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Smoke On The Water

High Speed Powerboats Offer Thrills--and Chills--to Adventurous Boaters and Their Wallets
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 2)

Going the used-boat route through brokers and newspaper ads has its pros and cons. One distinct advantage is the lower cost. A buyer can get a six-month exposure to offshore by the "50-in, 50-out" approach, that is, purchasing a boat for $50,000 and recouping most of his investment if the boat is properly maintained.

"If you buy a new V-bottom for $250,000 and put hours on those motors, you get hit hard [financially]," says Fort Lauderdale broker Curtis Chapman, the son of Nick Chapman, who did celebrated hull design work for Don Aronow. "But for the guy who's never operated a boat before and is looking to discover what type of accessories and cabin comforts he really wants, buying used is like leasing. If he buys an old Cigarette, or some other boat with marquee value, he'll be able to get out of it without coming upside-down hard."

There are risks here, however. An older boat has taken a beating in the water, endured shock after shock, and that can easily mean fractures in the inner core of the hull. A naval engineer or surveyor can detect those flaws and must be hired to inspect the boat's structure. But since boat buying is often on impulse, without any lemon laws protecting consumers, Chapman says, "It's easy, very easy, to get screwed."

Engines are another major concern, mainly because these steel blocks with aluminum parts are being exposed to their worst enemy, salt water. "You can never tell what corrosion and deterioration is going on inside an engine," says Apache builder and throttleman Bob Saccenti, the winner of numerous international races. "The magic question here is how many hours have these gasoline engines logged--200, 300, 400? A surveyor can only check motors to a slight degree, and if the seller says he's rebuilt the engines, the buyer must demand to see the invoices. My advice is buyer beware."

Motors, whatever the power package of four-barreled carburetors, crankshafts and cams, can be replaced. Repowering a 35-foot boat with twin-600 horsepower MerCruisers will cost about $60,000. But since there are so many blind areas on used boats, such as the electronics and the fuel systems behind those gleaming gauges, future expenses must also be factored against the cost of buying new. It's intoxicating to find a deal; there's a rush Saccenti calls "a fever." Yet the smart buyer also knows when to step back to avoid getting burned.

Buying a new boat also poses numerous challenges and choices. The buyer must first decide how he's going to use the boat. Will it be a family pleasure craft, loaded down with a cabin, showers and other creature comforts? Or is the boat total testosterone swagger, stripped of weighty accessories, and only race-equipped for pushing down hard on the throttle?

Balancing realistic lifestyle demands against the fantasies of breakneck speed affects everything from motor size to cockpit design and maintenance. The family boat designed with lots of room to move around, overnight sleeping accommodations and engines topping out at 80 mph is a whole different animal than the much lighter, 100 mph-plus racer. The pleasure cruiser, riding deeper and smoother in the water than catamarans and other superpowered boats, may lose WOW appeal. Yet lost sexiness has to be weighed against servicing far more "radical" engines, and that, even in the hands of pros, airborne bay-busters are a jarring rollercoaster ride.

"On one of our gentleman's performance boats, a guy can hold a drink in one hand or put an arm around his girlfriend and still enjoy a smooth ride," says Rick Dubois, a Deerfield Beach, Florida, sales agent for Formula, an Indiana company specializing in $70,000 to $300,000 boats designed for "safe and sociable" family outings.

"Unlike the Cigarette or Apache, we're not out for full speed. A Formula stresses comfort; it won't beat anyone up with its sounds or crashing spray on the water. Even better, you won't get beat up in the yard, cleaning and repairing those radical race engines that cause many more maintenance problems."

Formula, along with its much-heralded competitor Fountain, are production boat companies. The flamboyant Reggie Fountain, the world record-holder in a V-bottom at 131.94 mph, will build specific boats on demand. But in this category of pleasure V-bottoms which, according to a Fountain catalogue, is filled with "fast-fading rivals like Wellcraft, Cigarette, Sonic, Baja and Hustler," the main thrust is on boats made on the assembly line.

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