Sea Ray 540 SundancerBy Capt. Grant Rafter
n the bigger scheme of things, 2005 doesn’t seem like very long ago. But four years in the pleasure-boating industry brings lots of change: an influx of European styling, upgraded electronics, and most importantly, the introduction and meteoric rise of pod drives. With all the advances piling up, it’s not that big of a surprise that Sea Ray decided to replace its 52 Sundancer. After all, it had recently come out with its 48 and 55 Sundancers and a 540 would fill the gap in that size range. And this boat does so while incorporating plenty of improvements over her predecessor.
The 540’s Zeus drives are the most prominent au courant feature and were promptly tasked as Sea Ray company captain Tom Donnelly maneuvered our boat through a slender passage in the mangroves out to open water. I stood on the port side deck staring downward, watching the wake break against the rough limestone, just feet from the 540’s gently flared hull (more so than the 52’s) with its 4'2" draft. We edged forward. Then as we entered the fairway, Donnelly used the joystick to quickly spin the vessel in her own length, and we began our cruise downstream.
It was one of those Florida winter days when you’re forced to break out something more than a T-shirt. The air temperature of 50 degrees would have had me shivering were it not for my parka (I’d flown in from New York the night before) and a steady blast of heat from the Cruisair reverse-cycle air conditioner topside. And besides, the 540 had something the 52 did not: a fully enclosed helm area. On warmer days, electric windows on either side lift about a foot, as does the center windshield panel, letting fresh air circulate. If that weren’t enough, the retractable sunroof—which contains four glass panels—can also ventilate the helm. But not on this morning. We tested all of them to make sure they worked properly, then buttoned them closed.
Heading down the Indian River alongside Merritt Island, I was eager to see what other differences Zeus would make on the 54'9" Sundancer. I knew that Sea Ray had already tried out the system on its 38 and 44 Sundancers, but I figured that this would be a more refined ride than either of them. What I wasn’t ready for, however, was exactly how well this considerably bigger boat would handle. I pushed the electronic controls all the way forward until the 540 reached her top speed of nearly 36 mph, which took about 25 seconds. The 600-hp Cummins MerCruiser QSC 8.3s purred along, creating a moderate reading of 83 dB-A. I began a slow, slalom-style run down the four-boat-length-wide channel, turning the boat gently to port then back to starboard. The resistance on the wheel was perfect: enough to keep her tracking straight when I took my hands off it yet light enough to make her 47,000 pounds come around with about the same effort it takes to maneuver a big SUV.
“I’m gonna slow her down to see how she handles a hard-over turn,” I told Donnelly. He looked at me, the corners of his eyes slightly raised, his brow furrowed with curiosity. “Why?”
At first I thought I’d misunderstood, but he continued, “No need to slow down. Go ahead. Hard over.” I shrugged and, still a bit hesitant about executing the turn at this speed without leaving the boundaries of the narrow channel and ending up in the flats, commenced an only slightly more prudent Williamson turn.
To my surprise (and relief), the 540 not only U-turned within 21⁄2 boat lengths, she did so smoothly and without creating enough centripetal force to fling either gear or people across the helm station. I proceeded to execute the same maneuver over and over again, watching the boat slow to 2500 rpm (24 mph), spin around with no perceptible slippage, and accelerate back up to top speed in the opposite direction.
At slow speeds, she handled with equal poise. I headed north (upwind) and attempted to lay the 540 along an invisible line between two channel markers using just her electronic controls. I got her into position with a few gentle bumps of the levers, fore and aft, though it did take some concentration. When I switched over to the Zeus joystick all hesitation disappeared. She walked sideways into the 10-mph breeze and responded smoothly to all helm input. The low-end torque steer I’d noted on some other Zeus boats was non-existent. This was exactly the right amount of power for this size boat.
Of course, no pod drive comes without some sacrifices. When I took a look at the engine room layout, I found it functional, if a bit quirky. For starters, the Racors are on the aft engine room bulkhead (see photo, page 57), and checking them requires hunching down and leaning over the motor for the swim platform’s hydraulics. This is also the position required to sight the Groco seawater strainers for the mains, which are bolted to the aft side of a transversal. To port are a pair of large drums for the Cablemasters, but there’s room to get by them, so refilling the hydraulic fluid on the port pod drive shouldn’t be too difficult. So, except for the outboard side of the starboard engine, which is blocked by a lengthy black-water tank, I had access to the entire engine room, including all the key maintenance points.
Inside, however, the living spaces are intuitively laid out and spacious. Saloon overheads are a generous 7'1" above the standard hardwood flooring. There’s an instantly recognizable European flavor, with dark cherrywood and sharp angles. All joinery is built, finished, and edge-banded at Sea Ray’s Cape Canaveral facility just up the road, and future models will be available with high-gloss light and dark cherry, matte cherry, or rift-cut white oak. And the wood is given Sea Ray’s “Cypress Treatment,” which denotes the company’s proprietary machined gloss finish and has nothing to do with the swamp vegetation. Shoji screen doors, like those that used by Mochi Craft, are made from cherrywood as well (done with frosted acrylic panes instead of rice paper). Unlike the 52’s layout, the king-size berth in the master runs athwartships and you can walk around both sides.
On deck are more enhancements. “We wanted to keep the open space of the 52 Dancer’s cockpit, but improve upon it,” explained program manager Nate Hutchins. One example is the company’s trademark swiveling helm chairs. They lock in three positions: forward facing for driving, facing starboard for cocktails with guests, and facing aft for large parties. But it’s the tricks in the L-shape settee aft that I found particularly smart. The first is so simple, it’s strange not to see it more often: The seat cushions are attached on gull-wing-style hinges that move outward as you lift them up. This way, you don’t have to mess with a separate panel or fear losing a cushion. The other interesting feature here is the settee’s backrests: They open outward to allow folks to fully stretch out on the sunpad.
These components make the boat more versatile and better suited to entertaining. The Zeus drives do the same thing—who wouldn’t be entertained by her high-speed, hard-over turns? And despite my reservations, the engine room is more functional than other pod-drive boats I’ve tested. There’s a reason Sea Ray’s Sundancers have been around for years. The company starts with a solid product and tweaks it with every rendition. I can’t imagine what they’ll do with the 540 in four more years.
Talk about top of the line equipment: My test boat came decked out with Raymarine’s G-Series displays. Not only is it both faster and sharper than anything Raymarine has produced thus far, it has better resolution and glare-damping technology for improved visibility, even when viewed in the daylight. In order to fit the G-Series controls into an already crowded instrument panel (note the rows of rocker switches), Raymarine had to custom-build a controller for the 540. The 61⁄2''x4'' fingerpad lets you deftly navigate all the functions and display settings without accidentally pressing the wrong button.
Cummins MerCruiser electronic controls and steering; 4/8-D batteries; 21.5-kW Onan genset; Reverso oil-change system; fuel-transfer pump; 20-gal. water heater; Raymarine 240 VHF; Bose Lifestyle 48 sound system w/ Sirius satellite receiver; Grohe faucets; 2/Charles iso-transformers; 32", 26", and 19" LCD TVs; 2/32,000-Btu zone-controlled, reverse-cycle Cruisair A/Cs for cockpit and saloon
OPTIONAL POWER: None
OPTIONAL EQUIPMENT ON TEST BOAT: custom china; Kenyon Custom electric grill; Isotherm ice maker and drawer ‘fridge; Raymarine electronics package w/ 2/12" G-Series displays running Navionics platform w/ custom key pad controls, 4-kW radar; 2/Glendinning Cablemasters; fabric upgrade; central vacuum system; opening hull windows; swim platform w/ hydraulic lift; teak on swim platform; Splendide washer/dryer combo
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.