Nestled at the mouth of a river running to sea along the mid-Atlantic coast is a top-secret facility where Volvo Penta tests and develops new engines. I could reveal the location, but then my life may be forfeited. No kidding. Boating remains one of the few magazines to get behind the barbed wire. Security here is tighter than an El Al departure from Tel Aviv’s airport — and with good reason. Some of the best propulsion engineers, engine technicians and test drivers in the world put motors, drives and installation practices through their paces prior to retail release. With millions in development costs on the line, preventing competitors from getting a whiff is job one.
While there, I tested the just-released stern-drive joystick, new engine management systems and other things on which I’m still under a gag order. But as sometimes happens while on assignment, a new story dropped in my lap.
Volvo Penta maintains a fleet of 20-something boats at the test center. These run five days a week, in all kinds of weather, year-round. “The only times we stop are for lightning and poor visibility,” deadpanned test-center manager Bob Crocker. The boats here are used more in a week than most are used in a year. Many of the test boats are in perpetual need of structural repair as a result of this accelerated aging. But a few just keep on going. They are Crocker’s go-to boats, the toughest boats in the world.
The Volvo Penta Marine Engine Test Center looks like any boatyard in America: a tiny village of sheds, barns and offices, complete with a Travelift and a fuel dock, scattered about some gravel-strewn waterfront acreage. Heading to the dock, Crocker and I cut between several boats on the hard. I stopped to comment on the glaring need one had for repair. Its hull-to-deck joint had failed, the pulled screws, shredded ’glass and drooping rub rail creating a sinister grin.