Cabo Rico 38: Used Boat Survey

Still going strong after more than 20 years, this Bill Crealock design is much admired for its strength, seakeeping ability, and teak joinerwork. Too bad only a privileged few can afford one.


If we made a short list of traditional-looking cruising boats with trailboards and oodles of teak that dreamy-eyed readers most want to know about, the Cabo Rico 38 would be near the top. Others of her ilk, like the Canadian-built Gozzard 37 and 44, also draw much interest. But all that good detail in wood doesn’t come cheap. So many of us walk the boat show docks muttering, “Some day…”

Cabo Rico has a rather unusual genesis, starting as it did as the hobby of one John Schofield, manager of a British automotive plant in San Jose, Costa Rica during the 1960s. A keen yachtsman, Schofield apparently saw no reason why his relegation to Latin America should quash his love of sailboats, so he began building boats in the corner of Leyland’s Range Rover facility. His first boats came out the door in 1965. By 1971 he had introduced the Tiburon 36 ketch, designed by Californian Bill Crealock. Six years later, in 1977, came the Cabo Rico 38, with which we are here concerned.

Cabo Rico 38: Used Boat Survey

Edi and Fraser Smith bought the company in 1987 and have expanded operations since. The Cabo Rico line now includes models from 34 to 50 feet, all with pilothouse options except the baby of the fleet.

In 1992 the Smiths bought David Walters Custom Yachts. If you know your fiberglass boat history, you’ll recall that David Walters is the yacht broker who in 1975 co-founded Shannon Yachts with Walter Schulz in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The Cambrias, envisioned by Walters as elegant competitors to Nautor Swan, Baltic, etc., now include the 40, 44/46, 48 and 52.

The Cabo Rico 38, however, was for years the backbone of the company. Its 24-year production run now rivals long-lived hall of famers like the Hinckley Bermuda 40. Naturally, the materials and methods used to build the 38 have evolved over the years.

About 190 38s have been built, but none in the past three years. The company says, however, that there seems to be a resurgence of interest in this particular model. Most recent sales have been for the company’s larger models—the 42 and 45.

The Design
The Cabo Rico 38 is a traditional full- keel design with keel-hung rudder. The forefoot has been cut away somewhat to reduce wetted surface and improve handling. This is a trait of all Cabo Ricos, regardless of designer—Chuck Paine did the 40/42; the rest are by W.I.B. Crealock.

When evaluating any boat on paper, one of the first things you want to do is check the displacement/length ratio (D/L) and the sail area/displacement ratio (SA/D). These two numbers tell a lot about how the boat will perform, as well as its carrying capacity (generally, the higher the D/L number, the more volume inside the hull).

The Cabo Rico 38’s D/L is 375 and its SA/D is 16.3. This makes the boat moderately heavy, with a mediumsized sailplan—about what you’d expect for a traditional, seakindly ocean cruiser. She has enough power to make decent passage speeds when the wind is up, but she won’t be a great light-air performer, especially laden for cruising.

When viewed in profile, the clipper bow is prominent. This style is characterized by concavity, so that the bow seems to arch out over the water like a dolphin. The 38’s bow is adorned with real teak trailboards, not molded fiberglass, a hideous perversion seen on some boats.

There’s quite a bit of spring to the sheer line, with the low spot in the classic location, about two-thirds or so of the way aft.

The conventional counter stern looks right. It has just a little overhang and is moderately broad. Many modern cruisers carry beam much farther aft than the Cabo Ricos; this increases cockpit space and stowage, but can present downwind handling problems which are avoided by the Cabo Rico’s conservative approach.

The cabin has a fairly low profile, with small opening portlights. The proportions are good; few design elements look worse than a cabin that’s too tall for the boat; that is, out of proportion to hull length and freeboard.

The rig is a cutter, which means the mast is located somewhat farther aft than on a sloop. It’s keel-stepped, so the designer had to plan where it would be in relation to the interior. As on many boats, the 38’s mast passes through the dinette table, which is perhaps unavoidable, but it does obstruct your view of your tablemates.

The 38, like most other Cabo Ricos, is available with a pilothouse. But Cabo Rico’s sales manager, Ann Stirlen, says that while many clients give strong initial consideration to the comforts of all-weather helm stations, nearly all in the end stick with trunk cabin models.

The hull and deck of the 38 are, of course, fiberglass, and both are cored with end-grain balsa wood. (The larger Cabo Ricos are cored with Airex and/or Corecell.) Interestingly, the hull core is not centered between the two skins, but added inside to what is basically a solid fiberglass hull, then covered with a thin interior skin. Fraser Smith said the balsa is not needed structurally, but is added for insulation purposes. The company publishes its lamination schedule, which we think ought to be standard practice for all builders, but rarely is.

The deck coring is removed in areas where hardware will be attached, and in a recent change, deck hardware now is installed by embedding stainless steel plates in the laminate, drilled and tapped so that hardware can be fastened by one person topsides.

We don’t have experience with this method of hardware attachment and wonder about strength when, say, someone falls against a stanchion and its base is wrenched. Could the plate fracture the surrounding glass? What happens when threads get stripped? We don’t know. In any event, it’s a neat installation that eliminates washers, nuts, and backing plates, probably reduces leaks, and certainly cleans up the underdeck area.

Early models were built with alternating layers of mat and woven roving, but there have been, as one would expect, many advances in the making of fiberglass fabrics. Today, Cabo Rico primarily uses 1708 and 1808 (8-ounce mat stitched to directional rovings) fabrics, along with vinylester resin for the first three layers (two of which are mat) inside the isophthalic gel coat. This helps prevent osmotic blistering.

The keel is part of the hull mold and in early boats the ballast was iron. According to Fraser Smith, ballast was switched to lead in the last 40 or 50 boats. There are seven separate castings, set in the keel cavity, and then the voids are filled with resin. The ballast is glassed over.

Cabo Rico 38: Used Boat Survey

The hull is stiffened with U-channel fiberglass beams glassed to the hull. A fiberglass subfloor is placed over the beams, and then a solid teak and holly sole.

Portlights have been changed and are now made by New Found Metals; no outside fasteners are visible.

The interior has no pan, but is built up of plywood and solid teak or other hardwood. Smith says they’ve done a number of boats recently in the traditional Maine motif with white panels bordered by varnished mahogany trim. You can have whatever other wood you want—maple, ash, cherry…

Fiberglass moldings are used for the shower, engine beds, and icebox, which are good places to use fiberglass rather than wood.

Twenty years ago, teak decks were much desired. Cheoy Lee Shipyards of Hong Kong, one of the first “offshore” yacht builders to sell into the US (and thereby an ancestral forebear of Cabo Rico) sold a lot of boats to the US with teak decks.

Teak planks are generally screwed through the fiberglass deck skin and into a plywood core. The screws are countersunk and the heads covered with bungs. Over the years, however, the deck and bungs expand and shrink and begin to move. The glue holding the bungs ages and cracks. Eventually, water enters around the bung, seeps down along the screw, and into the plywood core. When the plywood begins to rot, the cure can cost you 25 grand or so.

Also, as Ann Stirlen points out, teak decks add considerable weight to a boat, weight that is fairly high off the water.

While Cabo Rico will still add teak decks to any boat, they haven’t done so in several years. Owners now prefer lower-maintenance fiberglass decks with molded nonskid more than the warm beauty of wood.

The hull/deck joint occurs at the bulwark and is bedded with 3M 5200 and through-bolted on 6-inch centers.

Tanks are fiberglass, but not integral, meaning they are molded separately and are not part of the hull. The bridge structure that supports the mast also incorporates the holding tank. Fuel capacity is 65 gallons; fresh water is 190 gallons.

The original engine was the excellent Perkins 4:108; that’s been replaced by the ubiquitous Yanmar—a 56-hp. model. One owner completing our Boat Owner’s Questionnaire, however, said his 38 is equipped with a 70-hp Chrysler diesel built by Nissan.

While most owners would seem to agree with the owner of a 1984 model who said his boat is “designed and built for offshore cruising,” the owner of a 1980 model complained that “stanchion bolts are inaccessible, bulkheads aren’t all tabbed securely to the cabin sides and overhead, and all through-hulls aren’t bonded.”

Another 1980 owner said that while his boat is “overbuilt,” its one flaw was a teak cockpit sole screwed into plywood, which “completely rotted from water penetration.”

Despite these and a few other gripes, generally of early models, most owners agree that the 38 is strongly built and “of excellent quality throughout.”

Early brochures show two basic accommodation plans for the 38. Plan A shows the usual V-berth forward, head and hanging locker just aft of that, and amidships two settees with dinette table on centerline. The U-shaped galley is in the port quarter and to starboard of the companionway is a double berth.

Plan B is the same except for a rather unusual L-shaped dinette and a double berth forward offset to starboard. One leg of the dinette deadends at a bulkhead, making it appear that persons sitting there are more or less trapped by the table, which also runs to the bulkhead.

Headroom is at least 6′ 2-1/2″ and berth lengths generally run 6′ 6″.

There are currently seven accommodation plans available—or you can have an entirely custom layout if you’re willing to pay for it. One of the more common plans shows a V-berth forward, L-shaped galley to port (with access around both sides of the table), settee to starboard, U-shaped galley in the same port quarter area, and an aft stateroom in the starboard quarter area.

Cabo Rico 38: Used Boat Survey

The aft double berth is larger than in earlier models, extending behind the companionway ladder. This is possible because the engine has been moved forward under the galley sink and dinette seat. Not only does this open up a lot of space under the cockpit, it makes engine access somewhat easier (by removing parts of the galley and seat), and also moves this heavy piece of machinery closer to the boat’s center of gravity. This should translate into less of a tendency to hobby-horse in choppy seas.

As mentioned earlier, Cabo Rico does not use a fiberglass pan to form engine beds, berth flats, galley structure, etc. Instead, the interior is built up of plywood tabbed to the hull, which creates a sort of monocoque structure. Done properly it’s very strong. There are many advantages to all-wood interiors, including better access to all parts of the hull (you can cut or smash your way into any compartment if you need to stop a leak caused by a collision below the waterline); and superior thermal and acoustic insulation (boats with wood interiors are quieter and dryer than boats with fiberglass pan interiors). The problem is that all-wood interiors require many man-hours to assemble, which dramatically jacks up the price. Indeed, most boats with all-wood interiors nowadays are at least semi-custom yachts, priced well above most production boats.

During a test sail of the Cabo Rico 38 we found the boat to be well mannered, with few vices. With a bit of wind, she moves nicely. Again, she wasn’t designed to drift around buoys but to strut her stuff in offshore conditions. The moderately heavy displacement makes the 38 feel secure in the water; it doesn’t jump around like lighter-displacement boats. And the full keel gives it good directional stability; that is, it enables the boat to steer a straight line without a lot of attention to the helm.

The flip side of this, of course, is that full keels generally don’t allow boats to point as high as boats with fin keels. So, like everything else with yacht design, there are trade-offs. And while we are believers in the advantages of full keels—protection in collisions, directional stability, ability to careen boat for repairs, absence of worrisome keel bolts in most boats—we also well appreciate the ability of fin keel boats to point higher. At least in coastal sailing, pointing high can get you home faster, and faster is safer. Offshore, it’s less relevant.

Owner estimations of their boats’ performance relative to other designs vary: While the owner of a 1979 model says of his, “Really not a racing boat,” the owner of a 1984 model boasts that he can “consistently catch and pass supposedly ‘fast’ boats.” Most agree that speed is “average,” improving to “fast” in higher wind strengths.

Of more interest perhaps than speed is seakeeping ability, and here the 38 excels. Owner after owner notes how well the 38 handles in severe conditions: The rudder doesn’t stall, forcing uncontrolled round-ups; heel is easily reduced because of the cutter rig; and motion is more comfortable than on flatter-bottom boats. “Very solid and safe,” wrote one owner.

The Cabo Rico 38 is now a near classic. At 24 years of age, the design still looks great, thanks to the fine eye of Bill Crealock. And thanks to dedicated owners, the 38 has been continually refined so that there are few flaws left. If you find one, the company will work with you to eliminate it.

The price of a fully equipped 38 in 1981 was about $115,000. Today, the base price is $299,000, with most boats going out the door closer to $320,000.

It’s always difficult to say whether an expensive boat is a good deal or not. The Used Boat Price History shown on the opposite page shows that a 1984 Cabo Rico 38 was a good investment, but when buying new, all you can do is compare prices among other boats of roughly the same size (considering their intended uses) and make your own judgment. For reference, a Hunter 380 starts at around $160,000, an Island Packet 380 at about $265,000, and a Tartan 3700 with wood interior at around $275,000.

Contact- Cabo Rico Custom Yachts, Inc. 2258 S.E. 17th Street Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33316; 954/462-6699;


Also With This Article
Click here to view “Used Boat Price History.”
Click here to view “Owner Comments.”

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him by email at