A newly refreshed cool cat arrives on the West Coast.
Catamarans are cool. Yes, they’re beamier and taller than the boats many of us are used to, and they move differently in a seaway, but they’re also fast, economical and stable. Sailing cats paved the way for the acceptance of power cats, and models are only getting better — especially when builders listen to boaters and incorporate their feedback.
Such is the story with the Aquila 44 (pronounced like tequila without the T), which benefits from charter use. When MarineMax wanted to delve into powerboat chartering in the Caribbean, it called on Chinese builder Sino Eagle for the first model, a 38-footer based on a Leopard design and drawn by Morrelli & Melvin of California.
As the business model proved successful and more charter clients opted for power, MarineMax expanded the line by partnering with J&J Design of Slovenia, a duo of brothers who have launched more than 60,000 hulls around the globe. The next two models were designed as powerboats right out of the box. With the three companies collaborating, the next in the series was the 48, followed by the Aquila 44, which has since benefited from real-life use. I had the pleasure of testing hull #19 — the first one of the refreshed models to arrive on the West Coast — with San Diego MarineMax dealer Peter Zaleski.
Incorporating charter company feedback, MarineMax made significant modifications forward and aft to launch an improved version of the boat. Cockpit seating changed from a straight transom seat to a U-shaped dinette that extends farther aft. The stainless steel hinging davits were replaced by two fixed composite arms to hoist the tender via an electric winch.
Forward, the bow sports nearly four-foot bulbs below the waterline; they traditionally have been associated with large, commercial vessels and are designed to increase speed, stability and fuel efficiency. Much thought went into these bulbs, which are filled with foam to add buoyancy. Because traditional torpedo bulbs tend to add noise when going to weather, the builder made the appendages slightly V-shaped so they would part the water. Soft chines and spray rails also deflect waves, so water is not tossed onto the foredeck.
The Aquila 44 is a tall boat, but windows in the hull and cabin house and black paint detailing add a trompe l’oeil effect that cuts the expanse of white fiberglass. It helps the boat look more in proportion despite its high hulls and tall flybridge.
And what a flybridge it is. Stairs to starboard lead from the cockpit up to the helm and a second gathering spot. The bridge is protected by an optional hardtop that can support (also optional) solar panels and/or a full enclosure that is designed at the factory and fitted at the point of delivery. The free-standing command pod is on the centerline and includes a full complement of electronics, including a Raymarine eSeries chartplotter, an I70 instrument panel, autopilot control, a VHF, engine throttles, switches and gauges. Sightlines forward are good and there is a backup camera, since the U-shaped lounge obscures visibility aft, like on most flybridges.
The helm seat is part of the L-shaped settee that wraps around from port. There is a lounge to starboard. Our test boat featured the optional galley module that is conveniently situated between the helm seat and the dinette. The overall size of the area and the 360-degree views will make this a favorite spot aboard. But wait, there’s more.
A signature feature of the Aquila line is a stairway that leads down from the flybridge directly to the bow ahead. If assistance is needed while anchoring, there is no need for helpers to run down to the cockpit and back up the sidedecks. They simply walk through the gate cut into the front of the flybridge’s reverse windshield and descend the front steps while hanging onto the nifty handrail. Now that’s clever and convenient.
I especially liked the two sidedeck cleats for spring lines and the two corner bow seats that are reminiscent of sailing cats. Given that the anchor launches from below the foredeck, the additional bow roller mounted at the bow was perplexing.
Aquila redefines indoor/outdoor living, starting with the twin stools positioned near the aft glass door. The window between the cockpit and the galley swings up and a small backsplash folds down to create a bar counter. Suddenly, the inside and outside are one, and the galley is a convenient place from which to serve guests in both locations.
Any chef would be happy in this kitchen. Not only are the views in all directions excellent, so there’s no feeling of being buried in the hull, but everything is at hand. A dual-burner Kenyon cooktop stove sits below the microwave, and an additional storage tub with a drain is cut into the Corian countertop next to the twin sinks. Two Isotherm refrigerator drawers are to starboard just a step away. Storage is excellent in overhead cubbies, below-sink cabinets and a very large bin under the sole. No provisions will have to be left behind.
The salon has a large U-shaped dinette to port that wraps around a large table, which can be fixed or high/low (optional), so it can lower to become a coffee table or an extra double berth. To starboard, our test boat had a line of cabinetry that can house a pop-up TV. Optional configurations leave this side open for free-standing chairs or an inside helm station.
All the way forward and a couple of steps down is the raised master stateroom. A centerline bed dominates the cabin, while two overhead hatches and small, oblong, fixed side windows make it quite bright and open. A few steps down to the forward port hull bring you to the head, which includes a separate stall shower, a freshwater macerating head and good headroom.
On our test boat, the same area on starboard housed a well-designed office with plenty of storage for anyone who needs to work aboard. This side can also be finished with a small settee to create a reading nook or for a kid to sleep near mom and dad. Per Zaleski, one owner even requested a gym be added here.
Aquila isn’t the only brand to offer a full-beam forward stateroom, but it does it very well. Because the 21-foot, 6-inch beam is carried almost all the way forward, there are very few tradeoffs in the posh owner’s suite.
Two more cabins are in the middle of each hull, reachable via steps from between the salon and galley. The cabins are not identical. The starboard side has a bit more storage and a differently shaped bed than the one to port. Two en suite heads with separate shower stalls are aft, and both cabins have overhead hatches and small opening ports for when the air conditioning is not used.
Aquila boats destined for charter have 225 hp engines, but our test boat was powered by upgraded 300 hp models that delivered performance well in excess of the 17 knots most charter companies want their guests to go.
Zaleski and I headed to San Diego Bay and out onto the disappointingly calm waters of the Pacific. I was hoping to test the boat in a little rough water to see how the cat performed to weather. To the joy of the five other people aboard, there was very little swell and wind chop.
At wide-open throttle, we sped along at just a hair over 21 knots at 3500 rpm, burning a bit over 30 gph. At 2000 rpm, we settled into a comfortable cruising speed of 9.6 knots, which yielded a 6.7 gph fuel burn. Not dragging a heavy keel through the water allows this kind of dual performance and provides a range of 300 to 400 nautical miles at 9 to 10 knots. Of course, speed cut that in half.
The steering was stiff and the turns were arcing and wide at speed. By contrast, slow maneuvering with the twin Volvo Penta diesels with V-drives was fantastic. Like all cats, the Aquila 44 has props set so far apart that spinning, backing and tight-quarters maneuvering are easy — nay, fun.
The bow bulbs make a significant difference, especially at top speeds, due to the extended waterline that gained 42 inches. (On company-performed tests of a 225 hp vessel, the bulbs reportedly added up to seven knots at top speed over the predecessor.) Chances are that pitching will be greatly reduced, since the boat is longer and adds significant buoyancy at the front. The gullwing between the hulls dips low to the water to accommodate the forward stateroom. Our conditions were not such that we could really assess what kind of slamming this boat would do when clawing uphill against wind and waves.
The southeastern U.S. has embraced power cats fully, while the West Coast is still getting used to the newfangled designs for which it can be difficult to find a berth. But cats have many unique advantages: more room in less length, comfortable accommodations, smaller fuel-sipping engines than comparably sized monohulls, easy docking and maneuvering, more protection from the elements due to their deck layout, and in some cases, less discomfort for folks prone to mal de mer. Oh, and let’s not forget, peaceful sleeping in rolly anchorages without the need for stabilization.
As Zaleski noted, many of his customers hail from Nevada and Arizona, and they can hardly beat the deal of a three-bedroom, three-bath condo on the water for less than $1 million. Others will appreciate the dual performance of high speed when they want to get there quickly and long-range coastal cruising when it’s all about the journey.