Tested by Kevin Smith (May/June 2008)
IN 2006 Lee Cat launched the Expressa 800, and at that stage Erwin Bursik classified it as a mean machine. Two years later the Lee Cat team of brothers Carl and Joey Lee had the new Expressa 900 on the water and ready for a test out of Durban harbour. Well, if the 800 was a mean machine, then the 900 is the king of mean machines!
These boats are manufactured in Port Alfred, and it was a pleasant change to be able to test one of them in our local waters. This was made possible because the Lee Cat team had just towed the Expressa 900 all the way from Port Alfred to Richards Bay for the Blackwatch competition. It’s quite obvious that their trailers are built serious enough to handle a boat of this size and weight. The vehicle that towed her was the new Ford F250. It must have been quite a trip, but Carl and Joey assured me it wasn’t that bad.
Needless to say, they christened their new showpiece with some quality fish in the comp, including a black marlin of approximately 600 lb. On the way back from the Black Watch tournament, they stopped to give Durbanites a quick glimpse of the craft and, of course, Ski-Boat magazine the opportunity to conduct a full test on it.
This, again, was one of those tests where we had only one morning to do it in, regardless of the weather. What a day it was — the combination of sun, a fresh south-westerly wind and fairly rough seas made it perfect to test a craft of this size and style. Assisting us on the day was Silan Naiker from Lowrance, and the Aqua Nymph Charters team who kindly allowed us to use their fishing charter vessel as the photography boat.
My first glimpse of the Expressa 900 was when she edged into the yacht club basin in Durban harbour. I remember having looked at the photos of the Expressa 800, and judging from those I could clearly see that this was the big sister — and what a stunning looking sportfisher she is. With the new Suzuki 300hp four-strokes powering the 900, I knew we were in for some serious action offshore.
After waiting very patiently for the 900 to be ready, we were finally on our way out of the Durban port to meet up with the photography boat. I transferred over to her to watch the Lee brothers put the 900 through her paces for the camera. And indeed they did, getting her to perform well above my expectations for a craft of this size and style. In fact, they even demonstrated how a 30ft sportfisher can be tail-walked — being driven from the fly bridge at that — and landed her perfectly too. It was quite something to witness.
Once the photoshoot was over I took the helm of the Expressa 900 — beginning with the controls in the main cabin. As I previously mentioned, the motors pushing this beast were twin 300hp Suzuki four-strokes — a great combination that provided more than sufficient power to get the 900 flying straight out of the hole and onto the plane effortlessly. No wonder they named the boat Thunderchild!
Due to them being four-strokes, the revs were low and the noise factor minimal, even when revving higher at top speeds. The controls were exceptionally smooth and responsive to the touch with the binnacle mounts being fly-by-wire and ultra-sensitive.
At this stage the south-wester was pumping up to the 20 knot mark, making it quite rough offshore, so I opted to run her directly head-on to the swell and wind, gradually edging up on the throttles to a speed where minimal effort was needed to maintain a comfortable ride. In these conditions, between 15-18 knots, it was still comfortable enough to sit back and only adjust the heading to suit.
At this speed the revs on the 300s hovered around 3 500rpm and the 900 cut through the ocean effortlessly. I then edged up the speed and managed to push her right up to 30 knots before it became uncomfortable. Considering the sea conditions, 30 knots is really cranking it.
Running side-on I was expecting a bit of roll as she has a fairly high flybridge, but surprisingly, there was minimal roll. Side-on I could edge the speed up to 22-25 knots and still maintain a comfortable ride. Generally, when heading side-on to the weather in rough conditions, you will also get spray coming over the stern section, and when swinging side-on I heard a few chirps from the passengers saying that I was purposely going to get them wet. Well, after a good kilometre of running, all I noticed was a fine mist drawing back every now and then, and everybody was still very dry considering. Of course, some fine tuning on the trims to raise the windward side always helps too.
Having run her into and side-on to the foul ocean, I turned and ran with the following sea. A bit of lift on the bow created the same level of comfort and an average speed of 25 knots could be achieved — quite something. The Expressa 900 has a very proud bow on her, with keels that cut through the ocean like butter. A bit of fine tuning on the trims and the super power from the 300s is all you need to consistently maintain a good ride in harsh conditions.
Then it was time to head upstairs to the flybridge to check the craft’s handling from there. Normally, on a day like this, you would probably avoid operating from up top, but I ended up spending more time operating the 900 from the flybridge than below, so that tells you how comfortable it was. Carl also skippered the 900 from the fly-bridge throughout the photoshoot, and that at high speeds.
Although she’s a nine metre craft and would normally be moored and launched out of harbours, I still ran a few checks to judge her possible surf launching capabilities. I came to the conclusion that I would be more than happy to push this machine through a fair launch, again due to the responsive power. She had a reasonably tight turning circle for her size, and there was no cavitation on full lock turns — both good points for surf launches.
After the main performance tests, I eased off on the throttles on the fly-bridge and began a series of different troll speeds suitable for big gamefishing in our waters. Again it was a pleasure to operate the 900 from up top where I had a full 360 degree view of what was happening. At higher troll speeds of 10-12 knots, you could maintain a constant track without correcting too often, and in all directions to the rough ocean the 900 ran smoothly and comfortably with revs nice and low, with minimal noise off the four-strokes.
Dropping the speed down so that it was just in gear — the average speed around 2-3 knots — here I found that I was on and off the throttles slightly all the time to maintain a more constant speed, as well as correcting a fair bit to maintain the track. Don’t forget there was a 20 knot wind blowing, so you can’t deduct points for that.
Drifting in these conditions you obviously know you are going to drift fairly fast with a strong wind, but the stability was really good nonetheless, and moving around was easy — good for for tuna and ’cuda fishing. Another aspect that makes for a good fishing boat is the overall fishing space the 900 has, and the easy accessibility to everything you might need.
The last check was the 900’s backing-up capabilities. The boat performed exceptionally well here too, due to the serious torque from the 300s. This is essential for marlin fishing or even when you’re holding positions in the surf zone. I also noticed how simple Carl made the docking exercise look.
So, we have a craft that has really good all-round handling and fishability, but what about the layout? My first thought was that the Expressa 900 has been very well laid out for tuna fishing in the Cape waters. There are far too many items to mention them all, but to begin with, in the stern section, it’s really spacious for a commercial crew or charter to operate in, and with a wide trapdoor for pulling in large fish between the motors. The false transom houses dual trolling boards that are easily accessible, and have bait/chum cutting boards with a tap on the one side right beneath them. There’s also plenty of stowage space.
The deck area has a non-slip finish and houses the fuel tanks as well as some serious-sized fish hatches — just perfect for a large yellowfin to wallow in the slurry. There’s also a centre-mount raised hatch with rod holders, drink holders and tackle stowage beneath. To finish her off, the Expressa 900 has a full wraparound stainless handrail. The gunnels are at the correct height with flush panelling and stowage space inside, and are padded to accommodate stand up harness fishing.
Then we move on to the spacious cabin area, which has been fitted out with aluminium sliding windows and doors, as well as centred- and side seating. The console section is also centrally situated with all the controls being well-positioned. Large surrounding windows keep the cabin nice and light and ensure good surround vision. The ventilation comes through funnels from the bow and can be adjusted.
On either side of the console there are walkthrough doors that lead to a head and stowage space on the one side, and a bunk bed and rod racks on the other. Both areas have ample space to move around in.
Onto the flybridge … This area is easy to get to, very comfortable to operate the boat from, and is complemented by a full T-top awning that can be removed. The bow section is accessible from either side of the cabin area, and has non-slip flooring along with well-positioned stainless-steel handles and rails. There are numerous other features that we just don’t have space to mention — she’s one of those craft that you plainly need to see for yourself.
Lee Cat have been equally as precise when it comes to the finishes of the new Expressa 900. As much as she’s simple and practical, the 900 has very good features and a classy, modern look to her. For a craft of this size and style, I really feel that she is well priced for what you get.
It’s such a pity that time always dictates our lives, especially when it comes to boat tests. Craft of this nature are the type that you don’t want to get off, and if you did spend a full day at sea aboard her you would probably get off feeling more refreshed than finished. The Expressa 900 is well suited to the big gamefisherman — and even the big entertainer — and I am positive that these boats will become very popular on both local and foreign waters in the near future.