BOAT TEST FORMULA ICON 54
A product of its environment, the Formula Icon 54 boasts a wonderful degree of arrogance. She tosses aside the ocean, ranges far and wide, and is geared for big adventure with and without the lines in the water, writes DAVID LOCKWOOD
Kiwis know a thing or two about building rough-water boats. After all, in the Shaky Isles tumultuous seas, howling winds and driving rain are often par for the course. And when the weather is fine, you can range about the bays, gulfs and archipelagos for huge distances and suddenly find yourself miles from care.
Enter Formula cruisers, a 26-year-old Kiwi company attracting the attention of cruising converts and hardcore gamefishers in Australia. Here's a boat built for the rough stuff, which can be tweaked to suit individual needs, and which doesn't cost an arm and a leg to run. Oh, and with the present exchange rate, you get about 25 per cent more boat for your buck.
With just four boats in its range, starting with the Icon 54 tested hereabouts and running through a 58, 62 and 68, Formula should be considered a semi-custom boatbuilder. In better times, the yard trots out eight boats a year, each with an enclosed flybridge. The 54 we drove was one such boat but with an aft clear curtain behind the helm station.
Unlike your average production boatbuilder, Formula works closely with each customer from concept stage to eventual delivery, happily tweaking internal layouts to suit particular tastes and ideals and, in the case of this boat, cockpit fitouts and fittings for hardcore gamefishing. Along the way, the customer is given log-in details to the boat's own website so he or she can monitor the progress of the boat.
Dubbed Weaponry, the Icon 54 pictured hereabouts, was the seventh Icon 54 but the first with a (Black Marlin) tower. It also boasts a no-expense-spared fitout for serious fishing that, from my experience over the last 20 years, rivals any I have seen.
"Ordinarily, the 54 takes 24,000 man hours to build," says Grant Senior, Formula's General Manager, owner, shipwright and marine architect. Senior says he likes nothing better than to be on the floor, getting his hands dirty, and finding solutions to challenges. "But this was a 30,000 man-hour boat. And as for electronics, you won't get change from half-a-million (Aussie) dollars," he quips.
When I caught up with the Formula crew, the Icon 54 was fresh off the ship. It had arrived in Botany Bay, whereupon the owner and his son leapt aboard for a quick run to Sydney for our test. Following this, the boat was delivered to its new homeport of Kiami on the NSW South Coast. And with that, the fetching fishing village suddenly earned itself a five-star gamefishing (and potential charter) boat.
But the owner, who was formerly running a Steber 48, first stumbled on the Formulas at the Sanctuary Cove International Boat Show the previous year. He took one look and thought this is it. His criteria were headed by quality, and not just price, and on this score he considers the Formulas right up there. As with many Kiwi-built boats, the mouldings and finish are superb. Rather than gelcoat, the entire hull is finished in two-pack Oyster White paint for extra sparkle and easier maintenance.
The owner also wanted an enclosed flybridge for fishing in fair and foul weather. Although just 60nm or so south from Sydney, the weather changes do tend to be more severe and brisk on the NSW South Coast. Last but not least, there are length restrictions on boats kept in tiny Kiama Harbour. Keeping within that limit was imperative. Thus, the Icon 54 seen here is a boat built for a very special purpose.
Being a potential charter boat, the boat is in 1E and 2B survey for fishing up to 200nm to sea. There are also plans to take the Icon 54 north and, though it was yet to be fitted, a heavy-tackle Chatfield (another revered Kiwi brand) chair was to be fitted. With a convertible double bed in the flybridge, the accommodation plan can sleep 11, but it's been configured to cater for six anglers during extended liveaboard charters. An FCI watermaker was fitted to complement the 1000lt carried on board.
Construction is solid 2.5cm (1in) GRP for the hull bottom, with vacuum-bagged Corecell foam composite sides and deck. The flybridge is infused or bagged to save weight. The Kiwis enjoy an international reputation for building boats, superyachts and maxis this way. The 54 displaces about 30,000kg loaded - lighter than some solid glass numbers, heavier than other Kiwi composites - and is backed by a 10-year warranty, twice that from some Australian production yards.
The hull is an interesting one. It's a warped plane and, thus, variable deadrise design, with a sharp 58-degree entry at its forefoot, 21 degrees of deep-vee just ahead of the engines, and with a relatively flat 10 degrees of deadrise at the transom. Lift is generated by the flat run aft, as is stability, and in reverse the boat scoots back - and around the corner - without digging in like a traditional deep-vee.
All-important shaft angles, which are indicated of efficiency, are a low 7.9 degrees. Thus, the MTUs impart plenty of horizontal thrust and, I'm told, the calculations for a Volvo Penta IPS version give no more fuel efficiency.
Aesthetically, the Icon 54 has a lovely profile with a pretty sheerline and a usefully high bow. More unusual is the gunwale line - that area where the hull sides meet the top decks - and looking down at the Icon 54 from the bridge or tower reveals a huge amount of flare and a graceful arcing bow rather than a pointed one. It's almost reminiscent of an overgrown banana boat.
You will also notice the knuckle in the hull sides. As Grant explains: "It's free real estate." Boosting the volume in this area allows for more internal storage, while also creating a high spray rail that, during our test, visibly shed water. The Icon 54 displaces plenty of ocean, but most of that was tossed aside with a certain degree of Kiwi disdain.
The engineering is another highlight, beginning with a Seaworth engine vent system from NZ, with intakes high up the hull sides, and washable membranes and dorades to shed water. Access to the engines is via a hatch back in the cockpit, which leads into a utility space housing batteries and the sight gauge for the aluminium fuel tank under the cockpit sole. There are fuel shut-offs and a manifold system in keeping with survey requirements. The primary fuel filters are from Racor.
A watertight door forward of the utility space reveals the twin Series 60 825hp MTU electronic engines built on 14lt straight-six blocks and linked to underwater exhausts. There were heavy-duty stainless steel sea strainers, laminated sheet insulation and soft panels in case you have to remove an engine. An oil change system was to be fitted, and I noted CCTV cameras and fire-fighting kit.
The engineroom was setup to retrofit one of ZF gearbox maker's new station-hold devices that will operate engines and bowthruster and speak with satellites to hold you in position. The ZF 2.192:1 gearboxes, four-blade ZF Faster 34 x 41.5in props, plus big 2.75in shafts and rudders complete the serious running gear.
I liked the abundant servicing room in the big, white engineroom, too. But more than anything, it was the installation of the Furuno CSH 5041 commercial/trawler standard scanner - hey, we're talking almost $100,000 here - that caught my eye. Which brings us to that half-million worth of electronics comprising the latest and greatest of everything.
In case you're in the dark, the Furuno CSH 5041 is a full-circle, multi-beam colour scanning sonar for finding bait and marking fish in a large cone around your boat. Looking at the transducer, which descends below the hull surface when engaged, I reckon the sprats will come up battered and fried.
All told, the boat has 11 electronic display screens including two 12in Raymarine screens in the cockpit, four 12in screens in the tower, and three 17in screens and two 12in screens in the custom helm console in the bridge. The transducer is a 4kW model for true deep-water discrimination. Besides gamefishing, Weaponry targets blue-eye, hapuka and bass grouper on the canyons. An Australian rather than a Kiwi was responsible for the electronics fitout, I'm told.
Furthermore, there was CCTV fitted in the cockpit connected to two hard drives to capture the day's action. "Nothing we asked for they couldn't do," explains the chuffed owner, pointing to the huge floodlights overhead and the underwater lights astern. The DC power side of things is largely 24V, with a Mastervolt 16kW genset for Crusair air-con throughout. A 3kW inverter looks after the fridges and AV systems overnight.
Now things get really interesting. The custom specification of this Icon 54 reads like a gripping novel, opening with the Black Marlin Tower and ending with my white-knuckled climb into the heavens. Additional steps are needed and being fitted, I was told, for better access from the bridge. But with a 5.65m beam, the boat wears the tower beautifully. And skippers will find less pitch than in towers on deep-vee boats.
Back down at water level, the external staircase was deleted to create more cockpit space - there are 11.6m² of serious fishing room - which allowed the creation of a second aft-facing crew/charterer lounge to starboard. You won't find a better perch for spotting fish within arm's reach of the rods or escaping the weather. Moulded toe kicks were added for better crew and angler purchase.
The usual outdoor dayhead was turned into an enormous walk-in, wash-down rod locker (racks to come and it could do with an extractor fan), while the existing cockpit fridge was enlarged into a whopping great bait-holding tomb. Fish storage is underfloor by way of two slurry bins on slides, each of 280lt capacity - big enough for carrying a brace of barrel-sized tuna.
Rod storage exists under the boats lounges and in the rocket launcher above. The owner also tells me he is fitting clear-away rodholders. The coaming across the transom was reduced (it usually houses a barbie on cruising versions) to improve access to the water. Tuna tubes were then fitted beneath a clip-off lid, the livebait tank was deepened considerably and a window was added, while a big "blow-out" panel in the marlin door was designed to dump water in a hurry.
Deck hardware includes flush-mounted cleats and 11 heavy-duty Lees holders thoughtfully fitted in the gunwales to suit the operator, and which drain overboard. Covering panels were to be fitted over the hawsepipes so the transom is snag-free. Next are the tag and gaff pole tubes feeding forward either side of the cockpit. Then come the outriggers: 10m or 32-foot models from Chatfield Marine, with a shotgun to come. Teak cockpit planking is 12mm.
Nice wide sidedecks backed by handrails, moulded toerails and ankle-high bulwarks lead to the destroyer-like foredeck that's almost big enough to land a jump jet if not a wandering albatross. The boat was fitted with a 350kg Davco davit and Aquapro 1401 duckie with 40hp four-stroke Yammie for, say, collecting provisions or charterers in Jervis Bay or landing ashore at Lizard Island. I also note a Lofrans windlass with 85m of 14mm survey chain and 66kg Delta anchor. Heavy-duty holding gear.
Indoors, there's plenty to embrace, not least being the aft-galley that Kiwis contend is superior for servicing crew. An electric window feeds the al fresco cockpit seating, with appliances ranging from four-burner cooktop and oven to dishwasher and oversized fridge and freezer (Fisher and Paykel, of course). There's abundant storage space, upmarket Corian counters, soft-close drawers and a built-in wetbar with glass and bottle storage nearby.
A forward clear saloon window is an option, but the blanked out setup on Weaponry is in keeping with gameboat trends. The huge U-shaped lounge to port can seat eight people around a dinette/coffee table with, it's pointed out to me, a high-low pedestal base from Australia that was faulty after installation. A mere pre-delivery detail, I reply defensively. A two-person lounge is opposite, with all seating enjoying good views of the Philips flatscreen TV in the cabinet forward.
The joinery is high-gloss cherrywood, but there are choices, while the suede headliner was perfectly executed and the bone-coloured leather upholstery luxurious. Down the companionway is a three-cabin and two-head layout designed to accommodate charterers and crew. The latter get a starboard-side cabin with crossover bunks, but by and large the 54 is a big-hearted boat and nowhere feels confined.
There's a forward stateroom with island berth and en suite, with the usual owners stateroom amidships to port. It was changed from having an island berth to a double and a single. And here you will find the second en suite, with a man-sized shower and upmarket Tecma head. Some of the hatches in the amidships cabin are on the small side but at least there's plenty of them. Ditto for storage space and hanging room and the two metres of headroom.
Though aft-facing, the internal stairwell to the flybridge proved intuitive to use while the boat was idling. Underway, I was parked up top in one of the two Navigator helm chairs, before the custom dash with the big spread of electronics. Sight lines forward were good, revealing at least the bowrail when seated, while a clear views falls back over the cockpit when reversing.
The Edson wheel and ZF electronic shifts with go-slow, synchro and cruise modes fall to hand. Bennett trim tabs are provided but not needed unless you are traversing beam-on weather when the boat might lean to windward. A bowthruster assists with docking, there are opening windows and air-con, but even more ventilation is in the well-equipped tower. Concealed rod storage, a fridge, pull-out double bed or U-shaped lounge for six complete the flybridge station.
Put the pegs down and the boat is eager, gliding sneakily to planing speeds. But of course the most impressive figures are at displacement speeds, which is where professional skippers spend their time while passagemaking from port to port.
With 4000lt of diesel, the boat's range at 8kts is said to be 2400nm leaving 20 per cent of the fuel in reserve. This drops to 1200nm at 10kts and 500nm at 24kts, which is still Kiama to the Gold Coast on a tank with some juice to spare.
I spent most of my time offshore at the 24ts at 2000rpm for consumption of 200lt/h. Pull back the reins and the boat cruises at 20.5 to 21kts at 1830rpm for 170lt/h. A touch of trim tab and throttle and we were running at 27.8kts at 2200rpm for 280lt/h, whereupon the Icon remained smooth and delightfully quiet.
Top speed was 31kts with a little over half fuel and full water, and sea trials revealing that 31.7kts is possible. And the MTU Series 60 are continuously rated if you want to throttle up and hightail it home from the grounds.
The sea was pretty lumpy but there was never a hard landing. And while the fine entry displaces plenty of water, only light spray landed on the flybridge windscreen. With wipers and washes it was gone in no time. I also noted there was no blowback on the aft saloon windows. I hate that station-wagon or venturi effect that drenches crew and tackle.
Back at 850rpm, I found a nice 7.9-knot troll speed for 22lt/h. The boat feels surefooted and stable and, thanks to its high bow, it doesn't ship water into a headsea. Backing up was the surprise, the boat scooting around the corner smartly, with the only delay from the yet-to-be commissioned MTUs and ZF electronic gearboxes.
"The handbrake was off and he [the owner] said just do it," explains Grant in perfect Kiwi pitch. And with that, Australia has a new icon on its offshore boating scene. Apparently, half of Kiama came out to welcome the new boat in town. Meanwhile, the crew are heading north in search of fish. See what I mean about far ranging?
Specifications: Formula Icon 54
PRICE AS TESTED
Approx $2.7 million w/ MTU Series 60 diesel engines, and options
Semi-custom gameboat fitout in survey with a $500,000 electronics package including 11 flatscreens, Raymarine navigation and radar, Furuno commercial-grade sonar, Simrad autopilot, digital TV; Black Marlin tower; Lees heavy-duty rodholders; Chatfield outriggers and chair (to come); deeper livewell, tuna tubes and twin slurry boxes; starboard cockpit seating; davit and Aquapro ducky, high-gloss joinery, and lots more
Approx $2 million w/ twin MTU Series 60 diesel engines
Material: Solid GRP hull w/ resin-infused vacuum-bagged decks and hardtop
Type: Warped plane variable deadrise monohull sans keel
Length overall: 17.80m
Hull length: 16.40m
Weight: 24,00kg dry w/ std. motors and no tower, some 30,000kg loaded
Holding tank: 270lt
Make/model: 2 x MTU Series 60
Type: Six-cylinder turbo-diesel with common rail fuel injection
Rated HP: 2 x 825
Max. RPM: 2300
Gearbox (Make/ratio): ZF/2.192:1
Propellers: ZF Faster 34 x 41.5in
P.O. Box 84-022 Westgate, Massey,
Waitakere, 0657, NZ
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