The road map, in large yellow letters distinct from the town names, read, "Piemonte." I figured the word indicated foothills, similar to Virginia and North Carolina's Piedmont, but I soon realized these northern Italy creations were not the gently rolling hills that lie east of the Blue Ridge. These were mountains that continued to grow as they stretched north and west toward the not-too-distant Alps. Foothills, it seems, is a relative term.
The peaks took on ever-lighter hues of blue and gray as they retreated into the afternoon sun, and I was drawn inland-but not by the magnificent scenery. My destination was the Azimut boatbuilding facility in Avigliana, where the company was building its new 68 Plus motoryacht before trucking it 100 miles or so down the mountain to the coast.
There were several 68 Plus hulls in various stages of construction, from bare hull to nearly complete. One was flat on top, looking like it had been under a low bridge. The shape, of course, was intentional, designed to meet bridge and tunnel height limitations en route.
The finished boats are not flat on top, nor are they partially built and completed after shipment. To maintain production efficiency and quality standards, the boats are completed inside the factory. All systems are tested in a large indoor pool at the Avigliana facility. After the tests are completed, each boat is partially disassembled and readied for shipment. The boats receive a quick reassembly and final detailing at Azimut's coastal location.
Azimut has a great reputation as a builder of production motoryachts. The company took top honors as Best Design and Technology winner for yachts from 40 feet to 100 feet in the 2000 Yachting Made in Italy Awards, for which I was honored to be a judge. The 68 Plus, while under construction, held great promise as an exciting new model, but I withheld final judgment until seeing the finished product in Ft. Lauderdale several months later.
I was not disappointed. The boat not only fulfills the general promise I had seen on paper and under construction, but delivers on the smaller details. The weight at the end of the davit cable is bumpered to protect gelcoated surfaces and incorporates a hook that eliminates the need for a pad eye on deck. The stair from the saloon to the flying bridge is an unobtrusive spiral that seems to float in place. The galley adjacent to it can be closed off with a tambour that glides smoothly along a track centered in the counter, and the track has holes at each end for cleaning out the inevitable crumbs and spills.
The attention to detailing continues in the engineroom. Azimut addressed safety and convenience in arranging and outfitting the machinery space. Air intakes are not on the topsides, but are in the sides of the house above the deck, inboard of the side decks. This puts them above normal spray and reduces the chance of down-flooding in an emergency. The intakes are also fitted with shutter-type air dampers interlocked with the fire suppression system, closing the intakes automatically when the system is triggered.
Access to the batteries and fuel filters is direct, and the shaft logs are easily reached by lifting small panels in the aluminum tread plate. Two hinged panels open up the centerline, exposing the main seacocks and strainers a few inches below. Also in this area is an emergency bilge suction with its own strainer and quarter-turn valve; it would be a quick job to close the seacock and open the suction should the need arise.
Abaft the engineroom is the biggest lazarette you're likely to see on a boat this size. Even if you opt to include a double crew cabin and head in this area, there still will be room for a pair of Glendinning cable barrels and an auxiliary machinery room for pumps and smaller equipment. Gensets are in the main engineroom.
Forward of the engineroom are four cabins: a VIP stateroom in the bow and two additional guest cabins to either side of a centerline passageway. The starboard cabin on our boat was arranged as a crew cabin, with a single high berth with a full-size washer and dryer under it. The standard arrangement will sleep two in L-stacked berths. Each of the three guest heads are power-vented through a pattern of attractive and effective gold-grommet holes above the showers. In a small nod to practicality that Europeans seem to accept and accommodate, and that Americans generally ignore, each head has a handy toilet brush bulkhead-mounted in a polished stainless container.
Abaft the guest cabins is the master stateroom, adjacent to the engineroom but separated from it by a dressing room and head. The head is outfitted with dual lavatories, a toilet, a bidet and a large tub. There is a settee to port and a vanity to starboard, but the nicest feature is just above them in the topsides. Eight large oval portlights, oriented vertically, lend the appearance of a master stateroom on a much larger yacht, letting in lots of light and providing a great view.
The saloon is cozy, yet spacious enough to include wraparound seating for eight. Two steps take you up to the galley, helm and dinette. Seating six, the dinette table is actually two smaller tables with a lift-out center section that makes the unit ideal for parties. The seat at the helm is adjustable, but even at the limit, I couldn't get comfortable with the footrest location. It seems too low, and the bridge helm has no footrest at all. Otherwise, the helm layouts are excellent.
On the other hand, Azimut did a great job with two areas that have come to be pet peeves of mine: hatches and grills.
Too many open hatches aren't counterbalanced or lack a latch to hold them open against a large roll, making them dangerous at sea for unsuspecting guests. The hatches on the 68 Plus include heavy-duty torsional springs in their hinge assemblies and, in a belt-and-suspenders philosophy, have latches.
My other peeve concerns wet-bar grills that let you close the hinged cover while the grill is still on. A charred cover is inevitable, and a fire is clearly possible, as most covers are fiberglass or wood. Azimut incorporated a switch that shuts off the grill any time the cover is closed, even if the control knob is on. More builders should do the same.
Although I have not yet had a chance to run the Azimut 68 Plus, I don't have any reservations regarding her performance. During the past two years, I've tested her little sister, the 58 Full, and her big sister, the 85 Ultimate, both of which are firm and responsive sea boats. The 68 Plus shares the same Righini hull form and engineering, so I expect no less from her.
Kudos to Azimut for making an attractive and beautifully finished yacht that is safe and convenient.
Contact: Sea Ray-Azimut Sales Center, (321) 449-9073; fax (321) 455-6563; www.azimut-usa.com.