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BOAT TESTS

Hampton 540 Sedan

Like so many industries these days, yacht building in China has entered a new era. While cheap labor and beneficial exchange rates have kept prices low, quality has improved markedly over the past decade as experienced Taiwanese builders have shifted many of their operations to the mainland. Typical of this trend is Hampton Yachts, established along the outskirts of Shanghai in 1992 and built on a legacy that spans more than 40 years of yacht building in Taiwan. But although Hampton's origins may have followed a familiar path, its philosophy is akin to the road less traveled.

During a recent sea trial of Hampton's 540 Sedan, I got some insight into the thinking that sets this Asian builder apart, courtesy of Capt. Forest Roberts of Anchor Yacht Sales, the East Coast distributor for Hampton Yachts. One of the yacht's most telling features is her optional equipment list—or, I should say, the brevity of that list. Her only options are canvas, a tender and davit, teak trim, a stern thruster, more powerful engines, and electronic controls. Hampton hews to the belief that whatever you might need in a cruising yacht should be included in her standard equipment and pricing. No sticker shock going out the door—just a very attractive price for a well-equipped yacht.

But price is just the beginning of what the 540 has to offer. The yacht made her first favorable impression with me even before I stepped aboard. Forest had arranged to pick me up at Pier 66 marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Despite stiff crosswinds, he sidled the brawny 540 up to the inside fuel dock for a deft touch-and-go boarding, nimble as a ballerina. But a moment later, the dancer morphed into a fullback as the optional 660-hp Cummins diesels spun up and we barreled out of the inlet, ready to put the yacht through her paces offshore.

A stiff northeasterly wind had kicked up seas of three to four feet, punctuated with occasional five- to six-foot rollers. But the 540 took it all in stride, pushing the waves aside with ease. Thanks to her deep forefoot and fine entry, I couldn't make her slam, even in head seas. And her high bulwarks and generous spray knocker kept her decks bone dry. In beam seas, her Wesmar stabilizers all but eliminated roll motion. Even at slow speeds or with the stabilizers turned off, her hard-chine hull exhibited excellent roll behavior.

Thankfully, the standard Stratoglass flying-bridge enclosure offered protection from the wind along with unimpeded visibility. Three overhead vents in the hardtop can bring in fresh air above the helm seat and two flanking companion seats, but since the air temperature on test day was mild, we simply unzipped a forward panel for ventilation. Had the sun been hotter, we might have opted to enjoy the standard dual 16,000-Btu flying-bridge air-conditioning units.

Back inside the Fort Lauderdale inlet, I learned to appreciate the virtues of the 540's Cummins C-cruise electronic engine controls. Not only do they provide digital readouts of vital engine data, the C-cruise controls can perform four other useful functions: engine synchronization, cruise control (allowing several preset rpm levels), slow idle (dropping from 650 to 540 rpm), and a nifty rpm jog feature that lets you tweak the engine speed up or down in 20-rpm increments without moving the throttle. The latter two features proved to be especially valuable as we made our way up the length of the New River, a narrow and twisting channel lined on both sides with large and expensive motoryachts. It was the perfect place to demonstrate the yacht's excellent low-speed maneuverability, even while cruising super-slow on one engine.

As we played dodge-'em with the outbound traffic along the river, Forest expounded on the concept of redundancy, another of Hampton Yachts' guiding principles. For example, on the bridge there's a Raymarine C120 GPS/plotter along with a C80 depthsounder. But there's also a dual GPS antenna that can feed either unit, so if one fails, the other can act as a backup. Plus a redundant engine-coolant alarm, dual air-conditioning pumps, dual depthsounders, and dual Racor fuel-water separators. You get the idea. Apparently Hampton also hews to the notion that everything you really need in a cruising yacht should be provided in duplicate.

Once we were dockside, I made a thorough inspection of the yacht's interior. What struck me first was the roominess of her saloon, galley, and dinette spaces; free of bulkheads, steps, and other distractions, and surrounded by large windows all around, she was big, bright, and inviting. Granted, owners deciding to get an optional lower helm station would have to sacrifice a bit of interior space, but with the yacht's enclosed, climate-controlled flying bridge, buyers will probably opt for the standard single station layout our test boat offered.

Notwithstanding the yacht's attractive price, there's no shortage of amenities. Included in her lengthy list of standard features is a Bose sound system and three LCD TVs, including a hideaway 32-inch HDTV in the saloon. A chilled-water air-conditioning system offers climate control throughout the yacht, and there's even a self-contained, 16,000-Btu air conditioning unit in the engine room.

Workmanship was generally excellent, with makore joinery and burl inlays finished to a high gloss. I did notice an area near the entertainment center where the finish was not up to snuff, and some of the under-counter detailing was a bit rough. But on the plus side, there were lots of clever touches, like the dinette table top that slides out to make seating easier. I also liked the custom door panels on the refrigerator/freezer, with latches stout enough for yacht service, but otherwise a standard household unit that can be serviced anywhere in the world.

Ah, yes. Serviceability. Another dimension of the Hampton philosophy, Forest explained. All joinery is modeled in a 3-D CAD system and then cut and assembled in dedicated shop facilities with a numerical template for each part. Not only does this produce a better, more consistent fit, it also gives the yard the ability to fabricate identical replacement parts.

Nowhere is that emphasis on serviceability more apparent than in the engine room, one of the roomiest I've ever seen on a yacht this size. Her generous hull depth allows near six-foot headroom, but what really impressed me was how much space there is surrounding the big Cummins diesels. Contortion-free access to all four sides and the top of both engines means that it will be easy to check fluids and change filters. Through-hulls, strainers, and fuel-water separators are all mounted out in the open for easy checking and maintenance, and all fuel and water tanks are fitted with calibrated sight gauges.

With her many quality features, the Hampton 540 Sedan is a great value. She also represents a welcome philosophy: an emphasis on serviceability and redundancy along with full amenities, all standard, of course.

Hampton Yachts
(954) 673-6300

This article originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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