The big sow drum in ponce inlet feed during the change of tide. You get a strong bite for half an hour or so, then - poof! - it's all over. I'm spending a good bit of time waiting for that magic moment as I test Boston Whaler's new 26 Conquest. When the moment finally arrives, we go from dead quiet to adrenaline-pumping chaos in five seconds flat. Unfortunately, my line snaps and the big one gets away. "Okay," I say to myself, "stay cool. Rerig and get your bait back in the water, fast." But, as is often the case, I'm on an unfamiliar boat. "Think, Rudow, think. Where did the Whaler guy put those hooks?" I spin around and face the integrated tackle station, just aft of the helm. There are four leaders hanging from the Starboard rig holder, a pair of pliers, and a bait knife in the slots right behind the rigs. All I need is a swivel. It takes two seconds to find it in the lower drawer.
I start tying my knot and barely notice the three-level casino ship passing off our stern. As I'm trimming the tag end, the ship's wave hits - good thing there's a grabrail running around the rigging station. Why is this important? Too often fishermen try to stand upright, regardless of sea conditions, in front of the rigging station. Of course, you could add a grabrail to just about any boat, but that's not the point. Bottom line: Whaler didn't just bolt down a cutting board and call it a rigging station. It went the extra mile building this component - from that grabrail to the hook, pliers, and knife holders to the sink to the deep stowage drawers. And, yeah, the rest of the boat is built with the same kind of attention to detail.
THE HIGHS: A tackle station to die for. Unsinkable, unassailable construction techniques. Handling is sporty; seakeeping is awesome. Lots of fishing goodies come standard.
THE LOWS: Bowrise while coming onto plane is an issue; cruising at slow planing speeds is difficult. Spring struts on the tackle station and livewell won't last much more than a season.
SCALERATOR. That brainy, briny tackle station (a $1,127 option) is built like a brick, except for the spring strut supporting the top (those things rarely last an entire season). But check out the through-bolts where it meets the cockpit sole, ensuring it'll never move even a fraction of an inch. The same overbuilt approach shows in the inch-thick legs of the transom bench lounge, which folds flat to retain fishing space. Now look up and check out the hardtop. It's balsa cored for maximum strength and minimum weight. But more impressive is the pipework supporting it. Eyeball those buttery-smooth welds, then do a few pull-ups on the pipes. I did, with no ill effect. Glance at the placement of the rocket launchers, too. See how they're off to the sides, not spaced evenly along the top? Two advantages: You can step up on the walkaround and easily reach them, and tall crewmembers won't scar their foreheads.
Of course, you didn't expect anything less from Boston Whaler, did you? Its boats are built with that you-can't-sink-me attitude. How does the 26 Conquest differ from other boats? First off, there are two hull molds, not one. The outer hull mold gets a shot of gel coat, a skin coat, and hull laminates. Next, phenolic backing plates, a high-density, low-weight polyboard-like material made from micro-thin layers of resin and paper, are installed at all mounting points. As the inner hull is laid up and the resin on both is still wet, the molds are latched together and the space between them is pumped full of foam. The deck cap is then attached, sealed with 3M's 5200 adhesive/sealant, and screwed every 6" to 8". The transom is cored with a single 1 1/2"-thick section of marine ply, rather than bonding several 1/2" sections together, as some builders do. Resins used throughout the boat are the top-shelf vinylester variety, and the gel coat is Armourcote, another high-quality component.
BUTTER BUMPS. Aside from the fact that the 26 Conquest locksteps Whaler's unsinkable heritage, there are some side benefits to these construction techniques. First and foremost is a ride that's smoother than those of most boats in its class. After that drum bite ended, I fired up the twin 200-hp Optimax outboards and went for a joyride through five- and six-foot whitecaps roaring through the inlet. We hopped and we bopped, without slamming one iota. Vibrations? Rattles? None.
Awesome as the ride is, performance could be improved if the center of gravity were shifted forward in the 26 Conquest. No mechanicals or tanks of any kind are located forward of the helm, which might be why the bow takes a long time to get over the hump. At 3500 rpm we were still inclined to seven degrees, which left me barely able to see over the bow and unable to hold a fuel-efficient plane at slow speeds. Remember, however, that our test boat was fresh out of the factory. A dedicated angler could load a couple hundred pounds of gear into the cabin to ease this problem. Worried you'll eat up all the room belowdecks? Don't be - there's a sizable mid-cabin berth aft of the entry. It will accommodate the kids on overnighters and hold plenty of gear on daytrips.
Another notable performance feature is the 26 Conquest's ability to corner like a sports car at high speeds. Anglers rarely need to crank the wheel hardover while cruising, but if a board or a crab pot float pops up 10' in front of this machine, it won't ruin your day. Another fishboat in this class that has impressive handling is the Grady-White 282 Sailfish ($103,250 with twin 200-hp Yamaha HPDI outboards). Although its top end is 2.1 mph slower than the 26 Conquest's, the 282 Sailfish doesn't run with a nose-high attitude when its throttles are down, and it holds plane at slower speeds. Pursuit's 2870 WA ($100,225 with twin carbureted 225-hp outboards) is another contender in this high-end category. It also tops out at about 46 mph, despite holding 42 more gallons of fuel than the 26 Conquest and 14 more gallons than the 282 Sailfish.
CAST ACTION HERO. Okay, so the 26 Conquest has an unusually well thought out and constructed rigging station, but what about its other fishing features? The 30-gallon livewell in the port corner of the transom is easily accessible and rounded to protect your baits. However, another spring strut rears its head when you lift the livewell hatch.
The hardtop sports two spreader lights and lifejacket stowage on its underside. Dual fishboxes fitted with diaphragm pumps hold the catch of the day. You wish they drained directly overboard? Pull the plugs when the boat is on plane, and they do. There are two rodracks under each of the gunwales, and four more keep unused rigs safely stowed in the cabin. Coaming bolsters line the cockpit. And in addition to the tackle stowage in the rigging station, there's a triple-drawer tacklebox under the helm.
Ground fishermen will love the massive anchor locker and the integrated bow pulpit with roller - it's molded in, not a bolted-on afterthought - and everyone will like the stainless-steel pipe toerails. The bow is fishable, too, thanks to the beefy bowrail and easy walkaround. Like to keep your food and drinks separate from the fish? I don't know why - scales and slime only add to the taste - but if so, make good use of the 54-quart cooler mounted aft of the passenger's seat.
LAST WORD. Not only is it a fast, high-tech fish fighter, it's also a 28'8"-long PFD.
Displacement (lbs., approx.)....5,200
Minimum cockpit depth..2'3"
Max. cabin headroom...6'0"
Fuel capacity (gal.)..192
Water capacity (gal.)...30
Price (w/standard power) ..........$102,351
Price (w/test power) ..........$102,351
STANDARD POWER: Twin 200-hp Optimax V-6 outboards.
OPTIONAL POWER: Twin outboards to 450 hp total.
TEST BOAT POWER: Twin 200-hp Optimax V-6 outboards with 185 cid, 3.60" bore x 3.00" stroke, swinging 15 3/4" x 17" three-bladed ss props through 1.75:1 reductions.
STANDARD EQUIPMENT (major items): Telescopic swim ladder; toerails; cockpit coaming bolsters; freshwater cockpit shower; bow pulpit w/roller; hydraulic trim tabs; removable 54-qt. cooler; pressure water system; hydraulic tilt steering; windshield wipers; lighted livewell; raw-water washdown; integrated fishboxes w/pumpout; portable head; CO detector; 4 under-gunwale rodracks; 4 cabin rodracks.