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BOATS

BOAT TESTS

Birchwood 350

It’s hard for a newcomer to make a mark in an arena dominated by key players who have been around for years. This is particularly true in boatbuilding, where some of the most successful players are often veterans who continuously refine an established product, as opposed to creating something really new and different. While a formula for success, that can rob buyers of the chance to try something truly unusual.

If you’re in the market for something really different, you might consider the 350 from Birchwood, a newcomer to the United States market that’s been building boats for Europeans for more than 40 years. Stateside rep Tami Abruzese of Abruzese Yacht Sales says the boats are designed to compete with some of the most well-established names in the U.S. cruising market, but after testing Hull No. 1, I can tell you that the 350 is also noticeably different from them.

My experience with the 350 was a two-day affair. The Northeast was being hit with the remnants of Tropical Storm Cindy, and the torrential rains and high winds had Long Island Sound white-capped and messy, with solid eight-foot seas and an occasional nine- or ten-footer thrown in the mix. So we decided to reschedule running the performance numbers for the following week.

But that day wasn’t all lost, as I spent substantial time inspecting the 350’s interior and exterior assets. In fact, looking back, the quirkiness plaguing that day seems perfectly fitting on a boat that was intentionally designed to be a little bit quirky, at least compared to your typical 35-foot cruiser.

Consider, for example, her raised, centerline helm. Although the 350 looks like an express cruiser, her helm was only about three feet lower than those on the flying-bridge models next to my test boat. Consequently, sightlines were excellent all around, and considering I stand just a little more than five feet tall, that’s saying a lot. Another quirk is the helm seat, which is plenty big for one adult but not big enough for two to sit comfortably. There’s a sunpad to starboard of that (and another, ten-foot-long one on the bow), but accessing it is not easy, as it’s the same height as the helm station; thus, either you have to hop up a few feet from the cockpit sole, or the captain has to vacate his/her seat at the helm to allow you to pass through.

In any case, there are plenty of other places for family and friends to sit and enjoy being on the water. In the cockpit there’s an unusual circular seating area (with removable table) that can seat at least six comfortably. It’d be a great place to enjoy lunch or cocktails while at anchor or dockside. But all that seating space does have its price; there were five people onboard on test day, and it was a little tight passing each other, particularly between the helm area and cockpit seating area and when heading below decks. Birchwood tells me it plans to reduce the size of the circular seat by about 15 inches to ease this problem. In the cockpit there’s also a wet bar and a teak swim platform with built-in ladder and room for a tender. It’s accessible via an 18-inch-wide transom door, which although secured by a stainless steel latch, popped open in the rough seas.

Below decks, things are even more unusual. My test boat, measuring nearly 37 feet LOA, featured just one stateroom where most bridge boats in this size range would have two and occasionally three. The stateroom itself is more in keeping with staterooms I’ve seen on boats in the 40-foot size range. It features a walkaround queen island berth, 6’2” headroom, a hanging locker, plus a vanity. It’s a good size for a mid-30s boat. But, more importantly, this nontraditional layout, combined with the 11’4” beam, allows for a roomy saloon featuring a U-shape dinette to starboard that converts to a double berth and an L-shape seating area to port; both areas are flanked by overhead windows and ports (four in total) that flood the saloon with light. This layout pushes the galley all the way aft and to port of the cockpit stairs. It’s an uncommon location, but it works, as it allows for the extra seating space in the saloon, handy if you enjoy entertaining aboard. (Another version gives owners the option to lose the L-shape seating area and move the galley there in favor of gaining a second stateroom with twin bunks, for kids.)

The galley is U-shape, features a porthole above the cherry cabinets, and has a clever hatch for ventilation that unfortunately opens into the cockpit, so it could result in bruised shins if you’re not careful. Headroom in the galley, saloon, and the head is superb--in excess of six feet and close to seven feet in some areas. In fact, the only place I could find where headroom was lacking--even for me--was in her engine space (accessible via the cockpit sole), which is definitely a crawl space. All routine service points are easily accessible, but if you needed to tend to anything located on the outboard side of the engines, you’d have a difficult time.

There was nothing quirky about the 350’s performance. She shined on the flat-calm water of Long Island Sound when I went back for round two of the test the following week. Powered by twin 285-hp Volvo Penta diesel stern drives, our test boat managed an average top speed of 41.4 mph. She also handled the figure-eight and 180-degree turns smoothly and with nary a drop in speed. Time to WOT was quick (less than 40 seconds), as was time to plane, and sound levels were reasonable, even without the canvas: just 81 dB-A at WOT (65 is normal conversation).

With generous seating, amenities, speed, and handling, the Birchwood 350 is sure to be a cruisers’ delight. She’s not your average 35-foot express cruiser, but her quirky elements make her a good choice as a weekender or day boat for a couple, or a couple that occasionally cruises with friends or small children. And while she may be a newcomer, her unusual design makes her a good bet to succeed.

Birchwood USA
(877) 906-1212

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