Etap 39s

by Dryw Lloyd

Blue Water Sailing
September 2001


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What's so special about the Etap 39s?

Sail-la-Vie wasn’t breaking any records as the speedo vollied lazily between four and five knots, but we were slipping past the New Jersey coast about as fast as anyone could expect given the tentative seabreeze breathing across our starboard beam. The new Etap 39s loped along like a hopeful boardwalker on her way to Atlantic City, seemingly more interested in dreaming up ways to spend imminent winnings locally than in delivering us home to Newport, R.I. Since neutralizing the engine in Annapolis harbor to the fading cadence of a platoon of bounding plebes on the grounds of my almost mater, we had relied on nothing but the purest of pressure to propel ourselves – aside from the brief intercession of a maritime law that asks everyone to motor through the canal connecting the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. Light winds and an average speed of five knots had marked the trip thus far, and while Dane Somers – captain of Sail-la-Vie and North American representative of Etap Yachts – was enjoying this shirtless, banterful pace as much as I, we began to whisper the simple sailor’s prayer, “A bit more wind, please…” along with the internal corollary, “but not too much, please.”

As the earth spun long and steady away from the sun, the land to our north and west cooled and its rising heat pump shut down, squashing the afternoon seabreeze and, like the onset of an ebb tide, spilling a weak land breeze over the sea inshore of us. Although the Rockettes were rumored to be in town, we decided to forego a detour up the Hudson River to Manhattan and instead added a bit more east to our northerly course in order to round the outboard tip of Long Island and follow the dolphin party on home to Newport.

No sooner had we lit the red and greens when confusion assumed command in the twilight. The winds bade farewell to the sun with a shifty, gusting dance, pinwheeling around Sail-la-Vie at all angles and throwing puffs our way at between 15 and 25 knots. Dane and I were set in motion – tacking, jibing, sheeting in and out, furling and unfurling the jib by increments. It was as if the gurus at Etap’s headquarters in Malle, Belgium, had arranged this 45-minute session to prove the mettle of their newest midsize cruiser in a variety of sailing conditions. Certainly the 39s was up to the task.

The What, Why and How of Unsinkability . . . Hey, I hear what you’re muttering – “Titanic, Titanic!” My father and I, watching Sail-la-Vie snuggle up to the dock at the 2000 Annapolis boat show sporting a mainsail pocket emblazoned with UNSINKABLE, had the same gut reaction. But 90 years of construction evolution, and some magic foam thrown in for good measure, make all the difference; this is no tongue-in-cheek marketing ploy. The 39s is unsinkable, and as such it offers incredible peace of mind and a whole new way of approaching safety and survival. Here’s a 39-foot vessel that, even holed and flooded, offers a stable platform from which to make repairs or coordinate a rescue or tow, one far superior to that of even the best of liferafts.

Sounds eerily like hubris, doesn’t it? We should define the nature of such claims, lest Poseidon get wind of these words and take them as a challenge to his exclusive and eternal right to swallow any who hang suspended in his depths.

The stamp of unsinkability… The French Merchant Marine is the only authority to bestow such a qualification, and it will do so only once a vessel has satisfied three requirements – notably the entire line of Etap boats does, from the 21-footer to the 39s, a trait to which no other fleet of production boats in the world can lay claim. First, the vessel must, when fully flooded, maintain freeboard equivalent to at least three percent of its LOA – in the case of the 39s, this equates to at least 14 inches with 4,840 pounds of flesh and gear aboard. Next, it must, in this state, be manueverable enough under sail or tow to make its way, albeit slowly, to shore. Lastly, again when flooded, it must be able to right itself from a 90-degree knockdown with the entire crew on the leeward rail. To test these principles on the modern-day pixeled version of the old drawing board, the engineering gurus at Etap developed their own CAD programs and stability curves for flooded vessels.

A unique vision… In the late 1940s, Belgium like the rest of Western Europe was recuperating from mass destruction following World War II. In the dual spirit of patriotism and entrepenuership that has fueled so much of the world’s industrial development, a young Belgian by the name of N. Joris (pronounced Yar-iss) began, in the shade of his garage, repairing small electrical motors for his neighbors. He proved handy at this, and soon he was constructing electrical components and motors in his own factory. Electrical Technical APparatus (ETAP) was born. Joris and company continued to grow, never straying from the priorities – “safety, quality, and innovation” – that they remain committed to today.

From the mouths of babes… By the 1960s they were able to explore a new material – fiberglass. Joris wanted to enter the recreational market, so Etap poured newfound FRP fabricating skills into boatbuilding and added “recreational pleasure” to its list of production priorities. In a stroke of radically simple genius, Joris figured that the safest boat was one that couldn’t sink. Confident that he could uncover and answer the questions that would lead him to such a boat’s construction, Joris began to experiment. Somewhere along the way he chose the duck as Etap’s symbol, as it embodies versatile functionalism on the water.

The science of unsinkability… Millions of microscopic closed cells of polyurethane foam are vacuum-packed into the nether regions of the 39s. These cells, which will absorb at most five percent of their weight in water – and that only after years of immersed service – are the modern equivalent of buoyant logs in a primitive raft: Attach a bunch of small unsinkable objects together, and voilá! you’ve got a larger unsinkable craft.

The first Etap prototypes indeed were unsinkable, but they relied on huge chunks of foam that filled much of the space belowdeck. Since then, Etap’s engineers have come a long way toward perfecting the art of unsinkability. In the 39s, the foam – about seven cubic meters of it in total (it takes about a cubic meter of foam to support a ton of displacement) – is hidden away between the double fiberglass skins of the hull and deck, under the V-berth, in an aft compartment, behind the starboard settees and where combing boxes are usually found. The double-skin structure not only represents a key element of the vessel’s unsinkability, but also provides extra overall stiffness, insulates against both temperature extremes and sound, and even thwarts condensation – this last benefit is the first of three factors behind the boat’s drum-dry interior and bilge. We’ll touch on two and three downstream.

The factory of tomorrow… It all takes place at a factory in Belgium that blends the best of old-world ethics with modern construction and quality control. Somers visited the site and initially he assumed that he had been herded into a section set aside especially to impress visitors. It was like no boat yard he’d seen before. There were no scraps or detritus lying around, no harried or confused motion, not a wasted breath from the bevy of technicians hard at work.

Etap assigns a cell of skilled workers to each individual boat, and these folks are directly responsible for its creation from start to finish – not unlike what happens at Saab and Volvo in the auto industry. Boat parts are given to the teams en masse; then as they begin construction the builders follow an ultra-stringent quality control protocol, with both humans and computers checking and re-checking task lists and measurements.

During construction, the deck is dropped into the hull “ship-within-a- ship” style, a method that bolsters monocoque strength and diffuses the forces of the rig. The hull/deck joint is epoxied, bolted and protected by an aluminum rubrail running the circumference of the vessel.

Etap’s commitment to quality and innovation results in “better boats at better prices.” By employing common- sense building practices, high-tech gear including laser-guided cutting tools and remote-control scrap-grinding robots, and strict testing methods that see every hull through a battery of water tightness trials in a cool sprinkler arena, the factory gets things right the first time and keeps costs down. There are currently about 6,500 Etap boats on the world’s waters – most of them in Europe thus far – and at least one completed vessel leaves the plant every day.

Design considerations: A fairly low Displacement/Length (D/L) number of 178 and sufficiently powerful Sail Area/Displacement (SA/D) mark of 18.6 put the 39s in the ilk of modern performance cruisers – light enough to accelerate and go, and endowed with enough canvas to make the most of lean winds and crank it up a notch when the breeze complies.

The standing rig (Seldén through and through) is comprised of an aluminum deck-stepped mast (well sealed at the base, which accounts for the second factor behind the bone-dry bilge); an end-sheeted boom held by a combination rod kicker and gas-sprung downhaul; discontinuous shrouds supported by double spreaders swept 18 degrees aft; a 7/8 fractional forestay; and a manually winched backstay.

All lines are cockpit-led. A neat trick here allows for good control of handy end-boom mainsheeting and room for a table dockside or at anchor: The traveler is removable. It pins into place when in use, and stows under the helmsman’s seat when the sails are down, at which point the boom is tied off to port. The size of these holding pins would concern us in severe conditions; a spec-up may be called for in areas where conditions are predictably heavy. Still, the ease of one-line reefing from the cockpit goes a long way towards making sure you don’t get caught with your pants down, or too much sail up.

Hoisting and dousing the 433-square-foot, partially battened mainsail is facilitated by ball-bearing-assisted mast track cars – these are listed as an option over and above the traditional luff-groove setup, but the choice would appear to be a no-brainer as far as we’re concerned. The main drops neatly and conveniently through lazy jacks into a sail pocket, complete with a mesh strip to aid draining and ventilation.

The 39s is well canvassed up front. A 392-square-foot, 150-percent overlapping jib pulls her along and is easily furled and unfurled by a Seldén Furlex system. An optional, detachable second forestay allows for a storm sail or working jib, and snugs up against the mast when not in use.

The deck is mostly teak, with an Awl-Gripped cabintop and gel-coated slopes. It is low-profile and tidy, with but one flaw, rectified in the 2001 versions. The ports on Etaps built during or prior to 2000 open outward and are in the way of feet and sheets – during our trip Sail-la-Vie had her portside-aft port snapped clean off by a jib sheet.

A sturdy, raised-aluminum toe rail rings the deck, offering a firm footing and plenty of fender and mooring line tie-off points. Three sightly stainless steel Dorades adorn the cabintop and promote air flow.

The 39s is steered from a position behind or to either side of a smooth 47-inch wheel, fixed to a pedestal with room for a radar screen or instruments. From the stairs of the companionway – which are curved slightly to facilitate climbing when heeled, you can see to the top of the mast and forward through a low-slung hard windscreen. A soft dodger attached above this increases protection from the elements.

The anchoring setup is thorough – the windlass is housed unobtrusively beneath a cover, there is plenty of storage for tackle and rode, and double rollers grace the bow.

The 39s has a flattish, canoe-shaped hull, which lessens drag and wetted surface. This, along with ample beam running aft to broad stern sections, keeps the center of gravity low and results in spacious cabin volume below. A fine, slicing knuckle-bow entry serves to dampen whatever pounding such a hull-shape may suggest, and the 6’5” wing-finned, lead-bulbed, 4,500-lb. keel and deep high-aspect balanced spade rudder provide excellent tracking and control. A 4’11” shoal-draft version is available. The rudder, cold-molded and built in one piece, is constructed of fiberglass with steel framing and a foam core that strengthens the part without the permeability of balsa. The reverse transom picks up waterline when heeling, allows for a couple of steps and a swim platform, and alas, makes it difficult to install a windvane. A modicum of flare helps keep the boat dry and increases stability. In portrait she displays a modern flat sheer.

The 39s is an attractive, well-appointed cruiser that really sails and keeps her crew happy and dry. During our three-day trip from Annapolis to Newport last fall, we met with conditions ranging from banal to furious.

In eight knots of breeze off Cape May, N.J., Sail-la-Vie’s light rig and ample canvas scooted us along at 6.5 knots. In higher winds on the order of 20-25 knots off the south shore of Long Island, the boat drove ahead behind a single-reefed main and jib furled about a quarter of the way at a commanding eight knots. In these exceptional conditions we experienced a little rounding up, and had to fight the helm a little to rein her back off the wind. When the pressure leveled off at 10-15 knots, as it did for the last eight hours of our trip, we chugged ahead at a steady 7.5 knots.

The sailplan is easily manipulated, and the 39s points well with just the main up – a good test of balance.

Sail-la-Vie’s interior is smooth and smart – marked by meters of mahogany and heads-up design. The storage space lost to buoyant foam is made up for by well-placed ceiling-hung cabinets in the saloon and forward cabin. Dane and I are tall guys – about 6’4” – but we found plenty of head room in all spaces, even the forward cabin and head which, aboard Sail-la-Vie (a two-cabin version), includes a separate showering space and lots of storage.

The V-berth is roomy and features a wash basin with hot and cold taps. It is very private – when the door is closed one barely hears a thing, which is great for sleeping but suggests the need to devise a thorough signaling scheme between cabin and cockpit under way. The nav station is well done – great big chart table, plenty of storage, seat positioned to facilitate jamming yourself solidly into place when heeling. There is loads of room for instruments and screens; two vertical panels, one holding the electrical distribution panel, open outward to reveal tidy cables and space for electrical and electronic expansion.

After extensive research, Etap discovered that most galley-related injuries occur when sailors fall over a hot stove. So, they designed the 39s’s unique linear galley such that an adult seated on the middle saloon settee with his feet placed solidly against a 45-degree surface at the toe-kick beneath the stove, can reach the stove, sink and counter spaces well supported.

Sail-la-Vie’s 40-horsepower, three-cylinder Volvo Penta auxiliary, located under the companionway steps, throws her prop by way of a Saildrive transmission. This setup represents the third factor behind the boat’s dry bilge, as the drive mechanism is well sealed and self-lubricates with seawater. Saildrives offer the hydrodynamic advantage of allowing the prop-rudder relationship to occur at right angles. We ran the engine very little, but when we did it was virtually silent. Whether under power or sail, in forward or reverse, steering aboard the 39s is precise and smooth.

Sail-la-Vie has a 92-gallon water tank and 37 gallons of fuel storage. These may be supplemented for longer voyages with jerry cans or additional tankage, space for which is available behind the aft cabin where a watermaker, heater or autopilot can also be housed.

While the Etap 39s puts a damper on a few maritime traditions - no chanties will be sung of her graceful bow into the deeps, and Viking funerals are out of the question - it is a revolutionary boat already well appreciated in Europe and destined to make a huge impact on the market here in the States. She scores high in the usual categories - performance, livability, style - and stands mastheads and shoulders above any other production boat in the realm of safety. It’s quite simple; should your hull become compromised and fill with water, would you rather step up into an inflatable liferaft, or stay aboard the much more stable and resource-rich platform of the Etap 39s, and maybe even make it to port on your own? If you are getting on in years or cruising with small children, the question becomes even more rhetorical.

LOA 39’7” (11.88 m.)
Hull length 38’1” (11.60 m.)
LWL 33’6” (10.21 m.)
Beam 12’8” (3.86 m.)
Draft (std) 6’5” (1.95 m.)
Draft (opt shoal) 4’11” (1.50 m.)
Ballast (std) 4,520 lbs. (2,050 kgs.)
Ballast (opt shoal) 4,960 lbs. (2,250 kgs.)
Disp (std) 15,000 lbs. (6,804 kgs.)
Disp (opt shoal) 15,432 lbs. (7,000 kgs.)
SA (100%) 708 sq.ft. (65.8 sq.m.)
Mast above water 57’1” (17.40 m.)
Ballast/Disp (std) .28
Ballast/Disp (opt shoal) .32
Disp/Length (std) 178
SA/Disp (std) 18.6
LPS 124º
Fuel 37 gal. (140 ltr.)
Water 92 gal. (348 ltr.)
Auxiliary Volvo Penta 40-hp
Designer J&J Design, Etap Yachting N.V.
Base Price $199,900 FOB U.S. East Coast

In the U.S.
Sail La Vie, LLC
9 Timber Ridge
Freeport, ME 04032
Ph: 207-865-1855,

ETAP Yachting N.V.
Steenovenstraat 2
2390 Malle, Belgium
Ph: 011-32-331-24461,
Fax: 011-32-331-24466,

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