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Palmer Johnson 120

This 40-knot express cruiser steers Palmer Johnson into the fast lane.

October 4, 2007
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It would be hard to imagine anyone better as your tour guide to Cover Drive than Dan Lenard, not just because he’s half of the Nuvolari & Lenard design team responsible for this new Palmer Johnson yacht, but because he is so clearly delighted with the finished product.

Lenard, all lanky 6 feet-plus of him, bounds through the yacht with energy, stopping to show off features that might escape the casual observer. “Look at this”, he says, his face lighting up with pleasure, “Isn’t it wonderful?

It is, in fact, all quite wonderful and not just because Lenard’s enthusiasm is infectious. Cover Drive is one of those rare yachts that, without seeming to try, sets new benchmarks.

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That said, Cover Drive will not be to everyone’s taste. She is a big 120-foot day boat that was designed from the outset to be used in short bursts: a quick run to a deserted cay for snorkeling or an elegant dinner aboard for a half-dozen guests. One look at the minimalist crew quarters (captain plus three) makes it clear that the crew will only stay aboard temporarily.

In fact, that’s exactly the plan. Cover Drive was built for Tim Mohamed, owner of Palmer Johnson, who will keep the yacht in front of his island home and use it like others might use a day boat one-third this size. She is an express cruiser on steroids.

The third yacht in the Corniche series, which started with the 115-foot Mostro, Cover Drive is the first of the Express Bridge Sport Cruiser versions with the Ray Hunt-designed hull trimmed to accommodate the striking and stiletto-like styling. The yacht represents an interesting shift for Palmer Johnson (see sidebar), because she has a composite superstructure atop the traditional aluminum hull, all built to ABS class and MCA rules. Weighing nearly four tons less than all-alloy construction and combined with a pair of DDC 12V396 diesels putting out a total of 4,500 hp, it’s no surprise that Cover Drive has a 40-knot top speed.

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For those more used to conventional cockpits or afterdecks on large yachts, the layered look of Cover Drive was no happenstance. “I wanted this yacht, like a fine European resort, to have a beach at waterlevel, then a terrace, then a restaurant”, Lenard said with an impish grin.

His beach is the swim platform, with a hinged transom that reveals a spacious garage for several jetskis (the tender and crane reside in a concealed gullwing hangar under the foredeck). The terrace is the mid-level, with a centerline sunpad that fairly begs for a covey of bikinied crumpets. And the restaurant is another of Lenard’s surprises.

Rather than placing the dining area in the usual location forward in the saloon, Lenard placed it aft between the twin sliding doors. With a curved banquette facing aft over the round table and four loose chairs, it provides a far better view than the traditional dining area.

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Outside, the seemingly small coffee table can spin and expand with leaves to create an alfresco restaurant capable of serving eight guests.

Placing the dining area aft let Lenard devote the remainder of the saloon to a trio of Italian Minotti sofas (covered in elegant Rubella fabrics), which face a pop-up television in the back of the dining banquette. Joinerwork of dark-stained anigre (a West African wood that’s naturally light in color) in a traditional raised panel style and fluted moldings, should have created an ambiance as formal as an Old Boy’s club, but it’s just the opposite.

“I wanted it to be elegant”, said Lenard, “but not needing a coat and tie. This is a T-shirt boat.”

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To offset the formal woods, the sole is planked walnut, broken up by area rugs rather than full carpeting, and wide-blade shutters on the windows are more casual than traditional window coverings. The full-service bar forward, with twin refrigerators and marble counters, is clearly intended for serious entertaining. An egg-crate bulkhead provides a visual separation for the pilothouse, while still allowing light into the saloon.

The pilothouse continues the surprises. It has Stidd pedestal seats behind a green leather dashboard, but the steering wheel is on the back of a console between two of the seats. This is sensible, because the throttles and jog stick steering atop the console are easily within reach from either chair.

Elegantly banistered stairs lead from the pilothouse to the lower foyer and the day head on its starboard side. Though not expected to get much use, the master suite spans the full beam and is finished in dark anigre. You enter through an office/dressing area, which has a built-in desk and double closet with beveled mirrors.

Palmer Johnson Returns

“I promised you the first thing we’d do is lay a keel. There it is.” Speaking to the workers at Palmer Johnson as the yard started a new megayacht last February, new president Mike Kelsey Jr. served notice that PJ was definitely on the road back.

It had been a rocky road recently, however, for this 86-year-old builder of megayachts. Founded in 1918 to build fishing boats and named for the owner’s son, Palmer Johnson quickly moved into yacht construction and, by the ’30s, had a reputation for high quality.

Much of the recognition for making PJ a world force in megayachts goes to Mike Kelsey Sr., who joined the company in 1961. Through the ’60s and ’70s, PJ was known for fast ocean racing yachts but, in 1979, the company set a world motoryacht speed record with the 100-foot Fortuna for King Juan Carlos of Spain.

By the ’90s, PJ was firmly entrenched in motoryachts, launching La Baronessa as its largest all-aluminum motoryacht for a private owner. In 2000, Kelsey Sr. retired to a consulting capacity, and a private investor, who had a yacht under construction at the yard, bought the company.

The new ownership ended in Chapter 11 last year and a dispute arose over who owned the Palmer Johnson brand name. In the end, Tim Mohamed (owner of Cover Drive), fought through arbitration to buy the company, along with PJ’s refit yard in Savannah, Georgia, which he since sold to Global ShipSystems. According to Global, PJ planned to remain a tenant at the complex.

Cover Drive is the most significant yacht that Palmer Johnson has built in decades”, said Kelsey Jr. “It marks a departure from conventional motoryachts, as well as into composite construction….”

Mohamed has placed the Palmer Johnson name in a trust and, if the company doesn’t retain at least 100 employees for two years, the employees will own the name.

The future for PJ, said Kelsey Jr. will include aluminum yacht construction in Wisconsin and composite construction in Savannah.

A 50-inch flat-screen television is in the bulkhead of the master, with a powerful Bang & Olufsen sound system that Lenard quickly turns up to a painful level. “Listen to this”, he shouts, herding a guest back into the foyer and closing the door. Even with an ear to the door, the crash sequences of the Bruce Willis adventure movie are barely audible. The total silence is a testament to the sound-deadening package, which includes everything from floating bulkheads to rubber seals on all the doors.

Also surprising are the twin VIP staterooms, each identical with angled beds for more floor space, and en suite heads with showers. A fourth cabin has twin berths, two Pullman beds, and a smaller head.

Galley? Oh, yes, it’s tucked away below the saloon, reached via stairs from the dining area. Although well equipped, it underlines the limited plans for cooking aboard (no stuffed turkeys here), though dual washer/dryers should handle the beach towel inventory.

A final delight aboard Cover Drive is the flying bridge, which, in keeping with everything else aboard this yacht, is quite unusual. This isn’t the usual “seats-20-barbecue flying bridge” found on most 120-footers. Instead, it is extremely personal and private, to the point where the stairs leading from the afterdeck are almost invisible.

Once atop the cabin, you’ll find just two seats, albeit extremely comfortable leather bucket seats that seem to have been snicked from a Ferrari. There is no windscreen, and the dashboard seems to levitate above the teak decking. The wind rushing up the deck toward your face brings to mind a vintage sports car.

“I admit it!” he says without guilt, “Cover Drive-and this bridge-were inspired by the Aston Martin Vanquish, where hard muscle blends into soft lines. A pair of sunpad/settees is tucked aft under the rakish electronics arch, which sports a pair of winglets evocative of those on business jets. Asked about the flying bridge, which is invisible from the beam ends of Cover Drive, Lenard says, “I wanted this yacht to be as much fun as possible on a serious megayacht platform.

For anyone who is curious about yacht names, a Cover Drive is one of the most graceful, but also most difficult, strokes in the game of cricket. For Mohamed, formerly a professional cricket player, the name is a natural.

It was also a perfect name for a yacht that is so graceful and so powerful, yet so hard to achieve. While not for everyone, there will be many like me who will fall hopelessly in love with Cover Drive.

Palmer Johnson Yachts, (954) 765-5555, www.palmerjohnson.com. For more information, contact: (866) 922-4877; www.yachtingnet.com/yachting/productinfo.

Michael Verdon is frequent contributor to Yachting and a former editor of Motor Boating magazine.

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