Tartan 3500

2012 February 6

This lively performance-cruiser remains a quality family boat and weekend club racer

The Tartan 3500 is a perfect example of what's right with the sailing industry. Handsome, well designed and soundly engineered, the 3500 is a sleek performance-cruiser that during the course of a long production run has also weathered the turbulent economic seas of the past few years. While it is a stretch to claim that a boat is an investment, some models hold their value better than others, and the 3500 is among this select few. The boat may be expensive but it is loaded with long-term value.

Introduced in 1991, the 3500 was one of Tim Jackett's earliest designs. This was before Jackett became the face of Tartan, and was a defining period for the company as it transitioned away from Sparkman & Stephens designs, many of which were considered modern classics. Jackett hit a home run with the 3500. Bob Perry called it the "best synthesis of both American and European design approaches." The 3500 combines the quality components and sense of elbow room that Americans expect in a boat with the lively sailing and sleek lines of European builders. More than 150 3500s were launched before the boat was retired in 2005.

First impressions
The 3500 was viewed as a family boat with more than enough performance for club racing and a comfortable interior for extended summer cruising. This is the way most of us sail. The flat sheer and sleek cabintrunk flow naturally with the moderate freeboard and fairly beamy hull. Below the waterline the 3500 features a powerful high-lift fin keel with deep and shoal versions, and a large elliptically shaped balanced spade rudder. The forefoot is flatter than classic Tartans but that's design Darwinism, things evolve whether I like it to or not, and the trade-off for more flat-water speed and room in the forward cabin offset the tendency to pound when sailing upwind. I do like the masthead rig. It provides more horsepower and flexibility in light and heavy air than a fractional rig.

For the most part the Tartan 3500 was built before Tartan made the complete transition to epoxy resins and carbon spars in the early 2000s. The 3500's hull is hand laminated with alternating layers of strand mat and locally reinforced with unidirectional E-glass. The gelcoat backup layer includes a 4-millimeter coat of vinylester resin to prevent blistering. The hull is partially cored with Baltek balsa for panel stiffness but is solid glass at the deck flange, through-hull fittings, chainplates and keel installations.

The deck is balsa cored and joined to the hull with stainless fasteners that are tapped into aluminum receiving plates, then molded into the hull flange and chemically bonded. Tartan has been doing this successfully for years but I have always wondered about the long-term effects of marrying different metals at this critical joint. Like the hull, the deck is solid glass beneath high-load hardware. Backing plates are aluminum and fiberglass. The use of molded pans is limited and the bulkheads and floors are taped and tabbed directly to the hull skin. The keel is externally fastened with stainless bolts and the rudder stock is a massive 3-inch stainless steel post.

What to look for
The first things to look for are design changes incorporated into the 3500 over its long production run. The stern evolved from a reverse counter stern without a swim step, to a swim step, to a flat stern with an opening drop-down step. Also, as noted earlier, most of the 3500s were built before Tartan began laminating exclusively with epoxy resins, however, a handful of late models were built this way. Also, a handful of boats have carbon fiber spars.

There are very few inherent problems with the 3500. Some owners reported leaks around the forward hatch and others have mentioned that the rudder bearings swell. An advantage of buying a "newer" used boat is that age-related issues aren't as much of a concern. But don't be misled by a clean boat, a 1995 3500 is 17 years old; it may well be time to change out the standing and running rigging. Many used Tartans are located on the Great Lakes, and there are definite advantages to buying sweet-water boats that spend at least half their time out of the water.

On deck
In many ways, 35 feet is the ideal length for a family boat. It is big enough to be comfortable below but small enough to be handled efficiently by a small or inexperienced crew. The drawback usually comes on deck, where the lack of LOA becomes all too apparent, but the 3500 feels bigger than it is. The T-shaped cockpit is has plenty of space to seat four plus the helmsperson, and the cockpit is not too wide so that you can brace yourself when heeled. The primary winches are mounted well aft, making the transition from the cockpit to the deck less cluttered. The opening transom makes swimming more accessible for the less nimble and also offers a good landing and spot for the dinghy.

The traveler is located forward of the companionway, setting up for extreme midboom sheeting. The double-spreader Kenyon mast has an air draft of 53 feet. The side decks are wide and the chainplates are well inboard. There is a good-sized external anchor locker up forward and single anchor roller. A beefy teak toerail requires maintenance but it sure looks nice. Deck hardware, ranging from the Harken 46.2STC primary winches to the Harken genoa tracks and cars, is robust and first rate.

Down below
The 3500 interior was something of a breakthrough-two genuine double cabins sandwiched into a hull that actually sailed well was an accomplishment. Stepping over the too-small bridgedeck and dropping below you find yourself with the galley to starboard and the large head to port. Jackett cleverly angled the furniture facings to better utilize the space. The galley includes a large single sink, an icebox/fridge, a three-burner stove and plenty of counter and storage space. It's a remarkable galley for a 35-foot boat. The head has a separate shower stall, another impressive design feature for a
1991 boat.
On many 3500s the saloon is finished in cherry, which was unusual at the time, and of course some are trimmed out in more familiar teak. The joinerwork is quite nice. I like the way the chainplates are not hidden away, the stainless steel straps are in full view and secured to the hull via a molded pod behind the settees. There is centerline table with opening leaves on both sides. Excellent ventilation is provided by two Hood overhead deck hatches and 10 stainless steel Hood portlights. The settees have contoured cushions that are quite nice to sit on and the cabin sole is teak with inlaid holly.

The forward cabin features a large double berth. The aft cabin also includes a full-sized double berth, a hanging locker and shelves and drawers. Both cabins are imminently inhabitable. Another clever design feature is the aft-facing nav station tucked behind the galley. I have never been a fan of aft-facing nav stations, it just feels weird.

Access to the 27-horsepower 3GM Yanmar diesel is quite good. Located below and behind the companionway steps, the entire engine box can be removed. Most boats on the used market seem to have the original engine, and many have low hours. The aluminum fuel tank holds 25 gallons, not much if you are looking to seriously cruise.

The Tartan 3500 is a nice sailing boat through a wide range of conditions. A sail area-to-displacement ratio of 19.4 and displacement-to-length ratio of 188 describe a boat that is not a cruising slug by any means. The polars suggest good light-air performance, even while sailing on the wind, and there's no doubt the 3500 will be able to stand up to a blow.

According to owners, the 3500 is at its best reaching in a stiff breeze with speeds upward of 8 knots. The large rudder provides excellent steering. Although most owners race causally at best, it is important not to overload the 3500 with cruising gear, keeping it on its lines when sailing upwind, as the 3500 is faster when sailing flatter.

I like the Tartan 3500. It is a quality used boat that bridges the proud traditions of Tartan with the design features and construction techniques that make more modern boats so rewarding to sail. It is well built and outfitted, and will prove a solid value for years to come.

PRICE: The 3500 was expensive new and is still comparably expensive, but there is a lot of value in the boat, especially in comparison to new boat prices.

DESIGN QUALITY: I like the versatility and originality of Tim Jackett's design. At 35 feet the boat delivers an impressive blend of performance and comfort.

CONSTRUCTION QUALITY: Tartan ramped up its quality during this time, realizing that it was not going to sell as many boats as in the past, so it went after the high end of the market and the boats represent this.

USER-FRIENDLINESS: All sail controls are led aft, the cockpit is comfortable and the interior is spacious and very well designed.

SAFETY: The only reason this isn't higher is that the 3500's capsize screening ratio of 212 is a bit high. Otherwise, the wide side decks, deep cockpit and plenty of handholds make this a very safe boat.

TYPICAL CONDITION: Because all 3500s are less than 20 years old, and many less than 15 years, the boats tend to be in average to above average condition.

REFITTING: The 3500 is a fairly easy to boat to work on with better than average access and parts are still widely available.

SUPPORT: Through many ownership changes and ups and downs, Tartan has always been an owner-driven company. Owner associations are active and helpful on websites Tartanowners.org and Tartanownersweb.org.

AVAILABILITY: There were 152 boats built, but they don't change hands all that often. Still, there are always boats to choose from. The Northeast, the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes seem to have the most boats.

INVESTMENT AND RESALE: The 3500 has actually held its value better than most boats, especially for a 35-foot boat.