Wellcraft were founded in 1955 and became best recognized for their Scarab brand that featured so prominently in the hit US TV series Miami Vice. Over a hundred Scarab 38 Miami Vice replicas were built by the company following the hit TV show, Wellcraft being the builder synonymous with the jet-set performance powerboat scene at the time.
However, what is not so widely known is that in addition to building superb performance craft, they also ran two educational programmes: the Wellcraft Saltwater Fishing School, which was formed to teach new brand owners to become better fishermen using their products, and the Wellcraft High Performance Boot Camp, a school to teach new owners how to maximise the thrill of driving their new boat in safety and to its maximum performance.
No one could deny that Wellcraft certainly know all about the latter, for the company’s credentials in building high-performance craft speak for themselves. But now, under the ownership of the mighty Jeanneau, the question we need to ask is: ‘Have Wellcraft and all this brand is known for been lost in the process or is the essence of those original Wellcraft still present in the 2019 line-up?’ It’s also worth pointing out that Jeanneau have split the Wellcraft Scarab brand into two identities: Scarab for inshore water sports craft (mostly water jet powered) and then Wellcraft for their more offshore, performance-orientated range of boats.
The Wellcraft 302
I was asked to visit the South of France to test two boats within Wellcraft’s Fisherman range, namely the new Wellcraft 352 and the also new 302 model. Upon my arrival at the test venue I chose the latter for my first sea trial, a handsome-looking beast sporting a white and grey livery with a substantial bimini T-top and a twin set of Mercury Verado outboards finished in custom white to match the vessel.
My first impressions were that the 302’s centre console design appeared well appointed, possessed promising ergonomics and, with its ‘sports fisher’ format, twin-helm station, U-shaped seating forward of the console and flip-up seating aft, looked very convincing.
Hull design & layout
I am told that the 302 and the 352 share the same hull DNA, but nonetheless, both still represent new designs. That said, I did notice that some of the hull strakes to the 302 looked very familiar, harking back to those original traditional Wellcraft designs. I felt encouraged by this and was keen to investigate further …
As already mentioned, the vessel’s interior follows a traditional sports fisher layout. The 302 also has a port freeboard exit door, allowing great walk-on access at pontoon height and for water sports activities. She also has a tidy heads compartment within the console finished in modern colour schemes and combined wood finish. In terms of the helm console, it features a large Garmin multifunction display GPS unit, and in addition to this, the Mercury controls are all carefully positioned to ensure a comfortable driving position. The upholstery is comfortable and of good quality, as you would expect from a craft of this calibre, and there’s also stacks of space to accommodate the family on a full day’s fishing adventure.
However, I would like to make a couple of less favourable observations here. I was disappointed to see the port-side freeboard access door having no form of rubber seal or moulding to stop water ingress. This meant that when I sat on the rear seats underway, my whole left side was completely drenched by seawater forcing its way through the door’s 1.5cm vertical gap. This could be so easily sorted and should have been noted when the vessel was prepared for test/sale. In addition, the 302 hull is soft-landing and sea-kindly, but sadly it does lead to quite a wet ride. This issue is not helped by the main console being about 20cm too narrow to fully protect two adults stationed behind the helm. The windscreen is located quite far in front of the passengers; thus, it delivers great forward protection but does leave one exposed on any beam or quarter sea. My view is that the console needs to be more generous in size to deliver the required degree of protection from the elements, even if that means some deck space has to be lost.
Back to the positives, though, and although the 302 has a narrower beam at 2.9m than that of her 352 bigger brother whose beam is 3.3m overall, to my eye, this slimmer profile merely adds to her pleasing proportions and overall aesthetics.
Performance of the 302
Our test day saw settled conditions, and in general we were sea-trialling in areas benefiting from additional lee afforded us by the neighbouring coast. The boat performed well throughout the RPM range and the hull gave driving confidence, remaining beautifully behaved throughout the whole of the process. The new Verado 300hp V8s fitted to this 302 featured a switchable sports exhaust, which was controlled through the VesselView screen. This is a great sports feature and really makes these Mercurys sound wonderfully throaty just when you want to make that certain impression!
Typically, though this 302 showed a top speed of 48 knots, the most economical bandwidth the motors operate in is between 4000 and 4500 rpm, where the hull and engine hit that ‘sweet spot’. At the point where performance, economy and hydrodynamics all converge, and when running at the very top of this zone, at 37 knots, the Mercury twin rig burned in the region of 130 litres per hour. I would say, however, that the engines could be mounted a little higher on the transom, and by making this adjustment, the legs would attract less drag. In so doing, this would increase efficiency, overall handling and top speed. That said, the boat was generally set up well, and thanks also to a well-suited set of stainless steel propellers she gave little or no sign of cavitating through the tights turns we subjected her to in an effort to get her to misbehave.
To sum up: the 302 performs in a spritely fashion, is nimble but also predictable, is soft-riding, and grips the water just as one would expect and wish for. When running at 35 knots in a following sea, the bow showed itself to have good recovery, and likewise in a head sea, trimmed in, the boat remained balanced and ‘pinned’ to the water without showing a tendency to fly her head.
The Wellcraft 352
The 352 is the largest boat in the Wellcraft Fisherman line-up and before stepping aboard her, even from the pontoon gangway, she gave the impression of being a serious craft. The 352’s transom is pretty serious too, sporting as it does a total of three 300hp V8 Mercurys on the stern. This particular boat follows the same Fisherman design layout as the other models in the range, except for the fact it appears to have been fed on steroids! Everything about this craft is larger, wider and more imposing than the smaller 302.
The boat presented for test was equipped with an obvious ‘offshore’-orientated specification. This included a heavy-duty bimini T-top that incorporated a VHF, additional storage, LED lights and hi-fi speakers. The T-top also provided a mounting for such items as the Garmin radar antenna, several metres of heavy-duty VHF masts for over-the-horizon-style boating and a rather superb, but expensive, night vision camera. The helm station featured two Garmin GPS multifunction plotter screens for all the core data and more to be displayed, and the console itself benefited from the protection given by a large, wrap-around windscreen. With a specification of this kind, an owner should be ready to do battle with anything the elements can muster!
Performance of the 352
The 352 weighs in at around 6100kg unladen and offers a total fuel capacity of 1423 litres. Hence, fully loaded with fuel, family and enough kit for a good day’s boating, the triple Mercury installation is shifting quite a big old wave crusher.
The 352 quickly shows itself to be a boat with great looks, and with the high level of specification she comes with, it can’t be denied that she’s hardly likely to attract anything substantial in the way of a ‘wish list’. In her favour too, her ergonomics were good, she was professionally finished to a high standard and, in line with her intended roles, she sported many nice details and bags of stowage ‒ a laudable combination of functionality and modern sports boat design.
Nevertheless, I was left a little confused over several key matters that I consider to be fundamental to the design of any craft of whatever size or type. Firstly, it should be remembered that these new V8 engines are about 60‒70 kg lighter than the traditional L6 Verado ‒ the degree of power/weight, in fact, that this boat was originally designed for. Even with a 210kg saving on the transom, then, I have to say that this 352 showed itself to be poorly balanced and very stern-heavy. To Illustrate, when heading into a very moderate swell with anything approaching a near neutral trim, the boat flew its head to skyward immediately. Then, running in a following sea, though she cruises beautifully at 28 knots in this sea type, push any harder and the boat doesn’t know where she wants to go. The hull ends up steering from the bow and screams at one that it doesn’t want to be pushed any further. Unlike the 302, the 352 just isn’t settled in its behaviour and seems to rely upon its weight for stability underway as opposed to good hydrodynamics and harmonised bow to stern balance.
Driven in a sympathetic and knowledgeable fashion, the 352 shows herself to be capable, but I can’t help sensing that with so much emphasis having been placed on specification and functions, the price paid has been in the craft’s overall handling and true ability to perform. It strikes me that she is a model that has been allowed to lose her focus to the detriment of the driving experience ‒ which, let’s face it, bearing in mind the Wellcraft’s history and pedigree, should be the main thing, where her true attributes should really lie. Could she be a boat that has suffered from the sales team as opposed to the naval architect overseeing and influencing her final development?
To be fair, however, the hull does respond quickly at slower speeds and turns tightly, and there are many elements about her that show she’s 80% there, so with the right set-up and balance and a reappraisal of her fit-out in relation to her interaction with the vessel’s hydrodynamics, the 352’s handling could be transformed, I have no doubt. Weight distribution is a critical and finite science, and boatbuilders who ignore this, or simply trust to luck, do so at their peril.
I didn’t really wish to fully explore the potential of the triple rig and the hull’s full performance ability under the circumstances, but I can report that at 28 knots, this triple V8 outboard configuration burned 118 litres an hour with the throttles set at a steady 28 knots.
Verdict on both
The Jeanneau team have certainly reinvented this brand and turned it into a commercially sustainable product, and thus secured its future within a crowded and competitive marketplace. Both models have their place, servicing different strata in the global sports boat/sports fisher market. My personal preference between the two as it stands is the 302 ‒ its proportions are better, she is more responsive and, in my opinion, at present, despite the niggles, she’s a better sea boat.
Naturally, with a brand focused on production-line craft, boats have to be built to a sales specification and to a price point, but in the case of the 352 in particular, I think that the big corporate approach to boatbuilding has perhaps not served the final outcome well. Undeniably, both boats tested look great, but looks aren’t everything by any means, of course ‒ hence the need to trial before you buy. So in conclusion, I would say, particularly with the 352 in mind, some more work is needed if the Wellcraft is to truly reflect its illustrious pedigree of former years. For our part, we would welcome a retest of the 352 a year or so down the line to see what changes, if any, have been made. In the meantime, we’ll keep an open mind …
Sea Ventures: www.sea-ventures.co.uk