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Bertram 54

Baby Got Her Groove Back

The Bertram 54 represents the venerable builder’s embrace of good ol’ American boatbuilding know-how. And that’s precisely why this iconic brand is once again riding the rails at full steam.

The muddled voices around me contained welcoming southern twangs, while whiffs of diesel exhaust floated over the docks. Pockets of conversation focused on the upcoming season of tournaments, where the fish were going off currently, big diesels, and a few tall angling tales. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was certainly different about this particular Thursday afternoon in Ft. Lauderdale.

Then I closed my eyes for a few seconds. Here I was standing in the middle of the Ferretti USA showroom, a powerhouse of Italian boatbuilding and design consisting of iconic brands such as Riva, Pershing, and of course Ferretti, yet these across-the-pond siblings were a thousand miles away from this gathering. This was Bertram’s day in the spotlight, showcasing American boatbuilding—and the 54 was the star attraction.

Those who have followed the peaks and valleys of this venerable brand over the years will appreciate how special a moment this was for any boating nut. Believe me, I love all things Italian. I love the people, crazy politics, cars, and the boats. Indeed, I have actually tried to hug a 27-foot Riva Iseo. (I admit, I came on a little strong.) Furthermore, the Ferretti Group’s founder, Norberto Ferretti, is one the industry’s leading innovators and product developers. Yet winning over my affection on this January day was the “new” Bertram 54 Convertible and the team that built and designed this sweet ride. 

If you’re scratching your head wondering if the 54 is “new,” well, yes and no. An Italianate version was introduced in 2008 at the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show, creating a few raised eyebrows from diehard sportfishing circles. I understand why. After spending some time on this 54, it was as if the boat was a bulky American trying to fit into a slim-cut Italian suit. You wanted to like it, but something was a little offputting.

Sure, there were a lot of nifty interior treatments. The aft galley arrangement and forward windshield were practical and made a lot of sense when put on a piece of paper on another continent. However the pros of the accommodations plan primarily fell in the cruising and entertaining categories. And Bertram’s heritage lay firmly embedded in the tough, salt-stained battlewagon category. 

Another issue on the first few hulls of that 54 was the handling—mainly the steering. In my opinion, she felt a little squirrelly and less responsive than I would have liked. Enter noted naval architect Robert Ullberg, who joined Bertram as vice president of product development and engineering in 2012. Ullberg is a heavy-hitter in the sportfish-design world. After starting his career with noted naval architect Tom Fexas, he went on to work with industry leaders such as Roy Merritt, John Bayliss, and Mike Rybovich. (And he’s the designer of the new Garlington 49, Osprey, reviewed on page 48 of this issue.) In my opinion, hiring Ullberg was a hell of a move by Bertram management. Not only does he get what’s going on below the waterline, he has a superb eye. Then top off this skill set with an infectious passion for sportfishing boats and performance. (Shh, I got a sneak peak of a few future Bertram projects from Ullberg’s drawing board that will undoubtedly generate a lot of buzz. All I can say is wow!)

Sitting in the 165-square foot cockpit of the latest version of the 54 while the Cats warmed up, Ullberg and I discussed the aforementioned handling issues and rudders. It was refreshing how honest and matter of fact he was about some of the previous shortcomings. “The modifications to the 54’s steering system were primarily a reshaping of the rudder to make it more balanced and to optimize the blade for higher speeds,” wrote Ullberg in a follow-up e-mail. “The secondary modifications were to tune the geometry of the installation in order to make the boat more responsive to steering input both at slow and high speed.” He implemented a few other tricks he prefers to keep to himself. I’ve been on the boatbuilding side myself and know this type of fine-tuning is constant as a model evolves.  

The end result was an improved ride compared to the first few 54s. Not that the earlier hulls had significant issues, but when you have a boat with the same model designation as one of the best-riding convertibles on the water—the original Bertram 54—it better kick ass. And now it certainly does. The twin 1,700-horsepower Caterpillar C32 ACERTs provided impressive acceleration and torque propelling us to a top speed of nearly 40 knots. The line of sight from the aft-oriented helm was superb, allowing me to easily see the action in the cockpit or over the bow. During our sea trial there was zero wallowing or excessive smoke as I put her through her paces. And the helm response? Bingo! Ullberg and the Bertram team nailed it. 

The single fuel tank is on the centerline in the engine room. (I like single-tank installations that eliminate the need for often-complicated fuel-manifold systems.) The builder also got the weight distribution right and we achieved a plane effortlessly without touching the tabs. Pulling the throttles back to about a 67-percent load produced an easy 20-knot-plus, low cruising speed and a range of a little more than 300 miles with a 10-percent reserve. 

The Bertram 54 is not a particularly light boat, tipping the scales at a bit more than 83,000 pounds, she is a little heftier than some of her competitors. Yet I felt the benefit when pounding through some stacked seas off Ft. Lauderdale. Man, this was a fun boat to drive, with no excessive rattling or shaking. Dominican Republic here I come!

The 54’s cockpit is designed to appeal to active anglers and benefits from a generous 18-foot, 2-inch beam. Mezzanine seating provides a comfortable perch to watch your baits. No more sitting for hours on top of a bait station with a life jacket wedged under your bum. Two large fishboxes and a livewell complete the package. Bertram also offers some versatility in the cockpit fit out and gives the option of a bait center or an additional freezer. A lazarette absorbs buckets, brushes, and various supplies.

The eight-step ladder between the cockpit and the flying bridge is built at an angle that nearly allows a forward-facing transition while stationary. On the bridge, a huge U-shaped settee is forward of the helm and is more than comfortable. Access to the backside of the electronics is well thought out and should please the most vocal installers.

Another refreshing nod to Americana boatbuilding practices is the interior option of a forward galley. As I stated previously, there is nothing inherently wrong with the aft galley arrangement, and in fact Bertram still offers the plan. However the team realized that the majority of their diehard clientele preferred the more traditional galley forward layout, sans windshield, allowing for extra stowage and a very workable layout. Plus, in a way, it sends the message that a true Bertram remains a kick-ass, hard-core fishing machine, not a fluffed-up cruiser. I hear you!

The stateroom arrangement remains the same. Check out the accommodations plan on page 41 and you’ll see a very functional plan for your fishing buddies or family. The forward guest stateroom can be ordered with an over/under berth arrangement as well. The interior joinery—finished by a subcontractor—was well executed.

I need to give further credit where credit is due. The man responsible for ensuring Bertram stayed true to its roots, hired the right folks, and recharged the current staff is boatbuilding veteran and sportfishing enthusiast Alton Herndon. Herndon joined Bertram as president three years ago, complementing an impressive 40-year marine-industry career, including working as president of Hatteras Yachts until 1996. 

“The 54 is key to Bertram’s business,” he said during our sea trial. And so is the new waterfront factory in Merritt Island, Florida. Bertram outgrew their Miami facility many years ago and implemented a variety of workarounds that included building larger boats under temporary shelters and launching these boats at high tide. Herndon led the charge for the new facility that offers room for future expansion and navigable water. 

“I heard from a longtime dealer who said his new 64 was the best delivery he had in 10 years,” said Herdon referring to the first boat completed at Merritt Island. Hmm, maybe I need to find an excuse to see the next 54 completed entirely at this factory. Hey, I need to take this baby for a ride again. Although after taking a peek behind the scenes at what Bertram has lined up, I think I may be down in Merritt Island a bunch more times in the foreseeable future. Bertram is back, baby.

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