Used Boat Review: Gulfstar 36
Pros and cons of 1980s-era Vince Lazzara fiberglass cruising boat.
Gulfstar Yachts, which produced 2,500 boats in the 1970s and 1980s, was launched and managed by Vincent Lazzara. Lazzara was one of the early experts in fiberglass boat building, having been involved in constructing the Rhodes-designed Bounty II, one of the first fiberglass yachts.
In 1962, he founded and became part owner of Columbia Yachts, which grew into one of the largest fiberglass boat builders in the ’60s. He served primarily as designer and marketer for the company, until it was sold to the Whittaker Corp. in 1967.
Once his three-year non-compete agreement with Columbia’s new owners was satisfied, Lazzara established Gulfstar Yachts in 1970, in Tampa, Fla. The company joined a growing group of builders—including Morgan, Irwin, Hunter, and Endeavor—that were making Florida a center of American sailboat building in that decade. (Incidentally, at the same time, Frank Butler concluded a similar non-compete agreement with the Whittaker Corp. and founded Catalina Yachts.)
Lazzara began by building boats often described as low-cost, low-quality, “floating condominium” sailboat hulls that doubled as trawlers. His first boats were 36- and 53-footers. With identical hulls, the masted versions were called motorsailers, while the non-masted version, with a different deck mold and larger engine, were called trawlers. The sailboats had huge accommodations, but they established a reputation for sailing poorly with their shoal draft, short rigs, and wide beams. Other Gulfstars produced in the early ’70s included a 43-foot trawler and 44-foot motorsailer.
In those early years, the Gulfstar boats were built conventionally, but many aspects were designed mainly to save money and produce inexpensive boats. For example, the interiors were full of formica and the ballast was iron pieces set in a concrete slurry.
Other problems had more to do with poor construction practices. The edges of the balsa-cored decks, for example, were not sealed with resin, and there were no backing plates for cleats or other hardware. According to a former yard hand, workers would cut holes in the decks and leave unfinished hulls out in the rain. One critic said that the workmanship in the factory during that time “bordered on criminal.” To this day, Gulfstars still suffer from the poor quality reputation they earned in the early ’70s.
In the mid ’70s, Lazzara foresaw changes in consumer tastes and began upgrading Gulfstar quality. Improvements included shifting from iron to lead ballast and using teak rather than formica on the interior. Within a few years, Gulfstar interiors were equal to the best production sailboats in the country, and factory construction practices improved to state-of-the-art.
This push for a new look and reputation led Lazzara to go “outside” for design, particularly calling on Ted Hood for the designs of the Gulfstar 40 and 48 performance sailboats. Lazzara’s two sons, Richard and Brad, also joined the company, with Richard taking on some of the design work.
The changes were marked by one of the company’s most famous designs, the Gulfstar 50. However, the company did not completely abandon motorsailers, and it continued to produce the shoal-draft, beamy Gulfstar Sailmaster series.
Lazzara was never one to follow the crowd. With the oil embargo in full swing during the mid ’70s—when resins were expensive and in low supply—Lazzara tried a 50-percent glass-to-resin ratio, a practice that was unheard of at the time. Nowadays, this ratio is standard as makers strive to use the least amount of resin possible that will still totally wet-out the cloth. But back then, it was revolutionary, and Lazzara was criticized for it.
Still, many Gulfstars suffer from fiberglassing problems of this era, particularly a history of blister problems until the early 1980s. By then, the workmanship was as good as any other production manufacturer in the country. Gulfstar continued to produce fine teak interiors and performance-oriented sailboats such as the Gulfstar 44 and Gulfstar 60. Along with these sailboats, the company produced displacement motor yachts such as the 44 and 48 designs. In the mid 1980s, Gulfstar’s production shifted more toward powerboats. Many think that the best Gulfstar sailboat was the 54 Sail Cruiser whose interior joiner work, good design, and quality construction is about the opposite of Gulfstar’s early days. The early and mid ’80s are now generally considered Gulfstar’s “Golden Era.”
In the late 1980s, Gulfstar built mostly larger motor yachts, but the company still produced interesting sailboats, including some for the CSY charter fleet, including the 50, 45 Hirsch, and the 42.
For years, Gulfstar discussed a merger with Vikings Yachts, a powerboat builder, and finally in 1990, the company was sold to Viking Yachts. Lazzara’s sons moved on to found Lazzara Yachts, a mega-yacht builder that still builds boats out of the Tampa Bay area.
Currently, there are two Gulfstar owner’s websites, but neither have been active recently.
The Gulfstar 36
The Gulfstar 36, also called the 36 Auxiliary, was the smallest boat the company built in the 1980s. Twenty-three of the boats were built between 1983 and 1985. Overall, its design is conservatively traditional—it was never called a racer-cruiser, but it was similar to many popular racer-cruisers and coastal cruisers of the time, with modest overhangs, a longish waterline, a moderately long fin keel that is 4 feet, 10 inches deep, and a skeg-hung rudder. The designers are listed as R.C. Lazzara and David Jones.
Above the waterline, the deck has a minimal sheer and the coachroof is attractive, with a sloping front edge. The four cowl-vents on the cabintop have sturdy stainless-steel guards. A dodger and bimini were not standard on the boat, and there are many variations of that equipment on Gulfstar 36s around today.
The cockpit is large and roomy, though you have to step up onto the seats to get by the wheel. The cockpit is 90 inches long, and the seats have good, high back support. A propane locker for two 10-pound tanks is at the aft end of the cockpit. There’s a deep lazarette locker on the port side and a shallow one to starboard.
Sidedecks are wide, but it’s a squeeze getting by the upper and aft shrouds. The foredeck is clear, with a good-sized anchor locker and a short stainless sprit for carrying a plow-type anchor. Our test boat had a 33-pound Delta on the sprit, and the anchor locker was large enough to carry a 33-pound Bruce in addition to the anchor rode. A Danforth hangs on the stern pushpit.
A good bow pulpit and double, 27-inch-high lifelines (with two gates just ahead of the cockpit) are standard, and a stern ladder folds down from the stern pushpit. The stern is wide enough to handle dinghy davits, which our test boat was equipped with.
Construction of the 36 is conventional and of good quality, with standard hand-layup roving and mat. (Early Gulfstars were famous for using the “chopper gun” for layup, but the later models abandoned that method.) Displacement is 14,250 pounds, with 5,460 pounds of lead encapsulated in fiberglass in the keel, for a ballast/displacement ratio of 38 percent.
A couple of peculiarities of construction—the deck is supposedly balsa-cored, but drilled holes and a larger cut-out in the cockpit revealed a marine-grade plywood core. We’re not sure there is any balsa in the deck, and the notable lack of any delamination in a 28-year-old boat suggests that it may be all plywood cored, in spite of the company’s information.
Inside the boat, the hull is totally lined with teak-veneer plywood, so it’s difficult to inspect the hull itself. The deck has a conventional “L” flange that is glassed and fastened to the hull through the exterior rubrail, and the bulkheads are well-glassed where they are viewable.
The rig is a conventional, single-spreader, masthead sloop, keel-stepped, with a nominal sail area of 608 square feet. A 135- to 140-percent roller genoa was pretty standard. Sail area to displacement ratio is a moderate 16.61, an indication that the boat is a good but not spectacular sailer. The only unusual thing about the rig is that the aft lower shrouds go to the same chainplate as the upper shrouds.
Our test boat had a Hood jib furler and originally had a Hood roller-furling boom, which the owner had scrapped because of difficulties raising and lowering the main. The boat now has a conventional main with a lazyjack handling system. There were many variations and changes in the Gulfstar 36 rigging over the years. The rig should be examined carefully by a purchaser for saltwater corrosion in the fittings.
Original hardware on the boat was good quality with the standard equipment being pretty complete, though spinnaker gear was not included in the original specs. The Barient 27 sheet winches and the Barient 22 mast and mainsheet winches are two-speed self-tailers and still very serviceable after 28 years. The wheel is a Merriman, as were the original traveller, tracks, and blocks. To be expected in an older boat, many minor changes will have been made to the boat’s hardware over the years.
Almost all the Gulfstars used Perkins diesels, and the 36 has a 4-108, plenty powerful for the boat—quite a bit noisier than more-recent diesels. The 36 we tested had 8,000 hours on the engine, and some 36s may be due for overhauls or engine replacement. The engine compartment is large enough to handle all current 30- to 45-horsepower engines. The 1-inch shaft uses a conventional strut, and the test boat had a big three-blade propeller, which doesn’t help sailing performance. A PYI shaft seal had been retrofitted.
Access to the front of the engine is good, with the cabin steps removed, but getting behind the engine is almost impossible through the cockpit-locker access hatch if you’re taller than 4 feet or heavier than 90 pounds. But access is necessary to get at the transmission, shaft seal, battery charger, water heater, water-lift muffler, steering gear, and so on. On our test boat, the owner had taken the extreme step of cutting a large access hatch in the cockpit sole. Fuel tankage is 40 gallons, plenty for normal coastal cruising.
The electrical system was originally well done, with wiring well-labelled and bundled. As expected, many modifications have been made, and the electrical panel is small for the current electric and electronic demands aboard mid-size cruising boats. Breakers for both 12-volt and the shore-power system are standard. The battery tray in the cockpit locker has room for only two batteries, and our test boat had added another battery tray behind the engine.
One odd thing on our test boat is that the boat had no running lights for running under power (red/green bow, stern white, mast forward white), and obviously had never had any—there were no fittings and no wiring for these lights on the boat. It’s hard to imagine how a 28-year-old boat could get by without legal running lights, but there were none—the “running lights” switch on the electrical panel turned on just a masthead tricolor light for sailing. There is also a masthead anchor light.
An electric bilge pump and cockpit Whale hand pump are adequate for de-watering.
The interior of the boat is roomy, comparable to other spacious cruisers of the era, like the Catalina 36. The arrangement, again, is conventional.
A large quarter berth is aft to starboard, with a small nav station at the head of the berth. Opposite is a U-shaped galley that came standard with a two-burner Shipmate propane stove and Adler-Barbour-powered cooler, plus a double sink and ample dry storage. Counter-top space is minimal but adequate, and there are six small storage lockers outboard and behind the galley.
Next forward are port and starboard settees; the starboard one pulls out to form a sleeping-double. There is some storage behind and above the settees, and two 40-gallon water tanks are underneath. An oversize table occupies the center of the boat.
Gulfstar, even in 1984, seemed to subscribe to the foolish idea that a 36-foot cruiser could live and sleep six or seven people. A couple using the boat will likely convert the large quarter berth to storage.
Next forward are hanging and storage lockers to port and a large head with separate shower stall to starboard. Finally forward is a large V-berth, 78 inches long, 78 inches wide at the head, and 28 inches wide at the foot. Storage and a holding tank are underneath the berth, and a storage forepeak is ahead of the V-berth, underneath the anchor locker.
Joiner work below is teak and teak-faced plywood and generally well done. Four opening ports along with two overhead hatches and four dorades provide adequate ventilation. Ports in the main cabin provide ample light inside and decent views.
The Gulfstar 36 is an adequate sailor—not super fast, but not a dog. US Sailing doesn’t list a PHRF rating for the boat—they require three or more boats to have been rated in the previous five years, and there obviously were none being raced. An older single PHRF rating was 144, which we found may be optimistic. We doubt if anyone would want to buy the boat as a club racer. It sails like a cruising boat—probably not as fast as the newer, lighter-weight boats.
The boat will go to weather decently—even with an age-challenged main and 140-percent jib, it easily tacks through 90 degrees and achieves hull speed in 12 to 14 knots of wind.
The helm is well balanced. Reaching and off the wind, the boat is easy on helm and sails comfortably. The big three-blade prop obviously slows the boat down, and a good feathering prop would be a desirable addition. As is, cruisers are likely to turn on the engine when the wind drops below 6 to 8 knots.
Under power, the big Perkins diesel easily drives the boat to hull speed, even in a strong head wind. Handling under power is straightforward in both forward and reverse, with little pull on the helm and with just enough prop walk to kick the stern a bit in tight quarters. As with everything else on the boat, performance of the Gulfstar 36 is moderate.
With few models of the Gulfstars available at any one time, cost of a used Gulfstar 36 is hard to specify. More of the larger Gulfstar models seem to be available at any given time. PS could find only two 36s for sale at presstime, priced at $39,500 and $44,000. Actual selling price will depend on condition and equipment, and most used boats of this age will need some upgrading. As the cost approaches $30,000, we think that a Gulfstar 36 in decent condition would be a good value for a conservative cruising boat.