The goal: build a better small boat

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Semi-custom Gloucester 20 offers an alternative in the crowded center console field

By Ted Cooper

In an era where mass production dominates the center-console market, one Massachusetts company is emerging as a true semi-custom builder intent on defining the “best of breed.”

Founded in 2002 by Joe Berkman, the Gloucester Boat Building Co. currently builds one boat: the Doug Zurn-designed Gloucester 20. Zurn and Berkman’s crew are developing a design for a Gloucester 28, but for now the G-20 serves as evidence of the lengths to which a boatbuilder will go to provide reliability and performance.

The latter, performance, is more than just top speed; it is the combination of features and attributes that delivers the whole, rather than just a sum of the parts.

Taking her out

The G-20 I tested was equipped with a single Suzuki 140-hp 4-stroke. Aside from being very quiet, the 20-footer easily rises onto plane without digging in her stern and dragging half the bay around behind. Her relatively shallow 16-degree deadrise aft combines with 5-inch chine flats and lifting strakes (1/3 of LOA and 2/3 of LOA) to allow the hull to rise quickly on plane with little effort and a small wake.

I took her through her paces on an increasingly breezy day. I drove fairly conservatively, trying to keep passengers comfortable at all times. The G-20 banks convincingly and smoothly through hard turns, exhibiting little or no cavitation. Even at an easy 30 mph at 4,200 RPM (with four adults aboard) she did not pound into the rising chop associated with the gathering afternoon sou’wester. She’d jump off a wave, but then land with a comfortable “mush,” maintaining speed and control.

I handed off the controls to the

G-20’s designer, Doug Zurn, who pushed the throttle and put the boat into a series of hard-over turns at a top speed of 44 mph that got my attention. Banking steeply and surely, she stayed in complete control, hopping over waves and keeping the cockpit dry. Going downwind and down-sea, Zurn took his hands off the 16-inch Edson wheel, and she glided on like a track-bound express train. This is definitely a wear-your-hat backwards type of boat.

Her Carolina-like bow flare put down anything that her fine entry (27 degrees) misses and the crew was treated to a stable and dry ride. Decidedly absent in the G-20’s ride was the kidney-jarring slamming almost inevitable in this size and speed range. This is partially due to her easily driven, relatively narrow (7-foot, 9-inch) hull. There was also no discernible noise during a landing. Everything was solid, secure. Her relatively high topsides and interior return with a nice radius lets a passenger know they are in a boat, not just on one.

Another feature the angler will appreciate is the clean decks, thanks to all-flush/retractable deck hardware, and even the running lights forward — nothing to snag a fishing line, and a totally clean look makes a nice combination.

The console is a piece of functional sculpture. All of the navigation electronics, fishfinder and VHF are neatly installed in an electrically actuated hinge-up sub-console that allows the skipper at the end of the day to flip a switch, and completely conceal them back into a flush dashboard. This gets the electronics out of sight and keeps them out of the weather when not in use. Ultra-secure custom aluminum handrails frame the console and windshield, providing excellent security for the crew. Impressive it was that three of us aboard were hanging on tightly as we soared over waves, and there was no indication of flex.

In the details

The guts of the boat tell a lot of the G-20 story. She’s hand laid up into mirror-smooth female molds built by Berkman and his brother, Eddy, with assistance from Dale Shipwright.

Berkman spent years learning the nuances of laminating at the side of veteran boatbuilder Mark Lindsay, first in Gloucester, Mass., and later at Boston Boatworks in East Boston, Mass.

When Berkman started his company, it was with a dream, a mortgage, a solid foundation of skills, and a vision of the right way to build a boat. Following the debut of the prototype in fall 2002, orders have been steady, he says. In March, Berkman’s crew began work on hull No. 10, with commitments lined up through hull No. 13.

Kevlar outer skins (optional), vinylester resin, Core Cell and a remarkable grid system deliver a strong, light and extremely rigid structure that stays put and makes the G-20 an exceptionally able boat, even in rough water. The bottom is solid glass and Kevlar, and the topsides are vacuum-bagged and laminated with 3/4-inch CoreCell. The deck and cockpit sole use 3/4-inch CoreCell for strength and less weight.

Also notable in the construction is the structural “Prismagrid” product developed by a Florida firm called Compys. This company delivers to the builder a ready-to-wet single piece grid, which is applied just after the inner skins are placed. Wet-out and installation of the entire system of pre-indexed glass-covered high density foam (in 6-inch footprints) is accomplished as a primary bond (as opposed to a secondary, less reliable bond). It then cures simultaneously with the hull laminate. This process takes about two hours as opposed to “stick building” a similar structure, which might take a couple of days of trimming and fitting. Since it is done with the hull itself still “wet” and in the mold, there is no print through, or “hard spots” in the hull or topsides. Voids are filled with expansion foam, leaving no place for errant water to pool, and the fuel tank is installed in the center, between two massive fore and aft stringers.

Getting attention

With its $29,300 base price without engine, and $50,000-$60,000 price tag for a fully equipped boat with engine, electronics and trailer, the G-20 emerges competitively priced to similar Edgewaters, Boston Whalers or Grady-Whites. The G-20, however, provides the buyer with a more intimate involvement with the creation of his or her boat, as all G-20s are built on a semi-custom basis.

For Berkman, building these boats realizes a longtime dream: building quality boats in his own shop. To that end, and to meet increased demand, last year he began renting an additional 3,000-square-foot facility on the Gloucester waterfront to use as his new glass shop. The combination of Berkman’s attention to detail and another fine Doug Zurn design produces an irresistible choice for someone who values function wrapped in a handsome set of lines. n

G-20s are sold direct from Gloucester Boat Building Co. or Zurn Yacht Design, as well as from a growing number of dealers, including Chesapeake Boating Center/J-Port in Annapolis, Md. www.gboats.com