Cruisers Yachts' new 500 Express comes from Oconto. That's not a village in Italy, but a town in Wisconsin, where boats have been built for 50 years. The sleek, curvaceous 500 is a gauge of how important European styling has become in the world of yachting. It also lifts express cruisers into the realm of motoryachts with one innovative feature: Six vertical portholes that turn the master state into a room with a view. But more about that later.
The 500 was launched this year to fill the gap in the Cruisers' line between the 440 and 540 Express. Sitting at the dock at Liberty Landing Marina in New Jersey, however, it looked like a smartly dressed cousin that had just arrived from Italy. The navy blue topsides and wing-tip hardtop add a heightened sense of style to the profile, and the 52-foot, 3-inch LOA and 15-foot, 6-inch beam dwarfed the other cruisers around it. The 500 looked at home with the New York City skyline as the backdrop.
But I discovered that the 500 is more than a nautical fashion statement during a run up the Hudson River to Albany. Jon Willman, who was delivering hull number one to Lake Erie with his brother, Dave, had graciously agreed to let me field-test the boat for the 125-mile trip.
Early-morning fog shrouded lower Manhattan as we cast off, but visibility on the water was clear. The Hudson was a tangle of "rush-hour commuter ferries, but you could feel the heft of the Cruisers' 40,000-pound displacement as the twin 675-hp Volvo D12s pushed it through the chop. Willman soon had the 500 running at its top end of 34.6 knots, winding in and out of the traffic. Within ten minutes, we'd left the city in our wake, and the landscape settled into quiet suburbia.
One of my favorite cruising grounds is the Hudson. There are plenty of jokes about having to avoid New Jersey's "deadheads-floating bodies-but there's nowhere else in the country where you can have breakfast in Manhattan, tie up at West Point for lunch, and head into backcountry so beautiful that a school of painters named themselves after it.
We got a foretaste of the natural sights even before we passed under the George Washington Bridge, with the 500-foot Palisades cliffs standing on the western banks. Near the Tappan Zee Bridge (Native American for "cold spring and Dutch for "sea) the river spreads out for over two nautical miles. The hills and valleys of the area provided a backdrop for Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, though modern Tarrytown bears little resemblance to the village Rip Van Winkle made famous.
At Ossining, I could just make out the infamous towers of the Sing-Sing prison, and farther north around Haverstraw Bay the river widens even more to three nautical miles. I took the wheel from Jon, just as the sun came bursting through the clouds and the temperature jumped 15 degrees. The green hills around us were suddenly bathed in bright light, and we took off our fleece jackets in the enclosure of the hardtop, settling in for a long run.
A few hours at the helm can feel like jury duty on some boats. But the 500 was downright fun to drive. The tabs keep bow rise to a minimum coming on plane-a real plus, if you're used to moonshot-style takeoffs. The V-shape hull, with 15 degrees of deadrise at the transom, was nimble and responsive. It was almost like being at the helm of a sport boat. Instead of man-handling the wheel, I let the hydraulically assisted steering and electronic throttle controls do the work. We did figure-eights in the channel in a tight radius, with instant rudder response.
The smooth ride can be a bit deceptive, however. It doesn't feel like you're running 34 knots-until the channel markers look like they're sprinting to meet you. But the helm seat and footrest make it comfortable to drive, combined with easy-read gauges, and decent visibility from the helm. Although Cruisers outfitted this show boat with electronics-Raymarine radar, GPS/plotter, VHF, sonar, autopilot, and KVH TracVision-it lets its dealers install electronics. (Electronics are not included in our price as tested.)
The best thing about an extended cruise/test is that you have time to get a sense of a boat, its highs and lows. After a few hours, I asked Jon to take over and made my way around the cockpit. Overall impression: big sense of space (maximum headroom is 7 feet, 5 inches), natural light (a fixed Plexiglas hatch is integrated into the top) and extra points for multiple access points to the foredeck (16-inch-wide windshield walk-through as well as 9-inch side passages).
The U-shape cockpit lounge is probably the best example of the 500's scale, measuring 46 inches across at the top, 93 inches down the center, and 62 inches across at the bottom. Ten feet of open space separates the lounge from the Force 10 electric grill. The grill's an option, but the U-line refrigerator/icemaker is standard. Climate control is also easily attainable with multiple cooling and heating ducts that run fore and aft, so you can expand the boating season into fall with the heater, or crank up the air conditioning during the dog days. Really, the only thing that might seem small is the transom door-narrow at 19 inches.
While the cockpit gets strong marks, below-decks is where the 500 really shines. I'd spent the night before in the master stateroom, and woke with first light-light that I could see not from a small hatch overhead, but from the three oversized vertical portholes in the hull sides.
Take a look at the three windows in the running shot. They set the 500 apart from other express cruisers and help it compete with small motoryachts. I spent the second leg of the trip, from Kingston to Coeymans, on the innerspring mattress, staring out the window at the pastoral scenes of the river banks.
And who says you have to compromise space for speed? Like the cockpit, there's an abundant feeling of space in the rest of the cabin. Both heads (the master is en suite) have 6-foot, 7-inch headroom, glass-enclosed shower stalls and high-tech Tecna toilets.
The heads are modular units that Cruisers builds separately and then attaches to the fiberglass liner in the cabin for easier installation. Hull lay-up includes woven-roving fiberglass, balsa coring, 22-mil. gelcoat, and catalyzed synthetic paint on the stringers that protects against fuel and other corrosive materials. Fit and finish in the cabin is strong, particularly the cherry woodwork and upholstery, which Cruisers does in-house. The curved cabinets and doors are evidence of the 500's European styling.
In the saloon, the five-piece leather sectional has two incliners, entertainment center, beside the full-featured galley with fridge, optional Sharp Carousel microwave, Schatt stove and Fisher dishwasher. The forward stateroom comes in either a queen or twin berth layout. Hull number one had the queen berth, as well as some stowage space and access to the forward head. All three rooms had optional flat-screen TVs, and Surround-Sound is available for the saloon. A central vacuum system is standard.
Enjoying the river's view from the master state, and later the helm, I could see where the Hudson River school of artists gained inspiration for their pre-Impressionist paintings. The banks, lined with forests and cows grazing on the hillsides, looked as pastoral as they must've been in the early 19th century. Except for an odd town, this stretch of the Hudson, north of Castleton-on-Hudson, showed few signs of civilization.
It was so peaceful that I was jarred back to reality when I saw Albany's skyscrapers in the distance. Tugs and warehouses replaced the grassy banks, and dozens of small boats were elbowing for river space, fishing for striped bass. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted. A classic American cruise on a well-proportioned cruiser, with the best view on the water.
Michael Verdon is frequent contributor to Yachting and a former editor of Motor Boating magazine.