Category Archives: Techniques/Tips

So you want to buy a Cape Dory?

Buying a boat is a potentially stressful affair, usually with a significant amount of money on the line – not to mention a whole lot of hope and expectations, too. Several resources are out there for buyers of Cape Dory yachts thanks to a healthy and active Cape Dory Sailboat Owners Association, which maintains an online forum, organizes events and rendezvous via local fleet captains, hosts online information about boat specs and technical manuals, and provides links to owner websites. If you’re in the market for a Cape Dory, it would be wise to spend some time searching the site, reading the posts, and gathering as much information as you can. I spent numerous hours gleaning what I could from other CD owners via the forum in the months after acquiring Ariel.

In addition to a manufacturer-specific site like the CDSOA, knowledgeable and thorough guys like Don Casey and Nigel Calder have authored absolutely fantastic resources for any sailor who actually desires to know and learn more about boats. Read them. Multiple times. Refer to them as you inspect your potential boat. They even include lists of what to look for if you decide to conduct your own survey. (Always hire a qualified marine surveyor to verify your findings ;).

Here are a few titles to consider:

Calder’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual

Calder’s Marine Diesel Engines

Calder’s Cruising Handbook

Don Casey’s Complete Illustrated Sailboat Maintenance Manual

Casey’s Inspecting the Aging Sailboat

Casey’s This Old Boat

By the way, owning and maintaining an older boat is neither easy nor cheap. If you’re cheap, don’t buy one. If you’re motivated and eager to learn, go for it. If you have loads of money and you’re willing to pay someone else to maintain it, go for it. If you lack natural curiosity and a desire to learn new skills, skip the boat and watch sailing videos on YouTube. 😉 If you’re still reading, good; maybe a Cape Dory is the right boat for you (or another classic).

Now that I’ve spent 13 years owning and maintaining a 1979 Cape Dory 36, I’ll share what I know and what I’ve learned for anyone interested in owning a Cape Dory.

First, since I just got off the phone with a gentlemen who is interested in buying a CD36, let me start with a couple of his questions.

Well, I guess the first one is a statement that raises what I see as an important question/consideration: “I’ve heard that the Cape Dory is a wet boat.” The implication is, as I understood it, that she’s not as high and dry as a more modern design and, thus, maybe not the “best” boat for going to sea.

Let’s clarify a few things.

First, a “wet” boat is not a bad boat anymore than a “dry” boat is a good boat. We’re talking about design differences, and like almost everything related to sailboats/sailing, the word is…COMPROMISE.

Cape Dorys, like other boats of their design and era, were designed along much more traditional lines and influenced by old racing rules. What does that mean? Simply put, she’s narrower and has pointier ends. It also means that she heels more easily and tends to roll more than a modern flat-bottomed, fin-keeled boat that carries her beam all the way to her transom. She also likes to sail heeled a bit. Modern boats, by contrast, prefer to be sailed upright. The wineglass shape of the Cape Dory hull makes the boat “tender,” a term that describes her tendency to heel quite easily. That wineglass shape also means, however, that once she heels over a few degrees she tends to “harden up” – i.e., resist heeling farther. It also means that her deep hull tends to slice through seas, not pound into them, giving her a more sea kindly motion than many modern boats. The design also has fairly long overhangs. The idea was that as the boat heeled, her waterline length increased, giving her more speed and beating the rules (back then), so overhangs were advantageous, not just attractive. She also has about three feet of freeboard amidship, whereas a Hunter or Beneteau or Catalina, or just about any other modern boat, will have four or five feet of freeboard to maximize space below.

It’s those differences between the Cape Dory and more modern designs that contribute to the reputation of Cape Dory as a “wet” boat versus a “dry” boat, but again, “wet” isn’t bad any more than “dry” is good; it’s about compromises that relate to other factors that pertain to a particular boat’s additional characteristics.

So what are some of those “additional characteristics”?

Cape Dorys have a modified full keel with a cutaway forefoot, and it looks like this:


The area in black is the keel. Unlike a true full-keel boat (such as the Westsail 32), the forward part of the keel has been “cut away,” which gives her the advantages of a full keel and removes some of the disadvantages (but not all). Advantages include better tracking and less leeway (sideways “slipping”); a finer entry which provides a smoother motion in a seaway as the keel and the area of the hull forward of it cuts through waves (rather than slamming) and displaces more water, preventing the boat from rolling side to side as dramatically as a fin-keeled boat might – especially when lying ahull and not making way; the ability to hold a steady course more easily (and even sail herself once the sails are balanced); internal, encapsulated ballast, so no keel bolts to maintain or worry about; a keel-hung rudder with the propellor protected in an aperture; and a shape that is less likely to result in serious damage during a grounding.

What are the disadvantages? She doesn’t back very well, so controlling her in reverse is challenging in tight quarters; the increased wetted area of the full keel adds drag; full-keelers generally don’t point as high as a fin-keeled sailboat.

For cruising, however, the full keel is a proven, seaworthy design. There are certainly other options – such as the Pacific Seacraft with a molded stub, bolted-on ballast, and a skeg-mounted rudder (pictured below). Again, compromise is the word. And choosing a boat that’s best for your intended use is critical – e.g., coastal vs blue water cruising, daysailing, floating house, entertaining guests, etc. Add aesthetics into the mix, and sometimes compromise comes in the form of beautifully traditional and attractive lines vs lousy backing. We compromise and put up with her quirks in reverse.


“Is a Cape Dory 36 a good boat for someone who has sailing experience and is looking to take that experience farther via coastal and blue water cruising?”

Yes. She’s a good sailer. She’s predictable. She’s easy to manage single-handed. She’s stable and has nice wide sidedecks and good handholds. Her cutter rig is simple and easy to control. She’ll steer herself if she’s balanced properly. She’s designed and built well. But there are other similar boats that would be good candidates, too. The most important consideration here, to my thinking, is the boat’s condition. Any boat with questionable rigging or other issues is a liability. Condition matters … a lot.

“What issues are there to look out for on the Cape Dory 36?”

These boats are approaching 40. There are several things to look for, but a few are specific to Cape Dory. Chainplates are anchored under the sidedecks at the hull to deck joint with (in the early years) mild steel plates glassed to the hull. Water intrusion over the years can turn them into rusty messes. Later years had aluminum chainplate anchors, which still need inspection. There’s also a steel backing plate located under the bowsprit in the anchor locker. They, too, can rust. Inspect it.

The engine beds were also built of steel and glassed into the hull. Check them.

Although most fittings – such as chainplates and stanchions – penetrate solid glass, there are bits of hardware fastened in cored areas. My experience has revealed that Cape Dory did not properly seal the core in these areas. I’ve found damp core on the foredeck at the chain pipe and in the cockpit at the emergency tiller access. Check the deck for moisture.

The rudder pin and shoe wear over time, necessitating removal and repair.

Those are, to my knowledge, the only Cape Dory-specific issues. Wiring was typical of the era and likely in need of updating. Rigging is likely long overdue for replacement, depending upon previous owners’ efforts. Auxiliaries are potentially nearing the end of their lives or at least approaching the rebuild stage – same goes for gearboxes. Hardware and ports will probably need rebedding. Steering cables might be in need of replacement. Sails are potentially old and bagged out. Electronics may be dated. All of that assuming that the previous owners didn’t stay atop the maintenance. The same items will be an issue on any boat of the CD’s vintage, but maybe worse due to inferior parts and construction methods.

Comparing the CD to other similar designs such as Allied, Alberg, Morgan, etc, the CD is built to a higher degree of refinement. As stout as some of those older designs are, the CD is just as stout and of better construction/engineering, in my opinion.

“Is the Cape Dory slow?” “Does she point well?”

Ariel has consistently out sailed other boats on the water. Most recently, she pointed higher and sailed faster than a Jeanneau 37 on a light-air day with her standard working sails – yankee, staysail, and main. She out sailed an Island Packet 38 – cutter rigged – even while she was towing an inflatable dinghy with a soft bottom (translated: a lot of drag). These experiences and others are, of course, anecdotal, but she’s proven to be no slouch. She’ll easily approach hull speed in moderate air, and in light air – with the right sails, a drifter in our case – she’ll squeeze at least 3 knots of boat speed out of 5 knots of wind.

With a newer staysail and yankee, she’ll sail around 45 apparent. Trimmed properly, she points reasonably well, especially for a cutter. Tired out, bagged out sails won’t point, though. If you’re looking at a boat with old sails, you’ll likely be disappointed with her performance.

“Is she cramped below because she’s an older design?”

Ariel is perfect for two adults. She starts to feel crowded (down below) with four adults, but she’s fine with two adults and two kids. Of course, that’s coming from a cruising perspective. If you’re daysailing, well, we were just out with six adults and five kids – and none of us lost our sanity. She’ll sleep six, but you’ll be constantly shifting people and gear around as you make and make up beds and stow gear.

“I’ve heard that she has a tendency to hobby-horse.”

In light air without a decent sail for the conditions, she can be aggravating in any kind of swell or sea. Her fine ends make her more likely to hobby-horse than a flat-bottomed, bluff-bowed boat, but she’s not bad. Get her going and she’s happy.

“How does she sail off the wind?”

She’s great – on all points of sail, really. The only thing she doesn’t like is a quartering sea; she tends to yaw and roll a bit in those conditions. Lake Michigan waves are steeper and of a much shorter period than ocean waves, however, so perhaps she’d behave better on open water.

All in all, she’s a good-sailing, well-behaved yacht that exudes class and elegance. Her traditional lines turn heads in every port, and her ability on the water makes her a joy to sail.

I suspect there are some things I may have overlooked. If so, let me know.

An unflattering review: North Sails U

I attended my first North Sails U sail trim seminar back in February at the invitation of a couple sailing buddies, which seemed like a good opportunity to do something different in the midst of winter, learn some new skills, and spend some time with a few crew members from last summer’s Mac race. Indeed, the best part of the event was spending the day in Chicago and hanging out with the guys. For the most part, the seminar bordered on a grand disappointment.

North Sails is one of the largest sail lofts in the world, so naturally I figured that any presenter endorsed by the North name would likely blow my mind with insight into sail management and trim. Not so. The presentation certainly had some interesting nuggets, but focused primarily on basic sail trim and lacked the depth, organization, and polish I expected from the North name. Too bad, especially when you do a little math and figure out that approximately 60 attendees paid (at least) $99 each for the seminar, which amounts to a cool six grand for less than 8 hours of instruction. Yes, a complimentary North Sails U CD-ROM is included for the price, but it has all the pizzaz of an outdated PowerPoint presentation – you know, the one with lousy graphics, monotonous narration, and uninspiring presentation. It’s way past time for North to invest some of the 6k per seminar in an update. (If the sport of sailing is dying – as our presenter suggested during the seminar – part of it could be blamed on such outdated presentation materials).

So, if you’re thinking you might drop $99+ on a North Sails U seminar, I say spend that money on a lesson that keeps on giving: buy a book! I’ve learned far more from a few good books on the subject of sail trim. Take a gander at these if you’re interested:

Sail Trim: Theory and Practice

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Sail Performance

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Maximum Sail Power

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That’s about $99 worth of books and, frankly, a gift that keeps right on giving.

I also have these in my library and have found them informative and useful:

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And if you’re not interested in those books, I suspect you’d get plenty out of the North Sails book (which they’ll sell at the seminar for an additional $25.00 or so).

At any rate, they’ll be no more North U Sails seminars for this sailor.

Tethers in the news

Here’s another story related to tethers:

Michigan Man Falls Overboard

Tether vs No Tether: When safe isn’t

My dad and I had a little back and forth email exchange recently about this article from Practical Boat Owner – “Is it safe to use a tether?” As the article read-in below indicates, using a tether to keep sailors aboard has been the prevailing wisdom.

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Solo sailors, especially, are dependent upon a harness and tether, and rely on the system to either stay aboard or enable them to pull/climb/claw their way back aboard after a fall overboard – at least, that’s the hope. Tethers and jacklines are mandatory safety items for most (if not all) open water races. Even the Chicago-Mac race rules required us this summer to rig jacklines and have safety tethers. (The fatalities of 2011 Chicago-Mac race prompted a change in the race rules and generated attention related to the design and use of tethers: Practical Sailor blog and New Mac-Race safety regs). My thoughts last summer about the actual safety of the system are confirmed by the video linked below. The first rule – of course – is to stay ON the boat; DO NOT go over the side. But if you do go over the side, you may wish you weren’t tethered.

Watch the video yourself and see what you think:


Many sailors, perhaps, place too much faith in their equipment. If you read the Practical Boat Owner piece, you’ll note that four of the “real-life situations” at the end of the article highlight the danger of being tethered if you do go over the side. And in two of the situations, slipping or wriggling out of the lifejacket/harness was the saving factor. In the other two situations, it sounds like the skipper got free from his tether in one instance, and in the other the boat drove up on the beach. I also recall another story of a husband and wife cruising alone together. The husband had the night watch and when the wife awoke in the morning to relieve him, he was nowhere to be seen. She soon found him – dead – being dragged behind the boat by his tether.

So what’s the take away? A few things come to mind, but first the obvious: don’t go over the side; stay on the boat! Second, design a jackline and tether system that prevents crew from going over the rail. Perhaps rig a jackline along the centerline of the boat and use a tether that’s less than half the boat’s beam. At the very least, test your current jackline/tether arrangement to see what could happen if things went wrong. Third, ensure that you have a functioning quick-release tether – easily releasable under load – that will allow you to keep your lifejacket on in the event of a trip overboard, rather than wriggle free from it to avoid immediate drowning. And the last item: it just might be better to go untethered, depending upon your circumstances. Given the option, I’d much rather take my chances with a MOB recovery than A) be drowned while being dragged alongside the boat, or B) be stripped of my lifejacket and adrift for who knows how long while awaiting rescue.

As any good sailor will agree, it’s important to know the potential limitations of any system you rely on aboard – whether it’s radar, your engine, GPS, or your anchor. And whether you use jacklines and a tether or not, it’s always good practice to consider eventualities. Doing so just might save your life.


This post is pulled from a defunct Ariel blog. I performed this repair a few years ago)

The same instrument displays that created the gelcoat work described in another post also necessitated below-the-waterline modifications. The new Raymarine depth and speed transducers required a 2″ hole, whereas the old Nexus transducers were 1-1/2″. Enlarging a hole by sanding or grinding is a sure way to create just about anything but a perfect circle, so I planned to use a 2″ hole saw. Without something for the pilot bit to bite, however, the drill will wander. No problem. I drove a tapered wooden plug into each hole, then cut it flush with the hull (in the case of the depth transducer, I cut it parallel to the horizontal). Now my pilot bit had something to bite to center the hole saw, and both holes turned out great.




I applied a thin layer of unthickened epoxy over the edges of exposed laminate in each new cut to prevent water migration, then bedded the transducers in plenty of 4200. Ariel splashed a few days later with nary a leak. By the way, hull thickness in both areas is 1″.

Self-Steering without an Autopilot

By David VanDenburgh Sr.

We were a week out of Hawaii heading for San Francisco and both our autopilot and our backup autopilot had packed it in. We tried a fix but upon opening the case found the gears ground to powder. It looked like someone would need to steer all the way home (about three or four weeks). I figured this would be the perfect time to see if I could make Pygmalion (a Westsail 32) steer herself.

When the wind is forward of the beam, self-steering is not too hard to achieve (at least not in a full-keel cruising boat – those of you with fin-keeled flat-bottom modified racers are on your own!). To accomplish it, you have to understand the forces involved.

First, put the boat on course and hold her there. Then tinker with sheets until the helm is well balanced – just a touch of weather helm. The principle here is to move the center of effort and the center of resistance very close to one another, with the center of effort just slightly aft of the center of resistance. The center of effort is moved aft by easing headsails and hardening the mainsail (on a sloop or cutter) and/or the mizzen (on a ketch or yawl). Conversely, the center of effort is moved forward by hardening the headsails and easing the main (and/or mizzen). (There’s not much you can do to move the center of resistance unless you want to move stores around and rebalance your boat.)

If the wind were steady in force and direction, all you would need is a light bungee cord to hold the tiller or wheel against the slight tendency of the boat to head up, but of course the wind is not steady. Puffs will cause the boat to heel which will cause her to want to head up (stretching the bungee cord). Lulls will let her stand up which will cause her to want to head down (as the bungee cord pulls the tiller up). Fortunately you can take advantage of your boat’s reaction to heeling.

What you want to do is translate the extra tension on a sail created by a puff into a force that pulls the tiller/wheel in a direction that will head the boat downwind a little to resist the tendency to round up. Conversely, you want to translate the reduced tension on a sail during a lull into a force that turns the tiller/wheel in a direction that will head the boat upwind a little to resist the tendency to head off.

There are a number of ways to do this, but the easiest way is to tie a line into a headsail sheet with a rolling hitch (or taut line hitch) and bring it to the tiller (through a block or two) so that increased tension in that line will pull the tiller up and resist the tendency of the boat to head up. This force will probably need to be balanced with a bungee cord pulling in the opposite direction. In a puff, the boat heels and wants to round up into the wind, but the increased pressure on the sail pulls harder on the sheet and therefore on the self-steerer line tied into the sheet, which pulls the tiller up and resists the tendency to round up into the wind. When the puff eases, the bungee cord pulls the tiller down, heading the boat a bit off the wind. It takes tinkering to get it right.

Using this rig, we were able to get Pygmalion to steer herself for hundreds of miles at a time, setting us free from the tiller and reducing fatigue.

Captain Dave and his son, me, on the day of Pygmalion's departure from SF bound for Honolulu.

Captain Dave and his son, me, on the day of Pygmalion’s departure from SF bound for Honolulu.

Winterizing the Perkins 4.108

I’m not an marine diesel expert, but I’ve been maintaining Ariel and her systems for over 10 years now without incident. A few years ago I put this video together and posted it to YouTube. If you need to winterize a Perkins 4.108 – or similar engine – perhaps this video will be a help.

Fool me once…Fool me twice

An article about this couple and the benefits of an EPIRB may be more about choosing the right boat for blue water sailing.

An article about this couple and the benefits of an EPIRB may be more about choosing the right boat for blue water sailing.

“While in Florida, the Rorkes will recuperate and plan the next chapter of their lives. Yes, those plans include sailing. Len wants to stay involved in the marine industry through yacht deliveries and marine surveying. The couple also hopes to share their story with others through motivational speaking and a book. Mostly, Len and Lisa Rorke hope they can be an example to other sailors to emphasize the importance of proper offshore safety preparation and equipment. Along with the United States Coast Guard and the Tilda Kosan crew, it is their liferaft, AIS and EPIRB that the Rorkes credit with saving their lives. As Len puts it ‘Even if you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, as long as you’re fighting, you’re giving the someone out there chance to save you.'”

Surviving one disaster at sea is cause for rejoicing and reflection. Surviving a second disaster? Well, perhaps there should have been more reflection the first time around, especially about equipment choices. And, no, I’m not talking about the EPIRB. A Beneteau Oceanis 50 might make a fine charter boat, but it’s not the kind of boat I’d choose for blue water sailing. Spade rudders are great for the race course and coastal cruising, but they’re certainly not the preferred choice for going offshore.

You can read the entire article here.

Around the Yard

I stopped by Ariel this evening – a typically blustery fall evening – to see how she was doing on the hard, and I noticed this on a neighboring boat:

photo 1That’s an in-mast furling mainsail unfurling itself on a windy October day. The owner of this boat has a reputation for carelessness, and I wasn’t willing to let his carelessness pose a threat to other boats, so I grabbed a ladder, climbed aboard, and furled the sail in tight. (Haulout last year revealed that this guy had had a line wrapped tightly around his prop shaft for some time.)

Once aboard it was clear that the sail was continuing to unfurl itself little by little.

photo 2






I imagine the situation could have gotten a little interesting in an hour or two.

Never a dull moment in the boatyard.

I noticed this little number on the headstay of a boat parked behind Ariel:

photo-20The stuff you see around the yard can be pretty scary – fitting, I suppose, for October. And since this is posted in the Techniques/Tips section: Boat owners: Put your toys away properly. Remove sails for the winter. And give those cotter pins a bend.

Anchoring Techniques: The Kellet

When sailors get together and talk boats, the topic invariably shifts to anchoring. What follows is a steady stream of stories about lousy anchorages, types of tackle, techniques, close calls, chain versus nylon, and so on.

Sailors live with the nagging fear that their best plans might not be good enough or, worse, will be undermined by someone else without the right gear or knowhow – or both. Too many times we have arrived early at an anchorage, sought out a secluded and secure spot, and dug in Ariel’s anchor only to have some Johnny-come-lately zip into the harbor (often at hull speed) and drop his hook and a pile of rode on top of it, without bothering to consider scope, swing radius, or backing on the anchor.

Since there’s not much we can do about the other guy, we experimented with a new technique during our month-long summer cruise of 2010 to make our anchoring more secure and efficient. The technique, well-known in cruising circles, is an easy way to gain better holding and decrease the swing radius (in light to moderate winds) without using an all-chain rode or a heavier anchor. The secret is a kellet, or sentinel. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a heavy hunk of something – chain, lead, or steel – that rides down the rode controlled by its own messenger line.


Our kellet is an inexpensive plastic-coated mushroom anchor that is shackled to the rode and deployed with a messenger line.

The theory is that the kellet increases the catenary, or curve, of the rode. This decreases the upward pull on the anchor and increases the lateral pull, providing better holding. The effect is the same as if you increased the scope. The catenary effect is more pronounced in a heavy chain rode than a rope rode, which is why many sailors prefer chain (in addition to its abrasion resistance). The added strain on the back is also more evident, however, with an all-chain rode, especially if you don’t have a windlass. The kellet mimics the characteristics of an all-chain rode but without requiring you to heave three times as much weight aboard. The handy messenger line allows quick retrieval of just the kellet. Once it’s aboard, you then haul in the rode and anchor.

There are several purpose-built kellets on the market. One is the Anchor Buddy, which is made in 20- and 30-pound weights and sells for $350. I have no experience with the system, but it appears to be well designed. Preferring a cheaper alternative, we picked up a 20-pound plastic-coated mushroom anchor from a local marine store for less than $20. With a couple of shackles and a length of line we had on board, we were ready to go.

Adding the kellet to your anchoring system doesn’t require you to modify your standard anchoring technique, nor does it require any further specialized (or expensive) equipment. Simply anchor as usual – properly digging in the anchor – shackle the kellet to the rode, let it slide down the rode until it’s halfway to the anchor, and cleat its retrieval line on deck.

A variation involves sliding the kellet down the rode only until it rests on the bottom, rather than sending it halfway to the anchor. In moderate conditions this approach keeps the boat sitting over the kellet, further reducing swing radius. Once the wind picks up, however, the boat will stretch the rode and swing within her full radius. The kellet will dampen swinging and bouncing when the wind and waves increase.

We used the kellet every time we anchored during our month-long summer cruise. We also tried it in different configurations: located halfway along the rode; located 15 feet from the anchor; resting on the bottom at a distance roughly equal to the depth. We found that the most difficult configuration to handle was when the kellet was placed 15 feet from the anchor, because this required hauling up that much chain, the 20-pound kellet, and the 44-pound Bruce anchor together.

Although we’ve never had issues with the Bruce (claw) anchor dragging, we certainly sleep more soundly knowing that any movement will be more likely to dig the anchor deeper than it would without the kellet. It is a small price for a lot of peace of mind.

(This article, written by yours truly, originally appeared in the Sep/Oct 2011 issue of Good Old Boat Magazine. Visit their site and subscribe to one of the best boating magazines out there!)

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