deck. I added a chain pipe on the deck of my boat, but I still haven’t come up with a good option for an anchoring platform or roller given the obstructions that the toerail and custom stemhead fitting present.

The aforementioned perforated aluminum toerail runs the length of the deck and can be used to provide almost limitless jib sheet angles with snatch blocks and provides attachment points for fenders and spring lines. Several I28 owners (including myself) have noted leaks in the deck-to-hull joint. While this is mostly only a concern for rainwater, the proper remedy would be removing and resealing the toerail along its’ entire length. The mainsheet traveler is mounted on the companionway threshold. This arrangement has pluses and negatives. First, having the mainsheet traveler in the cockpit can be a bit awkward and get in the way in of entering the cabin in certain positions. However, control of the sheet and traveler is easy and always close at hand.

The Irwin 28 was offered with both tiller and pedestal wheel steering. My personal boat has the tiller, so my review is based only on that perspective. I personally love the direct feel and sensitivity of a tiller. The simplicity of the setup is also reassuring. The Irwin 28 tracks well enough, but needs precise sail trim to balance the tiller. You can’t take your hand off the tiller and not expect the boat to wander a bit. However, weather helm is easily controllable and a tiller pilot (autopilot) doesn’t need to work overly hard to keep the boat on course in mild to moderate conditions. Backing up with the Irwin 28 is something the boat does not do well. When in reverse, she prop walks badly to starboard and renders steering almost totally ineffective. The boat handles moderate seas and wind quite nicely. She’s controlled and manageable in winds up to about 25 knots and Lake Michigan seas to 5 or 6 feet, as long as you reef and keep the waves off the beam. However, you’ll find yourself motoring a fair amount in light air, unless you’ve got spinnaker gear. My boat came fitted with the factory spinnaker package and is complete with secondary cockpit winches, downhaul block and track on the deck, spinnaker pole, pole topping lift and off-set masthead spinnaker halyard. The Irwin 28’s favorite point of sail is close hauled. She’ll also reach and run nicely, but feels in the groove when close hauled. She doesn’t point any better than most other similar sailboats, but really bites in just off the wind. Her 41% ballast ratio (see below) makes her relatively stiff and inspires confidence.

Down below, the Irwin 28 presents a common layout for sailboats of this size. Starting at the bow and moving back, the layout consists of: roomy v-berth, hanging wet locker to starboard, enclosed head with sink/vanity to port, adult-length settees to port and starboard in the salon, bulkhead hinged table, L-shaped galley to starboard, quarter-berth to port. Storage is plentiful, but not necessarily convenient with most recessed away below the berths and settees. The galley features a roomy ice box (converted with NorCold refrigeration on my boat), alcohol stove and flip-up countertop extension. Some I28’s feature a slide out nav table above the quarter berth. The best feature of the cabin is the large bulkhead table that stores neatly tucked against the bulkhead when not in use.

Auxiliary power from the factory in the Irwin 28 came from one of two sources: Volvo or Universal. Both engines are gasoline powered. Much has been written and is known about the Universal Atomic 4, so I’ll focus on the engine I have in my boat, the Volvo MB10A. Many people shy away from the old Volvo engines, particularly the gas variants, because parts can be hard to find. However, the MB10A is still in production today by Marna Marine in Norway and parts are readily (though not cheaply) available. I believe the MB10A block started life as a tractor engine and was adapted for marine application by Marna and marketed by Volvo. The little 2 cylinder engine chugs out 15 peak horsepower, which is just about right for the Irwin 28. She’ll motor along at just over 6 knots when pushed, but I like to keep the rpm’s down and chug at around 5.5 knots [Note: I have a Martec low-drag fixed two blade prop]. The exhaust is routed through a waterlift muffler and provides a good putt-putt tractor soundtrack. I have had no major issue with my little two cylinder Volvo and trust it to get me home when the wind won’t blow (or at least won’t blow from the right direction!). Engine access isn’t the best, though oil and plug changes can be accomplished from the front of the engine by removing the companionway steps. There’s also a small port access panel in the quarterberth and starboard access through the cockpit lazerette.

Warning: The following paragraphs are not for those who don’t like numbers and math! It’s time to look at specifications and ratings.

The Irwin 28 measures 28.5’ LOA with a waterline length of 23’ and 9’ beam. Dry weight displacement is 7,800 lbs with 3,200 lbs of ballast. Her sail area to displacement ratio (SA/D) is 15.36. The fin keel version draws 4’6” of water. The length to displacement ratio for the Irwin 28 is 286.2, putting it squarely in the “average cruising” category, as shown below.
Light racing multihull 40-5
Ultra light ocean racer 60-100
Very light ocean racer 100-150
Light cruiser/racer 150-200
Light cruising auxiliary 200-250
Average cruising auxiliary 250-300
Heavy cruising auxiliary 300-350
Very heavy cruising auxiliary 350-400

The Irwin 28 has a motion comfort rating of 26. The motion comfort rating estimates the overall comfort of a boat when it is underway.  The formula predicts the speed of the upward and downward motion of the boat as it encounters waves and swells.  The faster the motion, the more uncomfortable the passengers will be.  The higher the number, the more resistant a boat is to movement, which typically means a more comfortable ride.  This rating was created by famed boat designer, Ted Brewer.  Comfort ratings will vary from 5.0 for a light daysailer to the high 60s for a super heavy vessel, such as a Colin Archer ketch. Moderate and successful ocean cruisers, such as the Valiant 40 and Whitby 42, will fall into the low-middle 30s range.

The Irwin 28 has a capsize ratio of 1.82. According to Ted Brewer, a boat is acceptable if the capsize ratio is 2.0 or less but, of course, the lower the better. For example, a 12 meter yacht of 60,000 lbs displacement and 12 foot beam will have a capsize ratio of 1.23, and so would be considered very safe from capsize. A contemporary light displacement yacht, such as a Beneteau 311 (7716 lbs, 10'7" beam) has a capsize ratio of 2.14. Based on the formula, while a fine coastal cruiser, such a yacht may not be the best choice for ocean passages. The Irwin 28 sneaks below the 2.0 mark and represents a design that is relatively safe from capsizing in coastal conditions.

So what’s the take home message with all of these ratings, ratios and numbers? The Irwin 28 isn’t going to be the fastest sled for Wednesday night races (PHRF handicap rating of 213), but she’s likely a bit more comfortable and stable than other popular high volume production models from the same era. For example, the very popular Catalina 27 (std. rig) has a motion comfort rating of about 23.5 and a capsize ratio of 1.87. The O’day 28 has a motion comfort rating of 20.57 and a capsize ratio of 2.11. None of these boats are suitable as bluewater passagemakers, but they all make good coastal cruiser. Of the three, the Irwin may well be the most stable and comfortable while the O’day (PHRF handicap rating 204) would be a better choice if speed is a priority for your coastal cruise. The Catalina splits the difference (PHRF handicap rating 210).

In summary, the Irwin 28 is a fine coastal cruiser for those on a modest budget. She’s the perfect balance between the cramped accommodations of the 25-26 footers and the higher expenses of the ~30 footers of similar vintage. The slight spring in her sheerline coupled with a bit of teak on deck (handrails, forward hatch) and the modest stern overhang provide noticeable character. If you’re looking for an alternative to the similarly priced but more common 27-29 foot boats (Catalina 27, Hunter 27, O’day 28) of this age and price, check out an Irwin 28. She’s not a racer but she does offer good performance and accommodations for a small family looking for a friendly cruiser.


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