Independence is the name of the game in Ben Wilde’s book, and the fewer hours on the genset the better
Ben Wilde, a former sales and marketing executive in the housewares business, has carved out a niche for the last 10 years selling a unique style of boating adventure out of his waterfront location in Essex, Conn.
Foremost, he sells a lifestyle, mostly to reformed sailors who now like to cruise in proper powerboats for extended periods. The vehicle for these adventures is a lineup of Ranger Tugs — 21, 25 and 29 feet — and Nordic Tugs — 26, 32, 37, 42, 49 and 54 feet. That’s quite a span size-wise, but the common threads running through all of these boats are semidisplacement hulls, single-diesel power and an independent streak in the way they’re outfitted. (Wilde just recently took on the Ranger line.)
I find these boats a refreshing change of pace, with nothing remotely pretentious about them — unless that quality itself is a subtle pretension, which it isn’t in this case. These are honest-working yachts, practical, seaworthy and with a quirky homeliness about them.
A boat isn’t much use unless you have somewhere to go with it, so Wilde arranges owner get-togethers. The idea is to encourage the newer owners to get out and use their boats on longer trips, and help novices feel more comfortable among friends out on the briny deep.
As many as 100 people get together on 15 to 30 boats, line up in a cove off the Connecticut River for barbecue, anchor overnight for orientation, and then head off on a two-week 400-nautical-mile cruise. These round-trip sojourns typically take the fleet from Essex to Block Island, R.I., and then on to Massachusetts — Buzzards Bay, Cuttyhunk, Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Woods Hole, through the Cape Cod Canal and on to Provincetown. It’s hard to think of a route that would be more fun for a fleet of coastal cruisers.
The boats never touch a dock during the two weeks, opting instead for mooring buoys and anchorages. And that’s precisely the point and purpose behind the way Wilde specs these boats when ordering them from the plant. Cruising autonomy is the name of the game, which means minimizing reliance on AC power in favor of DC power supplied by oversized alternators and solar panels. The fewer hours on the generator’s hour meter, the greater the owner’s sense of accomplishment at the end of the trip.
Let’s touch on solar panels first. You may have read about the viability of solar-powered boats, but that’s still a very long way off, according to Wilde. Unless you have a couple acres of solar panels, you just can’t generate the electricity needed for propulsion, even in a low-resistance catamaran, at least not on a practical basis range- and speed-wise. What they are very good for is keeping batteries topped off when on the hook and powering hatch-mounted ventilators that keep air circulating below deck.
Wilde installs them on top of the pilothouse or on the flybridge hardtop — a total of four panels that can generate up to 390 watts of 12-volt DC power in ideal conditions to charge the batteries. On Nordic Tugs’ biggest boat, the 54, the solar panels generate up to 1,230 watts and can keep up with three galley refrigerators, an icemaker, two deep freezers, a wine chiller and another refrigerator on the flybridge. That’s on a sunny day, of course, and these are high-quality appliances that require little power to operate. Wilde has also started specifying upgraded circulating-water-cooled, well-insulated freezers with digital thermostats because they draw less power.
The only time the generator is needed is to run the air conditioning, washer/dryer or watermaker. However, it doesn’t take much current to operate a few two-speed 12-volt DC fans, which can obviate the use of air conditioning in marginal climes. Wilde clearly thinks in these terms when outfitting the boat. For example, he was getting ready to order a Nordic Tug 32 during my visit, and it was coming with air conditioning but no generator. In fact, that’s the way he orders the 26 as well, though all can be retrofitted after delivery, unless he has a buyer who specifies otherwise. The 37, 42, 49 and 54 all come with AC standard.
I like the philosophy behind the genset-free cruiser; it forces a more Spartan lifestyle on those of us who are accustomed to a more pampered existence. And it makes a great deal of sense economically when you do a little math. There are 168 hours in a week, and a generator’s oil typically must be changed every 200 hours. That’s every 8.3 days. That’s 22 times in six months of non-stop cruising, taken to an extreme, of course. And figure on rebuilding the unit every 8,000 hours, to say nothing of the fuel consumed during that period.
To keep the electricity flowing, Wilde specifies alternator upgrades. The older units that came standard on the diesels put out 50 to 70 amps, but that was only initially and with the engine running at high rpm, with the charge dropping off quickly and precipitously to a fraction of that amount. While it’s important to not overcharge batteries, Wilde specifies 160-amp Balmar alternators that are externally regulated so they will charge at a higher rate. The key is to keep the house battery bank charged a higher percentage of its capacity, which also helps them last much longer. When connected to shore power, a simple inverter/charger can be used to keep the batteries topped off.
The idea is to have plenty of batteries and charge them fully while cruising during the day. But Wilde points out the need to use the right kind of batteries charged by the right kind of alternators. He prefers AGM or sealed batteries because they accept a charge quicker than wet cell batteries, which tend to fight a charge.
Other electricity savers popular in the Wilde fleet are propane stove/ovens and LED lights, which use a lot less electricity than the old bulb variety. A typical reading light requires 20 watts, compared to 1.8 watts using LED technology, more than 10 times less electrical power. And LEDs fit in the same old fixtures and don’t generate appreciable heat, further reducing the need for AC.
The 3M window tint film that Wilde applies to the yachts reduces radiant heat that makes it through the windows by 98 percent, according to 3M, and it stops the harmful ultraviolet rays that destroy carpeting, upholstery and interior woodwork over time. In the pilothouse, a nearly clear version of the film is used so it won’t interfere with nighttime piloting and identification of navigation lights.
Wilde Yachts charters a Nordic Tug 54 for $14,500 a week in the Caribbean, which includes everything — a husband-and-wife crew, food, wine, fuel, taxes, etc. Two couples can split the expenses and learn a lot about cruising and how to run the boat — and whether they want to take the next step and buy one. The charter boat, with solar panels, has active stabilizers that minimize roll under way to ensure it makes the best possible first impression on passengers.
Nordic Tugs — Ranger Tugs, as well — are hard-chine, full-keel semidisplacement hulls, and they are well-suited to cruising at displacement speeds for the best range and efficiency. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Nordic Tug 37 is actually 37 feet, 4 inches at the waterline, as opposed to the average 37-footer, which is maybe 32 feet at the waterline. This gives the boat a displacement speed of 7.9 knots (at s/l 1.3) and a range of 1,280 miles at 1,370 rpm, for 4.44 nmpg. And you can dial it back to 6 or 7 knots for more range.
If you don’t mind burning a lot more fuel, the 380-hp Cummins will push the boat to 18.5 knots at full power, and cruise all day long at 14 knots at 2,600 rpm for a range of 341 miles at 1.18 nmpg.
I’ve discussed articulating rudders in this column and how they tighten a boat’s turning radius. Wilde has tried them on the Nordic Tug 37, 42 and 54. He says the setup worked well on the 37 but isn’t really needed on this model, since steering is fine without it. It really helped the 42 at very slow speeds, he says, especially in mooring fields. And the owners of these yachts like the rudders.
Wilde says the articulated rudder on the 54 didn’t hold up and isn’t manufactured well enough for an offshore yacht. That’s not to say he isn’t willing to give it another try. Maybe bigger bolts, a stronger steering ram, power steering and a little persistence would help resolve the issues. Power steering is needed because it takes a glacial 10 turns of the wheel from lock-to-lock with manual steering, which I believe is dangerous in terms of responsiveness and collision avoidance.
On the Nordic Tug 37, the engine room is directly below the pilothouse, where I recorded some of the lowest sound level readings I’ve seen in 15 years and hundreds of boat tests. And Wilde says this is one of the louder models. I recorded 58 dBA at 1,000 rpm, 67.5 dBA at 2,000 rpm, 71 dBA at 2,500 rpm (77 back in the saloon), and 74 dBA at full power (3,000 rpm). Putting all this into perspective, there are plenty of diesel, outboard and sterndrive boats that are well into the 80 dBA range at cruise speed and the 90s at full power. This is one quiet boat, and quiet means a much more relaxing and enjoyable ride.
We stayed in the calm confines of the lower Connecticut River, but it was evident that this boat would be comfortable at sea, with gentle motions and a just-right roll period and pitch amplitude. The boat does exactly what you expect it to in close quarters. Anyone with single-screw boat-handling experience could back it into a slip with little fuss, and it’s the perfect platform to learn the art of handling a single-engine boat, its big keel and rudder keeping the skipper in charge of the proceedings. There’s even a bow thruster to give her a nudge when needed.
Price, value, resale
I almost dropped my teeth when I found out how much these boats cost. A well-equipped Nordic Tug 37 starts at $483,100, according to Wilde Yachts. However, in the end, they nevertheless offer good value because they hold their value so well through the years. There are plenty of trawler brands you can buy for a lot less, but watch out come resale time with these so-called value boats.
As certain as rising taxes, there will be major depreciation, especially in today’s depressed market. By all means do your own homework, but these boats typically are no more expensive to own — and may end up costing you a whole lot less if you sell within five or 10 years — than the mass-produced versions when factoring in the total cost of ownership.
Part of what makes Wilde’s operation unique is the extensive product orientation he provides. Wilde’s company captain/salesman Bill Boyer will spend a couple weeks with new owners, including going with them to their home port, whether Annapolis, Md., or Lake Champlain. Now that brings new meaning to the term customer service; contrast that with dealers who spend a couple hours with their customers, toss them the keys and bid them adieu.
And building such strong personal relationships with customers has got to be good business. In fact, Wilde has resold many of the Nordic Tugs he sold new as many as six or seven times through the years.
It was good to see Ben’s creative, intelligent approach to what he does for a living, paying close attention to customers’ needs (whether or not they are aware of them), traditional cruising augmented by modern technology, and a fine product that’s well-suited to its mission. He’s done well, and he’s surrounded himself with a good team of sincere professionals, giving his customers what they’re looking for and then some. Going beyond what’s become the industry norm in customer attentiveness is certainly good for business.
Eric Sorensen was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.