Sweet Harmony

Sea Ray’s limited-edition R Series matches the parent company’s potent outboards with a high-performing, family-friendly 35-footer. We get aboard for an unforgettable blast to Music City.

Country Music HQ: The Nashville skyline as seen from the Cumberland River.

Country Music HQ: The Nashville skyline as seen from the Cumberland River.

The Blue Turtle Bay Marina was beginning to come alive in the late morning, early summer sun after a line of squalls had moved through. Behind the weather, another kind of front came marching in: A small army of yacht detailers suddenly materialized and worked diligently to dry the meticulously painted boats as the mugginess of the day started to set in.

An outboard-powered armada—10 in all—had cowlings hidden from prying eyes with opaque black covers. The largest vessel of the group held six engines on its transom with the rest replete with two to five outboards apiece. I watched as the teams prepped the aggressively styled machines. Sitting in their slips, the boats looked like impatient thoroughbreds chomping at the bit to be unleashed.

I traveled here, 700 miles inland as the crow flies on Tennessee’s Old Hickory Lake—don’t let the marina’s moniker or cadre of go-fast machines fool you into thinking we were in salty South Florida—to see Mercury Racing’s most powerful outboard to date (in case you missed it, learn more about Merc’s popular new powerplants on page 30). After having my hair blown back at over 80 knots on a few of the vessels built as power-run crowd-pleasers, I had an impending date with a surprise beneficiary of Merc Racing’s behemoth: Sea Ray’s SLX-R 350.

The evening before, I took in Nashville. I walked by the world-famous Ryman Auditorium and past blocks of multi-level bars with music spilling onto the sidewalks, streets filled with revelers. I perused record stores stocked with sheet music and rows of country’s finest on vinyl, then enjoyed some tunes from a five-piece band in a boot shop by day/music venue by night honky-tonk. Hungry, I ran over to Hattie B’s Hot Chicken (pro tip: while you wait in line, get a pint of the local Tennessee Brew Works Hippies & Cowboys IPA, and order the mild chicken; it’s hot enough) for a plate of fried chicken and greens. Dodging all types of wheeled libation vehicles—pedal cars with a dozen bar stools, converted school buses, a high-walled trailer being pulled by a John Deere tractor full of bachelorettes and assorted merrymakers—I made my way to the Merc press event to meet the massive, 450-hp V8.

The big powerplants came at an ideal time for Sea Ray Boats, in the midst of a reinvention going into their 60th anniversary. While the builder has always covered the gamut in their model line, their four-decade run of the Sundancer line is virtually unmatched in the industry and was a major player in their success. Like the vast armada who have owned (or merely those like myself who’ve only cavorted on board a ’Dancer) I have a soft spot for the series. The concept is a home run: A mid-cabin, express-style cruiser with, depending on LOA (they’ve run from 26 to 63 feet) a reasonably sized or downright gargantuan pilothouse and cockpit, comfortable belowdecks offerings and a swim platform that’s gone from usable to a commodious, hydraulically powered beach club on the largest models. It just works.

Western wear shops, multi-level bars and honky-tonks line Nashville’s main drag. Live music spills onto streets filled with revelers.

Western wear shops, multi-level bars and honky-tonks line Nashville’s main drag. Live music spills onto streets filled with revelers.

But it became dated. To play devil’s advocate, via Waylon Jennings: “Lord it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar, where do we take it from here?” the outlaw country star sings on “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” While I could see the value in the larger Dancers (I loved The Wolf of Wall Street excess of the 63-footer), the updates weren’t enough. “It’s been the same way for years … we need a change,” Waylon urges in the song, aptly echoing Sea Ray’s need to pivot their model line to meet the demands of today’s cruiser market.

Last year, tough business decisions had to be made. After discontinuing the larger Yacht and Sport Yacht segments, Sea Ray went forward by looking back, leveraging the relationship with Brunswick—their parent company—and focusing chiefly on outboard models from 24 to 40 feet.

If the introduction of the SLX-R 350 is any indication, Sea Ray is thinking outside the box. Those invited to the event at February’s Miami boat show were ushered into a dark tent, the only light coming from the red LEDs and underwater lights on the gleaming 35-footer. Suddenly, a projection on the ceiling gave us the rundown on the R Series in a scene a colleague described as “Sea Ray meets Blade Runner.” One could feel the excitement that emerged from the builder’s in-progress transition. “We really just started with Sea Ray,” Brunswick CEO David Foulkes told the assembled just before the boat was mobbed by journalists. As I recall, there were at least a baker’s dozen of us on board and seated comfortably at the helm, in the bow and at the C-shaped settee aft of the helm.

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A few months later I was standing at her helm, blasting across a tabletop-flat lake at over 56 knots as Sales Director Ritch Ragle played DJ on the 1,400-watt Fusion stereo. Just a few moments earlier we participated in an impromptu battle of sound systems back at the dock with several other vessels, and the 10-inch Fusion Signature Series subwoofer seemed to reverberate in my bones, albeit in a good way thanks to AC/DC. Once on the water at WOT and a 40-plus-knot cruise, I turned down the tunes to listen to the sweet exhaust note of 900 supercharged horses.

Turns out the torquey, 450-hp powerplants were always meant to accompany the SLX-R, they just weren’t ready for Miami, so she was shown with the 400-hp Racing engines. It was still evident that the R Series was envisioned as upper-echelon performers dripping in carbon fiber accents and nearly every conceivable option. “It’s like the M Series of Sea Ray,” Ragle told me, comparing it to BMW’s performance brand. “We wanted to give the nod that Sea Ray is in the performance game.”

Like the bespoke, limited-run M cars, Sea Ray has done a careful job curating the 35-footer to emphasize elevated design and performance. The R package is a $138,500 option—a pricey demarcation from the base SLX with aspirational, next-level intentions that set it apart in Sea Ray’s larger dayboat category. However, it retains clever touches that define the model line, including dedicated space for a Yeti in the bow and cockpit, storage under just about every seat, a pair of benches that convert into large sunpads that flank the bow for unfettered access all the way forward and at last count, 18 USB ports on deck.

Carbon fiber accents on the dash and hardtop, a 1,400-watt Fusion stereo and Merc Racing 450s are all exclusive to the R package. 

Carbon fiber accents on the dash and hardtop, a 1,400-watt Fusion stereo and Merc Racing 450s are all exclusive to the R package. 

In the early afternoon, our outboard-powered flotilla made the run from the lake to Nashville via the Old Hickory Lake and Lock. Awaiting our turn to enter, I simply used Skyhook to hold us in place. When it was time, I maneuvered us next to another vessel with the joystick. We tied up, Ragle easily slid the sunroof closed and both of us retreated to the flip-up, aft-facing seating on the stern. In lockstep with the tunes, I deployed the footrest as the SureShade emerged from the hardtop, the ideal perch out of the sun.

Sixty feet lower and 15 million gallons later, we emerged about 25 miles upstream from Music City. A poker run of sorts ensued, with the Cumberland River’s limestone and tree-lined shoreline giving way to suburban development. A busy commercial thoroughfare, the river was clearly marked; I barely looked at the Simrad glass dash to get my bearings, just to keep an eye on speeds that averaged over 45 knots.

Soon, the steel truss and graceful curve of the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge came into view and the mini metropolis spread out before us. The vessels docked in the shadow of the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium, with Ragle and I quickly placing the cowling covers back on the big Mercs—the message was yet to be delivered to the masses and the Merc Racing brass wanted to hold onto the state secret for a bit longer. Barely one minute after I stepped off the bow, the SLX-R was on her way to an impending date with a trailer and Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Summerfest Independence Day celebration.

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I decided to walk back into town over the 3,150-foot-long former vehicular bridge, now packed with tourists taking selfies, cyclists and joggers sprinting the incline sections, huffing and sweating in the late afternoon sun. Looking down on the boats tied side-to near the stadium and into town at the Country Music Hall of Fame and other famous landmarks, I could almost hear ole’ Waylon’s tune: “Somebody told me when I came to Nashville, son you finally got it made.” As their business pushes forward into the next 60 years, Sea Ray looks to the outboard-powered SLX as perhaps a redefined, refined Sundancer adapted to meet today’s cruiser market and a critical part of the continued evolution of the Sea Ray brand.

This article originally appeared in Outboard magazine.

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