Orion: David Popken’s Sabre 38

orion2 Orion: David Popkens Sabre 38Interview by Charles Milby

What factors influenced your decision to purchase a Sabre Yacht?

When researching boats prior to our purchase, I had several criteria that would ultimately put the Sabre 38 Centerboard Sloop at the top of the list.  Primarily, I felt that a boat in the 38-foot range would give me and my wife Kris a comfortable, affordable, solid platform for mid to long distance cruising.

As boats get longer, they get exponentially more expensive to maintain, not to mention more cumbersome and physically demanding for a husband and wife to handle together.  One of our other considerations, was the ability to go shallow, since many parts of Florida, the Keys, the Bahamas and the Caribbean have skinny water.

And, we wanted a solidly built boat, one that could handle a bluewater passage without reservations with regard to safety, seaworthiness and robust components.  The Sabre 38 centerboarder met all of those criteria.  Sabre Yachts is still in business in Casco, Maine and that also heavily influenced our decision. They have our boat, hull #99 in their database and have stepped up numerous times to assist in the refit, with vendor phone numbers, design details not found in the Owner’s Manual and fixes for recurring problems.

orionint Orion: David Popkens Sabre 38

Once you made the purchase, what were your expectations regarding time and money needed to refit the boat?

Orion is a 1987 build, and was a lovingly maintained one owner boat prior to our purchase.  But, the reality is she was 25 years old, which is relatively ancient for a plastic boat.  The electronics were all outdated, the standing rigging was original, the running rigging and sails were serviceable, but in need of replacing, there were the usual bits of other hardware that had seen better days, as well as numerous water entry points that needed to be addressed.

To turn the boat into a true long distance cruiser, various equipment additions and upgrades would also be necessary.  There was also one “Achilles Heel” with Sabres, something lovingly called “Sabre Rot”, where the mast base collected water and allowed it to migrate into the surrounding cabin sole and underlayment, rotting out the sole in the process.  The limber hole in the mast base was inadequate for the task and the root cause of the problem.

Fortunately, the factory was aware of the problem and had produced a “fix.”  Our boat had a relatively minor case, but it still needed to be addressed.  I wish I could honestly say that I anticipated every one of the repairs and upgrades, but that would be a total fabrication!  I will say that once complete, the purchase price and the cost of the refit will be about a quarter of the cost of a new boat of similar dimensions and quality.  There is no question that finding a sound used boat is the most cost conscious route to take.

What was the single largest upgrade cost-wise?

Without question, it was the standing rigging.  Sabres came from the factory with rod rigging, a great option for both strength and performance, but also more expensive to replace than wire.  You may be familiar with a term called “scope creep”, where an ongoing project creates opportunities to make improvements to corollary systems.  In the case of the standing rigging, we had to pull the mast, so while it was horizontal in the yard, it was a no-brainer to go ahead with a complete re-wire, including LED lighting for anchor, tri-color, steaming and spreader lights, new VHF antenna and coaxial cable, new halyard sheaves and halyards.  The mast and boom were re-painted with Awl Grip.  The chainplates were cleaned, inspected and re-bedded, prior to the mast being re-stepped.  This of course, was not the only area where scope creep has come into play.  When deciding to redo the entire plumbing system, it made sense to replace the galley sink, pressure water pump and water filter, while also adding a cockpit shower where an old LORAN unit had been cut into the cockpit bulkhead.  And once the “Sabre Rot” was repaired, I went ahead and stripped the entire cabin sole of varnish, then sanded and refinished it.  I am fortunate that my career path involves home repairs and woodworking, I’m a general contractor, so I have the confidence to do many things myself.

You sailed the boat from New Jersey back to Texas.  What are your thoughts regarding Orion’s sailing qualities?

It’s hard not to get overly effusive about this boat’s performance on the water.  Despite being a centerboard boat, she sails very well with the board up and when needed, even better with the board down.  She’s very stable, not tender, points well and is easy to balance on nearly every point of sail.  On our crossing from Clearwater to Pensacola, FL, we were close reaching and there was a period of nearly 3 hours where she maintained course without so much as a touch of the helm.  It was like she was on a rail.  And surprisingly fast for a cruiser.  I could go on and on, sea kindly, comfortable cockpit, generous side decks, ample foredeck and gorgeous classic lines to boot.  I feel blessed to own and to sail this boat.


You’ve worked hard getting the boat ready to cruise.  Do you have any definitive plans going forward?

Yes, my wife Kris is retiring in October.  I will have most of my work obligations wrapped up shortly thereafter.  Our loose plan is to sail back to SW Florida and find a semi-permanent slip, most likely in the Ft. Myers area, which gives us the opportunity to sail south to the Keys, Cuba and the Caribbean, or head east through Lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic and either the Bahamas or up the Eastern Seaboard, depending upon the season.  Before we leave the western Gulf though, we plan a stopover in New Orleans to enjoy that great city for a while.  From there, we want to explore the barrier islands in Mississippi Sound and then spend some time in the Apalachicola area before turning towards Ft. Myers.

What advice would you give to someone looking to buy a sailboat for cruising?

To borrow and modify a phrase from Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the boat.  Too many people get hung up on trying to find and prepare the perfect boat for their perceived needs and lose sight of the prize.  The list of boats that have successfully crossed oceans is long and runs the gamut in size and price from humble skiffs to 100 ft maxis.  If cruising is truly your dream, don’t wait until you can afford the perfect boat.  Mark Twain puts it so well:  “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

popkenDavid Popken was born in Grants Pass, OR in 1948.  After high school and the US Army, where he served in the Vietnam War, he graduated from Washington State University and pursued a short career in cinematography and film. Changing careers, he moved to Houston in 1980 to work in real estate.  He started his own residential building/remodeling company in 1983 and is still in business, but is planning to retire soon to go out and experience the cruising lifestyle.  David and his wife Kris bought their first sailboat, a 1978 Hunter 30 in 2002.  They have been avid sailors ever since, daysailing, racing and cruising whenever possible.  David has recently turned his attention towards writing about sailing and sailboat maintenance.  His stories have been published in Sail Magazine, Telltales and GCM.

Leave a Reply