The Alajuela 38 is a derivative of William Atkin’s Ingrid 38 Ketch itself following a lineage of traditional double-enders started a century earlier with the lifeboat designs of Colin Archer. The boat entered production not long after the Westsail 32 swept the world with dreams of sailing to distant shores and a cruising boat boom that spanned over a decade. Over the years the Alajuela 38 has garnered something of a cult following, with owners attracted by her beautiful sweeping lines, impeccable engineering, and surprisingly good performance.
Many consider the Alajuela 38 a refined version of the similarly shaped Westsail 32, but as well known sailing author John Kretschmer puts it, “Sure it’s a double ender but it is a different animal. It’s lean and graceful, not stout and pugnacious. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Westsail 32, truly, but the Alajuela will sail circles around it.”
Of course a better comparison would be with the Ingrid 38 from which her lines were derived. Though both hulls look nearly identical at first glance, particularly above the waterline, there are subtle improvements to be found in the underbody. The Alajuela has a finer entry helping her in light airs and a flatter run aft which improves all round performance. In an effort to overcome the Ingrid’s tendency to bury her bow, more buoyancy was added forward above the waterline.
The rig carries 8% more canvas, bringing her close to the sail area to displacement ratios seen in performance cruisers like the Valiant 40, this and the increased efficiency of one mast over two gives the Alajuela 38 a significant performance advantage. As if to prove this point, an Alajuela 38 Wathena notched a second place trophy in the 1976 Newport to Ensenada race, a race known for light and fickle winds. Wathena finished well ahead of cruising boats of similar size and displacement.
The build quality and high standards of engineering made a name for Alajuela. The hull is molded in one-piece from hand-laid fiberglass varying in thickness from 3/4 inch near the bilges to 1/2 inch at the topsides. Inside the hull, there are no liners, it’s all wood bonded to the hull which is durable while providing accessibility to every nook and cranny. The deck uses plywood coring and the hull-to-deck joint remains one of the best in the industry. Of particular note were the beautiful bronze fittings which were cast by Alajuela themselves.
Boats came in Mark I and Mark II variants, with the Mark II being introduced to tackle difficulties in sourcing high quality wood for bowsprits and combings. The boats were also sold as hull and deck kits for finishing by their respective owners.
Though traditionalists prefer the Mark I, the Mark II benefits from three inches of extra cabin height. Other changes include fiberglass cockpit combings, an aft propane locker, and a change to more watertight hatches made of aluminum. The long wooden bowsprit was revised to a shorter “wishbone” design fashioned from aluminum. Along with this came subtle changes** to the sail plan which allowed for neutral helm over a larger range of sail sizes including with some of the oversized headsails that owners were using on their boats.
** The mast position remained the same, the J measurement was reduced by 12 inches along with the shorter bowsprit, resulted in moving the total center of effort slightly aft to reduce the tendency for lee-helm with large headsails.
It was Mike Riding who started the project with the help of Rod Jermain, two men in the Southern Californian boating industry who were looking to build a boat for themselves. The original plan was to build eight boats, sell six, keeping two for themselves and sail away. In the case of Riding, it was to be with his sweetheart who he met in the town of Alajuela in Costa Rica, hence the unusual name for this boat.
With its humble project origins, it took three years to build the plug to pull off a set of molds, and then nearly two years to finish tooling for the deck. Along the way, Alajuela Yachts was incorporated as a business to gain access to trade discounts and Riding’s brother came in to help with some of the paperwork.
While Riding and Jermain was chipping away on their project, a lifestyle feature in Time Magazine (graced by a double-page image of a Westsail 32 anchored in tropical paradise) helped catapult “the cruising life” from the fringes into the mainstream. The boom years of cruising yachts had begun and Alajuela Yachts found themselves in a current of strong demand. And so it came to pass that the fledgling business built more than the intended eight.
By 1978 thirty hulls had been completed but the economy was waning and personal circumstances including a first child for Jermain and the tragic death of Riding’s wife in a light aircraft accident prompted the founders to sell to a group of investors. As part of the buyout agreement Jermain was required to stay on for at least a year to oversee production as well as bringing in a new 33 footer called the Alajuela 33.
Another employee that stayed was Don Chapman who was Alajuela’s sales manager. Chapman went on to develop the Alajuela 48 designed by Ray Richards.
In all we count a total production run of 81 Alajuela 38s. There has been some speculation that the molds found their way to Taiwan where more boats were produced under the name Bently 38 however there has been conflicting evidence for this.
The factory built boats have aged very well, the boats have been built strong and engineered well. Most problems tend to be easily fixed. These boats rarely come onto the market and tend to be snapped up quickly. As is standard, owner finished boats tend to fetch less.
» “Best boats to Build or Buy” by Ferenc Máté, Ch19.
» “The Mighty and Graceful Alajuela 38” by Michel Savage, Cruising World Magazine 1999
Thanks goes to Alajuela Yachts founder Rod Jermain for assisting in the research of this article.