My friend Tom Guerts has a dilemma. He is planning a voyage from his homeport of Green Bay, Wisconsin, to the Canadian Maritime provinces and then down to the Caribbean Islands. He has been considering a new boat for this ambitious project but is having a difficult time finding a boat that he likes as much as his current boat, a 1987 Ericson 34 sloop. Tom has Ale Aboard in top condition and has cruised and raced on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. He knows that a bigger boat will be more comfortable, but wonders if that outweighs the advantages of having a boat that he knows well and has been significantly upgraded? My advice? Keep Ale Aboard and head for the St. Lawrence.
The Bruce King-designed Ericson 34 was launched in 1987 and remained in production through 1996. This was a turbulent time for the marine industry, and Ericson Yachts, one of the storied builders of the fiberglass era, eventually filed for bankruptcy. Ericson produced some excellent boats right to the end, including the handsome 34 and 38 MK III models, both of which were later built by Pacific Seacraft after the company acquired the molds in 1991. The 34 is a high-quality boat and quite versatile. It is certainly up to the challenging bluewater sailing Tom has in mind, but it's also a capable club racer.
The Ericson 34 looks and sails like a big boat. Of course, with an LOA of 34 feet, 10 inches, it's pretty close to being 35 feet anyway. Bruce King has always designed graceful boats that just seem to look right in the water, and the 34 is one of his best efforts. The proportions are moderate, from the amount of sheer and freeboard to the ballast, displacement and sail area numbers. The masthead sloop rig supports just about 600 square feet of sail area and this can be powered up with a genoa. The 6-foot, 2-inch fin keel helps the boat track well to weather and the balanced rudder provides excellent steering on deep reaches. A 4-foot, 11-inch shoal-draft model was also available.
The Ericson 34 hull is solid fiberglass and taken from a single-piece mold. Ericson was justifiably proud of its "Tri-axial Force Grid," a molded structure of thwarts and stringers that give the hull rigidity and provides excellent support for the keel and rig loads. The sandwich deck has a balsa core with plywood backing under through-deck fittings for extra strength. The fiberglass hull and deck joint is less prone to leaking than through-bolts. The keel is externally fastened with beefy bolts. The rudder is foam over a steel frame with a thin fiberglass skin.
What to look for
Don't be confused by the various model numbers. The 34 T was an older model with an IOR pinched stern. The 35-3 is nearly identical but with a different interior. Various Ericson 35s were built over the years but they're older designs. Further, the Ericson 34-200 signifies the 34s built by Pacific Seacraft, but there seems to be a bit of confusion as to just when PS actually started building the boat.
Specific items to look for, especially in 34s that have not been well taken care of, include leaky portlights and hatches. Also, you will want to inspect the maststep closely, some owners report that the grid system can crack. Cracking and crazing around the anchor locker also has been reported. Blistering does not seem to be a major issue. Naturally there will be age-related items to inspect and update. It's interesting to note some of the upgrades Guerts has made to Ale Aboard. A partial list includes: complete new electronics, new batteries, new sails, an adjustable genoa car system, a solid vang and a Max Prop.
The 34s T-shaped cockpit features wheel steering and a curved helm seat. The visibility is excellent from the helm. Tom often solo sails and notes that the primary sheet winches are easy to reach from the wheel. Of course, he's 6-feet, 5-inches with a long wingspan. Most sail controls are led aft to the end of the coachroof. Midboom sheeting keeps the mainsheet out of the cockpit.
The molded nonskid of some boats may be well worn. However, the wide side decks, long teak handrails, and tall, well-supported stanchions and pulpits make moving about the deck safe and secure. The genoa tracks are mounted well inboard for tight sheeting angles. Boats that have serious cruising intentions often have retrofitted bow rollers to support heavier ground tackle.
The interior is impressive. There is a surprising amount of space and headroom. The layout works well, and the finish is excellent. Dropping below, the large galley is to port and it includes double sinks, plenty of counter and storage space, and a three-burner stove and oven. One thing to watch for is a natural gas stove, which came standard with many boats. While natural gas is safer than propane, it is very difficult to find these days. These stoves can be converted to propane.
A nice aft cabin with a good-sized double berth is tucked behind the galley, a clever design feature that was definitely ahead of its time. Opposite the galley is a small nav station with the head aft.
The saloon is very comfortable with a wraparound settee and table to port and a straight settee opposite. There are lockers above and outboard, and although the teak may seem dark by today's standards, there is no denying that the workmanship is first rate. Two overhead hatches provide decent ventilation and some boats have opening portlights as well. A tight V-berth cabin is forward.
The standard engine was a Universal MD 25, rated at 21-horsepower at 3,200 RPMs. Some owners report that the 34 is a bit underpowered and probably is, but the 34 is a sweet sailing boat through a range of conditions, so the need for a lot of horsepower is mitigated. Still, if there's a 34 on the market with a new, larger engine, consider that a plus. Tom usually fills the aluminum 30-gallon fuel tank once a season. Access is adequate from behind the companionway and through the aft cabin.
The overall sailing performance is the 34's best attribute. Scott Shackelford, an experienced Great Lakes skipper who has race aboard Ale Aboard, provided insights into the 34's performance. He likes the tall rig and deep keel, and notes that the boat tracks very well. Sailing upwind he suggests trimming more by the traveler than the sheet and keeping the boat on her lines. In light to moderate airs they fly the full main and No. 1, and as the wind pipes up, they drop to the No. 2. But it takes a lot of breeze before they tuck reefs into the mainsail.
Reaching, they use a barberhauler to get the headsail on the rail and open the slot. Downwind, the boat is fast and stable under the chute, even in 20 knots of breeze. Shackelford likes that the 34 can carry a large chute and sail deep without sacrificing boat speed.
The Ericson 34 is a handsome, high-quality, well-rounded boat that can be raced, cruised and sailed for fun. It is not cheap, but it will hold its value for years to come. What more does anyone need in sailboat?
Draft deep 6'2"
Draft shoal 4'11"
Draft wing 5'
Displacement 13,000 lbs.
Sail Area 595 sq. ft.
PRICE: Expect to pay at least $50,000 for a nicely kept Ericson 34, but of course when you compare that to the quality of new and newer boats, the value becomes obvious.
DESIGN QUALITY: Handsome and capable, Bruce King had a knack for getting the design right.
CONSTRUCTION QUALITY: Most of these 34s are 20 years old or more, and they're holding up very well. The quality of construction, despite Ericson's financial woes, was quite high.
USER-FRIENDLINESS: Comfortable on deck and below, and yet still a very nice sailing boat that is easy to handle under power and sail.
SAFETY: Wide side decks, a bridgedeck, stout handrails above and below deck, and most of all, a nice motion in a seaway, make the 34 a safe boat.
TYPICAL CONDITION: Most owners seem to the cherish their 34s, however, some boats have been neglected-that's the nature of the beast.
REFITTING: For the most part the 34 is a decent boat to work on, and some parts are still available.
SUPPORT: There is a lot of information online, and a very active and informed Ericson owners' group at www.ericsonyachts.org.
AVAILABILITY: Exact numbers of the production runs are hard to pin down, but there are always several 34s on the market. The Great Lakes and West Coast seem well represented.
INVESTMENT AND RESALE: In a sea of 20-year-old production boats, some models hold their own, and the Ericson 34 is one of them. Quality usually wins out.