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October 21, 2010

A little goes a long way
After a 30-day voyage, the first Nordhavn 52 proves it’s the
small details that set her apart from the rest.


To ask whether James and Jennifer Hamilton had thoroughly prepared prior to signing the contract of their Nordhavn 52, Dirona – a boat that had yet to be produced at the time of their purchase – is like asking if Michael Phelps was prepared when he participated in the 2008 Summer Olympics. The couple are well-known cruising guide authors and boat show presenters, lauded for their expertise not only of remote Pacific Northwest anchorages, routes and sightseeing, but in areas such as troubleshooting mechanical issues and how best to approach boating in the wintertime. In addition, the Hamiltons spent many years on their 40-foot Bayliner (also called Dirona) where they gleaned much of their knowledge via shorter-distance cruises. But they always knew long-distance passagemaking would be a part of their future, and they spent the better part of the ‘00s researching like-minded trawler companies.

Surprisingly, the “cruising experts” label is more of a leisure pursuit than a profession; both are employed as full-time computer specialists, working for two well-known internet companies. But work and play effortlessly ally, especially within the context of the MV Dirona blog, co-written by the couple. Fueled by their hyper-technical side (both are backed by an impressive resume that includes all sorts of math degrees and software and programming patents), the worthy-of-visiting web diary is softened by the duo’s obvious love of cruising. For instance, a procedural (and thoroughly researched) primer on Dirona’s fuel burn - supplemented with charts and graphs - is tempered elsewhere by descriptions of their recent Alaska trip, illustrated with breathtaking photography.

So it seems almost ironic that this facts-obsessed duo took a leap of faith of sorts when they purchased their Nordhavn 52 without being able to see or test drive the actual animal. While it’s true that at the core of the 52 is the hull of a Nordhavn 47, many of the specifications vary due to the 52’s deck extensions. Unable to get a hands-on feel for the 52, the Hamiltons did the next best thing and investigated the 47. They linked up with Dana Point, CA-based salesman Jeff Merrill out of Nordhavn’s southwest sales office, who armed them with hundreds of detail shots of the 47, plus names of several seasoned 47 owners, such as Milt Baker, who let them in on some of the lessons he and wife, Judy, have learned after nearly 5 years cruising on their N47 Bluewater, which includes a trans-Atlantic passage and two years spent exploring the Med.

Upon learning that the Hamiltons had intentions of using the boat first in a “work from sea” capacity and then eventually as world cruising full-time liveaboards, Jeff made suggestions for design modifications that would specifically address these types of use. Jeff, himself, has logged hundreds of hours at sea and had spent eight years working with the Hamiltons prior to their purchase, so he felt like he had a solid grasp on what types of things would suit them best. Priority number one was narrowing their selection to the Nordhavn 52. “The 52 addressed all their needs: a large cockpit, flybridge, and a boat able to be somewhat customized to their desires,” said Jeff. This includes a dayhead in the saloon as well as the seemingly obvious requirement for a home office.

Dirona comprises a number of other Nordhavn firsts, such as hydraulic bow and stern thrusters. James also spec’ed out a new John Deere engine for the main propulsion. He conducted scrupulous calculations on the fuel burn and RPM output of the 6068AFM75 and found it to be very efficient. In order to accommodate the non-standard engine, several tweaks were necessary. “Modifications of the propeller and transmission had to be done,” said Jeff. “The engineering and design team here at PAE, as well as the engineers and craftsmen at the South Coast factory did a fantastic job of getting everything right.”

Whenever there is a deviation from standard, the risk of things not interfacing perfectly or working as expected or hoped increases. For the Hamiltons, many of those risks were still unknown even four months into ownership of Dirona. But she had her first post-commissioning trip of substance on a 30-day voyage from Seattle to Alaska, covering 1,000 miles in a non-stop 5-day offshore run up the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands. The test was not only tough, but atypical, as most cruisers spend two- to four-weeks traveling along the Inside Passage to get to Alaska. As a result, any concerns they had regarding their choices in components were soon allayed. “The boat is strong and the quality shows through in many different ways,” said James. “We found almost nothing failing during the 300 engine hour trip. We run hard and I’m used to a page of failures upon returning from a major trip. The component quality really shone during this one.”

Something to consider was the weather which Dirona encountered during her trip: gale force conditions on the multi-day 24/7 return passage south from Alaska to the Puget Sound. “The boat pitched fairly heavily but it felt solid and safe throughout,” James notes. “We just needed to slow it down but, unlike past boats, we could leave it on autopilot and continue to make progress. To move around the boat required timing and care and, at times we had to crawl, but the boat didn’t seem to really care. We developed considerable respect for the strength of the boat during this trip and I thought several times of the other options we looked at and was glad we chose the Nordhavn.”

The hull had clearly passed the passagemaking and Glacier Bay tests, but this was also a proving ground for all the changes and options the Hamiltons put into the design of their boat. Would those fare as well? The couple and their salesman spent dozens of painstaking hours configuring Dirona with a multitude of features they believed would be beneficial and enhance their cruising experience. “Jeff really knows these boats well and there is nothing like a few hundred-hour trip to teach you the value of the little details he recommended throughout the build,” said James. “Each hand hold that he recommended came in handy. There were tens of other changes we noticed but here are some that were particularly noteworthy:

  • Storage openings, cabinets, and additional storage locations.
  • Metal glides in larger drawers
  • Maxwell chain counter
  • Levers instead of barrel bolts (this one is big in rough water because each access needs to unlock and lock)
  • Engine room light switch configuration (switch placement and additional switches)
  • Replacing many drawers with lockers
  • Work shelf over the engine
  • CE valves on the fuel tanks
  • Upgraded fuel transfer pump
  • Plumb in backup water pump (its failed twice in the first 6 months and this made the failure non-intrusive)

“Many of these and others not mentioned will seem to be minor but, in aggregate, make a huge difference to the usability of the boat.”

It’s now been seven months since the Hamiltons first took possession of their boat. The couple has had the chance to fully experience her in good and bad conditions, during long and short trips, as a place to commute home to after a hard day’s work, as well as a vacation base while on break. And they couldn’t be happier.

Or to put it in mathematical terms: component quality + strength and seaworthiness + equipment and configuration = the perfect cruising yacht = Nordhavn 52 Dirona.

-JMS




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