By Mark Rothfield

First, the confession: forgive me, father for, in 27 years of boat testing, only rarely have I berthed a large, expensive sportscruiser.

Mates’ boats and chartered boats, sure. Countless times. But with a brand-spanking test boat comes increased anxiety and, frankly, the damage risks exceed the reward of additional knowledge.

Boat dealers, as boat testers know, are utterly anal when it comes to protecting their investments. They make us shed our shoes, for heaven’s sake, so if topsides were to be scratched the hapless tester would be diced into bite-sized chunks and cast over the side as berley.

Our car and motorcycle brethren suffer no such slings and arrows. Indeed, they’re not allowed in the union until they’ve written off a Rav or buggered a BMW’s gearbox. The difference is that it takes time to familiarise oneself with a vessel and the vagaries of marina berths, whereas even teenage daughters can reverse-park a car.

It’s not just testers feeling the stress, though. Surveys have shown that the greatest fear of owning a boat is not fire or sinking, but simply getting back into the pen without doing damage or being embarrassed in front of family and friends.

“We lose a lot of sales to people who are scared of handling a boat,” laments Sydney Sea Ray dealer Andrew Short. “This should alleviate that fear.”

The ‘this’ he’s referring to is Zeus, the long-awaited engine pod system conceived from a Cummins/MerCruiser Diesel (CMD) dalliance, thence installed in a Sea Ray 44 Sundancer for its Australian debut. And just as the mythical Greek god wielded enormous power and authority, ditto his namesake.

At the heart of the system, from the driver’s perspective, is a standard joystick that makes berthing as logical and intuitive as toggling your mobile phone or playing a computer game. Port, starboard, forward, aft, spin … all with one hand, ma, not the three you sometimes need to operate throttles and thrusters.

Above: No wonder they call it a joystick… manoeuvring is as simple as a twist or a turn.
Centre: The diagram indicates the attitude of the drives to move sideways.
Bottom: The drives are protected in hull tunnels and are fitted with sacrificial skegs in the event of a collision.

No longer are you driving a tank, but a nimble aircraft. It’s perhaps the most fun man’s had with a joystick since he was a baby in the bathtub. Honestly, even I could park the Sea Ray on a sixpence – and those who can’t might consider golf …

ZEUS v IPS

Pods and joysticks ain’t new, of course. Volvo’s IPS hit the ground running some time ago and has been fondly embraced by buyers and builders alike; even traditionalists such as Riviera.

CMD insists it began developing Zeus at around the same time – 15 years ago – but it took a different tack. Most notably, where IPS’s forward-facing props pull through the water, Zeus has rear-facing props which push in the conventional manner.

A skeg takes the brunt of a debris strike and is designed to shear off in a severe collision. Furthermore, the drive pod resides in a hull tunnel rather than on the flat section required by IPS, affording even more protection while reducing draft.

Accordingly, Zeus can cope with a steeper deadrise – 19 degrees in the case of the 44 Sundancer – so you don’t have to sacrifice soft ride. In-house naval architects advise builders on integrating the tunnels and redistributing the weight (the motors are further aft than with conventional straight shafts).

Zeus brings to the bargaining table an automatic trim system, an autopilot and a GPS-based virtual ‘anchoring’ system called ‘Skyhook’. Price-wise, too, it appears to have an edge because once bigger engines, thrusters, electronic controls and an autopilot are added to a shaft-drive equivalent, it works out at roughly the same price. IPS boats tend to carry a premium of about $5000 over their conventional counterparts.

CMD is currently winning the horsepower race, offering the Zeus 3800 with Quantum Series 8.3-litre diesels in 550hp and 600hp variants, along with the smaller 3500 pod that mates with a 5.9-litre powerplant in the 380-480hp sector.

Such is the claimed efficiency, that twin 600s would suit the 52 or 55 Sundancers, which are normally candidates for 800s. Sea Ray has a 70-footer nearing completion and Andrew Short says they’re tossing up whether to have twin 1400hp diesels or four 600s with Zeus.

SHAFT V POD

Where the two pod systems can slug it out on a level playing field is in winning the hearts and minds of the old-fashioned shaft types – and that is likely to present a greater challenger. There will always be disbelievers, who wait until something new proves itself over a period of time.

Sea Ray will continue offering a vee-drive version of the 44, among others, as European buyers, in particular, tend to take a wait-and-see approach. But new buyers will need no convincing, nor will those open to new technology. Pods are the future, no question.


Tight berths are a breeze with Zeus.

Tellingly, our test boat was subsequently sold to the owner of a shaft-drive 44; a proficient boat handler, who appreciated the high-speed benefits more than anything else.

“In its shaft form, with twin 500s, the 44 achieves 29 knots,” said Short. “With twin 425s and Zeus drives, it does 33 knots. It’s about 30 per cent more fuel efficient, so it gives you longer range and saves you when refuelling.”

To suggest that the 2003-vintage 44 is a fairly average sportscruiser may be understating it, because it has been a good seller, but certainly there are others of its ilk. Nevertheless, Zeus has transformed it into an absolute stunner. I’ve never known a boat this size to perform so well – 10 tonnes of sportscruiser behaving like a one-tonne runabout.

When you think about a conventional configuration, everything is straight – the strakes, the tunnels, the props – and you have two tiny rudders trying to deflect the water. It’s a struggle. But with articulating drives, it now reacts like a jet boat.

Acceleration is enhanced by the drag reduction and the direct drive angle. The big Sundancer showed barely a hint of bow lift as it rose to the plane and its mid-range response was exceptional. Revs maxed out at 2870rpm, with 32.7 knots showing on the Raymarine E120, and a fuel burn of 170 litres per hour.

Spinning in a nicely compressed water flow, the counter-rotating props refused to cavitate as the hull hurled through impossibly tight turns at 30 knots. The fly-by-wire steering maintained a light and positive feel, while a good degree of heel helped reduce G-forces.

The trim tab system has both automatic and manual modes and at certain revs there’s a marked difference – with the trim activated, the hull can be doing 15 knots; without the trim, only 11 or so knots.

QUIET QUANTAMS

We would be remiss if we didn’t give electronic diesels their due. With common rail fuel injection, turbocharging and aftercooling, the Quantums are quiet, fuel efficient and incredibly clean throughout the rev range, with the exhaust exiting through the prop hubs.

Being inherently compact, and unfettered by vee drives, there’s ample servicing room to the front and rear of the blocks. A fibreglass cover conceals the pod’s working bits.

Will the pods increase maintenance? As the devil’s advocate, I put that question to CMD’s sales and marketing manager, Paul Zeinert, and he was adamant they won’t.

Servicing intervals, apparently, are the same as those for the Quantums – every 12 months or 250 hours – and externally the anodes and running gear can be inspected upon the annual hull antifouling (the bronze drive units don’t need antifouling). And you don’t have to lift the craft out for gearbox oil changes.

A multi-function Smartcraft gauge is an integral part of the package. It displays rpm, fuel usage, fuel range, steering position – even the level and direction of thrust from the pods. By monitoring the estimated range, the driver can find the most efficient cruise speed.

Electronic diesels are well proven, but should something go wrong a fault code is displayed on the diagnostic screen. Computers can be more fickle in the ocean environment and the Zeus – plus IPS for that matter – relies on a microprocessor and fly-by-wire wizardry for throttle and steering (electronic actuators perform functions formerly done with a mechanical connection).

The designers have thought of this. If the joystick is disabled, you can revert to manual control with the throttles and helm and it can operate on one engine, if necessary. A back-up pump will cover for hydraulic steering failure.

Beloved bow thrusters aren’t immune to failure, either. When used for too long they can overheat and cut out, or keyways have been known to fail. As well, they lose efficiency as marine growth builds up.

PURE BLISS

There’s no such limitation with the Zeus joystick, only pure bliss. It disengages the moment the throttles are touched or with the press of a button … that way it won’t engage if bumped while in neutral. There’s no lag as the gears engage and you can rev up to 1900rpm, which gives ample thrust.

Top: Engine rooms are a lot more spacious without shafts and V-drives.
Centre: Below deck or above, there are plenty of ways to relax on Sea Ray’s Sundancer 44.

It’s quite sensitive, in fact.

“My wife (Kylie) doesn’t get much of a go at parking with me on board, but she tried it when the boat arrived,” Andrew Short said. “She was a natural and did it perfectly, yet we’ve had guys give it a go and they tend to be too rough.”

The autopilot is a cinch to operate, allowing the skipper to follow a compass course or track to a waypoint. At the time of writing, the Skyhook mode had to overcome some public liability hurdles, but the advantages are enormous.

If you’ve ever approached a wharf and realised the fenders and mooring lines hadn’t been set, you’ll understand. The boat will remain in position indefinitely, give or take a few metres, until the throttles or steering wheel are touched.

In keeping with the ease of handling, the test boat had a number of other excellent options. The hydraulic-lift swim platform, for example, affords some 2.5 metres of boarding space, while taking the heavy lifting out of dinghy launching and retrieval. The fibreglass hardtop … well, who wouldn’t want that?

The genset was upgraded to a 9kW Onan, chosen for its quietness and the convenience of being serviced by Cummins technicians. With two televisions downstairs, another in the cockpit, and an integrated vacuum system, the extra power won’t be wasted.

Further dressing up the cockpit is a glossy teak table, the centrepiece of a huge C-shaped lounge. The helm station gets a bucket and twin-seat bench.

In the saloon is a crescent-shaped lounge to port (it converts to a double), a cosy mid-cabin that serves as a conversation area by day and a spacious linear galley that serves all the meals you’d want by day or night. A shower/head is also to starboard.

Owners are treated to a split ensuite, with the dedicated shower compartment to starboard and the head to port. A comfy island double fills the forepeak.

Dark cherrywood blends with creamy leather and Corian to affect a stately air; remarkable for a marque once known for its garishness.

It’s the only thing subdued about the 44 Sundancer. The Zeus drives represent a Quantum leap – pun intended – for its performance and personality.

They could park one in my berth anytime. Might even do it myself…

 

SPECIFICATIONS: SEA RAY SUNDANCER 44

LOA:

13.72m

Beam:

4.27m

Deadrise:

19º

Displacement:

10.2 tonnes

Power:

CMD QSB5.9 425hp with Zeus pod drives.

Fuel:

1270lt

Price (as optioned):

$790,000

Test boat:

Andrew Short Marine, tel (02) 9969 1017.

PERFORMANCE

RPM

Speed (knots)

RPM

Speed (knots)

600

5.5

2000

16.4

1000

8

2400

24.2

1500

9.7

2870

32.7

 

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