SEA RAY BENDS THE LIMITS OF TRADITIONAL EXPRESS CRUISER DESIGN WITH ITS NEW 540 SUNDANCER

The 540 achieves the smooth look and the 37-mph top speed her designers hoped she would.  

   Every year Sea Ray hosts a gathering at its Merritt Island, Florida, plant called the Yacht Rendezvous. A two-day event for select Sea Ray owners and potential buyers, it lets Sea Ray introduce its best customers to its biggest yachts. Guests are invited to board, inspect, and run the yachts, and since the Rendezvous is held right at the plant, Sea Ray's team of engineers and designers are on hand to make sure that no question goes unanswered. It was here that I was able to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Sea Ray's new 540 Sundancer came to be.

    Prior to boarding, I discussed the design concept with project manager Arnie Dingman. "The new 540 DA is a step between our 500 DA and 580 Super Sunsport," he told me. "But in designing her, we were not going to play the game of modifying hulls and decks. We did a lot of work to give this new hull a soft ride, and we wanted the 54 to have the same speed and fuel consumption as the 50, but with the same engine package." Given the fact that the 540 is nearly five feet longer and 4,500 pounds heavier than the 500, Dingman and lead designer Charles Brown had their work cut out for them.

   Brown told me he wanted the 540 to have a muscular yet soft look. "Look at today's automobiles," he suggested. "The smoother they look, the more attractive they are." A glimpse at the 540 reveals that vision. There are almost no straight lines. The transom is rounded, the radar arch curves forward, the raised foredeck blends into the wide side decks, and there's no pulpit, just an integral anchor roller.

   You board the 540 in one of two ways. If you're alongside a fixed pier, a step flips down from the hull; it's two molded steps down into the cockpit from there. For floating docks, just step right onto the integral swim platform and walk through the port-side transom door. (Our test boat featured the optional TNT hydraulic lift platform.)

   All docking gear stows neatly in a centerline transom locker; a second locker holds a hot and cold shower, TV/phone connections, water hookups, and more stowage for items like masks and fins. Two Glendinning Cablemasters eliminate the need to wrestle the 75-foot-long, 50-amp shorepower cords. All hatches here and throughout the boat have gas-assist rams for easy handling.

   In fact, gas-, hydraulic-, and electric-assisted items are found everywhere on the boat. One example is the convertible cockpit lounge seat that at the push of a button extends and flattens to make a sunpad for two. A second curved lounge faces aft, creating a cockpit conversation area. This is also a good place to relax in the shade, since you are protected from the sun by the standard bimini or optional hardtop.

Left: Unlike most boats her size, the 540 shelters guests in the stateroom at the bow as opposed to amidships. Here, they'll find room to stretch out on the pentagon-shape berth.Right: Curves in the galley continue into the saloon, which features an extra-long lounge that seats seven.

   As you'd expect, you don't have to go far for refreshments. A curved wetbar to port has all the amenities, including a U-line icemaker, cold-water sink, cooler, trash bin, and optional Norcold refrigerator. Yet even with all its curves, the cockpit is arranged so you can walk in a straight line from transom to companionway door, a welcome arrangement when you're hauling a week's worth of groceries aboard.

   The cockpit is also the access point for the 540's engine room. You reach it through an in-sole hatch. There are no closed bulkheads or separate compartments here, just one big, open area stretching from the 640-hp Caterpillar 3196s (two feet apart) back to the rudder posts. Even with a 12.5-kW Westerbeke genset on centerline, the space is uncluttered, organized, and easy to move around in. It's even carpeted. I appreciated the easy access to filters, dipsticks, and strainers but would like to have seen labels for the various lines and manifolds. The standard oil-change system and freshwater spigot are bonuses.

   Back topside and at the helm, you'll find an optional air-conditioning system for the helm and cockpit. The helm itself consists of a two-person benchseat next to a single captain's chair to starboard, a layout that makes you feel like you're skippering the Starship Enterprise. The wraparound dash has plenty of room for flush-mounted electronics, but some of the lesser-used rocker switches are located behind the helmsman, which I found slightly inconvenient.

   Standard equipment on the dash includes a four-station intercom with cellular phone interface, plus a Raytheon VHF, Nav 398 GPS/Loran, and Tridata digital instrument. Complete, factory-installed navigation packages from Raytheon or B&G; are available as options, and given the 540's 450-mile cruising range, my guess is that not too many boats will leave the plant without them.

   Opposite the helm to port is the companionway door. As you look below you'll know in an instant whether the 540 is right for you, since most boat buyers place a lot of importance on the interior layout. With a long walkway that leads from the saloon steps, past the port-side galley, and then past the curved lounge to starboard, the 540's saloon is a single, wide-open space.

   Like the 50, the 540 has a two-cabin, two-head layout. But unlike the 50, which has the master stateroom in the forepeak, the 540's master is amidships and lower than the saloon, with an entrance just to starboard of the companionway steps. This central location should provide a smoother ride while underway.

   This stateroom - like the rest of the boat - features either cherry or bird's-eye maple veneer cabinetry, including impressively curved drawer fronts that maximize drawer space in the cabin. Accommodations here include an angled queen-size berth with stowage below, and a private, en suite head with separate shower stall.

  The curved in-line galley in the saloon has a full-size GE refrigerator/freezer, Sharp microwave, and nearly any other appliance you can think of, including a built-in blender and coffee maker. Forward and to starboard is one of the longest settees I've ever seen on a boat, capable of seating seven. Though it's not particularly well laid out for group dining, it does convert (electrically, of course) to an extra-wide double berth.

   Wrapping up the interior, the forward stateroom - with its pentagon-shaped island berth - offers complete privacy for another couple or the kids. Though it doesn't have direct access to the second head with separate shower (it's located just abaft the forward cabin and is accessed from the saloon), it does feature a Splendide 2000 washer/dryer combo, so you don't have to schlep laundry during extended cruises aboard.

   When you start adding up heavy-duty gear like house-size appliances, four zones of air conditioning, and a 12.5-kW genset, you usually end up with drab performance in the end. But luxury aside, performance is probably the most surprising part of the 540's story. "It's a quick-planing hull," says Brown, "and a lot has to do with the level ride, big chines, lifting strakes, and balanced center of gravity."

   With a pair of 640-hp Caterpillars, the 540 turned in a top speed of 37.5 mph, which not only beat Sea Ray's own expectations for the boat, but figures in to beat the performance range of the 500 DA as well. (And believe it or not, Sea Ray says she still hit 36 mph with 25 people aboard.) Though there is a slight delay when you apply full power, the turbos kick in around 1300 rpm, and she's up on plane and running in just 7.5 seconds without tabs.

   I also appreciated the Cats' computer-controlled engine system, which lets you maneuver smoothly around the docks in low idle with no bumps, grinds, or grumbles.

   Her controls are amazingly light to the touch, and she's nimble enough to run through a slalom course of lobster pots like a boat half her size. When you crank the wheel over at speed, she shoulders-down into a turn with a 20-degree bank angle, and she doesn't put off a big wake at cruise (a testament to a well-designed running surface and good balance).

   So Sea Ray's lovely, new 540 not only has curves in all the right places, but she performs every bit as well as the 500, something to which her designers will attest. But don't take their word for it. Put their claims to the test at their next Rendezvous.

 

PMY TESTED: SEA RAY 540

Base price: $834,794 w/2 535-hp Detroit Diesel 6V-92TA diesel inboards

Optional power: various Detroit Diesel and Caterpillar diesel inboards to 776-hp each

Standard equipment: Lofrans windlass; integral swim platform; cockpit wetbar w/cooler; U-line icemaker; 3-zone Cruisair A/C; Kenyon cooktop; Sharp microwave oven; GE refrigerator/freezer; 12.5 kW Westerbeke genset

Construction: hand-laid FRP w/high-performance vinylester resin and arctic white gel coat; 316 s/s handrails, bowrails; foam-filled under-deck areas

SPECIFICATIONS

LOA: 57'8" w/platform Beam: 15'11" Draft: 3'11"

Maximum headroom: 6'7" Weight: 39,000 lbs. dry

Fuel capacity: 600 gal. Water capacity: 150 gal.

PMY TEST RESULTS
Engines: 2/640-hp Caterpillar 3196 diesel inboards;

Transmission: Twin Disc; Ratio: 1.73:1;

Props: 28x33 Nibral; Steering: Teleflex Sea Star;

Controls: Hynautic hydraulic; Trim tabs: Bennett;

Optional equipment: TNT hydraulic PWC/swim platform; Cruisair cockpit A/C; Norcold cockpit refrigerator

RPM

MPH
(KNOTS)

GPHMPG
(NMPG)
SM
RANGE
NM
RANGE
DECIBELS
6508.0 (7.0)2.04.00 (3.5)2160189068
100010.5 (9.1)9.01.17 (1.01)63054574
125015.8 (13.7)16.00.98 (0.86)53246482
150021.4 (18.6)23.50.91 (0.79)49142778
175026.9 (23.3)32.00.84 (0.73)45339486
200032.1 (27.9)46.00.70 (0.61)37632985
225036.3 (31.5)58.00.63 (0.54)33829282
234037.5 (32.6)61.50.61 (0.53)32928683

Conditions: Temp: 75°; humidity: 80%; wind: 10 knots; seas: one foot; load: 1/4 fuel, full water, 2 persons; minimum gear. Speeds are two way averages, measured w/radar gun. GPH measured w/DZL flow monitors. Range: 90% of advertised fuel capacity. Decibels measured on A scale. 65 dBA is the level of normal conversation.

 

Sea Ray 540 Sundancer