Stabicraft 533XR & 643HT Reviews

Issue: April 2002

Kiwi boat builders refer to these latest Stabicraft vessels as generation two boats. Why ? Because the sponsons, which form the sides of the hull are now precision extrusions that replace the previous generation’s rolled metalwork. This makes these sponsons higher and slimmer. These higher sides give better internal leg support to anglers when playing a fish, while the sponsons being narrower create more internal beam. There’s also less reach over the gunwales to the water.

But there’s no avoiding a Stabicraft’s, er, odd – some even say ugly duckling – looks, which prompts the obvious question. What do these boats have to offer ? In a word; safety. Each of those straight lines you can see in the Stabicraft sponsons is a separate compartment. Hole one and there are plenty of others to keep the boat afloat. If you somehow manage to flood the boat with water – like all the other inflatables they resemble – a Stabicraft stays upright. You can remain safely inside the boat.

But with a name like Stabicraft you’d expect these boats to be stable and they are. Once one of those fat sponsons leans onto the water that’s as far as it goes regardless of how much weight is pressing it down – within reason of course.

So what about the Stabicraft’s rough water handling abilities ? Well, on the inside of those big sponsons are angled bottom sheets. Stabicrafts have steep deadrise angles, which combine the characteristics of a rubber duckie with those of a deep-vee hull. These boats are now known as rigid inflatables, which is a reasonable description of how they look even if the words are is contradictory.

Another development of the Stabicraft generation two hulls is the reworking of the shoulders – where the bottom sheets meet the sponsons. These deflect water even better than those on the original models, making noticeable improvements to the softness and dryness of the ride in rough water.

But even with these subtle refinements both the generation two test boats remain undeniably industrial-grade. The checker-plate decks soon persuade us habitually barefoot Queenslanders that shoes are a good idea after all and the boats are quite Spartan in layout.

Of the two boats, the larger 643 – LOA 6.4m – is the more refined boat. It’s bigger, better and more expensive than its smaller brother. Stabicraft call this model a hardtop, because of its neat fibreglass/aluminium cabin and upgraded helm enclosure.

Carpet lining the inside of the cabin keeps running noise levels down when underway, but because Stabicraft have metal hulls there is always going to be a certain amount of running noise generated. These running noises are made even more noticeable in the hardtop, because of the lack of noise emanating from the big 130hp Honda four-stroke outboard mounted on the transom.

The 643HT also protects its occupants from the weather exceptionally well. The extensive areas of glass ensure clear 360-degree vision from the helm station, while a big windscreen wiper, centrally located on the plate-glass screen, ensures the skipper can always see ahead.

There are grab bars where both driver and passenger need them, while the helm is at the right height and angle to make it comfortable to drive this boat from either the seated or standing position.

These boats are built in New Zealand and parts of that country are affected by the Roaring Forties trade winds, something the designers took into consideration. It’s plain to see they intended to keep the boat’s occupants dry no matter what. I have to say that I can’t remember too many boats of any size that sheltered you from the elements as well as this one does.

But during warmer weather the main cockpit is also well ventilated. Large side windows slide back to allow a cooling airflow through the helm area when required. Fixed side windows are available in NZ, but aren’t brought over here because our Aussie climate is too hot.

The bunks in the 643HT’s cabin are big enough to stretch out on for a few hours kip. There’s also plenty of storage spaces under these bunks. More storage space is provided in the metal boxes the moulded-plastic skipper and navigator’s bucket seats are mounted on. Smaller items can be placed in the long cockpit side pockets above the sealed sections of the sponsons and in various possies beside the seats.

From a fisherman’s perspective, having sealed sponsons prevents your toes from going under the gunwales for support when leaning against the cockpit sides, but the sides are high enough to give plenty of support to the legs. Aft, a pipe construction set on the transom of both vessels has a bait board fitted to it. The 643 has a folding ladder on the transom and a rod storage/aerial mounting on a bar across the aft end of the hardtop.

Getting out to the ground tackle in the foredeck anchor well of both boats proved surprisingly easy through big hatches located in the cabin roof. Plus, sensibly sited grab bars and the narrow recessed side decks on the 643, make it possible to go forward around the superstructure with some security. Both boats have self-draining cockpits with tubular rubber flaps to prevent water running back into the cockpit. It’s an old fashioned arrangement, but it works effectively nonetheless.

The smaller test boat is the XR model, which denotes a runabout configuration. The foredeck is high enough to make it somewhere between a runabout and a cuddy cabin to my eye. Overall, the smaller Stabicraft tested was considerably more utilitarian than the 643 hardtop.

The 533XR has a wrap-around acrylic windscreen with a metal rod storing/aerial mounting Targa bar supporting a soft top. A set of removable clears fitted to the 533 between the screen and soft top shelters the helm area. Not having the carpet cabin lining does make this a much noisier boat than the 643 over the water. But like the 130hp on the bigger boat, the 90hp Honda mounted on the 533 is far more impressive for the noise it doesn’t make than the noise it does.

Bow access on the 533 isn’t up to the standard set by the 643, because not having a hardtop to mount grab rails on makes any external ventures forward more difficult. There is less storage in the smaller boat, but using plastic tubs under the foredeck would be how most will get around this one. It’s not a bad arrangement anyway.

The 533’s cockpit and passenger accommodation is a smaller version in the same practical vein as that of the 643. But unlike the 643 – the outboard’s mounted on a small pod – the 533’s motor is bolted straight onto the transom.

Walking up to a Stabicraft there’s no avoiding that initial visual step back most seem to take. Yet on closer inspection I find my first reaction fades into acceptance. It will never win a beauty pageant but we should still appreciate a Stabicraft’s safety and handling abilities. Anyone remember what happened to the ugly duckling?

The test boat’s prices are $31,550 the smaller boat and $57,540 for the 643HT. 

Engine Room
Both the Honda 130hp on the 643HT and 90hp fitted to the 533XR are extremely quiet engines. It’s often the case that still air in enclosed areas of metal hulls, like the 643HT’s in particular, seem to gather and magnify sound levels at speed. That didn’t happen with either motor during these tests.

The engine’s performance is also a lot better than some expect from four-strokes. The 643HT slips onto the plane at seven knots, cruises along comfortably at 23 knots with the engine purring at 3500rpm. Flat out over the wind chop the 643 hit 33 knots.

The 533 could have run a bigger propeller than the 17″ prop fitted, because it was on the rev limiter with the throttle wide open. But it still managed around 29 knots when eased back to 6000rpm.

Both boats handled well with those big silver cowled Hondas strapped to their backs. It makes me wonder about the commonly offered opinion that four-strokes lack the grunt of their two-stroke equivalents.

Story by Warren Steptoe