Not many sailors can say they’ve run aground in Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military base in Cuba. Philip May was an officer on a Navy amphibious ship that was there for a six-week training exercise in 1969 when he had his adventure while manning one of the small boats the sailors used for recreation. No one was hurt, and “Castro didn’t come down to get me,” says May, 70, a retired advertising executive from Chicago.
The incident is one of many May has logged during a lifetime of sailing. “I started out in my teens,” he says. “I was not great at ball sports, like baseball, and one day I saw someone sailing and thought, That looks like something I might be good at.”
May bought a little boat, got a book at the library and taught himself to sail, with Lake Michigan as a classroom. “I took to it right away,” he says. “I was even halfway decent at it.”
After his Navy adventures, May raced Rhodes 19s and Mirage 24s and “did OK,” as he puts it. When his son was growing up, he switched to a Tartan 30 and began cruising, enjoying family time on Sunday afternoon outings and short voyages. In 1997, May got a call from a friend who’d seen a “gorgeous” sailboat, a Tartan 37, for sale at Washington Island, Wisconsin. May was thinking about buying a bigger boat, one that would get him and the family into new cruising grounds up north, farther from familiar Chicago waters. “I drove up to see it,” says May.
The Tartan — a cruising classic designed by Sparkman & Stephens — was in great shape, and the price was $65,000. “I got it from the second owner, an electrical contractor with his own boat-refurbishing business.” That owner had redone the woodwork, including a teak-and-holly sole and new finished teak outside. “It was beautiful,” says May. “My wife said to me, ‘Take a good look — it will never look this good again.’ ”
Over the last 17 years, the boat has fulfilled May’s cruising vision. He has circumnavigated Lake Michigan, gone up to the North Channel and cruised to Green Bay. Lake Superior is on the to-do list. “It is a beautiful boat to sail,” says May, who edits the Great Lakes Cruising Club’s magazine Lifelines. “Out of the three that I have owned, it is the best. I saw it described by one reviewer as a ‘banker’s boat’ and ‘gentlemanly.’ It’s well-balanced, easy to handle, with no weather helm to speak of unless you really trim the sails badly.”
May’s boat has an oversized rig — added by the first owner — that’s 3 feet taller than the standard one, which gives it a large mainsail. “That’s the only downside,” says May. “I have to put in a reef in 15 knots of wind, or it can get overpowered.”
Under 15 knots, and you can get going with the full rig, he says. With her cruising sails, going to weather can be a challenge, but “she’s fine” on a close or broad reach, he says. “Like any boat, when you’re going dead downwind, you want a chute or a pole out and go wing and wing.” When the wind falls, there’s a Westerbeke diesel for auxiliary power.
“Somewhere around 500 of these boats have been built, and most are still in use,” May says. “It is kind of a cult boat.” The layout is versatile and set up for cruising, with a quarter berth, pilot berth and convertible settees in the main cabin and a private V-berth forward. There’s a full nav station and a U-shaped galley at the foot of the companionway and a fold-out table for dining.
May has an autopilot and a radar/chart plotter, both of which are “must-haves” in his changeable lake environment. “For the kinds of sailing I do, the autopilot has just been great.” He added the radar after a close call in thick weather. “There are times when it has been invaluable, when the fog is so thick you can’t see the bow.”
“There’s a saying,” he adds. “Sailing is one-third boredom, one-third excitement and one-third abject terror. I’ve had them all, and I’ve come through on the boat every time. It has personality; it has always taken care of me. It does its job and does it well — no fuss, no muss. I can’t say enough about it.”
The Tartan 37 is a classic cruising sailboat with a good reputation and a loyal following. Sought after on the used market, it was offered in two hull configurations: centerboard and keel, both with a skeg-hung rudder. The centerboard version, with its shallow fin keel, was the more popular version and is more prevalent. Sail area is 625 square feet, with a small, easy-to-handle main and a somewhat larger-than-usual foresail.
The profile shows a clipper bow and a slightly reversed transom. Below, there’s a private V-berth forward that can be used as two single berths or converted with an insert into a double. The adjacent head compartment is small but functional, with an integral shower.
The main cabin reflects the design trend of its time, with offset settees to port and starboard — the former converting to a double berth, the latter to a single. The nav station is at the foot of the companionway, to port, and a U-shaped galley is across the way. A quarter berth is to port under the cockpit.
In 1976, Tartan Yachts owner Charlie Britton asked Sparkman & Stephens to work with him in designing a 37-foot sailboat that could be offered in racing and cruising versions. The result was the Tartan 38 (racing) and the Tartan 37 (cruising), which went on to become one of the builder’s most popular models. The keel/centerboard version of the 37 was more popular than the deep-keel version and allowed the boat to cruise the skinny waters of many favored areas. The Tartan 37 was produced from 1976 to 1988, with 486 hulls built. Prices run from about $45,000 into the high $70,000 range. Based in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, Tartan builds daysailers and cruising sailboats and this past summer announced the addition of a powerboat line, Legacy by Tartan. tartanyachts.com
LOA: 37 feet, 3.5 inches
LWL: 29 feet, 5 inches
BEAM: 11 feet, 9 inches
DRAFT: 6 feet, 7 inches (fin keel); 4 feet, 2 inches (board up), 7 feet, 9 inches (board down)
SAIL AREA: 625 square feet
DISPLACEMENT: 15,500 pounds
BALLAST: 7,500 pounds
AUXILIARY PROPULSION: Westerbeke 40 or 50 diesel
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November 2014 issue