A fast, fun, one-design racer turned cruiser from the ULDB era
The Express 37, like many West Coast flyers, traces its roots to Santa Cruz, California. In the 1980s this funky city on the north shore of Monterrey Bay was the hotbed of ULDB development. Designed by the late Carl Schumacher, the 37 was commissioned by builder Terry Alsberg, who was already producing the popular and very fast Express 27.
The design criteria for the 37 was clear from the beginning. Schumacher and Alsberg wanted an off-the-wind rocket ship that was big enough and tough enough to stand up to the rigors of long-distance offshore racing. And they achieved their objective almost immediately. Introduced in late 1984, the first Express 37s finished first, second and third in class in the 1985 Transpac Race.
Alsberg, who learned his trade working for ULDB guru Ron Moore, did a terrific job of building the Express series, which later included a 34-footer. Some say he built the boats too well, and by 1989 his shop was in trouble and soon out of business. Of course these were difficult times for all sailboat builders. In all, 65 37s were built and for the most part, they’re concentrated in San Francisco Bay, Southern California and Long Island Sound. Small fleets are also located in Seattle and on the Great Lakes. However, one-design fleets are dwindling as the Express 37 has to some extent begun the natural, if sad progression from racer to cruiser, albeit a true performance cruiser. The Express 37 is also something of a cult boat and the few used boats that turn up for sale don’t linger on the market.
The Express 37 is deceptive, at first glance it doesn’t look like an offshore-capable thoroughbred, it can be easily mistaken for a run of the mill, racer-cruiser style production boat. But don’t be misled, this is a boat that you have to sail to appreciate. In profile, the sheer is almost straight but there is nice entry angle to the bow. The broad stern features a reverse transom. The low-slung cabintrunk is short and concentrated amidships. A careful inspection of the underbody lines reveals flat, flared sections forward and this, no doubt, helps the 37 surf on even modest waves. The keel is a narrow-cord foil slightly raked aft. The balanced rudder is placed well aft. Weight is centered in the middle of the boat to keep the ends light and buoyant and again to facilitate getting up on top of the water.
The double-spreader rig is moderate in proportion and the sailplan includes a large, relatively low-aspect main and smaller, high-aspect headsail. This rig has been coined a “masthead fractional rig,” which handles like a fractional rig but delivers more horsepower and trims more efficiently. Displacement numbers seem to vary, the original design called for 9,500 pounds of displacement and 4,500 pounds of ballast. According to some reports, Schumacher claimed the finished boat weighed in closer to 11,000 pounds and the two boats on www.yachtworld.com list displacement at 10,000 pounds and 10,500 pounds respectively. Take your choice, anyway you cut it, the ballast/displacement ratio is more than 40 percent—the Express 37 is a stiff boat designed not only with ocean racing in mind but also the blustery conditions of San Francisco Bay.
To a build a light boat that can stand up to the demands and loads of serious ocean racing, you have to build it well, and that was certainly the case with the Express 37. The hand-laid-up, vacuum-bagged hull is balsa-cored and Alsberg was one of the first builders to use vinylester resin in the outer layers to prevent blisters. The deck is also balsa-cored and joined to the hull on a typical inward flange and bonded with 3M 5200 and stainless screws.
Molded liners are used throughout the boat, including separate pans for the head, galley and other furnishings. These liners look a bit stark and limit access to the hull and deck but they are practical and allowed Alsberg to really control weight. There are structural floors that provide excellent athwartship support. Few if any hull problems have been reported by owners. Indeed, the 37’s hull is known for being virtually bulletproof. Also, the older Express 37s that I have examined are remarkably free of gelcoat crazing and cracking; the original fiberglass work was excellent.
What to look for
There are some documented problems to look for when you get serious about an Express 37. However, because the problems have been identified, in most cases they will have been already take care of. Specifically, when loaded up the No. 1 genoa tracks caused the decks to flex and potentially crack. The switch to Kevlar headsails, which didn’t stretch and transferred the load to the tracks and the deck instead, apparently caused this problem. Bartz Schneider, who sails his 37 on San Francisco Bay and is a valuable source of information on the boat, notes that the problem is rectified by backing the tracks with U-shaped aluminum extrusions mounted below deck, which then serve as full length backing plates for the track.
Another problem, primarily on early boats, was the lack of tabbing on the bottom of the main bulkhead. In some cases, the bulkhead, which was a bit thin anyway, cracked. Starting around hull No. 20, the bulkhead beefed up, to 1/2-inch width and was thoroughly tabbed to hull. Of course, any boat that has been raced and sailed hard will have wear and tear issues. Be suspect of an extensive sail inventory on the listing sheet, chances are most are tired and not worth devoting space inside the boat to. Also, find out how old the standing rigging is, rod rigging was standard and is difficult to determine problems from a visual inspection. The condition of the running rigging will be more obvious.
Although there is little doubt that the deck layout was designed for racing, it is surprisingly easy to convert to a more cruiser-friendly arrangement, especially shorthanded cruising. All mast and sail control lines are led aft to the cockpit and can be controlled from a position standing in the companionway. This is not a bad system, it keeps crew weight centered and safely in the boat. The cockpit is set up for efficient sail trimming, with the mainsheet traveler on a bridge just aft of the companionway, the primaries outboard and the tiller well aft. A few boats came with wheel steering and others have been retrofitted but the boat is made for tiller steering.
A tapered aluminum mast was standard; these boats were built before the rush to carbon spars. Navtec rod rigging was also standard. Deck hardware included Merriman tracks and Lewmar winches. Teak handrails on the cabintrunk and forward toerails lend a bit of security on deck, but should be expanded if you are converting to cruising. The class rules kept the sail inventory under control, and basic sails include a No. 1, No. 3 jib and 1.5-ounce spinnaker in addition to the main. A No. 4 jib and additional spinnaker are considered optional sails.
While nobody will confuse the interior of the Express 37 with a Cabo Rico, it is functional and reasonably comfortable. The interior finish includes a teak-and-holly sole and a smattering of ash and oak trim, teak ceiling strips and large expanses of molded fiberglass. The arrangement is straightforward, with a makeshift V-berth or sail storage in the bow. An enclosed head is next and the saloon includes a bulkhead-mounted table and opposing settees that convert into pipe berths. There isn’t much storage as tanks take up the space below the settees, although there are small overhead lockers along the hull sides.
The galley lines up to starboard with a small stovetop and icebox. The sink is mounted amidships, behind the companionway steps, which is inconvenient to say the least, but at least it drains on either tack. The nav station is opposite the galley and includes a large chart table and decent seat. The aft end of the boat is more or less open, with quarter berths to port and starboard.
The MK II Express 37 featured a much better interior plan. Not only is it finished nicer but the arrangement is much improved. There is a real V-berth double, a comfortable saloon, a U-shaped galley and a double quarter cabin aft to port.
Unfortunately only 10 MK IIs were built. However, if you are looking to cruise the boat then search for a MK II first. Even if you can’t find one to buy, find one to climb through, it will give you plenty of ideas for modifying the standard boat.
Before hull No. 25, the standard engine was the Yanmar 2GMF, 2-cylinder 18-horsepower model. Afterward, Alsberg upped it to the 3-cylinder 3GMF, the 27-horsepower model, which pushes the boat along smartly. Of course you don’t buy an Express 37 to motor around, and chances are the boat you buy will have the original engine and it won’t have many hours on it either. Access is terrific, primarily because the aft end of the boat is open, although it can be loud down below when the engine is running.
This is what it’s all about and it is the reason you buy an Express 37—the boat sails brilliantly. Designed to fly off the wind, the 37 also sails fast upwind.
“The boat just has great bone—it is tough, I’d sail mine anywhere,” said Schneider, the San Francisco Bay fleet captain and 37 devotee.
It has to be to stand up to 20 years of racing in the bay. While it is not at its best upwind in light air, the 37 finds it stride when the wind pipes up. Extremely close winded, the boat can carry decent headsails even blasting to weather, although the typical technique of dumping the main to keep the boat relatively flat is definitely the fastest way to sail. The Express 37 PHRF rating seems to range around 70.
And when you crack the sheets, well, that’s another story. In heavy air you must keep the boat under control. Schneider tells a story of sailing off Point Conception in big winds and burying the bow while charging down a wave at 17 knots. It never pays to outrun the waves. Double-digit speeds off the wind are commonplace. Although class rules allow for up eight crew, the boat can be sailed safely even in, as Schneider calls them, “gnarly conditions offshore,” short-handed. The boat is light but so are the loads.
The Express 37 offers exhilarating performance both on and off the racecourse. And although one-design fleets are shrinking, most 37s have a lot of speed left in them. Also, following the trend of their boats, as racing sailors get older and migrate toward more casual sailing, a logical decision might be to convert a 37 into more of a cruising boat. With prices hovering around $80,000, the Express 37 is a terrific value.