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BOATS

BOAT TESTS

Paul Mann 68

Paul Mann and I were just finishing up with a helicopter photo shoot when the Icom IC-602 VHF on the flying bridge crackled to life. "Just hooked up a bigeye...200 pounds or more!" enthused a drawly, disembodied voice, most likely belonging to one of the skippers working out of the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, a neighboring enclave of charter boats. The accent was typical of those who scour the waters of the Outer Banks for fish, both during summer and winter. The boat was east of us apparently, some 40 miles out. And the bigeye hook-up was a startler—offshore fishing was, by all reports we'd heard, terrible at present, primarily due to a recent storm.

Mann gave me a conspiratorial look. It was 9:00 in the morning. We'd actually boat-tested our custom-built Paul Mann 68 the day before, in nearby Roanoke Sound, recording, among other things, a rousing top speed of 44 mph. So I'd come along on the shoot just for grins basically—my flight didn't leave Norfolk, 100 miles to the north, until later that afternoon.

"We could go fishing," Mann suggested, peering questioningly over his sunglasses, "but you'll have to reschedule your flight, Bill—we'll not be back 'til late."

I deployed an eyebrow by way of an answer, a move Mann acknowledged with the mixture of sublimated glee and strategic seriousness that hallmarks true fishermen the world over. The two of us then conferred on our exact destination du jour, plugged some waypoints into the Northstar 952 GPS plotter on the dash, and agreed that the total lack of food on the boat—except for a bag of doughnuts we'd snagged at Pirate's Cove Marina that morning—was of little consequence. As Mann started down the ladder into the cockpit to rig baits, he admonished, only half jokingly, "I'll be down here for an hour or so...don't hit no boxes, boards, or big turtles!"

I throttled the 68's 1,550-hp Caterpillar C30 diesels up to 2000 rpm (rather sportily, I might add) and swung a broad arc that simultaneously put us on course and on plane. Acceleration was bullet-fast, particularly for a stoutly constructed, 65,000-pound plank-on-frame wooden vessel. Within 20 seconds we were doing 35 mph across a seemingly smooth expanse of two- to four-foot head seas glittering like diamonds in the morning sun. Whoooooeeeeeee!

I began playing with the Release Palm Beach-style wheel in my hands, gauging the boat's responsiveness. Indeed, engine-driven, power-assist hydraulics produce the type of superb steering control that's quantifiable in one sense at least—there were three turns lock to lock on the Release, instead of the seven or eight turns commonly associated with unassisted systems. And the whopping size of the 68's rudders, coupled with a hull form that runs prouder as speed over the ground increases, made for handling characteristics that were flat-out thrilling. At one point in the jaunt, I encountered a dicey sprinkling of pulp logs that most likely had fallen off a storm-tossed freighter. Safely negotiating the mess was like joy-driving a Maserati MC12 through an obstacle course.

Unfortunately, the tuna fishing was lackluster by comparison. Once we'd settled into full, bigeye mode, I sat in the cockpit's shady, air-conditioned mezzanine area mostly, watching an earnest assortment of live baits, teasers, and artificial arrays, while Mann conned the 68 from the flying bridge, now and again commiserating via VHF with nearby skippers, some of whom were operating boats he'd built for them years before. We trolled...and trolled...and trolled, with nary a whiff of luck. Eventually, I lapsed into a mental review of what I'd seen of the 68 the day before.

Fit and finish came up first. For years now, South Florida builders of custom sportfishing vessels have had an arguable lock on exquisitely detailed joinery—North Carolina builders built great sea boats, but their detailing was not quite up to snuff by Florida standards. This state of affairs may be changing, however, if the tour I'd taken of our 68's three-stateroom, three-head interior is a reliable guide. Hand-picked cherry veneers, book-matched and sequenced from right to left, overhead to sole; expertly milled, miterless corners in the cabinetry; soles with half-inch solid cherry planks and strips of maple, all precisely chamfered on the edges; and Izit Leather-covered settees hand-crafted by VanBrunt Upholstery of Wanchese, North Carolina. The detailing I saw was not just custom, it was artisanal-grade.

Engineering was the other big-time subject I contemplated. Mann grew up working Carolina charter boats out of Oregon Inlet, eventually running his own vessels and then building others for customers and friends. If ever there was a hands-on CEO with practicality as a priority, he's it. "If I can't get both my hands on a pump in an engine room or pull an engine if I need to," he says, "then somethin's wrong." In line with this thinking, I encountered a raft of sagacious features in the 68's machinery spaces, including the installation of easy-to-access filters on all raw-water intakes; the use of seachests to obviate through-hulls; the juxtaposition of ancillaries for redundancy's sake (like the robust Headhunter StingRay and Mach5 pumps shelved on the forward firewall so one pump can take over for the other should a breakdown occur); and the contrivance of a general working environment that's mechanic-friendly—I counted nine lights overhead in the engine room and am constrained to remark on the extra-excellent access to the mains, both inboard and outboard, fore and aft.

After trolling unsuccessfully for five hours, Mann and I decided to bag it. Although we were the last diehards to leave the field of battle, we were among the first to get home. But then, what else would you expect from an expertly finished custom battlewagon, with meat-eatin' firepower and a running surface that's slicker than a greased porpoise?

"Put 'er on autopilot...relax a little," said Mann as I swept past my fourth charter boat.

"Nah," I replied, "steerin' this baby's just too dang much fun to quit."

Paul Mann Custom Boats
(252) 473-1716

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

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