I’ve always loved the clean, uninterrupted lines of lobster boats, and like the traditionalists who say you can’t put an outboard on one, I balked when builders of Downeast-style boats said they were going to build outboard-powered models.
But in 2018, the Back Cove 34O made me soften my stance. It looked good to my eyes, and to others as well. That fall, at the Newport Boat Show, the 34O was named the best new powerboat under 35 feet. I drove the 34O, and besides being easy on the eyes, she handled really well.
So, when Back Cove dunked Hull No. 1 of the 39O in November 2020—the Rockland, Maine-based builder’s second outboard-powered model—I was keen to wrap my hands around her steering wheel.
Within a week of her launch, I was in Portland, Maine, to join Capt. John Tammany of Coastal Carolina Yacht Sales aboard the first 39O. (It’s pronounced three, nine, O. The O stands for outboard). Tammany had flown up from Charleston, South Carolina, to drive the boat to New Jersey. From there it would be trucked south, but not until he took me down Portland’s Fore River for a spin around Casco Bay.
As the 39O’s triple 400-hp Mercury Verado outboards took us to the bay at 33 knots, I was struck by the low noise level in the pilothouse. The 39O was so quiet that the 1-foot waves slapping the hull were more noticeable than the 1,200 ponies whirring away on the transom.
Taking the helm from Tammany, it didn’t take long to get a feel for the boat. Like the 34O, Back Cove kept things clean and simple on the 39O. And even though Hull No. 1 was loaded with equipment—including twin Garmin 16-inch displays, Mercury’s Joystick Piloting for Outboards and Skyhook digital anchor, bow thruster, Glomex Air TV Antenna, Fusion stereo and autopilot—the top of the console was almost spartan and mostly devoted to the controls that maintained the boat’s speed and direction.
With few distractions on that console, even an average boater would have a pretty short learning curve running the 39O. In tight quarters and at slow speeds the optional joystick makes maneuvering easy and with Skyhook, holding position simply means pushing a button.
But, we were in anything but tight quarters. Laid out in front of us on a crisp, sunny, November afternoon with very little wind and virtually no boat traffic was Casco Bay, and her open waters were begging us to come play.
After finding a spot that was only moderately littered with lobster pots, I put the 39O into a fast 360-degree turn to cross her own wake. But by the time I reached our wake it was flat. Thinking I’d taken the turn too wide I turned the wheel harder to get back to our wake more quickly. But then I thought my eyes were deceiving me. The wake looked miniscule. Just in case, I braced myself for a pounding, but the 39O rode over the miniscule wake with nary a bounce and in virtual silence.
With nearly flat conditions I pinned the throttles, hit more than 43 knots and ran an obstacle course between the lobster pots. Back Cove says this is its fastest boat to date, beating the 34O by about two knots. That’s due to the optional 400-hp engines. Triple 350-hp Suzuki outboards are standard, and triple 300-hp Yamaha outboards are also an option.
I generally don’t care for going 43 knots, but with 360-degree visibility, little or no bow rise and the boat responding beautifully to even the smallest helm inputs, she was a pleasure to drive.
The 34O and 39O hulls were specifically designed for outboard propulsion by Back Cove and Sabre Yachts’ in-house design team. (Sabre and Back Cove are sister companies.) The outboard hulls share Back Cove’s Trailing Edge Lifting Surface, or TRELIS, which according to Kevin Burns, the company’s vice president for design and product development, is responsible for much of the 34O and 39O’s obedient behavior.
As Burns explains it, TRELIS puts the hull on plane at lower speeds. TRELIS also allows for higher mounting of outboards, which puts the thrust more in line with the boat’s center of gravity (thus reducing bow lift) and allows the drive legs to be tilted clear of the water. TRELIS also reduces wake height, which explains why I was having so much trouble creating a wake during the boat test.
Burns and his team also gave the outboard hulls a shallower forefoot, a different strake arrangement and increased transom deadrise. Whether it is those design characteristics, TRELIS, or the multiple props that makes the 34O and 39O behave so well was not clear to me. What was evident is that I prefer the handling and control on Back Cove’s outboard models over the inboard boats. I’ve taken a Back Cove 37 down the Eastern Seaboard, and as nice as those inboards are, when it comes to control and handling, the outboard models are more compliant.
Buyers seem to be drawn to the outboard models as well. Jamie Bloomquist, Back Cove’s national sales manager, says the builder is still committed to the efficiency of single inboards, but the 34O is practically flying out of the factory. By early 2021 Back Cove will have built almost 50 34Os in a little over two years, and that number would have been bigger if Covid-19 hadn’t slowed production.
The 39O appears to be on a similar track. As of mid-November 2020, 16 39Os had been pre-ordered. It seems buyers want the speed, ease of handling and convenience of the outboard models. There’s less maintenance (and no crawling into the engine room), better control, less vibration, more stowage and as I found on my 39O test ride, lower sound levels.
After returning the 39O to the dock in Portland, Tammany showed me around the boat. The interior was drawn from scratch with an open layout that is roomy and inviting.
The pilothouse’s heating and AC vents are artfully hidden behind the cabintop supports. The overhead hatches, the center pane in the windshield and sliding windows to port and starboard open to bring in fresh air. Built-in OceanAir shades can be drawn to provide privacy and protection from the sun.
Aft, a heavy-duty glass door and a bi-fold window open to the cockpit to bring in more air and create a larger social space. The galley to starboard is not a gourmet kitchen, but with a microwave and two-burner stovetop will easily sustain four people and even more for a party.
Small details show Back Cove continues to up its game. The windshield wiper motors are hidden behind cherry trim, but they can be accessed by removing eight slotted screws.
The open, three-step staircase leads to the lower lounge and staterooms and allows light from the triple-pane windshield to stream down and spill over into the midships cabin below the pilothouse.
A curtain provides some privacy for the twin-bunk midship cabin and an optional hull window over the port bunk makes this an inviting space to hang out. The inner bunk has less headroom because of the helm deck above, but at anchor I would bet it is the best bunk aboard.
The Herreshoff-style interior of gleaming white fiberglass and just the right amount of cherry keeps the guest cabin and the rest of the boat from feeling like a coffin, which can happen when interior spaces are lined with too much wood.
From the lounge, a door provides access to the head and separate shower to starboard. Nothing bugs me more than having to squeeze into a tiny shower; this one is plenty big. I did have a heck of a time getting a good grip on the small round door handle, which left me feeling like an old fart who can’t open a pickle jar.
Forward, the owner’s cabin with its queen-sized island V-berth had light coming in from two hatches above and from portholes to either side. Hull No. 1 featured the optional third TV in the owner’s cabin. (The other TVs are in the lounge and above the galley.) A door provides private access to the shared head and shower.
Back on deck, the teak swim platforms (one with swim ladder) flank the outboards and allow entry to the cockpit. Stainless-steel transom gates are to either side of a U-shaped settee with a folding table. Fenders can be slipped under either side of the settee, a smart use of this dead space, which allows guests to remain seated when it’s time to access the fenders.
An aft-facing seat opposite the U-shaped settee has room to store an optional grill. A hatch in the cockpit sole gives access to a lazarette where the standard 9-kW Onan/Cummins genset, batteries and a 23-gallon diesel tank are housed.
Tammany showed how the stern garage can open and close at the push of a button to stow a deflated inflatable or other gear. This is one of the areas where I feel inboards score some big points over outboards. It’s much easier to tip a dinghy onto the expansive swim platform of an inboard or hang your inflatable from davits then to spend time inflating or deflating a dink. Then again, an inboard has no garage to stow a deflated dinghy, so it’s a trade-off.
So, I still love the rumble of an inboard beneath my feet and the uninterrupted lines of a lobster boat. When I’m in no rush, that thrum, a skeg to protect my propeller and some davits to hold my dinghy are what I want for my ride, especially if I’m in rocky Maine. But if I want to go fast with less noise and vibration and more stowage, or just get close to a sandy beach, then the Back Cove 39O looks just fine to me.
This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue.