KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Sea Ray welcomed about 300 of its boat owners to its Knoxville home Thursday night at the 2012 Sea Ray Homecoming, a two-day event that will allow them to drive new boats, tour the factory, socialize with other owners and talk to researchers and designers.
"I have held events here for customers looking to move up in the Sea Ray line or buy a boat, but this is more of just a customer appreciation event where we just throw the doors wide open," vice president of marketing Rob Noyes said. "All that's required is you own a Sea Ray."
Owners traveling long distances arrived Thursday, meeting at a waterfront restaurant, Calhoun's, on the Tennessee River in the evening. Sea Ray motored a few of its new yachts past the restaurant while guests enjoyed refreshments and mingled with other owners and Sea Ray engineers, designers and salespeople.
"I came from Phoenix, Arizona, because I am a hard-core Sea Ray fan," said Stace Welsh, 27. "I grew up on them and now I own one."
It's a 1988 268 Sundancer. "My father bought his first Sea Ray when I was 3 years old — and it was this boat!" Welsh told me, standing on Calhoun's packed outdoor deck. "He bought it brand new and sold it five years ago. I saw it on Craigslist and bought it back."
Click play for scenes from the event.
Dave Fuller was eager to talk about his Sea Ray, too. After seeing my Soundings Trade Only shirt he introduced himself and began chatting about his 2005 340 Sundancer. "Our big adventure is going to start in about a month. We're going to do the Great Loop," said Fuller, 58, of Acworth, Ga. "This is a trip me and my wife have been planning for about six years."
Acworth was excited about today's activities. "This is a great event," he said. "I want to talk to some of the engineers and see the plant and get more information than I can by going online or even talking to a dealer. There's no better source than going right to the people who build the boats."
Owners will see the new boats and take tours today at the facility on Sea Ray Boulevard. About 20 Sea Ray dealers and a dozen or so vendors, such as Raymarine and Attwood, also were on hand. Dealers checked out the new product Thursday.
"With their 2013 boats they've really done a great job from designing, engineering and styling standpoints," said Bob Pappajohn, president of M&P Sales Ltd., a Sea Ray dealership in Vancouver, British Columbia (www.mpmercury.com). "This year they have a surplus of new product and innovation that we can sell."
About 30 Sea Ray models ranging from 19 to 51 feet are tied to the docks. That includes three new-from-the-keel-up boats — the 350 Sundancer, the 370 Venture and the 510 Sundancer. All three will be on display at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in October.
Dealers waited 90 minutes for a demo ride on the 370. Here's why: Sea Ray has powered this express cruiser with twin outboards. A pair of 300-hp Mercury Verados are hidden beneath two engine hatches that double as padded sun lounges. They sit in well-ventilated fiberglass compartments. A large hose attached to each engine cowling's front — like an elephant's trunk — funnels exhaust outside.
"It's was a project that took 16 months to develop," Dan Robinson, Brunswick Boat Group director of program management, said as he walked me through the boat. "The outboard installation allows us to double the space of the aft cabin and include large port lights to illuminate the space naturally. It also opens up the cockpit and stern. It makes the whole platform bigger and more spacious."
I got a chance to drive the boat upriver a few miles. It accelerated out of the hole quickly, its bow rising little, even with tabs up. The pickup was good when I increased the rpm from 4,000 to 5,500. Steering and maneuverability were comparable to a similar sterndrive model. It was super-quiet. The 300s pushed the boat to a top speed of about 41 miles an hour. The boat can travel 1 mile per gallon at 34 miles an hour.
The 350 and the 510 Sundancer feature new interior styling that impressed dealers. "I love the 350. It's contemporary, lots of space, totally different. It is sort of a Frank Lloyd Wright look in the interior. You should go in it," said Angela Schell, a saleswoman with Sea Ray Cincinnati (www.searayofcincinnati.com).
Says Pappajohn: "They nailed the 510. They have brought light into the boat in a number of different ways and really opened up the boat, so it feels like a much bigger yacht than it is."
The builder also showcased its Quiet Ride sound-deadening technologies in a number of boats. These building methods and materials lower sound levels by about an average of 10 decibels, Noyes said. Other design innovations include Active Trim, which controls the size of the wake.
There were plenty of new Sea Rays on hand, but a few old-timers made it to the party, as well, thanks to their owners. Sea Ray invited owners to bring their boats, and about 12 owners did just that, including Jim Vanhorn, who trailered his 1960 model 600 — a narrow 15-foot runabout with wings that extend from the gunnels amidships to the transom, a la the Batmobile. It is powered with a 1961 40-hp Evinrude.
"I completely restored the boat, and when I found out about this event I had to be here," said Vanhorn, who trailered the boat all the way from Carthage, Ind.
Many of the owners found out about the event through social media, including the Sea Ray owners forum at www.clubsearay.com.
— Chris Landry