There is nothing
easier than telling a hack from a master powerboat pilot. Watch a man as he
sidles his craft up to a dock. If he comes in with a nice grumphing exhaust,
reverses with another authoritative grumph and stops alongside soft enough to
spare an eggshell, he knows his business. But if he comes in riding the
throttles and shift levers and punishing ears with a bellowing exhaust, no
matter how neatly he docks he is just a noisy duffer.
Now, however, a
new element is appearing in the rate-the-skipper game: the turbine engine. It
neither grumphs nor bellows; it whispers. "It's not that there is less
vibration and noise," says Peter Ryan, Chris-Craft's top turbine man.
"Vibration and noise no longer exist."
Nor did turbines
exist for the public until recently. Among the things that make Stavros
Niarchos different from you and me is his fleet, which includes a 50-knot,
turbine-powered former Royal Navy patrol boat. One had to have Niarchos' kind
of money to think about buying a turbine boat of any kind. Now being a man of
means is enough, for both Chris-Craft and Pacemaker, after years of testing,
are taking orders for turbine-engined yachts with a price tag of approximately
Steep though the
price still is, the fact that an individual can even consider buying turbine
power is good news. Apart from their silence and freedom from vibration,
turbine engines are inherently cleaner in terms of exhaust emissions than
conventional gas or diesel piston engines. They should be far more reliable
than existing engines—capable of running faster longer—and are more compact.
The illustration here of Chris-Craft's 45-foot sport-fisherman contrasts a pair
of 450-horsepower turbines with the outlines of the two diesel engines they
replace. The turbines are marinized versions of a Ford Motor Company truck
engine and weigh about 2,000 pounds each. A diesel of equivalent power weighs
500 pounds more.
"It is the
fine machining of turbine parts that costs so much," says Ryan, who is
Chris-Craft's director of mechanical engineering. "Some bits turn at 35,000
revolutions per minute. Bearings and gears have to be of very high quality to
stand the stresses, and oil channels require some tricky forming. But the
engine is very forgiving. If something goes wrong you might slow down, but
that's all. Nine times out of 10 you will be able to limp home. In 650 hours of
running a test boat we had to come back on one engine only once."
The other day
Ryan was happily watching a pair of 45-footers—one a turbine, the other a
diesel—move down a production line in Pompano Beach, Fla. Both were of fiber
glass, teak-trimmed and full of good new-boat smells, identical except for
chrome intake grilles on the turbine's cabin trunk below the windows. The
turbine boat's controls were like those of any other, right down to the
tachometer, throttle and the twist of the ignition key.
couple. The turbine burns more fuel than a diesel. And its very silence can be
a problem, as Chris-Craft's Craig Muir discovered one day while on a test run.
Unable to judge engine speed from the exhaust pitch, as he would routinely on
another boat, and neglecting to glance at his tachs, he threw the prototype
into reverse, which at his speed was like reversing a car at 50 mph. "If
the tachs ever go, you may be in trouble," he said later. Still, all he
managed to break was a lag bolt in one engine mount. Just a $150,000 scare.