Morris 36

2008 November 10

A handsome and capable all-around Down-Easter

Mention the Morris 36 these days and most sailors conjure images of the spectacular new Sparkman & Stephens designed daysailer/weekender being built by the highly respected Maine builder. However, the original Morris 36, which is better known as the Morris Justine, is no slouch and just happens to be the company's best-selling model to date. A graceful Chuck Paine design, the Justine 36 is superbly engineered and well proportioned. It is just large enough to be a genuine cruising boat with a nice turn of speed but it is small enough to be nimble and easily handled. Whether your sailing schedule allows for an afternoon gliding along Penobscot Bay or a month making your way to Nova Scotia, the Justine 36 will be right at home.

Launched in 1983, 33 boats were built as the Morris Justine 36. Another seven were produced with a modified transom and called the Morris 38, otherwise the two boats are identical. Between the two models there are usually three or four on the used market, and they tend to be located in the Northeast, or occasionally on the Chesapeake Bay. Morris quality doesn't come cheap, yet the Morris Justine 36 is old enough that its price curve has flattened out. It has gone from being expensive to being a solid value. With prices hovering around $200,000-a little below for an early boat, a little above for a later boat-the Justine is still a lot of money but it is clearly a good value as well. If you're not convinced, take a look at what $200,000 buys in a new boat and then climb through a Justine 36 and compare.

Tom Morris has been building boats for more than 30 years, and he's been working with Chuck Paine for almost that long. Morris Yachts has turned out more than 200 semi-custom sailboats, ranging from around 20 feet to more than 60 feet. I recently spoke with Tom and as we chatted on the phone he told me that he was gazing out in the yard at a lovely Justine 36 that had been freshly painted. Morris, speaking softly in a voice somehow mixed with both pride and humility, noted that, "although the boat is 15 years old, it is hard to tell it from a new boat. I fully expect that people will be sailing Justine 36s 50 years from now, and that is something that makes me feel good."

These days Morris Yachts focuses on large boats, and builds just a handful-about six-each year. This limited production provides Morris with an unusual luxury for a successful builder; he doesn't have to compete against his own boats on the secondhand market. In fact, used Morrises are an essential part of his business as new owners bring them back to the factory to be updated. "It is rare for someone to buy a used 36 and not bring it to the factory," Morris said, "and I love to see the old boats come back." Of course, he has a soft spot for the Justine 36; it's named after his wife.

First impressions
The Morris 36 is understated, it is really a classic Maine-built boat. There is nothing about it that shouts out, "notice me." Instead, it quietly wins you over with its elegant lines and obvious quality, and the closer you examine the boat the more you admire it. I'd put the Justine 36 on my short list of favorite boats to row out to in a crowded harbor. The sheerline is just subtle enough, the long cabintrunk is a little boxy but it reeks of Down East tradition, and in general, the boat looks at ease in the water, which is the mark of a no-compromise design. Paine's early hull shapes were deceptive. At first glance they look like a lot of fin and skeg boats, but the keel shape is refined and Morris has always looked for ways to keep his boats light. An LWL of just less than 30 feet and a moderate displacement of 15,600 pounds translate into a fast hull. Most Justine 36s have the optional 4-foot, 6-inch shoal-draft Schell keel, which opens up just about any cruising ground. The rudder is hung on a beefy skeg and the propeller is mounted in an aperture.

The hull is hand-laid solid fiberglass and Morris was one of the first builders to use vinylester resin. Rib Core, a rugged system of floors and stringers, is an internal hull stiffener. For the most part the boat is built without molded liners and all bulkheads and facings are securely tabbed to the hull. In fact, a close examination of this neat, clean tabbing that extends three inches illustrates the overall ethos of the build. The only fiberglass pan is the sole in the head, where it is practical. Tom Morris told me that everything in the boat that might need to come out, can come out through the companionway, including the tanks and diesel. An advantage of building a boat without liners is that it is open to customization, a key element of any Morris sailboat.

The deck is cored with half-inch, end-grain balsa, except in high-load areas where it is solid glass. The hull-and-deck joint incorporates a small bulwark, which not only provides for a strong, relatively leak-proof joint, but also makes the deck more friendly when going forward. The lead ballast is external and bolted to a keel stub. This arrangement offers the advantages of external keels and still provides for a decent sump in the boat. Interiors differ in both layout and finish. Some boats are finished with teak veneers and others with white laminates and teak trim, which is usually preferred.

What to look for
The Morris 36 has aged very gracefully, indeed, and documented problems are few and far between. Morris says that most boats that find their way to the yard opt for updating more than refitting. Typical projects include adding high-tech sails and sail control systems. Replacing the standing and running rigging are also pretty typical updates. Naturally electronics may need updating as well. Bigger projects include repowering. Early boats came with a three-cylinder 28-horsepower Volvo and later boats with a comparable Yanmar. Morris says that swapping engines requires reworking the engine beds but that process also provides the opportunity to clean, paint and upgrade the compact engine compartment. One complaint about the original construction is that it didn't include an oil drip pan beneath the engine and this is the right time to add one.

Other items to look for include making sure of just what model you have. A few boats were built with an optional tall rig, but it isn't much taller-a whopping couple of inches-so don't expect these boats to be turbo-charged. The deep-keel model probably provides slightly better upwind performance but most boats left the factory with the shoal keel. Morris 38s, which are newer, cost proportionately more and the only thing they offer is the modern transom. One big advantage of buying a used Morris is the file kept on each boat. Morris tries to maintain accurate records, from ownership to equipment changes for each boat, so prospective buyers can know the true story of the boat they're considering.

On deck
The cockpit is not expansive but this isn't a boat designed to cram a lot of people aboard. Steering may be a tiller but more likely it's a wheel system. The visibility from the helm is only adequate, especially with a dodger in place, but the cockpit is deep with four drains, which is a nice trade-off at sea. There are lockers port and starboard and coaming is angled to spare your lower back and also doubles as a seat for a better view. The mainsheet traveler is forward with midboom sheeting. On a smaller boat, and the Morris 36 is a small 36-footer, this arrangement is a necessity. And the system can work without sacrificing too much efficiency when the mainsheet leads are laid out to reduce friction and the hardware is top quality.

One of Tom Morris' favorite features is the molded bulwark, which in typical Morris style is low slung, blending naturally into the flow of the deck. The nonskid provides good traction and the 27-inch stanchions, double lifelines, teak handrails on the coachroof and stout pulpits give a sense of security. The stemhead fitting usually features just one anchor roller and the hawse feed for the ground tackle leads it below. I prefer an external chain locker.

Most 36s have a cutter rig with a mobile staysail stay. I like this arrangement. It is nice to sail as a sloop sometimes, especially when close tacking and removing the staysail to a less intrusive position really makes maneuvering easier. The mast is a single spreader section and the shrouds are set just inboard. The deck hardware is variably first class, Harken blocks, Lewmar winches, and tracks and stainless from Hinckley.

Down below
The Justine 36 interior might surprise you; it is not luxurious, nor even elegant. It has a spare, utilitarian feel, and although the workmanship is excellent, it isn't boastful. Although no two 36s are exactly alike, most feature two types of finish-either teak veneers on the bulkheads or white laminates with solid teak trim. I prefer the white look, it is more in keeping with the Down East philosophy of the boats, brighter and tends to better accentuate the fine joinerwork in the trim pieces.

The standard layout includes a V-berth forward. The hanging locker is to port with the head compartment opposite. No, there is not a separate shower stall but there is a teak grate over the sump and everything else you need. The saloon usually includes a centerline table with leaves, and settees to port and starboard. Most boats came with at least one pilot berth and often two. I love pilot berths. They are the best place to snooze, out of the traffic flow and in the center of the boat. They also open up the saloon, a nice feature on a narrow boat. However, many people can't resist converting the pilot berths into cabinetry.

The galley is to starboard and includes one large and one small sink, a two- or three-burner stove and oven, a good-sized icebox and a reasonable amount of counter and storage space. The electrical panels are mounted below the companionway steps, in the galley, which is not the best location for keeping them dry. The navigation station is opposite the galley and faces outbound. A swing out stool seat is not wildly comfortable and some 36s have retrofitted better chairs. The quarterberth is also to port. An aft cabin model was also offered, which features a private quarter cabin, but few boats were built with this option.

As noted earlier the original engine was a three-cylinder 28-horsepower Volvo but a variety of engines were fitted per owner requests. These engines were reliable and ran well but expensive to maintain and repair. Later models were fitted with Yanmar marine diesels, and many boats have had engine rebuilds or replacement along the way. Access is only adequate from behind the companionway steps but this is a function of a lack of space, not poor design. The fuel capacity is usually listed at 37 gallons. The boat handles well under power, and efficient hull shape helps fuel economy. Many 36s are fitted with folding propellers like the Max Prop, which not only enhances performance and maneuverability but also reflects the loving care Morris owners spoil their boats with.

"The Justine is extremely well balanced," Tom Morris said, and although I generally have a healthy skepticism of builders and designers, for some reason I believe him. A well-balanced boat is easy on the crew and gear, especially self-steering equipment. It is also rewarding to sail a balanced boat because it responds to attention and quickly lets you know when it needs a bit of love. The Morris 36 has a moderate sailplan and can carry a fair amount of sail when the wind pipes up. Morris says he built the boat with Chuck Paine's 20/20 rule in mind. When the wind or angle of heel hits 20, either knots or degrees, it is time to tie in the first reef in the mainsail.

I spoke briefly with a Morris 36 owner on the dinghy dock in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, this past summer. He had sailed his boat up from Marblehead a few weeks before and told me that despite a lot of light air and inexperienced crew he was often charging along at more that 7 knots with an asymmetrical chute. I was impressed as I watched him sail onto a mooring in the harbor. Tom Morris knows of a couple of boats that have crossed the Atlantic and one
that circumnavigated.

The Morris Justine 36 is lovely, well-designed and thoughtfully built. It is a terrific all-around boat and will please even the most discriminating sailors. It is pricey, but not when compared to similar boats and certainly not when compared to new boats of even lesser quality. If you have dreamed of owning a new Morris but can't get beyond the steep prices, consider a used one. I suspect the Morris Justine will continue to hold its value and I know that it will deliver a lot of pure sailing pleasure.