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.

2 Responses to So you want to buy a Cape Dory?

  1. jack corcoran says:

    Great Article! I smiled a lot reading it. Just sold my Cape Dory Typhoon, understood the hobby horse well (with the boom banging until I added a boom vang), the quartering seas was right on and the annoyance of backing out of a slip trying a quick turn backwards. Still loved the classic boat. Only sold it because a Cape Dory 25 fell into my lap. It’s a George Stadel design, not an Alberg but is fashioned very similarly and was created out of the Greenwich 24. I love the low freeboard and being so close to the water. Love how it is tender and then hardens right up. Also for the Great South Bay of Long Island love the imbedded 1800 pound keel that only draws 3 feet!
    Thanks so much for the great read!
    — Jack Corcoran ‘Take 5’

    • David says:

      Thanks for the note! Glad you enjoyed the article. Seemed like the time was right to, well, write it. There’s a lot more I could add, but I think people on the internet only read so much. Enjoy your new CD25!

      Thanks for stopping by!


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