Quality design and workmanship come together in this timeless cruiser
One mark of a good design is how well a boat ages. Once the glimmer of gelcoat fades, most boats join the slush pile of unremarkable fiberglass production boats. You know them, or maybe you don’t, the ABC 30, which looks just like the XYZ 32 in the next slip over, one white plastic boat after another. And while most of these old boats are still good boats, capable of delivering the subtle rewards that only a sailboat can, there is little to distinguish them. The Sabre 38, designed by Roger Hewson, is different.
Best known as the founder of Sabre Yachts, Hewson is underrated as a designer. Several of his boats are considered classics, including his first boat, the much loved Sabre 28. Sabres have aged very well indeed. Even a 25-year-old Sabre 38 exudes a sense of quality and timelessness.
Hewson founded Sabre Yachts in 1970 and a year later launched the 28. Nearly 600 boats were built during 16 years of production. He followed up the 28’s success with 34-foot and 30-foot models before introducing the Sabre 38 MK I in 1981. Hewson always credited the Sabre design team, and I think this is the team’s best design. About 100 38s were built before the MK II model was launched in 1988. In all, approximately 215 38s were built before production ended in 1995 and the model was replaced by the Sabre 386. Like all Sabres the 38 is handsome, yet unlike the smaller models it’s big enough to be elegant. And like all Sabres, it is also a genuine dual-purpose boat, and that’s a compliment. It’s not a pure racer or cruiser, but it occasionally wins races and almost always cruises quite capably.
The Sabre 38 is one of those boats that makes you sigh contentedly when you spy it swinging on a mooring. Hmm. It just looks right at home in the water. It’s a sailboat with no ulterior motive. When a slight breeze stirs and it swings beam on you’ll observe that there is just enough sheer to take the modern look edge off, and the freeboard is proportional to the length overall. As it swings back around you will note a fine entry with a bow overhang that sacrifices flat water performance and space below for aesthetics—a trade I’ll make any day. If it comes completely around again, you’ll see that the stern is just a bit pinched, a modest concession to the 1970s but otherwise the rakish reverse transom flows perfectly into the deck line. The cabintrunk is low slung but not excessively angled, it has a gentle sweep reminiscent of other Maine-built boats, including Hinckley and Morris.
The sloop rig places the mast a bit farther forward than other boats of the era, a design concept that put the boat ahead of its time, and also fosters lively performance in moderate conditions without the need for a bulky genoa. Below the waterline, the forefoot has some bite to it before trailing into a swept back fin keel. The 38 came with a standard deep-draft fin keel or an optional keel-centerboard arrangement. The aft sections are not flattened out, a trick often used to add more volume below but one that does not help the motion in a seaway. The rudder is semi-balanced and placed well aft for excellent steering control.
Some early 38 hulls were solid fiberglass while most later models, especially the MK IIs, had balsa-cored hulls. Both versions have end-grain balsa-cored decks with either solid laminate or plywood backing in high-load areas. The hull and deck are joined on a flange and both through-bolted and chemically bonded. A teak caprail covers the joint. Quality construction requires a mix of sound engineering, top materials and practiced technique. To build an enduring boat of moderate displacement takes more attention to detail than building a heavy-duty cruiser where the builder can error on the side of hefty and get away with it.
Bulkheads and facings are securely tapped to the hull, and if you dig around, this is one place where you can see the superb internal fiberglass work. Stout floors support the hull and lay the foundation for the keel. The external ballast is attached with stainless steel keel bolts and supported by a reinforced glass fillet.
What to look for
Naturally the first thing to look for is to decide just which model you want, the MK I or II. There isn’t a lot of difference, except in the price. While you can likely find a MK I in good condition for around $70,000, finding a MK II for less than $100,000 is a lot more challenging. But of course MK IIs are newer boats. Just what are the differences? The MK II is more refined and the interior has a better layout in later models. While the MK I features a bulkhead table and large but open quarterberth, some MK IIs have a nice C-shaped settee and a quarter cabin aft. It is also just over 1,000 pounds heavier.
Items specific to the 38 to look for are leaky chainplates and portlights. Also check the condition of the mast step. There may be some delamination in the deck, something the surveyor should check. Also, these boats, especially MK Is, were built during the age of blisters, so find out when and if the boat had an epoxy bottom job.
Naturally, check all age-related items: standing and running rigging, sails, and engine hours. Replacing or updating these items is always more expensive and more time consuming than you think. Lastly, if you are looking at a centerboarder be sure to carefully inspect the board and the lifting gear.
The Sabre 38 has a great cockpit. T-shaped cockpits have gone out of style but not because they weren’t functional. It’s just that they don’t work as well for scooping out aft cabins below the cockpit. The foot well behind the pedestal is wide enough to spread your legs while steering, and angled on the edges for support when heeled. Visibility from the helm is excellent, and the helmsman can reach the primaries with a bit of a reach. On the MK II model there’s a large locker to starboard and propane locker under the helm seat. There is a substantial bridgedeck and the cabintop reaches just aft of the companionway on each side, making the companionway a perfect, protected perch while underway.
The mainsheet traveler is forward of the companionway, freeing the cockpit but loading up the boom with end-boom sheeting. This is one of the few compromises that tilt toward comfort over sailing efficiency. Most boats have routed sail control lines aft. The side decks are wide and easy to navigate, one of the best features on the boat. Teak handrails line the cabintop. The headsail tracks are well inboard allowing for tight sheeting angles. There’s an external chain locker and typically a single anchor roller.
The interior is compact but nicely laid out and beautifully finished. Both models feature a spacious galley to port that includes double forward-facing sinks, a full-sized cooker and decent sized fridgeice box. There are storage lockers behind the stove and shelves above. On the Mark I the nav station is to port. The chart desk is large and there’s double quarterberth/aft cabin behind. One of the big improvements of the MK II was the addition of a private cabin aft of the galley. This cabin includes a double berth and small hanging locker. The MK II arrangement places a large head aft to starboard, and includes a wet locker. The drawback to this arrangement is the nav station located to starboard facing aft. The desk area is small and it takes a bite out of the starboard settee but there is good access to the electrical panel and plenty of room for instruments.
The saloon is beautifully finished in teak, although some will find it dark below. I grew up with this look and like it. A large bulkhead-mounted table covers a wine or food storage rack. I like a table that folds out of the way, it really opens up the interior. Subtle changes in the MK II models round off the ends of the settees, making the boat seem a bit softer below. By locating the head aft, both models have a good-sized forward cabin. The MK II model includes a small dressing seat to port with a vanity and sink and hanging locker opposite. The berth is long enough for two adults to actually sleep comfortably. An overhead hatch keeps this cabin well ventilated.
The standard engine on both models was a three-cylinder, 33-horsepower Westerbeke diesel. While this would not be my first choice of engine, it is durable and the access is terrific for a boat of this size. A single aluminum fuel tank holds 45 gallons providing a range of about 200 miles. While that’s more than enough for a summer of daysailing, another tank would be desirable for serious cruising. Performance under power is average at best and doesn’t compare to performance under sail. This is a boat that you should sail at every chance and turn the engine off as soon as you can.
The Sabre 38 sails brilliantly. And that is, after all, what it is all about. It is hard to find a better all-around performer in this range. Owners rave about the way the boat handles through a variety of conditions. It accelerates in a gentle puff, keeps its momentum in a chop, balances easily and responds to slight turns of the helm. Sabre claims that the boat was designed to carry a full main and genoa up to 14 knots, beyond that the boat sails best with less sail area.
When hard on the wind, there is just a pinch of weather helm. It is close winded and tracks well. It is also a bit tender and heels early. This is the clue that it’s time to shorten sail. Off the wind the boat surfs more easily than it should and the rudder, which is mounted well aft, offers good control. Sabre 38s have done well in downwind races like the Pacific Cup and the Transpac, and have also won its class in the various Bermuda races, which are typically upwind affairs.
As you can tell, I really like both versions of the Sabre 38. If I had the money, I’d opt for the MK II. If I didn’t, I would be thrilled with a MK I. Either way you will have to pay to play but your investment will offer sailing returns few other boats will keep pace with. Most of us are always thinking about the next boat, but the Sabre 38 is a boat that you will want as your last boat.