Boat Review December 1, 1998 Issue

Alerion Express 38

A gentleman’s cruiser that’s easy to single-hand, great to look at, well-built, but a bit small for long-term voyaging.

The genesis of the Alerion Express 38 takes us back to 1912, when Nathanael Herreshoff, the Wizard of Bristol, built for himself a 26' mahogany-planked daysailer, called the Alerion. In the 1970’s, his grandson, Halsey Herreshoff, built a 25' version that eventually was bought by Alfred Sanford, father of Nantucket boatbuilders Alfie and Edward Sanford. The Sanford Boat Co. produced a 26-footer, mostly faithful to the original design, in cold-molded wood. Among their customers were Bill Koch, winner of the 1992 America’s Cup, and singer Jimmy Buffet.

More recently, in the late 1980’s, Ralph Schacter of Southport, Connecticut, had Californian Carl Schumacher design the Alerion Express, a 28-footer that has classic looks above the waterline, and a modern, go-fast fin keel and spade rudder below. In 1990, Holby Marine of Bristol, Rhode Island, built the first seven hulls before the project was turned over to Everett Pearson and TPI in nearby Warren. Everett Pearson loves boats, and he has built a lot of them since starting in this business in 1956. But he has diversified into many other markets, such as wind turbine blades, and people movers for airports.

Enter Garry Hoyt, founder of the Freedom line of easy-to-sail ketches and sloops. When Garry took over sales and marketing of the Alerions a few years ago, he didn’t waste much time adding to the fleet. Now there is an Alerion Express 20, the original 28, 38, and a new catboat.

The Design
While it’s tempting to start this discussion with the unusual rig, for which Hoyt makes numerous logical arguments, we’ll begin with the basic boat. As was his mandate with the original Alerion Express 28, Schumacher gave the 38 a modern underbody, with whale’s tail keel and elliptical balanced spade rudder. It has a displacement/length ratio of about 203, which may be considered moderately light. Certainly not extreme. The sail area/displacement ratio is a whopping 21.3. Which is why Hoyt says the boat can compete with big genoa race boats, even on windward/leeward courses. It does it with a lot less effort, because you really don’t need winches to trim any of the sails. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.

The AE 38 has a very attractive sheer, subtle, with just a little spring, which reminds us a bit of a Bill Luders design. Some designers—Phil Rhodes was another—have a knack for sheerlines, and Schumacher hit it right with the AE 38. Hoyt professes a preference for the AE 28, which they were trying to capture in the AE 38, but we found the extra spring of the AE 38 more pleasing. Which simply proves once again that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. Both are quite good looking.

The cabin is in proportion to the hull. Though headroom is only about 6'-1/2", Schumacher resisted the temptation to increase freeboard and/or cabin height to provide additional headroom.

The counter stern is in keeping with the traditional classic look, though the transom is somewhat larger than one might expect. This is because the boat carries generous beam well aft, resulting in a large after deck, which we especially like. In fact, boats with cockpits that extend all the way to the transom do not appeal to us, even if it increases cabin space below. Advantages of the after deck include space for lashing cruising gear, large lazarettes for stowage, a place to stand or sit underway, and a measure of distance between following seas and the cockpit. On the Alerion, the lazarette also provides excellent access to the rudderstock for installation of an autopilot.

Like the stern line (when viewed in profile), the bow is a straight line, not too rakish, though our eye kept trying to make a spoon bow of it. The bow and stern balance nicely, a key element of the classic look.

Construction
All Alerions are built by TPI using the resin infusion molding process called SCRIMP, patented by Bill Seeman of Gulfport, Mississippi. Both the hull and deck are balsa-cored. We’ve written about SCRIMP a number of times, but suffice to say it combines the advantages of vacuum-bagging, reduced VOC’s in the workplace, and high glass-to-resin ratios of about 70:30 for stiff, lightweight laminates. TPI bought into Seeman’s business and now licenses other builders wishing to use it.

Engine beds and floors are glassed to the hull. All bulkheads are tabbed to the hull and deck. The cabin sole is teak and holly plywood. The hull ceilings (liners on the sides) are Port Orford cedar, which lightens the cabin. Other wood trim is teak (spray varnishing is optional), with white panels overhead in the traditional Maine style.

About the only fiberglass module is the sole in the head, which is an ideal application, considering the obvious sources of wetness. A wooden sole here is an invitation to rot.

All hardware is of good quality—Harken, Lewmar, Schaefer. The tapered main mast is from Hall Spars, as is the unstayed, carbon fiber mizzen and aluminum booms.

There are eight oval-shaped opening Bomar portlights with screens. These are distinctive and help to define the Alerion model line. Three Lewmar hatches will provide most of the ventilation.

Rig
Garry Hoyt does an excellent job selling the concept of his boats, as well he should, being a veteran of Madison Avenue advertising. And the story he pitches with the Alerions is ease of sailing. Same one he used with the Freedoms. It’s a passion with him. He firmly believes that a major reason more people aren’t coming into the sailor’s fraternity is the perceived difficulty of mastering the sport. That’s also why he developed the Escape rotomolded boats for beginners.

Hoyt has an affinity for split rigs because of the many sail combinations possible. While he admits the yawl is a tougher sell than a sloop, it’s advantages are numerous. Anyone who has dropped the mainsail in the face of building seas and winds and proceeded on with jib and jigger, knows that the boat balances superbly, does not heel excessively, and still can maintain hull speed.

Add to this Hoyt’s patented Jib Boom and you have a rig that also is easily handled, even by one or two persons. With all three sails on booms, the entire rig is self-tending, meaning that when tacking up wind, all one has to do is move the tiller or turn the wheel. No need to handle jib sheets or grind winches.

Off the wind, the high-aspect ratio jib can be let out, even forward of the headstay, where it retains good shape because the Jib Boom also acts as a vang to hold down the clew. Sail shape can be adjusted without changing the sail’s trim angle.

One’s first suspicion is that performance will suffer without a larger headsail, and that is true of most boats. But if you design the boat from the git go with this idea in mind, you can, as Schumacher did, put most of the sail area in the mainsail so that overlapping headsails aren’t really necessary. In very light conditions, one can still fly a gennaker. And the mizzen offers the possibility of a mizzen staysail for extra reaching power.

The main mast has double spreaders, slightly swept back. The upper, intermediate and lower shrouds all tie into large, single chainplates port and starboard, which are through-bolted to structural bulkheads.

The Alerion’s rig is simple, and it works. Our only hesitation is one of aesthetics. Our eye isn’t used to the big, curved Jib Boom on deck, but if we owned the boat, we’re confident that its advantages would tip the scales in favor of functionality over perfect beauty.

A more practical objection to the Jib Boom is its interference with handling ground tackle. On the first boat, the bow roller was mounted on the port side of the stemhead, just forward of the Jib Boom blocks. The error was realized, and the roller was moved to starboard. Nevertheless, the Harken furling drum on both boats we inspected is mounted quite low, leaving little space to deploy and retrieve anchors. Cruisers planning daily anchoring should consider elevating the drum 6" to 12".

Interior
As noted above, the Alerion has an all-wood interior, which we greatly favor over fiberglass pans, because they are quieter, warmer, and make access easier to all parts of the hull.

The layout is conventional, with a 6' 7" quarter berth to port (batteries under). There is a small fore-and-aft nav station just forward of the berth, and a 18" seat, but you can’t put your feet under the table. Several owners have had the boat built with the nav table positioned athwartships, but this makes getting into the quarter berth more difficult. Hoyt admits this arrangement becomes something of a “head knocker.”

The lines drawing shows the quarter berth as a double, but that wasn’t our impression when viewing the bunk. It’s a bit narrow for two. And the nav station is on the small side, with little room for extra electronics beside the Bass distribution panel. In its defense, Hoyt says that the market for this, and most production boats for that matter, is the summer coastal cruiser who only sleeps aboard on weekends and perhaps one longer cruise of a week or two. Such sailors don’t really need a huge table to lay out full-size charts.

The galley is also smallish, with a 13" x 10" sink, ice box with stowage for plates and glasses behind in teak racks, a two-burner Force 10 propane stove, a few bins and a set of drawers, which appear to be laminate-covered fiberboard—we’d rather see solid wood. The galley’s best feature is the slide-out trash can.

In the saloon, the starboard settee is just 5' 4" long, suitable for a child to sleep on, but not an adult. The port settee is 6' 5", giving the boat two decent sea berths.

The standard table folds down from the main bulkhead and is reasonably sturdy, though Hoyt said he prefers the fixed table option. On the bulkhead above the table is a wine rack with space for glasses and bottles.

Compared to other areas of the interior, the head is fairly large, measuring 4' 2" wide by 3' 2" deep. The toilet is a Raritan PH II, which we think is the best low-cost one available. Plumbing is generally good, with vented loops and Forespar’s Marelon® seacocks on all through-hulls. We’ve had considerable experience with these seacocks, and while we appreciate their reasonable cost and the fact that they can’t corrode, we worry about the smaller sizes. Marelon, like many plastics, is slightly hydroscopic. Over time, the ball valves can swell, making the handles harder to turn. What we have seen break are the rods connecting the handle to the ball. The larger sizes seem to have enough beef to resist the torque, but the smaller sizes sometimes do not. On the Alerion 38 we examined, the two small seacocks under the head sink were sticky. The larger seacocks for the toilet and sink drain turned easily.

The V-berth measures 6' 7" long and 2' wide at the foot. An insert and cushion stows in the cedar-lined hanging locker. The cedar is a nice touch, masking any odor of mildew.

The bilge boards have a nifty locking mechanism operated by a T-handle. Few boats of any quality have this feature, which is considered important for an offshore boat.

The bilge is divided by the floors into several sections. The two larger ones are about 18" deep and 5" wide, capable of holding more water than we expected to find on a shallow-bottom boat. A shower sump pump and bilge pump are located here.

The auxiliary is a Yanmar 3GM30F diesel. The engine compartment is well-insulated with 1" lead-lined foam. Wiring and plumbing is generally neat, if not fancy. Access is satisfactory, by removing the companionway stairs and through a removable panel inboard of the quarter berth.

Behind the engine, under the cockpit, is a 6-gallon Atlantic Marine water heater.

The cockpit is just more than 8' long and provides good bracing for the feet. A dedicated propane locker is to starboard, just aft of a large locker. The companionway slides are smoked acrylic, which is a contemporary styling element.

Performance
We test sailed the Alerion Express 38 on a fall day with a changeable wind. One minute it was calm, the next blowing 12 to 15. We sailed the boat jib and jigger and saw, as Hoyt promised, that she can sail close-hauled with this sail combination. Naturally, she also reaches beautifully with a balanced sailplan. Off the wind, we wung-out the jib on its boom and proceeded nicely. Hoyt emphasized that when sailing wing and wing on a boat with a genoa (that by necessity is sheeted aft to the deck), much of the sail is useless. A whisker pole helps extend the tack outboard, naturally, but too few sailors today seem willing to set one.

The large, fully battened mainsail has Antal cars on the mast track and Battslide sail attachments. It goes up and down easily. Lazy jacks are fitted to contain the sail, but when hoisting one must be head-to-wind until at least the second batten is past the lazy jack eyes. A Dutchman requires less precision and attention.

With all three sails set, the boat accelerates nicely. Due to its high sail area/displacement ratio and modest wetted surface, performance is very good. She’ll turn on a dime, a feature made clear to us when Hoyt swung the tiller hard over, simulating a man-overboard drill. No sheets needed tending. We came right back to our original spot, and could have keep doing donuts in the middle of Narragansett Bay, if we had felt like it. We wouldn’t recommend the maneuver in conditions that might produce a broach, but a fin keel does have this edge over longer, traditional keels.

The downside of a fin keel/spade rudder combination is that more attention is required at the helm. And while we didn’t find the boat at all skittish, it seemed easier to drift off course than with, say, a full keel or our Tartan’s big fin keel and full-length skeg-mounted rudder. Tiller steering is standard and the boat is easily managed with it. Two owners have opted for wheel steering. We’re not sure which we would choose as both have advantages.

Conclusion
Base price of the Alerion Express 38 recently jumped 10 grand to $159,900 (why don’t our salaries increase this quickly?). Built-up, all-wood interiors cost more, but worth it, we think.

If you want the yawl rig, add $8,455. Other options you might choose are varnished interior, $7,400; sails, $9,545; wheel steering, $2,740; and dodger, $1,850. Adding electronics, you’ll begin to approach $200,000 for a tricked out, fully commissioned AE 38. For comparison, the base price of a Beneteau Oceanis 381 is about $135,000, the Danish-built X-382 around $225,000, and a German-built Bavaria 38, which we reviewed last May 1, about $190,000 “sailaway.”

We like the Alerion fleet very much. Hoyt said the Alerion 28 is the heart of the line, adding that he is still plagued by potential customers citing our September 1992 review, in which we said it was a tad tender. “It was,” Hoyt said, “so we took all the lead and put it at the bottom of the keel in a bulb. Problem fixed.”

But we especially like the 38, mostly because of its classic proportions, elegant sheer and yawl rig. While we’d still like to see what the boat would look like without the Jib Boom on deck, we’d still go for it because of its great utility.

The Alerion 38 is not a long-distance cruiser, nor was it meant to be, though it’s certainly strong enough. Its principal liability for such use is a lack of stowage, including forepeak for ground tackle. But for coastal cruising in style and in speed, she’s unique. Like what you think about Hoyt’s ideas, his are the freshest in the business, and in the Alerion 38 he has combined style, performance and ease of handling in a way that no other has.

 

Contact- Newport R&D, 1 Maritime Dr., Portsmouth, RI 02871; 401/683-9450.

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