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BOATS

BOAT TESTS

Formula 47

Marco Island's a pricey place. High-end homes. High-end condos. High-end mercantile establishments. So as I pulled into Walker's Marine & Yacht Sales hunting a parking spot, I was not at all surprised at the prevailing ambiance, which was about as tres riche as South Florida gets. A pavilion with tall, white pillars graced the entrance. A profusion of huge, sparkling windows virtually covered the sides. And a lofty cupola surmounted all, rounding out a vision of solid, palm-shady affluence.

It made sense, I told myself. If there was a better spot on the planet to represent the Formula 47 Yacht, the latest addition to a line of highly styled, solidly engineered boats from Thunderbird Products of Decatur, Indiana, I could not think of it. Formulas are upper-crusty vessels, for reasons that are often obvious, even to the uninitiated. And Walker's Marine looked rather upper-crusty, too.

I found the 47 out back, gently rocking in her slip, her aquiline bow pointed toward open water. She had Formula's signature hybrid look. On the one hand, there was a certain raciness about her, undoubtedly influenced by an offshore racing program that Thunderbird's nurtured for years and continues to today with both capital and employee expertise. But on the other hand, it was also quite clear that, for the 47 project, button-down good taste and styling continuity had been big-time priorities for John Adams, Thunderbird's only designer since the '70s.

I studied the transom briefly. There was little evidence of a running-surface feature that had captured my attention at a boat show months before. It was hidden beneath the Latham hydraulic swim platform, which is expansive enough to accommodate a dinghy or PWC. The point of the thing, Adams had explained to me at the time, was to boost buoyancy aft, to support the weight of both a large, midcabin-type stateroom and a set of heavy V-drive diesel powerplants at the stern, as well as to make up for the buoyancy lost to two sizeable prop tunnels. To accomplish these ends, Adams had said he'd added a reverse shear to the 47's transom, extending the running surface. Moreover, he'd told me he was working on a souped-up version of the 47 (which will likely debut in a couple of months), a more performance-oriented model with an extra-gutsy, foam-filled structural grid inside and even more stretch in the running surface to accommodate extra-heavy, extra-powerful diesels.

A Walker's Marine rep was waiting in the cockpit as I stepped aboard. After a brief confab, I got behind the wheel, fired up our two 480-hp Volvo Penta TAMD 75Ps, and eased the test boat out of her slip toward the Marco River. It was a gorgeous, blue-sky day.

And a gorgeous boat. Instruments and electronics were installed race-boat style, with all primary data sources viewable at a glance. Bennett trim tab controls and indicators were stacked to the right, right in there with the Volvo Penta electronic controls. The Raymarine chartplotter was just left of center, where it was easy to see and reach. Other essentials, like the Raymarine Tridata (with big, easy-to-read numbers for depth, speed, and water temperature) and autopilot and electronic engine readouts, were arranged with equal forethought, just above the adjustable Dino wheel.

Ergonomics were excellent. The curved-glass windshield was high enough to actually do some good. The double-wide helm seat, with adjoining fold-up bolsters, was cushy. And although the 47 maintained a rather lofty running attitude of six degrees while on plane without tabs, visibility forward, with my butt against the bolster, was fine. Of course, I was able to cut the attitude to three or four degrees with just a few clicks of the tab rockers, a move that had little effect on speed.

Whooping around in open water was a blast, although a near-flat-calm sea obviated a rough-water wringout. I recorded an average top speed of 32.2 mph, which was respectable, considering our test boat's hefty displacement and comparatively small powerplants. The turning radius was tight for an inboard/tunnel configuration, and prop blowout was nonexistent, even with the wheel hardover. Additionally, the boat felt solid and reassuring while moving across the water, a characteristic of most Formulas I've test driven over the years.

Solidity was also on my mind while doing a dockside walk-through after our return to Walker's. I concentrated on three important facets of boatbuilding rather than the express-style layout of our test boat, which was pretty straightforward stuff, with a master stateroom forward, a VIP aft with convertible lounges for sleeping, and a saloon/galley area in between.

Construction came first. Whether I was counting freshwater pumps through a hatch in the saloon sole--Thunderbird installs two biggies instead of just one--or examining the sequential book-matching of veneers on bulkheads and cabinetry, all the details of construction I came across were gratifying. The hull-to-deck joint was chemically bonded with Plexus adhesive and then, in belt-and-suspenders fashion, bolted through backing plates. Laminates were both tough and flawlessly surfaced, thanks to the Ashland AME 5000 modified-epoxy resin that's used throughout. And structural support came not only from a matrix of Perma Panel, a decay-resistant wood product that's encapsulated in resin and then laminated into the hull, but from pultrusions (chemically bonded fiberglass stiffeners under engines and along gunwales) and bulkheads circumscribed by glass bonding.

Engineering was the next facet I focused on. For starters, getting into the 47's machinery spaces was easy, whether I lifted the cockpit sole via motorized actuators or just dropped through the dayhatch. In either case, elbowroom was plentiful, with 2'8" between the engines and 4'10" from deck to overhead with the sole in place. Standard-issue essentials included a 12.6-kW Westerbeke genset, duplex Racors for each main, a 29,000-Btu Marine Air air-conditioning system, and an oil X-Change-R system. The 47's an expensive boat, but the standards list is long.

My last facet--fit and finish--was the flashiest. Galley drawers were superfine--comprised of solid, clear-grained maple with dove-tailed joints and glossy American cherry facades. Satin-nickel door hardware and other fixtures were equally sweet--the stuff was beautiful and beautifully installed. And the upholstery was thick, supple Ultraleather, with full-grain leather as an option. It's no wonder Formula's known for the sculpted look of its lounges, both below decks and topside.

As I began packing up the test gear at the end of the walk-through, it occurred to me that I'd failed to check out one critical component onboard--the whopping entertainment system. So I dialed up some tunes on the Kenwood and kicked back for just a teensy bit.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh. If Walker's Marine was the perfect place to crank up a test on the stylish, savvily engineered Formula 47 Yacht, then Mr. Buffet's "A Pirate Looks At Forty" (at 98 dB-A) was the perfect way to end it.

Thunderbird Products
(800) 736-7685

This article originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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