If you ran the Zeus-powered Sea Ray 44 Sundancer, you'd be impressed by its acceleration, aggressive maneuverability, and joystick docking. But you need to find more than one great feature on a boat before you judge it worth buying. You need to be overwhelmed with several great features, which is why you'll quickly appreciate Sea Ray's new 44 Sundancer.
The 44 Sundancer has deep hatch gutters, excellent overall drainage, and stowage lockers with louvered doors for ventilation. In its engine compartment, there is a through-bolted hull-to-deck joint, internal engine seawater strainers, and exhaust runs supported by padded metal hangers. At the bow you'll find easy access to the anchor locker. And when you look inside that locker, you'll discover a chain stop to secure the rode so the windlass doesn't bear the load, plus wiring that's heavily chafe protected as it passes between the hullside and bulkhead.
When I rolled up my sleeves and slipped the docklines to begin testing in earnest, the list of impressive features got longer and longer, until at the end, I concluded that this is one great express cruiser. It's not perfect, as evidenced by the black 12-volt wires, which need to be yellow to comply with ABYC recommendations; nevertheless, the 44 Sundancer is one terrific boat.
A Lesson in Luxury
Boat quality, especially when considering express cruisers, needs to be judged by many criteria beyond nuts and bolts. Luxury is an example. Slippery as a fish to pin down and grade, luxury is an important component for a cruiser. It's an intangible, but when you step aboard the 44 Sundancer, you feel it.
The deep-seated, high-backed lounges with flat-stitched upholstery are not just comfortable, they're inviting. The crescent-shaped wetbar, with its faux-granite top, gleaming stainless keeper rail, and cabinet- quality doors concealing refrigerator, stowage, and trash bin, are not only functional but entertaining. At the helm, a doublewide bench serves as companion seating to the captain's chair, itself a plush, pedestal-mounted swivel bucket with armrests. The helm console, the entire area under the windshield between the helm and the companionway hatch, is a black, faux-granite slab into which are set the accessory switches and big-screen electronics, proving that even an equipment panel can be elegantly designed. On the bow, the double chaise lounge goes above and beyond the meaning of sunpad -- each side can independently lie flat or its backrest can be lifted.
Step through the companionway and down into the cabin. The "space," as realtors and interior designers use the word, is fabulous. The expanse of sole between the portside dinette and the galley to starboard is generous enough to allow guests to mill about. But what really lends openness and depth here is the sliding aft cabin hatch. Full height to the headliner and 4' wide, you open this door when it's time to entertain. This doubles the length of the salon and adds another level, as the aft stateroom is a step down from the salon proper. When socializing is done and sleep is on the horizon, slide the door closed to create a sunken retreat into which guests can retire in privacy. Ingeniously, the day head lies behind the slider, so at night it becomes a private WC for your guests.
The master stateroom lies behind a pocket door. Its innerspring island berth, two illuminated hanging lockers, and 20" flat-screen TV give it comfort and capacity. Convenience comes in the form of the split head. This arrangement comprises two compartments -- a portside shower and a starboard side commode and vanity. Both are examples of functional elegance, with frosted privacy portholes, faux-stone accents, plus ample linen stowage and excellent drainage for ease of maintenance. The split head's chief advantage is the ability for one person to shower without impeding another's ability to...do other stuff.
Walkthrough done, now have some fun. Flip the bolster on the helm seat, assume a wide-spread stance, and hit the throttles. Twin Zeus pod drives deliver a takeoff more akin to that of a big, triple outboard center console than an inboard cruiser. Handling on plane is quick and responsive, the 44 Sundancer replying with brisk, leaning turns to every revolution of the wheel. Rough seas were scarce on test day, but the boat wakes I hurtled over at 38 mph didn't elicit bangs and bumps. However, I wasn't impressed with the 9 degrees of bowrise the 44 Sundancer exhibited while attaining plane without the trim tabs deployed. But with the tabs down, it gets over the hump at a maximum of 5 degrees and didn't impede my ability to see over the bow. You can apply the tabs conventionally, but Zeus offers automatic trim tabs. Simply push the button to activate the system and the boat trims itself as needed. Auto-tab is just one of many subsystems you get with a Zeus-powered boat. Others include SmartCraft diagnostics, Vessel View LCD screen helm display, and Sky Hook, a one-touch station-holding feature with GPS precision.
Sea Ray isn't alone in offering a high-performing, high-class cruiser. Four Winns' V458 is comparable, yet set apart by its huge extended swim platform and unique split level helm/cockpit layout. It costs $709,092 with twin 435-bhp Volvo Penta IPS 600 tractor drives. Formula's 45 Yacht is a bigger boat, also powered by IPS 600s, which runs $962,880. Both the Four Winns and the Formula have coupe-style hardtops compared to the 44 Sundancer's open hardtop. Both offer IPS joystick docking control, which is as intuitive to use as the Zeus system.
These three boats offer three different flavors of express cruising. The Four Winns has a decided bias toward topside entertaining. The Formula boasts technical prowess and fineness of finish. The 44 Sundancer provides a more intimate platform for entertaining. My advice? Test all three to see which one makes you say, "Whee!"
MSRP: Standard power - $559,312 Test power - $703,519 ****
Contact: 800.772.6287 www.searay.com