There's a lot of confusion about all the different MacGregor 26 models and some controversy about their sailing abilities.
Differences in MacGregor 26 Models
The MacGregor 26 evolved after the Venture 22 and the MacGregor 25, which had been built from 1973 to about 1987. The M25 had a weighted centerboard keel like other trailerable sailboats but featured positive flotation, a low price, easy trailerability, and a comfortable interior with enclosed head (porta-potty). These features carried forward into M26 models and helped made MacGregor one of the bestselling sailboats.
The MacGregor 26D (daggerboard), built from about 1986 to 1990, introduced water ballast to replace the weighted keel. When the water was drained for trailering, the boat weighed only 1650 lbs, making it even more attractive for towing with a regular automobile. The daggerboard, like a keel, helps prevent the boat from being blown sideways but could be lifted up for shoal water and trailering.
The MacGregor 26S, 1990 to 1995, replaced the daggerboard with a swing centerboard (which kicks up in an accidental grounding) and made other smaller changes. Together, the 26D and 26S are often called the "classic" MacGregor 26, and sometimes the 26C. Owners of these earlier models tend to refer to them as "the real sailboats" prior to the changes coming with the MacGregor 26X.
The MacGregor 26X, 1996 to 2004, marked a major change from the earlier "classic" M26 models by allowing a relatively huge outboard engine that essentially turned the 26X into a powerboat with a mast. Earlier models typically carried outboards as low as 5 or 6 HP (max. 10 HP), but the 26X now took up to 50 HP. (For comparison, many 36-foot sailboats of this era, displacing more than five times the M's weight, had inboard engines of 25-30 HP.) The water ballast could be drained under power, allowing the M26X to come up on a plane like a speedboat. The outboard well had to be moved to the centerline, with twin rudders to each side, and steering changed from tiller to a small powerboat-type steering wheel. The cabin height was increased for greater room inside, and the boat is said to sail less well than the earlier 26S.
The MacGregor 26M (motorsailor), 2005 to present, continued the 26X's trend, now allowing up to a 60 HP outboard. The swing centerboard was replaced with a daggerboard to free up more space below, and a second tier of windows was added with standing headroom. The boat is advertised to motor at 24 MPH. In addition to the water ballast there is 300 lbs of permanent ballast (probably needed for stability with so much windage and the high weight of the engine). At 2550 lbs dry (excluding engine), it now needs stronger vehicle and tow package.
Risks and Precautions with a Water-Ballasted Sailboat
To be frank, many traditional sailors joke about MacGregors, often because of the light fiberglass construction (the hull can "oilcan" flex in places if you push hard against it) and its powerboat characteristics since 1996. Not a "real sailboat," many say. Most misunderstood, however, is the water ballast that has been a hallmark of all 26 models.
The water ballast tank is horizontal and only a foot or so beneath the surface, unlike a vertical ballasted keel or centerboard that extends much deeper. Some have even questioned how water, weighing the same as the water displaced by the boat, can be called ballast at all. The ballast tank has been well engineered, however, and does provide righting moment the same as a keel when the boat heels over, because the weight of water far out from the centerline on the "uphill" side (in the air once heeled over) does pull the boat back down the same as a weighted keel. This does mean that the boat is more tender, or tippy, initially. A story has been told about a sailor on one edge of the deck who grabbed the mast when the boat heeled, and his own weight pulling on the mast that far above the waterline caused the boat to capsize all the way over. Whether true or not, the story illustrates a common perception of how tender the MacGregor is.
And it is true that an M26 with 10 people aboard capsized with two fatalities - most likely due to uneven distribution of the human weight on the boat.
In normal conditions, however, careful sailors can safely sail the water-ballast M26 by following standard precautions:
- Reef sails when the wind is blowing.
- Maintain good balance with crew weight balanced against heeling.
- Prevent accidental gybes.
- Keep the ballast tank full and well-sealed.
- Maintain steerage control at all times.
- Heave to or take other storm action in high wind or waves.
- Don't drink and sail.
The larger safety issue is that for many owners, the M26 is a "starter boat" and they may not have the experience or knowledge to avoid possible problems in time. The bottom line is that anyone who goes sailing needs to be fully aware of the limitations of their boat, whatever type it is, and practice all safety guidelines.
My Experience with the MacGregor 26S ("Classic")
Having owned and sailed extensively a 26S for three years, I can report that indeed it does actually sail fairly well and lives up to its reputation of being a roomy and easily trailered pocket cruiser. At the time it was the only sailboat that met my budgetary needs, had room enough for my family of three to cruise for up to a week at a time, and trailered well to let us explore waters from Maine to Key West. Yes, it's a light boat, but I had a lot of sailing experience and was cautious and never had trouble in winds to 30 knots - and I didn't try anything foolish like taking it offshore. Yes, the fiberglass was thin, but I avoided running into rocks. I took my 3-year-old out on solo daysails and have no regrets. I sold it to a family of four, their first boat, and heard from them a few years later that they'd thoroughly enjoyed tons of sailing. Thousands of other MacGregor owners have had similar experiences.
That said, do remember it's a light boat and always take the precautions listed above. And for powerboat owners of the 26X and 26M, the boat should be as safe as any powerboat, but I'd really urge not hitting a rock or another boat at 24 MPH!