Founded in the 1960s, in Sarasota, Florida, Wellcraft soon gained a reputation for adrenaline-pumping speed with its line of Scarab deep-V high-performance boats. A fixture on the offshore-racing and poker-run circuits for decades, the brand gained international fame in the 1980s when actor Don Johnson, star of the popular Miami Vice TV show, drove a Wellcraft Scarab 38 KV in the series. At that time, Wellcraft offered a full range of models, including large express cruisers. But in recent years, the builder has focused on center-console fishing boats ranging from 20 to 35 feet.
That is, until now. In June, Groupe Beneteau, which has owned Wellcraft since 2014, launched a model designed to take the brand in a bold new direction: the Wellcraft 355. Signaling its importance, the company rented a mansion on the IntraCoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale to host the boat’s debut.
Sitting at the dock in front of the house, the 355 looked nothing like its earlier predecessors in the Wellcraft fleet. Only the “W” logo and the red-and-black hull wrap it sported for the occasion reminded me of the sterndrive-powered Wellcraft express models I had sea-trialed in the past. This boat—with its plumb bow, inverted windshield, rugged pilothouse and triple outboards—was a very different cruising machine.
“We realized that during Covid, the market changed. Not only were there more first-time boat buyers, but boaters also had more zest for adventure,” said Nick Harvey, Wellcraft brand director. While retaining Wellcraft’s hallmark “adrenaline-rush” performance, he continued, the design goal for the 355 was to create a “commuter-style adventure boat.”
“The commuter gets you there in comfort and does it fast. For example, if you have to get back to Florida from the Bahamas on a Sunday,” Harvey explained. “It is designed to go fast from A to B in any weather and any kind of sea.”
Groupe Beneteau, which is headquartered in France, put together an international design team to turn the concept for the new 355 into reality.
Its deep-V hull was designed by naval architect Michael Peters, who is the only member of the team located in Sarasota, Florida.
Camillo Garroni of Garroni Design in Genoa, Italy, provided key styling cues for the new Wellcraft range, and Pawel Denert of Centkowski & Denert Design Studio in Gdansk, Poland, created the 355’s exterior and interior design.
While the Wellcraft fishing boat series is manufactured in Michigan, the 355 is being built in Poland. Hull construction utilizes a combination of vacuum-bagging, resin infusion and injection. The hull and stringer system are laid up together as a single unit, resulting in a stronger, stiffer offshore hull.
In a unique design move, the 355 has an asymmetrical deck layout that pairs a large starboard walkaround with a thinner (although still usable) port walkaround. Harvey said the goal was to provide one wide side deck for easy transit rather than two narrow ones. The gunwales are deep for added safety.
Realizing that one owner’s idea of a boating adventure might not be the same as another’s, Wellcraft designed the 355 to carry out multiple missions. There are dive doors on either side of the cockpit, which facilitate water sports and make boarding the boat easier. You can order a kayak rack for the hard top. Sun worshippers will like the three-person sunlounge in the bow.
The transom area has a modular design that allows owners to equip the boat to suit their particular passion. Our test boat featured a stainless-steel combination tow post and fender rack.
Alternate packages include the Aft Cockpit Galley Module with barbecue grill and sink (there is another sink in the pilothouse). Anglers can order the boat with the Adventure Fishing Pack, which adds a baitwell and saltwater washdown to the Galley Module, along with four rod holders on the hard top.
The pilothouse is sure to be a big draw for the new Wellcraft 355. The enclosed house protects your crew from the elements and can help extend the boating season in colder weather. But on sunny days, you can open the aft door and window onto the cockpit, as well as the driver’s-side door, to let in the sea breeze.
Forward, the helm has a sleek black dashboard across the full beam of the pilothouse. Its center panel is hinged to provide access to the forward cabin; in a clever design move, there’s a window in the top that “disappears” into the windshield when open. Below, the cabin holds a double berth and an exceptionally large head for a boat of this size. Boasting about 6 feet of headroom, the head has a separate shower with seat. Wellcraft also offers a conversion kit for the dinette, allowing owners to accommodate a second couple.
The rugged profile of the 355’s pilothouse practically begs you to take it on an adventure. This boat fulfills its “commuter” design goal in more than just looks, however, as we learned during our sea trial in the Atlantic off Fort Lauderdale. The ocean was sloppy, lumpy and wind-driven, but the boat is laid out to handle rough conditions. The pilothouse has five forward-facing seats, including three bucket seats at the helm and the back seat of the dinette, allowing the driver and passengers to ride in significant comfort in a seaway.
The driver’s bucket seat has a molded-in footrest, but in these seas, I decided to stand and make use of the flip-up bolster. The steering wheel is offset slightly to the left, so the throttles are directly opposite the driver’s right shoulder. This allowed me to keep a firm grip on the wheel with my left hand and the throttles with my right–making me wonder why more boats aren’t set up this way. I also had good access to the controls for the joystick and bow thruster, and a clear view of the twin 16-inch Garmin multifunction displays in the dash and the waters ahead.
Base power for the Wellcraft 355 is triple 300-hp Mercury or Yamaha outboards. Our test boat was equipped with the upgrade option: triple 350-hp Mercury Verados. It accelerated swiftly to a cruise speed of about 30 knots at 4000 rpm. Even in sloppy seas, the 355 made very tight turns, its deep-V biting in and holding fast. In the smoother waters of the inlet, we opened up the throttles and ran at an exhilarating 45 knots. According to factory performance figures, the Wellcraft 355 has been clocked at just over 50 knots at 6000 rpm with the triple 350 Verados.
The launch of the new 355 is only the start of Groupe Beneteau’s plans for reinventing Wellcraft. There are more models in the same series, which Harvey termed “Active Adventure,” on the drawing board. In addition, we can expect to see larger models designed for what he called “Contemplative Adventure” in the future. If the Wellcraft 355 is anything to go by, we can’t wait.
This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.