Thundercat 800

Tested by Erwin Bursik (November/December 2008)

THE Thunder Cat 800, flags flying from her outriggers, made her debut during the 2008 Shelly Beach Bonanza as she bounced a small foamy and thundered forward in a slight port turn to pick up the line for her exit through the surf and out to sea.

A new craft, especially one of this size, always causes a stir when she is introduced to “the fraternity”, and the Thunder Cat 800 attracted a great deal of attention.

I was amongst the crowd of spectators that watched her maiden voyage through the surf, not only to enjoy the colourful spectacle, but also to get an idea of how she performed under the conditions that prevailed that day. AJ Smith, the MD of Superduck who have developed Thunder Cat offshore sportfishing craft here in South Africa, was delighted with the craft’s overall performance during a day of serious competition fishing off Shelly Beach.

“Now,” he said, “I’ll take her back and make some minor cosmetic changes to finish her off properly before I let you take the Thunder Cat 800 for a review.”

With two boat shows in Durban and Johannesburg intervening, I had to wait a while for the privilege of taking her to sea.

It was not easy to find a day that suited both AJ and me, and weather was the big problem with the onset of the August winds and cloudy days. We finally set a date and we got sun, but had to contend with a terrible sea after two days of thumping north-easterlies and a 15-20 knot beastly easterly predicted for the day in question.

“Big boats must take big seas,” was the consensus. AJ and I were aboard the Thunder Cat 800 as she was shot backwards “Sodwana style” into the moderate shorebreak at low tide at Vetch’s by Superduck’s Greg McEwan. We were deep enough for AJ to trim down the twin 200hp Evinrude E-TECS and back us out to sea to face the horrible conditions prevailing that morning.

Greg and SKI-BOAT’s Heinrich Kleyn then launched a 19ft craft — the photography boat — and joined us. Once out at sea, transferring from the Thunder Cat to the smaller boat immediately brought home to me the differences between the two craft — the contrast in size and sea handling, and the immense difference a fully enclosed saloon area makes to onboard comfort.

We ran a few kilometres out into deeper water to escape the incredibly upside-down sea generated by the outgoing tide streaming out of Durban Harbour — a north-easterly chop and a big swell that barrels in and erupts over Limestone Reef. Anyone who has launched off Durban will know what I am referring to. These are possibly some of the worst conditions one can experience on the South African coast.

But the job had to be done. Aboard the smaller boat Heinrich battled to provide me with a steady platform from which to photograph, and AJ required a surplus of testosterone as he fought the sea to best portray his new Thunder Cat 800 for the cameras. These were possibly the worst conditions I have experienced in 30 years of boat testing. However, in saying that, I saw over and over again just how well the Thunder Cat’s hull worked the water and what the big sea was doing to this big craft.

Now all that was left was to change boats again within the semi-protected corner in front of the Durban Undersea Club where the exposed Vetch’s Pier blocks the north-easterly chop. Finally I was at the helm of the Thunder Cat 800 to experience her for myself.

Using the block at the end of Vetch’s Pier as a marker, I held the Thunder Cat in position with reverse and forward thrust to play with the small but steep sets that were coming through. When a gap presented itself, I thrust the throttles forward and shot out past the block, swung to port and ran fast down the channel between the swells that were bouncing up over Limestone Reef.

Keeping slightly to starboard, I took the swells at an oblique angle and raced out to deeper water.

With that confidence and lots of torque behind me, I played around in the waves peaking over Limestone for a while to test just how well she would turn in front of a big swell. Then we backtracked out to sea, taking on the relentless series of waves until we were out beyond where they were waiting to break.

Considering her eight-metre length, I was pleasantly surprised at the ease with which I was able to pull her around with some fancy throttle application, and then, using all her torque, get her out of the hole and onto the plane very quickly.

Taking the swell at about 30º off the vertical face of the waves, she used her starboard sponson to slide us over the crests, all the while retaining a fair speed until out at sea. I even tried taking the swells straight on to see what 26ft of boat was capable of. It’s a lot of boat to force up into the air and over the wave, but as the swell passed under us and forced the transom up, she landed a lot more softly than I could ever have imagined, and still retained a fair amount of forward momentum.

Next I pointed her bows northwards towards Umhlanga lighthouse and reduced her motor trim positioning to zero. With the wind and chop on her starboard bow and the swell directly on her beam, I gradually increased speed until we were running at between 17 and 20 knots with the revs on 3 000rpm.

With that as a basis I started playing with the motor trims until I found a setting that allowed me to maintain that kind of speed but maximised comfort. While on this course I had the starboard motor trimmed out a fraction more than the port motor in order to stabilise her transom into the beam sea. Thereafter, I only played with the synchronisation trim button to maximise her ride. By increasing revs I could get a lot more speed, obviously, but at higher speeds, even after setting the trims down a fraction, we were coming over the top of the crests at such speed that the boat had no alternative but to come down with a resounding pound.

Then we headed directly into the beastly easterly, a course no boat likes — and the Thunder Cat 800 was no exception. After dropping her speed to about 14 knots, we could have remained on course for a prolonged period, if the need arose, without destroying either those aboard or the craft itself.

By now we were well out to sea off Glenashley south of Umhlanga, and the conditions were well on the way to reaching the point where, if we were fishing in a SADSAA event, the weather committee would have called off the competition and requested the boats to return to shore. However, I still had trolling tests to complete before running home.

The major benefit of a craft this size is the protection the saloon area affords. In trolling a course with a side sea to maintain a constant SOW of 7/8 knots, the Thunder Cat was great as we were comfortable and dry — dry being the operative word. For so many years, while trolling for marlin off Sodwana under similar conditions, we got drenched and I got very miserable hiding under foul weather gear with my back to the relentless spray. On the Thunder Cat 800 the fact that spray was blown over the fish deck was immaterial. All aboard were dry and warm.

With the barely audible twin 200 Evinrudes leaving a tight wake right up to 9 knots, we could have trolled for hours with only the course directly into the sea affecting the craft’s constant forward momentum. Down at 4 to 5.5 knots — sailfishing speed — she was really great and provided a lot of blue water to run a five or six lure spread, as well as two teaser lines.

At low troll speeds of 1.5 knots, as well as on the drift, the craft settled well in the water and was not adversely affected by the prevailing wind.
To digress a little, craft with full saloons or forward areas enclosed by clears allow crew to find a seated position within this comfort zone. There one can brace oneselves against the structure and relax, instead of constantly bracing oneself against the boat’s motion as one is forced to do on smaller open boats. This makes an enormous difference to the way one feels after a day on the ocean.

The journey back to Vetch’s was the ideal time to see how this long sponsoned craft handled a big following sea full of holes. I began by substantially trimming up both motors to provide a slightly bow-up stance. Again, as the sea was marginally on the port transom, I trimmed up the port motors a tad more to hold her in the rolling sea. Then I eased up the throttles until — without looking at the GPS speed reading — I felt we were not only moving reasonably quickly over the water, but also that those aboard were comfortable.

Most importantly, I felt that I had control of the craft, even if a hole suddenly appeared which, at high speed, would cause the craft to drop a sponson. When I checked the GPS the SOG was about 24 knots. This surprised me as I had thought we were running at less than 18 knots.
For experimental purposes I gave her a burst of power — up to 30 knots — and she rode well, but in that sea I had to concentrate very hard on fighting the helm to ensure that the sea did not cause the craft to do anything funny.

Talking about thrusts, during trials on one motor I could get her to plane at about 14 knots with the dead motor dragging, and this went up to nearly 19 knots with the second motor trimmed right up.
AJ and his team wanted to build an eight-metre craft that was relatively easy to tow, could be launched and retrieved from the beach, would provide a stable big game fishing platform, and would come onto the market at a price that would be considered reasonable. In my opinion, the Thunder Cat 800 fits all of these criteria — and is a fine looking craft on top of that.

As a matter of interest — on the towing front — she was towed to Johannesburg from Durban for the National Boat Show in a time of eight hours behind AJ’s 2.9 litre Colt. AJ says he averaged a speed of 80km/h, but never exceeded 90km/h for safety reasons. Having experienced the launching and retrieval of the big boat, I believe that a 3-litre vehicle is too small for the job and that a 4×4 in the 4-litre class would be better suited.

Having elected to fit a centrally-positioned helm station, AJ believes — and I agree with him — that it then becomes practical to design the saloon area with longitudinal couch seating for comfort, as well as make crew movement in and out of the saloon more practical. It also provides easy access to the forward storage/bunk area.

While skippering this craft in the rough sea, I enjoyed the helm position as it gave me a lot of lateral room to fight the controls and retain personal stability. The captain’s chair was a little too far back for me, but the owner of the craft is a lot taller than me and finds it right for him. 
The Thunder Cat 800 has a large fish deck with flush fish hatches in each sponson and a fighting chair centrally positioned. Moving around the chair is easy — there is a lot of space between it and the gunnels as well as the false transom.

If the fighting chair was removed, a deck this size would be wonderful for general gamefishing as well as bottomfishing.

Both AJ and I discussed at length the pros and cons of the open stern access that is sited between a false transom on each side. Our discussion centred on whether there should be a door to close it to make it a full transom, or leave it open. Personally, I would prefer a marlin door. I have fished extensively on boats that have dive platforms into the ocean, and whilst acknowledging the advantages of that feature, personally I would feel much safer with a door in place.
Regardless of the steps taken to reduce the overall weight of the Thunder Cat 800 by incorporating balsa-core lamination and other composites, she is still a very big boat, both at sea and on her trailer. However, with size comes many advantages — more comfort, greater fishability and added safety, to name a few. To negate the negatives of overall size and weight, there is but one answer, as the marlin manne of Sodwana have learnt. That is that the size of equipment needed to handle the launching and retrieval of the craft — be it from beach or, to a lesser extent, from a slipway — is the all important factor.

Apparently the next Thunder Cat 800 that is coming out of the mould is to be a full walkaround model with a centre console/wheelhouse. This will be an interesting variation, and I look forward to seeing that model of this boat on the water.

After the final tweaking of finishes following on-the-water trials, the Thunder Cat 800 has turned out to be an extremely fine craft. Indeed, her beauty is definitely far more than skin deep.

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