As it rapidly heads towards becoming a classic, Rachael Sprot finds out why the Sigma 38 appeals to a broad range of sailors, from racing fanatics to die-hard cruisers
The Sigma 38 plays tricks on me. No matter how long I look, I can’t decide whether it’s a sharp-nosed racer or a gently curved cruiser. Seen from the bow she’s a lean, mean, wave slicing machine. But step to one side and the sheerline is beguiling. Walking past the rows of production yachts in a marina, a Sigma 38 always makes you look twice.
Fifteen years ago I sailed one to Norway from the Orwell but I can’t remember much about it apart from that, in our hubris, we carried the kite right up to the southern harbour entrance in Utsira. I do recall that we cruised the fjords comfortably with six on board but that is about it. So when Paul Margan invited me to join him on his first-ever yacht, Gallant, I was pleased to be re-introduced.
A boat to grow into
Paul started sailing in 2020 and was immediately hooked. He knew he had to buy a boat and after the instructor on his RYA Day Skipper course waxed lyrical about the Sigma 38 his mind was made up. ‘It’s not renowned for being a beginner’s boat,’ I remarked. ‘No, but I wanted one that would reward the learning experience, and that I could grow into,’ he replied. ‘I knew she was the one as soon as I saw her,’ he continued, ‘she was in such good condition. Many of them aren’t.’
Paul’s background is producing top quality bespoke furniture. ‘I can’t wait to do Gallant’s saloon,’ he said as I gazed at the immaculate upholstery he’d inherited. I have the impression that under his ownership she’ll only improve with age.
Fastnet 1979 Response
The Sigma 38 started life as a question. In the post-1979 Fastnet disaster world what should be done about yacht design for offshore races? For the Royal Thames Yacht Club, and RORC, the answer was an offshore one-design fleet (OOD) which would ensure that boats were built to strict structural and safety standards while still delivering a thrill under sail.
Together the clubs initiated a competition to design the boat. David Thomas and Rob Humphreys were the finalists. Their plans were circulated to the RORC membership before deciding the winner. David Thomas, who’d already designed the phenomenally successful Sigma 33 (he sailed a prototype in the 1979 event), came out on top.
125 Sigma 38 OODs were built by Marine Projects in Plymouth between 1985 and 1993. Although the Sigma 38 was bred in the offshore racing stables, RORC was adamant that the boat should be versatile enough for family cruising.
In fact a cruising version was available but only a handful were made and the differences were minimal. Most people seemed happy to cruise their racer, rather than wanting to race their cruiser.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s the active class association ensured that the boats were well represented in the inshore and offshore racing scene. But they’ve also been used for transatlantic circuits and circumnavigations.
A quick glance at the statistics and it’s clear that this boat means business. There’s a 19% sail area to displacement ratio. The elliptical fin keel, which is lead on a cast iron stub, gives a 41% ballast ratio and a draught of over 2m. Below the waterline there’s enough forefoot to avoid slamming, but a flat enough aft section for surfing.
With a gentle northwesterly breeze there wasn’t much chance of that on our test sail, but it was a good opportunity to see how the boat performed in light airs. We set off down the Hamble at high water on a cold November morning. ‘I hope there’s enough wind,’ said photographer, Richard Langdon, anxiously. But we needn’t have worried, once the powerful main was up and the genoa unfurled Gallant slipped through the water with ease, making 4.8-5 knots on about 35º apparent.
With Louise, Angus and Trevor on the sheets we tacked up Southampton Water against the start of the ebb. The 7/8ths fractional rig concentrates sail area in the mainsail so she went about cleanly. Once in the swing of it the small foretriangle meant there was barely any grinding on the sheets.
Light and slim
The feeling on the helm through the 42in wheel was beautifully light thanks to the spade rudder. Despite fighting the ebb, the tacking angles were enviably slim. We worked our way to windward like a mouse devouring cheese, relishing every moment. It was just a shame there was no one else around to give us a run for our money.
In slightly more breeze she picked up to 6 knots on a beam reach, dropping off as we bore away and the apparent reduced to 3-4 knots. Nonetheless, it was an impressive performance and I was left wanting more.
Although they have a reputation for handling heavy weather capably, even in moderate conditions I suspect she’ll be flighty with such a large mainsail.
There’s no shortage of eulogies written about the Sigma 38’s impeccable manners, but with so much power available it will take more than a couple of reefs to handle her safely in strong winds. All the fine-tune controls including backstay and Cunningham will need to be mastered too.
It was a shame not to be able to put her through her paces but we needed to be back alongside at Bursledon at slack water. The tide takes no prisoners there. On the way up the river she made just under 5 knots at 2,000rpm. We reached 6 knots at 2,500rpm, which is perhaps a little sluggish, but end-of-season slime was partly to blame.
Most boats have been re-engined since their original 28hp Volvos were installed. The shaft drive gave a small kick to port in reverse but she quickly overcame that and followed her rudder astern. There was a neat turning circle of just over a boat length when turning to starboard.
I’ve always thought this vintage of yacht tends to handle well compared with older or younger designs. The deep fin keels and spade rudders make them highly manoeuvrable, the shaft drive gives a helpful touch of prop kick (in one direction) and they hadn’t yet grown bulky with lots of windage.
Structurally the design has benefitted from the one-design build process. Since the boats needed to be identical from the outset there could be no evolutions once the first one left the mould. A one-design fleet is not the time to be experimenting with innovative construction techniques or cutting back on materials to save weight. The conservative approach has meant that the boats have withstood their fairly tough paper round.
Nigel Goodhew, former chairman of the Sigma 38 class association, and owner of Persephone, explained that there were a few known issues which will probably need addressing in the yacht’s lifetime. ‘The shroud load is transferred to the hull with a large, stainless steel T-piece which is laminated into place,’ he said. ‘On many boats this has needed reinforcement. It’s not a huge job, and within the class association we’ve got lots of expertise on how best to do it.’
Another consideration is the structural matrix around the keel. As with any fin-keeled yacht with this kind of stiffening grid, a grounding can cause delamination which is hard to detect while the keel is in situ. It’s a case of being mindful of the boat’s history and asking the previous owners some awkward questions.
For peace of mind, especially prior to an ambitious offshore programme, it would be worth dropping the keel and finding out for sure. Nigel has done both these jobs on Persephone and clocked up 80,000 miles in 15 years of ownership, so the investment has clearly paid off.
Functional deck layout
The primary winches on the Sigma 38 tell you all you need to know about its firepower. With a 52:1 ratio they’d be quite at home on a 50-footer. It’s not just their size which tells you that the boat is for serious sailors, but the location. Perched on the end of the coachroof the crew member working them is securely contained in the companionway. For a race boat this is both highly civilised and highly effective: there’s no squatting over the leeward coaming being blasted by green water and there’s good physical advantage.
The downside to this cosy affair is that it may feel crowded in the pit when racing. The cockpit itself is quite small and contained. It’s comforting not to have wide spaces to fall across in a seaway, but it would be cramped with more than five on board. A full crew of 10 would certainly need to spill out onto the rail.
The mainsheet traveller lies just in front of the helm. There’s plenty of adjustment there when you need it, especially if sailing solo as Paul often does. But when fully crewed it’s a hazard which needs careful management.
The double spreader rig is swept back and the shrouds terminate well inboard, allowing clear passage outside. The 7/8th rig is served with running backstays. ‘They open the leech of the main and genoa when it starts to get fruity,’ explained Nigel, ‘and they tension the forestay and brighten the performance in anything over a Force 3.’ Many owners don’t bother with them if cruising in light-moderate conditions though. For single-handing, the cockpit layout with its binnacle-mounted throttle and mainsheet controls close to the helm are all an advantage.
Below deck comfort
The steep companionway steps assume a certain level of agility from the crew. They’re one of the few features which feel dated. Once in the saloon, though, you’ll soon forget you’re on a race boat. Much of the Sigma 38’s success is in its ability to transition from a sharp-toothed carnivore outside to a docile herbivore alongside.
Gallant felt warm and comfortable with generous joinery and plenty of natural light. The two settees make good sea berths at 6ft 8in long, and a further two pilot berths lie outboard. Most people use these for storage as there’s a shortage of locker space and the water tanks occupy the area beneath the seats. Headroom at the base of the companionway is 6ft 3in, 1.90m.
There’s a proper-sized nav station to port which has enough space for 21st century electronics or paper charts for those who haven’t fully embraced the new age.
The galley runs longitudinally down the starboard side. It’s one of the biggest limitations from a cruising perspective. I couldn’t even hazard a guess at how many tonnes of spag bol have been produced in Sigma 38 galleys over the last 35 years, but if you aspire to higher things then she may not be the boat for you.
There’s a set of lockers behind the worktop, and a top-loading fridge behind the sink, but useful work surfaces are limited and food stowage will need to be carefully considered on long voyages.
The two aft cabins are not quite identical. They both give double bunks of equal length but the port one is ambitiously named the ‘master’ with slightly more floor space and a small wash basin above the end of the engine bay. Nonetheless it’s impressive to have two double aft cabins in a boat of this length and slender proportions. The payoff for this is cockpit locker stowage. There’s a deep lazarette beneath the helm seat but that’s about it.
The vee-berth is one of my favourite features down below. The bunks flip up to reveal a large cage for storing bulky items. When racing, this would be spinnaker stowage, but cruisers also need these kinds of spaces for dinghies, wet kit and bulky spares.
It more than makes up for the lack of cockpit stowage because everything is so easy to access. The forehatch is vast by modern standards: 600mm square. Apart from enabling forehatch spinnaker hoists and drops for round-the-cans racing, it also means large items, like an outboard, don’t need to be lugged through the boat.
Engine access is good, which is a bonus for long-distance cruising. There’s a removable box covering the front half providing access to all the main serviceable components. The replacement 28hp Beta Marine was a fairly snug fit and didn’t leave much room for soundproofing. Expectations of noise below decks have probably moved on since 1985. Side panels in the aft cabins give access to the gearbox and stern gland.
Sigma 38 expert opinion
Ben Sutcliffe-Davies, Marine Surveyor and full member of the Yacht Brokers Designers & Surveyors Association (YDSA) www.bensutcliffemarine.co.uk
The big sister of the Sigma 33, the 38 has the same pedigree of David Thomas’s design and the build quality of Marine Projects.
Consider the use these craft have very likely been exposed to. The condition of each individual vessel will be quite varied, depending on how their owners have used their boats over the years.
As with any racing yacht, undertaking some background checks on previous racing campaigns and incidents is extremely prudent. Google and the class association can reveal a surprising amount.
Having surveyed several Sigma 38s, the common issues are the softening of the decks which have a balsa core. Pay close attention to the hull-to-deck joints: any issues in these areas are likely to be the results of previous collisions. Inspect the alloy toerail, as it will guide your eye to the locations of likely impacts. Look for wear to spars and rig condition, especially the goose neck fittings as these do get quite worn.
Many Sigma 38s have had their keel security upgraded with larger backing plates, and the internal Matrix frame have also been further reinforced by extra lamination, which helps in stiffening the hull. Make sure you take the boat out of the water and carry out a keel tip test. It is important to see the hull with the keel in suspension; load the base of the keel to make sure the keel and hull don’t deflect. Then set the craft down and ensure the hull doesn’t sag over the keel, a sign of laminate softening.
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In any boat-buying budget there’s a linear scale which runs from performance at one end to comfort at the other. As you move between the extremes what you gain in one you lose in the other. It’s the potential owner’s task to work out where they sit along the line and identify the right type of boat for them. But every now and then a boat comes along which defies the rule. The compromises are so deft that the straight line starts to curve and what you gain in one direction isn’t fully lost in the other. These are the exceptional boats that stand the test of time. Today’s Sigma 38 owners come from a broad church and part of the joy of owning one is being part of this community and heritage. There are the inshore and offshore racers, the sailing schools, the cruisers and, increasingly, those who want to take on a project. And then there’s Paul, who found a new passion and a boat that could match it. Perhaps what the broad appeal of the Sigma 38 tells us is that these various groups aren’t so different after all.