Success stories in the high-performance powerboat world have been in short supply during the past three years. OK, they’ve been almost nonexistent because the past three years have the worst in the history of the go-fast boat world, at least for most builders.
Introduced in late 2009, Sunsation Performance Boats’ 36-foot-long V-bottom presents a notable exception. Since its release, the stepped hull offering has been the most successful release in the Algonac, Mich., company’s 28-year history. Between models finished and models in production, eight of the 36-footers have been sold.
That’s a very good thing, because last spring Sunsation laid off most of its workforce. New-boat orders had evaporated right along with dealer and consumer financing, and Wayne, Joe and John Schaldenbrand, the brothers who own Sunsation, had no choice.
“I told our employees that when the gelcoat went into the first 36 I’d bring them all back,” said Wayne Schaldenbrand. “So everyone came in and donated their time to create the tooling.”
Schaldenbrand fell silent for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice trembled with a mix of gratitude and relief.
“Within eight months, we were building parts out of that tooling.”
Born of Demand
Before introducing the 36, Sunsation offered 28-, 32 and 43-foot models. While the smaller offerings are best described as “semi-custom,” the 43-footer tagged the F-4 is a true custom offshore boat complete with an array of options, billet hardware and panels and unique paint job work courtesy of the famed Mitcher T Paint Shop. As Wayne Schaldenbrand admitted, laughing, “We went kind of nuts with our CNC machine.”
But while the F-4 was a hit with the critics including Powerboat magazine’s test team—it won the publication’s “New Model of the Year Award in 2007—and well-heeled buyers, it still left a significant gap in Sunsation’s product line—and pricing structure. A loaded Sunsation 32 can reach $200,000, whereas an “entry-level” F-4 is closer to $500,000.
That was obvious to the Schaldenbrands, but two questions needed to be answered before they could start designing a “tweener” model. First, should the their next boat be 36 or 38 feet long? Second, should it be a “stretched” 32 or a “shrunken” F-4?
In the end, they decided on a 36-footer based off the Sunsation 32.
“Our owners and dealers made that decision for us,” said Wayne Schaldenbrand. “Our market research showed they wanted a 36, but one that was based off the 32 because the F-4 is such a unique custom piece.
“I stretched the 32 to the best of my ability and put it in the form I thought was right,” Wayne explained. “Then I called Tres Martin.”
A multi-offshore racing national and world champion, Martin is well known to performance-boat enthusiasts. When he retired from racing several years ago, he started the Tres Martin Performance Driving School for high-performance pleasure-boat owners. It is the best-known and most successful powerboat driving school in the country. But Martin also offers hull design consulting services.
To give Martin as much flexibility as he needed to make changes, Schaldenbrand left the hull plug for the 36 in “mechanical form.” Immediately, Martin made major modifications to the running surface.
“He stretched the steps in the hull, made them shallower, changed the angle of attack,” Wayne said. “The coolest thing is he kept saying, ‘This boat is going to ride on three diamonds, one on the first step, one on the second step and one on the transom.’ And doggone if it doesn’t do just that. This boat rides flatter than anything I’ve ever run.”
On the Water
While base power for the Sunsation 36 is twin MerCruiser 502 engines—each rated at 430 hp—and the boat reportedly tops 80 mph with that package, the most popular power setup for the boat to date has been twin 525EFI engines from Mercury Racing. With that package producing a combined 1,050 hp, the boat reportedly runs more than 90 mph. According to Wayne, the 36-footer is remarkably stable at top speed.
“It just sits there,” he says. “My daughter could drive it.”
Such high-speed stability will be a essential for the buyer who recently ordered a 36 with twin Mercury Racing 700SCi engines.
“That will probably be a 110-mile-per-hour boat,” predicts Schaldenbrand.
But at least as impressive as the Sunsation 36’s speed, according to Schaldenbrand, is its handling.
“It’s nimble,” he says. “It doesn’t feel anything like the F-4, which is such a big boat. It feels like a sports car with quick acceleration—it planes off immediately when you nail the throttle. The acceleration just rocks.”
During its first test with a Mercury Racing representative at the helm, conditions included 4- to 6-foot seas. That’s tall stuff for a 36-footer, but the new model reportedly had no problem handling it. At least part of the credit has to go to the strong construction for which Sunsation has earned its reputation. So confident in the quality of their products are the people at Sunsation, every model comes with a plaque at the helm station that includes the mobile phone number of Wayne Schaldenbrand.
Options for the Sunsation 36
At it does with its 28- and 32-footesr, Sunsation offers three basic packages for its new 36. Of course, as a semi-custom builder Sunsation provides some flexibility within those packages.
“The ‘S’ package is our Sport model, which comes with a no-frills poker run cabin and manual bolsters in the cockpit,” says Wayne. “It ends up being about 500 pounds lighter, so we can raise the X-dimension, and that usually makes it about 1 mile-per-hour faster.
“In our SS package, you get more of a cabin with a sink and a wet bar, what we call ‘half paint’ for the accents and power McLeod bolsters in the cockpit,” he continues. “The next step up from that is the SSR package, which has full paint and extra touches like color-matched bezels for the gauges, McLeod power bolsters and curtains for the cabin windows.”
However, more than half of the Sunsation 36 models sold to date have been ordered with the builder’s XRT package. That makes perfect sense given that the 36-footer is a true performance boat. The XRT package includes performance-style features such as fiberglass “quarter-canopy” farings with acrylic wind deflectors for the driver and co-pilot and a striking aircraft-style helm station.
Depending on the package and power options, prices for the Sunsation 36 range from $237,000 to $431,000.
Though Wayne and his brothers are delighted—and more than a little relieved—by consumer reaction to the 36-footer, they are far from done with building their product line. Wayne says he plans on bringing back Tres Martin to help him “dial in” the hulls for the 28- and 32-footers, and that down the road they could add another new model.
“During our discussions that led to the 36, we talked about doing a 38,” he told me. “We decided that the 36 was the better call for now, but there’s still a place for a full-size 38 in our line. So we’re probably not even done.”
Bi-weekly columnist Matt Trulio is the editor at large for Powerboat magazine. He has written for the magazine since 1994. Trulio’s daily blog can be found on speedonthewater.com, a site he created and maintains, which is the high-performance arm of the BoaterMouth group.