"Mid Size Power Boats": A Guide for Discreminating Buyers - by David Pascoe


Sea Ray 55

Sea Ray 55
1997 Model
Length 54'10" Engines DD6V92TA
Beam 15'0" Speed Not determined
Draft 4'2" Production Run 1992-1999

 

Background

As we make our daily rounds in a city that unquestionably has more high end boats and yachts than any other, as we talk with brokers, dealers and yacht captains, Sea Ray is probably one of the most maligned builders around. It should come as no surprise, of course, that there's a more than just a bit of snobbery in the yachting business. Not in a place hallmarked by the likes of Merritt, Rybovich, Bertram, Garlington, Viking, Hatteras, and so on. Status symbols are the province of the rich, and those associated with them are quick to express their opinions.

Now, that is certainly less true in other boating centers, particularly regions like the Great Lakes where the lifestyles of the rich and famous are not quite as prevalent as they are here. Never-the-less, one of the largest and most glitzy Sea Ray dealerships exists in Pompano Beach, Florida where these boats are sold like hot dogs at a football game. There must be a reason for it, and indeed there is.

Many of the e-mails we receive contain statements such as, "You obviously don't like Sea Ray." Unfortunately, many people who read these reviews are not reading them closely. We never said anything about not liking Sea Ray; they get that impression from our constant chiding Sea Ray to do a better job. We have, in fact, said over and over that Sea Ray comes close to being a VERY GOOD boat, but "consistently falls maddeningly short." That's not a condemnation but an encouragement to do better. After all, they are marketing their boats in one of the richest, most exclusive regions in the world. For Sea Ray's part, if they want to compete with the best, then they have to be prepared to take their knocks when their gorgeous brochures don't quite live up to reality.

That said, we're going to take a look at this recent offering in light of Sea Ray's history, and the market to which they are aspiring. It's one thing to market to a well-to-do Midwest farmer or rancher buying his first big boat, something else again to a guy who is looking at his seventh boat.

The demise of Chris Craft years ago as the world leader in boat building has pretty much left Sea Ray holding that position for quite a few years now, at least in terms of sheer numbers. With a heritage of Midwest, fresh water boat building, Sea Ray had long been known for moderately priced family cruisers and runabouts, the quality of which -- at least here in Florida -- had long been questionable. We called them "fresh water boats" because of the low quality hardware, excessive use of plywood, vinyl and other  components that quite simply did not hold up well in this climate. But as with Chris Craft, these are boats designed for the  not-quite-rich, though the degree of Sea Ray pretentiousness these days, as compared to the last decade of Sea Rays, is clearly unmistakable. That, in large part, is what leads to the overt condescension

Times change, and over the years Sea Ray has aspired to the larger boat market, not always with success. In fact, in the mid to late 80's Sea Ray was putting out a 46' sport fisherman that we had never even heard of until several years ago when we got a look at one that was ten years old. Apparently they only made a few. What we found was almost laughable, what with engineering that could at best be called inept. We wrote a review on this boat, but then decided not to publish it. It was hard to keep a civil tongue about a boat that was basically stapled together, and had so much rotting plywood in it (including the hull stringers).

Since the late 80's Sea Ray has been trying to crack the larger boat market, with some degree of success, marketing boats up to 65' feet. And some of these larger boats have been less than stellar successes. Around these here parts, Sea Rays are commonly called cocktail cruisers for their over reliance on pseudo plush and trendy design, and coming up quite short on being classified as serious yachts. Too long on style, too short on substance. Good for the cocktail circuit on the Intracoastal, not so good for oceanic cruising, even if only hugging the Bahama Banks.

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It's the accumulation of little things, like this low quality reefer that has leaked condensation onto this maple veneer deck, plus the rusting of the steel reefer (inset). This is why we recommend against the use of these interior grade woods. Maple does not belong on a boat.

* * * * *

Recently tasked to evaluate this Sea Ray 55 Motor Yacht, I'd have to say I was pleasantly surprised. If you've read any of my previous reviews, you know that I've lambasted them pretty hard for products that come quite close to being reasonably good quality for the money, but somehow always seem to find a way of falling short by cutting the wrong corners in the wrong place. When you're marketing high end products such as yachts to sophisticated buyers, it's hard to get away with cutting the wrong corners. There is not much of that here.

The builder has to set a minimum standard for everything that goes into a yacht. If he's got high quality here, and low quality there, the thing that attracts the attention is the low quality. The design and materials need to be consistent, across the board, if you're going to establish something other than a chaotic a reputation. Otherwise, they'll get mixed reviews of the likes we've published. If you know your motor boats, you know that Hatterases were never high end yachts. Yet Hatteras achieved its somewhat over-rated reputation through a remarkable degree of consistency. Repeat, consistency. The quality was never first rate, but neither was it ever shabby. There was an obvious minimum standard that they never violated. Well, almost never. This, of course, over the years created an element of trust in their products that no amount of advertising could create. Conversely, Sea Ray has historically been addicted to slick advertising and products that superficially looked great. Which is not to say that it hasn't been effective at selling boats. What it hasn't done is to create that much needed element of trust by the knowledgeable yachtsmen.

This Sea Ray 55, which is a two year old boat that was little used, is probably one of the more consistent efforts we've seen lately. Overall, there was less junk intended to merely look good, and more stuff intended to BE good. More of an effort to be practical than merely stylish. Now, I can't say that I was impressed with the overall style of the yacht, for I thought the overall design was clumsy looking. But that can be a matter of opinion, so let's take a look at what resides beneath the surface appearances.

On the outside, the hardware is pretty good. Bits and pieces of plastic stuff were limited. Overall, there were few design faux pas. Anodized window frames are holding up well. There is little in the way of stress cracking found on decks or superstructure. Externally, it's fairly easy to keep clean as the amount of clutter is kept to a minimum.

Ergonometrically, she was overall pretty good. Getting around was easy with few speed bumps except for the side decks that narrowed down to a mere 6", making getting up to the foredeck less than easy. Up on the bridge, they sacrificed some of the seating area to give you space to get around the helm pedestal chairs. That's good, for on far too many boats the helmsman has to move out of the way for anyone to get to the other seats. That's not good.

Next, the heart of the matter, the systems that make everything work. Unquestionably, this has the best engine room I've seen coming out of Sea Ray. On a 55 footer, there is no reason why it shouldn't be. The engine room is neither large, nor stand up, but they wisely refrained from  trying to cram everything into that one space. Things like the air conditioning compressors, batteries and some other stuff is located in the lazarette area under the cockpit. Overall, the installations are tidy and well thought out. In fact, it actually looks better than our photos below would suggest. There is good access all around the main engines with no problem at all servicing major components.

Sea Ray 55 - Engine Room

Note that up front you got the fuel filters, and the oil filters nearly poke you in the eye. Amazing. Systems installations are fairly neat. The space is larger than it looks in these photos.

Sea Ray 55 - Engine Room

Look at this! The sea strainers are mounted in a place that, not only can you see them, but actually reach them to clean them out once in a while.

The Detroit 6V92TI engines are mounted on Ace mounts (the kind that seemingly never fail, and which we highly recommend) on a massive stringer system, so we're not going to have to worry about the engines doing the Chubby Checker twist, bending shafts and wrecking transmissions due to flexible engine mounts.  The fuel and oil filters are mounted front and center with a factory installed oil changing system. The sea strainers, which are things that require frequent service, as you can see by the photo above, are also front and center. No problem servicing at all. Nice, very nice. Particularly for the do-it-yourselfers, and will certainly make the captains happy. Overall, this engine room is a commendable effort.

Located in the lazarette are three large Cruisair compressors. Hey, get this, folks! No self contained air conditioner under your bed! Why do I rave about this? Well, for one thing, besides having pumps and plumbing scattered all over the place, you don't have the noise in the cabin, nor the condensation problems. Compressors with remote air handlers cost a whole lot more, but there's no way I'd want a self-contained air conditioner humming away under my bed. For the kind of money you pay, you expect something a bit more upscale than a floating camper.

Another admirable point is that there is not a lot of equipment scattered throughout the hull. Nearly everything is located in the lazarette or engine room. This greatly reduces maintenance costs and increases ease of servicing. Unlike many smaller models, there is a real deck in the engine room so you don't have to stand in bilge water, like you do on many of their smaller boats.

The overall placement and routing of plumbing systems is quite good, and there are no tangled masses of hoses and electrical wiring that can turn finding or fixing something into a Frankenstein nightmare. Triple kudos here.

Hull Detail Work.  Unlike a lot of Sea Ray's smaller boats, we found the hull design to be considerably better. No shoddiness in places you can't see just because you can't see it.  No exposed holes cut in plywood stringers and frames (see photo below). As usual, the inside is smooth and completely get coated, yet the framing system is considerably beefed up, and the internal access is a bit better. Personally, I think it's very bad that the entire interior of any hull below the water line is sealed off. If you should poke a hole in the bottom, there is virtually no way to reach it to plug the hole. People don't consider this to be very important until it happens to them.  But let me tell you about two recent cases where exactly that happened to a million dollar Hatteras and a Viking. Because the owner could reach the holes in the hull, and stuff them with rags, the boats were saved. Otherwise, they'd have been lost.

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Detail work like this limber hole in a stringer is encouraging . . .
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. . . . having to negotiate this 6 inch wide side deck is not. Moving down the long deck is quite awkward.  The hand rail hanging out beyond the rub rail will get damaged when it hits a piling.

There is also some good detail work, like the PVC sleeves in the limber holes through the stringers. We also found a lot fewer internal wood components whacked together with staples, nails or joined with aluminum angle brackets. This has been a major complaint against Sea Ray in the past.

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This is a plywood hull stringer in the ill-fated SeaRay 46 sport fish, circa 1987. Made of two sheets of plywood stapled together and covered with gelcoat and carpeting (no glass overlay), this stringer is badly rotted  as a result of a port hole leak. It is this sort of thing that makes the past hard to forget. Because of the sealed off design of the hull, it was not discovered and fixed until it was too late.

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At a time when other builders had long since started using all fiberglass liners, SeaRay was still using loads of plywood. And, to make matters worse, they put carpet over it. The aft bulkhead, storage compartment, seating and side panels on this ten year-old 27 footer are completely rotted out.

Our purpose here is not rub Sea Ray's nose in their past, but rather to show why discriminating boaters remain skeptical. This is the reputation they have to overcome.

The large lazarette area has what looks like a fairly well sealed bulkhead between the engine room. Why is this important? Well, if you haven't heard about the importance of water tight bulkheads in a boat, perhaps you should do some more reading. The struts and rudders attach to the hull back there. If you should hit a rock or coral head, they'll tear off, leaving holes in the bottom. If that compartment is fairly well sealed, you have a good chance of surviving without sinking. Historically, Sea Ray boats have had no bulkhead between engine room and lazarette. Or if they did, the openings were large enough to crawl through.

The electric wiring is neatly done, although there is some notable cost cutting here. A single 50 amp shore power line falls below the standard for a boat this size. Two are needed. The main panel is a bit minimalist with no slots for add-ons. On a yacht this size, you'd expect a multiplex system with rotary switches. (One 250 VAC rotary switch costs about $700, and on a Hatteras you'll find at least two) Instead, with a simplex system, when one power source goes out, you're out. On the other hand, there is a 12 and 24 volt system, each serviced by separate battery chargers. Frankly, this is the second yacht we've seen with this system recently and we can't quite understand the need for it. While the batteries are mounted in nice boxes (unlike that hideous mass of threaded rods and wing nuts Sea Ray usually provides). Unfortunately, one of the boxes is under an exhaust pipe and you can't get the cover off without a major fight.

One large flaw was the 1" square plastic guard rail. Now, this kind of plastic molding is excellent stuff, one of the few uses of plastic on a boat where it is highly suitable. But this rail is far, far too small for this size boat, and we can predict that it's not going to hold up well. In fact, there was already some major damage on one side. This is the kind of obvious bean counting that really hurts reputations.  It was also noted that the manner in which the bridge coaming is attached to the house top resulted in some serious washboarding, causing the side of the bridge coaming to look very wavy as you sight down the sides.

While there are some nice things to say about the bridge layout, there are some not-so-good things to say about many of the railings. For some strange reason, the bridge aft railing is only 24" high, actually making it quite dangerous that you'll fall off. The standard railing height is 30-32". And then the bow rails are canted outboard, beyond the rub rails. I don't need to tell you what will eventually happen here.

Searay 55 - Bridge and helm

The bridge and helm layout is generally okay. Mercifully, all the upholstered padding and stuff does not appear. Nor are there any wood cabinet doors. Notice the two stainless hand rails down low in front. Must be for children or midget operators.

Personally, I do not like  tiny little race car steering wheels, but that's what it's got. With the Hynautic steering system there is no problem turning it, but tiny little wheels on larger yachts not only  seems weird, but pose a bit of a steering problem.  For example, one can stand up and steer okay. But if you want to sit,  you have lean forward to reach the wheel, which causes a great deal of discomfort after a few minutes. But there is the autopilot, you say?  Sure, but try using it in the Intracoastal. The engine controls are also Hynautic, a better choice we think than electronic controls. We love the feel of these controls and highly recommend them.

The cockpit has what may be an optional molded fiberglass staircase up to the bridge. In my view, this thing takes up far too much cockpit space and I would rather have a plain old ladder. Even if I weren't a fisherman, I'd much rather have a tackle center with a freezer, sink and cabinet storage space than this awkward looking thing taking up nearly 25% of cockpit space. Sure, it makes getting up to the bridge easier, but not that much easier. Personally, I find tackle centers very useful even for the non fisherman as a place to wash hands, store tools and other junk, as well as using the freezer for keeping frozen foods on long trips.

The interior is, well, rather typically Sea Ray. Frankly, I think most builders today are going way overboard with too much plush. Ultra plush is fine on mega yachts, but on this size yacht, and the way people use them, it is not practical. Too much white, and too many non durables. Too much vinyl and fabrics to get stained and torn. Hey, that's fine if you don't mind footing the bill for redoing this stuff frequently. However, I can tell you most people will NOT foot the bill because by the time the boat is five years old, and it's all dirty, torn and worn out, we rarely ever see anyone replacing it. But, if you want that, that's what you get. Just remember that the cost of redoing it all gets very steep.

And you get a maple veneered galley sole, that all looks very nice and fancy. But when the el cheapo reefer inevitably leaked condensation all over it, the maple turned black, warped, and now looks all ugly and nasty. By el cheapo, we mean that it is steel framed and rusting badly.

While this yacht is something more than the standard cocktail cruiser, there are some factors that don't carry it beyond that descriptive adjective. Let's take a look at hull design. While the bottom is adequately veed to give a reasonably good ride, we have to seriously question the straight line shear. With the freeboard actually a tad lower at the bow than amidships, the design thinking here is questionable. If you know your boats, why on earth would you want to go out in the ocean with a low bow flare. Secondly, we've been recently testing integral platform boats with flimsy transom doors. In one case, backing down slowly in 2' seas, a wave over the transom took the door right off and put six inches of water in the cockpit, and even into the salon. 

Here's the problem with these spoon-billed bow, Euro style hulls. The bow overhang is like six to seven feet. The sheer line is flat, or even sloping downward. When meeting larger waves head on, or in a following sea, there's not enough buoyancy there to bring the bow up quickly enough. What happens, then, is the bow digs into the wave, not infrequently bringing blue water over the deck. Not good. People say, "Well, I'm never going out in that kind of weather." To which I say, "You hope!"  In fact, high seas don't necessarily keep us tied to the dock. Depends on what kind of seas they are. Many was the time when there were long, rolling ten footers out in the Gulfstream when there was no difficulty at all in crossing over to the Bahamas because the waves aren't steep. Yet with this hull design, you'd still have a hard time of it because this is basically a flat water design. This is truly a senseless stylistic sacrifice for no good reason. It's one very good reason that more experienced owners will snigger at the sight of boats like this. They know better.

I'd have to put this one in the near coastal cruising category, giving it a low mark for offshore operation.

The interior layout is one of the better features. Each of the three staterooms is sufficiently sized to limit any complaints. But while the master head and shower is okay, the shared guest head is not. It's an elbow knocker that you'd have a hard time putting your underwear on in. While the fairly long central companionway wastes a bit of space, there is enough to be wasted, with still enough cabin separation to make spending the night on board a pleasant experience without leading you to feel like you're in a motel for  midgets. Glazed bow hatches make it light and airy with a nice ambiance. I liked the starboard guest stateroom's size and layout better than the master. 

While the forward sections are loaded up with bird's eye maple cabinetry veneers, there's still a bit too much vinyl. While it tries for the appearance of  ultra richness, it fails to impress. Birdseye maple set  next to vinyl is rather like mounting a diamond in an aluminum ring.  While there's really nothing wrong with that, my own feeling is that I don't much care for the psuedo-riche. It's like a cheap shirt with a fancy label; it's not fooling  anybody. I'll take the cheap shirt without the fancy label.

Personally, I did not like the salon/galley layout, but this clearly a personal judgment. Some may like it, but it reminded me too much of a motor home. For one thing, there is no physical separation, nor any sense of separation of salon area from galley. The galley is in the salon, separated only by a counter space. A high counter back rail, or a set of drop cabinets from the ceiling would, in my view would have avoided this. So what's wrong with that? Here they've created a sense of ultra plush interior with the galley set in the middle of it all. It doesn't fit. A kitchen by any other name is still a kitchen, and it does not belong in your salon. This is not an efficiency apartment; it's a 55 foot yacht. And, being located up under all that windshield glass, the galley area gets hot enough from the sun that the A/C does not overcome it. Aim the boat toward the sun and you don't need to turn the stove on to cook.

On the plus side, we didn't find much in the way of leaking windows, ports or hatches.

Okay, so while we've punched a few holes in some of the illusions, we feel this model represents a considerable improvement by Sea Ray. Bearing in mid that it's competing in the mid price range -- though some will surely argue that point -- we are most pleased to see the mechanical engineering improvements, and more consideration to serviceability. On the other hand, there is no excuse for a boat this size not to be serviceable, even though many are.

Overall this 55 is a decent, moderately priced boat in which you are basically getting your money's worth. From what we see after two years of use, it should hold up reasonably well. Price wise, resale prices clearly plummet in the first couple years, making a used boat better than average value for what you pay. Judging her based on resale versus the new boat price, our calculus comes up a whole lot different. Losing nearly half the value in two years on a new boat is going to be a bit hard to bear. 

That's one of the reasons that the past tends to bear on the present, and why we gave you a bit of introductory history. The fact that the new boat is not holding its value well is more of a function of the past than the present. It's an entirely different matter on the used boat market where the size-for-value equation becomes far more favorable.

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Posted May 29, 1999,  Revised April 13, 2000

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David Pascoe - Biography

David Pascoe is a second generation marine surveyor in his family who began his surveying career at age 16 as an apprentice in 1965 as the era of wooden boats was drawing to a close.

Certified by the National Association of Marine Surveyors in 1972, he has conducted over 5,000 pre purchase surveys in addition to having conducted hundreds of boating accident investigations, including fires, sinkings, hull failures and machinery failure analysis.

Over forty years of knowledge and experience are brought to bear in following books. David Pascoe is the author of:

In addition to readers in the United States, boaters and boat industry professionals worldwide from over 70 countries have purchased David Pascoe's books, since introduction of his first book in 2001.

In 2012, David Pascoe has retired from marine surveying business at age 65.

Biography - Long version

Articles at
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Mid Size Power Boats Mid Size Power Boats
A Guide for Discriminating Buyers
Focuses exclusively cruiser class generally 30-55 feet
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Buyers' Guide to Outboard Boats
Selecting and Evaluating New and Used Boats
Dedicated for offshore outboard boats
A hard and realistic look at the marine market place and delves into issues of boat quality and durability that most other marine writers are unwilling to touch.
Surveying Fiberglass Powewr Boats
Surveying Fiberglass Power Boats
2nd Edition
The Art of Pre-Purchase Survey The very first of its kind, this book provides the essentials that every novice needs to know, as well as a wealth of esoteric details.
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