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BOATS

BOAT TESTS

Rinker 350 Express Cruiser

As I peered down from my motel window into the sloshy, early-morning darkness, noting how deeply the palm trees in the parking lot were bowing to the whims of the wind-driven deluge, it seemed pretty obvious: testing Rinker's new 350 Express Cruiser before nightfall was gonna be challenging, if it was doable at all.

"We'll call 'er off this morning," I told photographer Jeffery Salter, who was peering into the same remnants of Hurricane Ernesto from his own window some miles off, "and start at noon instead."

The suggestion had merit. I'd just finished talking with Jon Paul Thies of Salty Sam's Marine, the Fort Myers Beach, Florida-based Rinker dealership that was making a brand-new 350 available for our wringout. Based on radar images he'd just seen on TV, Thies was theorizing that a brief window of opportunity might manifest itself, possibly between noon and three o'clock. "As long as your radar gun'll work in light rain," he concluded, "things might work out."

Ah, The Weather Channel. When Salter and I arrived at the marina, my watch registered high noon, and the meteorological miasma had indeed eased off. Through the mist, Salter jumped aboard a zippy chase boat with his gear, and I jumped behind our 350's high-fashion, five-way adjustable Isotta wheel and hit the ignition keys. Thies tossed the lines off and hopped aboard. We were off.

I bonded immediately with the big, beefy MerCruiser DTS single-lever control, using it to pivot the 350 at the mouth of the slip. Detents were easy to feel, a state of affairs that obviated glancing down periodically. The action of the levers themselves was silky smooth—no sticky spots—and when I put the Mercs in gear, the response of our Bravo 3's counter-rotating propsets was so instantaneous, directionally accurate, and oomphy, I never bothered with the optional 3-hp Lewmar bow thruster.

Open-water performance on Estero Bay went as smoothly as the dockside maneuvering had, although I wasn't able to gauge rough-water handling, sea conditions having calmed considerably since earlier in the day. Sightlines from the helm were excellent all around, thanks to both the 350's lofty fore-and-aft-adjustable helm seat (with flip-up bolster) and her well-proportioned, express-style configuration. The average top speed of 40.4 mph I recorded was respectable, tracking was arrow-straight, turns were solid (with no prop blowout, chine hopping, or other forms of dicey behavior), and I noted some serious pizazz coming out of the hole despite an electronic glitch in the starboard engine that nixed smooth, uninterrupted acceleration to top end and thus put the kibosh to the acceleration curve PMY normally publishes with boat-test reports.

I returned the 350 to her slip after the wringout, stern first, sans thruster, no sweat. Then, as Thies and I finished up with lines and fenders, the rains roared back just as predicted, dropping heavy gray torrents on our standard-issue Isinglass-encompassed enclosure. The stuff worked like gangbusters: From the Faria instruments on the dash to the nifty WaringPro blender perched atop the cockpit galley's Corian countertop, everything that was above canvas stayed bone dry. "And hey," I enthused while accessing the engine room via a large, electro-hydraulically-actuated hatch in the cockpit. "Machinery's dry, too!"

A single, well-placed, rubber-covered support facilitated my entry into the ER. Headroom between the Mercs, from the engine bearers I stood on to the underside of the hatch while elevated to full travel, was a workable 5'3". Battery firepower was okay, with three units to port (one house and two engine starters) and another to starboard--a starter for the nearby standard soundshield-enclosed, 5-kW Kohler low-CO genset. Double-clamping of hoses was in evidence, above the waterline as well as below. And I gladly noted the presence of vented loops to nix back-siphoning, but also sadly noted a problematic genset seacock: Its mounting flange was well off the bottom of the boat with no ring of plywood or any other material to steady it vertically.

Distant thunder and the steady thrum of rain imparted a certain coziness to the tour of the interior. I especially liked the galley area, just forward of the head (which has a separate shower stall)on the port side; its Formica-surfaced joinery is solid and carefully finished, the bullnosed Corian countertop is done the same way, and the appliances are practically positioned and installed. I also liked the sleeping arrangements--the convertible sofa in the mid-cabin (with 39 inches of sitting headroom) is as comfy as an old deck shoe, and so are the residential-style couch in the saloon and the island berth forward.

My wringout ended the way it began: with rag-tag fragments of Ernesto holding sway. Of course, the good news was we'd actually been able to complete a proper wringout under such messed-up conditions. But there was even better news.

I'd been able to spend a whole afternoon playing with an exceptionally maneuverable, reasonably fast, and succinctly outfitted vessel: Rinker's 350 Express Cruiser. And fortunately I'd brought along a slicker suit for the long, wet walk back to my rental car in the half-drowned parking lot.

Rinker Boats
(574) 457-5731

This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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