Sabre 34

2008 November 10
July 2003

Good looking and well-built family cruiser that 'sails like a dream'

Sabre Yachts is one of the survivors in the mercurial sailboat business. The company, founded by Roger Hewson in 1969, launched the first of nearly 600 Sabre 28s in 1970 and it continued production of the boat for 16 years. The Sabre 28 is still the company's best-known boat and it was recently inducted into the American Sailboat Hall of Fame. Although Hewson, like most of his peers, eventually went bankrupt, a team of investors rescued the company in the early 1990s. Today, the Maine-based company builds four models, ranging from 36 feet to 45 feet.

During the 1970s and 1980s Sabre carved a niche in the market by consistently producing handsome, high-quality boats that were nicely finished below and sailed well in a variety of conditions. This was the heyday of dual-purpose boats and Sabre competed with Tartan, C&C and other quality production builders. In 1976, Sabre expanded its line with the introduction of the 34. More than 200 boats were built before a significantly modified edition (called the Sabre 34 MK II and later the 34 Targa) was launched in 1986. This article will examine the original 34, the MK I, which in terms of numbers is one Sabre's most successful models. The boat originally appealed to those who admired the 28 but wanted more elbowroom. Today, with prices ranging from less than $30,000 to around $60,000, it appeals to those looking for a sound value in the used boat marketplace.

First impressions
It is hard to imagine that a 34-foot boat with a 10-foot, 6-inch beam was considered spacious in 1976, but such was the case when the Sabre 34 was launched. Spacious, however, is a relative term, and Sabres have never been considered roomy cruisers. The 34 evolved from the design parameters Hewson developed for the 28, although the added waterline translates into better overall lines. There is nothing showy about the profile, the sheer is slight, the amidships sections are rounded and the cabintrunk is a bit boxy. The entry has a moderate rake and the stern is slightly reversed. Blended together, the overall look is classy. That's the mystery of yacht design-mix the ingredients and see what happens.

The Sabre 34 carries 507 square feet of sail area, just a shade less than the Tartan 33, a boat with the same LOA introduced a couple years later and about the same as the Cal 34, a model introduced a few years earlier. The air draft is 51 feet.

Below the water, the Sabre 34 features the predictable sweptback fin keel, a moderate forefoot and a partially balanced rudder. The underwater design is pure 1970s and there is nothing wrong with that. A displacement of 11,400 pounds made the 34 a bit heavier than some of its competitors, however 4,600 pounds of lead ballast helped the boat stand up in a blow. How many times have you heard that old saw that every boat is a compromise?

The early Sabre 34s were built with solid fiberglass hulls with balsa-cored decks. In 1978 the 34 was modified and produced with a balsa-cored hull as well. Sabres have held their values well, one of the surest signs of good original construction. The hulls were hand laid, using mat and roving with polyester resin-the typical materials of the day-but the workmanship was excellent. The decks are generally cored with 3/8-inch and half-inch end grained balsa, although plywood is used in high-load areas. The hull-and-deck joint is an inward flange and through-bolted. Floors, knees, bulkheads and most structural members are well supported. The external lead ballast is fastened with stainless keel bolts, which in turn are supported by a reinforced fiberglass fillet. The nuts are visible in the bilge and should be examined. The 34 was also offered as a centerboarder and a careful inspection of the centerboard apparatus should be a vital aspect of the marine survey.

What to look for
The first thing to look for is either the standard, 5-foot, 6-inch keel or the centerboard model that offers a board-up draft of just 3 feet, 11 inches. Dick Coerse, who sails Early Light, hull No. 160, advises prospective buyers to look for the deep-draft model if windward performance is high on their priority list. Shoal draft, especially in the fast evaporating Great Lakes, offers its own advantages and centerboard problems don't seem to be an issue. The production run seems to be well divided, so finding either keel version is possible.

Delamination, especially around leaky handrails lining the cabintop, has been reported as problem, although none of the owners I corresponded with mentioned it. Hull blistering, the plague of many production boats built during this era, is a more likely problem. Blisters, however, just don't cause the stir they once did and in most cases, rightly so. Chances are that former owners have confronted this issue and if the boat you are looking at has blisters it usually is the responsibility of the seller to correct the problem. Blisters almost never cause structural problems.

Nearly all the Sabre MK I 34s you inspect will be at least 20 years old. The standing rigging should probably be replaced and be sure to carefully check hoses, pumps and wiring. Changing the wire-and-rope halyards to all line is a nice upgrade. Several owners noted that the original 12-volt electrical system was undersized and prone to overloading as new instruments were added. Swapping out the fuse panel for one with circuit breakers is a big job, usually left to electricians.

Also be sure to check the engine carefully. The early boats may have the ubiquitous Universal Atomic 4 gasoline engine, which is much less desirable than the diesels that came later. Most boats will have either a 27-horsepower Westerbeke or a 23-horsepower Volvo. Interestingly, several owners note that the Westerbeke is greedy at consuming zincs. A boat that has been repowered should receive an asterisk or maybe two, on the listing sheet.

On deck
The cockpit is comfortable, especially for 1976. This was the era when designers and builders conspired to throw out as many backs as possible. The seats are slightly scooped to allow access around the 28-inch standard wheel. The boat is well suited for a spray dodger, although this limits visibility, naturally. Most boats came standard with Lewmar primary winches. Consider it fortuitous if they have been upgraded in size and to self-tailing models. The mainsheet is usually led to a traveler over the companionway, which helps keep the cockpit uncluttered. A small but adequate bridgedeck lends security when sailing offshore and there is good storage in a couple of lockers.

Teak handrails line the cabintrunk. These should be carefully inspected, especially on boats that have spent considerable time in Florida or the tropics as they may be rotten. Double lifelines with well-supported stanchions were standard. The nonskid may be worn or ineffective, especially if the deck has been painted. There is a small anchor locker forward. However, if serious cruising is in your plans, the stemhead fitting will need to be modified to carry beefier ground tackle. The mast and boom are anodized aluminum, although one owner notes that he painted his spar and it has held up well. As noted earlier, be sure to carefully inspect the standing rigging, especially the original swage fittings.

Down below
Much of Sabre's original success was due to the fine joinerwork in the cabin. Although the layout of the 34 is anything but innovative, it is nicely executed. Bulkheads, panels and trim are Burmese teak for the most part, which can make the boat seem dark. The countertops in the galley and head are often lighter Formica. The cabin sole is teak and holly. The headroom in the saloon is more than 6 feet. There are full-length overhead handrails in the saloon. Ventilation is adequate in the standard arrangement with a couple of decent-sized opening hatches. If opening portlights have been added, and the job was well done, consider it a plus.

The interior plan includes a V-berth double cabin forward. Once the filler cushion is fitted this a good-sized bunk. A door closing off the saloon provides privacy both for the cabin and the head, which is to starboard and a bit cramped. A large hanging locker and drawers are opposite the head. The saloon has port and starboard settees with storage behind and water tanks below, totaling 40 gallons. The best feature of the interior design is the bulkhead-mounted table that folds out of the way creating open space. The double leaf table sits four comfortably when in use and usually hinges from a handsome teak cabinet.

The galley is to starboard and unfortunately, like on many older boats, part of the counter space doubles as part of the companionway. Still, the shallow C-shaped galley cleverly uses available space with a sliding counter section over the stove and a built-in wastebasket. Most 34s have a single sink that faces forward with the large icebox behind. The stove on early boats used pressured alcohol for fuel; hopefully it has been converted or replaced. There is storage behind the stove and below the sink. The nav station is opposite the galley and the head of the quarterberth serves as the seat. The chart desk is good sized with chart storage underneath and small drawers on the side. The single quarterberth is an excellent sea berth, that is if you resist turning this space into the garage.

The earliest Sabre 34 MK Is came standard with Universal Atomic 4 gasoline engines. Early in the production run diesels became standard, and most boats either have a 27-horsepower Westerbeke or a 23-horsepower Volvo. The two-cylinder Volvo is a bit loud but both engines provide plenty of punch to keep the boat moving at 5 or 6 knots. Access is decent, at least by 1976 standards, from behind the companionway, although reaching the stuffing box requires acrobatics. One aluminum fuel tank holds just 20 gallons, and several owners note that they would like to retrofit a larger tank.

Under way
"The Sabre 34 MK I sails like a dream," says Dick Coerse who sails Early Light on the East Coast. "It has no quirky qualities." Coerse notes that the boat is initially a bit tender but once heeled to about 12 degrees stiffens up dramatically. He has sailed the boat through a range of conditions including steady 35 knots with gusts to 40, and has nothing but praise for the way boat handles. Coerse likes his standard keel, especially when sailing upwind. However, several owners also noted that the centerboard model also tracks well. Weather helm is not much of an issue and owners report that the helm is balanced and responds well to autopilots.

The 34 MK I is a bit sluggish in light air, finds its stride in 8 to 10 knots apparent, and usually needs a reef just before 20 knots. The displacement-to-length ratio is 278 and the sail area displacement ratio is 16, numbers that make the boat cruising more today, but that were fairly typical of most dual-purpose racer-cruiser boats in the 1970s. Still, the 34 MK I is a good candidate to retrofit for a cruising sabbatical and several boats have completed bluewater voyages.

The Sabre 34 MK I is a handsome, high-quality boat that has maintained its value. Prices range from less than $30,000 to about $60,000, with most of the used boats falling the mid $40,000 range. The boat is well suited for family sailing, casual racing and can also be retrofitted for cruising. It is nice to have options.