Come Fly With Me Don't be fooled by the retro look: Thanks to the latest in gee-whiz nautical technology, piloting the Santa Cruz Coastal Flyer is a breeze. Which it should be, for a lofty three-quarters of a mil.
By John Tayman

(Business 2.0) – As you begin to consider what sort of yacht you'll require, it's necessary to know the various categories into which luxury pleasure craft fall. There is the "day yacht." There are "express cruisers" and "family weekenders" and "extended cruisers." There is the "offshore yacht," which is also sometimes described as the "mega-yacht," but not by anyone who actually has one. These are helpful categories, as you can see.

Recently--say, since about March 10, 2000--it has become more convenient for would-be yachtsmen to define their potential craft by other, more precise, categories: the $500,000 yacht, for example, and the $750,000 yacht, and, for a select few, the $1 million, $2 million, and $3 million yachts. Arms dealers and people like Larry Ellison could still make casual reference to their extended cruisers as they supped on cracked shellfish beneath a glittering moon, but the rest of us--or you, actually, since I'll likely never own a yacht--have to be realists.

Thus in the sales kit for the Coastal Flyer, the people at Santa Cruz Yachts pitch to all bases, describing their vessel variously as a "commuter launch," a "gentlemen's weekender," a "personal yacht," and a "high-tech retro-cruiser," but mostly the emphasis is on price: about $750K, loaded. In the tangy air of pleasure boating, this represents a bargain. The Flyer, you see, is a very canny creation: a sophisticated yacht that looks like something your (rich) grandfather might have owned, and which is built to be purchased and piloted by someone who has probably never set foot on a boat. It's a starter yacht, but one decked out with the latest technology to ease the transition to a life at sea. The humblest rube off the prairie can captain the Coastal Flyer--and, as it happens, I did.

Part of what Santa Cruz is selling with the 41-foot Flyer is nostalgia. The boat is a note-perfect homage to the old Chris Craft vessels that could be seen zipping along the Eastern seaboard in the years between the World Wars. Tied alongside the docks in the Santa Cruz Marina, it looked as if it had been abandoned there by some early Kennedy, probably one of the corrupt ones. The Flyer is long and low and exquisitely finished, from the art deco detailing and Honduran mahogany to the period stainless-steel cleats, throttle, and stem-head, all of which were either recast from old Chris Craft pieces or reproduced from finds of the same age. Stepping aboard is like tumbling back in time.

Once there, though, you can peel back the years and expose the modern age. Slide open some custom cabinetry in the galley and you'll release the Sub-Zero, the microwave, and the stainless-steel stovetop. On deck, most of the electronics are tucked away behind leather or mahogany, and an inner skin of high-strength Kevlar is hidden within the hull. The instrument panel is finished with machine-turned stainless surrounds, and any instrumentation that Santa Cruz deemed ugly was secreted away just below the dash, lest it spoil the period aesthetics. In fact, it takes a few moments behind the wheel to realize that there, next to the armrest, is a small joystick--a fancy version of the one that used to come with the Commodore 64. I was ready to begin a game of Tank Commander when Lance Young, Santa Cruz's president, mentioned that this was actually the control for the Flyer's Ultra Dynamics electronic-docking system, with which you can vector the force of the 440-horsepower engine and water jet, which propels the boat, as well as a 7-horsepower bow thruster.

Now, a quick lesson in boating physics: Maneuvering a conventional prop-and-rudder vessel requires that the boat be in motion, either forward or back. Which--to put it in nautical terms--blows. It's damn tricky, and in tight, awkward spaces (like marinas, for instance), it's all too easy to crunch your family weekender into the dock, or a buoy, or Mr. Ellison's extended cruiser. With jet propulsion, no motion is required. Or even skill. You flip a switch atop the joystick to the "Dock" position, and all backing and sideways motion is controlled with the stick. Voila. Tap it a few times to the side and feedback sensors adjust the sidelong deflection on the jet drive and engage the bow thrusters, and suddenly the yacht is gliding perfectly sideways away from the dock. Tap the joystick on another axis, and you can crab the yacht in the opposite direction, zip forward or back, halt instantly, or pivot in a perfect circle from its midpoint as you tap, tap, tap away, the thrusters spitting gently and an array of sensors and processors modulating the whole shebang. It's like docking Apollo 11 with the lunar landing module, if you can remember back that far.

What all this means is that anyone can dock or drive the yacht. Once out on the open sea, you can pilot with the traditional wheel, or you can continue to use the joystick, which of course is far more fun. Cruising along the California coast, I let the throttle out to 80 percent and then went spastic on the joystick, pegging it first hard right, then left, then circling it around like a top, just to see the boat respond. Which it does, with unnerving smoothness. Slicing through a moderately choppy sea at 25 knots, the boat snaked and circled and weaved on cue, never swamping or bouncing. The Flyer is Santa Cruz's first powerboat, but the company is famous for its very fast, very large, very technical sailing yachts, and it's applied every bit of acquired knowledge to the Flyer. It plans to sell four per year. If you order now, yours will be ready in 18 months.

John Tayman is a contributing writer for Business 2.0.