"Mid Size Power Boats" - Buyers' Guide by David Pascoe

Cabo 31 Sport Express

LOD 31'0" Year 1996
Beam 12'5" Fuel Cap 280 gallons
Draft 3'2" Engines Cat 3208, 320 hp
Weight 15,500 lbs Top speed 26 knots

Cat Harbor Boats dukes it out with some heavy competition in the 31 foot open sport fisher market, competing with the likes of Blackfin, Bertram and Pursuit. We confess to not being very impressed by their earlier models, starting with the slam-bang performance of their rather flat bottomed hulls that were a real sales killer in the southeastern market where rough waters are a way of life.

Sorry that we don't have a lot of pictures on this one, but our digital camera hasn't been able to handle high humidity and refuses to function outdoors. Ah, ain't the digital age wonderful?

In its excessively laudatory advertising, Cabo used to claim that their boats were just dripping with quality and engineering expertise. We found those claims sadly overblown. With this boat we surveyed most recently, we noted that they've toned down their self-adulation, a wise decision, and so, too, will we judge them more in keeping with ordinary mortals rather than intergalactic Gods of the sport fishing business. Instead, we'll compare this boat with the Blackfin 33 Combi which isn't a perfect boat either, and for reasons I'll explain in a moment.

The last Cabo we surveyed was a 1992 model 35 convertible. That boat, sea trialed on the Florida Gulf Coast in fairly calm waters, we thought the ride was terrible and wondered how a boat builder could aspire to the sport fishing market with such a flat-bottomed boat. That wasn't just our opinion, for we even heard yacht brokers saying the same thing. Perhaps like Viking, with their Mid-Atlantic market, Cabo's California home turf doesn't demand very deep hulls, misleading them into thinking that this type of boat could be sold in the Southeast.

Not so. The South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are bodies of water that are rough more often than calm. Moreover, unlike Southern California, we have more places to go and often cruise long distances. This mandates boats that can handle the conditions. Cabo simply wasn’t one of them, at least not then.

Since this is a west coast builder, and we don't see many of these boats here, we also have to admit that we aren't able to keep up with what this builder has been doing. However, we did hear through the grapevine that Cabo decided to deepen up their hulls sometime in the recent past so we were quite interested in getting a chance to try out this 1996 model. Oddly enough, our target boat was lying alongside a Blackfin 33 Combi, a similar type boat, so there was a lot of comparison going on.

There could be no dispute that the Blackfin just had that look of being a lean, mean fishing machine with her sleek, low-profiled, almost traditionally styled hull. Whereas our Cabo has the unmistakably bloated look of most modern boats; high sided, puffed up decks and lines that look, well, almost good but for the bloat that yields the larger interior volume -- the thing that really sells boats these days.

The Cabo is clearly distinguished by the more modern fiberglass mold tooling and fewer fiberglass parts attached together with screws or other means, meaning that more of the boat is molded in one, larger piece such as the huge forward cockpit deck that includes all seating modules. Which leads to one of the few complaints I have about this boat: the engine compartment.

To say that it is cramped is an understatement. Powered with a pair of Cat 320 HP 3208's, the engines are much too close together when they could have placed them up to a foot further apart like Blackfin does. We had an engine surveyor on this job who had an extremely hard time doing his job because of this. On top of that, there is the single hatch opening cylinder set in the middle, plus the generator, making for a real access and maintenance nightmare. While there is a center hatch, this is all but useless because the engine room is so shallow that one can open the hatch, stand in the hole, but not be able to bend over or actually get your head into the compartment. All one can do from this hatch is lay on the deck and tilt your head in.

Cabo 31 Sport Express - Engine compartment

Complaint numero uno: no space in the engine compartment with these V-8 Cats. Cummins 6BTA's are a better choice.

To actually get into the compartment, one has to crawl over the engines and around the cylinder, a normally painful experience. Then, since the hatch only opens up about two feet on the aft end, the best one can do is stand there hunched over as the space is only wide enough for your legs (If you weight upwards of 225 lbs. forget about getting in there at all), one cannot fit one's upper body between the engines. We had to use mirrors to check the fuel filters simply because one could not get one's head down there to look.

The deck/hatch is fairly well designed and fits tightly and sports a couple of molded-in flood lights on the underside that were, for reasons we couldn't determine, filled with water. With the hatch opened, we could walk on it and it was solid and didn't shake or give you the sense that it was going to collapse. The hinges are large and properly bolted to a solid surface. A real sore spot with this boat was that the Cabo proprietary packing glands were leaking badly and throwing water all over the generator, which needed to be pulled and overhauled. One of the main engines had gone bang 1-1/2 years earlier, for reasons not disclosed, and was replaced on warranty, something that is happening at a frightening rate with marine diesels these days.

Another problem with the generator is that it has a deep, steel drip pan under it that has no drainage. Something leaked and filled it to the point where the armature picked up water and started throwing it around. Bye bye generator. On the plus side, the engine room has properly installed insulation that doesn't fall down on your head after a couple years. Lord, what an expensive mess that makes!

The hull is cored on the sides and solid glass on the bottom (mercifully) and has a horizontal lap joint at the deck join, but not glassed on the inside. There was no indication of leakage on the interior. The hull appears to be adequately framed and the bottom displayed no hint of weakness nor any breakages on the inside. According to Cabo, hull is made with ISO resin; this hull had no blisters. They are silent on deck and side core, though I did detect some plywood in the gunwales which makes them very strong (I jump tested them).

The helm has good ergonomics that, combined with good running trim, makes for operational line-of-sight no problem. Similar to the Blackfin, the forward cockpit has built-in seating that would be neither too much nor too little for most people. Our boat was fitted with a full chair that made the aft cockpit just a tad on the small side for a serious bill fisherman; a mate standing behind trying to direct the chair finds himself colliding with the raised bait wells. Ah, well, you aren't going to get everything in a 31 foot boat. It really doesn't make sense with a boat that costs this much to create a totally 100% dedicated fisherman. In truth, this is a multi-purpose boat that will appeal to a wider market segment.

Though she has the optional shorty tower, hard top and dual controls, I find this a good, all around sport boat, even good for cruising for those who don’t' want to foot the bill for pushing a 35,000 lb. cruiser around. At 15,500 lbs. her weight is moderately heavy at 573/lbs./ft. Contrast that with the Pursuit 3000 Express (32'8") at 10,000 lbs. (312 lbs/ft.) and she seems downright heavy. But contrasting with the Blackfin 33 Combi (32'11") at 19,200 lbs for 581 lbs/ft. puts her in proper perspective. With her deeper bottom, it's not hard to see why the Blackfin comes out the clear performance winner.

This Cabo 31 no speed demon by any stretch, but the 320 hp 3208's are a good power choice based on this engine's good service record at this horsepower that should yield a  longer than average life between big checks written. Personally, I'd rather have it with Cummins 350's which are a smaller engine with more power that would yield a much more serviceable engine room, which this boat decidedly does not have.

Performance wise, this boats stands out beyond the crowd. No, it will not outperform the Blackfin, which is the best of the best, but for what she is she's darn good. She's got good balance and rides on her hull where I'd want her too; at cruise speed 2/3rds of the water line is immersed with tabs retracted, meaning that tabs really aren't needed and an attack angle of seven degrees that will come down to five with tabs extended. At which point she gets a little "nosy." Speed actually decreased with full tab extension. We got 20.6 kts. for an upwind cruise at 2400 and 26.2 at WOT in light chop water at a max 2750. Somebody has been fussin'  with the props. She had 4 bladers on that had been cut down.

With fully exposed props and rudders, it's more responsive than propeller pocket boats and actually steers well at low idle which is actually kinda fast swinging 4 blade props. Letting go the wheel, she tracked well at all speeds. Cockpit noise levels were high at 102 dbls compared to 108 dbls with the hatch open, indicating the net effect of insulation is nearly zilch. That's above the healthy limit, yet I didn't find it excessive. Then again, after 35 years of hammering diesels, my hearing probably isn't the best.

Oddly enough, the cabin area really doesn't reflect her somewhat bloated lines except for cabin headroom at 6'6".. The Blackfin 33 Combi, with a narrower hull(12-0) (especially at the water line) actually seems more spacious, something that I found very surprising, considering that the B'fin has 4" less headroom. One reason is that the B'fin simply makes better use of available space. (Note: the B'fin plan B layout is nearly identical to the Cabo which sports only one layout, though the B'fin A plan is most prevalent.) My only serious complaint is that the head is really too small whereas the B'fin gives you at least 50% more, important from the standpoint of showering which would be cumbersome in this boat.

The center companionway door is appropriate with a wide set of steps that permits unencumbered movement. One person can slip through with another standing in the entrance -- as people always like to do. The single foredeck hatch reflects some cost cutting; I'd like to see three in case the AC goes down. The one just isn't good enough, at least not for Florida in September (95 degrees, 90% humidity).

Yet another corner cutter is the single 30 amp shore line which is absolutely not enough as we were tripping dock breakers just testing things. HUGE complaint here. This boat needs either two 30 amp lines or at minimum a single 50 amp line. AC, water heater, microwave and battery charger gobble up all available amps and POP goes the breaker.

HUGE complaint #3 is the lack of batteries. Being supplied with only two 90AH 12 volt batteries is positively absurd, even more absurd when I tell you there is no separate generator starting battery. This goes way beyond the bounds of even common sense and points out the weakness of the company itself in assessing the needs of the demanding market they are in. Idiocies like this are bound to hurt sales, for word spreads fast in the rather tight community of fishing fanatics who socialize together a lot more than ordinary boaters. This company used to build sail boats and clearly seems to possess some of the same mentality of the sailboat market which is disdainful of things electrical and mechanical. They'd best get over that in a hurry.

Complaint #4, not a huge one, is that we found that the helm panel leaks water onto the main electric panel. The electric panel is not boxed like it should be.

Complaint #5, not a big one either, and common too far too many, is the tower that requires you get on hands and knees to crawl under the upper rail (with no good hand-holds available), not something you want to do on a rocking boat. What's the matter with these tower designers that they can't create a tower that isn't like a jungle gym? Why do these things have to be so difficult and dangerous, and is it going to take a big lawsuit before they're  woken up and forced to design one that you can get into without risking life and limb? In fact, there are some good tower designs that allow one to climb up easily, but there are far too few of them.

Taken as a whole, this is a boat all but the utmost discriminating would likely be happy with; the positives outbalance the negatives, particularly on the performance side of the equation.

Note: This boat is currently offered with Cat 3126 in-line sixes at 350-485 hp. The engine room fit is a bit better.

Later models are known to have some design changes.

Posted October 29, 2002

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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 nearly 80 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.

On November 23rd, 2018, David Pascoe has passed away at age 71.

Biography - Long version

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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
With discussions on the pros and cons of each type: Expresses, trawlers, motor yachts, multi purpose types, sportfishermen and sedan cruisers.
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.
Marine Investigations
Pleasure crafts investigations to court testimony The first and only book of its kind on the subject of investigating pleasure craft casualties and other issues.
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Last reviewed February 27, 2020.