The Secret Shoppers Ride Again

Select readers hit the docks in Annapolis and share their views on this year's new sailboats.

Moorings 50.5 shoppers

The Moorings 50.5 impressed Jim and Kathy Jackson.Billy Black

Each fall, Cruising World employs a select group of industry experts to judge and determine the Boat of the Year winners. For the last three years, we've also asked another posse of opinionated sailors—readers of the magazine, just like you—to "secretly" inspect the incoming fleet and cast their ballots for the top new vessels being introduced to the marine marketplace.

Once again in 2010, our four sets of secret shoppers were chosen by means of an essay contest, given a list of boats entered in a particular BOTY category to examine (unbeknownst to the dealers and salesmen showing the boats), then set loose on the docks during October’s U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, Maryland. When our consumer judges had completed their rounds, we reconvened to learn what they’d discovered.

Kathy and Jim Jackson have owned a Beneteau 423 through Sunsail’s ownership program in the British Virgin Islands for the last five years. With retirement on the horizon, they’ll soon swap their landlocked home in Pennsylvania for a floating one in the islands. Among the categories on their list were Cruisers, 40 to 49 Feet (the Dufour 405 Grand’ Large, Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 409, and Dufour 45e), Full-Size Cruisers, 50 to 55 Feet (the Beneteau Sense 50, Moorings 50.5, and Jeanneau 53), and Premium Cruisers Over 55 Feet (the Hylas 56, Southerly 57RS, and Beneteau Oceanis 58).

For the Jacksons, both Dufours stood out, particularly the performance-oriented 45e. “It was beautiful,” said Kathy. “The interior and accommodations were absolutely gorgeous. It had a racy feel on deck but a very nice layout below.”

But the couple unanimously believed that the Moorings 50.5 was the boat in which they could best imagine themselves. “It was my favorite,” Kathy said. “The deck layout was similar to our boat. Down below, it was open, airy, and light. It was just a super boat all the way round.”

“The larger, Premium boats were absolutely beautiful,” added Jim. “The bigger Beneteau, the Hylas, and the Southerly were all gorgeous. But for what we want to do, for our kind of cruising, they’re more than we need.”

Unlike the Jacksons, Canadian snowbirds Beth Lusby and Jim Bissell have already made the break, and they've cruised in the Bahamas extensively on their Bayfield 36, Madcap. The 40- to 49-footers were also on their inspection list, and while they thought the category was "really competitive," they, too, were enamored with the Dufour 45e. "It was far and away the best, but it was also more expensive than the others," said Jim.

The couple also reviewed the Premium Cruisers, and while they both gave high marks to the Hylas (“If I had the money, I’d go after that one,” said Jim), they were split on the Southerly. Beth thought that the raised-deck saloon contributed to an awkward, top-heavy profile, but Jim enjoyed the space it afforded and also reckoned that the swing keel “was a really nice feature for Bahamas cruisers like us.”

Beth and Jim also checked out the Midsize Cruisers, 30 to 39 Feet (the Hunter e36, Dufour 375 Grand’ Large, Hanse 375, and Catalina 355) and found a lot to like about all four of those boats. They cited the comfort of the Hunter, the quality of the Hanse, the value and versatility of the Catalina, and the overall fit and finish of the Dufour 45e, which ultimately received their top votes.

But, as so often happens with our secret shoppers, the exercise also made them appreciate the “good old boat” they already owned. “I can load up that Bayfield with a ton of stuff and we’re gone,” said Beth. “But for extended coastal cruising,” admitted Jim, “the advantage all those Midsize Cruisers have over the Bayfield is that in lighter winds, they’d all be much faster.”

Our next shoppers, the Marsh family—Ken, Stacey, and their 14-year-old son, Derek—hail from Albany, New York, and sail their current boat, a Hunter 33 called Zig Zag, on Vermont's Lake Champlain. A former racer, Ken these days prefers the cruising side of the sailing equation, not the competitive one. "Our boat is like our summer camp," he said. "We use it to live aboard more than we sail it, and it works great for that."

The Marshes reviewed the Small Cruisers, 30 Feet and Under (the Presto 30, Beneteau First 30, and Hunter 27E) as well as the Midsize Cruisers, and found intriguing choices in both classes. “For fun sailing, it would be hard to beat that First 30,” he said. “But for the way we actually use a boat, the Catalina 355 would by far be our choice.”

Stacey agreed: “The finish quality was excellent. The bedding was nice and comfortable. The forward cabin with the V-berth had a woman’s vanity with a mirror, and it actually had drawers and good storage, which you don’t always see on a boat this size.”

The Hunter 27E also caught Ken’s fancy. “It has an electric motor, which I think is fantastic,” he said. “What a great concept. I’d trade my diesel for an electric engine in an instant.” He also had some pet peeves across the board, with several of the new boats guilty of the same offenses. “It used to be all about lots of bunks,” he said. “Now it’s all about big tables. Inside. Outside. Why?”

He's also not a fan of travelers mounted on cabin tops. "I like it in the middle of the cockpit, right in the way," he said. "That's where it belongs. You can control it."
Our final couple, Cheryl and Mark Molesky, sail their Sabre 28, St. Elmo's Fire, on the Chesapeake Bay. They, too, found a lot to appreciate in the smaller boats like theirs, particularly the engineering on the Presto 30 and the innovation of the electric auxiliary on the Hunter 27E.

Moving on to their next category, the Full-Size Cruisers, they agreed that the Moorings 50.5 totally met its design brief. “It’s really well thought out for a charter boat, and all four cabins are nice,” said Cheryl.

“We’ve chartered boats before where there was one plush cabin and the rest were steerage-type spaces,” laughed Mark.

The Beneteau Sense 50, Cheryl said, was “very modern,” but she was also impressed by the quality of the builder’s representatives. “The people working the show were very nice, very informative, and did an excellent job with the presentation,” she said. “They seemed to enjoy what they were doing. They were excited about the boat.” The Moleskys and other shoppers also praised sales teams from Jeanneau, Dufour, and Gunboat for their enthusiasm and professionalism.

The couple also had a look at the Catamarans (the Matrix Vision 450, Discovery 50, and Gunboat 66), but were quick to note that they had little experience with multihulls. “The Vision was our favorite. It seemed smart, efficient, and well made,” said Mark, who seconded the opinion of the Marshes, who also inspected the cats.

“And the Gunboat,” said Cheryl, “was over-the-top and beautiful.”

“Amazing boat,” Mark added. “It’s a floating showcase of technology.”

Herb McCormick is a CW_ editor at large._