Boat buyers usually purchase with a particular vision in mind — cruising, fishing, living aboard. How much fun they have depends on how well the boat fulfills that vision.
For Phil Sullivan, a retired Coast Guard captain, and his wife, Liz, the vision was simple. “I was casually looking for a small powerboat to use on the Niagara River, Buffalo Harbor and Lake Erie,” says the 56-year-old from Tonawanda, in upstate New York.
The lifelong boater with 26 years’ active Coast Guard service would be adding the powerboat to his little fleet, which includes a beloved Cape Dory 27 sailboat. “I grew up boating with my family on a 27-foot Sea Bright skiff that was built by my uncle in our family backyard [in Braintree, Massachusetts],” says Sullivan. “We [cruised] around Boston, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cuttyhunk.”
In 2008, working with Thomas Frauenheim in Buffalo, Sullivan came across a 22-year-old cruiser that looked promising. It was a mid-1980s classic, and it came at a bargain price — $7,500 — but also required extensive work. He bought it, did the work and a generation after its heyday, it’s still the fun, family cruiser it was intended to be.
Happy Days is a 1986 Chris-Craft Commander 27. When the twin-engine, double-cabin cruiser was in peak production 30 years ago, it was one of the most popular models from one of America’s most prolific builders.
The final price reflected the boat’s general condition. “Everything worked, but the boat showed some typical wear for a boat [its age],” says Sullivan. Still, the pros outweighed the cons. “It was a lot of boat for the money,” he adds. “It sleeps six, has a 12-volt/120-volt refrigerator-freezer, hot and cold running water and a shower.” The galley is complete, and the boat has a big cockpit and a large swim platform. “I saw how it could be a great family boat and a nice addition to the Cape Dory. And I’ve always known the Chris-Craft name.”
All that stood in the way was some work. “I’m very particular about the condition of a boat and its systems and have to be satisfied that everything is safe,” says Sullivan. “I have to baseline it to make sure it is up to my standards.”
The twin Crusader gas engines (with 700 hours) needed the most work. The ignition systems were rebuilt, the engines realigned and tuned. The cutless bearings and all hoses (and clamps) and impellers were replaced. The fuel systems were rebuilt with Coast Guard-certified, ethanol-compliant hoses, as well. Shafts were straightened, the props refurbished, new electronics and engine gauges installed. New electronics included a GPS/plotter/sounder and a DSC VHF radio. New canvas topped it all off.
Lake Erie, Sullivan’s home port, is known for its sometimes volatile weather — and occasional rough chop. But the Chris-Craft seems bred for the conditions. “The boat handles pretty well,” says Sullivan. “As with any boat, you need to adjust the speed and trim for the conditions, whether you’re going into the seas or with a following sea. Lake Erie can get really nasty in a heartbeat, and she can ride pretty comfortably.” With its twin screws, the 27-footer maneuvers easily around the dock, too.
The Crusader gas engines are 305 cubic-inch V-8s, 220 hp each. Cruising speed is about 10 knots at 2,000 rpm. At that rate, the Commander burns about 8 gph, which is pretty economical, says Sullivan. “I don’t have much of a need to go faster unless we’re tubing or I really need to get somewhere,” he says. “I can get about 30 knots at 4,400 rpm with both engines at wide-open throttle, but this is way too fast for me and burns an incredible amount of gas.” Doing 15 knots at about 12 gph is more realistic, he says.
After six years of ownership, the Sullivan family, which includes daughter Emma, 20, and son Tom, 19, has settled into a comfortable boating routine. Happy Days takes them in style on Lake Erie cruises and tubing runs on the Niagara River. Crystal Beach, a popular park and boating center in Fort Erie, Ontario, is a favorite vacation destination. The Commander’s accommodations — a V-berth and convertible dinette — are comfortable, the galley and head are equipped for family cruising, and the cockpit has room for water sports gear.
In short, the Chris-Craft Commander 27 is a boat that’s been everything Sullivan had imagined. It has fulfilled the vision, he says. “I have had lots of fun.”
Chris-Craft’s highly successful Commander series of cabin boats was the first it built in fiberglass, and the 1986 Commander 27 featured an all-fiberglass hull, deck and superstructure. The hull shape — a moderate deep-vee — and the twin-gas-engine power were new standards for boats at the time.
The bridge deck layout leaves room for a large cockpit (on the same level) and gives extra space to the cabin below. The helm station is to starboard, equipped with a sport wheel and molded dash for gauges. There are pedestal seats for the helmsman and a passenger. A large windshield and weather curtains protect the area.
Below deck, the Commander 27 sleeps four in a V-berth forward and a convertible dinette, set to starboard. The enclosed head compartment opposite has standing headroom, a sink with running water and a built-in vanity. The compact galley on the port side amidships is equipped with a standard two-burner alcohol stove and a large ice-chest refrigerator. Interior décor features carpeting, wood paneling and vinyl upholstery. Engine choices included 185- and 210-hp V-8s.
The Commander series was one of Chris-Craft’s most successful, and grew to include fishing, cruising and sports models up to 60 feet. Through the years, the line’s deep-vee hulls drew such designers as Jim Wynne, Walt Walters and C. Raymond Hunt. The Commander 27 was one of the so-called “weekend Commanders,” which ran from 19 to 28 feet. Chris-Craft enhanced the popularity with numerous design, layout and propulsion options. The boat could be ordered in a Sportsman configuration with single or twin engines. Prices for used Commander 27s range from less than $10,000 to about $15,000, depending on condition.
LOA: 27 feet
BEAM: 10 feet, 3 inches
DRAFT: 2 feet, 1 inch
PROPULSION: twin gas engines, 185-210 hp
TANKAGE: 48.7 gallons fuel, 14.6 gallons water
BUILDER: Chris-Craft, Sarasota, Florida, (941) 351-4900. chriscraft.com
This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue.