Secret Shoppers Hit the Show

Posing as "average customers" CW readers walk the docks in Annapolis. A special feature from our January 2010 issue

February 11, 2010

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The author and consumer judges work the Annapolis docks: Lt. Rich McMunn (left), John and Kerri Spier, Wendy Mitman Clarke, Julie and Bob White, and Michael Robertson. Billy Black

To complement the Boat of the Year panel of expert technical judges, Cruising World again this past fall assembled a cadre of secret shoppers made up of readers with a diversity of sailing experience. We split the group into four teams, gave them day passes to the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, and asked them to visit a handful of boats as the “average customer.” Then we sat down and listened to what they had to say.

Bob and Julie White of Hull, Massachusetts, own an Island Packet 37 and have sailed it as far as Bermuda and Nova Scotia. “We have nine more tuition payments, then we’re ready to go sailing fulltime,” Bob says. They aren’t in the market for a new cruising boat yet, but they could be.

The Whites reviewed the Sensei 9M, J/97, Morris M52, Jeanneau 57, and Lagoon 400. Of these, the Jeanneau 57 was their clear favorite. They liked the versatile cabin arrangement up forward, which can be configured to accommodate a variety of owner needs. For instance, they’re considering offering crewed charters on their next cruising boat, and the Jeanneau 57, with its separate crew cabin in the bow, would fit this bill perfectly. They were also impressed with the clean deck layout and the quiet genset as well as by the fact that the boat’s design director was on board and spent a full half-hour with them explaining the reasoning behind all of the design aspects.


Bob and Julie also felt the J/97 was an excellent blend of racer/cruiser on which they could easily imagine cruising together in Maine for a week, then racing at Block Island. The elegance of the Morris M52 impressed them, although Bob said he’d want lifelines and a bow pulpit to feel more secure. (The boat at the show had neither, though Morris will supply them at the customer’s request.) Julie voiced a concern commonly heard from the practical-minded shoppers whenever they saw a lot of woodwork on any of the boats, as they did on the M52: Handsome, indeed, but who’s going to do all the varnish?

Lt. Rich McMunn, a U.S. Navy submarine officer, teaches electrical engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy and spends summers taking midshipmen offshore on Navy 44s. He owned and raced a Tartan 37 but had to sell the boat when he and his wife had their second child.

Rich reviewed the Morris M29, Hunter 39, Catalina 445, Oyster 655, and Fountaine Pajot’s Lipari 41. The Catalina 445 was the standout for him, not only for the quality of construction and such useful details as midships cleats but also for the “flex space” in the port quarter. For his family, this space would make a perfect kids’ bunkroom; for a couple alone, it could be used as a workroom, storage area, sail locker-you name it.


Second to the Catalina for Rich came the Hunter 39. He said that the galley was extremely functional and nice to look at, and he noted that the port settee could make a good sea berth, something of a rarity in these days of curvaceous saloon layouts. He also liked the fact that the designers didn’t try to cram two heads into the confines of a 39-foot boat when one is all that’s really needed.

Rich admitted that while looking at the Oyster 655, he had some difficulty picturing himself actually owning it-unless he won the lottery. That said, for this performance bluewater cruiser he had nothing but praise for the fit, finish, design, and layout. He liked the fact that two people could handle it and that the company representative was well versed in every the technical aspect of the boat.

This comment was one of many similar remarks that wove like a thread through the entire discussion, regardless of the boat being assessed: How salespeople and company representatives conversed with the judges had a major impact on their thoughts and impressions of the boat. For instance, Michael Robertson, who lives in Washington, D.C., said that the Corsair Dash 750 impressed him in part because the salesperson was “by far the most helpful and knowledgeable that I talked to.” The bottom line: According to our judges, potential buyers look past the boat-show glitz and want specific answers to pertinent questions.


Robertson doesn’t presently own a boat, although 10 years ago, he and his wife cruised aboard a Newport 27 for seven months from Ventura, California, through the Panama Canal to Florida.

Along with the Corsair Dash 750, Michael reviewed the Island Packet Estero, Passport Vista 615, Leopard 38, and Beneteau First 40. Among these, the Island Packet was his hands-down winner, which he simply described as “awesome.” From start to finish, on deck and below, he could find no fault with it as a practical, comfortable cruising boat. He noted in particular the spacious anchor locker, teak veneer that “looked like teak, not Formica,” and a cockpit coaming that was clear of all obstructions, including winches. He also liked the Passport Vista 615 for its innovative aft-deck settee area and the enormous and accessible engine room.

Kerri and John Spier own an Outremer 45 on which they and their three children have nearly finished a circumnavigation. Based out of Block Island, in Rhode Island, they sail as far as they can in four to six months, then come home to earn money at their jobs as carpenters.


As multihull owners, the Spiers admitted to feeling a bit out of their league with the monohulls at which they looked-the J/95, Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 33i, Hunter 50CC, and Tayana Annapolis 64-despite past monohull experience, so they went the extra mile and checked out the new multihulls as well. In general, they felt that nearly all of the cats at the show were made for chartering rather than long-term cruising, and they agreed with the other judges in giving the Lagoon 400 and the Leopard 38 the highest grades among the cruising catamarans, while the Corsair Dash 750 earned praise for both its performance potential and construction quality.

And even though he acknowledged that he wasn’t a racing sailor, John said the J/95 impressed him as a solidly built, well-designed sportboat. Kerri agreed that this boat “was very clean and neat, and everything was where it should be. It’s hard not to have respect for the J/Boat people-they’re very professional and know what they’re talking about.” John also said that the Hunter 50CC was “a lot of boat” for the money, and he joined the other judges in praising Hunter’s improved construction quality.

Wendy Mitman Clarke writes CW’s Off Watch column, Osprey’s Flight. She and her cruising family were in Annapolis, Maryland, in the fall and visited the show before pointing the bow of Osprey south.


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