Addressing no one in particular, the guy standing next to me in the Marine Technology, Inc. booth during the annual Miami International Boat Show asked a question as he stared at deep blue, canopied high-performance catamaran in the back of the exhibit.
Eyes wide and heading shaking back and forth, he was clearly have trouble processing the object before him.
“My god,” he gasped. “How big is that thing?"
I wanted to answer to him, I really did. I wanted to tell him that it was a 52-foot-long MTI cat called Pass Blocker, owned by Brad Benson, a former NFL offensive linemen who helped the New York Giants win a Super Bowl over the Denver Broncos in 1986. I wanted to tell him that the cat could top 185 mph thanks its twin 1,650-hp Mercury Racing engines. But what I really wanted to tell him was that in a week I’d be taking a ride in it with Benson and his crew during the Miami Boat Show Poker put on the by the Florida Powerboat Club.
Instead, I said nothing. It’s not polite to gloat about your good fortune, even if that good fortune happens to be part of your job.
My assignment to join Benson in his spectacular six-seat canopied 52-footer started with a simple text from the New Jersey-based owner of the Benson Automotive Group, long retired from the NFL, asking me if I’d like to take a ride with him in the boat someday. We’d met a few times when he owned the first version of Pass Blocker, a 48-foot MTI cat with Mercury Racing 1350 engines.
But there was a problem—Benson had a full boat for the first leg of the poker run from Miami to the lunch stop at Gilbert’s Tiki Bar in Key Largo. I would need a way to get there. From Gilbert’s, I could join my host, his sons, and his throttleman/boat concierge Tom Healey for the rest of the run to Islamorada.
Enter Tim Gallagher, MTI’s national sales manager. Gallagher hooked me up with a ride to Key Largo in a brand-new 42 V, the Wentzville, Mo., custom go-fast boat builder’s only V-bottom—and a center-console model to boot. Though I’d ridden in the prototype, I’d never logged any seat time in the finished product, which has earned raves since it was officially unveiled late last year.
Stepping back to look at the bigger picture, I realized I had something remarkable and unusual on my hands—the ultimate compare-and-contrast go-fast boating assignment— with the first half of a poker run in a 42-foot center-console open to the elements, and the second half in a 52-foot canopied catamaran that would completely isolate me from them. It was far from my first ride in a center-console or a canopied cat. But both in the same day? Never before.
Owned by Greg and Brenda McCauley, the 42 V proved to be a pure delight. Between a stiff crosswind and a sloppy mix of go-fast boat and cruiser wakes, conditions were anything but smooth. But they also were anything but challenging for the 42-footer, which has an 11'6" beam and rides on a patented stepped hull.
While we nicked 70 mph a few times thanks to four 300-hp Mercury Verado outboard engines on the transom, we spent most of our time cruising at a comfortable 60 mph and—as we approached the mangroves leading into Key Largo and our lunch destination at Gilbert's—50 mph. Truth be told, in a boat with the kind of heft of the V 42, the difference in sensation between 50 and 70 mph is mostly experienced through the onrushing wind. The ride doesn't change a whole lot.
Behind the console in any of the seats, which are a hybrid of military-style leaning posts and performance-boat bolsters in two rows, you are completely protected from the breeze. Anywhere else, at least at speed, you have to deal with it, and that is perhaps the No. 1 drawback of a performance-oriented center-console used as “go-fast” boat. If you’re not behind the console, you eat the wind.
As expected, the exact opposite proved true when I hopped in Benson’s 52-footer after lunch. Snug in my bucket seat with a five-point harness holding me fast, I felt zero exposure to the outside elements at 150 mph -- no wind noise and very little engine noise. The canopy and our wireless intercom headset system muted most of the sensation of forward motion. In the event the cat overturned, there was an on-board oxygen system next to every seat, and two escape hatches in the sole. In short, the cat at 150 mph felt far more civilized than the center console at less than half that speed.
But there were trade-offs. Even in large, six-seat canopied cockpit such as that in the Pass Blocker cat, the experience is not for those who struggle with small spaces, much less who are truly claustrophobic. When the rear hatch finally closes the cockpit gets dark. The light that comes through the canopy’s acrylic sections is soft and diffused, and the side-window distortion creates a visual ripple effect that can make you dizzy if not nauseous if you stare too long. While mostly free of visual distortion, the windows ahead of the driver and copilot are not expansive, and the high-back buckets up front further hamper the view from the rear buckets. In short, at least for passengers in the rear of the cockpit, it’s a lot harder to see—and feel—where you’re going.
So which experience did I prefer? They’re so different that choosing one over the other as “better” is difficult, maybe even a little silly. Each had something to recommend it. Each had something I didn’t like—one with too much wind to the face at times, the other with zero wind to the face all the time.
But that’s a weak conclusion. Truth be told, I am an “in the elements” guy. I don’t like having my face torn off by the wind, but a big part of being on the water is sensory. Compromise those senses and the experience loses something, at least for me. That said, given the chance I’d gladly spent a lot more time with Benson in his cat, and I suspect I will this summer.