Author: Capt. Mike Whitehead
You can hear them roar, you can’t help but notice them zooming by and you wonder: What’s it like to go almost 100 mph in a high-performance boat?
Now more popular than ever, this performance class of boats is filling a niche in boating. Years ago, only a mechanic or a racer would ever have the opportunity to fly across the water at a breathtaking, near-triple-digit pace. Now, anyone with the need for speed can experience that thrill-packed ride aboard a Fountain power boat.
Fountain Powerboats was started by Reggie Fountain in 1978 and is located on a 100-acre site on the Pamlico River in Washington, North Carolina. The site includes 300,000 square feet of plant area, a marina and a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.
Reggie Fountain’s goal is to build the fastest, safest, smoothest and best-handling boats on the water. However, Fountain Powerboats doesn’t just build high-performance boats — it also manufactures sport cruisers, express cruisers and sportfishing boats. Every boat is actually tested and tuned on the Pamlico River and on the Atlantic Ocean, to assure quality control.
The 35 Lightning was introduced in 1979 — and it was totally redesigned in 2002. The Fountain 35 Lightning is designed to be fast and efficient, and to handle predictably at high speeds. It also comes with interior accommodations that allow comfortable overnighting for two.
A Rapid Run
Looking at the flat-calm, lake-like Pacific sea conditions on the winter morning of our test, I knew we were in for a fast ride. We tested the Fountain 35 Lighting with John Groom of Dick Simon Marine in Dana Point, California, who provided our test boat.
The boat was equipped with twin 525 hp MerCruiser 575 SCi engines and Bravo XR drives, which pack plenty of power. However, the boat’s innovative hull design also makes for maximum performance.
The 35’s super-ventilated twin-step hull design features a double cut from the hard chine to the keel, to bring the stern up when planing. The hull is foam-cored and constructed with vinylester resins and hand-laid fiberglass, making the boat relatively lightweight — at 8,400 pounds.
The hull and deck are bonded together with fiberglass, creating strength and less flex at top speeds. The 35’s fuel tanks, holding 162 gallons, have been mounted forward of the engine compartment near amidships, helping to level the boat regardless of the fuel load.
Thanks to an 8-foot, 6-inch beam and a low profile, the 35 Lightning is trailerable — which gives owners the option of storing it out of the water. This can make it easier and less costly to maintain than a typical boat in a slip.
We launched the 35 Lightning at the Dana Point Harbor ramp. Launching the boat is easy, as long as you remember not to snag the twin steps in the hull on the trailer supports.
Cruising inside the harbor, which has a 5 mph speed limit, we switched on the silent exhaust mode for the exhaust — and it is noticeably quieter. However, it is imperative for the skipper to remember to open up the exhaust at speeds above 2,000 rpm, to allow the necessary cooling of the engines. (Plus, you get that seductive sound of pure power.)
When we left the harbor speed zone, it was time to hit the switch and lower the bottom cushion on the two forward bolster seats — changing the helm from sit-down to stand-up operation. With no time to waste, our 35 Lightning came up on plane quickly and effortlessly. Our hole shot averaged 6.5 seconds, after presetting the drives to about 4 and the tabs between 3 and 3.25.
Groom explained that as we increase our planing speed, we bring the drives up and reduce the down force of the tabs. This ‘frees up” the bottom of the boat and allows the hull’s twin super-ventilated steps to come alive.
Our test boat felt nimble and agile, as we pushed the throttles forward and increased our speed through the midrange of 45 to 80 mph — and the boat handled effortlessly at speed.
The 35 ran very flat, with minimal chine walk at full speed (enhanced by Fountain’s padded keel design), and the boat felt very well balanced. The ergonomics of the steering wheel, throttles, tabs, drives and instrument arrangement enhanced the driver’s ‘in-control” sensation — even at eye-watering top speeds — as we raced over the water.
The boat’s fast cruising speed is around 60 mph — and at only 3,500 rpm, we reached 55 mph. At wide-open throttle, we reached 90 mph, at 5,200 rpm.
The boat has a very solid feel, even at these high speeds. It handled surely and responsively while performing turns at 60 mph.
The hydraulic steering gives zero feedback, which prevents fatigue at these speeds, and it allows the driver to be able to hold the wheel over for the turns. The driver can feel the boat become light, letting him or her know when to decrease the turn or back off on the throttles.
I noticed very minimal wakes being created during our maneuvers, indicating that little water was being pushed. The boat guides a long distance when you suddenly cut the throttles from cruising speed. I was impressed by not having to continually fiddle with the drives and tabs — and at how well the boat performed in the turns at these speeds.
Fountain’s 35 Lightning has an extremely roomy cockpit, which offers more useable space than many cockpits on 38- and 42-footers.
Fountain has virtually eliminated sharp or hard corners. There is ample padding throughout the interior — and conveniently located rails have been added for safety.
A wrap-around full-frame windshield provides good all-around visibility, while sheltering the skipper from wind at top speeds. The dashboard has Gaffrig instrumentation, with the most important gauges at the top for easier reading. The systems have both audible and visual alarms.
Throttle and shift controls are located to the left of the wheel. Forward of them are the controls for the tabs and drives, allowing for one-hand operation.
Forward of the engine hatch, there’s a bench seat for four, with plenty of legroom.
Below the hatch, the engine compartment is nicely laid out, with fairly good access around the engines and components. There is a Halon-type fire suppression system. Also, the boat’s Bimini top and side enclosures are stored in the engine compartment — a place I would have never thought to look for them.
All the way forward, the elaborate cabin area includes two leather-upholstered settees, a forward V-berth, a small refrigerator, a sink with pressurized water and an enclosed head with a VacuFlush toilet. While there is limited headroom, you can still manage to get comfortable in the cabin — however, I would not recommend being down below while this boat is cruising at high speeds.
Additionally, the boat comes with an anchor mounted in the bow’s anchor locker, heavy-duty plated engine mounts, through-bolted rails and an upholstered sunpad over the engine hatch. When you’re not speeding near 100 mph, you can listen to the marine stereo — which includes a CD player and four marine-quality speakers on board.
It looks like Reggie Fountain has created another fire-breathing, pulse-quickening monster — and an extremely attractive one — with the reintroduced 35 Lightning. The boat that started it all back in the late 1970s is back, in an all-new incarnation that provides all-new thrills.
CONTACT: Fountain Powerboats, Washington, NC; (252) 975-2000; fax (252) 975-6793; www.fountainpowerboats.com