Does Modern Hovercraft Technology Boost The Axcell 650's Speed and Operating Efficiency?
After pulling into the Ocean Club at Port Canaveral, it took just a few seconds to spot my test boat du jour, tied up at the fuel dock, with a humongous, shark-like swath of "gills" (i.e., air intakes) at the stern, glinting in the sun. The sight stopped me in my tracks for just a moment. But time was flying, and there was no sense wasting it gawking, particularly when an absolutely unique and possibly far-reaching bit of marine propulsion technology stood waiting for sea trial.
In profile at least, the Axcell 650 looked like an express-style monohull, not a big powercat, and as I got closer, I theorized that J.C. Espinosa, the megayacht designer who'd done both her styling and layout, had most likely intended the illusion. Bruce Barsumian, electronics engineer, counter-surveillance-detection-equipment contractor, and founder of Axcell Yachts, was just settling a fuel bill when I strolled up. With reflector sunglasses and a devil-may-care grin, he certainly looked like the type of guy who'd devote 14 years and a whole heap of cash to a decidedly edgy project.
And I do mean edgy. Thanks to a little hovercraft-related technology, the naval-engineering capabilities of Donald L. Blount & Associates, the tooling expertise of Vector Works Marine in nearby Titusville, Florida, and the aforementioned contributions of Espinosa, Barsumian had created a boat that closely resembles a swoopy conventional midrange motoryacht but by all reports, could also generate her own friction-reducing cushion of air and then ride the darn thing, magic-carpet-style.
I began to see how such a phenomenon might actually be possible as we toured the starboard engine room, a nearly identical version of the one in the port sponson. Its after half was mainstreamy enough. Besides a bunch of expensive stainless steel fuel lines, top-shelf Northstar AGM batteries, and some precisely loomed and laid-out electrical runs, it featured a single 1,015-mhp Caterpillar C18 ACERT diesel on centerline, a beefy but lightweight carbon-fiber jackshaft that faded into the transom's shadows, and a power-takeoff pump at the rear of the marine gear. The jackshaft coupled the engine to a fully articulated ZF MiniRex surface-piercing drive, Barsumian explained, and the power-takeoff unit (in league with its twin on the port main) energized onboard hydraulics, including a Lewmar windlass and thrusters.
The forward half of the space was a total eye-popper, however. It featured a huge, chest-high, centrifugal blower that inhales vast amounts of air through the earlier-referenced gills and then, via a proprietary microprocessor-controlled hydraulic system designed to kick in at 1300 rpm, pumps the stuff into specially designed, longitudinally oriented chambers in the running surface. Once pressurized, these chambers then support roughly half of the vessel's weight at speed, thereby substantially reducing skin friction and hydrodynamic form drag. "We're calling it HybridAir," Barsumian enthused, "a patented technology that lets a big boat like this go fast but with relatively small engines."
As you'd imagine, I was big-time excited about giving Barsumian's HybridAir technology the full PMY wringout. So after departing the fuel dock and transiting the nearby Canaveral locks, I was pleased to see that conditions for testing on the Banana River were expeditious, with little more than a one-foot chop to contend with, only light, variable breezes blowing, and hardly any traffic at all. I closely watched Barsumian wheel his 650 into position for our first speed run. The boat seemed vaguely slippery, by which I mean she'd occasionally swing wide of the course corrections he fed her, although opposite wheel invariably brought her quickly back.
I got a heck of a charge out of driving the boat, though. Visibility from the comfy Stidd helm seat was wraparound excellent at all times. Trim adjustments to the steerable MiniRex surface-piercers proved decidedly simple and push-button-easy. And while sound levels were perhaps a little robust on the high end of the rpm register, I noted no super-distinguishable blower-related noise. Moreover, although tracking was acceptable at planing speeds and turns were broad and positive, I experienced the same tendency to wander at displacement speeds I'd noticed earlier when Barsumian was at the wheel. "It's different-a little bit floaty," I commented while tooling through Canaveral Harbor, "but it's fun once you get used to it."
I completed my examination of the 650's finely fitted zebrawood-appointed interior, which I'd commenced shortly after we'd tied up, with a wholly positive attitude. Although the layout certainly was catamaran-esque in many respects (an extra-wide lounge and master on the main deck, a relatively narrow guest stateroom and galley in the port sponson, and another narrow guest and stowage area in the starboard sponson), Espinosa had so cleverly appointed and designed its lines and spaces, that I occasionally had trouble remembering I was touring a cat, not a monohull. Nice job!