"Mid Size Power Boats": A Guide for Discreminating Buyers - by David Pascoe


Sea Ray Sundancer 290

Sea Ray Sundancer 290

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Not much has changed over nearlyOne of the very first things you notice about this 1993 model 28'7" Express is the narrow beam of only 9'0" which, we are told, is intended to make the boat trailerable, and is precisely the reason why our client was looking at it. And while there are superficial styling changes over the years, this is still your basic 27/28/29 SeaRay Sundancer with the raised forward portion of the cockpit, large bench helm seat, and cave man style "aft cabin" where you can stow away a couple of youngsters if need be. 15 years of production of this boat with the exception of the built-in swim platform that, in our view, makes the cockpit area, as well as the interior, unacceptably small.  The trade-off for the swim platform over the loss of two extra interior feet is not a good one. The

Combined with the narrow beam, the loss of the two feet makes this one rather cramped, particularly when you open the fold-down aft cockpit seat which is built into the transom.

There are some good things to be said about this boat but, unfortunately, the negatives outweigh the strong points. And there are so many of them that, well . . . . the good points just get squeezed out by all the typing we have to do here.

From a surveyor's standpoint, it really gets tiresome writing up one report after another describing the rotting exterior upholstery that we find on so many boats, and this one is no exception. In this one, nearly everything except the cockpit deck is upholstered, and even though its been kept covered by the owner ( he was taking the covers off when we arrived for the survey), the vinyl and foam rubber upholstered plywood panels and seating components were everywhere starting to rot. The usual green slime was forming on the bottoms sides, and brown fluid weeping out of all that nice looking stuff that belongs on the inside, not the outside.  If we had to take a guess, it would be that the replacement cost of the cockpit upholstery runs somewhere around $5,000, and that is one heck of a price to pay for having an upholstered exterior.

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You'd think that over that length of time SeaRay would have taken a little time to refine it into a superior product. Nope. This boat is still fraught with infuriatingly silly design faults. We can start with the fold-out aft deck seat where the hinges are screwed into the plywood seat backing. Since the plywood is rotting because the seats are saturated with water, and can never dry out, the screws are all pulling loose from the hinge. Then there are all those nice little plastic parts that are broken. Once we got the seat pulled out, we could not get it back in place since the whole silly affair was falling apart.

Once again we have a very poorly supported fore deck which feels soft when you walk on it. And because of the deflection, it will surely break open all the window frame and deck hatch seals if one were to step down on it hard from a high dock at low tide. Putting frames under decks just costs the builder more money.  In fact, thanks to El Nino -- which might more appropriately be renamed El Largo -- there was a 6" rainfall two days prior to our survey which left quite a few wet spots on the interior. The aft cabin berth cushions were soaked on the starboard side, as was the forward berth mattress. In the case of the former, the leak was coming from the radar arch mount bolts which were not adequately caulked. It will be necessary to remove the arch to repair the leak.

As with all these SeaRay cuddy cabin boats, where the cabin sole is nearly on the bottom of the hull, we almost invariably find wet carpeting and high bilge water marks, in this case 4" above the sole. In earlier models there was no way to install a bilge pump so that it would prevent the sole from flooding, but SeaRay has somewhat corrected this problem by putting a little cofferdam back there so that one could at least get a pump in there.  Problem is, the sole is still only a couple inches above the bilge. (Notice the high water lines seen in the photo below.) It only takes the pump float switch to stick once to get everything all wet. In this boat, as in most others, they mounted the fresh water pump right on the bottom of the hull (great thinking here), and we needn't explain why this pump no longer works.

Cruising around various marine discussion group web sites, we find a lot of complaints about wet and rotting fiberglass over wood stringers. As we've said before, there's nothing wrong with glass over wood stringers, if its done right. When it comes to small boats, how rarely it is! The photos below reveal that not only were there holes just partially cut through the hull stringers that were never completed, but that these holes were letting water into the plywood and causing it to rot. Looks like they started to drill holes and then changed their mind about where to put them.

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These three photos are different aspects of the same area of the starboard hull stringer. The two holes at right are only partially drilled into stringer where the plywood is rotting. Notice the high water line in way of the top arrow.

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This oblong cut out in the stringer almost completely cuts the stringer in half. The red arrows show areas of incomplete fiberglassing, so that even if there weren't holes drilled in it, the wood would still absorb water.

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The red arrow at bottom shows hole cut without sealing the wood. Green arrows point to only two of numerous staples found in the stringer, along with brown fluid weeping out. Blue arrow points to a vertical fracture that is starting to develop. At far right is the fresh water pump mounted directly on the bottom of the hull, along with the wiring.

Fifteen years ago, we noticed a trend by small boat builders to start covering up the internal hulls of their boats. This started with gluing that fuzzy stuff they call carpet or whatnot all over the inside, and later progressed to just boxing the whole interior in so that you can't see any thing. Today, that trend is complete, as nearly all small boat builders to this. Why? We have no doubt but that this is so that it covers up shoddy workmanship, and so if anything is going wrong, if anything is coming apart, you can't see it. Of course, covering up everything becomes difficult, and us surveyors usually find a place or two to get a peek at what's behind the pretty stuff that you can see.

Under the aft berths we get a look at the hull stringers. They appear to be quite high here, maybe as much as a foot. Despite the fact that everything is heavily painted over with gel coat, its obvious that these stringers are only glassed about half-way up. And on the upper half, we found what looked like a lot of screwdriver stab marks. What, you say? Well, we thought that because there are a lot of so-called surveyors out there who will do things like this -- test something by stabbing it with a screwdriver blade. We asked the owner if the boat had been surveyed before.  He said no, so we went back and looked again. Staples. Driven by a high-powered pneumatic gun. Near as we can tell, the stringers are pieces of plywood stapled together because these deeply driven staples are all over them. Gee, will that let water into the wood to cause rot?

The answer is that the wood was all swollen, the gel coat coating fractured and peeling, and brown fluid weeping out. How did the water get there? Through all those leaks into the aft cabin and the bilge pump that stopped working, as bilge pumps are prone to do. Some of the high water marks are plainly evident in the photos.

A plastic deck port is installed on the fore deck,  apparently for the purpose of retrieving the anchor rode, but how anyone would make use of this is a bit of a mystery to us. What it has done is to leak water into the wood deck core (we're not sure what the material is, probably plywood because balsa does not rot like this) where we found toad stools growing around the cut-out where the core is exposed. And because it has some of the original paint on it, we're sure that this was not an after purchase add-on by the owner, but a port installed by the builder. If not remedied, this is going to result in  major damage to the deck structure.

The engine compartment is neat but very cramped. At least the deck has three hatch covers instead of one huge one, making it much easier open things up. On the down side, the gutter is very shallow so that if you use a hose on the deck, this will surely get your engines wet. Never mind that the halon system, battery charger and electrical junction boxes are located immediately under the edge of the hatch opening. The oil filters are located up high, front and center where you can reach them. But on the starboard side, the engine fuel filter is burried under a maze of hoses. One surely will not be able to change it without dumping gasoline in the bilge. Behind and outboard of the engines, the trim pumps, blowers and other steering apparatus are located, and which are almost impossible to reach.

For a high production boat, we find it incomprehensible that the systems installation is so helter-skelter. To get down into the compartment to work on anything, you end up stepping all over hoses and wiring, not to mention the occasional pump occupying the only space available to put your foot. We could hardly even carry out the inspection without causing damage. To top it off, once you're down there, all you can do is just stand there because you cannot bend over to reach anything. The systems were installed in this compartment with a total disregard for servicing. Its not as if there wasn't any other space available, because there was. Very typical of SeaRay that they just don't care to provide their customers with any convenience. Sure, surveyor's complain about this sort of thing because they have to inspect and test this stuff. But when you, the owner, have to pay to service things that can't be reached . . . . well, the cost of service goes up dramatically. Like a $300 labor bill to change oil, filters and spark plugs because it took the mechanic half a day to reach these things.

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You can't get into this area without stepping on stuff. At left is the battery charger sitting flat on the deck that, of course will NEVER get wet. Will it? Notice the duct take on the bottom of fuel tank. When all else fails, use duct tape. Be fun reaching that sea strainer down there, too.

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There is room enough to stand up in the center of this compartment, but then you cannot bend over to reach anything. The only way to reach the bilge pump or sea cocks or anything else down low is to go down there head first. Cool.

With a pair of Mercruiser 4.3LX V-6 engines rated at 175 hp and stern drives, this boat is plenty fast. We didn't measure the speed because we were too busy holding on for dear life as the boat demonstrated a nasty tendency to lay over on one side and stay there. Use the tabs to try to trim it out and it would just flop over on the other side. Try the power trim, same thing. We spent a half hour playing around with it, and when we could get her to ride level, as soon as we made a turn it was the same thing all over again. Why? Well, take stern drive power, a narrow beam boat, and place the engines as close together as you possibly can, and what you end up with is an unstable boat. Period. Then, even jamming the throttles wide open, it was sluggish getting up on plane. Again, you can blame the stern drives; those large diameter propeller hubs are terribly inefficient.

Here's a few more gripes:

  • Fuel lines are covered with a highly flammable plastic conduit. We took a sample and tested it. Burns like a banshee.

  • Bilge pumps have discharge outlets only 6" above the water line with no riser loop.

  • Then there are those two  tiny little Rule 1000 bilge pumps that look like aquarium pumps. They say they are rated at 1000 gallons per hour. We've tested those things and find that they won't do 100 gallons, let alone 1,000. A bit of hair or paper in the bilge and they are history. Perhaps that's why there were high water lines 6" over the cabin sole.

  • The single lever gear/throttle controls functioned poorly, causing gears to skip when shifting.

  • Batteries sit in plastic trays that collect water and do not drain. Where did the water come from? Remember our       comments about the hatch gutter?

  • Battery charger is also located directly under lip of hatch and was rusting.

  • As usual, the electric panel is located directly under the cabin hatch/door where it can easily take a drink of water.

  • Main engines used wire reinforced automotive radiator hoses. Wire reinforcement was completely wasted and hoses "crunch" when we squeezed them.

  • Swim platform deck is weak and deflects when walked on. And the fold-up stainless steel swim ladder? We were sure that it was going to pull the fasteners right through the fiberglass when we tried to use to get on board after the haul out, there is so much leverage on this poorly mounted affair.

  • At the point where the fuel tanks are mounted on some kind of deck, the gap between the tank and the deck is covered over with duct tape (see photo above). Duct tape? Is this a means of preventing water from getting under the tank and corroding it? Has the boating industry reached the point where duct tape is now a standard construction material?

This is yet another example of a boat that looks great but the beauty is only skin deep. Looking good and being good are entirely different matters. Four years later, its selling for less than half its original price. How's that for a return on investment? And this boat was about as well maintained as you'll find.

With quality like this, is it any wonder why so many of the products we buy bear the label "Made in Japan"?

Related Article: Sea Ray Sundancer 290 Update

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David Pascoe - Biography

David Pascoe is a second generation marine surveyor in his family who began his surveying career at age 16 as an apprentice in 1965 as the era of wooden boats was drawing to a close.

Certified by the National Association of Marine Surveyors in 1972, he has conducted over 5,000 pre purchase surveys in addition to having conducted hundreds of boating accident investigations, including fires, sinkings, hull failures and machinery failure analysis.

Over forty years of knowledge and experience are brought to bear in following books. David Pascoe is the author of:

In addition to readers in the United States, boaters and boat industry professionals worldwide from over 70 countries have purchased David Pascoe's books, since introduction of his first book in 2001.

In 2012, David Pascoe has retired from marine surveying business at age 65.

Biography - Long version

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Mid Size Power Boats Mid Size Power Boats
A Guide for Discriminating Buyers
Focuses exclusively cruiser class generally 30-55 feet
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Buyers' Guide to Outboard Boats
Selecting and Evaluating New and Used Boats
Dedicated for offshore outboard boats
A hard and realistic look at the marine market place and delves into issues of boat quality and durability that most other marine writers are unwilling to touch.
Surveying Fiberglass Powewr Boats
Surveying Fiberglass Power Boats
2nd Edition
The Art of Pre-Purchase Survey The very first of its kind, this book provides the essentials that every novice needs to know, as well as a wealth of esoteric details.
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