Tartan 33

2011 March 25

Comfortable daysailing and coastal cruising can be found on this classic S&S design

There is a nice, clean Tartan 33 sitting on the hard at Spring Cove Marina in Solomons, Maryland. Although I have never sailed it, I have come to know the boat quite well. I have crawled through, around and over it during a couple of the boat-buying workshops I run. I've examined the bilge pump hoses, the rudder bearings, the standing rigging and chainplates. In the process I have come to appreciate the quality of its design and construction. And when I finally sailed a sistership a few months ago on Biscayne Bay, I was impressed with its overall performance. It sailed like a Tartan and that's a compliment. Although it's one of the last Tartans designed by Sparkman & Stephens, the 33 is not as well known or as highly regarded as other models like the 30, 34, 37, Tartan Ten and 41. And that actually works to the advantage of the used boat buyer. 

The 33 was in some ways a response to both the success and limitations of the flush-deck, one-design Tartan 10. While the T-10's popularity clearly demonstrated that there was a market for a 30-foot Tartan, its one-dimensional design turned off less competitive sailors who also wanted to cruise. The 33, with its comfortable accommodations and easy to handle fractional rig, was the logical solution. Logical or not, the 33 struggled to carve a niche in the tight sailboat market of the early 1980s. Launched in 1979, just over 200 hulls were built before the boat was replaced with the Tartan 34-2 in 1984. While those numbers would make a builder envious today, back in the glory years of production sailboats they were mediocre.

First impressions
The 33 has the classic Tartan-S&S profile. A rakish entry trails into a subtle sheer and reverse transom. The overhang ratio is just 14%, but it looks like more. The low-profile cabinhouse blends into a beefy dodger breakwater, which is a Tartan trademark. The cockpit coaming gently continues the linear flow aft. One of the design parameters of the 33 was to reduce brightwork, and most boats feature an aluminum toerail. Shoal draft was also an important feature, and the standard Scheel keel produced a draft of just 4 feet, 5 inches. 
The fractional rig had mixed results with the sailing public. Some liked the idea of a big main and small headsail, recognizing that the ease of not dealing with big headsails was a plus. Still, this was the age of the genoa, and something about a fractional rig on a 33-footer suggested weird new-age thinking. A later version of the 33, the 33R, for racing, had a masthead rig and deep-draft fin keel. It was, by most accounts, a much faster boat.

The Tartan 33 hull and deck are balsa cored. The forward section of the hull is solid fiberglass below the waterline. The hull and deck are joined on an inward facing flange and the through-bolts anchor the aluminum toerail, making it a structural component of the hull. The bulkheads are well tabbed to the hull. Molded liners are used in the forward and aft sections, as well as in the galley and head.
Liners clean up the construction process, however the secondary bondings have to be done right. Both keels, the Scheel and the 6-foot, 3-inch deep fin on the 33R model, are externally bolted to a keel stub. In fact, the same stub is used for both models and results in a void along the stub in the deep keel models. It is not structural. The keel bolts are easily accessed for inspection in the bilge. 

What to look for
Don't confuse the T-10 and 33R with the 33. I was telling a friend about how the 33 was a good value and he was excited because he'd seen one for less than $10,000. It was an old, beat-up T-10. Like all boats, there are some common problems to look for in the 33. Check the mast step, specifically the bridge and the base of the mast, for signs of corrosion. Mast wiring issues have also been reported as a result. Also, the starboard water tank apparently leaks occasionally and delaminates the sole. A survey will reveal the extent of hull blistering, and the 33 was not immune to this malady. All age-related items should be checked, including the standing and running rigging, the chainplates and the steering cables. The cored decks should be sounded for signs of delamination and the surveyor will put a meter on the hull to check moisture content.

On deck
The cockpit is workable, and after you sail the boat, you will come to appreciate it. The traveler spans the cockpit just forward of the wheel, and it's well positioned for efficient sheeting. Wheel steering was standard and the helmsman is a bit removed from the sheet winches. Most 33s were built before self-tailing winches were standard, so if the previous owner has updated the winches that's a plus.
The 33 was originally set up with the halyards at the mast. However, the dodger breakwater was equipped with fairleads for routing them aft and many owners have made this change. There is a large lazarette to starboard but otherwise no additional storage in the cockpit. A few sheet bags would be a nice touch. There is a narrow bridgedeck.

The double-spreader mast is fractionally rigged. Most 33s are not set up with runners, relying instead on swept upper spreaders to maintain rig tension. I know runners are a nuisance, but I would have them rigged for heavy going and to counter forestay sag. The side decks are fairly wide and Tartan did a nice job with the molded nonskid. There are four teak handrails on the coachroof that double as foot supports when working the mast. There isn't an external anchor locker and rollers were optional when the boat was new.

Down below
The interior plan is fairly predictable but it works and the boat is ideal for a couple or a small family. Once you drop below the galley is immediately to starboard. The large single sink faces aft along with the icebox compartment. This is the updated "B" arrangement. In the original plan the icebox was across from the galley just forward of the nav station. This effectively spoiled the port settee as a sea berth, but there is a pilot berth above so it was not much of an issue and actually made the galley a bit less cluttered. In the B plan the settee was lengthened and the pilot berth eliminated. The galley came standard with a pressurized alcohol stove and oven. Some owners have converted to propane and others to unpressurized alcohol. 

The nav station includes a good-sized chart desk and later model boats had a chart storage locker below. The electrical panel is located here. There is a decent-sized quarterberth behind the nav station. The saloon includes facing settees and a table that folds out of the way on the main bulkhead, ideal in a boat of this size. There is plenty of storage. In fact, later B models boast 22 separate lockers. Overhead ventilation could be better, and some owners have added a hatch in the saloon. With eight opening portlights, cross ventilation is terrific.

The head spans the hull once doors to the saloon and forward cabin are closed. And you need all the space you can find because the mast also shares the compartment. The forward cabin includes a comfortable V-berth with a water tank below, and a large enough hanging locker with a couple of drawers to port.

The standard engine was a 24-horsepower Universal diesel and it is interesting that most boats still have this original workhorse. This is sign of several things. First, that the 33 is a sailboat first and it's not necessary to motor in light airs. Secondly, it indicates the typical usage, daysailing, light cruising, low-engine hour kind of sailing. Lastly, that old model 5424 was a good engine. Access is surprisingly good as you can reach the engine from the lazarette, port quarterberth and from behind the companionway. The 26-gallon aluminum fuel tank is located beneath the port quarterberth.

The 33 is not as lively as the 33R and this is reflected in their respective PHRF ratings, with the racing model giving up nearly 30 seconds. But, that doesn't mean that the 33 is not a good all-around performer. The Scheel keel limits pointing. It tracks well, and when you are cruising on a blustery day, tracking is more important than pointing high. The 33 likes to be sailed flat, and that means that the big main should be reefed early. Most owners seem to think that a 135 is the ideal headsail.
The fractional rig clearly limits the boat's performance downwind; it's just a matter of sail area and horsepower. However, the 33 can be sailed very effectively under main alone, even off the wind, a feature singlehander's will surely appreciate. While not designed specifically for bluewater sailing, Tartan 33s have logged plenty of Bermuda passages, and I know of one boat that had cruised extensively in the Caribbean.

The Tartan 33 is an excellent choice in an affordable, cruiser/racer. It is well built, handsome, capable and delivers rewarding overall performance. With prices ranging from just over $30,000 to just under $20,000, it really shines by way of comparison.

LOA 33'8", LWL 28'10'', Beam 10"11",
Draft shoal 4'5", Draft deep 6'3",
Displacement 10,000 lbs.,
Ballast 4,400 lbs., Sail Area 531 sq. ft.

PRICE:  You can find a nice Tartan 33 for less than $25,000. That's hard to beat.

DESIGN QUALITY:  You may or may not like the fractional rig, but overall this is another quality design from S&S.

CONSTRUCTION QUALITY:  Tartan's reputation is well earned. Balsa-cored hulls make me nervous, unless they're old Tartans. A very well-built boat.

USER-FRIENDLINESS:  The cockpit could be a bit friendlier, but the sailplan is easy to handle and the interior is impressive for 33-footer.

SAFETY:  From the bridgedeck, to the handrails, to the wide side decks, the 33 is a safe boat. It is a bit tender and needs to be reefed early.

TYPICAL CONDITION:  Even the newest Tartan 33 is 26 years old. Still, many seem to be freshwater boats-a plus. The others I've seen are well taken care of. This was never a "throwaway" boat.

REFITTING:  Not the easiest boat to refit or find parts for, but there's plenty of information available on the Web. 
SUPPORT:  There are several good Tartan owner's sites, including www.tartanownersweb.org/t33.phtml, which is specific to the 33. Other good information can be found at www.cbtsc.com, www.gotosca.org and others. Also, Tartan is still building new boats, and Tim Jackett, the head of Tartan, knows more about the boats than anyone else.

AVAILABILITY:  There are always several 33s on the market. The best pickings seem to be on the Chesapeake, Long Island Sound and the Great Lakes.

INVESTMENT AND RESALE:  It is hard to find a fault with spending $20,000 to $30,000 for a quality boat like the Tartan 33. What will it sell for in five or 10 years? I confess, I don't know.