In one bold stroke, PJ shows us all how the true maxi should look.

Three years ago we reported that Palmer Johnson of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, one of the country's premier custom yacht builders, was in the throes of a new semi-custom line of boats called the "Eagle" series. Designed by Tom Fexas, the line (if a custom yard can be said to have a "line") was intended to fill a perceived gap between production and custom builders by producing a boat that owners of the largest production yachts could jump up to, without going whole-hog into a true (and expensive) custom yacht.

The series, the first true sportfisherman of which this article is about, has been one response to a marketing problem that has been slowly gaining momentum over the past decade or so. The source of concern has, in a sense, been the very success of powerboating, especially in the popular mid-size (30- to 60-foot) range that has meant boom times for much of the industry. Buyers, like everyone else, like to improve their lifestyle, and they like to purchase a new (and usually larger) boat every few years. This step-up process has formed the fundamental marketing strategy for virtually all of the large production builders in the country, from Bayliner to Bertram.

Roaring Along - with crew shielded inside enclosed bridge, DDAs at full chat. 

This approach worked so long as the companies had boats people could step up to. Customers remained loyal. The top end of the scale - buyers of yachts 60 feet and up - remained a relatively small share of the market, and if they went off the top end and into the custom arena, it didn't make much difference economically.

But now, more and more folks - people in their 40s and 50s who have been moving up the ladder (property developers, industrialists, stock-pickers who bailed out in early October, and some who didn't) - have reached the upper limit of what production builders can produce. Many manufacturers have been responding with new, larger models, but unless they're prepared to construct entirely new plants to handle the upscale trend, there's a physical limit to how far they can go to hold the customers' loyalty.

So what do you do? Some, like Viking, diversify by purchasing companies with other strengths (Gulfstar); others, like Ocean, add new models sized between existing ones; still others, like Bertram, have a secure niche in their own market; and a few, like Hatteras, are moving up with their customer base, building new plants and producing huge semi-custom yachts 80 to 115 feet.


The genesis for Eagle came from discussions between Fexas, Palmer Johnson, and Richard Bertram & Co., one of the country's largest brokerage houses. Jim Schaefer of Richard Bertram wanted a yacht his customers could go to when they tired of the largest Bertrams available. Fexas, just coming off a string of design victories with his Midnight Lace and Cheoy Lee yachts, was looking for new challenges.

And Palmer Johnson's Mike Kelsey, whose custom business wasn't expanding the way he wanted it to, wished to make a semi-custom yacht that he could build himself, on spec, without an owner looking over his shoulder, to fill production gaps and keep his workers busy - a boat he knew he could sell later (or during the production process).

Kelsey knew about this gap between the largest production boats (around 65 feet) and the smallest custom yachts (around 80 feet). "In the production market," he explains, "after a certain size, there aren't enough units to amortize the molds for production boats. The customers don't want a boat just like somebody else's boat. And production yacht builders like Hatteras and Bertram are probing that market right now to see what that size is, whether it makes economic sense to tool up to try to build a production product in the 72- to 80-foot range."


The first Eagle was Captivator, an 83-foot cockpit motoryacht, now called Tina E. Delivered in 1984, she had a pair of standard 650-hp 12V-71 turbo Detroit diesels that gave her an 18 to 20 knot cruise. With 3,600 gallons of fuel, she can go from Florida to St. Thomas non-stop, a feat not many yachts that size can perform. Someone else who wants a boat like Captivator can choose his size, from 72 to 85 feet, with power plants that can push her to 25 knots, maximum.

It's hard to find a common denominator for Palmer Johnson's Eagle boats, aside from the fact that they're all designed by Tom Fexas and made by Palmer Johnson. Basically, though, you can categorize the series as a group of yachts using one of four fundamental hull configurations. Each of the four bottom designs can be stretched to suit the new owner's wishes, or simply go with the stock boat already on the drawing boards. One design, of which Captivator was the first example, uses a slower semi-displacement hull. The other three are planing yachts: the sportfisherman (the yacht covered here was the first, while two more, a 72-foot and a 77-foot model, are currently under construction); motoryacht with a 22-foot beam and at least an 85-foot length; and a megayacht with a 24-foot beam and lengths varying between 100 and 120 feet.

Beaming Broadly - Cockpit holds special freezers, a Murray Bros. fighting chair, and abuts a low-slung transom.

The boat featured here, which was delivered last Spring, is the second in the series, again the result of the Bertram/Fexas/Palmer Johnson team. Says Fexas: "It was a unique opportunity for three guys to get together and conceive of what would be the ultimate fishing boat - without a customer in there, who sometimes has very good ideas, but who sometimes can really muddle the design up. We put together what it would look like - the accommodations, the speed, range, etc. - and we produced what we consider to be the ultimate sportfisherman of her size."

"Ultimate" is a very strong word, but given the compromises the laws of physics impose on even the most skilled designer, this boat comes as close to perfection as anything of its size and function. It is a fishboat, yes (and a pretty good one at that); but more to the point, it's a $2 million cruising yacht with fishing capabilities. A dedicated tournament angler probably won't go for Eagle - she won't maneuver as quickly as a 48-foot Rybo. But someone who enjoys hitting the broad reaches of the Caribbean, stopping here and there to test the marlin action, and living like a king onboard, probably will.

The cockpit is a humongous 18 by 15 feet, large enough to lay out a 1,000-pound marlin without bending its bill. She has four staterooms, four baths, and a saloon appointed like a Shaker Heights den. Her range, with 3,000 gallons of fuel, is about 800 miles at an 18-knot cruise. Look for about 1,000 miles at a sub-plane cruise of 10 knots. Top speed is 27 knots (with two DDA 12V-92TAB engines). And her bridge, as large as many saloons, is totally enclosed. With the door shut, the decibels range from 66 to 76 - maybe slightly louder than a Mercedes on the freeway. Quiet.


The Eagle is an extremely quiet boat inside, due largely to extra efforts to soundproof the engine compartment and implement vibration-reducing measures, To soften the vibration of the Detroit Diesel 12V-92s, Palmer Johnson inserted rubber gaskets at the mountings of virtually all components below. Gaskets were also installed at the ends of posts and other structural supports. The longitudinal beams in the compartment that support the saloon sole are made out of mahogany, further reducing vibration. 

Quiet Monsters - Special soundproofing deadens the noise and vibration of the 12V-92s. 

Special effort also went into soundproofing. The compartment is surrounded by a 5-inch barrier of perforated aluminum, silk, and three layers of fiberglass sandwiched between thin layers of lead. The engine noise frequencies were ascertained to come up with the right matrix of perforations in the aluminum to deaden the noise. 

Topside, the thick bulkheads, panels, and some furniture are cored with Palmer Johnson's own foam creation, with the effect of softening the noise still further. 


There was a 4-foot sea off Ft. Lauderdale the day we tested her, rough enough to discover she is an extremely smooth-riding boat in most types of water. In a locked-wheel turn at full tilt, she met the waves pounding against her side with only a slight shudder at the flying bridge helm. All the way around the circle, the yacht shrugged off the sea with hardly a ripple. Heading straight into the seaway, where many boats start to pound, things were tranquil on the bridge, aggressive at the stem. It made no difference which way you turned the boat, she rode with the same solid comfort.

A major reason for this is Fexas' "new generation" (his words) planing hull. (The first generation wasn't as fast.) Eagle's forebody is extremely deep and convex, which considerably softens the ride by pushing aside the water, instead of coming down on top of it. Aft, her deadrise is a moderate-V 15 degrees for directional stability, with two wide chine flats on either side for added lift.

Fexas also added another little quirk, a hogged fairbody that droops down as it goes forward. Sort of a reverse swayback. Thus the boat still cuts into the water forward at speed - while other yachts rise up, hitting the water further aft where they're flatter and more prone to pounding. Fexas never tank-tested this notion; back when he was a teenager, he tested it with a 3-foot balsa model and figured it would work. (That's confidence.)

In another departure from custom, the aluminum stringer system focused on longitudinal aircraft-type framing. (Normally, you work the stringers around the transverse frames and bulkheads, which provide the main structural support.) Fexas claims his longitudinal emphasis helps self-fair the bottom, as well as requiring less aluminum overall. Fexas is pretty careful when it comes to weight (he's a nut about it, in fact). So instead of determining the gauge of metal to use throughout the hull, he looks at the stresses at each individual section using 3-D computers. So each stress point has just the right amount of weight and structural integrity - where less is needed, he shaves off some weight.

To further save weight and lower the center of gravity, a good part of the interior furnishings and bulkheads are cored, stuffed with Palmer Johnson's own foam creation. These include table tops, cabinet doors, stateroom doors, and anything else that's thick and doesn't feel stress. (Stressed joinery uses plywood.)


A tour of the yacht reveals other design items that set Eagle apart. (Remember, this is a custom yacht; an owner appeared partway through construction, and Palmer Johnson obliged with various interior components that are peculiar to this boat.) Take the engine room, for example. Set under the saloon (the entrance is through a vertical hatch in the cockpit), the compartment is a tight squeeze for the 12V-92s and the two 20-kw Onan generators, although there's enough room to get all the way around the components if necessary. The size of the compartment limits the options to DDA 16V-92s or Caterpillar 3412TA diesels.

The main saloon uses computerized lighting effects for romantic moods.

The saloon consists of a U-shaped settee (aft) and galley (forward) portside and a long cabinet just abaft a dinette to starboard. The settee, covered with 28 hides of suede, surrounds a hi-low 1 1/4-inch Lucite coffee table propped with a cobra-skin covered shaft. A 1/4-inch thick bronze-tone mirror covers the bulkhead separating the settee from the galley. The cabinet to starboard contains a wet bar, entertainment center with 19-inch TV, video and audio cassette machines. The cabinet is fiddled with 1 1/2-inch teak (as is most other countertop surfaces in the boat), that can double as handrails. Lighting consists of small brass halogen lamps over the settee, fluorescent valence lighting under seats, and indirect rope lighting tucked away overhead. A programmable, computerized light switch can set four different light scenes for remote-control mood shifts.

The saloon, as well as the rest of the interior, is cooled by a Sail Kool chilled-water, 8 1/2-ton-capacity, full-reverse-cycle air conditioner. The boat can be adequately cooled with one compressor. There are three. Two sets of controls in the saloon, others throughout the vessel. While chilled-water air conditioners are a little more expensive, they're said to be quieter, lighter, and use less shore power than normal units.


The U-shaped galley has all the conveniences, plenty of counter space, and then some - like a phone intercom, a VHF unit, and a four-spigot sink (filtered drinking water, instant hot water, salt water, and a main spigot with interchangeable heads). General Electric oven, refrigerator, washing machine, four-burner electric stove, microwave oven. Cabinetry on both sides of the U.

The Compleat Galley comes with a four-faucet sink. 

Down curved stairs to the S-shaped companionway and the living quarters. The main circuit panel is to starboard at the base of the stairwell. Further forward in the companionway, panels hide the washer/dryer combo and more fiddled cabinets. The rug pulls forward in the companionway to reveal large stowage spaces for suitcases, dive tanks, etc.

The master stateroom runs almost the full width of the boat. (The companionway stops it short.) It also sports a rare 9-foot 6-inch forward-sloping cathedral ceiling over the fore-and-aft king-sized bed, made possible via the slope of the forward part of the house. Television, air conditioning controls, and a large hanging locker with safe. A lockable gun rack (owner's request) lines the port wall, while the relatively small head is to starboard. The head is mirrored with 1/8-inch glass on all four sides (plastic reflective material on ceiling); the shower has a teak seat and grate. Rheostat-controlled rope lighting.

Smoked mirrors and a vaulted ceiling highlight the master stateroom.

The main guest stateroom is forward to port, with fore-and-aft double bed, shelves and stowage space under the mattress and at the foot of the bed. Head and shelving forward. Air conditioning controls.

The starboard stateroom has over-and-under single beds, good stowage space under lower bed, hanging locker. Both guest staterooms have screened overhead hatches. The crew lives furthest forward in single fore-and-aft bunks with a companion head.

Two helm stations dominate the flying bridge.

The flying bridge is accessed via an athwartships ladder, constructed thus because it is easier to climb while underway. The yacht was designed originally with an open cockpit, but this owner wanted it closed, which Palmer Johnson did to perfection. The centerpieces of this 13-by-13-foot space are two helm stations: the main helm and an isolated station just forward of the hatchway. The starboard quarter contains a fore-and-aft bunk (doubles as a couch) and a head hidden inside an extension just forward of the bunk. (One assumes the bridge occupants will either be a.) very familiar with one another or b.) the same sex, when it is used.) Just forward of that, on the starboard bulkhead, is a fold-down pegboard chart table.


The main helm contains a full complement of controls and communications equipment, including Nico twin-disc trolling gears with a 2:1 reduction. The gears make it easy to move along imperceptibly in forward gear for superb boat control in tight situations, as well as to control fishing speeds below the normal 550-600-rpm idling speed. The skipper sees forward through a bulletproof glass panel, installed to prevent heavy seas from breaking it. (At a 17-foot height, no waves have yet made it.)

The fishing helm station, located just forward of the access hatch, is the one weak element in Eagle. It holds the icemaker, fridge, wet bar, fiddled counter top, shelves, as well as the controls. (The chart drawers are under the bunk.) The control portion, which has its own seat, is raised on a pedestal so the captain can see the fishing action in the cockpit below. The trouble is that, because the access hatch and the rear panel blocks his view, he can see only the transom in the best of circumstances. But this is what the owner wanted, and to Palmer Johnson, the customer is almost always right. Future enclosed-bridge models, says Kelsey, will have the fishing station outside the enclosure, where the captain can see everything.

A nice touch, though, is a curtain that, when drawn, separates the fore and aft portions of the bridge. Thus, some can see what they're doing at night while not disturbing the skipper, who needs darkness.


Finally, we come to the cockpit. As a fishing instrument, it's hard to beat this one for size and utility. Under hatches in the sole are a round live baitwell, two propeller stowage spaces, and a fishbox behind the Murray Brothers fighting chair.

Against the port forward bulkhead is a triple-insulated stainless steel bait freezer, capable of keeping sub-freezing temperatures for 24 hours without power. There's also the usual sink and tackle cabinet under it. Open a bulkhead panel and there are eight holes for rod stowage and a cutting board that fits over the sink. The starboard side contains another triple-insulated freezer and more stowage lockers.

One problem the enclosed flying bridge produced was a relatively dead airspace in the cockpit while underway. Exhaust fumes tended to collect there, but Palmer Johnson has solved this by adding spoilers atop the bridge roof and to either side.

The top of the transom (with mandatory transom door) is a remarkably low 3 feet 4 inches from the water. The boat backs down well, but if there's any sea at the time a good percentage of the ocean washes over into the cockpit. An experienced angler wouldn't mind this, because it makes boating big fish easier, and getting a bit wet during the action is all part of the fun. But it can get distracting. (Again, we hear that Palmer Johnson is raising the freeboard a bit in future models.)

The cockpit also has the standard saltwater washdown faucets, as well as hot and cold freshwater taps, Glendinning shore power reels, rope lockers both sides, and fuel and water intakes along the side decks port and sideboard. There's 13 inches of nonslip sidedeck (20 inches to the rubrail) running forward, and once on the foredeck, there are two deck stowage boxes, fresh and saltwater washdown taps, a davit, space for a 14-foot Boston Whaler, three anchors, electric windlass, etc.

All in all, Eagle is every bit the triumph. A true offshore machine, with capabilities that make her one of the most versatile yachts of her size and design around. She's a unique piece, however, for future products in the Eagle Series off Fexas' drawing board will have subtle variations to suit owners' tastes. But underneath, they'll be solid, worthy boats.