Hunter 356 Review

Issue: Aprill 2002

Decades ago the French acknowledged that the charter market would control yacht design, so they designed and built boats to suit. This was not necessarily a bad thing. The charter market demands boats that are comfortable to live on and easy to sail.

These designs challenged long-held concepts about interior layout, but there is no doubt that modern production yachts are both easy to handle and easy to live on. These boats are also quite simple, but it takes a lot of work to make a boat both simple and effective.

Americans are usually conservative in product planning and development (because they deal with a conservative market) so it is a compliment to suggest that the US-designed Hunter 356 could be French.

It has a large-volume hull in which the accommodation detail has been thoughtfully designed. The cockpit and handling systems are also highly developed and the rig is even a bit on the radical side.

Now, for a bit of a history lesson. Hunter belongs to the Luhrs Group. Current boss Warren Luhrs is the grandson of the founder, who began building fishing boats around the time Henry Ford started on his Model T. The group is now one of the world’s biggest, but not quite as big as Beneteau, who started in the same business at roughly the same time – another parallel with the French.

The Luhrs Group includes a number of companies that build power craft. Hunter recently took over the Westerly factory in England, when Westerly finally went west.

Hunter importer Chris Szewczuk says this makes business easier for both importer and buyer as Aussie boats can be bought in Euros. The little Aussie bleeder is stable against the Euro compared with its volatile relationship with the greenback.

When Warren Luhrs got the bug for solo racing back in the 1970s, he and Steve Pettingell designed a series of boats – Thursday’s Child and others – whose features gave the company a bit of a kick-start when planning modern yachts for production. One of those features was the Bergstrom and Ridder rig system now used on the production boats.

The Hunter 356 (35ft 6in or 10.82m LOA) is a light boat, but with a displacement of 6318kg is similar to others in its class. There is a deep/shoal keel option; the boat we sailed here had the deep keel.

Layout is modern conventional, with the owner’s cabin aft. The forward cabin has a vee-berth, comfortable for me (at 5ft 8in), but two six-footers would be a bit short of room. This is a good cabin, with shelving on the hull sides and two lockers (one shelved, one for hanging). The cabin door is a bi-fold, to limit space intrusion.

There’s room between the berths, with the door closed, to put on your pants while standing up, which is surely every bloke’s right. The door is louvred, as is an opening panel in the bulkhead, presumably so the host can pass the forward cabin occupants a cup of tea in bed.

The saloon table is on the starboard side and through it passes the mast compression post, which acts as a handhold. The navigation table is on the port side facing aft, so the navigator sits on the end of the settee, facing aft.

The bathroom is split – the dunny/shower room has its own door, which gives privacy from the vanity basin area, so you can clean your teeth while the old man is having a shower.

The galley is U-shaped, there’s a double sink, with in-fill and the worktop is Corian. You can order a conventional stove with oven, but Chris Szewczuk reckons many Aussies opt for a two-burner cook top, microwave and barbecue.

The master cabin, with access via the galley area, has a big double bed mounted transversely, a hanging locker and plenty of small stowage areas. There is plenty of headroom throughout.

Recognising that the cockpit is the real living area on a sailing boat, Hunter have put a lot of thought into the design.

The seating is circular, running almost continuously right around the cockpit. The mainsheet traveller is mounted overhead, on the stainless steel arch, controlled by lines running to cams mounted low on the arch, at about lifeline height, alongside the helmsman. The arch also supports the bimini. The cockpit table is mounted permanently on a stainless frame on the centreline; both table leaves fold up and lock in place with stainless rods.

The cushion immediately behind the helmsman lifts out and the transom door folds down for access; coming aboard from the dinghy, you step on the underside of the helmsman’s seat. The transom area features a hatch either side for stowage and a neat telescopic swim ladder.

Under the portside seat is a cavernous hatch, big enough for the deflated inflatable dinghy and there’s a rack for the outboard. On each side of the pushpit – and in the pulpit – are nifty little teak-slatted seats. Those in the stern feature equally nifty little cup holders.

Out on deck, the most noticeable feature is the rig. It’s a B and R design featuring two sets of heavily-angled spreaders, which hold the mast back in lieu of a backstay and crossed shrouds in the intermediate panels. A pair of struts lead back from the gooseneck area to the coach-roof sides, countering the forward thrust of the boom.

The overall concept facilities a shortish mast (the I measurement – gooseneck to peak on the main – is 13.66m), a big-roached main with full-width battens in the upper panels and a small headsail.

Designers Luhrs and Glen Henderson chose a small headsail for easy handling and put extra area into the main, which, because it carries big lumps of aluminium on two of its sides, is easy to control.

A mid-boom mainsheet takeoff, with traveller mounted on the coach-roof, is an option, but Chris says no one has ever ordered it and that owners of older craft have retrofitted the arch. She points out that boom-end sheeting gives better leech control and the arch keeps the boom up and out of the way when reefing, or dropping the main. And, sooner or later, it will save an incautious head, which pokes up at the wrong time, which always happens, no matter how good or experienced the crew.

One of the great benefits of the feminist era is that women can do all the work without making blokes feel guilty. Boats like the Hunter are designed to be sailed short-handed anyway, which usually means by a married couple.

Chris hauled the main halfway up and I was happy to let her do it. Then she looped the halyard around the electric halyard winch, which completed the job. Every recreational yacht should have an electric main halyard winch, because they reduce the amount of heavy work, which in turn makes wives and children happy. And people like me who are allergic to exertion.

When we set off we believed the instruments had been calibrated, but they hadn’t, so speeds are impressions only. Sorry. I knew we were in trouble when, at around 7 knots on a broad reach in smooth water – this boat feels like a very fast reacher – with some 15 knots apparent, the log read 2.9 knots.

On the wind she feels as if she is putting her bow down – depressed by the roached main, I thought. But the photographs show this is not so – it is simply the impression created by a modern wide-sterned hull which, when heeled, tends to elevate the helmsman slightly.

When hit by the gust of the day the Hunter put her shoulder down and accelerated, bringing the bow up into the wind a fraction, but no more. In the gusts there was slight forestay sag, which could be minimised with a bit more rig tuning.

Directional stability seemed high, as did response to the helm, probably because the steering is terrific. The Whitlock system is both fast and light, with no dead area in the straight-ahead position and it gives the helmsman great feedback. The designers must have done something clever with the rudder, too – a moderate aspect ratio blade mounted as far aft as it can go – as the hull will spin in its own length under sail.

In this brief encounter the Hunter seemed quick and easy to handle – there is no reason why she shouldn’t be, as her vital statistics are in the ballpark. The handling systems are well designed and positioned but, most importantly, the living area – cockpit and transom – could have been specially designed for the Australian climate and the way most Aussies enjoy their boating.

A Hunter 356 costs around $260,000. 

Story by Barry Tranter