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Hallberg-Rassy 34

2008 November 10
1006 Issue

Simple design and finish belie the bluewater quality of this versatile cruiser

When most North Americans think of Hallberg-Rassy yachts they conjure up visions of husky, 40-foot and up center-cockpit world cruisers. Yet one of the company's most successful models, the HR 34, features an aft cockpit, a nimble fin-keel hull shape and a fractional rig. Don't get the wrong idea, the 34 does have a lot in common with its robust sisterships, including intelligent construction techniques, excellent engineering and a German Frers design pedigree. Introduced in 1990, the 34 remained in production until 2005 with more than 500 boats launched, making it one of the company's best sellers.

Hallberg-Rassy has been building boats on the west coast of Sweden for 50 years, just not always as one company. Cristoph Rassy and Harold Hallberg were never partners. In fact, they were competitors until Rassy purchased retiring Hallberg's yard in 1972. Since then, the firm of Hallberg-Rassy has carved a coveted niche in the sailboat industry. There is no disputing that it's in the top tier of sailboat manufacturers. Hallberg-Rassys, with their trademark windscreens and hard tops are fixtures at cruising crossroads the world over. The company builds about 170 yachts a year and the wait time for a new model can be up to a year. That's why, if you're in the market for a mid-30s Hallberg-Rassy, it pays to look at used boats. And pay is the right word because Hallberg-Rassys don't come cheap. You will likely need to spend more than $150,000 to purchase a used HR 34. But then again, you get what you pay for.

First impressions
The HR 34 is refreshingly versatile. It is certainly a capable bluewater boat with many documented ocean crossings to its credit but it is also right at home as an occasional PHRF competitor and a family cruiser. A 1995 model was recently hauled out at the boatyard just across the street from my house. It has an attractive profile. The sheerline is subtle, accentuated by a wide covestripe and a healthy amount of freeboard. The bow entry is raked but the overhang is still moderate. The reverse transom helps extend the LWL to 28 feet, 6 inches. The overhang ratio, or the LWL as a percentage of the LOA is around 16.5 percent, typical of many of Frers' best designs. The fin keel has a shorter cord than you might guess for a bluewater boat and the rudder is, more or less, freestanding, although the top bearing edge is nicely flared into the rocker section. The displacement of 11,684 pounds leans toward the heavy side of moderate and the lead ballast of 4,630 translates into a 35-percent ballast-to-displacement ratio. Sloop rigged, the working sail area is 592 square feet, although a more accurate number is with the common 125-percent furling genoa, or 667 square feet.

I must confess, I am partial to Scandinavian-built boats. For the most part these boats are highly capable, well thought out and finished in a simple yet elegant if understated way. Nothing screams at you when you examine the HR 34, there's just a quiet sense of well-executed quality as you make your way around on deck and below. The hull is solid fiberglass although the sections above the waterline are foam insulated, so in this way the hull is cored. The hull is well supported by a grid system of fiberglass floors and stringers. There is a deep bilge sump, a good feature on any boat but especially an offshore cruising boat.

The lead keel is attached on a diagonal to a short stub with 10 stainless steel bolts. The battle about whether internal or external ballast is better continues to rage. I like internal ballast. However, more and more boats are fitted with external ballast and it certainly is well proven. It also streamlines the manufacturing process and allows for more flexibility in keel shapes. The large fiberglass rudder is wrapped around a beefy stainless steel stock with heavy-duty roller bearings.

The hull-and-deck joint is mechanical and chemical and fiberglassed over to prevent leaks. In fact, Hallberg-Rassys are well known for their lack of leaking. The hull and coachroof sections are composite, cored with either balsa or foam. The mast is deck-stepped, which makes perfect sense on a 34-foot boat. This eliminates a leak source and allows for easier stepping.

What to look for
Hallberg-Rassy continually upgraded the 34 during its long production run and several important changes were made along the way. The first boats did not have the fixed windscreen. Also, in 1994 the transom was opened to allow for a molded swim platform. Boats without this feature are less desirable on the used market. The cockpit was shortened in the mid-1990s, which of course means that the interior was extended. The cockpit is still good sized, with seats longer than six feet for stretching out on.

The interiors of early boats features a long, straight galley opposite the settee, which created more room for the aft cabin but was not practical for cooking while underway. Later boats featured an L-shaped galley aft to port. Other small changes were made and these are noted on the Web site, www.hallberg-rassy.se. Many of these upgrades were to comply with new European Union rules to qualify as a Category A boat, implying that it is capable of unlimited voyages.

If the HR 34 you are inspecting has wheel steering, check the installation carefully. Most 34s came with tiller steering and the pedestal and wheel were typically a retrofit. Incidentally, the standard tiller boats have a lot more cockpit space. Also, be sure to check the seal around the lower unit of the saildrive transmission. The standard engine was the Volvo MD 2030, and included a saildrive transmission. These lower units often corrode. Also, HRs were not immune to hull blisters, especially when first exposed to tropical waters, but it is not a widespread problem.

On deck
The HR 34 cockpit is fairly spacious and surprisingly comfortable. During the production run changes were made to make the cockpit more comfortable, including softening the angle of the seat backs. Visibility from the helm is adequate, but if the windshield is old and clouded, it can be hard to see when sitting. Lewmar deck hardware and hatches were often used and the quality was excellent. The mainsheet traveler spans the cockpit bridgedeck, which is nice for controlling the main but inconvenient for dropping below. Some boats have retrofitted midboom sheeting arrangements; be sure to carefully inspect how this was done.

Double-spreader Seldon spars were standard and these invariably hold up well. The 34 is fractionally rigged, but only just. It's seven-eighths rigged, which has always made me wonder, why bother? At least you don't need running backstays. A sleek spinnaker arrangement, with the pole stored on the mast, was standard. Most boats came standard with all sail controls led aft through jammers and a single-line mainsail reefing system. The stainless steel stemhead fitting is more than adequate with a single roller. The anchor locker is external and quite large. A small molded bulwark and an intricate molded nonskid make it safe to navigate the deck even when it's blowing.

Down below
Anyone familiar with Hallberg-Rassy will associate its interiors with a matte-finished, red-brown mahogany. The workmanship is excellent as every joint is made to last, but the overall atmosphere is spare. There's nothing ornate about the HR 34's interior, and that's fine with me. I really like the way these boats are finished. There isn't any visible fiberglass but at the same time the extensive use of wood doesn't feel oppressive. It's like a Swedish cottage, and of course that conjures up all sorts of images better left unsaid.

The interior plan also changed along the way. When the cockpit was shortened, the interior became user-friendly. Although the aft bulkhead was extended just 10 inches, that translates into a lot of interior volume. Most boats on the used market today feature an L-shaped galley to port. It is small but highly functional, with two deep sinks, a stove and oven, standard 12-volt fridge and clever storage lockers for trash, cutting boards and cutlery. It would be challenging to stow gear and provisions for an ocean crossing, but that can be said about almost any 34-foot boat. The aft cabin is accessed from the galley and includes a good-sized double that runs fore and aft. Many new boats have athwartship berths that are not very useful while underway. The aft cabin also has a big hanging locker and additional storage under the berth.

The head is opposite the galley and includes all the usual accoutrements. Amidships, or actually aft of amidships, is the perfect spot for a head on a small boat, much better then squeezing it behind the V-berth. The nav station and electrical panel are forward of the head. The saloon features an L-shaped settee to port, at least most boats do; as mentioned earlier, the first boats had the galley running either side of the saloon. The table is small but opens up to accommodate as many people as you'd ever want in a 34-foot boat. The forward V-berth cabin is spacious and includes a hanging locker, with drawers opposite and bookshelves above the bunk.

It is often the details that separate a good boat from an average one and that's the case with the Hallberg-Rassy 34. Small features like a diesel interior heater, backup manual pumps and efficient lightning came standard on the 34. The more you probe around these boats the more you like them, and that is not always the case with other boats.

The standard power plant for the HR 34 is the Volvo Penta MD 2030, a 20-horsepower diesel with a saildrive transmission. Readers know that I don't particularly like saildrive lower units as they are prone to corrosion and more vulnerable to collision. So why do manufacturers use them? They have advantages, the foremost being that they don't require as much space as a straight transmission with a prop shaft, stern tube, stuffing box, strut and cutlass bearing. Be sure to check the lower unit on any used boat with a saildrive for signs of corrosion. Also carefully check the sealing gasket.

Access to the engine on the HR 34 is from behind the companionway and it's adequate. The engine was reported to have a bit of vibration, but this was corrected at some point during the production run. These engines are extremely reliable and very fuel-efficient. Owners report that when motoring at 6 knots in flat seas the engine uses around half a gallon of fuel per hour. The fuel tank capacity is 155 liters, or roughly 40 gallons.

One of the best reasons to consider a Hallberg-Rassy 34 is its lively sailing performance. This is not a clumsy cruiser just claiming to be a good performing boat, it is a sailboat first that also just happens to be a nice cruising boat. Just look at the hull shape. There is enough of a forefoot to reduce the tendency to pound but not too much to slow the boat down. The balanced rudder is well aft and provides good control even while running before big seas.

The powerful seven-eighths double spreader rig delivers plenty of horsepower. Frers' speed diagram shows the 34 capable of reaching at 8-plus knots without a spinnaker, and near 9 when the chute is flying and the gods align. Upwind performance is more than adequate with speeds of 6-plus knots in moderate breezes and seas. Polars of course can be misleading in the real world, but the real world evidence supports the fact the HR 34 is a sweet sailing boat. My friend, Crister Leferdahl, crews on a 34 that is actively campaigned in Stockholm and he tells me they have done very well during several seasons of hardcore racing.

The HR 34 is an expensive late-model used boat with prices ranging from $150,000 to more than $200,000. It is also a high-quality, versatile boat that is capable of crossing an ocean or racing across the bay in style. I have always admired boats that are simply at home on the sea, and that's the best definition of the Hallberg-Rassy 34.