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December 14th 2014. By Zuzana Prochazka.

Cal 40: A Speedy Bit of History

Old doesn't mean slow. Not by a long shot.

Rock-star sailors, such as Dennis Conner and Stan Honey, could probably have bought most any boat they wanted over the years. And at one time or another, they both owned a vintage Bill Lapworth-designed Cal 40. Launched in 1963 by California-based Jensen Marine, this intrepid design is 50-plus years old. And you’ll still find dozens of them on racing circuits and in the slips of posh yacht clubs around the country. So what’s the story behind this enduring and winning design?

Cal 40 surfing down a wave

The Cal 40 developed a reputation for being a fast, downwind sailing machine very early in its history. It’s easy to see why.

The first hull, Persephone, was an instant success, although the design was considered somewhat radical for offshore and long-distance racing. Her flat, dinghy-like bottom, fin keel, and high-aspect spade rudder, along with her lightness (15,000 pounds which was light in 1963), surprisingly earned her lots of criticism at the time. While the Cal 40 was known as a “downwind surfing machine,” owners say that the design actually is a good all-around performer, proven by Cal 40 wins in upwind, long-distance races—not just in downwind runs.

There are several notable things to say about sailing a Cal 40 versus sailing a newer, lighter boat. On first glance, one is struck by her rounded, blunt bow. It’s a far cry from the sharp, fine entries of modern sleds, and is closer in appearance to a heavily built cruiser. Under sail, she proves just the opposite and is surprisingly nimble. Going upwind in moderate 10- to 15-knot breezes, she accelerates nicely, and can easily hit seven knots in speed. Downwind, the Cal 40 surfs well on following seas, but she does tend to load up at the bottom of the wave when the ride is over.

While most owners prefer the standard tiller steering for quicker reaction to that tendency to stall at the bottom of a wave, the stock rudder and tiller can provide quite a workout when driving in big seas. Twelve years ago, 20 owners joined together and commissioned Carl Schumacher to design a balanced elliptical rudder. The result was a rudder with similar surface area to the original, but the new design is better balanced, minimizing weather helm—especially when reaching.

The deck layout is fairly standard. The stock Cal 40 has halyard winches located on the mast, with a mainsheet winch on the cabin top. Many owners have changed the halyard arrangement to lead aft to the cockpit. The cockpit is roomy, and it has a bridge deck across both the forward and aft ends. The coaming on each side is built of a one-inch thick teak plank, which provides an uncomfortable edge to sit on, but does a good job of keeping waves and water out.

The Cal 40’s sail plan is moderate, with a medium-aspect mainsail, single-spreader mast and relatively long boom. The rigging is simple, with three shrouds on each side, a forestay, and a backstay.

Hand-laid fiberglass and polyester resin were used in the hull construction. Some owners have reinforced the attachment points of wooden bulkheads and chainplate locations. Another common modification is found in the mast base, where some owners have sleeved the mast. The stock engine was a gasoline-fired Atomic 4, later replaced by a Perkins 4-107 diesel. As on many boats of this type, engine access can be difficult, especially since the engine is mounted backwards and connected to a V-drive transmission.

The mahogany interior was optimized for offshore racing: heavy on sleeping bunks but missing a dedicated, sit-down navigation station. In the original version there were two “torpedo tubes” or “coffins bunks” situated aft on either side under the cockpit, which maximized bunk space during long-distance racing.

The port-side galley is small and short on countertop space, but the chart table/ice box on the starboard side can also be used for food preparation. Forward of the galley are pilot berths and lower berths with a folding drop-leaf table between them. In later models this configuration was changed to include a U-shaped settee on the port side with a drop-down table that transforms into a double berth. Forward of the saloon, the head is to port; a hanging locker is to starboard; and a double berth is in the forepeak.

There were well over 100 Cal 40 hulls built between 1963 and 1971. Overall, this boat was designed to race, which makes it a bit barebones below. That said, some owners have enhanced the interior to make it more suitable for cruising.

The design enjoyed a revival about 10 years ago, and prices on the brokerage market doubled and tripled–not bad for a “depreciating” asset. Today, well-equipped Cal 40s range between $35,000 and $100,000 and are still sought out by knowledgeable club racers.

LOA – 39’6″ * Beam – 11’0″ * Draft – 5’6″ * Displacement – 15,000 lbs. * Sail Area – 699 sq. ft.

View Cal 40 listings.

Zuzana Prochazka
Zuzana Prochazka is a writer and photographer who freelances for a dozen boating magazines and websites. A USCG 100 Ton Master, Zuzana has cruised, chartered and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world and serves as a presenter on charter destinations and topics. She is the Chair of the New Product Awards committee, judging innovative boats and gear at NMMA and NMEA shows, and currently serves as immediate past president of Boating Writers International. She contributes to Boats.com and YachtWorld.com, and also blogs regularly on her boat review site, TalkoftheDock.com.