Hunter 44 Deck Salon Review

We know that the modern production cruiser and cruiser/racer owe everything to racing yachts. Hull forms, keels, construction media and, particularly, rigs and control systems have been handed down directly from both crewed racers and short-handers. Every time you bless a furler, or an autopilot, think back to those pioneer solo sailors struggling through Atlantic gales in the 1960s and 70s, with sleet in their beards and eyes peeled for icebergs. Nowhere is the lineage more direct than in the US-built Hunter range. 

Warren Luhrs, a fifth-generation boat builder from the US east coast, won the 1984 OSTAR (solo Transatlantic Race) in Thursday’s Child, the boat some people claim was the first modern solo racer as it had a light and beamy hull, water ballast and heavily-roached fullybattened mainsail. Hunter Marine is part of a group known as the Luhrs Marine Group, which includes several powerboat lines “the Luhrs family’s stock in trade for generations” which includes the Mainship trawler yachts also sold in this country. Warren started Hunter in 1973; the range now begins with a 9ft Optmist-style trainer costing $US1999, and tops out at a 50-footer. 

There are two big TYs with water ballast (dump the water and save trailing weight), but the Hunter line’s external trademark is the Bergstrom & Ridder rig which has no backstay, heavily-swept spreaders and a big-roach fully-battened main, a direct descendant of the rig on Thursday?s Child. If you have survived the lecture (wake up, there will be a test later) let me confirm my point ? at some point Warren must have recognised that the stuff that worked on his race boats to make them easy to sail, would work on production boats too. In doing that he ignored American tradition, which shows a cautious approach to adopt advanced, or unfamiliar technology, because the home market is so conservative. Americans invented the transistor, but it was the Japanese who exploited it and made all the money along the way.

Let’s get back to the subject in hand. The Hunter 44 Deck Salon is a big-volume hull with a higher coachroof profile than its sister (the Aft Cockpit Cruising Version). It has a fin keel (shallow draught is an option) and features the deck-stepped B&R rig, with swept-back spreaders and plenty of diagonal support. The shrouds are fastened to the hull sides, while the lower shrouds and the struts supporting the gooseneck area meet at the deck and connect to struts below decks which in turn feed loads into the hull. A band of fibreglass reinforcement spans the hull, from gunwale to gunwale, picking up the chainplates, keel and mast step area. 

The hull is a mix of solid laminate and balsa core. The mainsheet traveller is on a stainless steel Targa bar over the cockpit; the bar also carries the optional bimini. Below deck is a vast, well-appointed apartment, with lots of traditional teak trim, a style which is currently out of fashion with European builders. These things come in cycles; teak will be back. The forecabin has three optional layouts; this boat has a double berth on the port side. The forward head, which includes a shower, is en suite with the forecabin. The main saloon is conventional, galley to port. There’s a big dinette table which lowers to sleep on, plus a large settee to starboard. 

There are a couple of stainless grab rails, vital in such a big saloon as you could fall a long way. The area aft of the main bulkhead can be two cabins or, as in this boat, a huge stateroom which spans the width of the hull. The inner spring queen-sized bed is fore and aft and offset a little from the centre. It is, in effect, beneath the cockpit trench. In some arrangements like this you can hit your head on the overhead mouldings if you jump out of bed, half asleep. Not on the Hunter, there is so much freeboard aft there is plenty of headroom. 

This is not a cabin, it is a room, like a hotel bedroom, bigger than many I have stayed in and better appointed. It has its own door to the main head; another door in the cabin enables this to be the day head too. The head has a separate shower area, with bi-fold glass doors and a gap between the top of the walls and the roof. This is a very good idea because a number of women I know, and many others, get claustrophobic in small yacht shower rooms. True. Throughout the boat are storage areas far too numerous to mention. There are lockers and drawers and bins and shelves everywhere, surely more than other production boats of this size. 

The result of all the features is a remarkable level of comfort (as opposed to high style, or opulence), which must be appreciated by family members less committed to life afloat. One little feature, behind two small glasspaned doors alongside the sink you will find the dish draining rack, so it is (a) hidden and (b) you can probably even sail while the lunch dishes dry. This Deck Salon has a level of comfort, which becomes luxury. The converse is not always true; you can have the luxury, but not necessarily the comfort. Edward Penn, from importer US Yachts (an offshoot of the Sydney by Sail charter company) shows me the Hunter 44’s piece de resistance. 

The great conundrum of production yacht design “how to make an easy walkway for humans past the steering position to reach the stern” has been solved by Hunter with what I modestly claim to be the design breakthrough of the century. The wheel rim folds; simply lock clamps on the spokes and parts of the wheel rim fold away so you can walk past easily. The boat can be steered at the same time. This wheel is an option, but that is the first box I would tick on the order form. The cockpit is wide and long enough. The hardware is all good gear, winches by Lewmar, spars by Selden and all the deck gear is by Harken. 

How does she sail ? The fully-battened main lives in boom bag and lazyjacks; a mast-furling main is an option. Press the button on the single electric winch on the coachroof (an option) and the heavy main slides up easily on its batten cars. The main sheets to the primary winches on the stern are within reach of the helmsman. Jam the main halyard and the coachroof winches handle the headsail sheets. The rig is 7/8, so the jib is not too big and is easy to sheet home if you time it right. We saw 6.2 knots upwind in 11 knots of True wind, then 6.6 in 12.5 and a steady topspeed reading of 6.8 knots in 14 True with the wind indicator needle in the low 30s, not bad for a cruising boat with a fixed threeblade prop. 

One small criticism; because the headsail winches are on the coachroof, the helmsman cannot tack the jib. The helmsman has to steer from the leeward side to see the headsail tufts. The steering is by a Whitlock rack and pinion steering system, which is used by a number of builders and is perfect in every hull, weight and gearing are just right. You can tell, because a new helmsman adapts instantly; there is no wheel twiddling to work out the gearing, you get it right first time you wriggle the wheel. The 56hp Yanmar is quiet; there is a little prop walk to starboard in reverse, but you can put it to good use when familiar with it.

The Hunter 44 Deck Salon is good value. Base price is $420,000, but most buyers would add a few options. However, the boat we sailed cost $495,000, because the owner had specified the deep keel, halyard winch, airconditioning, a 4hp bow thruster, generator, bimini and, of course, the folding wheel, as well as other stuff. An average spec would fall between the two. The owner gets a lot of boat both in volume and equipment. Hunter does not pretend this is a cruiser/racer “a folding prop is not an option” but it is responsive to sail and the hull is slippery. You could live onboard for long periods of time because of the hull size and the level of appointments. A long way from Thursday’s Child and not so far at all. 

Words by Barry Tranter