How The Sabre 38 MKII Became My Dream Boat And Why It Took Me Almost 30 Years To Buy One

By Rich

I finally bought a Sabre 38 MKII, the boat I decided was my ideal all the way back in 1994 while I was still in college. The story of how and why I chose the 38 MKII – and why haven’t owned one before now – begins over a decade before that, in the early 1980s, before the Sabre 38 MKII had even been designed.

When I was a small child, my parents bought our first family boat – a brand new Pearson 36 which was newly delivered in the early / mid 1970s. She was later traded in for a new Pearson 40 my parents had built in 1979. The 36 was a very nice sailing boat and very stylish, but not ruggedly constructed. The Pearson 40 was also marketed as a raceable cruiser, but my parents were sold on the promise of its expanded open-ocean capabilities. Unfortunately the blue water sales pitch exceeded the boat’s capabilities, as we discovered the hard way.

Our first family boat, a Pearson 36 named “Endeavor,” was bought new in the mid / early 1970s. For a family of 7, she was snug but in those years it was not unusual to stuff a lot of humans in a comparatively small boat. Today’s interior designs focus more on open living space than bunks and storage. I still love the look of this design.
The “New Endeavor” as we came to refer to her, shown under construction in the Pearson factory. She was delivered in 1979 and sported a massive upgrade in interior fit & finish compared to the 36.
After decades of sailing many different boats since these our P40 was delivered, I still think Pearson knocked it out of the park with the P40’s interior design. Her construction was another matter. (Photo Credit: Pearson Yachts)

A few years after our new Pearson 40 was built, my parents decided that the whole family would go on the adventure of a lifetime by sailing her to Bermuda. The trip to Bermuda was relatively smooth, and we enjoyed a nice week touring the island.

The trip home wasn’t as smooth as the trip south, however. I don’t recall if the forecast was incorrect or if my father decided to get underway despite a bad forecast, but we ran into weather heavy enough that a Pearson 424 traveling not far behind us had to have her crew rescued by helicopter. Aboard Endeavor we were taking a beating too. The structure in the forward cabin of the Pearson 40 had been designed such that large portions of the topsides were insufficiently supported by interior structure. These hull sections flexed badly enough to begin breaking up the v-berth cabinetry during the storm. Worrisome leaks also broke out the hull-to-deck joint and the portholes began to leak. The Pearson handled dreadfully as it surfed down huge waves, requiring large and frequent steering corrections to prevent broaches. The following sea made its way into the engine’s poorly-designed exhaust and from there into the cylinders, knocking the engine out of commission. That in turn left us with no way to charge the batteries for the last few days of our return trip, which raised the danger of our food spoiling and potentially even the loss of our communication and navigation electronics. Happily, we were able to arrive home safely because the weather calmed during the latter days of the trip. Endeavor was sent back to the factory for repairs, and we were left to reflect on the range of poor design and construction methods that had led to such a disastrous passage for us.

More than a decade later, I was in my third year of college studies at the University of Massachusetts in 1994. After my parents’ divorce a few years earlier, I had been sailing much less frequently but daydreamed about starting up again once I was an independent, working-age adult after college. As part of this daydreaming, I decided that I wanted to learn everything I could about the way sailboats were built so that I would be able to avoid the buyer’s regret that might come with discovering serious structural weaknesses in one’s boat during a storm. Even though a sailboat boat purchase was likely at least a decade away for me, I decided to write a letter to a handful of leading manufacturers to get details on their construction and design methods, which I followed up with telephone interviews and tours of a couple of the factories that were within a reasonable drive of my college campus in Amherst. I knew it would be many years before I would be a serious buyer, but who cared? It was a fun exercise!

The letter I sent out to sailboat manufacturers 1994. I still have a copy after all these years – I found it had been retained with the collection of manufacturer responses.
The collection of responses from sailboat manufacturers in 1994.

Somewhat to my surprise, I got responses from all of the factories I wrote, many of whom took the time to include detailed replies to my questions about construction methods. I drew a number of conclusions from what I learned:

  1. As expected, the “custom” boats were much more expensive than the “production” boats.
  2. Based on what the factories wrote me, there was a very high correlation between higher prices and better construction. Hinckleys and Aldens, for example, weren’t more expensive solely because of the artistry of their woodwork – they were much more solidly built.
  3. The biggest single difference in construction methods was centered on how the yachts’ interiors were fastened to the hull. The less expensive brands used a pre-fabricated fiberglass “liner” or “pan” which included much of the hulls’ reinforcement but which also included slots for the bulkheads and cabinets to slide into. These “liners” were glued into the fiberglass hulls of these boats, and then the bulkheads were simply slotted into their groves, making assembly of the boats a snap. By contrast, the more expensive custom boats were “stick built,” meaning that no liner was used at all. Rather, each and every bulkhead, berth, shelf and cabinet was directly fastened, for “tabbed” to the hull. This method was much more labor intensive but it resulted in stronger, more resilient hulls, since every piece of interior cabinetry formed a part of the hull’s structure. More importantly, should the “liners” of the more inexpensive production boats become detached from the rest of the hull, the structural integrity of the hull would be decimated without the crew being aware. Many such failures have occurred with these boats since “liners” became a production fad, some leading to the loss of the boats’ keels and the lives of their crews. Such a “silent” failure of all of the bulkheads and cabinetry of a “stick built” boat is impossible. They are simply much safer, more robust boats.
  4. Generally the brands I examined could be split into two camps: expensive premium brands such as Nautor’s Swan, Hinckley, and Alden, and “production” brands such as Beneteau and C&C. But there was one odd exception that seemed to straddle the line between the two: Sabre. The Sabre’s price point fell in the middle of these two bookends between “premium” and production, and even though Sabres were technically “production” boats in the sense that their design layouts were largely fixed, they were stick built! Each bulkhead, cabinet and shelf was tabbed directly to the hull just like the expensive premium brands. Their build quality showed many other signs of a fanatic attention to detail, and the designs themselves were very performance-oriented for cruising boats – in contrast to their premium New England competitors, Alden and Hinckley, who sported more artistic but less performance-oriented designs. In one stroke I was sold – Sabre toed the ideal line between quality and pricing that mortals could afford, while their design languages toed the ideal line between classic cruising and racier hull forms. If I were buying a cruising boat that point, a Sabre would have been my choice.
  5. Of the Sabre models being promoted at the time , the 362, 38, 402 and 425, the 38 was hands-down my favorite. She had the best looks, best proportions, and I was obsessed with the design of the underbody. She sported a beautifully formed fin keel (centerboard and wing keels were options), she had a very distinctive, high aspect ratio rudder, and she sported that awesome sharp-angle bow knuckle in her forefoot that all of the second generation Roger Hewson designed Sabres had. It’s totally irrational but ever since falling in love with these Hewson designs I have been obsessed with that design feature, which I would always include in the doodles of sailboats I would make during college lectures. For me the Sabre 38 was just plain old sex on a stick as cruiser-racer sailboats went. She was perfect.
Sabre’s reply to my query was among the most thorough, and I was blown away that a “production” yacht company could cover more more or less 80% of the quality markers laid down by the “premium” brands that demanded far higher sticker prices.

So that was it. I was a Sabre man as of the moment I finished my research, and the 38 was the model I wanted – that is, the one I would want a decade or so down the road when I would have sufficient means and opportunity to buy a cruiser / racer sailboat. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Sabre 38 MKII went out of production many years before I would be able to afford one (in the mid 1990s) and the industry increasingly moved away from her design language. Today it is long since extinct in new yachts, which is now completely dominated by cheap production models built with pans and emphasizing interior space over sailing performance.

One ironic thing about this story is that without knowing it, in 1994 I was much, much closer to owning my first sailboat than I ever could have imagined. I graduated from college in 1995 and began my career in management consulting in January, 1996. The firm I joined was in the Washington DC area and while the compensation was excellent, the work-life balance was awful. We traveled to client sites four days a week and were back in the home office Fridays, where we compiled meeting notes and labored through expense reports – all while exhausted from the week’s whirlwind tour of at least 2-3 cities. Long hours and frequent travel meant that it was impossible to build a social life outside of my small circle of work friends. One of the senior partners in my firm was a sailor, and in the summer of 1996 he took me for a daysail on his 1984 Morgan 386 sailboat. Without knowing it, the day I set foot on that boat would be the day I would meet my future (and current) wife Lisa, who was good friends with Lloyd’s (then) girlfriend, Sarah.

After the day cruise, Lloyd casually suggested that given my childhood experiences with sailing, I should buy a sailboat too. The suggestion was so ludicrous for a recent college graduate with less than a year’s career experience that it obviously made perfect sense. I began shopping for a J/24 to use as a day sailor but came across a J/29 in Annapolis’ Bert Jabins Yacht Yard. The J/29’s design made no sense to me at some level – it was larger than a J/24 but still had no room to stand up down below. But oh my goodness those lines! The 29 was really, really a sexy design that made me light-headed and until this day both Lisa and turn and gawk when we see one. There’s nothing else on the water that looks quite like it. And unlike the J/24, she was stick-built! The first one I saw was stored on land, but I made an offer on a different J/29 that was in the water at J/World nearby. The survey revealed a significant collision repair that the surveyor recommended be redone – so he warned me off of the boat. I turned back to the first one I had found and closed on it later that fall. At the tender age of 25, I was a sailboat owner – just over two years after I had started my fantastical yacht construction research! It’s funny how life works sometimes.

My J/29 (hull #171) on a mooring in Annapolis harbor in the late 1990s after a weekend booze cruise with college friends. Look at those lines!
Jeopardy in the fight for an Annapolis NOOD podium finish in the late 1990s. The young chap with the full head of blonde hair at the helm is me.

Although the J/29 was designed as a race boat, I planned to use her as a day sailor and maybe weekend over-nighter, but I got roped into racing her almost immediately. I wound up combining my original use case with what developed into a very successful club racing campaign. We got great results with the boat, culminating in first place in the 2001 J/29 North American championships. Between regattas, though, we definitely enjoyed our fill of day sails and weekend overnights before I sold her in 2002 to attend business school at the University of Virginia.

Although Lisa and I – since married – remained active crew on a variety of race boats in the intervening years, we would not own a boat of our own again until 2014. Every year we attended the United State Sailboat Show in Annapolis in the fall, but we really didn’t have ambitions of owning a cruising sailboat before that dream was revived at my suggestion in 2006. After business school I had started my own IT support business, and I found the work rewarding but the hours of client service to be stressful and unbounded. In retrospect, I began to indulge in what amounted to an escapist fantasy: that all of my hard work was so that we could build the business and one day (perhaps in another decade?) quit our jobs and sail around the world on a Swan 53. True, the Swan 53 was not a Sabre 38 – my prior dream boat – but neither was the use case. I had never before dreamed of global live-aboard cruising, for which the Sabre 38 was not ideally suited. Both Lisa and I by this time had done some ocean passages, and both those experiences and my childhood Bermuda trip had convinced us that we wanted BIG structural safety margins for this boat. Since Swans were the sexiest ocean-racers I lusted after as a teenager, my focus naturally drifted to these designs. Yes, Swans were much more expensive than Sabres, but they were fast and built like brick shit houses. In my mind: perfect!

This plan was badly flawed on multiple levels. First of all, the fantasy of quitting one’s job and sailing the world’s oceans is shared by many sailors like me who – before they try it – don’t have enough experience with the lifestyle to understand what live-aboard cruising and ocean passage making is really like. Many years later, during four seasons living aboard our Hylas 54, I would learn the pros and cons of the lifestyle – and I would learn, most importantly, that live-aboard cruising is NOT sailing off into the sunset into a happily-ever-after. It is hard work maintaining complex marine systems and the experience vacillates between big emotional highs and painfully unpleasant lows when bad weather or system failures are encountered.

There were other problems with this plan: the Swan 53 was a terrible choice for our intended use case. A very good friend in our yacht club humorously (but gently) pointed out to us the sheer stupidity of our choice one summer day by pointing out that Swan 53s are fantastic ocean racers when you have 13 or so of your closest friends along as crew. But for a single couple, this design’s astronomical rigging loads and massive sails are too much to handle. To say nothing of its 10-foot draft.

Ooops,” we thought. We really had a lot to learn – more than we thought we did. After this moment of clarity, our long-range cruising plans evolved. First, we decided to take on boat partners in the form of two of our dearest and oldest friends, and second, we decided to evaluate more cruising-friendly designs than ocean racers. And to make sure we were more thoroughly prepared, in 2014 Lisa and I bought a “test” or “proof-of-concept” boat so we could learn about live-aboard cruising and maintaining complex yacht systems such as air conditioning, etc, and to make sure the four of us got along as well as we’d hoped on extended cruises.

What should we buy for our test boat? Why, the answer had been clear since 1994! A Sabre 38 MKII! We looked at a couple of 38s, but when Lisa saw Sabre 42 hull #57 and her dual heads, she was sold! I had no complaints in choosing the 42 either. As these pages have documented so thoroughly, we absolutely adored our five seasons cruising the 42 and were thoroughly depressed the day we sold her in 2018 to commit to purchase of the “real” ocean cruising boat.

Sabre 42 #57 shown the day we took delivery of her, picking up her mooring in Lake Ogelton for the first time.

During our seasons cruising the 42 we had been narrowing down our choice for “the big boat” and the Hylas 54 won out. We bought Hylas 54 #43 in 2019 and she delivered on every blue water / live-aboard promise Hylas made in designing and building her. If the reader is considering an extended live-aboard world cruise, short list this design or the newer Hylas / Blue Water 56.

Hylas 54 #43 shown in the first days after we took delivery of her in Charleston.

The Hylas 54 may have been perfect for our use case, but Lisa and I in particular were not perfect for live-aboard cruising. We learned through our four seasons aboard the Hylas that we love what we do professionally and were not ready to quit to go cruising. By being away from her friends for months at a time, Lisa learned just how much she loves them and the experiences she shares with them. And I learned that I am a lousy tourist. I mean bad. The destinations turned out to be much more of a focus for live-aboard cruisers than I had expected, and the rarity of ideal weather windows just when they are needed meant there was much more motoring moving from place to place than I had expected. That turned out to be a bad combination for me, and while I had terrific experiences seeing Maine, New England, and the Caribbean, what I really longed for was a return to coastal daysailing and cruising – and in particular, to get back to single handing something smaller and more manageable. All that being said, our extended cruising adventure was the furthest thing from a failure. Both Lisa and I could not be happier that we tried it, because of the adventures we had, the places we saw, and – vitally – because sometimes being mis aligned with what you really want to be doing in life is the best way to find out what you do want to be doing. Through this experience we learned that our prior Sabre program really worked for us: have me single-hand it partly or entirely to a new destination, then have Lisa and friends come join of us for periods. Rinse and repeat. It’s our natural cadence. So once the decision was made to sell the Hylas so she could go on to her next adventures, we were ready to kick off our next sailing chapter.

A lot of people love sightseeing. But for me … meh. I want to sail!

But what to buy? Our first instinct was to focus on the newer model Sabres purely because after rebuilding much of the 42 and doing a ton of work on the Hylas, I did not want to restore a third boat. We looked at a 402 and a 426 but to our astonishment (and my despair) we learned that even boats built in the mid 2000s can be allowed to depreciate badly when neglected. It was as likely as not that one of these boats would need at least as much work as my 42 had. We also struggled with the fact that the vast majority of these boats were built with the silly shoal draft wing keels (which we planned to spend $30k swapping out for a fin keel) and we disliked the interior layouts of the Jim Taylor-designed Sabres. The 426 in particular made little sense for us; it offered no more storage than our 42 had yet was much larger and would cost three times as much – more when we factored our $30K budget to put a real keel on. Her larger hull would gain us nothing but empty floor space in the salon. Wide open interior designs like this look impressive in the boat show but they’re useless to real cruisers.

I came home from seeing one of these boats thoroughly discouraged about our options. I went online and decided to broaden my Yachtworld searches to once again include the 1980s designs. By the look of the two mid 2000s Sabres we had seen I was going to be rebuilding a boat either way, so we may as well start with a design we both preferred for 1/3 of the cost. It was depressing to think that I would have to rebuild another boat, but as they say “it was what it was.’

Almost as soon as I sat down and started searching I came across Sabre 38 MKII #12. I literally could not believe what I was seeing. A deep-draft Sabre 38 that had been essentially rebuilt by Hinckley with a new engine, electronics and plumbing. If she showed as well in person as she appeared in the listing, she was literally perfect for us. I booked a flight to Maine. When I got there I saw she was everything her listing showed and more.

So today we have the boat I had been dreaming about for decades and Hinckley has rebuilt her for me. It’s a dream come true – sometimes things just have a way of working out!


10 thoughts on “How The Sabre 38 MKII Became My Dream Boat And Why It Took Me Almost 30 Years To Buy One

  1. Perhaps your best blog to date!


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    Sent from my iPhone


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  2. Thank you for sharing this experience Rich. Really enjoyed reading it. So happy that you found your dreamboat!

  3. Rich, I enjoyed your post and your back ground. I also learned a lot about the boat building industry. You would have enjoyed touring the Palmer Johnson factory as we did years ago. Happy Holiday to you and Lisa. I am going over to Colleens on Wednesday.

  4. Very welcome insights. I’ve been researching Halberg-Rassy, Tartan and Sabre for two years and teeter-tottering over models, lengths and builds. I remember seeing your boat on Yachtworld and thinking, WOW in Maine, great shape, reasonable price and… ouch contract pending… Congratulations!

    1. Of the three brands you specify I see the H-R as a bit of an outlier in that its use case is more blue water. I found their interiors a bit too dark and somehow the whole design seems to take life too seriously for a coastal cruiser, if that makes sense! I am not a fan of the Tartans in that the later Tim Jackett models heavily favor interior space over sailing performance and that’s not my personal priority (but others may see it the other way around).

    1. I haven’t seen a 386 in person yet, but I have seen a 402 and a 426. The 426 was a design we just could not get our head around, because the boat was so much larger than our 1989 42 had been, but the extra size was only used for open floor space. I assume the 386 might make a lot more sense because it’s a smaller boat, so it’s likely to be less expensive without any drawbacks in real usability. On the other hand they were some of the later models, bringing the price back up but then you get a newer boat as well. On balance I’d bet it would be a good choice but as always the real deciding factor is how any particular example of the breed has been maintained! The 402 we looked at in particular had already been neglected enough to qualify as a full on “project.” It’s amazing how even 2000’s era boats can be degraded by neglect! So I think the real trick is to find the right example of a model you like.

      1. Nice thoughts on the 386. We’re also looking at the 362. To your point about upkeep, it never ceases to amaze me how a machine so loved at first as a sailboat can turn into a heap of sad neglect. I’m skippering one for a lovely couple but the gentleman is not unable to sail due to health issues and his wife has her days filled tending to him. Their boat is now sitting idly at docks you can almost hear her slowly wasting away… My feeling is, vessels in Maine tend to be better cared for than those here in Florida. We also suffer from the “we can always sail tomorrow” syndrome, due to the excessive fine weather… Of course tomorrow turns into next week, next month…

  5. Fantastic Rich, love the history! You cold write a book! Love the old Bristols too. SCC used to have 4 or 5 in the club. And of course I love J Boats, interesting that wasn’t one of your letters! The Sabre is gorgeous! You’ll have to get to know Brett and Erica Smith from AYC, love their Sabre 36! Hope you get to enjoy New England since she’s up there. And enjoy the scenery! Super excited for you both! Hugs and Happy New Year!

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