Thirty-nine feet is often thought of as the golden size for short-handed cruising. Rachael Sprot tests the Najad 390 to find out if it hits the mark
Najad 390: A pedigree cruiser for serious sailing
When I was 11 my mother put her foot down: ‘We’re moving to the coast, downsizing the house and buying a sailing boat. You’re all going to learn how to sail’, she stated, matter-of-factly.
Somewhat reluctantly, we did.
Fortunately for her, my father, Edward, whose main priorities in life are toast and marmalade, Wagner and the Great Outdoors, adopted the plan with good grace.
My sister and I were less enthused. ‘You’ll be grateful for it one day’, we were told.
She found a one-off ¾ tonner, Polar Bear.
A wooden boat with a racing pedigree, she sailed like a dream, with looks to match.
The process of dragging a landscape gardener, stroppy children and a seasick whippet sailing gave her plenty of material to write about.
She became a regular contributor to Yachting Monthly and we spent the holidays exploring the English Channel and Biscay.
For my sister and me, this involved trying to look as busy as possible to avoid the dreaded phrase ‘I’ve got a nice little job for you girls’ – aka fender-scrubbing.
To my horror, we ended up on the front cover of Yachting Monthly one month (Nov 2001), which my geography teacher took great delight in showing to the class.
So when the opportunity came to review their second boat, Pelonia, a Najad 390, I jumped at the chance.
It’s been two decades coming but revenge is a dish best served cold.
Time for an upgrade
After almost 20 years the annual ritual of sanding and painting Polar Bear lost its appeal.
The foredeck crew had flown the (crow’s) nest and they wanted a boat with more space for living on board.
Despite a huge list of upgrades which transformed the boat for cruising, it was time to look for something more comfortable.
However, as Marshall McLuhan said, first we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.
Whether they liked it or not, Polar Bear was imprinted on my parents’ sailing sub-conscious.
If you’ve ever witnessed someone else’s boat-buying process, you’ll know it’s utterly incomprehensible from the outside.
One week it must be blue with two loos, the next red with a fin and skeg. It’s a battle between heart and head and even more complicated as a couple.
Miranda’s priorities were a good sailing pedigree and classic look and feel.
Edward, now with his own views on the matter, wanted a decent-sized bunk, plenty of headroom and better toast and marmalade facilities.
After many months of searching, Pelonia came along (red with a skeg).
Despite being 30 years old, she was immaculate and had good ocean sailing credentials.
Her long fin keel is encapsulated, the rudder is well-protected by the skeg and a deep fore-foot means she doesn’t pound to windward.
Belts and braces
The Lloyds-approved hull is single-skin laminate so there’s no foam sandwich for water to infiltrate.
The flush decks are devinyl cell making them light and strong.
Najad’s high construction standards should reduce the risk of moisture ingress here.
Flush decks are a little old-fashioned but they’re easy to move around on and give a clean foredeck area to work on.
They allow you to lash the dinghy on the foredeck instead of towing it or adding davits.
The shrouds are evidence of Najad’s belts and braces approach.
With fore and aft lowers there’s plenty of support and the leads are spread across three sets of chain plates.
Another feature which gives her age away is the fact that all the lines are at the mast. This has its upsides and downsides.
Other scenarios where it is useful not to have to go back to the cockpit would be lifting a tender out of the water at the shrouds, or hoisting the spinnaker.
On the other hand, you need to leave the safety of the cockpit to adjust anything on your sails, apart from the sheets.
This is a drawback if you’re running solo watches where in certain conditions it would be inadvisable to go to the mast without the other person on deck.
There are excellent granny bars around the mast and a high grab-rail leading forwards from the cockpit though.
Combined with proper gunwales and solid teak capping, you feel surprisingly secure making the journey forwards.
The rubbing strakes with their bronze coping bars, substantial stainless steel stem band and teak deck all give her a feeling of quality.
The centre cockpit positions the mainsheet behind the helm, keeping the cockpit clear and allows you to quickly sheet out in a gust.
It also means that a full cockpit tent can be fitted, greatly extending the living area in wet weather.
Like many Scandinavian boats, the Najad 390 has a fixed windscreen which gives good protection from the elements.
They weren’t sure about it in the beginning, but Miranda explained that ‘We hit a standing wave off Fair Head in Northern Ireland at 13 knots, and after the green water had subsided we were impressed to find it was still there,’ so they’re quite taken with it now.
You don’t want all the Great Outdoors indoors, after all.
The cockpit is clutter-free owing to the mast-led halyards.
There’s a generous locker on the starboard side which accommodates all the lines and cruising paraphernalia.
The aft deck is another excellent working (or lounging) space with plenty of room for things such as a wind generator and antennas.
The stern platform on the back includes a set of swimming steps and makes it easy to get in and out of the tender.
Below decks there’s enough mahogany to satisfy the most ardent wooden boat enthusiast – the quality of Najad joinery stands out even amongst other Scandinavian yachts.
The saloon is generous and they’ve had 10 on board for dinner.
Both saloon seats convert to double bunks by lifting up the seat-back, taking her accommodation up to eight.
There are copious lockers, which makes it easy to organise stores.
A drawback of the flush decks is that despite the hull portlights and central hatch, there’s less light in the saloon than on a yacht with a coach roof.
In warmer climes it’s not an issue, you need a respite from the sun, and in colder climes she feels warm and cosy, but she’s not as bright as a modern yacht.
There is 6ft 2in headroom though, and the saloon berths are 6ft 5in long. The v-berth forwards has plenty of space beneath for sails, and generous locker space within the cabin.
‘I’m glad they haven’t put drawers under the bunk’, said Miranda. She’s firmly of the belief that the forepeak is for the sail wardrobe and not your own.
A place for everything
The forward-facing chart table has a chart locker under the deck head which is a great feature for traditionalists.
Miranda regularly reminds us that the chart table drawers aren’t half as big as Polar Bear’s. She employs the ‘it might just come in handy’ philosophy and never throws anything away.
The heads is small but adequate and scores extra points for the wet locker which is supplied with hot air from the Eberspächer.
As with most centre cockpit yachts the galley is laid out down one side; on Pelonia, it is to port.
The space is really well laid-out with a huge fridge and plenty of room for marmalade.
Inboard of the galley is the capacious engine compartment.
Two doors on the side of the compartment swing open and lift off to give excellent access to the port and aft sides. Removing the companionway steps gives access to the front.
The cockpit sole has a ‘soft patch’ which would allow the engine to be craned straight out.
It may only be used once or twice in the boat’s lifetime, but when it is, you’ll earn endless respect from the engineer that does the job.
The only complaint is that on the starboard side it would be useful to have a hatch in the heads to give better access to the oil filter.
And now to the aft cabin. It’s nothing short of decadent.
In fact, it’s been described as ‘too big’ by the more puritanical owner, who would like more locker space for fenders.
The two halves of the double bunk are both 3ft wide, light streams through the deck hatch and there’s even a flip-up dressing table.
The only problem, and it’s a big problem, is that access to the top of the rudder stock is under the bunk.
The emergency tiller is only operable from below decks and although steering from the comfort of your bunk might sound appealing, the novelty will probably wear off.
In case of steering failure, the autopilot, rather than the emergency tiller, will be the first recourse, so it must be kept operational.
Under sail Pelonia performs well.
She’s fairly heavy for her size but with her fully-battened main and 17% sail area to displacement ratio she’s got plenty of get-up-and-go.
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She made 6 knots close-hauled with 15 knots apparent and as we bore away and the apparent wind dropped, she maintained over 6 knots on a beam and broad reach.
When the wind dropped off later in the day she made 5.3 knots close-hauled in 10 knots apparent, which is very respectable for a boat that is also heavy-weather proof and comfortable to live aboard.
A removable inner forestay for a working staysail has been added by many owners including Edward and Miranda.
The huge 150% genoa which they inherited was unwieldy and rarely fully unfurled, so they had a 120% genoa made and a working jib, bringing the headsail count to four white sails plus a storm jib.
On the helm her large rudder is nicely balanced, she’s a pleasure to sail and she handles her canvas well.
You won’t achieve the downwind speeds of a flat-bottomed modern cruiser, but she’ll keep up 6 knots whatever weather comes her way.
She tracks well on her long-ish fin keel making life easier for crew and autopilot. She’s an excellent passage-making boat.
‘We arrive much less tired than we used to on Polar Bear. We can do an 80-mile passage and don’t spend the next day recovering,’ Miranda explained.
Under power the 60HP Volvo Penta has plenty of oomph. We made 5.8 knots at 2,000RPM, and 7 knots at 2,500.
She’s certainly no angel in a marina though.
It takes quite a run-up to establish steerage in reverse, but eventually she’ll follow her rudder obediently.
She’s better at straight lines than tight circles and you can’t have it both ways.
The bow thruster helps, although at 30 years old its occasional malfunction has been the subject of some colourful Whatsapp chats!
Like all ocean sailing boats, their suitability doesn’t stop at the hull, rig and interior.
Pelonia has had endless upgrades to adapt her for long-term cruising: a new bimini, wind generator and solar panels to name a few.
Knowing the time and expense that goes into installing these, it’s worth buying a boat that’s already set-up.
Nonetheless, the Najad 390 has been a very successful compromise. But is there anything they miss about Polar Bear? ‘The forehatch’, said Miranda, ‘Pelonia’s is far too small to move big sails in and out of.’
Polar Bear came with five headsails and Pelonia’s wardrobe has almost caught up.
I tried to explain that not everyone changes their headsails around these days, they just roll them up but it was to no avail: ‘There’s nothing worse than sailing around with the wrong canvas up’, You can take the sailor out of the classic racing yacht, but you can’t take the classic racing yacht out of the sailor.
Our tools don’t just shape us, they shape the next generation of tools as well.
Expert opinion on the Najad 390
Ben Sutcliffe-Davies, Marine Surveyor and full member of the Yacht Brokers Designers & Surveyors Association (YDSA) www.bensutcliffemarine.co.uk
The materials used on the Najad 390 are excellent.
I’ve personally not carried out a pre-purchase survey on one but have inspected a couple for other reasons.
Pay attention to the decks. The teak decks were screwed down through the GRP deck moulding which is a core sandwich construction using a PVC-type devinyl cell as spacing material.
This was used for its reported strength and heat insulation, but keeping the yacht long-term in sub-zero temperatures will start detachment of any wet core, allowing working decks to soften.
Look at the mast step arrangement to check the condition of the core pad within the encapsulation; an easy check is looking closely at the deck step with a straight edge.
Rudders and skegs are susceptible to moisture ingress on a boat of this age and should be carefully inspected.
Having spoken to one of the Najad 390’s former builders, I’ve discovered that this model has an encapsulated keel, but there were options of having either iron or lead laid in.
The majority were reportedly filled with iron ingots and not lead. The use of a magnet is really the only way to know what is inside!
All were capped off with a mixture of sand and resin.
Over time there is a risk of moisture causing expansion of the iron ingots, especially if the craft gets an unintended grounding.
I’ve had several experiences of iron-filled keels with detachment so a proper assessment of the keel is essential.
Alternatives to the Najad 390 to consider
Bowman is one of the few yards to produce sailing yachts purely for ocean passages.
The Bowman 40 was one of several iconic blue-water cruisers which has a long and successful history.
Originally designed by Laurent Giles with a long keel and transom-hung rudder, a second version from the 1980s was drawn by Chuck Paine after Bowman merged with Rival.
The model was so successful that it went on to become the Bowman 42.
Cutter-rigged, the Paine Bowman 40 had a fairly long Scheel Keel to keep draft to a minimum and give good course-keeping abilities.
However, there will be a small sacrifice in windward performance compared to the Najad 390 or Hallberg-Rassy.
The hull has a traditional, deep forefoot as you’d expect from a serious cruising yacht of this era.
There’s a skeg-hung rudder giving you more protection in case of any encounters with orca whales.
The raised coachroof and deep gunwales make the side decks feel safe and contained and the aft cockpit is deep and secure.
The mainsheet and traveller are forwards of the companionway.
Running backstays, which are a necessary part of the cutter rig, make tacking a little more laborious but offer redundancy in case of backstay failure.
Below decks the interior joinery is teak, which is a little lighter and more golden than mahogany.
It’s a luxury that you’d be unlikely to find in modern yachts as it’s prohibitively expensive and unsustainable.
The galley has the best position of all of these yachts, it’s well forwards and almost part of the saloon.
The engine is beneath the central counter, keeping weight in the middle of the boat for better seakeeping.
The payoff for the generous saloon and galley area is in the cabins.
There’s a single (on some models as it was offered as an option) and double aft cabin.
As is always the case with aft cockpit yachts the berths are tucked under the cockpit sole and feel cramped in comparison.
The master cabin is forwards with a separate heads.
Several hulls were sold and finished by owners, so the interiors vary, and some seem to have been converted to sloop rigs, which is a shame when there are so few cutters available.
It should be straightforward to convert them back.
If you put a coachroof on the Najad 390 you’d end up with something very like the Hallberg-Rassy 39.
First built in 1991 the model comes in a Mk1 and Mk 2 version, the former having a counter stern and the latter with a small sugar-scoop and bathing platform.
Over 200 hulls have been made and they’re a very popular offshore cruiser. The underwater profile is a long-ish fin keel which is bolted on rather than being encapsulated.
There’s a part skeg on the rudder and nice deep forefoot. There was a shoal draft version available which has a slightly better AVS at 125° instead of 123°.
A removable inner forestay came as standard, allowing you to set a storm jib when necessary, whilst still enabling the foredeck to be used for the tender.
Like the Najad 390, there’s a centre-cockpit and master aft cabin with a large cockpit locker on the starboard side.
Thanks to the coach-roof there’s 6ft 6in head room in the saloon. The interior joinery is mahogany, which creates a traditional feel.
For those that like them, there’s the option of two armchairs in the saloon, rather than a standard bench seat.
The galley is set up differently: it’s U-shaped and aft-facing to starboard of the companionway.
It would be secure in a seaway but has less storage and work surface compared to the Najad 390, and some people dislike the reverse orientation.
The aft cabin has a double berth to one side and single to the other, and together they take up the full width of the boat.
It’s a slightly odd configuration and perhaps a bit more storage and bit less bunkage would have been useful.
At the more accessible end of the market the Westerly Sealord is a good option.
They came in a ketch or sloop rig with a centre cockpit and an aft cabin that had its own heads.
Westerly are renowned for making robust hulls, some of which have made extraordinary voyages.
The Sealord was their largest model at the time of construction and designed as a performance cruiser.
42 Sealords were made in the mid 1980s before the back half of the boat was extended by 15in to give a bigger aft cabin, creating the better-known Oceanlord.
The hull is solid laminate and the decks are sandwich construction with PVC foam.
The bolt-on fin keel, spade rudder and lack of inner forestay for rigging a storm jib are detractions for die-hard ocean sailors.
At 20% lighter than her Scandinavian equivalents, she’ll be faster in light airs.
Originally designed with a 36HP Volvo, some models were produced with a 28HP engine which many owners upgraded.
The layout below is excellent. The saloon is smaller than the other boats in this selection but it leaves room for a generous nav station and galley.
At half a metre wider than the Najad 390, there’s also space for a twin cabin with bunk beds under the starboard side decks which doubles as the access route to the aft cabin.
The interior is teak-veneered ply with solid teak trim. Some examples need TLC and the overall feel of the boat is less luxurious.
But if it’s the thrills and not the frills you’re after then the Sealord is an excellent choice.
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