A used boat sleeper, this little big boat elicits strong owner loyalty
The Caliber 33 is a big boat tucked into a small package. Designed by company co-founder, Michael McCreary, the 33 is a solidly built cruiser of moderate to slightly heavy proportions and well respected by sailors around the country. First launched in 1985, approximately 70 boats were completed in Caliber’s small but efficient plant in Clearwater, Florida.
The boat evolved into the Caliber 35 in 1990 when a reverse transom stretched the LOA. That’s an intriguing feature about the 33, it is in many ways the same boat as the 35. Although Caliber has upgraded and refined the 35, and today’s model, the 35LRC is a world-class yacht, the original 33 continues to represent an excellent value on the used boat market. Combined production of the 33 and 35 is more than 100 boats.
Fresh out of college, Michael McCreary and his brother George founded Caliber Yachts on a shoestring in 1980. Michael was a naval architect and engineering type while George majored in business and had a knack for marketing, an ideal but rare combination in the boat business. Their first boat was a well-received 28-foot coastal cruiser that was loaded with the features that would ultimately come to define Caliber. It was solidly built and spacious without compromising sailing qualities or aesthetics. Their next project was the 33, which they launched during the recession of 1985. Quality always wins out, or so they say, and despite the hard times the 33 was a success.
The Caliber 33 looks better in the water than it does on paper. Although I like the hull shape design—heck, it’s the kind of shape I’ve been scribbling on cocktail napkins for years—most lines appear razor straight in the drawings. The sheerline looks like it was drawn with a ruler, as does the run of the coachroof and cockpit coamings. In the water, the softer side of the 33 becomes apparent. The slope of the forward end of the coachroof flows naturally out of the deck, the radius of the coamings becomes obvious, and the straight rake of the stem is muted a bit by the bowsprit. It’s been noted that the appearance of the 33 is a curious blend between traditional and modern and I concur but it’s a look I like.
Below the waterline the 33 has fairly flat forefoot that abruptly turns south at the leading edge of the large fin keel section. The standard draft is 4 feet, 6 inches and a 4-foot shoal-draft keel was also offered. The west coast of Florida pretty well demands a draft of less than 5 feet and many builders in the area have been influenced by local conditions. The rudder is supported by a full skeg and mounted well aft. Although various sources list slightly different figures, by any terms the 33 is a stiff, stable hull.
As a delivery skipper I have long been skeptical of published specifications for secondhand boats that invariably tip the scales well above their designed fighting weights. Immersion factors and different sail configurations further skew the numbers so I generally don’t put much stock in ratios. Still, one figure that jumps off the 33’s spec sheet is an impressive ballast/displacement ratio of 47 percent. A masthead sloop rig, the 33 carries 525 square feet of working sail. One of the best features added to later 35 models was the addition of an easily removed cutter stay.
Caliber builds its boats the old fashioned way and that’s a compliment. Although they are not quite a custom builder, they’re anything but a mass production builder. Caliber eschews molded liners and pans, instead it painstakingly laminates specific components into its hand-laid solid fiberglass hulls. The 33 has beefy, closely spaced floors glassed directly to the hull, providing support and rigidity. The teak-and-plywood furniture fittings and bulkheads are also glassed in place with structural bulkheads receiving added attention. The 33’s hull-and-deck joint is one of the best I’ve seen. Set on an inward flange, the joint is made with 3M 5200 and through bolted on six-inch centers. A gasket is then formed around the inboard edge of the joint where any leaks might occur. The toerail and stainless steel rubrail are also incorporated into the joint. Square headed carriage bolts, instead of pan head bolts, fit securely into the rail and won’t easily loosen or twist when being tightened.
The deck is cored with small plywood sections that are extremely strong but heavy and can delaminate when wet. However, deck problems don’t seem to be an issue, probably because Caliber goes to great lengths to keep its boats dry. Still, it is a good idea to carefully inspect and occasionally re-bed deck hardware. The lead ballast in encapsulated in the keel cavity. Quality material and hardware are used throughout the boat, a key reason why older 33s have aged very well.
What to look for
Documented problems with Caliber 33s are actually few and far between. The original bowsprit, which is actually just an anchoring platform, was not husky enough and in some cases came apart. Caliber recognized the problem and beefed up the platform and switched to heavier tubing as well. One of the owners I corresponded with mentioned that the standard prop is too small and another noted the shaft had come loose from the coupler. Still, it’s fairly impressive how few common complaints I heard.
Like all boats, be on the lookout for age-related issues. All 33s are at least 13 years old, and some are nearly 20 years old. Check the standing rigging, especially the original swage fittings. Many Calibers appear to be one-owner boats, which is a nice testament but longtime owners are often blind to problems. Also, Calibers were not spared during the blister woes of the early to mid-1980s—try to find out when and if an epoxy bottom job was last done.
The cockpit of the 33 is a little bit cramped; this is where you remember this is just a 33-foot boat, after all. There also isn’t much of a bridgedeck but I confess this worried me more 20 years ago than it does today. The cockpit seats are narrow, although they’re also nicely scooped to allow access to the helm seat. Wheel steering was standard and most pedestals are equipped with a teak table. All sail controls are led aft, usually to control stations on the coachroof that are complete with stoppers and a winch. The primary sheet winches can be easily reached from the helm. The traveler is out of the way, mounted forward of the companionway with midboom sheeting arrangement. I recognize this is a compromise that loads up the boom, yet in a boat of this size it makes sense from a space perspective. There is good storage in the port lazarette and under the helm seat.
The sturdy aluminum mast is deck stepped, another indication of the big boat mentality of the Caliber 33, and the standing rigging is oversized. Chainplates are set inboard enough for good sheeting angles. Caliber specs called for quality deck gear, from winches to hatches. The nonskid is fairly aggressive and teak handrails on the coachroof are well placed. A large chain locker can hold a couple of anchors and rodes, and the boat I inspected in Miami had rigged a nice wash-down system. I am not usually a fan of bowsprits but I’m okay with the arrangement on the 33. Although the updated version is well supported, it’s primarily an anchoring platform and the rig is structurally supported at stem, not via the sprit and bobstay. And, it is nice to stow and deploy the anchors from the platform.
The interior of the Caliber 33 is very nicely finished in teak and innovatively laid out. The companionway steps are wide and there is good headroom throughout, an advantage of a less than sleek coachroof. The white headliner brightens the cabin and nicely offsets the otherwise all- teak interior. The galley is immediately to port as you drop below. Unlike a lot of boats under 35 feet, Caliber built in drawers and lockers instead of resorting to bins. Double stainless sinks with both pressure water and a backup foot pump were standard. The stove and oven are outboard and the icebox is aft. Counter space is more than adequate.
The aft quarter cabin arrangement is quite clever. A bi-fold door allows the cabin to be closed for privacy without the encumbrance of a full door. The nav station is tucked away in this cabin, an arrangement that I have on my 47-foot cutter, and it works well, although the chart desk is a bit small. The bunk is a bit snug for two, but it does make an ideal sea berth. The saloon is spacious. A fold-up, bulkhead mounted table is a great idea on any boat under 40 feet. The port settee is straight while the starboard is L-shaped. There’s storage behind and under the seat backs and there are full-length shelves above. The teak-and-holly sole adds a bit of elegance.
The head, which is to starboard, is quite large for a 33-footer and includes an integral shower. It can be entered from both the saloon and the forward cabin. The V-berth is long, more than 7 feet and has nicely fitted drawers below. There is a decent-sized hanging locker to port. Ventilation throughout the boat is terrific with stainless steel opening ports. Tropical sailors know that portlights are more useful for airflow than overhead hatches. The Caliber 33 interior is certainly large and comfortable enough for a couple to contemplate long-term cruising.
The standard original power plant in the 33 was the reliable Yanmar 3GM30F, a three-cylinder 27-horsepower diesel. As noted earlier, the original prop was a bit undersized and some owners have switched to feathering models, an expensive but worthwhile upgrade. The horsepower is only just adequate for the 33, which is no lightweight, but what you lose in speed you make up for in fuel economy. The 26-gallon fuel tank will likely translate into nearly 50 hours of motoring. One of the key upgrades in the new LRC Calibers is increased tank size. Access to the engine is good from behind the companionway, although reaching the stuffing box still requires a bit of flexibility through the cockpit sail locker.
Several years ago I delivered a 1992 Caliber 35 from Key West to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and later that same year I took a Caliber 38 from Punta Gorda, Florida, up to Charleston, South Carolina. Although I haven’t specifically sailed the 33, I have a good feeling about how Calibers handle. Also, I corresponded with several owners, who incidentally were almost universally pleased with their boats. On my deliveries, we had a range of conditions, from flat calms to a nasty Gulf Stream squall, and the boats coped with the conditions without missing a beat. In fact, we reeled off a 200-mile day on the way to Charleston with an assist from the current. Sailing the 35 we had fresh winds the entire way and completed the 170-mile passage in 30 hours.
Owners report that although the 33 is stiff, it develops a fair bit of weather helm when winds approach 20 knots. That’s fair enough, and a single reef in the main solves the problem. The boat is not overly close winded and the shoal draft model in particular makes a bit of leeway when sailing hard on the wind. I don’t dispute the merits of shoal draft but I still don’t like it. The flat forefoot can occasionally pound in a chop but overall the boat has soft motion, which is among the most important features for any cruising boat. The 33 is, however, a bit sluggish in light air.
The Caliber 33 is something of a sleeper on the used boat market. It’s a high-quality boat, quite comfortable, and when given a bit of wind, it’s a decent performer. It will also stand up to a blow and hold up to the rigors of the cruising life. It’s an ideal small boat for a Caribbean sabbatical; it was made for the trade winds. With prices ranging from $45,000 to $70,000 it is also a good value.