Originally published in Chesapeake Bay Magazine – 2006
Time Tested – Ranger 33
by Tom Dove
Magazine boat tests typically are based on inspecting and sailing a boat for half a day. This one covers 26 years. It’s my own boat, CRESCENDO, a 1976 Ranger 33. We’ve sailed many thousands of miles together during those decades, through child-rearing, retirement, storms, calms, breakdowns and fire. She’s been a family boat in every sense of the term.
Ranger Yachts began as a division of Cal Boats in the late 1960s when Cal was a big name in racing under the Cruising Club of America (CCA), Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF) and Midget Ocean Racing Club (MORC) rating rules. Naval architect Gary Mull was recruited as the exclusive designer of a line of fast racer/cruisers for a new division of Jensen Marine to be called Ranger Yachts.
He succeeded brilliantly, beginning with the Ranger 26 and 33. A range of other 23- to 32-foot boats with similar lines followed quickly. His later Ranger 37 was distinctly different, an all-out International Offshore Rule (IOR) racer instead of a transitional design between CCA and IOR.
Enough of the alphabet soup. The Ranger 33, a 1969 design, remained competetive in distance racing for the next two decades and still can hold its own in PHRF club racing. The factories (the main one was in California, but some came from the East Coast) apparently built 464 of them, ending in 1978. The peak production years were apparently from 1974-1976.
The Ranger hull was beamy for its time but is a bit narrow by modern standards. The fin keel and spade rudder were state-of-the-art for 1969 but look huge beside the skinny underwater blades of today’s race boats. The bow and stern overhangs were shorter than many vessels of the sixties but seem very traditional — almost old-fashioned — now. The curved sheer line and high bow were accepted design features then and they still keep the foredeck dry and the spray away from the cockpit today.
Rangers are pretty boats from every angle and their sailing qualities have earned admiration from a whole generation of sailors. Mention one at the clubhouse and somebody will always say, “I used to race on one and we cleaned up with it. Great boat.”
This is beginning to sound like an advertisement or the boastings of a proud father. The Rangers ARE great boats, but they have flaws. While they were the upscale line from Cal boats, aimed at buyers who wanted a bit more yachtiness, the construction was strictly production-line 1970s. The fit, finish and detailing do not match more expensive production boats of the time, such as Sabre and Tartan. The hull is solid fiberglass laminate while the deck has plywood coring. Wood bulkheads reinforce the hull and a molded pan bonded to the inside provides the base for the furniture. The glass work is good, but not exceptional, and surfaces are not as smooth in hidden areas as in today’s boats.
CRESCENDO had one broken glass bond between the hull and an aft bulkhead when I bought her in 1980, but nothing else has let go since then, despite some hard sailing. The joinery creaks a bit as the hull works in rough conditions.
There’s lots of teak (better than you can buy today) in the cabin, with just enough fiberglass and fabric to make a pleasant living space. The original settee backs were uncomfortable so I replaced them with full-height backs, removable to make wider spaces to serve as berths, and covered everything with high-quality foam cushions and a fabric I had admired on a late-model Jeanneau.
There are few chronic trouble spots in the Ranger 33. The hull/deck joint is strong but often leaks. The ports, especially in pre-1975 models, may leak. Like nearly every other boat of the era, the shroud chainplates will eventually leak as rig stresses flex the boat. Any of these failures can allow water to penetrate the deck core and destroy it.
Some owners report that the base of the mast compression post in the cabin needed shoring up with a block of wood to prevent the cabin top and the sole from indenting. I haven’t had that problem with CRESCENDO. Finally, access to the sides and rear of the engine is atrocious.
For a thirty-year-old boat, this is not a long list of problems and all of them are fairly easy to fix. Careful disassembly and rebedding with a few dollars worth of modern sealant will cure the hull/deck joint and port leaks; CRESCENDO no longer seeps a drop after this treatment. A $30 watertight port at the forward end of the cockpit sole takes care of access to the water pump, transmission and ignition system of the engine.
Ah, yes. The engine. It’s an Atomic Four. Opinions are evenly divided over whether this is the most magnificent piece of machinery ever devised by man or a gift from Satan to eternally thwart human patience. I like these antiquated little chunks of iron.
Even the abused original engine in my boat (which I named “Apocalypse” with its four irritating cylinders: War, Death, Pestilence and Famine), easily submitted to primitive repairs. I could always get it running well enough to reach port, and it once brought me all the way back up the ICW from Charleston on only two of its four cylinders after blowing out a head gasket. That kind of dedication to life is worth something.
I repowered with a professionally built Atomic Four (from Moyer Marine) in 1998, a surprisingly simple job that two of us completed in two days. It has fresh-water cooling, electronic ignition, an electric fuel pump and oversize alternator. It’s a 21st century reworking of 1940 technology that has been utterly reliable. It cost about $3000, compared to over $9000 for a new diesel.
On a solo sail in moderate winds one afternoon last year, I caught and passed two nearly-new 35-foot cruisers, starting from two miles astern — on autopilot and while reading a book in the cockpit. This sort of thing happens all the time, leaving other skippers wondering what they’re doing wrong.
But don’t think that this 30-year old design is faster than a new racer. It isn’t. Recent performance-oriented boats have longer waterlines, lighter hulls, better rigs and more efficient underbodies. Something like a J-105 will eat up anything from the 1970s unless conditions are perfect for the older vessel (stronger wind and rougher water).
The Ranger 33 is also seaworthy, seakindly and responsive. The ballast/displacement ratio is moderately high, so it’s stiff and rarely heels more than about 25 degrees if you’re sailing it properly. The hull cuts choppy waves effectively and tracks well when surfing down large following seas. The displacement/length ratio is also moderate (it was considered quite light in 1970), so the motion in rough water is easier than most new boats. My wife and children never had trouble steering during their watches, even in tumultuous conditions.
This boat is reasonably well mannered under power, but everything depends on fitting the correct prop to the Atomic Four. The engine needs to run at 1800-2200 rpm for best power and it doesn’t have a diesel’s torque to drive a very large prop. I’ve had the best success with a 12×5 three-bladed motorboat propeller, although that produces a lot of drag under sail. I’m also fairly satisfied with the unique 10×7 three-blader from Indigo Electronics, but if you want to preserve sailing performance, a 12×5 folding Martec is adequate.
Motoring speeds are in the six- to seven-knot range with a 72 dB sound level if the engine box has been lined with insulation. Backing is good with a three-blader and fair with the folding two-blader.
Soon after buying CRESCENDO, I asked an acquaintance for advice on handling the boat. He had won many races with a Ranger 33 and answered quickly, “The key to speed is to keep reducing sail.” He was right. I will use the 150% genoa only up to about 12 knots, when whitecaps first appear.
Now that I no longer race CRESCENDO, a 135% jib stays on the boat all season. When the breeze is over about 15 knots, a deep reef goes into the mainsail and that’s good to about 20, when I roll up the jib. Reefed main alone is perfect well into the 30+ range. Reducing sail early keeps the angle of heel low, the speed up, and the crew comfortable. There’s absolutely no reason to overpower this boat; it wants to sail upright and is faster that way. If you have the right amount of sail up and trimmed properly, you can lock the steering wheel and it will track perfectly.
Downwind if there are no whitecaps, I set a big asymmetric spinnaker from a sock. I love this sail, as it transforms light-air days on the Bay from constant motoring into a pleasant, easy, silent experience.
Now that I no longer have the full strength and agility of youth and most of my sailing is single-handed or with nonsailing passengers, I’ve installed bigger sheet and halyard winches, roller furling on the jib, and an anchor windlass so that nothing requires more than about 20 pounds of manual force. After these simple hardware changes, it’s easy to go cruising by myself for a week or more and that’s a liberating experience.
Mods and updates
At the height of a minor hurricane on a summer evening in 1996, a 12-volt wire chafed through and shorted, burning out the entire interior and rendering CRESCENDO a total insurance loss. Everybody who looked into the black hole that had been a cabin said, “Scrap her.”
After a lot of serious thought and discussion, my wife and I decided to rebuild. We took the settlement, bought the boat back from the insurance company for its salvage value and poured about $40,000 into making her better than new. A year later, with the hull repaired and new wiring, plumbing, engine, canvas, upholstery, insulation, slatted wood hull ceilings, stove, bookshelves, drop-leaf table, gelcoat overhead and Awlgrip on the hull, she was a showboat.
We might have been better off putting the money into a newer boat instead, but we liked the Ranger 33 so much that this seemed like the proper move. An old boat can do that to you. Like a faithful family pet, these inanimate compositions of wood, glass, steel and resin can insinuate themselves into your lives.
When you choose a good boat to begin with, it’s even harder to give it up. The Ranger 33 is one of those good boats. You can buy a typical one for only slightly less than it cost twenty years ago. Put another $5,000 into new equipment and sails and you’ll have a lifetime investment that will help you raise your children, escape the pressures of work and carry you into retirement.
— The End —
Builder: Ranger Yachts, 3090 Pullman St., Costa Mesa CA 92627 (out of business).
Designer: Gary Mull
LOA 33’2″, LWL 26’4″, Beam 9’6″, Draft 5′, Displacement 10500 lb, Sail area 681 sq ft,
Power Atomic Four, Water 21 gal, Fuel 21 gal. Price: $17,500 to $30,000.
Displacement/Length ratio: 258 (moderate)
Sail Area/Displacement ratio: 17.8 (moderate)
Ballast/Displacement ratio: 0.46 (moderately high)
US Sailing Screening Value: 1.8 (below 2.0 recommended for offshore sailing)
Comfort Value (Ted Brewer) 27 (moderate)
CHESAPEAKE OWNER GROUPS: O’Day, Cal, and Ranger Association (Mid-Bay) Roy and Louann Meisinger 8253 The Midway Annadale, VA 22003 (703) 978-6035 firstname.lastname@example.org O’Day, Cal and Ranger Association (Northern Bay) Al and Jan Gunzelman 1708 Oakland Avenue Baltimore, MD 21221 (410) 391-5925 email@example.com O’Day, Cal, and Ranger Association (Southern Cheasapeake/Potomac) Tom and Cathy Heacock 4400 Rollingbrooke Ct. Alexandria, VA 22306 (703) 765-1613 firstname.lastname@example.org
RANGERS ON THE WEB: Ranger Sailboat Owners – http://www.rangeryachts.org/ SailNet – http://list.sailnet.net/read/?forum=ranger
SailboatOwners.com – http://www.sailboatowners.com/forums/menunew.tpl?fno=499.133
Moyer Marine (the Atomic Four guru) – www.moyermarine.com
Indigo Electronics (Atomic Four upgrades and prop) – http://www.atomic4.com/