Style and performance in a highly engineered racer-cruiser
It was hot and sticky on the Chicago waterfront, but when the Dehler 39 came motoring around Navy Pier to pick us up at the Chicago Yacht Club for our test sail, it looked cool and powerful.
We tested the Dehler 39 Troubadour while part of the crew was resting up for the boat's first Chicago-Mackinac Race. The boat had already competed in the Port Huron to Mackinac Race, arriving in the Windy City just the night before. And while my hosts looked a little grizzled, Troubadour looked fresh and eager, with her tall, fractional rig, teak deck and royal blue topsides.
Not that things have always gone smoothly for Dehler. Despite the fact that this year marks the German yachtbuilder's 40th anniversary, it hit its fair share of bumps along the road, both in Europe and the United States, until a company restructuring a few years ago helped it focus its efforts on more streamlined production. Of course, as the world knows, there's nothing like German engineering when it comes to producing high-quality pieces of equipment and it shows throughout the Dehler 39, whether it be the joinery below or the top-grade hardware on deck.
Even on paper the Dehler, which was created by the Judel/Vrolijk design firm, is an impressive boat. A nearly plumb bow and minimum overhang aft result in a 35-foot, 1-inch waterline on a 38-foot, 9-inch LOA. And every inch of that is needed to help power the boat's 15,572 pounds of displacement. (A standard, more cruising-oriented version displaces 17,195 pounds.) Ultimately the D/L is a very respectable 154, and while in this day and age some might argue that this is on the heavy side for a true racer-cruiser, the 39's towering 61-foot mast and 1,032 square feet of sail on the wind provide plenty of oomph, even in the light stuff. Also, what some sailors forget is that ultralight displacement comes at a price in terms of cruising comfort, whereas you're going to want a more substantial boat in a seaway. More on that later. The SA/D is a very respectable 22.12.
In terms of construction, the Dehler's hull is comprised of hand-laid glass mat and uni- and multidirectional rovings with "hydrolysis-proof" polyester resin and an end-grain balsa core. Structural bulkheads are bonded to both the hull and deck, and integrated load-bearing stringers help disperse loads throughout the hull.
The deck is a hand-laid balsa-glass sandwich with laminated-in aluminum reinforcement plates for all fittings. The hull and deck are laminated together while still in the mold to create an integrated monocoque structure that feels rock solid in a seaway. The boat's balanced spade rudder is mounted on a solid aluminum shaft with self-aligning JP3 rudder bearings. The high-aspect bulb keel, a combination of cast iron and lead, is fastened to the hull by stainless steel bolts laminated into the floor. The triple-spreader fractional rig consists of a Sparcraft keel-stepped tapered mast with stainless Dyform wire stays.
The test boat came with the optional teak deck, which was both beautiful to behold and provided excellent footing. For those who prefer to neither pay for nor maintain this amenity, a standard gray-tinted nonskid is also available that looks very sharp
The test boat came with Dehler's signature royal blue topsides and a white transom, which gave it a kind of regal no-nonsense look. Everything about the deck looked solid and well crafted, indicative of a careful attention to detail, from the solid stanchions and double lifelines to ergonomically contoured seats in the cockpit and nonskid on the foredeck toerails.
Hardware included a pair of Lewmar 44AST mainsheet winches, a Harken mainsheet traveler system, Lewmar 48AST primaries and a pair of Lewmars on the cabintop, including a Lewmar 44EST electric winch to one side. The helm is a big destroyer wheel with super-smooth Whitlock linkage. The cockpit sole is cut out to accommodate the big wheel, and molded-in helming positions to either side mean the person driving will always have a good view of the sails. A leather wheel cover comes standard-one of those little touches that helps elevate an ordinary sail to something truly elegant.
The transom is hinged providing access to the 39's swim step and boarding ladder, and chainplates are inboard permitting tighter sheeting angles for the headsail, while a Harken adjustable genoa track system means that jib leads are easy to fine tune from the cockpit. The companionway comes with a bridgedeck, and instruments are clearly visible on the sliding hatch above. A full battery of stoppers is mounted to either side for controlling halyards, the topping lift and various control lines.
Forward, the 39 was equipped with a standard set of spinnaker gear as well as a retractable, deck-mounted carbon fiber sprit for flying an asymmetrical chute, the latter feature being something that is also found in other models of the Dehler. For auxiliary power, the standard 39 comes with a 27-horsepower Yanmar 3GM30 with two-blade prop and saildrive. A 38-horsepower Yanmar 3JH3 diesel, also with saildrive, is an option. The onboard electronics get their juice from a 55-amp-hour starting battery and 110-amp-hour house cell. For more power, a pair of 200-amp-hour batteries and a 40-amp charger are an option.
All in all, everything about the Dehler says it is a boat both designed and constructed to perform. If the company cut any corners they certainly don't show. And they must have been some infinitesimally small corners indeed.
If the feeling on deck is one of elegance and power, the feeling below is one of elegance and comfort, with a high-gloss cherry veneer that is as solid looking as the boat under sail. If there is one down side to this kind of décor it is that it tends to show fingerprints. But that's a small price to pay for this kind of elegance.
The test boat came with a large V-berth, large saloon with a forward-facing nav station to starboard, large head to starboard alongside the companionway and a large quarterberth to port. The galley, to port just aft the settee, included a pair of deep sinks, gimbaled oven and stove, plenty of cabinet space and big, elegantly crafted, solid-cherry fiddles to keep things off the sole.
Other interior options included mirror-image quarterberths aft and/or two head and shower compartments (one forward and one aft), but the test boat's configuration is the most elegant since it makes no attempt to shoehorn in any more accommodations than really belong. All layout options for the 39 include a pair of large storage areas in the transom, and owners opting for the large, port-side quarterberth also have the choice of either another small berth or a lazarette in the space to starboard. Among the many benefits of knowing when to say when in terms of the number of berths is the fact that both the quarterberth and V-berth have hanging lockers in addition to the usual shelves running along the hull.
A second settee across from the folding saloon table also serves as an additional berth, plenty of ports provide more than adequate light and ventilation and well placed handholds along the deckhead mean you won't have to pitch to leeward in a seaway. Engine access is either by way of the companionway steps or by removing a panel in the quarterberth. All the wiring and plumbing, whether it be behind the instrument panel of the nav station or in the head compartment, is carefully organized and easy to access. Dehler prides itself on the fact that a systems check or repair will be as easy as possible to execute in the event of an emergency at sea.
It had been a busy day on Lake Michigan for me, testing no less than two other boats before it came time to step aboard. Luckily, the wind had been building throughout the afternoon, and what looked like an ugly little front had blown away with just a scattering of rain so we found ourselves with a perfect day for a sail. Heading east through the entrance to Chicago Harbor, the Dehler powered up and the speedo quickly jumped to 6 knots in about 15 knots of breeze. And we weren't even half trying. The helm was balanced and the boat tracked easily thanks to its deep 7-foot, 9-inch keel and big rudder. When a stiff gust came off the lake, the boat demonstrated its sail-carrying ability, heeling gently to her lines with no crew on the rail.
We got onto open water, and the moderate northeaster started kicking up a chop on top of some residual swells from the previous day. The Dehler didn't mind at all. It bit into the waves and powered through, holding its speed and showing no tendency to pound upwind. When we took the boat through a series of tacks, the Dehler came through the eye of the wind cleanly and was very forgiving on the occasion that I timed things perfectly to stick the boat's nose into a particularly sharp wave.
Eventually, someone noticed that we were pretty far out onto the lake and that we should be heading back, so I reluctantly jibed around and we began reaching in toward the harbor. Once again, the boat was smooth and completely in control as we charged down the faces of the waves, reaching the flat water of the harbor far too quickly.
Motoring around the harbor and then toward the Chicago Y.C. the Dehler was as easy to handle-both in forward and reverse-as it had been under sail.
But to tell the truth, by that time I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to the boat test anymore. Even amid the dozens of race boats rafted together in wait for the upcoming jaunt up Lake Michigan, the Dehler was turning heads. Since the dawn of time, sailors have become attached to their boats for both functional and aesthetic reasons. On both counts the Dehler 39 is going to infatuate a lot of sailors.