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Testing Her Mettle: Boat Review

A vexing problem in reviewing any new yacht is finding rough-and-tumbler seas to challenge its capabilities.

Usually,my luck brings a demonstration run across flat water. There may be a few ripples. Rarely will we see a whitecap.The wind will not cause a quiver in the anemometer. Boring.

In my Pacific Northwest there may be rain in the air, but that tests only windshield wipers-ho hum.

The biggest wave often is the one created by the boat under review. Don't worry about your coffee spilling.

So, because of a lack of evidence,or experience, it's hard to predict how a new yacht will handle when the weather turns bad.Will she pound and slam into heaving seas? Will she roll insufferably? Will she yaw and wallow like a pig in a big following sea?

Over more than five years of writing about boats that's just the way it has been for me. Easy cruising, the kind we really like.

My luck changed, however, with Sea Buggy .

Splash And Dash

The wind was rising as we boarded the 46-foot aluminum yacht in Bellingham, Washington. As owner Jim Kirkness steered her between the red and green buoys marking the harbor entrance, it was whistling.

Kirkness was equally interested in Sea Buggy's performance under adverse conditions,so he pushed the throttles nearly to the stops,and in seconds she was running at 20 knots through five-foot seas.

Normally, that's not a huge wave.Bellingham Bay,however, is relatively shallow, and the 40-knot southwest wind blowing that day had a long fetch.The seas were steep and close together.

Like a bullet, the yacht headed for our destination-Eliza Island, about seven miles away-while mowing down or flying over row after row of brick walls.Sea Buggy pierced the seas, throwing tons of spray over the boat and temporarily covering the windscreen with blinding water and foam.Water ankle-deep rushed along the side decks to scuppers aft.

Occasionally, she would slam into a big sea. Or she would slide from the edge of a tall wave with a thump.

Kirkness hung onto the helm, watching radar and chart plotter, and steering a course at an angle to the oncoming head seas. I was at the watch station trying to keep my feet planted on the deck while having nothing to grab but the fiddle rail in front of me. (After the excitement was over, one of Kirkness' first acts was to order the manufacture and installation of a grab bar in that spot.) Two more of the crew were in the saloon aft, holding grimly to a handrail attached to the overhead.

Whenever the windscreen cleared, we searched the sea ahead, but there was no other pleasure boat in sight. For good reason.

Sea Buggy seemed to enjoy it. She was lively, for sure, and plowed on, seemingly eager to keep it up.

A small leak appeared around a Diamond Sea Glaze window in a pilothouse door. The trash compactor and a pan drawer in the galley popped their latches and were slamming to and fro as the boat rolled and bounced through the waves. These were minor problems, quickly and easily fixed when the sea flattened later.

Important things worked as intended. An example: Although the cockpit deck was flooded with sea spray, not a drop of water leaked through the dogged down hatch covers into the engine room below.

For the crew, however, life was less tolerable. No one would make sandwiches, pop a beer, pour coffee, or stand up in such turmoil. It would have been life threatening to step outside, despite stout rails around the cockpit and along the side decks.

It was rough, no question. Anyone giving up a handhold would have been bounced like a marble in a can.

But there never was a half-second of fear or concern that the boat could not handle the conditions. Sea Buggy could have charged along all day without hesitation, carrying her crew safely to the next port.

Satisfied with her performance at 20 knots, Kirkness backed off on the throttles and cut the speed to about 15 knots. Thumping and bumping eased, but one still needed to hang on.

Then Ed Robinson, an employee of Sound Craft Marine, the builder, shouted that the 11-foot inflatable on the boat deck was sliding aft, despite restraints, and was about to go overboard.

Kirkness slowed to 10 knots, and Robinson and Loy Olsen, a friend of Kirkness and a crew member, went to the upper deck to lash down the inflatable. I went to the saloon, sat on the deck with my back to the dining table, and placed one foot on the trash compactor and the other on the pot drawer under the sink.

They continued to roll in and out, despite the slower speed, until I put my Size 10s to work as brakes. Wedged tightly in place, I had no worry about hanging on. Later, the trash compactor was dismantled and parked in the bilge beneath the saloon. The pan drawer was lashed shut.

The enforced pokiness answered one major question: Sea Buggy , obviously, has a semiplaning hull, and we wondered how it would perform when operating at slow displacement speeds in rough seas. So, how did she do?

From my seat on the saloon deck, the ride at 10 knots was good. The sea still pummeled us, but she rode well. Kirkness, grinning, later reported that he sensed no change in handling and that the yacht continued to respond properly to rudder commands.

Kirkness had been doing a lot of smiling; on the first sea trial, a few days earlier, when Sea Buggy showed a top speed of nearly 27 knots and an easy cruise of 20, and later as final work was completed and systems were debugged and proved functional.

What Is This?

Friends had urged me to check out the 46- footer being built by Sound Craft Marine in Burlington, Washington. Finally I did, and immediately fell for Sea Buggy . She's an unusual boat, built for an unusual man.

Moored in a marina or motoring at idle speed, the yacht has all the trademarks of a traditional cruiser: a high bow, a 25-horsepower thruster, a reverse-raked windscreen, Portuguese bridge, side decks, an impressively spacious raised pilothouse, a comfortable galley/saloon, two staterooms, two heads, a large fisherman's cockpit, and (increasingly important for long-haul cruisers) a washer-dryer.

With glistening white paint and blue trim on the deckhouse and bulwarks, the yacht is not easily identifiable on a first glance as an aluminum boat. But a second look reveals that the topsides, the hull area between the sheer and the waterline, are not painted.

It's easy to envision Sea Buggy puttering along at eight or nine knots in Alaska or Mexico or along either coast line.

Sea Buggy , however, was built on a hull designed for speed. Like all semi-planing hulls, it has a fairly deep V forward, a long flat bottom aft, and a sharp chine. Two 450-horsepower Volvo diesels running through ZF V-drive transmissions provide the energy to pop the 40,000-pound yacht quickly onto plane. Two skegs and sturdy stainless steel rudders help provide the stability and control noted on our stormy trial run.

Originally designed in the mid-1980s for 36- foot Alaska fishing boats built by LaConner Boat and American Eagle, the hull over time was lengthened to 42 and then 46 feet. Others were used for dive support and charter fishing.

Jonathan Parrott of Jensen Maritime, the engineering firm that did much of the design, explained why Sea Buggy performs so well.

"The deeper V forward is supposed to emulate the better sea-keeping characteristics of a displacement hull, while the flatter bottom aft is to help achieve speed," he says. The aim is to get some of the speed characteristics of the planing hull, while tempering some of the rough sea-keeping characteristics of that type of hull.

"The result is a hull that takes more power to achieve the same kind of speed as a planing hull, but you get a hull that has better riding characteristics as well as better load carrying."

Weight and trim dictate performance. The advantage in the design of Sea Buggy is that the engine room is aft, in the lazarette, which offsets the weight of the house. The fuel tanks are amidships, so changing the weight of fuel does not appreciably change the trim of the boat.

In the fishing boats on the same hull, the house and the engines are forward, the holds amidships, and the fuel aft. The boats remain in trim as long as there is fuel aboard.

"The Sea Buggy can keep her bow up in weather, allowing her to go over the waves rather than trying to punch through them," Parrott adds. "The deeper V of the semi-hull also allows the hull to cut through the waves."

Such energy and speed normally are not part of the trawler or coastal cruiser scene. It seems to me, though, that a boat is better defined by how it is used-not whether it is fast or slow.

Kirkness planned to take his boat to Sitka, Alaska, for a fishing-and-destination charter service. He would be doing the same things we and others enjoy there: fishing, gunkholing, gawking at glaciers, bears, and eagles, and visiting frontier waterfront towns. He'll slow to hull speed for much of that, but in Alaska, where tourist attractions and prime fishing grounds may be many miles apart, the speed of Sea Buggy will enable Kirkness to offer guests a lot of variety in four or five days.

He can carry passengers to help subsidize his love for fishing, boating, and cruising, but with minor changes in the two sleeping areas, the Sound Craft Marine 46 makes a good family boat.

The pilothouse is large enough for serious boating, lounging, snoozing, and watching. The galley/saloon has a table large enough to seat six for dinner and that converts to a double berth. The master stateroom in the bow now has bunks for four fishermen, but with easy changes it could house a queen-sized island berth.

Storage space is everywhere. I doubt there is another 46 afloat with as many drawers, cupboards and hidey-holes. One is so big and so full of stuff that Kirkness calls it "The Fibber McGee Closet."

The diesel engines are commercially-rated Series 74 Volvo diesels. The space beneath the saloon houses tanks and batteries, and a lot of storage space.

Kirkness installed a Bosch washer and dryer and a 5.5 kilowatt Northern Lights generator that cranks out 220 volts for the dryer. In the galley, cooking is on a propane stove.

Her speed comes at a price, of course. At 20 knots, the twin Volvos are burning more than 40 gallons of diesel an hour. At 10 knots, fuel burn drops to about 10 GPH.

Kirkness pushed the boat hard in sea trials and promised to keep her in the speed zone on her first trip to Alaska. "Damn the credit cards," he said. "We'll go slow later."

More seriously, he added, "I'll be able to cut it to eight knots and take it easy. But I'll be able to go fast enough to get out of Dodge."

After getting to know the owner, I think it's safe to speculate that in coming years Sea Buggy will be amazing boaters up and down the West Coast and in Mexico.

The Owner

Kirkness is an interesting guy. He lives in Missoula, Montana, where for many years he was a farmer, rancher, and breeder of horses and mules. He would outfit hunting and fishing parties and take them into the wilderness, using his horses and mules.

Kirkness, operating a dry-land version of a marine fishing charter, served as guide, fishing and hunting expert, and cook. He worked long, long days and was up at 0300 to begin getting ready for the day ahead. He loved it.

For relaxation and a dramatic change of scene, he would fly to Sitka for its superb sport salmon fishing. Then, a couple of years ago, he decided to become a fishing guide and charter boat operator. He earned his Coast Guard license and bought a 29-foot Almar, an aluminum utility boat built in Tacoma, Washington, that is as popular in Southeast Alaska as a pickup truck is in Montana.

Because of its size, the Almar was used for day fishing trips-an intensely competitive business in Sitka, with scores of charter boats available for hire. Kirkness began dreaming of a larger boat that would allow him to carry passengers overnight for fishing, glacier watching, visiting hot springs, and wilderness exploration.

In September 2000, he and Olsen brought the Almar south and dropped in on a boat show on Lake Union in Seattle. There Kirkness met George Downing, the new owner of Sound Craft Marine. Downing had drawings and plans for a 46-foot speedster that looked like a trawler. Kirkness got out his checkbook and said, "Build it for me" and then sold the ranch to finance the $550,000 boat.

The hull was built by another company to a design by Jensen Maritime. It required engineering modifications for, among other things, the oversized boarding and fishing platform Kirkness wanted, and a larger cockpit.

The buyer worked with Downing and others from his company and with Jensen Maritime to design the interior spaces for comfortable and efficient charter operations.

The Builder

Downing was new to boating and boat building. He had recently retired as a sales and marketing executive for Microsoft.

His slide into boating came quickly. First, he bought a 25-foot aluminum boat from Ed Snyder, a retired employee of Manson Construction, a firm known for building breakwaters, refinery docks, and other large maritime facilities.

Snyder knew Downing was a novice and watched out for him. They became friends. It wasn't long before a bigger boat was needed, and the pair began building a 30-footer in Snyder's barn. Soon, Downing had bought land and an existing firm, Sound Craft Marine, a builder of small aluminum utility boats, where construction of the boat to be named Maggie B was completed.

The Maggie B's relationship to the Sea Buggy is very evident: raised pilothouse, reverse raked windscreen, paint on the deckhouse...and speed.

The interior layout of the 30 is similar to that found in Nordic Tugs and American Tugs, and the finish work is exceptionally good.

The major difference is that, with a pair of Volvo Series 44 diesels, the Maggie B cruises at 30 knots-more than twice as fast as the singleengine tug-yachts-and will top out at 39. I rode in the Maggie B, with Snyder at the helm, for a dash past a video team working for Sound Craft. It was a smooth, steady ride: however, one doesn't go outside on a boat that seems to be approaching the speed of sound and relax as you can on a nine-knot trawler. I ventured out and days later could still feel the wind pulling the hair from my head.

Sound Craft Marine's bread-and-butter business is building aluminum utility boats for commercial and military use. They are built for the Workskiff label.

I rode in a 28-footer Sound Marine Craft built for serious sport salmon fishing in Alaska. Because of its Spartan styling, Downing calls it his "wash and wear" boat. It, too, was stable and faster than the wind.

"They pay the bills," Downing says of the smaller utility boats, and allow the company to keep a crew capable of building yachts, too.

Downing is the majority owner of Sound Craft Marine. Snyder is a minority share owner, as is Michael Merrick, a former production manager for Sea Sport, a Bellingham manufacturer of highly-regarded fast, fiberglass sport boats. Merrick has the same job at Sound Craft Marine.

The company has completed plans for a 52-foot version of Sea Buggy and is working with a California yachtsman on a 55-foot trawler-type speedster (30 knots) to be built in the near future. But first Downing plans to introduce at a Seattle boat show this fall a 36-foot boat that will look much like the Maggie B. It will have a raised pilothouse and two staterooms for "adultsized people," Downing promises.

The 36 will have a yacht finish-painted hull and deckhouse. Fairing aluminum for paint requires careful construction and painstaking sanding and surface preparation. That adds to the time and cost. "It will be pretty, and it will be fast," he promises.

Analysis persuaded the owners there is a spot in the competitive boat market for the new Sound Craft Marine 36. Downing believes there are boaters who want a craft that combines the styling, spaciousness, and traditional appeal of a trawler-type design with the speed of a semiplaning yacht.

He believes the use of aluminum is a plus, as well. Aluminum is light, making boats fast. It is strong, enhancing safety, he says. It requires little maintenance, allowing boats to be built for a lifetime of use.

Downing says use of aluminum makes design flexible. He doesn't mean the metal bends, because it doesn't. Flexibility means that it's easier to change plans for a metal boat than for one built of traditional fiberglass.

Because Sound Craft Marine uses computerdesign systems, it is easy to modify a plan. Downing said the Ocean I style (Sea Buggy ) could be quickly modified to convert bunkrooms into luxurious staterooms. Major changes, such as offering covered decks and cockpit, are also easy to achieve.

Computer designs for the aluminum boats are sent to another firm, which uses computer-driven machinery to cut all the plates and structural members for the yachts. The parts are trucked to Sound Craft Marine for assembly and finishing.

Similar changes in a fiberglass production yacht would require costly development of new molds. And it's generally agreed that those high costs somewhat inhibit design development by builders of fiberglass yachts.

In The Water

Cynics in my old journalistic world said never watch sausage-making or democracy in action. To that we might add: Don't watch the rush to get a new boat into the water and under way.

I did watch the launch of Sea Buggy . She arrived on an oversized trailer, and was quickly picked up by a Marine Travelift at LaConner Maritime, and dumped gently into the Swinomish Channel.

There was a sigh of relief when the yacht floated evenly and the design water line looked right. Pete Jepson, principal outfitter for the builder, and who selects and directs installation of mechanical systems, used a big felt pen to mark the upper edge of the bottom paint.

Quickly, the boat was yanked out of the water and blocked up on shore. There was still work to be done, and there were some problems. And there was a rush to complete.

Kirkness placed his order in late September and hoped to have the boat in Sitka by the end of May. His first charter was to begin June 2, right in the heart of the king salmon fishing season. Some owners might have stood by in frustration, but Kirkness maintained a sense of humor and worked long hours himself to help ready the boat.

While shipwrights crowded every space inside the boat with equipment and materials, others puzzled over the main problem: The engines would not start, would not turn over. Apparently the electronic systems on the Volvo engines, ZF transmissions, and Morse engine controls were not communicating. The experts from Volvo soon fixed that, and the engines started easily.

In a few minutes, however, the starboard engine quit. The diagnosis was that air had leaked into the fuel system. The Volvo guys went to work and got it started. It quit again. Someone found a cracked washer on a fuel inlet pipe and shouted, "Here's the problem."

Washer replaced, the engine started. Several of us who had been standing around for hours waiting for the first test run began thinking about boarding. Kirkness was reminded the upholsterer was to deliver boat cushions in a few minutes. "We'll wait," he said.

The starboard engine quit.

It was late in the day, and I gave up and headed for home. So I was not there a few minutes later when someone discovered a closed fuel valve. Soon Sea Buggy was out in Skagit Bay showing her stuff. She roared under the Deception Pass Bridge, her crew not worrying whether the current was flooding or ebbing (owners of true displacement trawlers worry very much about the state of the current in the pass), and then circumnavigated Fidalgo Island.

Fate had me miss that trial, but, for once, fate was good to me. Had I been there for that first run I would not have gone to Bellingham a few days later. And I would have missed the best sea trial of my life.

Under Cover

A few days after Kirkness left Bellingham for Sitka, I dialed his cell phone number. I still had some questions. Olsen, who answered, had been running the boat while Kirkness napped. The owner was happy to roll out of the pilot berth and talk, however.

Over the crackling wireless I learned the one thing we didn't know after our bashing in Bellingham Bay: how the boat would handle in a following sea.

"Oh, this boat," he said. "I tell you what, we had following seas of five to six feet all the way to Port McNeill (on the north end of Vancouver Island, nearly 300 miles north of Bellingham). I never had to slow down, and the autopilot handled it fine. I am amazed at how she handled the water.

"Crossing Queen Charlotte Sound we had beam seas, and they were no problem. I am really impressed with this hull."

While we talked, Sea Buggy was headed into Dixon Entrance, a huge and often tumultuous arm of the Pacific Ocean one must cross to reach Alaska. Kirkness said the throttles had been set on 20 knots since leaving Bellingham, and he didn't plan to slow down for Dixon.

Many would complain that Kirkness was buying too much expensive fuel. Really, though, he is buying time.

His speed cuts the number of days needed to reach southeast Alaska at least in half, compared to trawlers traveling at displacement hull speeds. With paying customers on board, he can zip from rich fishing in Salisbury Sound, near Sitka, to Baranof Hot Springs or the glaciers in Tracy Arm. When the scenery is best in the fjord-like inlet, or humpback whales surface nearby, he can slow to displacement speeds.

Pleasure boaters with insufficient time on their calendars might enjoy the same go fast-go slow cruising. For them, the same investment in fuel buys a lot of time that can be spent sightseeing, fishing, or at anchor in a secluded cove.

The Ocean I from Sound Craft Marine is a niche boat, one that should appeal to cruisers who want to go fast and who want a traditionallooking, comfortable trawler-type yacht as well. She truly is a greyhound in turtle garb.

Oh, yes. Kirkness checked in a couple of days later. His first charter customers were aboard on schedule and Sea Buggy was doing well.

Nothing was said about fishing luck, though.