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BOATS

BOAT TESTS

Island Pilot 395

Stern drives—you either love 'em or hate 'em. It seems there's no middle ground. Those who love 'em cite the I/O's superior handling, performance, and space-efficiency compared to straight inboards. Those who hate 'em deride all that machinery housed in aluminum hanging off the transom. Stern drives are fine for small boats that are trailered, they say, or if they can be tilted clear of the water. But for saltwater cruising boats, give them a bronze-and-stainless steel inboard any day.

Such opinions are so ingrained, probably no single boat will change many minds. But if one can, it's the Island Pilot 395. I'm prejudiced against I/Os on larger saltwater boats, but after a day aboard this 39'6" cruiser, I had to reconsider. Powered by twin 350-hp Volvo Penta diesel DuoProps, she hit 39 mph while managing about 1 mpg or better throughout the operating range. Moreover, sound levels were moderate, and the amount of stowage space was what I'd expect on a 60-footer, both thanks to stern drives.

If those numbers don't impress you, try this one: Base price is $439,500. So is price as tested. That's right, there are no options because anything you'd want is standard, including two Raymarine E120s (one for each helm station), satellite TV, Bose home theater system, three LCD TVs, bow thruster, AGM batteries, washer/dryer, genset, inverter, air conditioning, RIB with outboard, crane, and watermaker. If there's any 40-footer that can compete with that list at that price, I don't know about it.

How do they do it? Mainly by building in mainland China where labor is cheap. What's the downside? Beats me. Our boat's build quality was not only good, it was better than the average Hull No. 1. The laminate appeared to be well executed, with generous mat overlaps in high-stress areas and no exposed raw edges, and the cherry joinery was well crafted and well finished. Both plumbing (fuel lines are solid copper) and electrical systems seemed to be thoughtfully engineered and executed—equal to most domestic boats and superior to some. The quality of the exterior gelcoat was good—not a flaw in the standard blue hull—although I didn't care for the mild nonskid pattern.

But as impressive as all this is, it won't mean a thing if boaters don't like the looks of the 395. Her profile is different, purportedly inspired by pilot boats that must go out in all weather. I don't quite get the resemblance, except for her high foredeck. And where pilot boats typically have low centers of gravity, the Island Pilot looks tall, surprising since tenderness is often cited as an argument against stern drives. (She's not tender.) She is practical, however. Her foredeck is flat and easily accessed by wide side decks, and high, sturdy rails surround her. Add port and starboard bridge doors, and you've got a cruiser that can be easily and safely worked by a couple. They'll appreciate a cockpit long enough (5'10") to hold a small dining set and protected by either a hard or soft top. There's no full-beam swim platform, just two large, molded-in centerline steps.

Beneath the cockpit is a big argument for stern drives. Since the engines are up against the transom, much of the eight-foot-long space is available for other things, like the standard genset. Three side-by-side hatches provide full-beam access; you could easily pull both engines, yet you'd never need to, because once you step down inside, you have 2'4" between the motors and on each side. Since there's no exhaust plumbing and no main engine-intake strainers (both water and exhaust go through the drives), the D-350s really look lost. The genset strainer and Racors are right in front of you. The only thing out of place is the manual bilge pump: It should be up in the cockpit.

Because the engines require more vertical space, it's a foot down into the saloon, which, like the rest of the interior, has a teak and holly sole. Beneath, in what would normally be the engine room, are the holding tank, watermaker, A/C plumbing, and inverter batteries, and there's still room for lots of bulky gear like nonfolding bikes. Despite the starboard lower helm station forward, the saloon is plenty roomy for two and has a convertible sofa for visitors. It's also bright, with nonopening windows everywhere, including a three-pane windshield. Two opening ports above the windshield provide some ventilation when you don't want to run the standard air conditioning. They have screens, but there are none for the three doors.

The lower helm is high enough to provide good sightlines over the foredeck; views to the sides and aft are about as good as it gets from a lower station. For maximum visibility, use the upper station, accessible via the cockpit ladder. Four steps down, the head, with separate shower and VacuFlush MSD, is to port, just past the 14.6-cubic-foot Toshiba refrigerator. The galley and dinette are to starboard; no bulkhead separates them from the helm, so cookers and eaters can commune with the helmsman, another boon for couples. The master, with queen-size island berth and port and starboard hanging lockers, is forward. It houses the breaker for the Maxwell windlass, which should be relocated to the helm.

By now, those of you not entirely closed-minded must wonder how this boat drives. The answer is about like a 32-foot runabout. Since stern drives direct prop thrust instead of deflecting it off rudders, helm response is quicker and turning radius tighter—about two boat lengths at cruising speed. Being able to trim the drives down means quick planing and the ability to hold the boat on plane down to 1400 rpm. I did note the odor of diesel exhaust in the cockpit at cruising speed and couldn't work the props against each other as well as I can with inboards, but the bow thruster renders that difference moot.

A lot of you are probably asking, what if you hit something? The drives are designed to kick up on impact, so you could actually end up with less damage than with inboards. Corrosion is a concern, requiring regular attention to zincs, as with inboards, plus you'll need to monitor the drives for damage to their protective paint. And stern drives typically attract more marine growth than inboards, although that can be ameliorated with special antifouling paint.

Whether all this intrigues you enough to actually check out an Island Pilot probably depends on your opinion of stern drives. And while a ride aboard her might not change your mind, I guarantee that unless you're blind, it'll open your eyes.

Island Pilot
(888) 443-2965

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