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BOATS

BOAT TESTS

Africat 420

Nearing the end of the Port Everglades breakwater off Fort Lauderdale, our Africat 420 was making about 12 mph. Noting the two- to four-foot seas rolling in from the southeast, I placed my right hand firmly around a nearby stanchion and waited for the jolts that would splatter my new cup of coffee onto the dual Raymarine E120 chartplotters and Volvo Penta IPS joystick. I decided I'd better grab it with my left hand, too.

But as the boat met the first swell, my coffee stayed put. The 420 glided right though them. Taken aback, I asked Richard Ford, founder of Africat Marine US, why the lack of slam. He respond by crediting a centerline V-shape wedge that runs the length of the cabin, which splits the impact of the waves and diffuses them against the curved sponsons.

As we continued to plow through the waves, I also noticed that our boat never "sneezed," a condition unique to catamarans that occurs when the aft end of the tunnel is closed off by a swell and the resulting buildup of pressure inside the tunnel blows mist forward, through the bow opening and up onto the decks and house. Running with a quartering sea, the 420 did yaw off a few degrees, not uncommon in a catamaran under these conditions. After I'd taken the wheel, I brought her to a full stop. With one engine in forward and the other in reverse, I was able to easily spin her within her own length, a dividend of the catamaran's widely spaced engines and propellers.

After running her hard outside, I took the 420 back inside to practice some touch-and-go docking with the IPS joystick. I switched control of the joystick from the lower helm to the upper, although I probably didn't have to. While the upper station does offer better sightlines forward and to either side, sightlines aft are obscured by the bridge overhang. Africat's solution for this is an IPS control on the starboard side of the cockpit, which allows the helmsman fine sightlines for a stern-to or starboard-side tie.

After effortlessly docking the 420 a few times, I climbed down to the cockpit, where to my surprise my bare feet felt not teak but cork. According to Ford, the builder opted for this Marinedeck 2000 cork floor for three main reasons: Unlike teak, no oiling or aciding is required to renew the appearance; stain removal is relatively simple due to its nonporous nature; and best of all, it doesn't reach the foot-burning temperatures of sun-exposed hardwoods. The flooring covers the entire 22-foot-wide cockpit, including a porch-like outcropping in the center of the transom—a strange use of the space that catamarans commonly dedicate to davits for a tender.

Stepping under the 6'8"-high bridge overhang, I folded open the aluminum saloon doors and walked inside. To starboard was a galley full of appliances that Africat purchases in the United States and elsewhere and then ships to its factory in Durban, South Africa: a two-burner propane stove, Magic Chef microwave, and matching Coolmatic 'fridge and freezer. I also found dedicated pot and pan stowage with optional cherry-trimmed shelving and, on the overhead facing forward, a 40-inch Samsung flat-screen TV.

Anticipating the possibility that a lot of these boats will end up in Florida and the Caribbean, Africat fitted her with not only six deck hatches but a 32,000-Btu Technicold air-conditioning system. In addition, a cherry-paneled windlass-access hatch under the three-panel saloon windshield is designed to keep those sitting at the C-shape settee cool. Remove the top of its table and stow it under the master-stateroom mattress, and you have a miniature coffee table.

The port side of this settee also acts as a helm chair, a rather curious way of creating a lower helm station. Here the electrical distribution panels are readily accessible, beside a Raymarine E120 display and SmartController Autopilot and remote-control panels for the Onan E Series genset and Village Marine Tec watermaker. Once you get used to the seat, the only problem with this helm station is the glare from the steeply angled surface beneath the windshield. Fortunately, you'll be running this boat from the bridge most of the time.

But even as I sat at this helm, my mind was elsewhere. In my experience on most catamarans, stepping from the saloon down into the sponsons is akin to spelunking: They're usually dark and and the staterooms in them cramped. The 420's sleeping accommodations are limited by the size of the sponsons, but the aforementioned six hatches admit plenty of light, which helps. The actual use of this space depends on which sponson you enter. On the starboard side, a sliding door at the foot of the saloon steps creates a private owner's suite. Aft, there's a 6'9"x5'5" American-made Zeno mattress that can fold in half—a feature I'll explain shortly. Forward is the head, which is more spacious than those I've seen on vessels 20 feet longer.

Down the port stairwell the guest cabins are more typical of a catamaran or perhaps a monohull sailboat. In the aft cabin, the overhead above the berth drops but not so much that you'd bang your head if you suddenly sat up. As I stepped up, the fiberglass flexed a little due to the drawer underneath, a fact that Ford noted as well: "We could have used a heavier laminate [here]."

This detail aside, the Africat seemed a well-engineered vessel, an impression that was reinforced when I looked into the starboard engine room. Everything—the Technicold chillers, Village Marine Tec watermaker, dual Racor fuel-water separators, and EVC IPS control interface boxes—was well positioned for easy access. When I pointed out to Ford that the only way to reach the oil filter would be to lay across the engine block, he took me down to the master stateroom, where after removing that folding mattress, he lifted out the panels underneath. Voila! Great inboard engine access. On the port side, I found the Onan genset blocked access to the engine, but Ford informed me that on future boats the genset will rotate to allow plenty of room for maintenance.

That's a good thing, because easy maintenance is important, whether a boat is owner-operated or chartered, which I suspect many Africats will be. Either way, the 420's enormous saloon, superb ventilation, easy maneuverability, and shallow draft give her all the makings of a great Caribbean cruising powerboat—and that's a plus even if you never leave the States.

For more information on Africat Marine, including contact information, click here.

I found this little white box tucked up underneath the Africat's flying-bridge console. This Syrens EC-HP (High Power) Onboard WiFi/router broadcasts with the strongest signal the FCC allows, and although its 1 watt may not seem like much (it's the same power you should use for close-quarter VHF broadcasts), Syrens states that it's enough to pick up hotspots up to ten miles away. Think of cruising up the coastline and logging on at a beach-side Starbucks with enough power to use Skype for VoIP calls. With the EC-HP, you won't have to pay satellite fees, and you'll have a built-in wireless router for your whole boat.—G.R.

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.