I love the smell of diesel exhaust in the morning. Mingle in a hint of fresh-ground chum, and we're talking real nose candy. Unfortunately, the morning I boarded Jarrett Bay's 54 Convertible, the scent of chum was being dissipated by winds gusting to 65 mph, making an offshore run out of the question, even in this big battlewagon. But despite the storm warnings, snapping flags, and uprooted trees, we were able to pull off the dock and get in our test. Unstoppable? Yeah, you could describe this boat that way.
RESIN HAPPY. The "protected" water inside the inlet had more foam on its surface than a piping hot latte. But when we opened up the throttles and started doing speed runs, the tremendous amount of Carolina flare in the 54 Convertible's bow - it's so extreme that from the flying bridge the bow looks rounded - knocked away every drop of spray. The razor-sharp entry sliced through the chop and the reversed hard chines kept the boat dead flat. If you want a boat that can take on the tough stuff, you're going to like the 54 Convertible.
This design is nothing new to Jarrett Bay. The company has used its traditional North Carolina charter boat hull design for many years. But our test boat had some rather unique features. For starters, unlike the standard cold-molded 54 Convertible, this one has internal framing at the owner's request. Framed boats, such as the Scarborough 61 Convertible ($1.3 million with 1,310-bhp diesels) give up some interior room to the frames, and this 54 Convertible is no exception. About 8" of space is sacrificed all the way around the hull. As a result, the forward stateroom is small, and the master suite is about the size of the guest stateroom on most comparable production boats, like the Hatteras 55 ($1.46 million with twin 1,350-bhp Caterpillar diesels).
THE HIGHS: More fishing room than any competitor-and more rodholders, too. Seaworthiness is as good as you'll find in a boat of this size, so there will be more fishin' and less wishin'.
THE LOWS: Framed construction eats into interior space. Spartan interior may turn off your better half. Towel and tissue racks in the head rattle. Sleeping accommodations are minimal.
So just what is the upside? Framing is one of the strongest ways to build a boat, and if it's done right, it doesn't necessarily have to add on tons of weight. In fact, our framed-out 54 Convertible came in on the light side at 48,000 pounds. Impressive when compared to the framed Scarborough 61 Convertible at 58,000 or the Hatteras 55 at 70,000. Some builders argue that other, more modern methods are stronger and that building a framed boat takes too long. And they may be right. But in this case, the proof is in the ride. At wide open throttle, this boat flattened chop without so much as a jiggle at the helm. What about construction time? Yes, it took longer than the norm, but Jarrett Bay was willing to manufacture this beauty to the customer's specifications, not to the specifications that maximize construction speed.
But don't sell framed boats short; there's another advantage this construction technique holds. Its sound-deadening properties are incredible. This doesn't make much of a difference at the helm, where much of the noise is caused by wind and engines, but as we cruised I walked through the cabin, where most of the noise you hear is from the hull hitting the water, and found this sound to be nearly nonexistent as the boat punched through waves.
So just what's inside those shiny hullsides? The framing consists of fir and top-of-the-line Okume marine ply. The hull gets a layer of Okume, then planking of juniper and white cedar. Engine beds are fir with aluminum caps, through-bolted in place. Sound like a blast from the boat-building past? Sure, but with one important exception - West System epoxy encapsulates every inch of the wood, inside and out. Calling it "sturdy" or "beefy" doesn't do it justice.
TRADITIONAL EDGE. What's it like on the inside? Let's just say that John Wayne would love it, but Martha Stewart wouldn't step aboard for fear of testosterone poisoning. No purple drapes, cushy berths, or velvet and brocade pillow shams. Much of the potential stateroom space (which, you'll remember, was limited in the first place) is turned into a walk-in tackle closet. Dozens of rods plus a full complement of tackleboxes will fit in there, with enough room left over for your extra spools of line, harnesses, and the like.
I didn't like the towel and tissue racks in the head - they rattled. But the bottom line is, despite this boat's die-hard dedication to fishing, once you get past the space limitations, there's little to complain about belowdecks. The overall look may be Spartan, but there are high-quality finishing touches. Countertops, for example, are finished in faux granite and are fiddled. Cabinetry is teak, and the hatches and doors fit perfectly. The galley sole is teak and holly, as is the sole in the day head. Doors are teak and have positive catches on the back, so when you swing them open, they stay open.
No owner will ever call the 54 Convertible poorly equipped. Sub-Zero under-counter refrigerator/freezers; a TV, VCR, and CD stereo; and an icemaker are standard. Pop open the cabinet along the starboard bulkhead to expose a fax machine suspended on a shelf over a liquor cabinet. Right next door is an extra compartment that holds a spare VCR.
UNLIMITED SPREAD. Construction and performance aside, the 54 Convertible holds one advantage over almost all competing sportfishermen: sheer cockpit volume. With fish-fighting territory at 175 square feet, excluding the deck space taken up by coolers and rigging stations (usually included when a manufacturer specs out cockpit footage), it has 25 to 50 square feet more than the Hatteras and the Scarborough, depending on what you include in the measurement. That's as much or more cockpit space than most boats 10' longer. Fishing features you won't find elsewhere include a gaffbox under the cockpit cooler on the port side, which runs forward under the cabin sole to accommodate gaffs and tagging sticks up to 8' long. Most production convertibles have gaff holders under the gunwales, which eats slightly into cockpit acreage. And check out those gunwales - they're only 1'10" over the water. Most boats put you another 2" to 4" up, making it harder to bill a billfish or dehook a fish that's still in the water.
Another feature you'll love is the number of rodholders. With five in each gunwale and another half-dozen rocket launchers on the bridgedeck rail, the 54 Convertible can tote a spread as big as any captain's cajones. Of course, Jarrett Bay will install as many rodholders as you request, but bear in mind that all 10 of them are included in the list cost. On some competitors, they'd add another grand or more. So you have room to set out a zillion lines, the rodholders to keep them out, and an easy reach to the water. But bring a real beast up to the transom, and you'll find even more to appreciate. The transom door is about 3' wide, mounted on massive piano hinges, and is close to waterline height. That's one reason scientists from North Carolina's Tag-a-Giant bluefin tuna-tagging program use a Jarrett Bay that's been retrofitted with a landing cradle. Assuming the fish you boat is no larger than a full-grown man, it'll fit into the fishbox in the transom. Two things to note about that box: It has a split, hinged hatch, so you won't throw out your back every time you open it, and it drains directly overboard. No pumps and macerators to clog or burn out, no liners to remove and dump, just a plain, simple overboard drain that's idiot proof. So fire up those diesels, mix up a brew of chum, and inhale deeply. Ahhhh.
LAST WORD. For sheer fishing ability, this one is near impossible to beat.
Displacement (lbs., approx.)....48,000
Minimum cockpit depth ..........1'10"
Max. cabin headroom..6'3"
Fuel capacity (gal.)...800
Water capacity (gal.)..150
Price (w/standard power) ..........$995,000
Price (w/test power) ..........$995,000
STANDARD POWER: Twin 800-bhp V-8 Detroit Diesel inboards.
OPTIONAL POWER: Twin diesel inboards to 1,600 bhp total.
TEST BOAT POWER: Twin 800-bhp Detroit Diesel DDEC 892 V-8 diesel inboards with 892 cid, 5.04" bore x 5.59" stroke, swinging 28" x 30" three-bladed Nibral props through 2.0:1 reductions.
STANDARD EQUIPMENT (major items): Teak interior; Sub-Zero under-counter refrigerator/freezer; entertainment center w/TV, VCR, and CD stereo; rigging station w/2 tackle drawers, bait cooler, sink, and cutting board; cockpit drink/food cooler; transom door; 6 rocket launchers; 10 gunwale-mounted rodholders; overboard-draining fishbox; gaff/tag stick stowage compartment.