Zen 24 Tested
A saucy little cruiser from the Land of the Rising Sun
It’s not often that we here at SAIL get to test-sail production sailboats from Japan. Personally, this is the first one I’ve ever sailed, in a test or otherwise. It is a remarkable little vessel, with a remarkable pedigree, as it was designed by Yoh Aoki, a Zen adherent who made big headlines in 1974—in Japan at least—when he completed a singlehanded circumnavigation by way of Cape Horn in a 21-foot plywood boat he built himself.
Aoki knows what he is about. Check out some photos and drawings of the Zen 24, and you’ll see it has a very serious, yet attractive hull form—lots of beam carried well aft, with a narrow entry up forward behind a sweetly flared plumb bow. The boxy little house is well proportioned, and the short fixed bowsprit adds a dashing bit of style, besides being rather useful. For a boat its size, the Zen 24 is also quite unique in that it has a fixed fin keel and comes standard with an inboard electric motor.
I sailed the boat on Chesapeake Bay in 9 knots of wind and was honestly impressed by its performance. Our test boat was fitted with a poorly cut mainsail, with a slightly over-long luff that prevented us from achieving a full hoist, but still we managed to point reasonably high. We were fully powered up at a 40-degree apparent wind angle in 12 knots of apparent wind and could easily pinch to 35 without giving up too much. We had no instruments, and I had estimated our best speed at about 6 knots, but then SAIL executive editor Adam Cort flashed by in a bigger boat and noted he had clocked us at over 7—which ain’t too shabby for a boat with a 21-foot waterline.
Better yet, the helm is incredibly predictable. Take your hand off the tiller, and it takes some time before the boat changes course and starts slowly rounding up. The Zen 24 is also very stable for its size—all that beam translates to lots of initial stability, and the ballast keel locks the hull in place once it’s heeled over a bit.
The boat is well endowed spatially, with an interior that is as roomy as you could hope for on a 24-foot boat, complete with a private enclosed head. On deck you’ll find plenty of space in the cockpit, and I was impressed with how easy it was to move forward to the bow. The shrouds land inboard on the side of the coachroof, so you can quickly skooch by them while also clinging to them for support.
I loved the electric motor. Having all the extra torque at low power made it very easy to maneuver the boat at close quarters, and the sensation of silent speed at higher revs is quite delicious. I was told the motor, which is fed by a 48-volt battery bank, can run five hours at 5 knots without a charge. I’m not sure I believe that, but you can always hang a little outboard from the stern bracket as insurance. You can also order the optional inboard diesel engine.
What I didn’t like about this boat was the mainsheet control. Ours had the standard single-point sheet led to a cam cleat on the cockpit sole, and the only way I could reliably release the sheet was by stomping on it with my foot. I’m sure this could be easily fixed by re-angling the cleat, but I’d much rather have the optional traveler, which runs the full width of the cockpit. With that and a properly cut mainsail, I’m quite confident you could sail this boat very aggressively in a strong breeze. I’m sure you’d have a blast doing it, too.