My college friend, Phil, owned a 1966 Chevelle SS that he tricked out with all the bells and whistles, including a worked-over 427-cid block, a nitrous-oxide tank, and a pumped-up transmission. One day after class he offered me a ride home. I got in the seat, and Phil aimed his vintage rocket ship down Kissena Boulevard in Queens, New York. At the drop of the foot, the car took off in neck-snapping fashion. My head was pinned against the headrest. It was a helluva ride.
So what does this have to do with boats, you ask? It just so happens a recent boat test brought me right back to that high-speed memory.
No, Chevy has not started building go-fast boats, but the Italian high-performance boatbuilder Baia has a 54-footer named the Aqua that offers the same get-up-and-go performance as Phil’s souped-up street car. My test boat hit 53.3 mph at 2350 rpm, with a cruise speed of 44 mph at 2000 rpm. Not exactly a quarter-miler like the Chevelle, but equally fun.
The big difference is that my test boat was skipping over a good two- to three-foot chop on the Atlantic off South Florida. In addition, the Aqua jumped nearly 20 mph in speed between 1500 and 1750 rpm. I soon discovered it wasn’t just her optional 1,015-hp Caterpillar C18 diesels that made this boat’s performance impressive.
First, she’s also armed with Arneson ASD11 Surface Drives coupled to five-blade 31.5x44 Rolla surface-piercing propellers. (Baia has been using surface drives for more than 20 years.) The articulated drives and highly cambered props get the boat on plane at a leisurely 14 knots (between 1250 and 1300 rpm) with the help of some tab. Since the Arneson drives allow you to alter the amount of prop in the water, trim tabs are used mostly to assist with low-speed planing, to adjust for unequal loading, and when traveling in big seas; the drives are used for almost all other trim applications. The ASD11s also offer reduced drag and a shallow draft (3’0”) for nook-and-cranny or Bahamas cruisers, both of which enhance the Aqua’s high-performance capabilities. And, of course, the drives’ trademark rooster tail provides some flair and showmanship.
Adding to her performance from the build side is the boat’s relatively light weight. Constructed of pre-pregnated Kevlar, which provides a light but durable hull, the Aqua comes in at 39,000 pounds (dry). The laminate comes off a large roll already wet and is simply laid in and smoothed out. Baia has been using Kevlar in this fashion for about two decades. Maybe that explains why some of the similar-size express cruisers I’ve seen that are constructed of solid fiberglass are 12,000 pounds or so heavier than the Baia Aqua 54.
After marveling at her speed and that rooster tail, I put down my radar gun and slid behind the two-person helm seat located to starboard on the bridge deck. It was time to see how she performed firsthand. I asked Baia’s Capt. Paolo Mataloni for a primer on the Aqua’s handling aspects before letting her out of the gate.
He explained that once you have the boat up to cruise speed and higher, you want to keep the props trimmed to about midline on the trim gauge, which is easily viewable just forward of the wheel. At slower speeds, the gauge should read about one-quarter below midline. The propeller-trim joysticks are easily positioned just to port of the wheel with trim tabs and optional bow thruster controls also here. Large icons next to each control make them readily identifiable on the fly.
Mataloni added that once the Aqua is on plane and before giving her some throttle, I should retract the tabs. This may sound like a lot to keep in mind, but it’s really quite easy. Within five minutes of taking the wheel, I found trimming this boat felt quite similar to trimming my own boat’s 250-hp outboards. Of course, this is on a grander scale, but the same principles apply.
I pushed the ZF Mathers ClearCommand single-lever electronic controls forward and started to trim the props, and the Aqua popped right onto plane. I noted that the wake was steep and unforgiving should anyone try to cross it, and while a 25-knot cruise speed would be plenty for me, it was fun to kick that rooster tail up and take off like a shot. The Aqua streaked across the Atlantic just like that Chevelle down Kissena, only instead of hitting an occasional pothole, the choppy water gave the Aqua the occasional slap while running at WOT. It wasn’t teeth jarring, but it did cause me to throttle back to 2000 rpm and 44 mph, where the ride was cleaner. At all speeds I found that ZF controls smooth with good detents and the hydraulic steering quick.
Having seen Mataloni do some interesting hairpin turns earlier in the day, I wanted to try my hand at it. You need as much prop in the water as possible for this kind of maneuver; at speed, a surface-drive prop usually only has about 40 to 50 percent of its diameter in the water, and not keeping the outboard prop down could result in it losing whatever bite it has. I got the Aqua up to about 38 knots, trimmed the starboard prop all the way down, and turned the wheel hard to port. She heeled substantially to port, producing a blind spot to that side. So before you make a turn like this, look twice, and then twice again. The turn was quite sharp, roughly a boat length or less. Aside from radical turns like this, I found sightlines at the helm to be quite clean (I’m 5’7”).
But the Aqua’s bridge deck isn’t just for driving; it’s also designed for relaxing and entertaining. There’s a wraparound lounge to port that can seat approximately eight guests, and it’s positioned so all of your friends and family can easily admire those high-speed maneuvers. That is, if they’re not busy cooking lunch on the grill just aft of the helm or sunning on the aft sunpad that’s large enough for three. (There’s another sunpad on the foredeck.) The aft sunpad rises at the flick of the switch near the helm and reveals the engine compartment, which is cavernous. I could easily access all points on both engines with room to spare.
The Aqua is geared for performance, but don’t think it’s done at the price of luxury or comfort below decks. Her optional high-gloss cherrywood saloon sole (carpet is standard) is exquisitely finished. The saloon, which offers 6’6” headroom, also featured a soft leather lounge to port on my test boat. This is an inviting place to view the standard Panasonic flat-screen TV. Feel like cooking? It’s just a few steps across to the galley, which has a Bauknecht stand-up refrigerator and freezer, two-burner Ceran cooktop, and optional granite countertop.
The granite countertop is quite attractive and shows how much the builder believes in its Kevlar construction. Why? Because granite is an unforgiving material and is subject to cracking, and the galley is located right about where the hull meets water while running at speed. If the hull flexed at all, it would likely break the granite. But if you prefer a different look, Corian is the standard countertop material offered.
As for accommodations, the Aqua is pretty typical of boats this size, offering a three-stateroom, two-head layout with the master forward. The en suite master offers a large shower stall that could easily fit two people. However, the VacuFlush MSD is squeezed between the shower and the sink. I have a 32-inch waist, and when I sat down to measure the space between the two, I just fit. I’d be willing to give up some shower room for a little more seating space. In spite of this, the Aqua’s guest staterooms and second head, just forward of the port-side aft stateroom, easily allow her to be used as a weekend (or longer) cruiser for the family.
Obviously for most boaters the Aqua’s main attraction is her performance. She jumps up to speed after planing, blasts down the straightway, and finishes strong. But she’s also well appointed and has sleek lines, which will turn more than a few heads around the docks. And just like that ride in Phil’s Chevelle, once you see this boat do what she does best, the memory will stay with you a long time.
Raymarine VHF, ST60 Tridata; GeoNav AP401 autopilot; Lewmar windlass; 5-blade HYDRO propellers; trim tabs w/joysticks; 7-kW genset; rudder-angle indicator; Panasonic flat-panel TV in saloon; dual-helm seat; aft sunpad cushions; cockpit wet bar; high-gloss cherrywood interior and galley sole; Bauknecht stand-up refrigerator/freezer; Ceran 2-burner cooktop; Corian countertops; 2/VacuFlush MSDs
Raymarine electronics package including RL84C radar, 631 Raychart w/WAAS antenna; teak cockpit and swim platform; removable hardtop system; aft cockpit cover w/canvas; central vacuum; 13-kW Kohler genset; custom gelcoat color; 10-hp Sidepower bow thruster; searchlight on radar arch; cockpit A/C; U-line ice maker; granite countertops in galley
Test Boat Specifications
- Test Engine: 2/1,015-hp Caterpillar C18 diesel inboards w/Arneson Surface Drives
- Transmission/Ratio: Arneson Surface Drives/ASD11/1.73:1
- Props: 31.5x44 5-blade Rolla
- Price as Tested: $1,475,000
This article originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.