Tested by Erwin Bursik (SKI-BOAT September/October 2010)
AN AWESOME HOME FROM HOME!
THE Afri-Cat fascinates me. Actually, fascinates is too weak a word.
Ever since I first saw these craft in Afri-Cat’s New Germany factory way back in 2006, they have radically changed my view of offshore boating and fishing, and that goes for this style of craft in general.
Standing in front of the bows of an Afri-Cat 420, with her massive hull and superstructure towering above me, not only created the desire within me to spend time aboard her at sea, but also planted the seed of change in my thinking. Up until then I hadn’t really thought that any craft other than traditional sportfisher was capable of hunting the big gamefish that patrol East Africa’s rich tropical waters.
After two extended week-long live-aboard excursions on André Hanekom’s Broadbill, based in Pemba on the northern Moçambique coast in 2007 and 2008, I became rather attached both to the Afri-Cat 420 and the concept of the live-aboard fishing experience. The seed that had been planted had blossomed into a deep appreciation for this style of craft and the boating, fishing and adventure lifestyle that a craft such as the Afri-Cat offers.
I have long felt that the Afri-Cat 420 was the ultimate boat, but that changed the day I stood behind the helm of the Afri-Cat 455 Sport as we exited Durban’s breakwater to undertake a review of the first of this model, before she was shipped to the Seychelles.
Jeff Niemann, MD of Afri-Cat, is not the sort of guy to shout the odds, and when he began to tell me about the Afri-Cat 455 Sport over the phone there was no excessive praise about how his new craft looked or performed. He simply invited me to experience for myself the pedigree of this new Afri-Cat model.
Boarding her at Durban’s Point Marina was most exciting, with each step revealing a range of changes, modifications, upgrades — and much, much more. Had I been expecting merely a slightly bigger Afri-Cat 420? Perhaps, but that’s certainly not what lay in front of me. This was a redesigned hull with a totally remodelled upstairs helm station, and a very much upgraded and revamped internal design with new finishes.
I immediately headed up the new-style stairway to the helm station and slipped into the plush co-pilot’s chair alongside Captain Chris McCann as she began slipping her moorings to follow Jeff Niemann on an Afri-Cat 420, the boat carrying the photographers.
With the throttle/gear controls remaining in neutral and without touching the helm wheel, Chris just kept one hand on a “thing” on top of the helm station console as the craft reversed out of tight moorings. She moved back hard to starboard, allowing a 270° turn, and crawled forward down the waterway between the boats and yachts towards the open water of Durban Bay.
“Whats that? I asked.
“A joystick,” said Chris. “Here, take it and I’ll talk you through it.”
I took the toggle/joystick with trepidation, because I have only recently became totally au fait with fly-by-wire controls. Carefully I held the joystick and gingerly edged it towards the craft’s line of forward motion The response was mind-blowing. Later, when I really had time to play with it and manoeuvre the craft, I just marvelled at this innovation.
Another first for me was the IPS (Inboard Performance System) fitted to the twin 435hp Volvo turbocharged diesel motors that power this craft. I had, however, seen this propulsion system fitted to craft in Afri-Cat’s factory and have read extensively about its merits. This was certainly turning out to be a veritable experience of innovation in upmarket large powerboats.
In the open water her conventional controls are brought into use, and the immediate response to those controls as this huge vessel quickly generated speed was most impressive. As there is no long shaft with this form of propulsion, there seems to be none of the customary shudder that’s felt through a big sportfisher when a lot of thrust is applied during takeoff as the big shaft-drive propellers dig into the water.
After exiting the harbour I increased speed until we were cruising in excess of 20 knots into the remainder of a reasonably big north-easterly sea, worsened by the large swell moving in from the south-east. The ride was both exhilarating and extremely comfortable as we headed up the KwaZulu-Natal coastline.
The starboard bow chop we experienced while riding the beam sea swell had a marginal effect on this craft’s ride. She rode this course serenely, offering a smooth ride with no hydraulic pounding in her long tunnel. There was minimal motor noise on the flybridge as she made good headway at 20 knots.
While turning her bow directly into the large swell with the fair chop now on her forward port beam, I had to drop the speed to about 15 knots to avoid having this 45 foot craft’s forequarters bouncing right out of the water. At the slower speed, and bearing in mind that she was not fully loaded with fuel and freshwater — which add greatly to the weight of the forward section of the craft — she motored ahead without the bow lift experienced at higher speeds. One presumes that with the additional weight up forward one could marginally increase speed over ground (SOG). However, I felt for the craft and did not want to push her too hard into any sea, unless absolutely necessary.
Then with a following sea, she really came into her own. The design of the forward section of her sponsons forces her bows to lift before either or both sponsons can dig into the trough after a race down the front of a big swell. As a result, she glided down the front of the swells on our return run to the harbour, recording 26 knots SOG at marginally over 3 000rpm. On flat water her top SOG was just over 25 knots at full throttle and 3 300rpm.
Having trolled in rough seas off the Lazarus Bank for many days, let alone hours in 20- to 30-knot winds, I can truly say I got to know the Afri-Cat 420 quite intimately. Trying to reconstruct that experience with the Afri-Cat 455 Sport was impossible. However, judging by the extensive trolling patterns I put her through at various speeds, I have no doubt that this bigger craft would not only match her baby sister in this area, but would also most likely provide a more stable fishing platform.
What I can tell you is that the wake generated by the bigger hulls and the IPS props was a lot less than from Broadbill’s shaft-driven props. The hull wake was actually bigger than the props’ wake which seems to rise very quickly behind the craft’s transom, thereby allowing a large number of open, clear water holes in which to swim lures.
It was at this stage that the time had arrived for me to play with her joystick. The big question was, how would the boat react to offshore wind and chop when attempting to back-up on a big fish?
The joystick is engaged while the controls are in neutral, and it then takes over control of the throttles, gears and the steering of the underwater pods — all via electronics. To begin with I was sceptical, because during my initial trials the craft did not react quickly enough for my liking and I resorted to the conventional throttle forward-reverse manoeuvre.
Chris noticed my concern and reminded me of the higher speed setting on the joystick, where it raises the motor speed to almost double. On this setting backing-up was both easy and smooth as there is no “cowboy” manoeuvring the throttles and gears.
The computer physically moves the underwater unit in compliance with the joystick commands, so reversing is smooth, and by twisting the joystick, reverse turns to port or starboard are also accomplished smoothly and quickly. When you consider the beam of this craft, the manoeuvrability is amazing.
Even more amazing was Chris’s ability to moor this craft, on return, into a berth where I believed it would be impossible to park a craft of this size with no bow-thruster. One just has to experience it to believe it.
The motors fitted to the Afri-Cat 455 Sport are the new series Volvo D6 rated at 435hp. The props of the IPS system push this up to 600hp. During my review three major features of these mighty engines got my attention. Firstly, the smooth, even response to fast increase in throttle was astounding. This craft went from 7.5 knots at 1 500 rpm to 15 knots at 2 500 rpm, 20.6 knots at 3 000 and topped out at 25 knots at maximum revs of 3 300 rpm.
Secondly, as mentioned, there was none of the shudder one generally feels with the engines of big shaft-driven sportfishers accelerated at the same intensity.
Thirdly, they were so exceptionally quiet. Up on the flybridge, where I spent most of my time during the review, even when running at 20 knots I could easily converse with others aboard, without having to shout above engine noise.
So much to say, so little space! It’s almost impossible to describe 45 feet of luxury craft in the space of a few paragraphs, and also convey just how much thought, effort and design has gone into the Afri-Cat 455 Sport to end up with a craft as luxurious as this.
To start with, the aft deck is a combination of a recreational comfort area and the fishing deck. It includes a substantial fighting chair as well as two Luna tubes in the transom console which also features a gas braai. The braai has a stainless-steel cover that can be used as a bait-preparation board when serious fishing is undertaken. Substantial stainless-steel swing gates control access to the “sugar scoop” steps and dive/marlin platform that runs across the aft section of the transom. These gates are essential ,especially if you’re fighting fish in heavy weather.
In general, this aft area on a liveaboard craft is the most important space on the boat as it’s where everybody tends to gather. On the Afri-Cat this space is well designed for comfort, whether one is seriously fishing, relaxing or partying. Full screening of the majority of the area will prove to be a great benefit at sea, as fine spray will not cause a problem to those using the aft deck.
The main saloon houses the main control and instrument centre, and also has a large and comfortable lounge, bar and kitchen area. I found all of this to be very practical on the Afri-Cat 420, and with it being bigger and better on the 455 Sport model, these facilities will be outstanding.
Access to the four en-suite double cabins (three on the 420) is from the saloon into the sponson areas on each side of the craft. The cabins are spacious, with a large double bed as well as access to an en-suite toilet and basin. A shower has been provided in the bathroom, but is shared by the two cabins on each side of the craft. The shower can be accessed from both sides, so for all intents and purposes, it’s a private facility. Beautiful decor, clever storage and many creature comforts epitomise these living quarters.
The flybridge or upper-deck helm station has been radically changed from the one on the Afri-Cat 420. The helm station has been moved from right in front to right aft, so as to provide the captain with an excellent view of the aft fish deck.
Forward of this is comfortable lounging space for at least four or five extra crew, apart from the captain and “co-pilot”. With the tendency being for people to migrate upstairs, extras such as a fridge and washbasin have been provided, as well as a full set of clears.
The helm station itself is a captain’s dream. Not only is the seating very comfortable, but there’s also a full spectrum of touch-screen Garmin GPS, sonar and radar, as well as a NMEA engine management system. It also features dedicated engine gauges and an autopilot, as well as radios and a sound system.
I couldn’t have asked for more. Skippering her from that position was outstanding, especially when theoretically backing-up, using a second joystick situated near the aft rail which allows one to sit facing aft and control this mighty craft with one’s left hand.
The Afri-Cat 455 Sport is an awesome craft that will fulfill even the most ardent big gamefisherman’s dreams when targeting big billfish, while providing his non-fishing family and friends with a fantastic home-from-home during their time at sea.
Having personally experienced this style of fishing and cruising, I can fully endorse the concept, both from a pure sportfishing perspective or simply relaxing in pleasant surrounds. This turns one’s fishing expedition into a combined extended fun time at sea.
So, whether you are chasing big fish or catching baitfish, are anchored overnight in a protected mooring, feasting on freshly-prepared food, lounging on the back deck, partying or laying back in an airconditioned cabin, being lulled to sleep by the gentle movement of the craft, the Afri-Cat 455 Sport can give you all of this — plus more.
She will bring you peace and tranquillity on the water like you’ve never experienced before.