With its new look and new luxury, Sea Ray's 540 Sundancer express yacht moves into the 21st Century

   The traffic was heavy down the center of the wide expanse of the Indian River Lagoon. It was a late fall Sunday on the ICW, and in the narrow channel that the markers delineated between the Florida mainland and the islands to the east, a steady stream of vessels - mostly trawlers and sailboats - headed south, motoring at a leisurely pace toward their winter homes. For the brand new 540 Sundancer, the going was fitful: on plane for a few moments of cruise-speed freedom, then off plane as we slowed to a displacement crawl to pass the sluggish transients. It was a good test of the big Sea Ray's gaits.

   Sharing the helm was Scott Nault, a Sea Ray delivery captain who was taking the 540 to Greg Terraglio at Bassett Boats' Stuart store for delivery to the boat's new owner. Nault's main job is to familiarize buyers with the 540's big sisters - 580 Super Sun Sports and 630 Sundancers and Super Sun Sports. The program is a bonus for Sea Ray buyers, and consists of a two-day introduction to their boats' operating systems and maintenance needs. It covers the helm systems, including gauges, controls and the electrical panel, as well as cockpit systems, cabin systems, bilge systems and engines, plumbing and electrical systems. Nault was well qualified to demonstrate the 540's operation and features, because its sophistication and accessories are on a level with those of Sea Ray's flagships.

DRIVER'S SEAT: Gauges and electronics are all perfectly positioned.

   The 540 Sundancer is the latest addition to a family of cruisers that includes 11 models from 27 to 63 feet and is probably the world's most popular line of small- to mid-range production yachts. Sea Ray has set an international standard for comfort and performance in cruisers, and the Sundancer series is the firm's main attraction. The research and development that go into each new model, and that only a builder with the volume and resources of Sea Ray can achieve, insures that this level of excellence is not only maintained, but elevated with each addition to the series. The new 540 Sundancer is a testament to the constant improvements that account for and define Sea Ray's global success.

   The 540 is not intended to replace the 500 Sundancer, but to offer the same performance with the same engines, while providing a layout that dramatically upgrades the accommodation plan. While it's not an aft-cabin yacht, the 540 affords a similar degree of privacy by nestling the master stateroom aft of the open salon. The increased spaciousness - both usable and visual - is a striking accompaniment to the more-yacht-like accommodations.


SECOND STATEROOM: Guests have comfortable accommodations. OUT OF SIGHT: TV and appliances are concealed in the cherry cabinetry.

   But an expanded interior is just one of the 540's stunning statements. Its new exterior constitutes another significant breakthrough in the evolution of the Sundancer series, and is an example of Sea Ray's ability to transform a designer's drawings into reality through an exhaustive, can-do engineering process. The new, more curvaceous lines are Sea Ray's 21st-century signature. Points of convergence have all been softened. The sheer line, deck line and windshield line flow uninterrupted down into the transom or up into the impressive and practical new optional radar arch/hard top, eliminating any and all angles. The result is a more sensual, yet more muscular profile. Through-hull drains have also been eliminated, enhancing the sleekness of the hull sides. The more rounded lines make the 540 look fast even when it's standing still.    

   Flowing curves continue in the big, self-bailing cockpit and the cabins. Straight lines have all but vanished. Even the port and starboard boarding steps are curved. Sea Ray devotes as much thought and care to the outdoor areas of its express yachts as to their interiors - and, in both areas, it provides almost everything as standard equipment. The 540's U-shaped cockpit lounge is designed for entertaining and for relaxing both in and out of the sun (remember that hard top). For total relaxation, the aft section can be transformed electrically into a big sunpad at the flip of a switch.

   The curving cockpit area is easy to move around in and keep clean, but it contains all the components that make for comfortable al fresco cruising: transom door; swim platform; high-low table; indirect and overhead lighting; lots of storage; 120V, 12V and cable TV outlets; wet bar with sink, cooler, trash chute and icemaker; Clarion stereo with six-disc changer, subwoofer, four speakers and remote control, and a snap-in carpet. A gas-assisted bilge service hatch affords instant access to the engine room.

   At the ergonomic command station are a fully adjustable captain's chair and a two-person companion seat. Directly in front of the wood-accent tilt steering wheel, in the multi-radiused, beige dash with burl panels, are a B&G; speed/depth/water temp unit and backlit fuel and battery gauges. A spotlight control, trim tab rockers and a systems monitor flank the wheel. The systems monitor features an alarm followed by a message that tells you what's wrong; and it's prioritized so that one message will replace another if two malfunctions occur at once. Conveniently positioned to the left of the wheel, and angled toard the helmsman, is the electronics area, which in this 540 had a flush-mounted Furuno radar/plotter screen, B&G; autopilot and B&G; GPS. Engine gauges are on the highest dash tier, just below eye level. With Caterpillar 3196TAs in the engine room, the burl panel had Cat's electronic gauges - a combination of analog and digital readouts featuring eight-function screens that show engine speeds, temperatures, pressures, hours, fuel flows and loads. A backlit, weatherproof switch panel is to starboard, out of the way of accidental knocks.

   Driving an express yacht this size from a side helm similar to the dashboard of a luxury car or the helm of a speedboat is a special experience. The mass and power at your control are suggestive of what it must be like to captain a jetliner. The merest nudge of the silky Hynautic controls or the slightest turn of the wheel are instantly translated into a change in speed or direction that seems totally out of proportion to the effort. All the stops, starts and swerves entailed in passing an endless line of slower boats were accomplished with ease. The exercise also revealed how well suited the Caterpillar diesels are to the 540.

Popular package

   Standard power is listed as twin 535-hp 6V92TA-MUI Detroits, which deliver a 29-mph cruising speed. But the 640-shaft horsepower Cats seemed ideal, topping out at 36 mph (2325 rpm; 32 gph per side) and cruising nicely at 31 mph (2050 rpm; 25 gph per side). Other 540 engine options are 606-hp 6V92DDEC Detroits; 705-hp 8V92TA-MUI Detroits; 735-hp 8V82DDEC Detroits, and 776-hp 3406E Cats. The 3196TA Cats, a popular power package that combines speed and economy, brought the 540 on plane in just under 10 seconds, and from a standing start to 30 mph in 20 seconds. The quiet, smooth acceleration was lively and level, and lacked the down-and-up sensation produced by boats that bulldoze a deep hole from which they must struggle to emerge. Tracking was excellent. It's hard for me to get used to driving a boat - any boat - sitting down. But visibility from the captain's chair afforded safe operation.

   I think that of all the impressive aspects of a Sea Ray, entering the salon tops the list. There's a sumptuous sparkle that strikes the eye and it's hard not to say "Wow!" Sea Ray stylists have a knack for combining luxury and simplicity and for choosing finishes that gleam richly while still suggesting a high level of serviceability. In the 540's salon, which, needless to say, is an enticing collection of curves, the surfaces are faux granite, high-gloss cherry (or bird's-eye maple) wood laminate and beige Ultraleather. Comfortably elegant is the best way to describe the ambiance. Flawless fit and finish is a Sea Ray hallmark, and it's very much in evidence on this latest Sundancer. Directional halogen and indirect strip lighting is used to enhance both the warmth and the high-tech minimalism of the decor. Brass push-pull cabinet latches are the only hardware to be seen. Even the AC air outlets are integrated into the clean design. Speaking of high-tech, the Ultraleather sofa converts to a double bed at the push of a button.

Hidden appliances

   The galley flows forward from the salon entrance and features a three-burner Kenyon cooktop, refrigerator/freezer with icemaker, a blender, trash chute and Corian covers and cutting board. Overhead glass storage and an under-counter entertainment center facing the sofa are concealed in Vitracore cherry cabinetry, as are a microwave oven and coffeemaker. It's a galley that resembles a fine piece of furniture. The TV (26" Sony Trinitron)/VCR/radio combo has a remote control, and the Bose Lifestyle 20 stereo system includes Jewel Cube speakers and LS bass module. Cherry storage cabinets line the starboard side aft of and above the long sofa. A high-low dining table can be stored out of the way when not needed, which widens the path to the forward head.

   The forward stateroom maintains the generous headroom of the salon. A queen-width berth, mirrored headboard, built-in TV, separate AC control, twin ports on either side, a lighted hanging locker, and the same beige and cherry surfaces that so enrich the salon, make this seem like the master stateroom. But it's for guests and is home to the 540's washer/dryer.

   The forward head, which functions as a day head as well as the guest head, is all fiberglass except for the Corian counter, stainless steel sink and clear acrylic shower enclosure - rounded, of course. Simplicity, functionality and ease of maintenance, which characterize both the 540's heads, in no way detract from their integration into the overall sophistication of the boat. They're simple but impeccable. A thoughtful touch is the curtain concealed in the salon's forward bulkhead that pulls around on a track to provide privacy for guest stateroom occupants when going to or coming from the head.

   The 540's handsome master stateroom is aft of the salon to port, and is a step lower. It's athwartships queen-size bed is surrounded by beveled mirrors on three sides. The lighted hanging locker is cedar-lined and has a mirrored door, as does the adjoining head. More mirrors flank the Corian-topped vanity, which has curved drawers and cabinetry around it in Vitracore cherry accented by solid cherry bullnose trim. A skylight, an opening port, a built-in TV, Bose speakers and bookshelves complete the master stateroom.

Useful room

   The catalog of noteworthy features on this express yacht is a long one, and includes a mechanical room forward of the engine room, where AC equipment resides, but which is also suitable for a watermaker and/or an air compressor. There are stern storage compartments for hoses and power cords with hawse pipes, switches for the Glendenning Cablemaster shore cord retriever (which has a remote), and phone and TV connections. Dripless packing glands are used in place of stuffing boxes. There's good room outboard and forward of the engines, and space for a 16-kW Westerbeke genset (for powering cockpit AC) instead of the standard 12.5-kW set.

   The C-Phone system can be used as an intercom, as a cell phone or a land phone when plugged in. The showers have removable pans with drains underneath, so you're never standing in water. A main sump, plumbed into the exhaust, handles all drainage, with lines clearly labeled. Battery switches are momentary and run off solenoids so you can turn them off at the main panel or in the bilge.

   All in all, this is the most impressive Sundancer yet. It took us from Merritt Island to Stuart in just over four hours, despite the traffic and with a stop for lunch.

   It would seem that, with the 540 Sundancer, a pinnacle of sorts has been reached. What more can the folks at Sea Ray do to improve the popular Sundancer series? Whatever it is, you can rest assured that they're already working on it.

Sea Ray 540 Sundancer

Weight39,000 lbs.
Water150 gals.
Fuel600 gals.
Power(2) 640-hp Caterpillars