"Hey Bill," a guy asked recently, "what makes a test boat good?" The question seemed to have philosophical significance, at least at first, so I waded right in. What the heck?
Aesthetics got dispensed with immediately—beauty's the purview of beholders, not boat testers. Then I tried the wise, Socratic-type approach, a serious challenge for me, due to a lifelong propensity to blather on endlessly if given half a chance. Finally, though, I struck upon the perfect answer. I trotted out an example—a boat I tested some weeks ago in the Pacific Northwest, Meridian Yachts' 459 Cockpit Motoryacht.
The 459's a good boat for one, simple reason: She's flat-out easy to use. Whether I was squeezing her big, beamy bulk out of the little boathouse she occupied on Swinomish Channel in LaConner, Washington, or guiding her ruggedly reinforced bow across deadhead-strewn Skagit Bay at full speed, the 459 responded precisely and immediately to the faintest pressure on her hydraulically actuated wheel or the subtlest adjustment to her Teleflex mechanical throttles. Moreover, never once did I have to hunt for a gauge, switch, or knob while sitting at the helm on the flying bridge. Trim tab rockers. Tachs. Compass. Chartplotter. You name it. Everything was easy to spot and readily at hand.
Let me illustrate further. Not far from LaConner, at least as the crow flies, there's a wild and woolly, cliff-sided stretch of dark tidal water that separates Whidbey and Fidalgo islands. Called Deception Pass, it's famous for whirlpools, standing waves, rips of incredible power, and roaring currents that routinely achieve speeds of 10 knots. Multiply the average flow of Washington state's mighty Columbia River by a factor of eight and send it barreling through a notch that's barely 500 feet wide, and you get a glimmer of the spectacular chaos that enlivens this place on a twice-daily basis.
Nothin' wrong with a little adventure, I always say. So with the blessing of Meridian's rep Bill Filip, who was sitting in the copilot's seat, I decided to run Deception Pass in the 459. A flood tide was extant at the time, and as Filip and I approached from well out on Skagit Bay, I could see a couple of whirlpools, one about two feet deep at its yellowish center and perhaps 20 feet across. At the shadowy entrance to the pass, I dodged a bobbling tree trunk about the size of a Volkswagen Jetta and started through at half-throttle, aiming the 459's bow straight for ol' yeller.
What happened next was amazing. In seconds, I felt the boat hit a veritable wall of oncoming current, a sensation that spooked me a bit, then immediately encouraged me to pour on the power. Immense forces began surging abeam, jockeying to slough the boat sideways toward towering rock walls. To stay on track, I began rapidly working the wheel and throttles simultaneously, adjusting, compensating, and relying almost wholly upon my intuition and the boat's confidence-inspiring agility. The 459 forged on, dodging, feinting, and weaving like a talented boxer in a tough fight. "Yeeeehawwwww!" yelled Filip as we finally broke free of the big whirlpool's orbit.
Seas beyond were piddly—a rather anticlimactic one under the circumstances. However, the test numbers I subsequently recorded, and the open-water performance they represented, kept the excitement going for a bit longer, what with sweetly carved turns, superb sightlines all around, and a respectable average top speed of 28.4 mph. At one point I pulled one of our Cummins MerCruiser 330Bs out of gear--to simulate an engine problem—and discovered the boat would do at least 12 mph on one main and turn and maneuver almost like she was still operating on two. Filip noted that thanks to her transmissions and PYI dripless shaft logs, the 459 can freewheel a prop for up to 24 hours without damage. Just about anybody oughta be able to find a mechanic in that amount of time!
Going back through Deception Pass after the sea trial was as much fun as going through the first time. And returning the boat to her boathouse once we'd gotten back to LaConner simply underscored the theme. Maneuvering with engines only, I spun the 459 in front of the boathouse and eased her astern by simply clutching in and out of gear a few times. Visibility aft was fine, thanks to the open area beneath the underside of the hardtop. And while our test boat was equipped with an optional D.O.C. (Docking On Command) system, which integrates controls for both bow and stern thrusters into a single, boat-shaped device on the dashboard, I used the system only to pin the 459 against the finger pier inside the boathouse while Filip dealt with our mooring lines. Didn't need it otherwise.
Smart interior planning complemented the easy handling. Highlights were numerous, although I had a few favorites. The first was the layout of the large, full-beam master. Separating the port-side head into three separate parts—a shower-stall compartment forward, an MSD compartment aft, and an open sink in between—is a savvy, usability-enhancing idea. And situating the queen-size island berth opposite, just steps from the big sliding door that accesses the porch-like ambience of the cockpit, is a master stroke.
Construction was the second highlight. To disperse shock loads and generally reduce running stresses, stringers are engineered to continue from the transom well into the bow area, a good distance beyond where most builders leave off. Also, load-bearing bulkheads are bonded to both the hull and deck to absorb stress and cut down on noise and vibration. And furthermore, all holes cut in bulkheads for conduits, hoses, and wires are thoroughly sealed with color-coordinated silicone to nix noise. The technique works: With our lazarette-ensconced genset running dockside, sound levels were so low in the saloon, master, and VIP, they failed to hit the minimum measurement of 50 dB-A on the decibel meter.
Of course, even good boats can have problems and, sure enough, I finished up the test of Meridian's 459 Cockpit Motoryacht by hitting a bit of a snag: the optional lower helm station. While visibility was excellent all the way around from this spot, thanks to bilevel side windows and the whopping slider at the rear of the saloon, all practicality ended there. More to the point, I simply could not crowd my knees into the cramped space abaft the steering wheel, and the seat itself put my 5'11" frame so high above the saloon sole, with my legs dangling, I felt like a stranded mountaineer.
The fix? Go with the standard, expanded U-shape dining area Meridian offers instead. It'll virtually guarantee good, without having to wade through a whole pile of deep, philosophical significance.
Faria gauges; Danforth compass; 2/Ongaro horns; Seaward Princess electric cooktop; Norcold refrigerator; Black & Decker coffee maker; Samsung microwave; Karadon countertops; Flexsteel Mirage leather lounge w/2 incliners; Perko sea strainers; 11-gal. Attwood water heater; 2/ITT Jabsco electric MSDs; Sanigard holding-tank vent filter; Racor fuel-water separators; PYI P.S.S. (Packless Sealing System) dripless shaft logs; 6/Trojan batteries; 40-amp Xantrex Truecharge 40 battery charger; 4/2000-gph Rule bilge pumps; Bennett trim tabs
D.O.C. (Docking On Command) system w/6-hp SidePower bow and stern thrusters; lower helm station; basic navigation package (Raymarine ST60 depthsounder, Ray 53 VHF, and RayChart 435 color chartplotter); 44,000-Btu Marine Air A/C; Origo dishwasher; Splendide 2000 Comb-O-Matic washer/dryer; 2/VacuFlush MSDs; engine-room fire-suppression system; 11.5-kW Onan genset
Test Boat Specifications
- Test Engine: 2/315-hp Cummins MerCruiser 330B diesel inboards
- Transmission/Ratio: ZF80-A2.0/1.96:1
- Props: 23x25 4-blade Nibral
- Price as Tested: $509,445
This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.