Five days aboard the Back Cove Downeast 37

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My family and I recently had the use of Back Cove’s new Downeast 37, the Maine builder’s fresh take on its original 37. We ran the boat from Portland, Maine, to Newport, R.I., for the boat show in early September, with leisurely stops along the way in Kennebunkport, Maine, and North Weymouth, Plymouth and Falmouth, Mass.

The writer found the Downeast 37 to be a seakindly and seaworthy cruiser.

Most boat tests take place in perhaps a half-day on the water, but this five-day, four-night trip gave us the opportunity to put the boat through its paces and come to understand and appreciate its nuances far more than would have been possible otherwise.

The Downeast 37 is a large and capable dayboat built on the same hull as the original BC37, only with a larger cockpit that’s flush with the pilothouse deck and a smaller cabin and pilothouse. The generator and batteries are farther aft to compensate for the smaller deckhouse. It’s what used to be called a sedan cruiser, and its proportions are much like those of the charter boats you see plying New England waters. Although these boats are referred to as lobster boat-inspired, what people really mean is that they are pretty and pleasingly proportioned, like a lobster boat.

The Back Cove’s dimensions, especially its low profile and a waterline beam that is proportional to its waterline length, are moderate in every sense. This creates a boat that is indeed beautiful to behold but also consummately seakindly and seaworthy precisely because of these proportions and a few other elements I’ll discuss.

Construction

Back Cove uses vinylester infused construction, and the advantages in terms of high-integrity skin-to-core bonds, resin/glass ratio consistency and structural-component bonding are real and meaningful. This includes a chemical, primary bond between hull skin and the supporting, interlocking stringers and bulkheads.

The hull sides are solid glass to reduce print-through of the reinforcement pattern to the gelcoat, and the bottoms are cored with Core-Cell foam, which makes the hull stronger, stiffer and more impact-resistant for the weight, as well as being quieter and thermally insulated. The hull bottom forward of the forward engine-room bulkhead is cored with thicker foam, minimizing the need for stringers below the cabin. This allows the cabin sole to be set lower in the hull, reducing the height of the boat’s profile or increasing headroom for a given trunk cabin height, depending on how you want to look at it.

Back Cove creates an attractive interior by using molded fiberglass liners with fabric panels and wood trim to break up and accent the surfaces. This is used to pleasant effect in the interior of the cabin and the pilothouse.

Hull form

An important distinction between the Back Cove and the lobster boat is its hull form. The lobster boat has a full keel to keep it from blowing around when the crew is tending pots, but the keel also adds a great deal of drag that increases as a function of the square of the boat’s speed. This makes a full-keel hull a poor choice for a boat that routinely cruises above 18 or 20 knots.

The keel also makes the boat heel outboard in a turn, which is uncomfortable and can be unsafe for passengers. The lobster boat’s round bilges also do a poor job of separating water flow from the hull sides, which adds yet more drag at high speed. So you can see where I’m going with this. The Back Cove 37 has no keel, so it heels into a turn, and its deadrise aft creates the directional stability provided by the lobster boat’s keel. It has hard chines that not only break water and spray away from the hull to make it faster and drier but also add lifting surface outboard in the hull for improved efficiency.

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In other words, the Back Cove’s hard-chine modified-vee bottom is much better suited to run at its 16-plus-knot cruise speeds. My five-day test ride tells me that perhaps the spray strakes and chine flats could be tweaked to make it drier, but this is a superbly capable sea boat.

The other element the Back Cove shares with the lobster boat, besides single-diesel power, is practicality. Here is a boat you can move around on topside without being on belay, a boat that is easy to board from the dock or from the water, offers excellent 360-degree visibility from the helm and turns heads — something my wife and I noticed a lot of on our trip. She is quintessential and complementary in both form and function, with the one detracting not a whit from the other.

Cabin

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The cabin sleeps two on an island berth forward. There’s an enclosed head with a separate shower to starboard and a galley opposite with a large countertop, microwave and drawer freezer, and refrigerator. One large and two small hatches overhead and side ports let in sunlight and fresh air.

The décor is simple but attractive; this includes a fiberglass liner overhead with upholstered panels and wood trim that present a pleasing appearance while being easy to maintain and simpler — and less expensive — to build than an ornate wood interior. The cabin is also quite comfortable, with large proportions. Headroom at the companionway, for instance, is 78 inches (5 or 6 inches more than some boats of this size), and it increases just forward.

Pilothouse

Large, safe steps and a handrail lead out of the cabin and up to the pilothouse. This area is open to the cockpit for the excellent reason that the Downeast 37 is intended to be, firstly, a dayboat for entertaining. To port in the pilothouse is a convertible seat module that lets you face forward or aft and a dinette aft with an adjustable table that converts the settee to a double berth.

The cushions and backrest come off, and the forward seat hinges up for access to a large storage compartment below the helm area. It’s actually large enough to be a midcabin if access had been provided from the cabin or pilothouse, but as it is you will be hard put to use all of the storage space on this boat.

The single-level pilothouse and cockpit areas form a big space for socializing, with a retractable SureShade cover.

The helm is to starboard, and there’s plenty of room for an electronics display or two on an angled flat that’s up high, where it should be — right below the horizon from your height of eye so you can see what’s ahead and the GPS/radar screen at the same time.

Visibility is quite good through large windows with commendably narrow mullions minimizing horizon-visibility blockers. I would ask the builder to apply a non-glare finish on the dash to reduce windshield glare. A darker, duller gelcoat or a fabric finish would easily do the trick. Ventilation at the wheel was very good with an opening center windshield, overhead sliding hatch and sliding side windows.

Engine room

Below the aft end of the pilothouse is a large hatch opening to the engine room, and the space savings granted by single-diesel power is evident at a glance, with tons of room all around — and this with a big, 600-hp Cummins diesel. Besides taking up less room, a single, larger engine is easier, quicker and less expensive to maintain than twins, and it weighs less. This engine even had a local start-stop panel for easier engine maintenance and diagnostics.

The fuel filter and raw water seacock and strainer are easily accessible aft near the bulkhead. Single power leaves plenty of room outboard for the water heater to port, holding tank to starboard, and the port and starboard water tanks while still permitting access between the tanks and the engine. Wiring runs were neatly loomed and enclosed in chases to protect against chafing, and fuel and water lines run neatly out of harm‘s way.

A single pair of hull stringers doubles as engine beds while creating an efficient, lightweight longitudinal structure. Single-diesel power creates a happy design spiral, with less engine weight requiring less horsepower for the same speed, less fuel required for a given range, lighter hull scantlings for further weight and fuel savings, and the ability to get on plane at 11 or 12 knots, in the case of this boat.

Cockpit

The long cockpit — think of it as a mini-dance floor at the ready — is flush with the pilothouse, which adds a lot of storage volume below. It also eliminates the step, making a continuous, contiguous area from the cabin bulkhead to the transom. Safety-wise, Back Cove made up for the resulting lower gunwale height aft by adding a railing — nearly 29 inches above the deck — around the cockpit perimeter.

A centerline transom door opens to the swim platform, which is full-beam for safe and comfortable boarding from either side. A SureShade top extends out with the push of a button, protecting most of the cockpit from sun and rain.

Lazarette

A second big deck hatch opens to a voluminous lazarette abaft the engine room, and here the extra cockpit height is fully on display, with room on our boat for a teak table and four chairs fitting comfortably abaft the fuel tank, along with fenders and mooring lines. To port is the Kohler diesel generator inside a sound shield that keeps it dry as well as quiet.

The battery bank is protected by plastic covers, something I don’t see enough of on most boats. A rugged rudder board and rudder post are aft, and the sheer strength of the rudder installation will help provide the necessary solidity to prevent hull rupture in the event of a high-speed hard grounding. In this case the rudder stock almost certainly would bend before the rudder board or hull — its two attachment points — would fail. More intelligent design from Maine.

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Forward in the lazarette is a 316-gallon cross-linked-polyethylene fuel tank by Moeller. With a wall thickness of 0.3 inches, it had the solidity (but not the weight) of a fiberglass tank underfoot and should last the life of the boat, which will be indefinite if it’s reasonably cared for. In fact, all four of the boat’s tanks are poly, which I like because they are impervious to corrosion and to chafing if properly installed, which these showed every sign of being, and you can see how full they are at a glance. I knew exactly how much fuel I had at the end of each day because I could see it in the tank. Not having to trust a gauge is a real confidence booster. Same with the holding and water tanks in the engine room.

As in the engine room, the lazarette’s components, including the stern thruster, genset, raw water strainer and seacock, are out in the open and accessible, which is good because you and your mechanic will be more inclined to maintain equipment that’s comfortably at hand. The builder provides a ladder for climbing in and out of the bilge and uses Marelon seacocks, but remember to maintain them so they will open and close when you need them to. Just like bronze seacocks, they will freeze in position if they’re not lubricated and cycled regularly.

Foredeck

Big, molded cockpit steps and wide side decks lead forward — wide enough, in fact, that you can walk without hanging on to the rail under the overhang if the boat isn’t rocking or turning. The 25-inch-high stainless bow rail is strong and unyielding, and it’s mounted on blind-bolted stanchions befitting a yacht.

Although other brands’ railings are shorter still, I’d like to see these increased to 30 inches for better security forward, and I’d also bring them inboard so they’re oriented vertically above the walkway rather than projecting outboard. This will eliminate their vulnerability to piling-impact damage and provide for better balance and easier reach. That said, it’s a pleasure to be on a boat design-driven by safety and functionality rather than styling in areas such as topside accessibility. On the Back Cove series, you get both.

Test ride

“Test ride” is clearly a misnomer because this was a five-day cruise, so perhaps you’ll forgive me for being even more opinionated than usual as to the boat’s seakeeping and seakindliness. The Back Cove 37 has a moderately fine entry — its footprint at the waterline is sharp, rather than blunt — and this produces a very good ride in a head sea by attenuating wave impact energy more gradually, which we feel as a smoother, lower-G ride. This was good because the wind on our September New England outing blew almost constantly between 10 and 20 knots. On the first day, from Portland to Kennebunkport via Casco Bay, northeasterly winds provided us with a steady 3- to 4-foot following sea.

As with any planing hull, running bow-up produces the best downsea course-keeping. Our boat had Lenco Auto Glide trim tabs that adjust based on either GPS speed or engine rpm, so the tabs are all the way down when starting up onto plane and then raise at higher speed. This lets you focus on driving the boat instead of raising and lowering the tabs. This works fine when running into or beam-to the seas, but running downsea I turned the auto feature off so the boat would run with more trim, which improved course-keeping downsea.

Although the Back Cove tracks well downsea as a function of its hull form, a tighter steering ratio and a larger rudder would be welcome in these conditions. My benchmark for steering systems is three turns lock to lock with power assist to minimize the effort. This is exactly what you find on MerCruiser and Volvo sterndrives, and the resulting crisp handling is something I miss when running other boats.

Our Back Cove 37 had manual hydraulic steering with six turns lock to lock, and this makes the boat less agile at low or high speeds. On the flip side, this is not at all atypical of inboard yachts. Once hard over, the boat turned well, completing a full 360-degree turn in just 30 seconds at 2,400 rpm and 19 knots, which is excellent for an inboard of this size. Many take 40 to 60 seconds to accomplish the same thing.

I was impressed by how little the boat slowed in the hard-rudder turn — less than 2 knots. Although sterndrives and outboards tend to slow comparatively little in a turn, with the thrust being redirected, the typical inboard’s rudder adds considerable drag as it deflects thrust, and I have seen many other boats of this size slow 4 to 6 knots in the same conditions. The boat heeled nicely in a turn, just enough to send the centrifugal force down through your feet so you’re not thrown outboard, making the boat safer and more comfortable for passengers.

The best test of the boat’s behavior in a head sea came in Buzzards Bay as we traveled from Hog Island Channel to Woods Hole Passage. The seas were generally 3 to 4 feet, fine on the starboard bow for the most part. With my wife, who is not a rough-water enthusiast, and two small children on board, we maintained a very comfortable 17 to 18 knots and did not feel the need to slow for the occasional 5- or 6-footer. This means this 37-footer is remarkably seakindly and safe for its passengers. The auto trim system kept the bow down nicely, though I’m still not sure how much effect the anti-roll system actually had on our rolling and pitching. It will take more testing and calibrating to sort this out thoroughly.

CAPABLE CRUISERS - The Sorensen family (from left): Maggie, Sarah, Eric and Tommy

For now, I give the Lenco system provisional high marks. I will say we overtook three well-known sportfishing convertibles of similar size. One had passed us 20 minutes earlier, but now fell — chagrined, no doubt — into our wake, slogging it out at 12 or 13 knots. Their comparatively blunt bows and extra foot of beam proved to be a punishing combination. I don’t know of another 37-ish footer that will treat you noticeably better running into the seas than the Back Cove, and the vast majority will treat you far worse.

Our boat had the optional 600-hp Cummins 8.3-liter electronically controlled diesel. Engine control was smooth and precise. I could set engine speed to within 10 or 20 rpm with little trouble, and the neutral detent was perfect — just enough so I knew when I was actually in neutral but easy to slide through when docking. Acceleration was strong, with the boat on plane in just a few seconds.

Another good thing about inline inboard power is that center of gravity is a little farther forward than aft-mounted inboards or sterndrives, which along with the angle and location of thrust allows the boat to get up on plane at just 11 knots and 1,600 rpm. She did so with very little bow rise. She just slid right up — even with the auto tabs shut off.

We cruised between 18 and 21 knots at 2,200 to 2,400 rpm and recorded more than 29 knots at full power (3,080 rpm). Noise levels at cruise were in the high 70 to low 80 dBA range at the helm, which is not as quiet as, say, a Riviera (74 to 76 dBA) but quieter than many sportfishing boats (86 to 90 dBA) in this size range.

The efficiency of this boat with a single Cummins is superb. We recorded 1.4 nautical miles per gallon at 13 knots, a speed at which most similar boats are still climbing out of the hole. At 21 knots we got 1.2 nmpg, which is comparable to many twin-diesel 32- or 33-footers running at 30 knots.

The fact is, those (ostensibly) 30-knot boats have to run in the midteens just to survive a modest seaway with their short, fat hulls. The Back Cove won’t cruise at 30 knots, but it’s a faster boat then the others because it can actually cruise with its bow down at any speed you like, fully and efficiently on plane, from 12 to 23 knots when the waves pile up.

Two compelling arguments for inboard power over pods are the bulletproof simplicity of the shaft, strut, prop and rudder drivetrain; and the comparable or superior efficiency at speeds below 22 or 23 knots. The added drag of the running gear (you’ll recall it’s a function of speed squared) just doesn’t start to kick in with significance until you get into the high-20-knot range. That’s when pods and sterndrives come into their own with their slippery lower units.

Precision control

Without question, the Back Cove — with its single prop and rudder and Side-Power bow and stern thrusters — was the easiest boat to control around the dock that I’ve run. It permits more certain and authoritative control than any pod or outboard joystick system in terms of its sheer power, precise control and responsiveness. That’s because a pod system has to use its closely spaced vectoring propellers in the stern to pull the bow from side to side, and it is working with a small lever arm — the distance of the pods from each other — against a very large lever arm — the distance from the pods to the bow of the boat.

The Side-Power setup, with its proportional control (variable thrust), has the advantage of lateral thrust being applied all the way forward and all the way aft, combined with the fore and aft thrust of the prop. Thrust is applied directly in the direction you need it for any possible maneuver. Once I was close to the dock and maneuvering, I would put the rudder amidships and leave it there, and I was able to dock and undock with absolute precision in strong wind and tide. It was so easy that I found myself joking with people who came to help with the lines about how little skill it took to handle the boat so well.

On the way from MacDougall’s in Falmouth, Mass., to Newport, we pulled into Menemsha, Mass., where I served in the Coast Guard years ago. In Menemsha Creek, with a strong flood tide, I turned around in a little over a boat length by backing and filling to starboard in conjunction with the thrusters pushing in opposite directions. I have never had a boat spin around so quickly and with such authority. The thrusters also have a “hold” function so the boat can be held gently against the dock indefinitely (as long as the batteries last) while lines are being handled. Adding a joystick would make it even easier, I suppose, but this would just add complexity, and it’s a fine system as is.

So considering how reliable diesels are, and that commercial fishing boats and ships go out hundreds of miles or cross oceans routinely with single engines, you no longer have any reason to avoid single inboard power and many reasons to embrace it.

Conclusions

In my business of evaluating boats for both builders and customers, there are two ways to classify criticism. One is against similar boats with like missions, capabilities and limitations that compete directly. On that score, the Back Cove 37 has no superior overall and is itself the better boat by many of the yardsticks I’ve used.

The other type of criticism is a measure against what’s possible, if not often seen, in boat design. By this standard, I would include the steering ratio, ease and agility, the bright white helm dash, a few helm ergonomics tweaks (I like a control pod with wipers, horn and trim tabs right by my elbow), and a higher bow rail. Also, perhaps the boat could be made drier with chine and strake adjustments. That’s about it.

Measured against its mission and competition, the Back Cove is superbly built and engineered, practical, safe, good looking, seaworthy and seakindly. When you have a boat you can take out with your family in 3- to 4-footers and run comfortably at 17 or 18 knots, the boat’s value increases greatly over the dock-bound condo. Here is a boat that will take you offshore and comfortably transit 100 miles or more in a day, putting more destinations in reach while using comparatively little fuel. This boat will take little effort to maintain daily or seasonally, sleep a couple comfortably, make you look like a pro around the docks and likely astonish all of those people you’ll be overtaking on a late fall day.

Contact Back Cove Yachts, Rockland, Maine, (207) 594-8821. www.backcoveyachts.com

December 2013 issue