The lighter, faster new Donzi 33 Daytona may change the way you think about high performance boats. 

It was fast-boat weather. Not a cloud in the sky. Florida sunshine bathed my winter-white skin, exposed by shorts and a polo shirt for the first time in months. We were in Sarasota, and had lunch reservations at the Don CeSar hotel 40 miles or so north. But we wouldn't have to fight the Gulf Coast traffic to get there; we had commandeered Donzi's latest, the 33 Daytona - an even faster, higher-tech version of the twin-step Donzi 33 ZX. Brawny 500 HP MerCruisers rumbled in the engine compartment, ready to rock and roll. 

After blasting up Sarasota Bay, we entered the Gulf of Mexico through Longboat Pass. Taking over the helm from Steve Simon, Donzi's director of high performance, I pushed the throttles forward, watched the bow quickly rise and fall, and felt the boat settle onto plane. Then I automatically began to trim out the drives with the handy thumb switch on the port throttle.

Steve stopped me almost before I had begun. I glanced at the Gaffrig mechanical trim indicators on the dash, and saw they barely registered level 2. On a high performance boat, I ususally trim the outdrives out to level 3 or 4 when running at speed, in order to lift the bow. I turned to Steve, surprised.

"Let the bottom do the work," he said, explaining that the steps in the Donzi's Z-Tech hull are angled to help raise the bow, so you can basically leave the Bravo Ones in the water.

Although my fingers itched to trim, I left the drives where they were, gave it gas, and was rewarded by a swift cruising speed of 55 mph at 3500 rpm. Despite very choppy, wind-driven two- to three-foot seas, the 33 tracked true and - to my further surprise - never launched out of the water, not even when I hit the bigger waves dead on. Not once did I hear the naked whine of props clearing the surface. And each time we crested a wave, the boat slid smoothly down into the next trough rather than landing with that familiar, jarring thump that has forced some boat racers to buckle on kidney belts. 

I'd heard some talk around the docks this winter that the new stepped hulls were "a bit squirrelly." When I mentioned this to Steve, he sighed with frustration. "I live it every time I work a show," he said. "I think steps, if they're done properly, are fabulous. It all depends on how much time and money you invest in the bottom design."

TOPFLIGHT: The Daytona Series version of the Donzi 33 ZX includes race-worthy Gaffrig instrumentation and controls. 

From the way the 33 was handling the rough stuff, it was clear that the Donzi design team, which includes Steve and high performance guru Gus Anastasi, had invested plenty of both. In fact, the ride felt more stable than on some un-stepped deep-V's I'd driven.

"With a conventional hull, when you trim the drives out, you're running on the rear quarter of the boat," Steve said. With Donzi's Z-Tech hull, he explained, "You can run on three points to the bottom instead of one point. You have better control when you have more hull in the water." The contact points lie on the keel just ahead of the first step, at the back of that step, and at the stern.

While the 33 Daytona was not "squirrelly", it did have a markedly different feel than s straight deep-V - or even a standard Donzi 33 ZX, for that matter. I would describe the boat as "sensitive". As I held the wheel, I felt connected to the water beneath the hull, aware of every ripple. Steve attributed this to the high-tech Daytona lamination schedule, which takes 400 to 500 pounds out of the hull. "It's kind of like a stiffer suspension in a car", he said.

The 33 Daytona is built using the same hull mold as the 33 ZX, but it undergoes a different construction process (which is also available for the company's 22-, 25- and 28- foot models). Divinycel coring is used in the stringers and strategic bulkheads, while the hull bottom and sides are completely cored with Baltek balsa. After being laid up by hand with composite fiberglass, the hull is vacuum-bagged, a process that sucks out every drop of excess resin, and compresses the balsa core. 

HIGH-TECH: The 33 Daytona's vacuum-bagged, balsa-cored, composite lamination means a lighter, faster hull: 83 mph with 500 HP Mercs. 

The result is a lighter, stiffer, stronger - and faster - Donzi. According to factory figures, the 33 Daytona tops out at 83 mph when powered by the popular 500 HP Mercs; about three mph faster than the 33 ZX. "People will spend an enormous amount of money to get another three to four miles an hour", Steve said. "We can do it with lamination."

An unexpected side benefit is improved fuel consumption, which is something rarely mentioned in the same breath as "high performance". Steve laughed, admitting, "It's the last thing we were worried about, to be honest with you." But on a recent outing to the Keys, he realized he was taking his 33 to the pump a lot less often than the boats he was running with. A fuel flow test showed that the 33 Daytona uses 30.8 gph at a cruising speed of 55 mph/3500 rpm.

DAY OF LUXURY

I bumped the speed up a notch as the seas began to moderate just south of St. Petersburg. Running at 65 mph, with the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair, felt akin to zipping down a long back road in a fast convertible. Off to our starboard side were the shining "sails" of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Up ahead we could see the pink bulk of the Don CeSar on St. Pete beach. A few miles before it, we turned into Pass-A-Grill Inlet and tied up at the Pass-A-Grill Marina.

A fifteen minute walk brought us to "the Don", where we were served a delicious meal on the patio between the pool and the beach, shaded by a wide umbrella. Behind us, children splashed merrily; beyond lay the sparkling Gulf. This elegant old hotel put the final stamp on what was turning out to be a day of luxury.

The 33 Daytona reminded me even more of a top-of-the-line sports car when we climbed back on board after lunch, and Steve showed me how to adjust the standard McLeod electric bolsters. They offer lateral and lumbar support through a five-point airbag system. McLeod footrests for the driver and passenger, also standard, help keep everyone safe and comfortable regardless of his or her height. Stainless steel grabrails are well positioned throughout the cockpit. Those mounted to the backs of the bolsters allow the rear passengers to stand up and hold on with their calves resting against the aft settee. "In a high performance boat, a large cockpit is an unsafe cockpit," Steve says. Yet, he says, "We do have the deepest cockpit in the industry. You're not going to go flying out."

GOOSING THE THROTTLES

The 33 also has one of the widest beams in the industry for a performance boat of its size. "Going 9'3" wide is almost unheard of", Steve said. "But if we can give someone the amenities, the female appeal of a luxury performance boat, we figure our formula is right. Most of our competitors don't have an enclosed head with shower or 5'9" headroom on a 33-foot boat." A forward berth, U-shaped settee with cocktail table, lots of storage space and a counter unit with sink complete the interior amenities. In the interest of keeping the boat's weight down, the galley equipment has been eliminated. The lighting is noteworthy: two hatches provide daylight, while well-placed indirect lighting creates a romantic mood at night. The acrylic rail around the countertop even lights up.

Back home again in calm Sarasota Bay, we goosed the throttles and got the boat, still loaded with people and fuel, up to 80 mph on the speedo at 5000 rpm. At that speed it felt stiff but solid, not flighty. The 33 had a tendency to lope in tight turns at 50 to 60 mph, but the hull tracked perfectly. This was no squirrel. 

After we landed, I was treated to a tour of the Donzi factory. The plant's main floor was jammed with performance boats-in-the-making. It was clear that despite the differences in handling between stepped-hull boats and conventional deep-Vs, the 33 Daytona had proven a successful attitude-adjuster. Production was sold out for several months ahead.

The Donzi design team had a hit on its hands. But it was not just resting on its laurels. I got a sneak peak at some hot new developments for the 1999 model year. Stay tuned.