Meridian 441 Sedan Bridge

Designers could learn something from this cruiser.

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If I were teaching a graduate course for boatbuilding executives-let's call it "Successful Boatbuilding 101"-I wouldn't make the students buy a textbook.

I'd take them for a ride on a Meridian 441 Sedan Bridge.

In a word, this new yacht is a syllabus of thoughtful design, clever construction, and realizing the satisfaction of customer needs. As you can guess, I was quite taken with the 441.

That hasn't always been the case, and I've found some earlier Meridians to be less than graceful swans on the pond-and pointed it out. One, I said, had all the style of a Nike running shoe. I made the comment on another that I thought they'd shrink-wrapped a boat around two bedrooms and a kitchen.

On the other hand, I've always believed that Meridian really knew what customers wanted inside their boat, regardless of how it looked on the outside.

In this case, Meridian got it all right. OK, fine, if you're looking for a traditional look, this isn't it. But it's all so well done that I'm willing to overlook a reversed sheer line.

There was an earlier Meridian 441 but, if I understand correctly what the design boffins that accompanied me on our test were saying, they basically jacked up the VHF antenna and put an entirely new boat underneath. My notes say that this 441 Sedan Bridge has a new hull, deck, bridge, and profile. Also new windows, easier bridge access, better accommodations, more light, and more woodwork. Yep, all that's left is the antenna.

This is also the first Meridian with the Total Concept Integrated Vessel Control System, which is the next best thing to having your own captain. Actually, since Total Concept doesn't like Jack Daniels or chase women, it's even better. This system literally makes docking a breeze, especially in a breeze, but more about this later.

Class begins in the salon, because it shows how Meridian has clearly gone after the upscale market with a fit and finish far beyond the price point of this yacht. The interior is all cherry, with nary a piece of fiberglass showing, and the soft goods are downright luxurious. The salon is arranged to be the living room, with a curved settee on one side and a pair of barrel chairs opposite. You'll have some decisions here, between a really good faux leather, a really good real leather, and even double incliner seats and a Flexsteel convertible bed.

Most important is that everyone, seated or standing, has a great view outside through the doublelayered windows. And, when you're done with the scenery, there's a flat-screen TV in the after corner so every seat is the best in the house for viewing.

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Open the locker above the TV and you'll find the complete AC/DC electrical panel. If you're used to the electrics placed so you have to get on your knees to read the switches, you may start weeping with joy.

Step up and youre in the country galley, with a big dinette on one side, a well-equipped galley opposite, and real Honduras mahogany planks on the sole. The Norcold 3/4-sized dual-voltage fridge/freezer sort of blocks the view, but not badly enough to give up all that cold space. Theres an Origo three-burner cooktop, microwave, dual stainless sinks, and a ton of stowage.

You can order a lower helm (our test boat didnt have it) for about $10,000 but it would cramp your dinette space. I think you'd be smarter to use the money for a bridge enclosure with air conditioning and heating. Something you cant see in the photos is the Ultra-Flow air conditioning, which relies on multiple hidden vents for even cooling or heating without the drafts that are created from just a few vents.

OK, next is one of the parts I love about the Meridian 441. You've got two staterooms, each with a private head. But which is the master? Frankly, I don't know. I'd probably flip a coin.

Meridian calls the forward stateroom the master, with a queen-sized inner-spring pillowtop berth and two big cedar-lined hanging lockers. The whole bed lifts up to reveal a cavernous stowage area. The master head is en suite, with a spacious enclosed shower stall, solid-surface counters, and good stowage in a mirrored medicine cabinet.

The other candidate for master stateroom has a slightly smaller berth and only a single hanging locker, but it does have two huge hull-side windows that let you look out on your world as you awaken. There's a vanity table with hidden hassock, a seat, lots of drawers, and room for an optional washer-dryer combo.

The en suite head for the midship cabin is smaller than the one forward probably why Meridian designates it for guests. It has an extra door for day-head access and there's no shower stall (it has a curtain and handset faucet instead). Still, the midcabin is very nice so order the washer-dryer: You may need to run it if guests are lingering.

There is a huge utility room under the salon sole - big enough to handle folding bikes and big watertoysand the entry is a delight: A handrail swings into place and you descend into the compartment as easily as Marilyn Monroe sashaying through Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Besides storage, it provides immediate access to pumps, batteries, and the Xantrex chargers, as well as to water and waste tanks. It's a great use of space created by moving the engines aft into a V-drive configuration.

Meridian clearly understands stairways, found that I could reach everything I needed for normal service and maintenance easily. There are no systems outboard on the engines and, with the Reverso oil changers, even that task is simplified.

Once on the bridge, there's really no reason to leave because all the amenities are right here. The curved settee has a truly multipurpose table that converts from full dining table to cocktail size to a sunpad with filler cushions. The sunpads purpose is slightly defeated if you order the optional hardtop, but the top is beautifully built and perfect for a full enclosure. An optional TV is available and it sits on a post in one console for viewing from the settee, but you have to carry it up and down the stairs: I'd prefer a permanent (and lockable) solution.

The bridge has a console with grill, and another with sink and fridge behind the wide companion bench seat opposite the helm. The dash, in soft-touch gray, is easy on the eyes and resembles that of a well-designed sportscar, with good visibility of the two 12-inch monitors, plus all the engine gauges. Even the rocker switches were carefully placed in order of priority: most important closest to the skipper. In front of the companion seat is a big chart box and good thinking the entire console lifts easily for servicing the electronics.

Access to the engineroom is through a large cockpit hatch with gas lifts, and I found that I could reach everything I needed for normal service and maintenance easily. There are no systems outboard on the engines and, with the Reverso oil changers, even that task is simplified.

But-and this is what aced the midterm of my Smart Boat-building class-the entire cockpit from coaming to coaming can be removed easily in case there is a catastrophic failure of either engine or the Onan 11.5 kW genset. Very smart, and just one of many thoughtful features. Another is a "canal" with a lid on the swim platform for the shorepower cord, so you'll never trip over that yellow shore cord again. There are also two dedicated lockers in the cockpit sized to exactly fit those fenders that always end up rolling around loose.

Go forward on deck and there are the usual sunpads but, what, no ground tackle? It's all hidden under a hatch: a Quik electric windlass, both raw- and freshwater washdowns, and a pull-up cleat. The pulpit has double rails for security, the stanchions have hidden bolts for a clean no-stub look, and the rails are flared to make the side decks even wider. I'd like to see a handrail on the back of the cabin for that last stretch, though.

I saved the best for last, because the Meridian is a joy to handle underway. This Total Control system is very slick and even a first-timer can figure it out in a few minutes. In essence, what they've done is create a system that provides 80 percent of the functions of a pod drive at 20 percent of the cost which, in this case, is nothing: It's standard on the Meridian 441.

Simply twist the joystick or push it in one direction, and the boat responds because you're linking both bow and stern thrusters with the engine shifters. The Total Control system seems to figure out where you want to go and how fast, instantaneously. After fiddling with it for a couple of minutes to learn the reaction time and speeds (more twist or push on the joystick means more speed), I was able to sidle up to a mooring post and hold the bow about six inches away in a strong breeze. The one place where a pod system is superior to Total Control is moving diagonally, say, easing forward at a 45-degree angle. But I can't imagine when you'd need that, especially when bow and stern thrusters can pull you sideways into a dock perfectly.

After we played with the joystick control, we took the 441 out for speed runs and, though the unassisted steering was very stiff, she was just as well mannered. Standard power on the 441 is a pair of 380-horsepower Cummins QSB diesels, but our test boat had the $17,000 upgrade to twin 425-horsepower Cummins, a good choice that let us top out at 26.4 knots, or a shade over 30 mph. Another option is the 480-horsepower Cummins, but that only pushes the speed to about 33 mph, so I'd pick the middle power option. We didn't have any seas bigger than our own wake, but the 441 clearly benefits from an increased vee in the hull and felt solid at all speeds. One slick feature of the digital throttle and Total Control link with the SmartCraft black box is "cruise control." You can set a pre-determined rpm or speed and then just shove the throttles forward. The system will take you right to your previously determined "sweet spot" and then hold that speed, which is a boon when fuel is five dollars a gallon.

It's easy to tell that I really liked this boat. It was well built and clearly designed by a team that not only own boats, but work on them as well. Lots of usable room, a high-quality finish, priced very competitively, and with that wonderful Total Control system.

And I think you'll really like her, too. Class dismissed.

Meridian Yachts, (866) 992-2487; www.meridian-yachts.com