Bill Lapworth’s revolutionary performance cruiser still shines today
Jack Jenson, the builder, and Bill Lapworth, the designer, combined their unique talents to produce several memorable boats during the nascent days of fiberglass boatbuilding, otherwise known as the 1960s. Jenson Marine was better known by its brand, Cal, and just take a look at the company’s boats for 1965: The Cal 20, 25, 28, 34, 36 and, of course, the 40—literally a hall of fame lineup.
Yes, these were the glory days for Cal but they didn’t last. Jenson sold the company shortly afterward to Banga Punta, a corporate monolith, which later sold it to Lear Siegler, an even larger, soulless conglomerate that built everything from vacuum cleaners to nuclear warheads. Somewhere along the way, as boats became inventory instead of the inspirations of idealistic men, the magic waned. And yet, if you ask yacht brokers around the country what model Cal they would most like to list, there is a good chance they’d say a mid-1980s Cal 39.
Launched in 1978, the Cal 39 was built during the hectic period when Cal’s manufacturing shifted to Tampa, Florida, and then up to Fall River, Massachusetts, as the company struggled to re-establish its identity. Still, when all the glass cures, it is really the design that carries the day, and in typical fashion Lapworth was ahead of the curve with the 39. It was a genuine performance cruiser before there really was such an animal, and as such, the design not only seems less dated than others from this period, it is still highly desirable as a capable and affordable cruiser. Somewhere around 150 39s were built and unlike many forgettable boats of this time, the Cal 39 has maintained its financial value.
Like many Lapworth designs, the Cal 39 does not overwhelm you when you first see it bobbing between pilings. If you step back and look closely you’ll note that the boat has a subtle but handsome sheerline and that the coachroof flows naturally with the curve of the deck. Freeboard is moderate, which translates into low when compared with today’s boats, and there is a fair bit of overhang forward and a rakish reverse transom. The hull shape looks right, the boat rides smoothly in the water, like it belongs there, and the boat grows on you the longer you stare at it.
Below the waterline, the 39 has a moderate forefoot that trails into a large fin keel. Two keels were available—the standard 6 foot, 8 inch deep-draft and a 5 foot, 6 inch shoal-draft model. Displacement is 17,000 pounds resulting in a displacement/length ratio of 257, which means that the boat can be loaded up and still sail well. The spade rudder is placed well aft, a Lapworth hallmark, and results in excellent steering control, especially when running in big seas. Two rigs were offered—the standard keel-stepped spar with an air draft of 55 feet and the optional tall rig that adds a few feet to the mast and about 50 feet of sail area. The sail area/displacement ratio is a respectable 16.2, not a light air demon but a very good all-around performer—just what I want in a cruising boat.
The construction of the Cal 39 was in keeping with other boats built by Bangor Punta and later Lear Siegler, including O’Day, Jeanneau and Ranger sailboats. And while these boats are not well known for their construction they have held up well over the years. The Cal 39 hull is solid glass and laid up fairly robust. The deck is balsa-cored in most places and plywood was used in high-load areas. The hull-to-deck joint is the conventional inward facing flange and is both chemically and mechanically fastened.
The interior bulkheads are securely tabbed to the hull and a molded liner is used on the cabin sides and overhead liner. The finish is quite nice, actually better than most would suspect with excellent joinerwork and teak trim. The ballast is lead and the rudder is foam with a thin layer of glass over it.
What to look for
There were actually several different models of the Cal 39. The first one was the boat that replaced the legendary Cal 40 in 1971 and was in production just a few years. The 39 covered in this article went into production in 1978 and is sometimes called the MK II. The MK III was introduced sometime around 1981 and included an expanded aft cabin and other subtle changes. Finally, another 39 was introduced in 1994 when Cal made a brief, ill-fated comeback. These later boats, designed by C. Raymond Hunt and Associates, are quite nice but much more expensive than the MK II and IIIs. Also, production was very limited.
Early Cal 39s came standard with Perkins 4108 diesels, a reliable engine that is easy to work on and still easy to find parts for. Later boats had a four-cylinder Universal and others had Pathfinder diesels. Almost without fail owners complain about the Pathfinder, which was a marinized Volkswagen Rabbit engine. It is interesting to note that of the 15 39s listed for sale at www.yachtworld.com, six have been repowered with Yanmars. I’d look for one of these first.
Draft, both water and air, drive used boat prices. For many cruisers the 6-foot, 8-inch standard keel is, all puns aside, a major drawback, the 5-foot, 6-inch shoal model is more desirable. Also, the hard-to-find tall rig is in demand as you can always shorten sail but it is harder to raise your mast. Some owners have noted deck delamination and leaky hull-to-deck joints but both seem more exception than rule. The rudder can also be a problem and should be carefully examined during the survey. One last item, try to find the history of the boat, quite a few 39s went into charter service.
The Cal 39 has a seagoing cockpit and to some that is not a compliment. There is no denying that with its substantial bridgedeck and short seats separated from the helm station that it is small, especially by today’s standards. However, the tradeoff is that classic argument that smaller is safer, it holds less water in dirty weather and a smaller cockpit results in a more spacious interior. It is also efficiently laid out, that is if the traveler has been moved to a position over the companionway. There is good visibility from the slightly raised helm seat and the winches can be reached from the helm.
There is a locker to port and one aft, which had been converted to a gas locker on the 1979 model I climbed through in Ft. Lauderdale. The companionway is offset to starboard to make room in the aft cabin, but not to a degree to make it dangerous when heeling.
The side decks are wide, although the nonskid is likely well worn. If you are considering painting the deck you will need to apply nonskid to the paint. There are teak grabrails along the coachroof and the stanchions and lifelines seem well supported. A teak toerail looks great when it is varnished or freshly oiled, but it is a pain to maintain, especially because an outer headsail track is mounted on top of it. An inner track on deck allows for close sheeting angles. Most boats have double anchor rollers forward and a shallow external chain locker. The single-spreader spar is beefy and keel-stepped. Be sure to check the wire terminals on the standing rigging for cracks and crevice corrosion.
The Cal 39 interior is surprising. This was one of the first boats to feature an aft cabin in an aft-cockpit model. The port cabin is small but the two private staterooms were a real attraction when the boat was new and still is today. Despite a typical teak finish, the cabin is fairly bright with two or three large overhead hatches and eight portlights, most of them opening. However, many boats have plastic portlights, be wary of broken dogs and cracked frames.
The 39 MK III included a sink and large hanging locker in the aft cabin and some models came with an enclosed aft head at, unfortunately, the expense of the nav station. Personally I think a second head on a boat this size is a waste of space. The standard interior plan includes an L-shaped galley opposite the aft cabin, or in the case of the MK II, opposite the large quarterberth. The galley usually includes a three-burner stove and oven, large double sinks facing forward and a good-sized, 8-cubic-foot icebox.
The saloon has a settee and table to port and sea berth settee to starboard. The nav station is usually to port as well and features a decent sized chart table. Tanks take up much of the storage under the settees. The forward cabin is the owner’s cabin with an ensuite head, hanging locker and large V-berth. The head can also be accessed from the saloon. The original teak-and-holly cabin sole is not well supported and may need work.
As noted earlier, the Cal 39 came with a variety of engines and many have been repowered. The original engine was the Perkins 4108, a 50-horsepower model that delivered about 30 horses at the prop, but that was enough to push the boat through the water at 6 knots. Fuel capacity is 45 gallons. Later engines include a Universal 44 and a 50-horsepower Pathfinder. Although I owned a boat with a Pathfinder and had little trouble, some 39 owners are not pleased with this marinized VW machine. Engine access is poor, from behind the companionway. One owner summed up this limitation succinctly, “That’s why God made skinny people.”
The Cal 39 is a very sweet sailing boat, at home in blue water or knocking about the bay. Many 39s have been retrofit into serious cruisers and owners rave about the seakindly motion and good turn of speed. The powerful hull shape can carry sail in a blow and can also be loaded up with stores without sacrificing too much performance. Owners report that the 39 needs a bit of a breeze to get moving. The narrow hull shape heels early and then stiffens up and also rolls running before a following sea. However, it also has enough oomph to surf when the conditions are right.
The boat is close winded, especially by cruising boat standards, and this is an under-appreciated feature. This past summer in the Mediterranean found me hard on the wind seven days in 10, and I was thankful I had a fast, nimble boat. Most stodgy cruisers we encountered were steaming along under power.
The Cal 39 is an ideal boat to consider for long-range cruising, especially if your budget is under $70,000 and you need private accommodations but don’t want to sacrifice good sailing.