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Cape Fear 38

2002 July 7

Form follows function on this spirited racer-cruiser from Bruce Marek

Naval architect Bruce Marek has designed plenty of fast boats over the years, and his latest creation, the Cape Fear 38, certainly won't tarnish his reputation. Marek, formerly part of a well-known design team with Bruce Nelson, has worked on everything from America's Cup racers and an Around Alone 50 to the production Morgan 45 and the small rotomolded Cha Cha from Escape. The Cape Fear 38 is Marek's version of a performance cruiser, but don't worry, he hasn't changed his stripes. The accent on this new design is definitely on performance.

The Cape Fear 38 is built in Wilmington, North Carolina, not far from its infamous namesake. Kent Mitchell, owner of Cape Fear Yacht Works, spent years racing and cruising the Carolina sounds and coasts before deciding to build his own version of the perfect racer-cruiser. While many of us fantasize about building boats, Mitchell jumped into the business with both feet. And he is enthusiastic about his product. "If racing is in your blood but you also want some creature comforts, then this is a boat you need to consider," he said as we test-sailed hull No. 1 on a crisp Chesapeake Bay afternoon.

The details
Any way you crunch the numbers, the Cape Fear 38 is a light-displacement boat, right on the edge for offshore cruising but certainly viable for coastal hops, which is the way most of us cruise anyway. At 125 the displacement-to-length ratio is less than the J/120, and the slippery hull has a beam of just 11 feet for a high length-to-beam ratio of 3.45. The fine entry has almost no overhang, and the forward sections have a bit of flare, allowing the 38 to cut through the water cleanly while deflecting spray. There isn't much sheer when you view the boat in profile, but the fairly large cabintrunk, which incidentally translates into a nice interior, softens the go-fast look.

Below the water the forefoot and the run aft are very thin, and the buttocks form a nearly straight line. There isn't much wetted surface to slow the boat down, but there also isn't much in the way of hull form to prevent the boat from pounding when sailing upwind in a seaway. Of course, the Cape Fear 38 really flies off the wind. The keel section is a high-lift fin with a bulb, and the draft is just 6 feet showing the cruising side to the design. A ballast-to-displacement ratio of 45 percent will help keep the Cape Fear 38 on its feet when the wind pipes up.

The hull is hand-laid, using vinylester biaxial E-glass with Kevlar reinforcing in high-load areas. Cape Fear Boat Works also offers an optional foam-cored hull. The deck is foam cored between layers of biaxial E-glass with a vinylester top skin. The hull and deck are joined on an inward flange, using an epoxy chemical bond and then glassed on the inside to make it completely watertight. The hull and deck have a smooth gelcoat finish and the overall fiberglass work is extremely well done. Inside the hull, longitudinal stringers and the main structural bulkheads are tabbed in place.

The keel is antimony-hardened lead with an epoxy primer coating, and the keel bolts are stainless steel. The rudder and stock are carbon fiber. All through-hull fittings below the water are flush-mounted seacocks.

On deck
The large cockpit is designed for performance. "But today's open-style racing cockpits are also pretty comfortable at the dock or at anchor," Marek said during the test sail. The test boat was fitted with a handsome stainless tiller, perched very far aft as the rudder blade is located as far aft as possible for excellent steering control. Although hull No. 2 has wheel steering, Marek and Mitchell believe most owners will opt for the feel that only tiller steering can deliver. The Harken traveler and 2:1 continuous mainsheet system are just forward of the tiller, and there is a molded, stand-alone pedestal for the compass. The standard primary winches are Harken B48.2STA, and B40.2STAs are standard for the halyards and secondary winches. The test boat was equipped with optional Datamarine sailing instruments, which were mounted over the companionway and a bit hard to see from the helm.

All sail controls are led aft, and although the Cape Fear 38 offers breathtaking performance, it is cleverly designed for easy sail handling. The 7/8 fractional rig with sweptback spreaders does not require running backstays. The standard, keel-stepped mast and boom are aluminum, with carbon fiber offered as an option. Two reefs and a flattening reef are standard, as is a Hall Spars vang. The standing rigging is discontinuous rod. The large main has a bit of roach, and the top three battens are full. The main is the heart of the drive system. The sailplan calls for nonoverlapping headsails, which makes roller furling a sensible option, even when racing. Our test boat was fitted with a 105-percent jib by UK and an optional hydraulic backstay adjuster. The spinnakers are asymmetrical, and a fixed sprit makes both sets and jibes easy. The spinnakers can be flown from the masthead, which adds even more off-the-wind horsepower.

Deck hardware is for the most part Harken gear. The 24-inch stainless sprit has a bow roller for the anchor, and there is a small external chain locker. The nonskid surface offers good traction despite a bit of camber to the side decks. Well-placed handrails and double lifelines provide added security while working forward. One interesting feature is the swim step, a novel idea for an open-cockpit boat.

Down below
The interior plan is straightforward and functional. Although Marek was constrained by the narrow hull shape and the need to keep the boat light, the interior is surprisingly comfortable. Forward there is a double berth with a hanging locker to starboard and small locker to port. There is a shelf along either side of the berth. The saloon includes settees and a centerline table with fold-up leaves.

One drawback to the interior is an overall lack of storage, but that is the nature of the design. This isn't a boat that you can load up with extra gear. The interior is perfect for a weekend or even a weeklong cruise, but it isn't designed to be an alternative to shore-side living. Thankfully, the Cape Fear 38 is a sailboat first. The cabin sole is teak and holly, and the trim is teak and mahogany. The joinerwork might be called New England spartan, but it's nicely finished and the overall atmosphere below is cozy, especially for a high-performance boat.

An L-shaped galley is to port and includes a two-burner cooker with oven, small stainless steel double sinks, pressure water and an optional fridge in a 7-cubic-foot icebox. There is plenty of counter space outlined with fiddles for cooking at sea. The nav station is opposite, squeezed in forward of the head. The chart desk is good-sized and there is plenty of room for instrument repeaters. The electrical panel is outboard, and the navigator has to be careful not to slide into it when heeled on port tack.

An aft head is practical for several reasons. First, there is less motion for doing your business, and second, it is well placed to serve as a wet locker, although the Cape Fear also has a molded wet locker. The head includes a sink, vanity and shower. A double quarterberth is tucked under the cockpit to port, with a small hanging locker just forward. Eight opening ports provide good ventilation.

Hull No. 1 was fitted with a Yanmar 3GM 30-horsepower Yanmar saildrive diesel. The company has now switched to a comparable Volvo. Access to either engine is terrific from behind the companionway and through the quarter cabin. The saildrive eliminates the need for a shaft and stuffing box, and greatly simplifies engine installation. The aluminum fuel tank holds 50 gallons, which will likely last you the entire sailing season. Two aluminum water tanks also hold a total of 50 gallons. The test boat, which motored smartly into a modest chop, was fitted with an optional Martec feathering prop. Two Group 31 batteries provide plenty of power for the house system, and a dedicated Group 24 battery is used for engine starting.

Under sail
The afternoon breeze was a bit a fickle-one minute we'd have 10 to 12 knots apparent, then the wind would drop to 6 to 8. It was frustrating because the day before we'd had an ideal sailing breeze. Taking the helm I quickly remembered how much fun it is to drive a powerful boat with a tiller. The connection between wind and rudder becomes instantly clear. Bringing the boat up on to the wind we found a bit of breeze. The headsail tracks are inboard along the cabintrunk, and once trimmed we banged along near 7 knots. Line-drive adjustable leads would be a nice option. The steering was light and balanced. Marek, Mitchell and Hill Goodman, the company's marketing director, were just relieved to be sailing at last. They had worked furiously to finish the boat for the United States Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland, and then just as furiously to rig the boat for sea trials following the show. Considering that this was the maiden sail, the Cape Fear 38 was performing quite nicely indeed.

Although the boat felt somewhat tender initially, dumping the traveler flattened things out a bit. Easing off, the Cape Fear turned on the jets. Once I found the groove, our boat speed topped 7 knots consistently. Like most modern performance hulls, the Cape Fear 38 wants to be sailed on its lines. Flat is fast. Coming through the wind, the boat tacks effortlessly, this is when you will appreciate the small headsail. Acceleration was impressive as we gained way. Unfortunately, the wind went light as we headed off the wind. Still, I can just imagine the thrill of surfing in 15 to 20 knots of breeze-that's what the Cape Fear is made for.

The Cape Fear 38 is an intriguing new boat, capable of delivering thrilling sailing and offering creature comforts as well. There is plenty of competition in the racer-cruiser field these days, as top designers seem to be focusing their energies on redefining the essence of performance. It will be difficult for the Cape Fear 38 to carve out a niche in a field dominated by J Boats and Carroll Marine. But as company owner Mitchell says, "If racing is in your blood but you still want some creature comforts, then this is a boat you need to consider." When you make your way around the boat shows this year, take the time to inspect the Cape Fear 38.