Issue: July 1999
While other kids mis-spent their youth becoming pinball wizards and pool sharks, I was studiously poring through boating magazines and strolling the hallowed halls of Sydney boatshow. The legacy was an equally worthless ability to name 99% of the boats in any given mooring area.
Years later, more than I care to remember, I am still cognisant with the various craft – because the same tired old ones are still there, now faded by UV abuse and quietly gathering guano.
And so it was, on a sunny day in April, that I happened upon a tightly-packed cove at Church Point on Pittwater and went through my silent ritual. Bertram 25, Endeavour 26, Triton 24, Compass 28 … yawn … Mariner 30, Roberts 25 … WHOA!
There, before my blinking eyes, was a vision. A vision in fibreglass. A 14m-long organic-like pod upon two jutting paws. A nautical Sphinx. Or, upon second view, a wave-piercing pleasure catamaran. With a sleekness that beggared belief, the craft looked utterly incongruous among the ’70s relics that bobbed thereabouts, as though some space time continuum had deposited it from Mars … or at least the next Millennium. Beam me aboard, Scotty!
Closer inspection of this radical wave-piercer, called the Ocean Innovations 14, was every bit as thrilling. Indeed ‘stunning’ is the word that will be most commonly used to describe it – not only for its alien appearance but every aspect of its performance and construction. The idea first floated through the mind of Sydney car dealer Bill Buckle some ten years ago and came to fruition this year through the creativity of designer Brad English at Ocean Innovations and builder Griffin Motor Yachts – both firms based on the NSW Central Coast. Buckle has never been one to follow the main stream, previous boats including a radical Young 40 with wings and bowsprit called Buckle Up plus a Boatspeed 23 trailer sailer. He was also an agent for Randell sportscruisers and his personal plaything was a Randell 41 sportsboat with twin 330hp petrol motors. It hosted a crowd in its gi-normous cockpit but also, in Bill’s words, ‘loved a drink’. He perceived a wave-piercing cat as remedying his fuel problems while still satisfying his on-board entertainment requirements – it was also suitably different … A friend with whom Bill has shared charter yachts over many years, Rosemount Estates’ owner and founding chairman Bob Oatley, was keen to come aboard as well. The pair then took the bold step – venturing where no man has gone before – of commissioning a 48-footer from Brad English.
English is best known for providing architectural services to Tasmanian-based Incat Australia. One of his vessels, the 91-metre Catalonia, recently achieved the Atlantic speed record by averaging 39 knots over the 3000 nautical miles crossing. En route it clocked more than 1000nm in 24 hours, the longest day’s run by any vessel, ever. Condensing the concept to 14.6m for recreational purposes had never been attempted. There were no foreseeable technical hitches, although it would obviously present a challenge for the would-be builder. That task ultimately befell Philip Griffin, youngest son of legendary designer/builder John, who runs his own business. Over 12 months – 10,500 man hours – and a flood of sweat and tears, the aptly named ‘Wildcat’ was fashioned using Klegecell foam, multi-axial cloth and vinylester resin over a combination of male and female moulds; the latter components being vacuum-bagged. Carbon fibre was employed for aesthetic purposes only, lending a futuristic impression to the window struts and helmstation. An aluminium support grid copes with flexing stresses, and to ensure watertightness of the wave-piercing sponsons the 2-metre long nose cones are solid foam/glass. Otherwise it’s a remarkably low-tech construction for a boat upon which weight has a critical bearing. Light displacement, in fact, is just 10,600kg. The craft developed conceptually too as the jigsaw was pieced together – for example, once its physical magnitude became apparent the proposed twin 130hp Honda outboards were abandoned on performance grounds.
There were also concerns that the narrow sponsons may bury when the cockpit was heavily loaded and thus immerse the outboard powerheads. Because the drive angle needs to be horizontal, the viable options are sterndrives, surface drives or jet units. Buckle and Oatley selected twin MerCruiser 4.3L EFI 210hp petrols with Bravo II sterndrive legs … petrols because of their superior power-to-weight ratio and quieter running compared with diesels. It’s phenomenally little power for a 48-footer and highlights how hull efficiencies can engender corresponding savings in engine weight (and thus overall displacement), fuel tankage and running costs.
To give a brief comparison, a Riviera 48 sportscruiser is approximately six tonnes heavier and carries twice, up to three times, as much power, albeit diesel. Its fuel capacity is 1900ltrs, as opposed to 400ltrs on the Ocean Innovations. Planing monohulls use much of their horsepower lifting bodily over the hump and onto the water surface, whereas the wave-piercer works on full displacement principals. The sponsons have a fine entry and are torpedo-thin for their remaining length, creating minimal skin friction and resistance. There can be no flat expanses in the underbody, for this would promote planing, however Griffin says the hulls could be widened if desired to enhance load-carrying capacity and allow for diesels. Atop these hulls, hovering clear of the water, is the main body. Its role is to provide reserve buoyancy in heavy seas plus internal volume. Tunnels flanking the underbody generate an air cushioning and lift effect.
The perspective from the bow cockpit, looking down, is that of a sportscruiser running with a Nacra catamaran in its teeth. Applying throttle sees the boat remaining perfectly level while its acceleration curve climbs progressively – eight, 10, 12 knots … right up to the 22.1 we achieved on our test day. There is precious little disturbance created by the sponsons, even when they pierce a wave, so the accompanying front-on photographs belie the fact that the cat is running at around 20 knots. Only when it glides by, and the sterndrive turbulence comes into view, is the speed betrayed. Even then the wake is entrapped by a hard-edged chine plank and tends to fold in on itself, leaving little external wash to upset other craft or delicate shorelines. This is a handy feature on the expanses of Pittwater which are now governed by a No Wash Zone. The centre hull only occasionally got clipped by seas during our test, giving a little rumble of displeasure at its lowest point aft, beneath the cockpit. More of an issue I’m told, but not apparent this day, is spray being blown over the helm station. It’s easy to see why it happens – there’s a straight line running up the superstructure from the sponsons to the windscreen, giving Mother Ocean a clean shot.
Griffin has retro-fitted strakes to the sides of the nose cones to deflect the light spray and it’s possible to fit clears between the windscreen and the targa arch – future boats will incorporate a more permanent solution. Though the wave-piercing properties help to soften the ride at speed, the motion can be somewhat jittery compared with a heavy-bodied monohull that just barges its way through swells. Passengers on the larger ocean-going wave-piercing ferries, like that running from Hamilton Island to the reef in the Whitsundays, commonly complain of seasickness. Part of the reason is that they can run much faster than conventional commercial vessels, which amplifies the sea forces. Personally I find a slow rolling sensation more worrisome, and the inherent stability of a catamaran takes care of that.
It’s doubtful whether the Ocean Innovations will do much more than coastal hop. Bay conditions would be taken in its stride, a comfortable cruising speed of 19.2 knots being achieved by the twin MerCruisers at 4000rpm. A tad over 3000rpm sees 15 knots, at which speed the motors are sipping juice at the economical rate of four litres of per mile. High-speed cornering is reasonable, though cats generally aren’t renowned for their ability in this department. Manoeuvrability at low speeds is brilliant, though, thanks to the props being set wide apart and windage being tamed by the hulls cutting deep into the water. To assist with close-quarter parking, Wildcat has Twin Disc electronic controls which are exceptionally user-friendly and best of all come with remote control throttle handsets.
These can be operated from the aft cockpit, looking directly down the topsides, when berthing alongside a pontoon, or from the bow cockpit when anchoring or retrieving a mooring – 72-year-old Bill, having centred the helm, stood at the bow and guided us through the tightly-packed mooring area with the adroitness of a teenager operating a Nintendo. Buckle is not a fan of flybridges because they raise the centre of gravity and are inherently difficult to access via a ladder. The helm position on Wildcat is a fair compromise. It’s on a mezzanine platform, three steps above cockpit level, where it gains an excellent view over the decktop and transom. Only the boat’s for’ard extremities are impeded, due to the wide beam and the depth beneath the bow. The driving station itself befits the Star Wars styling, having a raft of Raytheon electronics, engine instruments and switches presented on a compact carbon fibre dashboard. Even the wheel is carbon fibre. A rounded perspex screen lends that F-18 fighter feel while providing a secondary shield to any spray that breaches the windscreen. There are two bucket seats, both pedestal mounted.
The main cockpit has no less than four seat benches, making it ideal for lounging or socialising; portable tables could be slipped between them for drinks or dining. Internal storage areas, along with emergency service access to the engine rooms, are reached through hatches set in the aft lounges. Unfortunately the cockpit is not covered overhead by a bimini, because to do so would detract from the aesthetics. The same applies to the cute little for’ard seating area which is akin to that of a bowrider runabout. The teak-lined boarding platform, aft, is vast, facilitating all swimming and water activities. Buckle demonstrated this by driving his inflatable tender right up to the boat, wedging the bow under the platform, and climbing aboard. Where other owners would store the dreaded personal watercraft is problematic, though some arrangement could be customised. Like all catamarans, the wave-piercer affords ample cabin space for its length, all of it exceptionally useable because of an open plan layout upon a flat floor level. Original plans for walk-on furniture were shelved in favour of a built-in, fully luxurious fitout reminiscent of a modern townhouse.
The sole shower/head compartment is central and adjacent to the companionway so as to service the cockpit. Inside you find a Raritan electrasan marine toilet and a walk-in shower with a rounded screen, both set upon a moulded Corian floor. The vanity is rather small, as the owners will rarely stay more than one night. The twin double cabins get equal treatment, a pleasant change in this class of boat where owners sometimes favour their own comfort over that of their guests. Moving into the saloon, the view through the wrap-around windows is absolutely breathtaking, as is the amount of floor space and headroom. Agoraphobics would be taken aback, so incredibly spacious and airy is it. The galley meanders longitudinally down the port side, eventually giving way to a sumptuous lounge.
Camouflaged by the cupboard panels are the gas stove/oven, a 70ltr eutectic bar fridge, and impeccably crafted drawers. Flush-fitted lids for the sink and stove ensure the benchtop is left clean. To starboard is a U-shaped dinette that seats six, followed by another lounge facing that on the portside. Electrical requirements are provided by an inverter, because Buckle finds the noise of gensets irritating. There are two high-capacity gel batteries – one for house, one for the engines – with supplementary charging from solar panels on the roof.
Finishes are exceptionally tasteful and practical, comprising durable ‘Alcantara’ ultra-suede imported from Italy, PVC ‘Noelex Capri’ headliner, Corian, plush carpet and maple door frames. The cream is contrasted by the oceanic-blue upholstery and stark black window frames. Not a hint of traditional teak here. The owners took a great gamble in choosing this concept, but their rewards will come with the look on people’s faces. Enter any anchorage in this unique craft and word will soon get around – that’s Bill’s and Bob’s boat … The designer and builder also had a great responsibility to make it work, for if this craft had failed to perform it would’ve set the cause of modern boat design back 20 years. That it works so well may have indeed advanced the cause twenty years. Since there will only be one or two made each year, the Ocean Innovations 14 is not the Powerboat of the Year. But it may well be the Powerboat of the next Millennium. I await the day in 2020, when I stand at an anchorage beside my now 10-month-old daughter, and she recites the craft names – Ocean Innovations, Ocean Innovations … yawn.
Story by Mark Rothfield.