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Sunseeker Portofino 40

Life of the Party

The entry-level Sunseeker Portofino 40 is designed with high-performance stern drives for fun in the sun.

The Mediterranean in August. I’m just not used to it. Classic vacation destinations at the peak of the season are usually out of bounds for working journalists, for the simple reason that they tend to be full of people actually on vacation. Travel writers use their imaginations, conjuring up the summer scenes their editors want out of unpromisingly windswept and chilly material. As for marine journalists—well, boatbuilders work to their clients’ demanding schedules and the boat-show calendar, and we just have to fit in wherever we can. It’s amazing how often this means testing new boats in November. Or February. 

So to find oneself working in Mallorca in the middle of summer took a little getting used to, as Sunseeker decided to launch their most important new model for years in its natural habitat. Not for nothing are Sunseekers so called. The company practically invented the “Med boat,” or at least democratized it, showing the way for thousands of British owners who flocked down there in the 1980s and ’90s in search of the bikini-clad lifestyle promised in the boatbuilder’s irresistible advertising. They were as good as their word—over the years the boats got bigger and better, the Brits got browner, and everyone, from the marina operators on the CÔte d’Azur to the low-cost airline operators, was happy. 

Volvo DPH stern drives
PROPPED UP
The contra-rotating propellers installed on the Portofino 40’s Volvo DPH stern drives are different sizes to optimize torque throughout the range.

Apart from choosing that seductive name, Sunseeker’s best decision back in the early days was to hire Don Shead as their naval architect. The foremost British powerboat designer of his day, Shead based all his work on solid offshore racing experience. His curved windscreen was a stroke of genius, but his most important contribution was his version of the deep-V hull. 

This is key to the whole idea of the “Med boat.” Its detractors—who usually turn out never to have been in one—say that it’s nothing but a glorified sunbathing platform, good for sitting in the marina and venturing out on fine days. That’s only half right. You get a lot of fine days in the Med in the summer, with the sea at breakfast time as flat as an oil bath, but then the sun gets higher and the land heats up, and by the time you’re having your long, lazy waterside lunch, the sea breeze is hitting its stride and the water is getting choppy. Really choppy. Unless you’re content to plod home at six knots or wait until dusk, when things die down again, you need a boat that can cope—a good sea boat.

Of course you also need somewhere to cook, and snooze, and sunbathe, and Sunseeker knows all about that, too. The Portofino 40 is their smallest new model to be launched for some time—like many boatbuilders they were caught chasing money by the recession, and they now find themselves in the extraordinary position of having both a 40-footer and a 40-meter in their brochure. But ask any aficionado where the corporate DNA truly lies and he’ll point to the Portofino.

Two cabins, one head, a comfortable lower saloon in which to escape the noonday heat, a big, shaded cockpit with lots of space for lounging around, twin stern drives, and 660 horsepower—no one knows more about this kind of boat than Sunseeker. The Portofino comes with a variety of interior finishes to choose from, four of them in-house designs and four from the studio of superyacht designer Ken Freivokh. Ours was a Freivokh boat, his “copper and slate” scheme—a pleasing mix of blue-gray and rich orangey fabrics, contrasting with neutral beige bulkheads in ‘figured anigre’ veneer—features cabinetry and floors in dark wenge, and counter tops in gray Avonite. Big glass panels in the saloon deckhead ensure that you have enough daylight down below to appreciate all the careful craftsmanship, augmented by large hull windows in every area of the lower accommodation. 

The interior feels roomy enough to forget you’re on a 40-footer, with a minimum headroom of 6 feet 3 inches and full-size berths. Sitting headroom of 33 inches over the berths in the mid-cabin is also pretty reasonable, and they can be slid together to form a double. There is a useful counter in here along the port side—as an option, it can be fitted out as a child’s berth—while the side windows and the full-length mirror help to heighten the illusion that this surprisingly comfortable cabin is bigger than it is. 

With its big sofa and folding dining table the saloon also feels pleasantly spacious, but the price of that has been to squeeze standing room in the forecabin, which consequently feels a little cramped. The galley, positioned by the main companionway, occupies a light and airy space, while the head compartment is also a good size, with access doors from both the saloon and forward cabin. 

A huge sliding sunroof in the hardtop helps make the cockpit a versatile living space, as does the converting aft bench seat, which can be extended and joined to the sunbed to create one huge lounging area. The test boat’s hydraulic tender/swim platform, with its 660-pound lifting capacity, is an optional extra; a fixed platform, in a choice of two sizes, is offered as a less expensive alternative.  

There is more relaxation space on the foredeck, where raised seat backs can be fitted for added comfort. Getting up there would be a lot easier if Sunseeker had allowed a few degrees of tumblehome in the superstructure. Those vertical side windows severely limit your options as you make your way forward—so much so that even the navigation lights actually seem like they’re in the way. I found you also have to take care descending the main companionway, where it’s easy to bash your head on the top of the windscreen, especially as the oval-shaped steps demand that you pay attention to where you’re putting your feet.

Having risen to a pristine Mediterranean morning, we took the Portofino out of Port Adriano and onto a glassy sea for an exhaustive set of speed and handling trials. This was the Mediterranean at its best: perfect conditions for a fast cruiser, and the Portofino did not disappoint. Close on 35 knots, tight, crisp handling, and fairly rapid acceleration—25 knots in about as many seconds—make for a fulfilling driver’s boat. The torque of the Volvo Penta D6s was impressive, keeping the 40’s 11 tons poised and on the plane in the tightest of turns. I couldn’t fault the package—and with the bigger 400s installed the Portofino would be even more of a blast. 

Pretty soon we were out beyond Andratx and round the back of the steep limestone cliffs of Dragonera, and it was lunchtime already. At a popular local spot in Saint Elm we anchored off and enjoyed our paella while watching the comings and goings. It was August, after all, and the place was packed. Motoryachts and sailboats of all sizes were crammed into every corner of the anchorage, tenders crossed back and forth in the bay, and kids splashed in the restaurant’s pool. 

A cooling breeze across the shaded terrace was welcome. It was hot. The wind had started to pick up late in the morning, drawn in off the sea by rising thermals in the mountains, and by the time lunch was over it was still a beautiful bright day, but blowing hard—Force 5, maybe 6. Once clear of the bay we had 5-foot seas, steep and short, and a 15-mile trip back to the marina. 

That morning, the helm ergonomics had seemed fine. But standing up to deal with these conditions they weren’t as good. Just when I needed real control, the throttles were too far away, in my opinion. Ultra-quick steering and finger-light electronic engine levers, such a delight in flat weather, were suddenly an issue. The Portofino is no pared-down, Don Shead raceboat—our insatiable need for air-conditioning, bigger cabins, generators, headroom, and all the other trappings of modern boating saw to that long ago. She’s beamy, full-bowed, and has just 19 degrees of midships deadrise, and needed to be driven properly in those foul conditions, by someone who knew the boat a lot better than I did.

At 12 to 14 knots it was a long and tiring trip back. Then, finally, as we rounded the Philippe Starck-designed seawall and once more gained the shelter of Port Adriano, the breeze dropped away, and it was instantly another perfect summer’s evening. Nice. But I kind of miss testing boats in November, or even February—the weather’s better.

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This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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