REVIEW: MIDNIGHT EXPRESS 37 OPEN
Originally built by a drug lord and now the pursuit craft of choice by government agencies, Midnights take you to the stars and back, discovers DAVID LOCKWOOD
A mobile phone rings, the photographic boat is on its way, and its skipper asks where we are hiding? With a rush of blood, I have slipped into the saddle on the Midnight 37 Open, bridled its four outboard engines, tugged on the reins, and given them a bootfull. Quick as that, we are now some distance up the coast from Sydney. There's been nigh a bang, jolt, or lick of spray. This is powerboating at its finest.
"See you in five," is our reply before calling on the 1200 horses to propel us back from whence we came. I draw a line under the towering sandstone cliffs that stand guard to Sydney Harbour. The water flows deep by their weedy edge, but it's more of a test due to the waves bouncing back off the rock platforms. Even in calm seas, it's a washing machine in here. Not that you would realise doing 45kts cruise on the Midnight.
Indeed, "see you in five" is a fitting catchcry for the Midnight 37 Open. With four 300hp Mercury supercharged Verado outboard engines snorting astern - yes, you heard it right, quads on the tail or, as one person put it to me on a triple-rig some years ago, pigs at the trough - you are never far from anywhere. And while you might draw breath at the thought of four outboards, the thing is it's not like you're clocking up too many operating hours on this point-and-shoot rocket ship.
We range from Sydney's CBD to Manly in roughly five minutes, but once comfortable with the quad setup I put this pursuit boat to the offshore test. Impressively, in seas of about a metre all round, it's not like you have to back off. In fact, I take it up a notch.
With a tweak of the sports wheel, we bound offshore to Fairy Bower, an oceanic roadstead at the southern end of famous Manly Beach, arriving in the blink of a couple of watering eyes and with barely a feather out of place. The Midnight 37 Open is just so well behaved it makes you want to take to sea. And with that all kinds of options open up.
Palm Beach is a 25-minute run from Sydney; Jervis Bay or Port Stephens is less than two hours away; Tangalooma would be a short run from the Gold Coast; and you could make lightning raids on places all over Port Phillip Bay, the SA Gulfs, and WA. Talk about tackling the tyranny of distance. What's more, given the precious commodity called time, this boat actually makes sense.
BUSTING THE BADDIES
But in the case of Midnight Boats, truth is stranger than fiction. The story goes that a South American drug lord began building the boats in the 1980s. Word got around that they could outrun the US drug enforcement agencies and, after a couple of quick deals, the boats were in hot demand by fellow drug runners.
When the original owner was finally busted, the US Government gave him an ultimatum: build the boats for us or we throw away the key. They got the company, and he got to walk. The moulds were sold off some time later to American owners and, nowadays, clean-living civilians are given the chance to jump behind the wheel.
Thus, it's testimony to the unsinkable performance that Midnights still covet respect among law-enforcement agencies and those they pursue on the high seas. The US Navy and customs are among the government agencies who have fleets of the specially-made 39-foot Interceptors fitted with quads - although five outboards aren't unheard of - usually a 50mm machine gun, and a brig.
Designed for nothing more than the pursuit of pleasure, the 37 Open we are aboard is owned by a well-known Sydney family with a pad at Palm Beach. When the mood strikes, say on a sunny Sunday, the Midnight makes reaching the weekender a snap and certainly outruns the terrestrial traffic. But unlike a lot of multi-engine, point-and-shoot boats I have driven - Scarabs, Hydrasports, Boston Whalers, Contenders (we left on in our wake on the day), Wellcrafts, Blackwatch, et al - the Midnight also wows with impeccable manners.
Offshore, there is no chine walking that requires a correction on the wheel, no over or under steering, nothing untoward. Here, speed comes with control. Dare I say, almost anyone can drive it. And fast. Another nice thing is that, at these speeds, the spray is left behind. Thanks also to an additional spray rail high up the hull sides, you get an exceptional dry ride.
When you advance the throttles, the 37 Open shoots forward nice and level and, as such, there's never any loss of vision. That's quite some achievement with the weight of four four-stroke outboards on the tail and it points to the great wet-track form of the special twin-stepped hull.
While the twin-stepped hull is designed to break free of the water and reduce drag, it doesn't get unnecessarily airborne. In fact, it's a real effort getting hang time in the bouncy water below North Head. Cruising at 4500rpm and 45kts, the boat wants to stay connected. When the four whirring props finally break free, it's only for a split second before they bite and, thus, there's no real loss of speed.
With a deep-vee with 22degrees of deadrise, the hull cleaves the waves. But and as there's very little boat above the waterline, it remains stable underfoot. Abundant non-skid mouldings and rails where you reach for them add to the surefooted ride offshore.
Meanwhile, to handle the loads of high-speed offshore boating, the hull is built using composite materials: handlaid fibreglass over a strong Nida-Core (polypropylene) honeycomb core, pulled together via vacuum bagging. There is also a bonded interlocking stringer system and a hull and decks joined to create a monocoque or one-piece structure that doesn't shake, rattle or roll.
Compared with some, the lithe hull isn't exactly a lightweight, weighing in at 6800kg, with the four outboards accounting for an additional 1152kg. But it's this and the hull design that helps keep this boat in the water at speed. And, as such, you're not battling to hold on as you get airborne. It's smooth and fast, predictable BUT fun.
The 1382lt fuel supply isn't huge by long-range boat standards, but there's an option to upgrade to 1800lt tank. But do stick with the quads, for the boat returns the best fuel consumption figures and cruise speeds with four engines instead of three, says importer Justin Clarke.
At the comfortable, economical and speedy 4500rpm and 45-knot cruise speed, you're using about 225lt/h (based on official Mercury figures) for a safe working range of more than 250nm. But it's all about speed and in well under two hours you can be in distant ports of call, special dive locations and real untapped fishing hot spots.
Although a point-and-shoot boat, there's a degree of utility about the Midnight 37 Open. The ride comfort and seating are such that you can carry a crowd and be first to the best anchorages. But given the distances you can cover, I'm imaging you will be exploring a lot of places where dayboaters and the hoi polloi otherwise fail to reach. Distant ports of call, offshore islands and upriver boltholes are all on the cards. The adventurer really is spoilt for choice.
Once you arrive at your destination, anchoring duties are taken care of by a push-button windlass. It's then that the 37 Open aims to please with its plush bow-seating arrangement that features two adult-length sunpads or daybeds. Press a button and the optional high-low polycarbonate table rises on a gas strut to turn the area into an alfresco lunch digs. If you fitted a forward cover or insect screen you could sleep over on the daybeds.
Alternatively, there are a number of fishing options to create a high-speed pursuit boat of the piscatorial kind. Table down, the bow area becomes a casting platform. As it was, there were rodholders, a rocket launcher for rod storage on the tee-top, outriggers with snap-lock bases, and in-transom wet wells for bringing the livebait along for the ride. Many Midnight owners fish the hardcore tournament circuits in America.
Other times, when it's time to don the togs and dive in, you can open the forward panel on the centre console and step down into the quasi cabin. There's room to dress, a Vacuflush loo with holding tank, thereby appeasing all the family and friends, and clip-in swimladder for the transom.
Open the access hatches in here and elsewhere and you'll find tinned copper wiring and engineering that is a work of art. Think big-boat systems, stainless steel and/or bronze through-hull fittings, and the boat was fitted with Shorepower. I also counted three separate freshwater deck showers, a series of pop-up cleats, and flush-mounted snag-free hatch hinges.
Like all good centre consoles the sub-floor area is a catacomb of storage, plus there's storage under the moulded seat bases. Most of the hatches are lined, while some are fully insulated so as to double as fish or drink boxes. Shade comes gratis courtesy of a robust fibreglass top built on a powder-coated aluminium frame. The hardtop is strong enough to stand on and it was the mounting point for a pair of outriggers with snap-lock bases.
There are several seating options at the helm, but future boats are likely to be fitted with a two-person lounge built over an amenities centre that includes an icemaker or fridge. As it was, the demonstrator had twin electrically-operated bucket seats with flip-down bolsters that become leaning posts. But you can drive this boat on the red line on your feet such is its predictable nature.
The carbon fibre dash was replete with digital and analogue engine gauges, two big Raymarine G Series screens with GPS chartplotting functions, trim tab controls and one of Mercury's digital throttles and gear shifts, among other things like the windlass and spotlight remotes.
The race-type trim tabs were used to effect offshore, with a touch of tab keeping us glued to the water, and a touch of opposing tab keeping us on an even keel when travelling fast beam-on to the wind and waves, but by and large the boat runs in fine fettle without them.
Predictably, there was an impressive (JL and Sony) sound system with sub-woofers, tweeters and DVD player, so you could watch a movie on the dash if you felt so inclined. Despite such options, the boat comes pretty much loaded.
With four outboards purring astern, we attracted plenty of looks on Sydney Harbour. Inevitably, the boat is something of a police magnet, too. But as the owners aren't the criminal type, the local constabulary are more inclined to wave than pull them over these days. They have already grown tired from doing that several times, I'm told. Rather than being about speed and pose, the Midnight is more about finely tuned performance and poise.
Such is the ease with which this boat travels at high speed that you will find it difficult to doing anything else. Some hours later, an alarm sounds. Fuel is critically low. We head to the marina for a fill then it's back on the pegs and straight to a top speed of about 60kts, or 70mph, nearing 120kmh. And all in the pursuit of nothing more than thrills sans spills. Impressive.
Specifications: Midnight Express 37 Open
PRICE AS TESTED
$450,000 w/ four Mercury four-stroke 300hp Verado outboards and full electronics fitout, and options
Raymarine G Series electronics package with 17in monitors, JL stereo upgrade, high-low dinette table, electronic bolster seats, outriggers, and more
$400,000 w/ triple Verado 300hp
Material: Vacuum-bagged composite
Type: Deep-vee, twin-stepped planing hull
Length overall: 11.15m
Weight: 6350kg (hull only)
Berths: Two possible on daybeds
Holding tank: n/a
Make/model: 4 x Mercury Verado outboards
Type: Supercharged straight-six cylinder, 24-valve four-stroke outboards
Rated HP: 300 at 5800 to 6400rpm
Gearbox: Counter-rotating 1.75:1
Props: Stainless steel
Justin Clarke at Midnight Boats,
51 Riley Street,
Woolloomooloo, NSW, 2011
Phone: (02) 8302 1436; 0411 228 111
First published in Trade-a-Boat magazine, March / April 2010.
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