The Return of a Maverick
As brash as he is bright, Bill Stevens is back--this time, with a 53-footer that bears his name. Now, as before, it's impossible not to take notice.
There was a time when the name "Bill Stevens" was met in yacht-chartering circles with the same response that the name "Ted Turner" was in yacht-racing circles. Both had an impact on their chosen worlds for similar reasons--they brought to them high energy, panache, and a sometimes disconcerting directness of speech.
I shouldn't say "was," I guess. After a hiatus of over a decade in which many of those who knew him thought he'd retired to areas of more lucrative enterprise, Bill Stevens is back in boats, if not in the charter business--yet. And true to form, he's ready to stir up the industry again.
Lest anyone labor under the misapprehension that Stevens, in his absence, has lost his touch, a quick look at the recently launched Stevens Custom 53 will set them straight.
"Wait'll you see this thing," he said when he called me shortly after it arrived by ship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "Man, is it friggin' huge. I'm telling you, you've never seen anything like it. You know what? I oughta call it the Sea Hummer."
When I first laid eyes on it, I had to agree. It certainly sets it own rules in the aesthetics department. Even its designer, Robert Perry, says it looks like "the box the boat comes in." But amazingly, the very boldness of the boat's appearance gives it an undeniable appeal.
The SC 53 provides Stevens with something he couldn't get in the Sparkman & Stephens-designed Stevens Custom 50, which he introduced in the late 1980s. "I asked for freeboard so I could get the room I needed inside the boat," he says, "but the S&S people wouldn't do it."
Well, Perry gave him freeboard-the boat carries it unashamedly, undisguised by broad contrasting color stripes-and Stevens has used every inch of it. A quick tour through the "box" revealed two full staterooms aft, each with its private head compartment, a full nav station, a large galley, a huge saloon, a vast master suite forward, and a crew cabin with a pair of pipe berths in the bow.
At Home and at Sea
I've been drawing my wife, Melissa Dobson, boat by boat into the world of cruising. The SC 53 is a far cry from her first encounter, a steel 30-footer with no plumbing. "This has more stuff than a condominium," she said.
"You're right," said Stevens. "It's a condo. Where in the hell can you buy a waterfront condo for a million dollars? Anywhere? You can't. The difference is, this is an oceangoing vessel, not a waterfront condo, but it's got all the yummy yummies you'd have in a condo. I roughed it for far too goddamn many years, and I just refuse to believe or buy into the concept that when you go to sea, you gotta rough it."
Then he challenged her. "Have you tried the hair dryer yet?"
Another of the yummy yummies is a Fisher & Paykel dishwasher. After dinner one night, Stevens insisted on showing it off, which meant running the Kohler 13-kilowatt generator for two hours. I protested that I could have washed those dishes myself in 15 minutes. "Yeah, but I bet you'd have used a heck of a lot more water," Stevens said. Not that water was in short supply, between the 250 gallons of tankage and the Spectra watermaker on standby. In our plush quarters in the forward cabin, bigger than our bedroom at home, Melissa and I could barely hear the generator, and Jeff Fisher, who's worked with Stevens for decades and supervises the SC 53's construction in China, watched a movie on the 26-inch flat-screen TV until it was time to shut it down.
Another evening, Stevens waxed lyrical about the galley stove, an Italian work of art made by Alpes (Stevens says the only reason Alpes makes a marine stove is because the company president is a sailor) and the same model he'd put on the 50s he'd built 15 years before. "Mac, lift off the burner," he said, "and run your fingers around inside. They used to be razor sharp in there, and they'd cut the cleaning girls' hands real bad. I told them they gotta fix it. Did they?"
"Do you mind if I let the thing cool down?" I asked. "How about we eat first?"
After dinner, I cleaned the stove, without sustaining any injury, and I have to admit it's beautifully made--typical of the equipment Stevens believes should be standard on a yacht of this caliber.
Melissa was taken with the galley, too. The last boat we'd been on had what Americans call a Euro galley and Europeans call an American galley--everything in line down one side of the saloon. The cook seemed always to be surrounded by half a dozen people standing about offering to help, in which endeavor their ability and sincerity were compromised by the drinks they were all holding in one hand. The SC 53's galley is down a step, round the corner, and under the cockpit on the port side--secure, out of traffic, and yet within conversation range of the cocktail zone near the icemaker in the saloon. In addition to the dishwasher and stove, the galley has a stunning Alpes stainless-steel triple sink, a front-opening fridge, a front- and top-opening deep freeze, and more ovens than I could ever use at one time. And it has everything you could want in the crockery-and-glass department. Stevens won't leave anything to chance--not even the lemon zester.
That same philosophy applies to the mechanical equipment. If, as my mother would have said, "It has everything that opens and shuts" in the galley, the boat has the same under the saloon sole, where the machinery slumbered or rumbled and purred according to our needs.
Both the dining and cockpit tabletops pivot on their horizontal axes to open the saloon sole into a virtual dance floor, which then can be lifted in four panels to reveal the machinery bay. Should the engine or generator require heavy maintenance, the mechanic has full headroom and easy access. For instant service, fuel filters and manifold and the freshwater manifold are located under steps and in recesses in the foyers forward and aft of the saloon sole. The tanks, all integral fiberglass ("I've never had a problem with an integral tank," says Stevens) are under the sole, and the watermaker is under the starboard settee.
Bob Perry shed a little wisdom on the matter of integral tanks. In his experience, he says, few builders want to incorporate them in fiberglass boats because to make them properly requires meticulous handwork. In China, where the SC 53 is built to exacting standards, labor intensity isn't an inhibiting factor. And neither, according to Stevens, is the quality of that labor. "When people have had quality problems with stuff made in China," he says, "it's not because the Chinese can't or don't want to do good work. It's been because of a lack of proper supervision. Look around this boat. Don't tell me this isn't the most beautiful craftsmanship you've ever seen." I look around and see the enigmatic and pragmatic Jeff Fisher, as quiet as Stevens is voluble and the perfect interpreter of Stevens' idea-a-minute delivery into practical terms the Chinese can understand and act on.
Fisher, who'd started hanging around Stevens' Grenada boatyard before he was in his teens, doesn't talk for the sake of hearing his own voice. When he does speak, he's worth listening to, whether the subject is the inner workings of the boat he knows so well or the experience of a Westerner living in China. He'd come from the yard to commission the boat and was going back shortly to incorporate into the second and subsequent SC 53 hull the stream of Stevens' consciousness we were currently witnessing.
An example of what they'd exacted from the builder is the one-piece, toughened-glass wraparound saloon window that softens the boat's appearance. Manufacturing such an element is a daunting and risky undertaking. "I told the people at the yard what I wanted," Stevens says, "and they told me they could get it done. Heck, they're not in the Dark Ages over there." The matching fiberglass molding around the carlin inside the saloon is equally a work of art that Perry says impressed him no end when he saw it.
The low coachroof and low raised house--bought by the high freeboard--allow easy movement around the deck and don't at all interfere with the view from the cockpit. The sole obstruction in that view is the life raft, mounted in a stainless-steel frame aft of the mast, and it irked Stevens. "We gotta find another place for that, Jeff," he said. "I don't want to sit here and be looking at that when I'm at the helm." Such were the constant comments we heard while we were aboard. Stevens is quick to point out all the clever devices and arrangements he's worked into the boat. But he's equally quick to acknowledge what he could have done differently and what he will do differently on subsequent boats. It's the perpetual quest for the "better mousetrap, not just another mousetrap" that motivates Stevens. That, he says, also keeps his competitors guessing and ever anxious to get on board and snoop around at every opportunity. Their first chance to check out the SC 53 would be at the upcoming Strictly Sail Miami, and Stevens was gleefully looking forward to the encounters. "They're gonna be so jealous," he says, "because they just can't do what we've done here--not for twice the price."
A Cockpit for Living
Stevens knows full well that the cockpit of a cruising boat is its living room. On the 53, it's simply huge. At its forward end, a molded fiberglass arch carries the mainsheet, raising it out of the way, and also anchors the aft end of the dodger, creating in effect a doghouse that provides welcome shade in the tropics and protection for whomever sails the boat to reach them. The seats are wide, designed for comfort when sailing or lounging. When The Energizer Billy, as we came to name photographer Billy Black, finally ran out of juice, he showed us that they were excellent for sleeping, too.
The cockpit table is sufficiently far aft that it doesn't hamper access into and out of the cockpit or the companionway, but it will still seat six. Its fiberglass leaves stow tightly within the stainless-steel frame, where they don't rattle when the boat's under way.
Twin helm stations complete the cockpit; they're serendipitously juxtaposed about the tiller head so that an artful tar could rig lines from the steering wheels to operate the emergency tiller, which stows in full view in the table's base, its handle the only varnished wood on deck.
Aft of the helms, the cockpit sole becomes a staircase (complete with courtesy lights for nighttime) leading down to a swim platform just like those Vince Lazzara used to put on the early Gulfstars. Stevens has no time for transoms that rake in either direction: "They waste so much space when you only have so many feet of length to work with." So the SC 53 has a destroyer stern. For the longest time, I couldn't put my finger on just what the view of it from aft reminded me of. Eventually, I decided that the center recess in the transom and the stainless-steel antenna arch give it the appearance of a stern trawler. That's not entirely inappropriate, because the twin fighting chairs on the aft deck--a Stevens trademark--suggest that fishing is to be taken seriously on this vessel.
Keeping It Simple
In Stevens' world, not roughing it extends also to sailhandling. His bareboat version of the Morgan Out Island 41 was sloop rigged, with a jib on a club boom and, forward of it, a wire-luffed genoa on a Schaefer furler. (This was in the days before foil-luff furlers.) In the 1970s, it was the ideal rig for the Windward Islands. Sailing upwind from Grenada to the Grenadines and farther north, you set the club jib and the main, perhaps reefed on the blustery days of December and January. Sailing back south, you set the genoa on the furler. Later, on the Gulfstar 50s, Stevens installed the Hood Stoway mainsail, going so far as to use the electric version because it was smarter than the average bareboat charterer-an overload relay would pop and prevent damage to the system from overcranking.
The Stevens Custom 53 has today's state-of-the-art sail controls. The mainsail is on a Leisure Furl in-boom furler; the jib is self-tacking with the sheet going up the mast, down, then back to the cockpit. For efficient light-air or downwind work, a code zero on a continuous-line furler tacks forward of the headstay, and for the adventurous, an asymmetric spinnaker waits in its sock in the forward crew cabin. All four deck winches--two under the dodger for the main and self-tending jib and two on the cockpit coamings for the funsail sheets--are electric.
If one facet of cruising has moved faster than Bill Stevens in the period he's been absent, it's sails and sailhandling. The self-tacking jib is nice, but it's probably unnecessary in conjunction with today's mainsail-driven rigs. A 105-percent jib on a furler would be easy to tack, especially given the electric winches, and if it had movable sheet cars on tracks, it could be trimmed more effectively. The twin mast-mounted carbon-fiber spinnaker poles are probably redundant in the age of asymmetric cruising chutes.
He's on track, though, with the code zero, as long as the boat's crew is diligent in taking it down and stowing it--easy enough to do--when it's not in use or when heavy weather threatens. The last thing you need is a poorly furled code-something getting loose in a blow.
One trend Stevens doesn't favor is getting in and out of the dinghy from a sugar-scoop stern. On each side of the deck, he provides folding stainless-steel ladders that stow between the lifeline-gate stanchions. Using these ladders is a safer proposition, especially in a bouncy, trade-wind blown anchorage.
Stevens' Stream of Thought
We spent a couple of days sailing around in Biscayne Bay while Stevens issued rapid-fire verbal memos to Fisher.
"On the next boat, we'll mount the instruments higher. I thought they'd work down there, but you can't see them without craning."
"Jeff, do you think we need to make that dodger so you can open it?"
We raised and lowered the mainsail--"Mac, what're you trying to do with that winch handle? Just press the goddamn button!"--and we set the asymmetric and the code zero. The boat's no ocean greyhound, but it has a solid, purposeful mien and was almost sprightly under the code zero and the asymmetric.
Heading back to Miami while closehauled in about 10 knots of wind, I felt I was getting to know the boat. A bit more jib would've helped. I undershot the breakwater by a hundred yards, but two short tacks, 90 degrees each--not bad for this boat's configuration--got us into Government Cut.
Stevens had been looking tired. Using one eye on double time is a strain. I thought he'd gone below for a nap, but he'd been busy. After we were tied up in the marina, he produced an ice-cold shaker of excellent martinis.
"Wait'll you see the 65 we're working on," he said, while I was yet trying to absorb everything about the boat we were aboard. "It'll blow your socks off." Since I was standing next to him in bare feet, the idiom was poorly chosen. Still, I've no doubt that if the 53 is anything to go by, I certainly stand to be impressed, socks or no socks.
Jeremy McGeary is CW's senior editor.
Stevens Custom 53
LOA 53' 0" (16.15 m.)
LWL 49' 0" (14.93 m.)
Beam 16' 0" (4.88 m.)
Draft 5' 0" (1.52 m.)
Sail Area (100%) 1,185 sq. ft. (110.1 sq. m.)
Ballast 13,950 lb. (6,341 kg.)
Displacement 42,250 lb. (19,205 kg.)
Water 250 gal. (948 l.)
Fuel 256 gal. (970 l.)
Mast Height 80' 0" (24.4 m.)
Engine 160-hp. Yanmar 4LHA-HT
Designer Robert H. Perry
Price About $1 million, including zester
Stevens Design Team LLC.