Sunseeker 80: When the world's not enough. 

BACK IN THE FINANCIALLY LUSH '80S, when everybody with a credit line and 5 percent cash down was buying a bigger boat, builders of smaller craft expanded willy-nilly. But the transition from boat to yacht isn't easy - there's a whole different mind-set involved - and many of the arrivistes created pathetic vessels fit for little else than filling holes in breakwaters.

Now Sunseeker, one of the largest production builders in Europe, is trying out the boat-to-yacht transition with its new Predator 80, a luxury cruiser with the performance characteristics of a go-fast, the construction details of a tank and a simple, no-nonsense deep-V running surface. To gauge the company's success in this endeavor, I recently visited Poole, England, test gear in hand.

TUFF ENUFF STUFF.

Call me old-fashioned, but if I'm laying out $3 million for something, I want it to be perfect. And although the Predator won the "1996 Motor Cruiser of the Year" award from the British Marine Industries Federation, there are some annoying but easy-to-fix design eccentricities I'd want rectified before handing over a Halliburton full of greenbacks. But before I harvest the nits that need picking here, let's hit a high spot or two.

First, like every Sunseeker I've ever met, the Predator is ruggedly built; precisely engineered and exquisitely finished. The hull, which meets Norwegian classification society Det Norske Veritas standards, is solid glass below the waterline, balsa-cored in the topsides and supported by foam-cored, bi-axial fiberglass stringers. The deck laminate, cored with PVC foam, incorporates carbon fiber to trim weight and maintain strength. Hull and deck are bolted, then glassed together.

A little intimidating? Don't sweat it. Driving this baby is a breeze. Top speed: 48.4 mph.

Sunseeker engineers have developed a "floating" cabin sole for the Predator, built on an aluminum frame that touches the hull in only a few places. The point is to cushion vibration and minimize stress concentrations in the bottom of the boat via a bed of resilient adhesive.

Foam-cored bulkheads and fuel tanks located between the engine room and the living spaces farther forward help keep the Predator quiet. During testing, with our three 1,100-hp MTU V-12s roaring wide-open, the decibel level at the helm was just 83 dB-A.

SHOEHORNS AND GARAGES.

I found the Predator's engine room cramped and the engine installation itself was unusual. Being wide at their forward ends, the big MTUs are mounted in a splayed pattern, like the fingers on your hand, with massive, complicated universal joints and jackshafts to transmit power to the three Arneson drives.

Sunseeker offers lighter, smaller, more powerful MAN diesels as optional power. When I asked a designer why anyone would choose the MTUs, he shrugged, "Some people like MTUs."

The Predator's machinery spaces, reached through either of two hatches in the teak cockpit sole and thence down a ladder, is further restricted by a "garage," a centerline stowage compartment for a 12'6" waterjet-powered Sunseeker RIB.

While the entire cockpit sole can be removed easily for major-league machinery overhauls, I'd like to be on hand should the middle engine ever have to come out. It's almost totally blocked by the garage.

MIXMASTER ARNESONS.

Visibility at the helm of the Predator could be better. The low-profile wheelhouse, with only 6' headroom under its central support beam, makes the windshield and side windows narrow and too slit-like for my tastes.

In hard turns, the Predator heels over enough so the hardtop blocks the view toward the inside of the turn; toward the outside, all you can see is blue sky. While l found that opening the sliding sunroof helps with the problem, I still had to take a good look around before cranking the wheel.

British designer Don Shead is famous for drawing fantastic hulls, and he didn't misfire with this one. Even at top speed, helm hard over, the Predator digs in and just whips around - no sliding, no skittering across the surface, no loss of control.

Prior to actually driving the boat, I imagined that its hull would break loose at 40 knots, but it stayed glued to the surface of Poole Bay no matter how hard I tried to dislodge it. And the Arnesons kept biting all the way round, too, their big five-bladed wheels chopping like Mixmasters.

Returning to the dock, low-speed handling was nimble, thanks to big props and hydraulic bow and stern thrusters. On the test boat I couldn't engage both thrusters at the same time, but a system is being developed that will allow a skipper to do just that, and maneuver sideways with the tilt of a joystick.

As it was, close-quarters maneuvering was tricky. The helmsman's position is so low it's hard to judge just how near the steeply raked stem is to things solid and potentially damaging. A new skipper's first few dockings could well involve the Braille method, unless he's got a good crew on the foredeck.

HALL OF MIRRORS.

The helm of the Predator is like a jet plane's, with triple, supremely comfortable Recaro-style seats, intelligent instrument layout and room for electronics. I'd add a synchronizer, since three throttle levers are too wide a span for my average-sized hand.

There's a no-nonsense watertight door on either side of the wheelhouse. A few steps astern put you in a vast main salon. The joinery here is so expertly finished and reflective it's like being in a hall of mirrors. Nobody does a better job at this sort of thing than Sunseeker.

Unfortunately, the passageways aboard our Predator were narrow, and the doors even more so - some were less than 1'6" wide. When I remarked on this, a Sunseeker representative said the doors were "standard European width," with nothing wider available. Even so, before I'd sign a purchase order, I'd specify a layout I could walk through without scrunching sideways.

Otherwise, I loved the interior: There are only two, full-sized, double-berth staterooms, so you can't be expected to invite all your relatives to go cruising with you. There's a third stateroom, forward on the starboard side, with upper and lower berths. This is intended as guest's quarters, I'm told, but I guarantee your crew will be living there. Why?

The crew's quarters on our test vessel was a pit. I entered it through a piece of cabinetry in the deckhouse. At first, I was expecting to see an icemaker behind the little door. But instead, I saw a tiny cabin at the foot of a ladder, with two berths, a head, a hanging locker and a single opening port. Fortunately, Sunseeker offers several layouts, one of which specifies crew's quarters forward.

Because 80' production motoryachts aren't especially common on either side of the Atlantic these days, there's no other modern vessel I can think of that compares with the $2,900,000 Predator. Its 40-knot top speed and custom-quality joinery put the boat in a class by itself ... at least until next year, when Sunseeker launches the Manhattan 80, based on the same Shead hull.