The Dehler 32 combines race-boat performance with easy sailing for short-handed crews, says David Harding
As yacht design continues to evolve, buyers should have an increasingly wide choice of versatile all-rounders: boats that are comfortable, well mannered and reasonably roomy for cruising yet sporty enough to be fun and competitive on the race course.
Inevitably, however, developments in design keep pushing the cruising and racing ends of the spectrum apart as the limits are explored. This sometimes leaves the middle ground – especially the middle-to- sporty ground – a bit thin.
If, for example, you’re looking for a cruiser/racer between about 31ft and 34ft (9.4m and 10.4m) but don’t find yourself drawn to super-wide stern and twin rudders, there’s not a vast amount of choice.
And should your budget preclude carbon masts and lead keels, the choice narrows still further.
Difficulties in achieving a commercially viable balance between cruising comfort and racing performance, especially in boats built with a close eye on the budget, explain why many of the big builders produce separate ranges of cruising and racing models: look at Bénéteau, Jeanneau, Elan, Dufour and now, higher up the price range, X-Yachts as well.
Two ranges mean less need to compromise.
Others have stuck to one. These include Dehler, a builder that has traditionally produced fast and often good-looking boats that avoid extremes.
Some of their Van de Stadt designs from the 1980s are among the most attractive sporty cruisers afloat.
They’re also slippery performers, and especially popular among club-racing sailors who go cruising too. In many ways they’re the epitome of the wholesome cruiser/racer.
The trouble is that producing an equivalent of the original slim-hulled Dehler 34 would be almost impossible today because of the
need for interior volume: people simply expect more space on boats that are meant for cruising as well as for crashing around the cans.
At least they can now have the room without sacrificing performance, because modern bulbed keels have gone a long way to offset the effects of greater freeboard and higher coachroofs: put a keel with a sufficiently low centre of gravity underneath, add an efficient rig on top and a certain level of performance is almost guaranteed.
But while some builders are taking advantage of the opportunities presented by efficient keels and rigs to sandwich blunt, high-volume hulls in between that result in a rather stodgy sailing experience, Dehler are sticking to the slimline approach.
They can get away with this because their sister company, Hanse, provides for those who want the extra elbow room below decks.
In a way Dehler and Hanse are like the parallel ranges offered by other builders, only sold under different names and built in different factories. Significantly, both are also closer to the centre ground than the other builders’ cruising and racing ranges.
They’re both designed by Judel and Vrolijk, both better performers than many of the cruisy alternatives and both less frightening to club racers than the sporty models.
Dehler 32: first impressions
My first experience of the Dehler 32 was on a test sail with some friends looking to move up from a 31-footer.
They were after something that would be more competitive in racing mode yet still easy to cruise two-handed and, ideally, a little bit bigger.
Wanting all-round performance and practicality in a boat that wouldn’t date quickly, they found themselves shying away from ultra-broad sterns, twin rudders and extreme T-bulb keels, and neither did their budget allow them to consider one boat that appealed very strongly: the J/97.
All options were open as far as new or second-hand was concerned – budget permitting, of course – and the Dehler 32 was one of the few boats on the shortlist.
It looked as though it could do the business on every front, even if it was perilously close to the top of their price range, so we took one for a spin from Dehler’s base at Hamble and we weren’t disappointed.
In the end the decision went in favour of a slightly larger second-hand boat of another make, principally for financial reasons, but not until the Dehler had been thought about long and hard.
On a brisk day in the Solent it had performed very well and, unlike some of the alternatives (including the boat they subsequently bought), it had a tiller.
While many big-boat sailors favour wheels, racing sailors and those moving up from smaller boats often prefer tillers and the nature and layout of the Dehler lend themselves perfectly to tiller steering.
The only problem in sailing terms had been the balance of the rudder – or, more precisely, the lack of balance.
It had made steering hard work, spoiling what was otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
That was one reason why I was keen to have a second look at the Dehler 32.
This time, however, the test boat had a wheel: Dehler had been forced by demand from prospective buyers to offer wheel steering as an option.
More significantly (because a tiller still comes as standard), the rudder had been changed to one of reduced chord and increased depth following persistent requests from the British dealer.
As I soon found, the new blade made a dramatic difference and it had nothing to do with the gearing introduced by the wheel.
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Sailing the Dehler 32 was now a joy: she was finger-light on the helm and the extra depth of the blade gave it a limpet-like grip.
So many boats from all parts of the cruiser-racer spectrum have blades that are simply too small, especially downwind in a lumpy sea.
Although we had flat water, moderate winds and a spinnaker borrowed from a Sigma 33 that looked unbelievably small on the Dehler 32, we were able to push her hard enough in the stronger patches to establish that she’s a difficult boat to upset.
Upwind, the blade continued to grip even if we deliberately put the gunwale underwater, by which time the inclinometer was showing about 40° of heel.
Another good point is that the new blade’s depth combined with the relatively narrow chord leads to no over-balancing from prop-wash under power, so it’s well balanced whether the boat’s sailing or motoring.
Despite being no fan of wheel steering when there’s a tiller on offer, I was sufficiently taken by the performance and responsiveness of the Dehler 32 to forget about it most of the time.
Her performance suggested that she had read the polar diagram before we went out: we clocked just over 6 knots hard on the wind with about 19 knots of breeze over the deck, tacking through little over 70° and picking up to 8 knots on a beam reach.
Even when moderately hard-pressed on a fetch she remained finger-light to steer and rarely needed more than a quarter-turn of the wheel (which is one turn from lock to lock) to keep her on track.
On a test run with just three people aboard, standard-issue sails and no comparable boats as yardsticks it’s hard to gauge a boat’s competitive potential, but I’d be surprised if the Dehler 32 doesn’t prove to be a good all-rounder and a potent performer downwind in a breeze.
She was eager to surf on the smallest of quarter-waves we encountered and, given some half-decent waves to play with, there’s no doubt she would be up and away – especially with all that rudder grip to keep her bow pointing downhill.
Dehler 32: Scope to tweak
Unlike some sporty boats the Dehler 32 comes with a set of cruising sails, in Dacron by North, and they’re fine for what they’re designed to do.
The board-flat main has next-to-no roach and leaves little scope for anyone to do anything wrong with it.
Rig-tuning tools are provided, however.
There’s a 32:1 backstay (all in Dyneema) and, with the race pack, barber-haulers for the jib as well as the 4:1 purchase on the cars.
With the go-fast goodies you also get three swivel cams each side on the coachroof to handle the barber-haulers, the spinnaker pole downhaul and a split kicker.
Those who prefer simple sailing can just step aboard and enjoy going quickly with little effort.
This is a boat that sails fast without making any demands on the crew: she responds to good trim and to being pointed in the right direction, yet has an extremely forgiving nature and won’t punish minor mistakes or lapses of concentration.
Single-handing is straightforward, as I found when throwing in a few tacks from in front of the wheel so as to be within reach of the winches.
With the traveller eased down the track she would hold her course while I wound in the headsail on the new tack – and there’s not much winching to do anyway.
The only nuisance is the jib’s habit of getting caught outside the split pulpit, principally when you’re hardening up from a reach.
A tiller would make life easier for short-handing because the helm would be further forward, able to take advantage of the superbly comfortable perch on the coamings and, in cruising mode, closer to the sprayhood.
Being stuck in the stern, with your weight in the wrong place and away from shelter, winches, sheets and control lines doesn’t make sense to me, but owners have the choice.
At the helm, the double-spoked wheel allows you to sit outboard with a reasonable view forward and to brace a foot against the pedestal.
The principal drawback of the wheel’s size is that it’s hard to reach over it to grab the mainsheet.
With a tiller, on the other hand…
To my mind the Dehler’s balance under sail is just right: she carries the slightest amount of weather helm, giving enough feel through the precise, drag-free linkage.
If I had to have a wheel, however, I’d prefer higher gearing on a boat like this: half a turn from lock to lock, as on the First 34.7 for example.
Generally the more cruisy the boat the lower the gearing, principally to make it harder for inexperienced helm to over-steer.
As you would expect given the short chord of the keel and the large rudder right aft, the boat could be spun extremely fast if necessary.
She was hard to stall nonetheless.
Coming out of a tight 360° with the sheets pinned in, she got straight back in the groove and accelerated smoothly away.
If she was pinched mercilessly upwind and brought almost to a standstill, it was necessary only to put the bow down a few degrees and she’d pick up speed with no fuss.
Compared with many dumpy, high-volume cruisers that people sometimes buy in the mistaken belief that they’re more forgiving and easier to sail, the Dehler 32 is superbly well mannered.
She’ll also run rings around most 32s without even breaking sweat.
Ample draught helps, of course.
Our test boat had the racing fin in the form of a moderately proportioned iron T-bulb with its tip 1.98m (6ft 6in) below the water.
If that’s too much you can lose 24cm (nearly 10in) with the standard T-bulb fin or go the shoal route at the expense of performance and have the 1.43m (4ft 8in) shallow fin.
A folding propeller naturally comes as standard.
If I had a criticism, it was to do with her trim: under sail she appeared down at the bow, and that was in an unladen state and without seeming high at the stern.
Examining the essentials
When it comes to ergonomics, rig, hardware and deck layout, everything works.
The keel-stepped, 9/10ths Seldén rig is supported by Dyeform rigging over two sets of swept spreaders.
I like the below-decks furling drum: it looks good and keeps the jib tack low.
Hardware is principally from Harken and up to the job.
All I would take issue with on deck is the absence of non-slip on the coachroof abaft the mast, plus the perilously free-running main hatch: it would be lethal to step on, and makes life difficult for people like me who tend to grab it and swing down the companionway.
I know you should go down the steps backwards, but that takes all day.
Instead of the usual aluminium toerail, the Dehler has a moulded upstand to which folding D-rings are attached for the spinnaker tweakers.
The hull-to-deck join is of the biscuit-tin variety, covered by an alloy rubbing strake that’s a good idea in principle but too shallow in section to offer much protection.
In the open cockpit (there’s no removable locker to enclose the stern, as on some boats) is a full-depth locker to starboard containing the fuel tank and holding tank.
A neat Hanse/Dehler touch is the self-stowing washboard in the companionway.
Accommodation on the Dehler 32
This is no bespoke, hand-crafted interior: we’re on a competitively- priced production boat.
The best that can be said about the joinery is that it’s generally tidy, with few rough edges and little in the way of obvious unsealed end-grain or beads of sealant.
The worst, is that it’s rather bland and lacking stowage for small items.
It’s an interior for people who will spend a few days or a week aboard living out of kit-bags; not one full of clever touches and useful little drawers and lockers for stowing oddments.
A full interior moulding incorporates landings for the joinery modules.
Similarly, the moulded headliner has recesses to accept the bulkheads. Inevitably in such cases, access to the outer hull and the deckhead is limited.
It’s good to see that the balsa-cored hull is ramped down to a single skin in way of the seacocks, though the heads inlet is so close to the waterline that it’s no good trying to pump on starboard tack at more than a few degrees of heel.
Structurally, the matrix in the floor around the keel looks suitably chunky.
What’s behind the skin is always hard to tell even if you have seen the layup schedule.
Access to the engine – a Volvo D1-20 saildrive that pushes the boat along at well over 7 knots – is good from all four sides, though the gearbox looks a challenge to get at.
In terms of layout, there’s nothing remarkable: the pictures tell the story.
Berths are reasonably proportioned, the handrails in the saloon appear solid and the forecabin is one of those dive-in- and-kick-the-door-shut-with-your- feet affairs.
Some boats just seem to hit the right note, and to my mind the Dehler 32 is one of them.. Here’s a cruiser/racer that’s remarkably forgiving and, in relative terms, not expensive. Yet she’s fast, responsive, fun to sail and, I think we’ll find, a competitive race boat. Rather than make her faster and more skittish, her designers chose moderate hull proportions and a relatively deep canoe body to encourage good behaviour. They also stuck to an iron keel and aluminium rig in the interests of keeping the price down. Every boat is a compromise, but as compromises go in terms of handling, performance and price, this is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.