James Maxey thought he’d created his perfect boat by fitting stabilisers to his 52ft trawler, but it turns out there was a bigger twist still to come
James Maxey thought his restored 52ft displacement trawler yacht was the perfect yacht for him, until an Aquastar Explorer 74 came along and changed everything
Regular readers may remember the article I wrote last year about refitting our sturdy Scottish trawler yacht Silver Dee for use in the Med (‘Silver Lining’, MBY December 2016). The upgrades made it much better suited to its new life in the sun but at the end of our first season in Antibes, our thoughts started to turn to zero-speed stabilisers.
The Vosper mini fins fitted to Silver Dee had served it well since 1976 but rough seas could overpower them and of course, they weren’t zero-speed units. A couple of sleepless nights at anchor with our seven-year-old twins on board soon demonstrated to us that unless we fitted zero-speed stabilisers, we’d have to restrict ourselves to marina berths even when we’d prefer to be at anchor.
We’d been on other boats in the area fitted with Sleipner’s curved-fin zero-speed systems and found them to be very effective, so we went straight to Sleipner for a quote. Bryn and his team at Sleipner UK proved to be extremely friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. We took the plunge and wrote out a cheque for the whole kit to be delivered to our home in Cheshire so that we could drive down to Antibes in a convoy of vans with the team from West Coast Marine at Troon, who had done all the previous refit work on Silver Dee.
FITTING THE FINS
On arrival in Antibes, the first job was to carefully take out the old system so that we could try and re-sell the bits and pieces later, then we set to work on Silver Dee’s unusual hull. The multi-chine hull was designed by Allen Mclachlan at G L Watson as a prototype for the RNLI’S Arun lifeboat, without any consideration for future owners wanting to retrofit curved-fin zero-speed stabilisers! This involved lots of careful measuring and grinding away, both inside and outside the hull, and then building it back up to make sure the fins had sufficient clearance.
Once the hydraulic actuators were in place, my engineer friend Alec glassed in additional aluminium supports for extra strength, as these fins are much bigger and more powerful than the previous Vospers. The team then divided, with Alec fitting the control panel and GPS wiring and my dad Fred tackling the wiring for the hydraulic unit, which is driven both from a power take-off on the port gearbox and an auxiliary power pack from the generator (for the stabilisation at rest). West Coast Marine tackled the fibreglassing for the installation of the fins and the hydraulic power pack itself.
After a week’s concentrated work in the yard, we put Silver Dee back in the water (it’s a lot cheaper in the Med to be in the water than in a yard!) and got the excellent Hydraulique Méditerranée out to plumb up the hydraulics. A couple of weeks later, it was time for the first test. The auxiliary power pack
came to life but when we turned on the port engine and engaged the unit, there was the most almighty bang. I shut down the engine immediately but the damage was already done. Despite a lot of effort from the excellent pump suppliers, Howland, liaising with PRM, the gearbox manufacturers, something had been lost in translation and we’d fitted a pump with the wrong rotation. The pump was now a write-off and there was several litres of hydraulic oil all over the floor. Another pump was shipped out and fitted within three days – anybody who’s had to ship anything to a boat in the south of France will know this is in itself is a minor miracle. Gingerly, we turned it all back on – eureka, nothing blew up and everything seemed to be working.
We were very lucky that weekend because Ronny Skauen, Sleipner’s MD, was staying on another boat nearby and agreed to come out for a sea trial. This was of enormous assistance in helping us set up the system and fine-tune it on his laptop. To say that the sea trial showed a revolutionary change with the boat was an understatement. It was quite a rolly day and we could feel the fins working immediately, but it was only when we turned the fins off that we realised just how big the swell was – boy, were we pleased to turn them back on ten seconds later!
Over the following weeks, the dramatic change in the boat’s behaviour underway and especially at anchor, was remarkable. Megan, one of my young daughters, cheered up enormously and peaceful boating was restored for all.
IN FOR A PENNY, IN FOR A POUND
There the story would have ended, were it not for a chance decision to take a stroll with my wife (aka the real Captain) past the broker’s office in Port la Napoule last October. There in the window was a lovely Aquastar Explorer 74 with the price recently reduced. One thing led to another and before we knew it, the family savings were being raided once again. By December, we were cruising Silver Echo, our new (to us) Aquastar, from Palma to Antibes. Inevitably the conversation turned to stabilisers and I found myself agreeing with my engineer, Al, that the existing Koopnautic stabilisers would have to be swapped for Sleipners in time for the 2017 season.
We’d initially hoped to manage with the original stabilisers for the first season but that trip from Palma, even though relatively calm, highlighted the differences all too clearly. The 10hp electric bow thruster was also too weedy for Silver Echo’s 69 tonnes, so we asked Sleipner if its hydraulic bow thruster could be integrated to work off the same hydraulic tank and pump as the fins. It could be done but unfortunately, the existing bow thruster tunnel was too narrow and would have to be replaced by a 300mm one. We bit the bullet and agreed to go ahead with both.
While we were at it, I decided to fit Lumishore’s latest underwater lights (partly because the kids insisted underwater lighting wasn’t for me) and to change one of the anchors for a 55kg spade anchor with 120m of 12mm chain. All of this meant another major convoy from Cheshire. We hired a 7½-tonne
The existing Koopnautic stabilisers would have to go in favour of Sleipner’s SPS 66 in time for the 2017 season
lorry with a tail lift and a pallet truck on board and rented another two Transit vans towing trailers (one of which diverted off to Poole to pick up our new tender, an Avon mini RIB with a 50hp outboard, sourced by the guys at boats.co.uk).
Despite being stopped four times by the police to ask what was in the van, our trucks and trailers made it safely down to Antibes. We spent a couple of days afloat, prepping for the removal of the Koopnautic system, and then it was off to Chantier Bleumer at Baie des Anges where Philippe Hourez once again helped us out with forklift trucks, welders, polishers, antifouling and anodes, while the guys from West Coast Marine got stuck into the bow thruster and stabiliser job.
There were plenty of pumps to move around and this time they were changing the position of the fins from the very back of the engineroom to a much more effective location at the front of it. We’d noticed en route from Palma that being located so far aft caused the boat to wander about, and even the autopilot struggled to hold a steady course. Sleipner agreed that the new position further forward would be better, and thanks to the low height of the SPS actuators (just 260mm), they could be fitted under the engineroom’s floor plates.
HANDLING THE HYDRAULICS
Job one was ripping out the old bow thruster tunnel and starting the long process of fibreglassing in the new one, then grinding it down to leave a smooth finish. The West Coast guys were working until 9pm every evening to make sure that the next layer of fibreglass would set overnight ready for progress the following day.
This time we were tackling the hydraulic pipework ourselves, both to save money but also to make sure we got it all done while we were there. Everything about the SPS 66 system is quite a bit heavier than the fins we’d used on Silver Dee. The actuators are 105kg each, so getting those down the stairs and into the engineroom was a mammoth task that involved using a block and chain to lower them into position. There was enough space in the engineroom for the rack-mounted control system but it was too big to go down in one piece so everything had to be stripped off, and the rack cut in half with a grinder before being welded back together again in situ. For reasons of speed and economy, we’d opted for one pump driven by the starboard engine gearbox, even though Sleipner recommends fitting two for redundancy.
Lots of other jobs were done during this time, including ripping out four loos and replacing them with Tecma toilets, changing the forward black water tank for new fitted Tek-tanks, plus many other smaller jobs, so it was two weeks’ solid work before we were back in the water and ready for the first sea trial. The automatic bleed cycle seemed to work well and the fins were moving across their full range on the berth running off the auxiliary power pack. And this time we’d even bought a hydraulic pump with the right rotation!
We set to sea for the first sea trial and the fins just locked over fully to port and wouldn’t move. We could get them to centre up as we turned them off
or fully to port but nothing else. There was much scratching of heads and scrolling through screens but we were stuck. Once again, Ronny from Sleipner came to the rescue, taking time out from his holiday to look at the screengrabs we emailed to him and surmising that we hadn’t gone through the setup sequence properly and needed to start again. He was right and, much to our relief, it all worked as promised when we tried it the following day. It was a pretty calm day so it was hard to tell how effective the fins were, but even when we deliberately drove through our own wake, we were able to put full wine glasses on the table and not lose a drop.
A couple of days later we were ready for our shakedown cruise, and what fun it was. We spent our first night at anchor between the Lérins Islands but the sea was so calm we didn’t need to have the stabilisers on. The next morning it was a little rollier so we switched on the generator, engaged the stabilisers and enjoyed a relaxed breakfast before setting off for St Tropez. It was still early enough in the season to get a berth just by phoning up on the capitainerie and we spent a lovely evening sitting in a waterside restaurant overlooking the harbour.
The next day we cruised round to Pampelonne Beach then back to a bay near St Tropez, and again the stabilisers proved their worth. After another memorable night in Port Grimaud, we cruised back to Antibes with the wind picking up but the stabilisers reducing the motion to near negligible.
I’m convinced there is nothing else that you could retrofit to a motor yacht that would make half as much difference to your enjoyment on board as a good set of zero-speed stabilisers. For us, they mean we don’t have to go back into port every night for fear of our guests feeling seasick and can now go more or less where we want, when we want. They have opened up cruising opportunities for us throughout the Med, as we no longer need flat cruising conditions and a berth waiting for us each evening because we can always drop the hook and enjoy a calm night at anchor. It may have taken two sets of stabilisers and one new boat to get there, but I’m certain we’ve now got a boat that will last our family for many happy years to come.
The stabilisers reduced the motion to near negligible when underway and during our lunch stop
James’s previous 52ft trawler yacht is now for sale at www.solentmotoryachts.com, complete with fins!
SILVER ECHO James’s new Aquastar Explorer 74
SILVER DEE James’s original 52ft trawler yacht
Zero speed stabilisers transformed the Maxey’s enjoyment of Silver Dee
SILVER ECHO James’s new Aquastar Explorer 74 Silver Echo is lifted for the new fins and bow thruster to be installed
All the kit was brought from the UK in a convoy of lorries and trailers
A larger diameter hole had to be cut for the hydraulic bow thruster
On the hard waiting for the old Vosper mini fins to be removed
The multi-chine hull needed building up to give the new Sleipner fins enough clearance SILVER DEE James’s original 52ft trawler yacht
All polished and prepped ready for the bow thruster propeller
Silver Echo is lowered back in ready for her first sea trial
The new bow thruster tunnel gets glassed in and built up in layers
SILVER ECHO James’s new Aquastar Explorer 74
Stabilisation at rest and underway means the Maxeys can cruise where they want, when they want
Lowering the 105kg fin actuators into position was quite a mission
The new Sleipner fins were moved further forward on the hull
Fitted, antifouled and ready for a new life of peace and calm afloat