My fascination with motorcycles had been dormant since I trimmed my beard for my first job. The cure: the keys to the new Sea Ray 550 Sedan Bridge and a boys' trip to Bike Week in Daytona Beach, Florida.
A lot has changed since Peter Fonda set out cross-country on a chopped 1950's panhead. Beer swilling and brawling are hardly in fashion. Today's bikers might have been born to be wild, but these days, they are more than likely busy with business. Bikes, like boats, serve as an escape.
Gary McCloud of Sea Ray, my pal Joe Schepis and I had been given the thumbs-up by our wives for the adventure. McCloud, a Sea Ray expert, is also a bike aficionado and served as our Bike Week guide. Schepis (my unofficial boat tester) has owned a fleet of boats, and his collection always seems to include a Sea Ray. I had the pleasure of serving as captain.
We picked up the 550 at Sea Ray's Sykes Creek facility in Merritt Island, Florida, where the builder's line of yachts (50 to 68 feet) are produced. Our 550 was hull number one, built under the watchful eye of Sea Ray's product-development-and-engineering team, which resides next door to the plant. This is the standard process at Sea Ray. All prototypes, from ski boats to yachts, begin life at Merritt Island.
After a new design is fine-tuned on the computer, the tooling is shaped on a five-axis computer-controlled mill. The first boat produced is given to Sea Ray's test engineers, who essentially get paid to break things. Once they've had their way with the boat and she has survived, she is "certified", and production begins.
Considering this challenging start, hull number one's pristine condition and stellar performance during our four days aboard is a credit to the way Sea Ray put her together. The only thing that failed Schepis' inspection was the German coffeemaker, which seemed incapable of following its detailed directions.
It was 2 p.m. by the time we got under way. The sky was overcast, and an approaching cold front had stirred a stiff 20-knot breeze. We cast off, and I eased the ZF/Mathers electronic controls ahead. The 550 responded instantly, and with a touch of the bowthruster, a bit of helm and engine work, I twisted her out of the corner slip with ease. I had no problem negotiating the tight canal that leads from the plant to the Intracoastal Waterway. While I did not engage the ZF/Mathers low-idle setting, some might find doing so more comfortable in close quarters.
It had been a number of years since I had run the Intracoastal between Merritt Island and Daytona Beach. Following our progress on the Sea Ray Navigator system's large color display refreshed my memory. Much of this stretch of Florida's coastline has not been spoiled by development. Mosquito Lagoon, for example, despite its name, is one of my favorite spots in Florida.
We turned into the fairway at Halifax Harbor Marina in Daytona Beach just before 6 p.m. While our assigned slip was a bit tight, I had become familiar with the 550's feel and found no need to engage the bowthruster. After a bit of tidying up, we wandered across the street to Rosario's Ristorante, a small yet capable Italian eatery with great food and a charming owner/chef, who visited each table. We found the Chart House restaurant another worthwhile stop within walking distance.
Halifax Harbor Marina is about a mile from Daytona Beach's attractive downtown (mainland) and 2 miles (over the bridge) from the beach. During Bike Week, both areas command a large crowd of enthusiasts. Custom and factory bike displays are the centerpiece of the event, while the numbers of smaller parts and accessory vendors stagger the imagination. There are dozens of eating and drinking opportunities-we found the seared ahi tuna at Martini's on Bay Café memorable.
I am biased, of course, but I feel the best way to attend the event is by boat. Judging by the boaters and bikes I saw side by side, this is a popular plan. Though most boats on our dock were Sea Rays, the 550's low-cut, dark-blue hull and swept-back deckhouse stood out. More than one Sea Ray owner accepted our invitation to inspect the boat, and all seemed impressed. As I have come to expect from Sea Ray owners, all were loyal to the brand and seemed quite familiar with the builder's fleet of new models.
In Sea Ray parlance, "sedan bridge denotes a design that is something of a cross between a convertible and a motoryacht. While the 550 could be fished casually, she is more a cruising yacht. Her swim platform is large enough to accommodate a small tender, and an optional crane stows cleverly out of sight in the transom. Launching is as simple as pushing a button.
Her flying bridge is large for a boat her size, which allows for bench seating aft and a curved seating area and table forward. The helm proved more than comfortable for my stint at the wheel. The Sea Ray Navigator and a Raymarine radar were center stage. Instrumentation is positioned overhead, which is a bit different but not objectionable. Lines of sight are excellent, although there is no view of the cockpit-an acceptable compromise considering the 550's service. The bridge's hatch/door, isinglass enclosure and air-conditioning made passing through the passing front a delight.
The 550's interior reflects the modern look that is carried throughout the builder's line of yachts. Surfaces are finished with faux stone, cherry mica and cherry hardwood trim. Fixtures, fabrics and hardware are first-class. The main cabin is arranged with curved seating aft and a galley and dinette forward.
Belowdecks, the master cabin is cleverly tucked beneath the main cabin. While there is not full standing headroom throughout, the compromise seems worth it, considering the floor space and the visual effect of the full-beam layout. The master head has a separate shower. A guest cabin has an island berth with a separate head and shower compartment. These are shared with the third cabin, which has upper-and-lower berths.
It was difficult to cast off, since Bike Week was just reaching critical mass. Still, there was work to be done, and we collected our sea trial data on the cruise home. The 550's 765 hp MANs delivered a solid 27-knot cruising speed and a maximum speed of 32.1 knots. Sound levels were pleasantly low.
A great boat, great companions and a great destination-our Bike Week cruise was hard to beat. I plan on attending next year; it will take at least that long to explain to my wife why I need a boat and a new Harley V-Rod.
Contact: Sea Ray Boats, (800) SR-BOATS; www.searay.com. For more information, contact: (866) 922-4877