A boatbuilding powerhouse, served up New England-style - Soundings Online

A boatbuilding powerhouse, served up New England-style

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When I visited Eastern and Seaway boats in early 2011, the company was struggling to make a comeback from the recession. It had gone from building 117 boats in 2007 — the company’s best year — to 54 in 2009. But even at its nadir, Eastern was busy producing new models, including budget boats targeted to the times. It even bought two of its competitors, and the results have been positive.

The latest iteration of the Eastern 27 is the Tournament, which is set up for fishing and family cruising.

Based in Milton, N.H., Eastern came out of the recession with a vengeance by ramping up production and acquiring the established Down East brands Rosborough and Sisu. The Eastern group (my term) expects to sell 98 boats this year, and the average size has increased from the 18- to 22-footers of a few years ago to 22- to 31-footers. What has happened in the past two years is a story worth telling — the calculated risk-taking, the market savvy and the status-quo aversion of the company’s owner and management.

Bob Bourdeau, Eastern’s owner, and Bruce Perkins, the sales manager, can trace the lineage of any production fiberglass boat built in New England over the last 30 years. I thought I knew something about Bruno, BHM and Duffy, but these guys are Jeopardy-level contestants in this market. That’s likely what gave them the confidence — and the leads — to acquire Rosborough Boats in November 2012 and Sisu Boats earlier this year. What these brands share with the existing Eastern and Seaway lines is a Down East heritage and a popularity among ex-sailors and longtime boat owners who value economy and are well satisfied with semiplaning cruising speeds of 12 to 22 knots, depending on the brand.

The target market is mostly baby boomers who are either downsizing powerboaters or sailors stepping into a more easily managed craft. These boats also have workboat DNA and the benefits of simplicity, utilitarian designs and a general lack of fluff, though you can add all the fluff you want. Under the Eastern umbrella, these four brands cast a wide net into the marketplace, offering sensible alternatives to those who don’t want high-horsepower boats.

So the Eastern group is turning itself into a sort of Down East conglomerate with the scope of its brands, which range from 18 to 35 feet. On the budget end of the spectrum is the new Eastern 18 center console — $27,000 with a trailer and a 50-hp Mercury — that will do 28 mph wide open and 18 at cruise (www.easternboats.com). It is built of the same quality materials as the higher-priced boats, including Nida-Core coring, but Eastern cuts costs by building it with a 12-gallon plastic fuel tank under the seat and without a liner or forward seating.

The Eastern 27 Tournament affords good sightlines from the helm.

This gives the boat a more commercial look, but for many buyers, that and the low cost are precisely the appeal. No liner also means less weight and more speed. For fluff-lovers, there’s the tasteful — and more expensive — Classic version, with a fuel tank built in beneath the deck, a liner and forward seating. With a 70-hp outboard it will do 22 mph at cruise and 32 at the top end. In fact, outboards power all of the Eastern group’s boats except the 31- and 35-foot Eastern models.

At the other end of the spectrum is the fully customizable Seaway series (www.seawayboats.com). You can get teak rails, teak windshield framing — with color-matched aluminum-framed opening windows — choice of hull color, an anchor windlass, a high-end helm seat, full canvas and a host of other items to turn these boats into mini-lobster yachts. The fleet runs from 18 to 27 feet in Sportsman, Seafarer, Offshore and Sport models.

In Sisu, Eastern picked up a well-regarded brand with many loyal followers, including the editor-in-chief of this magazine, who just restored a vintage 22-footer. (Check out the project at www.soundingsonline.com — click on Blogs/Columns.) There are hundreds of Sisus plying the waters of New England, and Eastern introduced its own version at the Newport (R.I.) International Boat Show in September.

Rosborough

The Rosborough RF-246 Sedan Cruiser

Rosborough was founded in 1955 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Its bread and butter is the RF-246, with 480 built during the past 25 years (www.rosboroughboatsusa.com). The RF-246 Sedan Cruiser, which I took for a short spin out of Portsmouth, N.H., is an outboard-powered mini-trawler with a cockpit and large pilothouse. Outboards are simple and reliable and they don’t take up room inside the boat. They might burn more fuel than a diesel, but they cost less and are more cost-effective unless you run a lot of hours each year.

Let’s take a closer look at the RF-246 Sedan Cruiser, as well as Eastern’s boatbuilding talents. The cockpit is roomy, thanks in part to the boat’s bracket-mounted outboard, which eliminates the need for an engine well and adds usable space inside the boat. Our test boat had a 150-hp Honda, but most boats in the Eastern group go out the door with Yamaha power.

The boat’s commercial roots show in many of the details. A molded aft seat folds forward for wide-open bilge access. Inside there’s a commercial-quality fathometer transducer, a flange-mounted bronze Groco saltwater washdown seacock and a Shurflo pump, along with a Racor fuel filter with sight bowl and drain cock. These are top-shelf components, which are especially pleasing to see on any small boat, and the area is smoothly finished for easy cleanup. I’d add a gutter under the aft hatch edge to keep rain and spray out of the compartment.

Three-inch-diameter scuppers are in the cockpit corners. These are very large for such a small cockpit, which makes the boat that much more seaworthy because the rate at which water on deck will shed overboard will be greatly increased. There’s also a shallow (no ankle twister here) gutter across the transom, which helps channel water to the scuppers while keeping the deck puddle-free.

A sliding door leads into the pilothouse, which is surrounded by big windows, making the area bright and pleasant. A full-length galley countertop is to port, with a stove, refrigerator and sink. Opposite to starboard is a dinette that converts to a double berth. Fuel, water and holding tanks are directly below, and headroom above is generous. The helm is to starboard.

Below, a conventional cabin with V-berth and insert sections is forward and includes plenty of storage up under the gunwale, a locker to port and an open head opposite to starboard with a small sink and an opening window. Large windows in the trunk cabin brighten things up below and an overhead hatch provides an escape route, along with daylight and fresh air.

Our calm-water test ride showed the boat to have comfortable motions, with an easy roll period produced by the round bilges and tophamper. The 150 Honda produced 13 knots at 4,000 rpm and 16 knots at 4,500 rpm. With those round bilges, this is a fine 12- to 16-knot boat. If you want to cruise faster, a hard-chine hull is a better choice. The hard corner at the intersection of the hull bottom and sides naturally creates improved flow separation and lift. Putting a larger engine on this boat wouldn’t be a good idea, as it would push the hull past its natural speed range — unless you mean to pay a premium for increased get-home speed.

The Rosborough RF-246 Sedan Crusier's integrated hull extension serves as an outboard bracket while adding to the waterline length for improved efficiency and a better ride.

The bottom line is that the RF-246 is a distinctive and salty-looking cruiser that’s affordably priced, customizable, trailerable and economical to own. It’s comfortable at 12 to 13 knots and is designed for use in coastal waters — a good fit for a retired couple or small family. Its quality of construction is first-rate and will only improve under Eastern’s stewardship. Another version of the same hull, the 246 Custom Wheelhouse, has a larger cockpit and a smaller pilothouse, making it better suited to fishing, diving and other uses.

Smart boatbuilding

This is a good time to comment on Eastern’s plan for building Rosborough boats in the context of how it builds all of its boats. Eastern excels at building boats that are light, stiff and strong without spending a lot of money in the process. In at least one area, however, it uses a material usually associated with high-end builders. Nida-Core coring is used in decks, bulkheads and other parts, and in the hulls of the 27, 31- and 35-footers. One advantage of using Nida-Core over conventional solid fiberglass skins is that screws can be fastened to the inner skin without penetrating the outer skin, making for cleaner, quicker installation of interior fixtures and wiring chases.

Components such as hull grids are intelligently engineered, the sort of intelligence you see with Sabre and Back Cove yachts a few hours north in Rockland, Maine, but manifested differently. Another clever trick is the Eastern 24’s three stern modules for a stern seat, live well or transom-mounted engine. Whichever is selected, the components are integral to the liner, not tacked on as you see with other brands. It makes the boat easier to build and easier to own, with no unsightly or leaky joints.

Another Eastern difference is the frugality with which it tools up and produces new models — for example, marrying the bottom of one boat with the sides and transom of another, adding a foot to the overall length in the process. That’s how the Eastern 27 came to be. The end result is a good boat tooled up at a lower cost by the same people who build the boats, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in tooling. It’s obvious that these savings contribute not only to the company’s profitability, but also to lower costs for the consumer. It’s a highly fecund (I found it at Thesaurus.com) marriage of Yankee frugality and ingenuity.

Eastern has revived the Susu 22, an easily driven Down Easter with a solid reputation for efficiency and seakindliness.

In addition to tooling up new models economically, part of the recipe for success with any builder is the “design-to-manufacture” concept, which means the boat is designed to be easily built and serviceable for its owner. The fewer fiberglass parts a boat has, the easier and faster it will be to be build. Eastern boats are both easy to build and practical for owners to use. Eastern has built two Rosboroughs to date, and that first step was a prelude to the engineers rolling up their sleeves and simplifying the construction, taking a few hundred hours out of the process by reducing the number and complexity of the parts used.

Building better boats

There’s always room for design improvement in any boat I’ve been aboard, and Eastern naturally has a few opportunities with the RF-246, including tweaking the helm ergonomics and visibility. Although the Rosborough is actually better than many others in this area, trawlers as a group have some catching up to do when it comes to helm ergonomics and situational awareness. Sailboat DNA often shows in the steering wheel’s vertical orientation, the too-high throttle and a lack of coherence to the gauge and switch layout. I’m not a sailor, but I’m guessing sailors pay more attention to details such as the wind and current than the helm arrangement.

Another problem with trawlers is the mischief caused by sliding doors next to the helm. Getting outside quickly to handle lines or speak directly to a line-handler is a great thing, but the large chunks of horizon obscured by the side window and door frames is a problem if you value seeing the other fellow before meeting him over the rail. The problem is that another boat on a constant bearing with decreasing range — CBDR in Navy speak, a collision course in civilian speak — could easily be obscured by one of these blind spots. You’ll get dizzy from having to constantly move your head from side to side to see around the mullions, including the 7-inch-wide mullions between the forward windshield windows.

My guess is that making these changes will be a simple matter for Eastern as it streamlines the build process for the RF-246, improving both the helm ergonomics — placing everything at the correct angle, height and relative position — and shrinking the mullions, while increasing the glass area for better situational awareness. I know that doing so will build in another series of competitive advantages over many of Rosborough’s competitors.

Eastern 27 Tournament

The Eastern 27 Tournament helm

My other test ride was aboard the new variant of the Eastern 27: the 27 Tournament, which is set up with a live well aft for fishing. The original, known as the Islander, has a stern seat. Throughout this boat, top-quality systems and components are neatly installed by attentive craftsmen, with wiring looms and double hose clamps for protection as appropriate.

This is a beamy 27-footer at 10 feet, 3 inches; a narrower boat of the same deadrise would be a little better ride, but people want more space, and this boat is helping address that market. The Eastern 27 has an efficient stringer grid that minimizes weight and bottom panel size while maximizing strength. It also has a Nida-Core-cored hull, again for greater strength and stiffness at less weight. This material absorbs noise effectively and is impervious to rot and water migration. Other notable features include an 8-foot-long midcabin berth below the helm area and two polyethylene fuel tanks with top surfaces that are stepped to match the step in the deck and to maximize fuel capacity.

A transom door to port makes it easy to get on and off the boat, and our test boat had large rectangular scuppers to shed water quickly over the side, which helps with cleanup and seaworthiness. Aft in the cockpit is a big fishbox/live well with balance-enhancing toe-kick all around, and a deck hatch providing access — albeit tight access under the fishbox — to the bilge. One improvement would be to put the shore power connection back aft near the transom door so you don’t have to walk over it on the way to the pilothouse. Wide, flat side decks and tall rails lead safely forward to the bow cleats and anchor windlass.

The pilothouse, elevated a step above the cockpit for better visibility and increased volume below, has a seat and table, and a raised two-person forward-facing seat forward — all to port. To starboard is a galley counter with refrigerator, storage and sink. The helm is just forward of that. The helm ergonomics and horizon visibility are quite good, in line with what I would expect Eastern to produce on all of its recently acquired models. The helm console is hinged for quick access to the wiring inside, saving maintenance time and money.

The Eastern 27 Tournament has a wide swim platform and transom door for easier access to and from the cockpit.

Forward in the cabin is a V-shaped settee that converts to a berth, and there’s an enclosed head with a Corian countertop, an opening port light and pleasant joinery. The cabin is finished with pleasing fabrics and upholstery, a teak-and-holly sole and a modest sprinkling of lobster-yacht joinery. The aforementioned 8-foot berth projects well aft from the aft cabin bulkhead, where the engine would be if this were an inboard boat.

The ride

On our test ride the wheel and throttles proved to be comfortably positioned. The Mercury DTS controls are silky smooth, and the power steering makes the boat a real pleasure to run. All-around visibility is quite good, and the sliding window at the helm, as well as the opening windshields, are great on a hot day. I’d add a non-glare fabric or gelcoat to the dash to reduce windshield glare.

The twin Mercury 150s were overpropped — the boat went in the water for the first time that morning — and would only turn up 5,250 rpm (800 to 1,000 rpm too slow), but the boat still managed to make a tad over 30 knots; 4,500 rpm produced 25 knots, which would be maximum cruise speed. At 4,000 rpm we made 21 knots, at 3,500 rpm 15 knots. As expected, full tabs — the tabs on our test boat were a size too small, but this is easily remedied — were needed to achieve the best performance at the lower throttle settings because of the weight of the twin outboards cantilevered well abaft the transom. Even so, the boat was comfortably on plane at just under 14 knots.

The Seaway fleet includes the Sportsman 21 (left) and Sportsman 18.

With smaller props, top speed should increase 1 or 2 knots, with the engines turning up to their rated rpm and developing full power. Also, I’d expect 1 or 2 knots less at the cruise settings, with the smaller props absorbing less power and producing less thrust.

Test conditions were calm, but we crossed enough wakes to know this will be a decent boat operating in the high teens and low 20s in a seaway.

To my eye, the Eastern 27 is a fine-looking boat, well-proportioned and sensibly laid out for cruising, fishing, diving or whatever you like. It would make a fine addition to anyone’s dock.

Takeaway

Eastern is in many ways the classic free-enterprise success story. The company came out with new Eastern and Seaway boats that matched market demand in the middle of a recession, and it added two new brands to the lineup — and kept tinkering to improve all of them, all at the same time. All of this involves risk and perhaps some sleep-deprived nights for management. But the results have been rewarding for both Bob Bourdeau and his Eastern group — 80 percent of the boats on the line during my visit in July were sold at retail — and for an increasing number of well-satisfied customers.

November 2013 issue