I was prepared to not like the Hamilton waterjet-propelled Huckins Linwood 56 all that much, primarily because some of the waterjet vessels I've driven over the years have evinced a few dicey handling characteristics. You know, stuff like wandering off course at low (and sometimes high) speeds and turning simple docking situations into unwholesomely entertaining events, complete with spectators. So when Huckins owner (and granddaughter of Huckins founder Frank Pembroke Huckins) Cindy Purcell turned the 56's custom-upholstered Recaro Atlantic LT-H helm seat over to me in the midst of the St. Johns River, not far from the Huckins plant in Jacksonville, Florida, I took possession with mixed feelings.
Certainly, I had a few reservations—just ask my wife about my tendency to expect the worst. But on the other hand, Purcell had so far managed to pique my curiosity as well. A talented boathandler, she'd driven La Belle Helene throughout the whole testing regime that morning, easing through the slow-mo portions in a relaxed seated position that allowed her to steer with her bare feet. Such nonchalance was not unfamiliar to me—I used to steer 197-foot Halter oil-field vessels the very same way sometimes. And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that steering with one's feet was at best difficult, if not impossible, on a vessel prone to wandering off course.
I advanced the levers of the Twin Disc electronic engine control until the SmartCraft digital tachs read 1000 rpm, put the bow on a water tower dead ahead, and with the wheel centered, began to wait. Seconds went by. The 56 kept on keepin' her course with arrow-straight precision. Hmm.
I advanced the levers a tad more, until the tachs read 2000 rpm, kept the bow on the tower, and continued to wait. Seconds went by. The 56 displayed the same arrow-straight precision as before. "How about carving a nice little corner?" I warned, cranking La Belle Helene into a tight, starboard turn, which she accomplished with little heel, no blow-out, and virtually no sideways slippage. Here was a jetboat that ran like a rocket and tracked like the Orient Express!
I straightened out the 56, advanced the throttles yet again, and began an elegant, long-legged lope back across the river with the tower directly astern. Her running attitude at 2250 rpm, I knew from our earlier testing, was precisely three degrees, a wholly perfect angle of attack for a planing powerboat. I firewalled the Twin Disc sticks, taking our Hamilton HJ403 waterjets off the leash. Within seconds, the 56 was doing a smooth, seemingly effortless top hop of 38.6 mph—with the tower still directly astern. "Let's skip the full-speed turn," advised Purcell as I swept slightly left and right to gauge steering agility, "Lots of the owner's china below—a hundred dollars a plate."
At length, we coasted to a stop, and I let La Belle Helene drift—there was virtually no current or wind—while Purcell briefly explained how to maneuver dockside. For starters, there were the Twin Disc single-lever sticks already mentioned—that controlled engine revs and gears, although the latter were seldom shifted out of forward since neutral simply nixed thrust and reverse only served to back-flush clogged jets. Then there were the Teleflex Morse sticks—they controlled the waterjets' buckets (see "Noteworthy: Hamilton Waterjets," this story). And finally, there was the wheel, a lovely, leather-wrapped affair custom-fabricated by Lecarra of Onelda, Tennessee: It controlled the direction of the nozzles. "We have a foot-pad-operated electro-hydraulic bow thruster as well," Purcell advised, while pointing towards my feet, "but I don't think you'll need it—the boat handles quite easily."
She was right. Although the 56 has close-quarters maneuvering characteristics that are much different from an inboard vessel's, she's far from a handful. Indeed, after I'd spent a little less than 20 minutes playing with the aforementioned components, both singly and in unison, I was able to walk La Belle Helene sideways, without even thinking about tapping a thruster pad. How?
Coming up with an appropriate throttle setting on the Twin Disc control was the first—within reason, more revs meant a faster walk. Next came the configuration of the buckets: To move to starboard I shifted the starboard bucket ahead and the port bucked astern. To move to port, I simply reversed the bucket arrangement. And finally only a very slight amount of wheel—two to three degrees either way—was called for to keep the bow from lagging behind or getting ahead. While all this may sound like a big production, in practice it's not. Once I set the engine and bucket controls, I had to merely manipulate the wheel (and occasionally fine-tune bucket travel to obviate forward creep) until I'd safely gotten where I wanted to go—sideways!
Watching Purcell dock La Belle Helene at the Huckins facility on the nearby Ortega River was an impressive experience, mostly because I was familiar with the company's fabled 80-year history. The Quadraconic hull form that had facilitated our test boat's slick and slippery performance on the St. Johns was directly descended from the drawing board of a guy who'd built PT boats for the Navy during World War II—Frank Pembroke Huckins. The PTs were wonderful, seaworthy boats. I'd read a letter to that effect once, written to Frank Huckins in 1944 by a no lesser light than Lt. Commander Lindsay Lord, one of the most famous American naval architects of all time. The Quadraconic was the "theoretical ideal" of running surfaces, he wrote.
Purcell and I embarked upon a short tour of La Belle Helene after tie-up. More than pedigree and performance, the boat also featured head-snapping 1950's-era style, a remarkable level of customization, and the latest in jig-type, temporary-male fiberglass-molding technology, complete with vacuum-bagged, closed-cell foam-sandwich construction (both hull and superstructure are entirely cored with CoreCell), vinylester resins, and stitched E-glass fabrics.
The below-decks layout was spaciously configured. While a three-stateroom version is available, our test boat had two. The full-beam master aft (with en suite head) was giant, the guest forward (with adjoining day head) was slightly smaller, and the open galley and saloon in between were pretty big as well. Add modern UltraLeather upholstery to this mlange, in addition to some top-notch makore joinery and custom appliances and conveniences galore, and you've got a modern classic.
My only source of complaint was the machinery spaces. While engine/jet access via retractable hatches in the cockpit was fine, engineering sound, and ancillary equipment of good quality, the install workmanship was not as crisp as I'd like to see on a high-end product. A case in point: the below-deck appurtenances for one of the heads. Sure, the ITT Jabsco three-way valve, Fourspar Marelon vented loop, and profusion of sanitary hoses were properly put together, but the look of the finished product was disorderly, even perhaps confusing.
But what the heck. I'd still become a true believer. And I told my wife as much upon returning home from my excellent adventure in Jacksonville. Not only is the Huckins 56 Linwood one of the slickest, prettiest, most agile performers out there on the water today, she's changed my opinion of jets forever.
For more information on Huckins Yacht, including contact information,click here.
Our test boat's Hamilton HJ403 waterjets pump high-velocity streams of water through nozzles. Because they are installed through the transom and well above the keel line, draft is reduced (our 56 draws a mere 2'6'') and thrust is efficient, mostly because it is horizontal or near-horizontal, but also because drag is significantly reduced thanks to the absence of struts, shafts, and propellers.
Water enters each unit via an intake (A). An impeller (B) spinning inside a stator (C) boosts pressure, and the resultant stream is discharged at the nozzle (D) at high velocity. The nozzles are critical to steering. Aim them in a particular direction and the the stern of the boat will swing in the opposite direction, thus initiating a turn.
Teleflex Sea-Star hydraulic steering w/ power-assist off starboard engine; Twin Disc electronic controls for engines, Morse cable controls for jets; everything else is at owner's discretion.
Max Power electro-hydraulic bow thruster; IC-M604 VHF; Furuno Navnet 3D GPS plotter/radar/sounder
Test Boat Specifications
- Test Engine: 2/715-mhp Cummins MerCruiser QSM11 diesel inboards
- Price as Tested: $3,100,000
This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.