Ericson 39

2010 April 12
Dependable and fast makes for a good value in a cruiser

I recently attended the annual state-of-the-sailboat-industry breakfast at the Miami Strictly Sail show. I am sure the shocking figures were not news to the builders in attendance, but anyway you spin it, 2009 was a gruesome year for new boat sales. Fortunately they don't measure sailor confidence, because it's probably down as well. But should it be? There are still, by some estimates, a million sailboats afloat in the United States, and a lot of them are for sale. Sailors are still sailing, they're still buying and selling boats, just not new ones. In many ways the cost of owning a boat has actually decreased in the last few years. From riggers to diesel mechanics, sailboat services are more competitive. And, most importantly, there are some amazing boat values to be had. Just take a look at the venerable Ericson 39.

Designed by Bruce King, and introduced in 1970, the 39 was a serious racer-cruiser in its day. With its flush deck, powerful sloop rig and nicely finished mahogany interior, it was sexy and expensive. Ericson was on top of its game in the 1970s. Today, the Ericson 39 may not be perceived as sexy, but it can certainly still be a serious boat and it is anything but expensive. A quick glance at the seven boats listed online shows prices ranging from a high of $74,000 for a fully restored Ericson 39B, to $24,900 for a 1973 version in need of upgrading.

First impressions
Most of the 130 or so Ericson 39s were built with a near flush deck-a look that is practical and efficient for sailing, but one you will either really like or really not like. For those interested in a 39 with a more traditional cabintrunk, look for the 39B model. These 39s are something of a cult boat among cruisers because by raising the cabintrunk King was able to offer more headroom below and at the same time increase the size of the tanks in the bilge. An offset companionway allowed for an aft cabin below instead of just a quarterberth. It's also a very handsome boat. However, only 19 B models were built, while more than 100 flushdeck 39s were launched before production ceased in 1979.

Although the design was thoroughly modern in its day, the boat does seem dated today. In some ways the numbers back up that perception and in some ways they don't. The short 30-foot waterline shows a boat with a long, very nice looking entry and a pinched IOR counter stern. Still, the 9-foot overhangs translate into a ratio of just over 20 percent of LOA, less than other similar boats of the era. The swept-back fin keel with a deep forefoot, fullish aft sections that form a three-quarter skeg, reveal a hull shape that is not prone to pounding and should be able to muscle its way through rough seas. The draft is just under 6 feet and the air draft is just under 60 feet, both very workable numbers for practical cruising. The ballast-to-displacement ratio is nearly 50 percent, accounting for a high degree of stiffness. The sail area/displacement ratio of 16.62 was perfect for a performance cruiser in 1970, but today that puts the 39 squarely in the cruiser category. That does not mean that it is not a very nice sailing boat, because it is.

What to look for
There is plenty to look out for in a boat that was last built more than 30 years ago. Specifically, be sure to check for signs of deck delamination-a problem that is not uncommon with flush decks withbalsa coring. The forward hatch is huge, and not immune to leaks. Also, the chainplates are secured to the main bulkhead, and if they've leaked, and all chainplates do, then the bulkhead may be rotten. Most of these problems will have been attended to, especially chainplate leaks, if the owner is at all conscientious.

Be sure to check the engine carefully. Some of the low-priced 39s on the market still have the original Atomic 4 30-horsepower gas engine. That's not a good thing, but fortunately most 39s have repowered with diesels. A quick look at the boats for sale showed just one with an Atomic 4. Others had Yanmars, Betas and Phasors (both marinized Kubotas) and one Westerbeke. Older Ericsons had their share of blister problems, so try to find out when the last blister job, if ever, was done. Also, be sure to check all age-related items, especially the standing rigging. Some owners brag about having bags of sails, but don't pay extra for them as they're probably more of a burden than a plus. Thirty-year-old sails don't have much value. Lastly, be sure to check the plumbing and hoses; some old 39s still have the original gate valves on some through-hull fittings, and these must be changed to proper valves.

Ericson laminated its boats in split molds, essentially building them in halves and then joining them along the centerline afterward. This was common in the early days. It was easier to work with half a hull in the shoe, and removing a boat with tumblehome was less of a process. The key is that the two halves are well joined; any way you slice it this is a secondary bond. However, I have never heard of any problems with old Ericson hull joints, and the Contessa 32 that we sailed around the Horn was built the same way. The solid fiberglass hull and balsa-cored deck are joined on an inward flange. Solid plywood was used in lieu of balsa in areas of high load under the deck.

As mentioned before, the bulkheads are plywood, and were well-tabbed to the hull. The cabin sole is a molded piece, and this required another secondary bond, but streamlined the building process. The internal ballast is lead, something we don't see as much of today. The rudderstock could have been beefier stainless and the rudder itself is foam over an iron grid with a thin glass covering.

On deck
The first thing you notice about the cockpit of the Ericson 39 is the placement of the wheel; it's just behind the bridgedeck, not right over the rudder like you would suspect. The emergency tillerhead farther aft reveals the actual rudder stock position. However, it does have practical advantages. It frees up the rest of the cockpit for sail handling, and for lounging, and it also allows the helmsperson to tuck under the spray dodger and out of the weather. There are two good-sized cockpit lockers on most 39s, however the 39Bs have just one because the aft cabin to port takes up the space.

Winches seem ageless, and although most 39s had either Barlow or Barient winches, there is no reason to rush out and replace them. The 39 was one of the first boats to feature midboom sheeting on the mainsheet, with the traveler forward of the companionway. The 39B models usually have the traveler and sheet located aft, and those that I have personally inspected have the wheel and pedestals mounted aft in the cockpit, which allows easier access to the offset companionway.

The foredeck, especially for a flush deck, is not quite as spacious as you might think. The nonskid might be well worn. Naturally, the 39B with a raised cabintrunk with teak handholds feels a bit more secure as you make your way forward on the fairly wide side decks. While the 39B has a more moderately sized forward hatch, the foredeck hatch on the flush-deck 39 is huge. It was designed for easy sail stuffing, and it does provide a lot of ventilation. Most 39s have small bow anchor rollers, so if you find a boat that has a serious anchoring arrangement consider it a big plus.

Down below
Let's first look at the flush-deck interior, because that's what most 39 buyers will find available. The plan is a little unpredictable but it works well. Younger sailors will be shocked at how little room is actually below, especially if they've just come from a boat show. It's safe to say that most modern 32-footers have as much usable space as the Ericson 39.

Anyway, once you drop below you will find the galley close at hand to starboard. In its day it was a phenomenal galley. There are two sinks facing forward, usually a three-burner stove outboard and an icebox aft. There's good counter space and storage both in drawers and bins behind the stove.

Opposite the galley is a settee berth and quarterberth. This is actually a very good sea berth provided you're not too tall. It stretches under the aft-facing nav station. While this was a good use of space, it leaves the nav desk exposed to any water sloshing in through the companionway. The saloon includes facing settees with a centerline table between. I have seen some boats where the table has been removed and stored on the bulkhead. There is good storage above and outboard the settees and behind them. The head is forward to port, and it's not overly spacious. The V-berth is very good in size, and the bunks are not four feet high, so it's easy to crawl into bed. There is a big hanging locker to starboard, opposite the head, and access to the chain locker is at the head of the berth.

Overhead hatches provide ventilation, and that is by design a bit limiting. Most owners have upgraded the lighting in the boat, which is dramatically more efficient today and also can keep the heat down. The 39 interior is nicely trimmed in mahogany, which can be refinished. This is a very livable interior for a couple.

The early boats came with the aforementioned Atomic 4 30-horsepower gasoline engine. While some people still swear by the old Atomic 4, I am not one of them. It's one the major reasons for a fire sale price. Look for a boat with a diesel. Ericson began using the Westerbeke 30, and while this was a good model, it's bound to be very old by now.

Most used 39s have been re-powered, and I'd be willing to pay a premium for a boat with a new or newer engine. The access is not very good as the engine is shoehorned behind the companionway steps. The original boats came with a 20-gallon iron fuel tank, and hopefully this has been changed out. The Ericson 39B models had increased fuel and water capacity. Both models are apparently difficult to steer in reverse, and that may be an understatement.

The Ericson 39 is a sweet sailing boat by any standard. It's not fast like today's performance boats, but it has evolved into a very nice sailing cruising boat. And cruise it does. I know one boat, Maverick, that recently circumnavigated, and I also met another boat, Swan, in Gibraltar in the fall of 2008. Sailed by a young couple, they'd been out three years and were heading back to the Caribbean and then home to Texas.

The 39 tracks well up wind, and has a soft motion in a seaway. The narrow beam, pinched stern and deep aft sections are not ideal for running, but it is a capable boat in the trade winds. The masthead rig is ideal for poling out a headsail when running. Swan recorded two 180-mile days on the eastbound Atlantic crossing, and that's terrific going for any cruising boat.

I liked the Ericson 39 when it was new, and I still like it as an old boat. There is nothing extreme about the boat, but it is well built and dependable under sail. It's the definition of a solid value and just another reason why today's economic woes shouldn't keep us from doing the thing we love best.

LOA 39'
LWL 30'
Beam 11'4"
Draft 5'11"
19,000 lbs.
Sail Area
739 sq. ft.