Love at First Cruise

Author: Chris Caswell

There’s no question about it: The new Carver 350 Mariner is going to draw a line through the boating population like the survey team of Mason and Dixon did between the North and the South. Most boaters are going to love it. The rest are going to hate it. And there will be no gray area in between.

Now, I’m pretty much a purist when it comes to boats. I like the clean sweep of a bold sheer and I like classic hull lines. I prefer simple to complex designs and I like it when everything on a boat just seems ‘right.”

With the Carver 350 Mariner, however, you need to cleanse your mental palate, just as you would remove any bad taste from your mouth before tasting a new wine. Start by picturing a blank piece of paper, which is exactly what the Carver designers did. Then, make a mental list of all the things you’d want on a 36-footer.

For me, that list starts with a seaworthy hull, followed by a decent-size cockpit and wide sidedecks. I absolutely demand a large bridge with plenty of space for entertaining, but I’m tired of the vertical ladders on most bridges: I want easy access.

And then, of course, I’d like to have a really spacious cabin for living and loafing, a galley big enough to prepare a real meal (with storage for all the makings) and finally, a really good-sized shower: I hate ‘phone booth” compartments.

Add to that the practicalities of good performance and reasonable cost, and I’ve just created a wish list that’s close to impossible to meet on one boat. Except on the 350 Mariner.

Having It All

At first glance, the boat looked bulky. But once aboard, I found myself grinning as more and more items on my wish list clicked into place.

Let’s start with the cockpit, which is where most people will board, since the hull sides are just slightly lower than those on Queen Mary.

The transom has a doorway from the swim platform, but don’t overlook the twin lockers facing outboard: The port side holds a shower nozzle and dockside water connection; while starboard, there is a shore power connection and plenty of space for the cord.

These take you to the command bridge, as well as to the ‘deck” level, where wide walkways lead to the bow. The bow rail is beautifully welded of polished stainless steel, with double rails and a molded bulwark along each walkway, for extra security.

Forward, there’s a built-in bench seat that is cleverly designed to convert into a backrest for the sunpad area. Twin molded deck lockers are large enough to hold anchor gear and fenders, and the extended anchor roller is backed up by a large stainless steel plate on the bow for protection from a swinging anchor.

The command bridge is going to be the center of the 350 Mariner under way, and there’s space galore behind the swept-back windshield with white powder-coated framing. The skipper has a double-wide adjustable helm seat, there’s companion seating opposite and two more settees and a single jump seat are aft, in the lounge area.

To starboard is one anomaly: A huge Bomar hatch is in the floor, surrounded by a protective railing that combines with a folding top to become a dining or cocktail table. With a full canvas top and enclosures in place for bad weather, access to the aft stairs is restricted and exposed, so Carver provided this deck hatch as well as a ladder on the cabin bulkhead below.

Frankly, I think the hatch is great for handing up sandwiches, but it’s also a liability, since it takes up useful entertaining space and makes you climb on a backward-tilting ladder (at any speed above idle), which I’m certainly not going to do. My bet is that Carver is going to allow buyers to delete this hatch and replace it with another settee on the bridge.

The helm area is otherwise perfectly designed, with the entire dash trimmed in a pleasant tan color that doesn’t reflect into the windshield. In my book, Carver gets big points here.

The dashboard is neatly molded with full instrumentation. Gauges have black faces with white numerals, making them easy to read. Electronics space is limited to one small section, but there’s plenty of under-dash mounting area and larger black boxes — such as radar — can be bracket-mounted atop the dash panel.

Twin vent windows are built into the windshield — a necessity when the top and side curtains are in place. The tilt wheel and hydraulic steering are standard equipment, and there’s a wet bar and sink adjacent to the companion seat, with space for an optional ice-maker.

That brings up another unusual characteristic of the 350 Mariner: This boat has more beverage holders on the bridge than any other boat I’ve ever tested. In fact there are 17 — count ’em — 17 cup or glass holders on the bridge, including no fewer than seven next to the companion seat (presumably for a VERY thirsty companion).

At this point, I was pretty impressed with the 350 Mariner, but I hadn’t seen the cabin yet. Access is through a tall sliding glass door from the cockpit (Carver even includes a sliding screen door to keep out no-see-’ems) and this is one big boat.

Passing the Test

Our test boat was provided by J.R. Means of Bayport Yachts in Newport Beach, California, who towers close to 6 feet, 4 inches in his Top-Siders. His head wasn’t even coming close to the top of the cabin. This boat is not only wide, using every inch of the full beam; it is tall — and the result is a very spacious interior.

The test boat had a pair of standard 265 hp Crusader 350XL HT freshwater-cooled V-8 engines, fitted with roller lifter camshafts. Optional power packages include an EFI version of the Crusader 350s, a pair of MerCruiser 5.7 Liter stern drives or a pair of Volvo Penta TAMD41 diesels. But the standard engines are a good choice for this boat — unless you need the easier starting and reduced fuel consumption of EFIs, or the long-term reliability of diesels.

Our test boat also had a 6.5 kw Kohler auxiliary generator in a sound shield, for AC power away from shore.

Having noted that this is — ahem — a tallish pleasureboat, I was prepared for it to be a bit rolly and top-heavy offshore during our sea trial, off Newport Harbor. I was very surprised.

We had the usual afternoon Catalina Channel swells and chop, but the moment we hit the channel entrance slop, I could feel that this boat was solid. There was no sense of roll or wander to the steering. Means and I ran the 350 Mariner hard: into the seas, beam on to the seas and down sea with the trim tabs in every conceivable position. There was no spray and no muss — and we had a very pleasant ride at all times.

As you can see from the speed curve in the performance charts that follow, we reached a top speed of 30 mph at wide open throttle; although we were running about 400 rpm below peak rpm levels. I suspect that as the engines become broken in, you might see a bit more top-end speed — but our results were certainly quick for a roomy boat of this type.

Flat out, we were using about 40 gallons of fuel per hour; but at a more realistic cruising speed of 20 mph (at 3,200 rpm), we were using just 24 gallons per hour. That makes the 350 Mariner economical to run, for families on a budget.

It’s also a very, very comfortable boat.

Our test boat had the standard light maple interior, which added to the airy feeling aboard. There was plenty of wood trim used on bulkheads and joinery.

Immediately to starboard in the saloon is a curved convertible settee that faces a U-shaped convertible dinette on the port side. There’s enough room to dance (if you do a waltz, not a tango). A corner entertainment center holds a 20 inch television, a VCR and a stereo system.

Just forward, to port, the galley is trimmed with abundant faux granite countertops, a two-burner electric cooktop and a stand-up AC/DC refrigerator/freezer. Our test boat had the optional built-in microwave oven and coffee-maker — and there was a remarkable amount of usable storage space in fully finished overhead lockers, drawers on rollers under the counter and bins in every available cranny.

Directly opposite the galley is a spacious enclosed head with a molded fiberglass vanity, an oversized toiletry cabinet and a shower stall bigger than those on many mega-yachts. This is one shower where you won’t end up with bruised elbows from banging each bulkhead — and there’s a molded seat, in case you want to contemplate the universe while someone else showers.

The master stateroom has an offset double berth that is truly rectangular, like the beds at home; not lozenge-shaped (and for this, I say ‘Thanks, Carver!”). The stateroom is equipped with enough shelves, counters, roller drawers and lockers to handle the storage for an entire vacation aboard. Even better, the hanging locker was designed to be large enough not to rumple clothing.

Two opening ports and a forward hatch provide plenty of light and air to the stateroom, so most Western boaters won’t need the optional air conditioning system.

Construction of this boat was what I’ve come to expect from Carver — which is to say, it’s top-notch. The hull is solid fiberglass with a vinylester barrier coat to protect against blistering, the bow rails and stanchions bolt into quarter inch aluminum backing plates and access throughout the engine compartment is above average.

The base boat comes with a pleasant surprise: lots of standard equipment, including bottom paint, a swim platform, a bridge cover, pressurized hot water, a 110v shore power system, a battery charger system, carbon monoxide detectors and a halon fire extinguisher system.

Remember the last item on my wish list — a reasonable price? This one certainly has it. Our test boat — complete with the entertainment package, an electric head, a Maxwell windlass, a microwave oven, an auxiliary generator, an aluminum radar arch, full canvas and several other extras — carries a list price of $168,115.

I’m not going to tell you that the Carver 350 Mariner is for everyone. But if you have a wish list that’s anything like mine, and you can back off from any preconceived notions you have about what a boat should look like, then you’re absolutely going to fall in love with this one.

I know I did.


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