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Cabo Rico 38

2008 November 10
December 2004

Timeless design and sturdy build are the hallmarks of this accomplished cruiser

First impressions, as they say, only get one chance, and few boats make a more lasting mark than the Cabo Rico 38. This winsome cutter, draped in teak, inspires dreams of quitting your job and sailing to faraway places. It's just that kind of boat. Bill Crealock pushed all the right aesthetic buttons when be designed the 38.

Crealock stated in his design notes, "The Cabo Rico 38 hull shape is the one in which everything came together best."

It's been more than 25 years since the first hull was laid in Costa Rica, and close to 200 boats and thousands of bluewater miles later, it is not cavalier to refer to the Cabo Rico 38 as a classic. You can list it next to other legendary long-keeled cruisers like the Bermuda 40, Bristol 40 and Shannon 38.

Cabo Rico is an unlikely success story. The company was founded in the mid-1960s by John Schofield, who managed British Leyland's Rover plant in San Jose and molded sailboats in his spare time. His first boat of note was the Crealock- designed Tiburon 36, launched in 1971. He didn't make many Tiburons, but occasionally you will come across this stout ketch on the used boat market.

The first Cabo Rico 38 was completed in 1977. Although the offshore marine industry in Taiwan was beginning to dominate the cruising boat market in the late 1970s, and consumers were warming to the idea of foreign-built boats, building boats in Central America still carried the stigma of the banana republic. Could they really build decent boats in Latin America? The solid construction and sheer beauty of the Cabo Rico 38 proved that indeed they could.

Cabo Rico came of age when Edi and Fraser Smith took over the company in the late 1980s. The company quickly expanded the range of production and today it builds five models ranging from 36 to 56 feet. They also took over David Walter's Cambria yachts, and continue to produce the sleek 46 along with the innovative Mark Ellis-designed Northeast motorsailers. Although the Cabo Rico 38 is still technically in production, very few are ordered these days as the company focuses on bigger boats. The real market for 38s is in used boats and prices range dramatically, from an asking price of $84,000 for a 1978 model to nearly $200,000 for a more recent edition.

First impressions
In a 1993 review, SAILING's Chris Caswell declared, "The 38 has not succumbed to the fickleness of style and remains just as pretty today as when it was first introduced." Well, I will back up Caswell's claim. Eleven years after his review the boat still is awfully darn pretty. It has a timeless quality. The sweep of the hull includes a clipper-style bow with a sprit and handsome teak carved trailboards and a fair bit of overhang. The counter stern is narrow and no doubt seakindly in a following sea. If you appreciate traditional boats you'll find the Cabo Rico's sheerline a thing of beauty. The cabintrunk is relatively low profile and blends nicely into the cockpit coamings.

Below the waterline the hull is slack in the bilges and the full keel is slightly cutaway in the bow. The rudder is attached to the trailing edge of the keel and the propeller is an aperture and completely protected. And while this keel shape may seem obsolete to some, it sure produces a nice ride at sea. The 38 may pitch a bit in a seaway but it will never pound, and a soft motion is the most underrated design feature on any boat. The rig was intended as a cutter, not a modified sloop, so the spar is a bit farther aft than a typical sloop. The mast is keel stepped. The working sail area of 778 square feet translates into a sail area/displacement ratio of 16.3, which is more moderate than you might suspect.

Naturally, a 25-year production run will result in many construction details that have changed, evolved and improved as materials and processes become better. However, one thing has remained constant, the boat is solidly built for the purpose of ocean sailing. The hull layup is interesting. Although sometimes it's reported that the hull is balsa cored, that is a bit misleading. A layer of balsa coring is added to what is essentially a solid fiberglass hull and then covered with a thin skin. The balsa is not necessarily a structural part of the hull, instead it is for thermal and sound insulation. Fiberglass floors stiffen the hull and support a fiberglass subfloor-there is no wood to rot in the bilge. The teak-and-holly sole is laid over the subfloor, making it very solid. The lead ballast is internal and placed into the keel cavity in several sections. Earlier boats had internal iron ballast, it has been reported that the change occurred around hull No. 40.

The deck is balsa cored in the traditional sense. A shoebox joint, incorporating the raised bulwark and teak caprail join the hull and deck. Most boats had teak decks although it is not uncommon for owners to have removed them. Recent models likely have omitted this once de riguer option. Only a few molded liners are used during the build, for the most part the bulkheads and furniture facings are plywood with teak veneers or solid hardwoods and securely laminated to the hull. Speaking of teak, it is one of the hallmarks of the Cabo Rico 38. The boat is finished with locally grown teak with a light honey color and used liberally both on deck and down below.

What to look for
Warren and Marti Fritz of Kalamazoo, Michigan, recently purchased a 1984 model in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and then shipped it home to Lake Michigan. While the survey revealed typical age-related issues, it had a few serious recommendations. One item that turned up was blisters on the hull, and although it wasn't serious, the Fritz's are planning to do an epoxy bottom job this winter. Another issue to look for are teak deck troubles. If there are many missing bunks, cracked caulk, and some of the planks seem to be proud, be wary of subdeck delamination. While teak decks provide terrific nonskid and look lovely, they are expensive to repair or replace.

Other common problems include leaks, especially around the scuppers on deck and at the chainplates. These leaks usually reveal themselves down below. Also check for evidence of mast boot leaks. Fortunately, the mast step, which is directly below the table, is a fiberglass bridge spanning a couple of floors.

The original engine was the venerable Perkins 4108, and as these workhorse engines age, they usually start to burn oil. The front and rear seals are also prone to leaking as they age, so don't be horrified if the bilge reveals some dark mysterious fluids. The 4108 is imminently repairable, and surprisingly, will also usually run just fine even if the seals are not in great condition.
Be sure to check the status of the standing rigging. Swage terminals were used on the shrouds and stays, and if they haven't been changed out recently, factor that job into your purchase price. Also, pay careful attention to the bobstay fittings, the lower one is actually below the waterline and prone to corrosion.

Headsails on cutters don't age as well as those on sloops as they need to be dragged around the staysail stay on every tack, so check the conditions of the headsails. Also, very early boats had a plywood cockpit sole that was prone to rot. One other note, Cabo Rico built a pilothouse model 38, although it is rarely seen on the used boat market.

On deck
The Cabo Rico is a big 38-footer, at least on deck. This sounds silly, but the LOA is actually 41 feet when you include the bowsprit and raised bulwarks, and the wide side decks give it a big boat feel. The cockpit can happily accommodate four, and still includes a bridgedeck, decent-sized lockers and a large lazarette and aft deck. Most boats have Edson pedestal steering with a stainless wheel rim and teak spokes. The seat backs are a bit abrupt, at least by today's standards, but the cockpit is very secure, especially when a spray dodger and bimini are in place. Some boats have aft facing portlights that make it uncomfortable to lean back against the cabintrunk.

Sail controls may be led aft. The mainsheet traveler is forward of the companionway, with a midboom sheeting arrangement that frees up cockpit space in exchange for less leverage on the main. Most boats have a club jib boom for the staysail, which clutters the foredeck, although it allows the staysail to be self-tending. Some owners have converted the staysail to roller furling, and in the process, have eliminated the boom and rigged staysail sheet leads instead. Cabo Rico used Isomat spars, and while these spars are not the most robust, they seem to hold up very well.

The side decks are easy to navigate, even when it is blowing, and the stanchions are tied into the bulwark for additional support. While most boats on the used market will have teak decks, those that don't will have various forms of nonskid. There are plenty of teak handrails, including clever athwartship mounted rails on the aft end of the cabintrunk. All the way forward there is an extremely useful storage space beneath a teak grate. The bowsprit hosts twin stainless anchor rollers and the windlass is usually sandwiched between the staysail stay and boom.

Down below
The Cabo Rico 38 interior is stunning. The joinerwork is completely captivating. While the most recent 38s have actually cut back on teak, most boats on the used market will be bathed in honey-colored teak with a high-gloss varnish finish. You really have to search to find a bare fiberglass surface. Ventilation is supplied through several overhead hatches and opening portlights.

Although there are many varieties when it comes to the interior plan, the two most common arrangements are the A and B plans. The B plan, which seems to be the most desirable, includes an offset double berth forward. This is followed by a head with a separate shower stall and a hanging locker opposite. The B plan also includes a small L-shaped settee to port with a table hinged on the main bulkhead. The locker behind the teak table is a work of art. Opposite is a straight settee.

The U-shaped galley is to port and includes double sinks, a two or three burner stove outboard and a huge refrigeration/icebox compartment. In fact, you need to be tall just to bend over and reach down to the bottom of the box. The galley is compact but filled with clever storage spaces, and most boats have removable panels for the sinks and stove top to increase counter space. The nav station, such as it is, is opposite the galley and there is a large quarterberth aft to starboard, although it is a stretch to call it a double. The A plan is almost identical except that it includes a standard V-berth and straight settees and a fold-up table in the saloon. Don't be surprised to encounter variations on either of these plans as some owners opted for custom interiors.

Several different diesels have been used during the 38's long production run. Early boats had the workhorse Perkins 4108, while others had the comparable Westerbeke 46-horsepower model. Later boats have four-cylinder Yanmars and it should be noted that the most recent 38s have moved the engine forward under the galley sink. Most boats on the used market have the engine beneath the companionway steps. Access is decent, although it is much improved in the newer boats. The 56-gallon fuel tank is fiberglass. One owner highly recommended a feathering prop to help control the boat in reverse.

The Cabo Rico 38 wasn't designed or built to win races, or even for casual daysailing, she was meant for bluewater cruising. However, with a generous sailplan its performance is better than many suspect. According to Fritz, who sails Jubilate on Lake Michigan, as soon as the wind reaches 10 knots the boat accelerates to 6 knots. "It's uncanny," he said.

The cutter rig is not wildly efficient sailing up wind. It is, however, made for reaching. Most boats are set up with a high-cut yankee forward to fill the foretriangle with the staysail. The yankee not only offers better visibility than a genoa, it is easier to tack. The cutter rig also balances easily and adapts to self-steering. One advantage of a "non-swim step transom" is that it is better suited for mounting a windvane self-steering device.

Fritz really likes the motion, or lack there of. "We were used to sailing lighter boats," he said. "It came as a pleasant surprise to realize that Jubilate never pounds, not even in the worst Lake Michigan chop, and that's saying something."

That soft ride is a major reason why the 38 is popular with many long-distance voyagers. The 38 stands up well when the breeze pipes up and most owners note that they don't reef until the wind reaches 20-knots-plus. The ability to carry sail in a fresh tradewind is vital for a cruising boat, that's when you rack up the miles. And when it is time to shorten up, the 38 will press on with a reefed main and staysail, which incidentally, is an ideal sailplan for heaving-to.

The Cabo Rico 38 is an exceptional cruising boat. With prices for older boats in the low 80s, this lovely cutter is now a viable option for most cruisers. Besides, it might be worth a few extra bucks just for the compliments.