If you know your way around the waterfront, when you think of a family express cruiser, the boat that most likely comes to mind is a Sea Ray Sundancer. For more than 35 years, the Sundancer brand has served as a showcase of Sea Ray’s investment in design and set the gold standard by which similar boats are measured. This is what makes the new 540 Sundancer so interesting. In the currently confused market, it offers a view ahead—one that history suggests is worth taking in.
The first Sundancer, a 24-footer introduced in 1974, melded express boat and cruiser with its clever midcabin design. Since then, hundreds of Sundancer models up to 68 feet have been launched and each has served as a telltale in terms of market direction. Sea Ray is not clairvoyant—it simply leads with its investment in product development. Today, Sea Ray’s PD&E (product development and engineering) facility in Merritt Island, Florida, is flanked by a state-of-the-art computer-controlled five-axis mill that can cut tooling for a boat up to 60 feet in length. Nearby, an automated cabinet-making plant, opened in 2008, turns rough stock into virtually faultless finished product. It is here on Sea Ray Drive that the 540’s design germinated, her tooling was cut, a prototype was built, and production began.
Before moving a mouse in the design of the 540, Sea Ray took advantage of its most valuable resource. “At the start of a new design, we bring in our dealers and customers to make sure we’re building the right boat,” said Rob Parmentier, President of Sea Ray. Parmentier has been with Sea Ray for 27 years and was hired by the late C. N. (Connie) Ray who founded the company in 1959. The economy has been up and down many times since then, but C. N.’s formula for success always seems to work, Parmentier asserts. “C. N. was ahead of his time…he cared about styling, quality, and innovation… this is what still motivates our customers.” The 540’s shapely silhouette, her upscale interior, and her user-friendly Zeus technology are a reflection of Sea Ray’s latest thinking.
While some might suggest that the 540’s look is Euro inspired, I would argue that it’s 100-percent American, because Sea Ray has been pushing the styling envelope since day one. The generous sweep of her reverse sheer is mirrored by the soft curves of her deck and superstructure. The 540’s bridge area is laid out with centerline helm seating that can be pivoted aft towards the cockpit seating area several steps below. While the bridge is air-conditioned, a retractable sunroof in the hardtop and venting side windows deliver the breeze. The cockpit has a wet bar, a refrigerator, a grill, and an ice maker. The swim platform can be fitted with a PWC lift. Exterior teak soles are offered and seem an appropriate upgrade.
Belowdecks, the 540’s collection of hull side windows and ports adds significant natural lighting. Our test boat had a master stateroom amidships with a queen berth and a private head. A second stateroom forward has a queen island berth and a private head. Those that cruise will want to opt for the combo washer/dryer. An alternate arrangement splits the compartment amidships into a stateroom with a queen berth and a third stateroom with a lower berth and dropdown upper berth. In this layout, the forward stateroom serves as the master. The best choice really depends on the size of your “crew.” The fit and finish of our test boat’s high-gloss cherry interior was excellent.
The 540 is now the largest Sea Ray to be fitted with the Cummins MerCruiser Zeus drive system. Each bronze pod can rotate independently and is fitted with contrarotating propellers with throughhub exhaust. The pods are independently controlled by computer and actuated by either conventional helm input (throttle/ wheel) or a joystick (up to 1500 rpm). It was my first experience with the system and I confess that it’s hard to argue with its logic. Twist the joystick and the boat spins in it’s own length. Move the joystick ahead or astern, to port or starboard, and the boat follows—no bow thruster is required with the pod equipped 540. At speed, the wheel and throttle perform as expected and are still available dockside for old-school types like me. The Skyhook feature, when activated, causes the Zeus drives to hold the 540 in position. I’ll admit it would be nice to not have to fiddle with the controls while waiting for a bridge opening.
Parmentier suggests that Zeus has proven popular with those new to boating, as well as old hands. “The bottom line is that Zeus takes the edge off when you’re maneuvering in a tight spot and folks are looking over your shoulder.” I wiggled the 540 about the old-fashioned way and then with Zeus—the joystick was soon second nature. There is no question that the system will reduce fatigue at the helm and stress behind it! Our test boat was fitted with twin 715-horsepower Cummins QSM11s. At speed, the 540’s hull form has the comfortable, predictable feel I have come to expect from Sea Ray. I recorded a top speed of 32.8 knots at 2440 rpm. At 2100 rpm I noted 27.1 knots while the Cummins electronics indicated an 80-percent load and a fuel burn of 55.6 gallons per hour. Sea Ray says the standard 600-horsepower Cummins QSCs will deliver a top speed of 31 knots.
“Seven out of 10 of our buyers are repeat customers, and by the time they move up to the 540, most will have owned three or four Sea Rays,” said Parmentier. This sort of loyalty is not won simply with technology and style. Customer service was an obsession for C. N. Ray and it is still job-one for Parmentier. “We have 200 first-class dealers in 81 countries, but I still pick up the phone if a customer calls with a problem.” Parmentier stresses that, at Sea Ray, someone will be there to answer the phone. “While some builders have stumbled or fallen during this down cycle, technology has allowed us to build better boats in a more efficient fashion and we are optimistic about the future. Americans love to have fun with family and friends and boating is still the best outlet.”
With Sea Ray’s solid foundation and its commitment to innovation, the 540 is as good as gold.
Sea Ray Boats, (800) 772-6287; www.searay.com