Cabo Rico started building their sturdy boats from a corner of British Leyland’s Rover assembly plant in Costa Rica. Among their success stories has been the Cabo Rico 38 which has won a reputation for legendary soft motion and stout offshore performance. The design came from Bill Crealock who had previously designed the Tiburon 36 for Cabo Rico. Not many 36s were built but the 38 on the other hand found popularity in a time when Taiwanese manufacturers were beginning to dominate the US market.
From its humble start in a corner of the British Leland assembly plant in San Jose, Costa Rica, Cabo Rico Boats have earned the respect of cruising sailors around the world. Introduced in 1978, the Cabo Rico 38 is one of the company’s most popular models by never pretending to be anything else than what she is: a serious cruising boat for serious cruisers. There is no consensus on what defines a serious cruising boat. If you compared the designs of Steve Dashew and W.I.B. Crealock, both noted cruising boat designers, you would find boats that are radically different in appearance yet similar in areas important to all cruisers. Among common features, they have ample fuel and fresh water capacity, a strong rig with manageable sail plans, predictable sailing characteristics, good sea berths, sound construction, and last but not least, accommodations that put the safety of the crew and guests above all else. By these standards, the Cabo Rico 38, designed by Crealock, qualifies as a serious cruising boat. Cabo Rico offered both pilothouse and trunk cabin models, but because of limited space, I’ll confine my comments to the trunk cabin model.
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.
One of the first passages I made was a delivery of a 38 Cabo Rico from Fort Pierce to Fort Lauderdale. Like all family adventures, it was an epic journey. My father, mother, brother, and I started out down the Intracoastal. Soon with a hankering to test sail her and get some peace and quiet from the interminable bustle of boats and bridges, we headed out the cut. It turned out to be blustery day and even with her legendary soft motion soon I, a green legged sailor, was soon sea sick. But my father forged on like Captain Bligh roaring commands to his incompetent crew. By the time, we arrived at midnight in Fort Lauderdale my furious father swore never to take us along again. This was just another day as we all thoroughly enjoyed the trip.
Introduced in 1977, the 38 is Cabo Rico’s most successful and longest running design. Though usually credited to W.I.B. Crealock, her real lineage is slightly more complicated. Dennis Garrett, the production manager at the Costa Rican factory, reworked Crealock’s 36 Tiburon by adding a counter stern and new cutter rigged, deck mold. The result has been what Kevin Bray, Cabo Rico’s latest project manager, calls their “Golden Goose,” a design with tempid demand that never goes out of style. Down below is a symphony of honey-colored teak and stunning joiner-work. There is not an inch of fiberglass in sight. Over the 30+ years of production, she has come in XL, Custom Offshore, Classic Convertible aft cabin, and a Pilot version. On a limited basis, Cabo Rico still makes 38′s.
First Impressions
Crealock’s skillful clipper bow is a work of art. If you wrapped up the Cabo Rico style into one flashing glimpse, you would see her clipper bow gliding by. The look avoids the piraty cliques developing a wholly unique image with long slender lines and sweet sheer. The low freeboard with her molded rubrail flows from salty trailboards. The cabin trunk tucks into the lines and combines with the aft cockpit combings. A Pilot version introduced in 1990 has a higher profile cabintrunk. This is not just a hard dodger arrangement but a true pilot with inside steering. All this is set-off by a fine teak caprail, handrails, and bowsprit. Afmost is a lovely counter stern – Garrett addition to the Tiburon that has become a Cabo Rico tradition. Every Cabo Rico ever made has a two foot extended sistership – even the recent 54/56 though the 54 was never made.
Aloft is a single spreader spar supported by a backstay, the two forestays, and an aft shroud. This is a true cutter rig usually with a high cut yankee forward on the sprit mounted forestay and clubfoot boom which attaches to the deck via a swivel for the inner headsail. The bowsprits were originally a single wooden spar design with the round cranston ring on the end which changed to a flat teak platform. The self tacking foresail has a traveller mounted amidships. Underneath is a old fashioned but classic full keel and attached rudder. Forget the design theory, this hull and keel combination gives her a legendary soft, dry motion with surprising speed.
The hull construction consists of a thick outer glass layer, a 5/8″ balsa core, and a thin inner glass layer. This sandwich goes from the garboard strake to within 1′ 6″ of the sheer. While technically a balsa cored hull, really the balsa is for insulation and unlike the dreaded C&C hulls with their thin outer skin. Stiffening this hull are floors and stringers for a completely fiberglass substructure. Though mostly classically built, the head area is a molded liner with all the associated limitations. The ballast is internal and was iron grouted in place by a resin-sand mixture until about hull 40 when they switched to superior lead ballast.
The deck is a true 3/4″ sandwich of balsa. Often, early 38′s had teak decks overlaid while this has become rarer these days. The hull-deck connection is a bulwark flange secured by 3M’s 5200 and number 14 screws set on three inch centers. On top is a teak caprail. The mast is keel stepped to a fiberglass mast step which spans a couple floors. The soft bilge gives her a nice motion and also allows for, along with the internal ballast, the fiberglass tankage to be placed low in the bilge to increase stability.
What To Look For
The main issue has been the teak decks though not because of any really flawed construction techniques. As one owner notes, this is a problem with “any boat where you drill holes in a balsa cored deck.” Inherently and especially in southern latitudes, teak decks are problematic though they provide great traction and are lovely to look at. I would wary of any Cabo Rico with teak decks and have a careful survey. A leaky teak deck with a saturated core can cost $50,000 or more to replace. A wet delaminated deck is a serious deal killer. The resale value for a teak decked 38 is also lower. Beyond the deck, all the teak whether on deck or below is an important item. While the plenitude of teak aboard Cabo Ricos gives them a strong attraction, it is also requires continuous maintenance. By the condition of the teak, you can tell worlds about the maintenance of the owner.
Among other complaints, blisters are not unheard of. Generally, the later the Cabo Rico the better the build quality. An owner notes, “By the mid 80′s I think they had all the bugs worked out.” The use of vinylester resins has about eliminated the possibility of osmotic blisters these days. Leaks are common around the scuppers, chainplates, and of course mast boot. Watch for water damage below. The lower fixture of the bobstay is prone to corrosion as this rides below the waterline. The cockpit sole of early 38′s was plywood cored and is vulnerable to rot.
Some boats from the late 1980′s and early 1990′s had a bad mixture of stainless steel from a supplier. It was a mixture of 304 and 316L. This affected boats randomly so you cannot tell which ones are suspect. Problems arose with chainplates, bow railing, rudderposts. The fixes are difficult, and you should consult with a local welder. The consequences of not taking note of the stainless are serious. One owner lost his rig because of a corroded chainplate. Getting a new rudder is not simple or inexpensive as a thread on the Cabo Rico Association’s Google group shows. This association is great place to hear an honest opinion of these yachts.
On Deck
While she has 38 length on deck, she seems like a big 38-footer with her roomy foredeck. The bowsprit forward helps reduce weather helm and balance this true cutter. There is a portside water tank cap forward. A windlass is mounted between the bowsprit and a swivel for the inner forestay. One of her many charms is a shallow, fiberglass molded chainlocker forward with two hinged grates. The clubfoot boom takes up too much space on the foredeck and is really not the best idea. But, the boom does along for a self tacking genoa with the cabintrunk mounted traveller. Two sets of genoa tracks are along the caprail and along the cabintrunk. There are two chrome plated bronze circular portholes and three squarish ones on each side. These are wearing thin with the green corroded bronze showing through. Aftmost is a nice lazarette.
The cockpit is old fashioned, reasonably comfortable and secure. The helm has a great raised teak lined seat with a stainless rimmed and teak spoked wheel for the Edson steering. The side seating is long enough to lay down along. There is a manual bilge pump outlet on the topside of the seating portside aft. The combings are low and abrupt with uncomfortable aft facing portholes. The lines may or may not thread through to the cockpit for single handing. The traveller is mid-boom which gives more space but less leverage. The Isomat spars are not the best quality but have proven durable.
Down Below
Stepping down below you are instantly immersed in a symphony of light colored teak and stunning joiner-work. This is the climax of the 38. It is hard to find a spot of fiberglass. And, this is not teak verneer but solid plantation grow teak in the highlands of Costa Rica. The sole is teak and holly or a darker teak and walnut color which is preferred. Above is a white liner. Cabinets are lined with cedar. Two cowl vents and a handful of plexiglass hatches give ventilation and light along with portholes. While the teak strips are fit vertically to emphasis length, the low freeboard 38 has rather poor headroom. I saw a review that mentioned 6’4″, and I can assure you that the headroom is more like 6’2″ at most with forward lowering to 6’0″. I am only 6’0″ tall and the 38 is one of the boats that I have to crouch down a bit in. The pilot version is much better.
The layout can really vary. Mainly, people talk about a Plan A and B layouts. The A has a V-berth forward while the B has an offset double and an L-shaped settee in the main saloon. This B layout is more popular. But while Cabo Rico from 1977 to 1990 produced only the 38, they were far from a monolithic producer. The 38 comes in so many variations including XL, Custom Offshore, Classic that you never know what you might find. Some versions do not have an aft cabin. Others like the XL have an enclosed stateroom aft with a shower portside. The galley is forward.
The engine is either a venerable Perkins 4108, dreaded Westerbeke, or steady Yanmar. I saw one recently that had been repowered, and this seems like a reasonably standard job. Access is behind the companionway and not spectacular for aft access. The cockpit lockers port and starboard give access to the steering area. On later 38′s access was moved portside to through the galley steps. The fuel is in a fiberglass 56 gallon tank set low.
I met with an owner recently who explained how he owned an Island Packet 38 previously. He said, “I had a surveyor friend who recommended the 38, and I have been pleased. Compared to the Island Packet – she does not compare. She sails great. I like to go down from Fort Lauderdale to Key West in her. One time we were sailing in 35 knots and were the only ones out there.” One of the prime reasons to purchase a Cabo Rico besides the lovely teak interior is the sailing characteristics. It is eerie how when 12 knots of wind comes up, she almost instants reaches 6 knots. You do not have to reef until 20 knots. Of course with her fuller keel she will not be a racer. She is meant for reaching. And although her freeboard is low, she has a surprisingly dry cockpit due to Crealock’s stately clipper bow.
William Ion Belton Crealock (Aug 23, 1920 – Sep 26, 2009) was a yacht designer and author. He was one of the world’s leading yacht designers from the 1960s through the 1990s, and his yachts were owned by the famous and wealthy, including Walter Cronkite and William Hurt. Perhaps his most successful production boat was the Westsail 32 (1971) which hit a chord with the American public and helped the cruising lifestyle come out of the fringes and into the mainstream. Another of his all-time classics is the Crealock 37 which he penned in the mid-1970s. The boat, which is still in production, helped forge a long and successful association with Pacific Seacraft and in 2002 was inducted into the American Sailboat Hall of Fame.
“Seaworthiness in a cruising boat has to be the No. 1 consideration. It doesn’t matter how cute the boat is if it doesn’t get [to the destination] in one piece … Just about any boat does well in Southern California. A bathtub would do fairly well. But when things get bad, when it’s blowing hard and rough, that’s when the difference between boats shows up most. But beyond safety, you must give up in some areas to achieve in others. The boat must be aesthetically pleasing to the owner and not too slow – nobody likes a slow boat. But you can’t take a camper and put it on a Ferrari and say you have the ideal combination.” – Bill Crealock.

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