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Dehler 29

1999 November 7

Strongly built family cruiser with a nice turn speed

Americans have long had a soft spot for finely engineered German automobiles, but for some reason, German sailboats have never held much appeal on our side of the Atlantic. Dehler, one of Germany's leading sailboat builders for more than 35 years, is trying hard to change that by actively marketing its boats in this country. The company builds a complete range of performance cruisers, from 22 to 41 feet. While the innovative 41DS raised-saloon sloop has garnered the most press attention lately, both at home and abroad, the sprightly 29-footer is Dehler's most popular boat. Designed as a daysailer, club racer and small cruiser, the 29 is certainly versatile. I test-sailed the 29, Germany's 1997 Yacht of the Year, on a blustery day on Chesapeake Bay.

The weather changed rapidly on the bay and the darkening cumulus clouds were making mischief. Luckily I could see the puff coming as I braced myself at the tiller and spilled the main. Whoosh! We heeled hard to port and immediately blasted forward on a close reach. Sure, there was some initial tenderness and a lot of helm, but the fault was mine-we were definitely overcanvassed. Once we slapped a reef in the main and rolled in some headsail, things settled down. But there was no denying the basic sure-footedness and impressive get-up-and-go of the Dehler 29. Designed by Judel & Vrolijk, the Dehler 29 has that modern, angular look that we have come to expect from European build-ers. It's a look you either like or don't like-few are ambivalent. The snub bow translates into a long LWL, and a flat forefoot keeps the wetted surface to a minimum, although the 29 will likely pound upwind in a chop. By the same token, the boat should be fast off the wind. Typically, there is not much sheer, and this tends to visually accentuate the freeboard. The sloping cabintrunk extends quite far forward, but is nicely blended into the cockpit coamings aft. Below the water, the 29 has a narrow fin keel with a standard draft of 5 feet, 3 inches, and a balanced rudder blade. The hull and deck-laid-up by hand according to the new European CE standards-are cored with end-grain balsa and laminated together while still in the mold to avoid hull-to-deck joint leaks and ensure the core stays dry. Most American-built boats use a chemical compound, like 3M's 5200, and a through-bolted flange joint. But, while this is certainly a good method of joining the hull and deck, it is primarily done to allow builders to finish the interior without the constraints of the deck above. Dehler's technique creates a strong, integrated structure and is an excellent construction method, especially for boats of less than 30 feet.

Beauty down below
Down below, there is a molded fiberglass sole with wooden insets and a molded liner that encapsulates the mahogany-faced plywood bulkheads. The cast-iron keel is externally fastened to glassed-in steel floors. Like many European production boats, the rudder stock is solid aluminum.

The cockpit seats are shaped for comfort, but the most refreshing part of the cockpit is found at the helm. Aside from sport boats and one-designs, few other 29-footers offer tiller steering these days. One advantage of tiller steering is that the tiller can be folded back, or removed, to free up cockpit space when dockside. Another advantage of a tiller is that, with an extender, you can easily scoot out on the high-side coaming for good visibility while helming.

There is a large locker to starboard, and the stern pulpit is split to create access to the stern ladder. All sail-control lines are led aft, and while this is becoming standard on most boats, I still like to haul the main up, hand-over-hand, at the base of the mast, especially on smaller boats. I would also choose the traveler instead of the standard mainsheet strongpoint on the cockpit sole.

The molded nonskid surface offers good traction on deck, the result of a finely tuned deck mold. In fact, the overall fiberglass sculpting is impressive; I especially like the small molded rail. The four mooring cleats are husky, and the deck hardware in general, from rope clutches to self-tailing Lewmar winches, is of a high quality. Most deck fittings are backed with aluminum plates molded into the deck. Although there is a self-draining, external anchor locker, the standard boat has no hardware for anchoring off the bow.

A Dehler trademark is the 7/8-rig. The double-spreader anodized aluminum spar is supported by inboard shrouds led to single-pod chainplates. Each chainplate is tied to a stout stringer on the hull. Our test boat was fitted with a Furlex roller-furling headsail and had the option of setting up a babystay. The wire terminal ends have swage fittings, which are roll-formed and, if done well, will hold up as well as mechanical terminals like Staylok or Norseman. A rigid vang is standard, and the Dehler "Quick Reef" slab-reefing system is led to the cockpit.

The standard interior is nicely trimmed in mahogany, and the plan is quite open. Our test boat had the optional cherrywood finish. The forward cabin is separated from the saloon by a small partial bulkhead and a privacy curtain. The bunks are long enough to sleep comfortably, and there are practical storage bags tacked alongside. Our test boat had a 26-gallon plastic water tank forward. The head is to starboard and is surprisingly spacious. There is a wash basin and a locker that can serve as a wet locker.

The saloon is bright, and there is just enough joinerwork to provide a pleasant atmosphere. Semicircular seating can handle up to six people, but that would be a crowd even for Lilliputians. There is a good-size table, which folds out on both sides, and adequate storage beneath the settees. There is a step in the sole that takes a bit of getting used to, and I stumbled more than once. The port-side galley is a bit small but certainly functional. There is a single sink with pressure water and a two-burner Origo pressureless alcohol stove. The galley locker-fronts are made of cane, which is both handsome and practical, as the lockers can breathe. Opposite the galley is a small nav station with the electrical panel above. The most impressive interior feature is the aft cabin tucked to port and underneath the cockpit. The berth is a legitimate double, with storage underneath and large bags alongside. There is even a small wardrobe.

The standard engine is a 10-horsepower, 2-cylinder Volvo diesel with a saildrive. We steamed along smartly, near 6 knots, and the Volvo ran smoothly and seemed a little quieter than other small diesels. Access to the engine is adequate from behind the companionway, and the 16-gallon fuel tank won't break the bank when you fill up.

The gusty weather was behind us, and the cool easterly settled in around 18 knots true-great sailing weather. The cockpit easily accommodated four as we short tacked our way out of the crowded Annapolis Harbor. Once we had a bit of sea room, we eased off onto a broad reach and let the 29 show its stuff. With the standard 110-percent headsail and a reefed main, we clipped along near 7 knots; good going, but not quite a rocketship. Tiller steering in a fresh breeze required a bit more muscle than a wheel but was also more rewarding. Small adjustments resulted in immediate heading changes.

Bringing the boat up, we heeled initially, and then the 29 dug in and came up quite close. We were able to keep the boat moving well, although we probably needed to shorten up a bit more. Like most light, low-wetted-surface boats, the Dehler sails best on its lines, without excessive heel. A chop was building, and I felt it as I made my way forward. We were able to reach back toward the harbor and paid the main well out. We managed to ride a few of the larger waves, and under the right conditions, I'm sure the Dehler 29 would provide exciting off-the-wind sailing. In Back Creek, I took the helm and put the boat through some tight maneuvers and eased it into the slip without a fuss. The Dehler 29 strikes me as a perfect boat for a young family and just may be the vehicle for German builders to gain a foothold in the U.S. market.