Cruising the Vandal 46 Explorer

Cruising the Vandal 46 Explorer

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

The waves weren’t very big—maybe only two to three feet. But they were steep and tightly spaced. They’d been generated by a steady southeast wind and were shoaling through 10- to 15-feet of water to the stern quarter of the 46-foot power catamaran whose throttle I clutched in my right hand. Since this was my first time at the helm and conditions were iffy, I slowly nudged the Vandal 46 Explorer to around 12 knots while making way north from Bimini’s Gun Cay towards the crumbling wreck of the S.S. Sapona. Like any cat on the verge of planing in confused, following conditions, the Explorer wanted to bowsteer in the wave troughs; keeping her pointed towards the Sapona was tricky. “Give her a little more throttle,” urged Vandal’s U.S. Marketing Manager Ryan Sturgis.

When I pushed the twin Yamaha 425 XTO’s a little more, the result was, frankly, amazing. Just north of 15 knots, the 20,000 pound boat became what might be best described as a flying carpet. Not only did she rise up onto her twin asymmetrical hulls, but she was also lifted by a stainless steel foil bolted between those hulls. The lift generated by that six-foot wide, and nearly two-inch thick wing created a ride quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The Vandal now had no problem climbing the backs of the waves, but after she crested them, I expected she’d plummet down into the troughs, but she simply continued on—planted to the water yet cruising above the waves almost as if they weren’t there.

My son Fritz and I had left for Bimini before dawn that late January morning from Fort Lauderdale with Sturgis. Fritz is an avid surfer and we were both dying to get away from dreary and cold Charleston. To further our foiling adventure, Sturgis had enlisted former world champion kiteboarder Damien LeRoy—now national sales manager for Lift electric foilboards and his gonzo photographer buddy Gwen Le Tutour. Sturgis, a lifelong surfer, angler and spearfishermen who grew up boating all over the Bahamas, had insisted this boat was unique. She was built for strike mission adventures—getting you to the offshore fishing, diving, surfing and kiting playgrounds in rough conditions with all your gear and a level of ride comfort that made such missions possible on what would otherwise be marginal sea days. All we needed to put these claims to the test was a reasonable weather window.

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

The Vandal Explorer is the product of the vivid imaginings—and precise renderings—of three principals. Ben Mennem is the former CEO of MB92, a superyacht shipyard near Cannes and owner of bespoke boatbuilder Tenderworks. Espen Øino is a renowned superyacht designer. Mennem’s friend of 40 years, Scott Jutson is a Vancouver-based naval architect who has been designing racing sailboats and power cats since the 1980s. He’s also known for sturdy aluminum commercial catamarans. “We all love boats,” Mennem chuckled. “We can’t hold ourselves back. That’s the sort of addiction that we share between us—which gets us into all kinds of trouble at times. But it’s lots of fun at the same time, too.”

Mennem’s exposure to foiling catamarans began over a decade ago with South African Hysucat catamarans. The idea behind them was not, as is the case with say, America’s Cup sailboats, to completely lift the hull out of the water, but rather to boost a boat’s fuel efficiency by 30 to 40 percent by getting more of the hull out of the water at speed. You didn’t need sophisticated computers to control balance or angles of attack. The foil would just passively create lift like an airplane wing at speed and simply become a thin, hull-spanning spar when the boat was running off plane. “They had three foils, one middle and one on each side,” Mennem said of the Hyuscats. “I liked the idea of that. It was simple. It seemed to make a lot of sense.”

Lift’s Damien LeRoy (left) and Vandal’s Ryan Stugis (right) have been foilboarding for some time—and it shows. 

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

Mennem brought a couple of South African foiled RIBs back to France. They didn’t perform exactly as he’d hoped in choppy Mediterranean waters, but they were a jumping-off point. Jutson, meanwhile, had created designs for foil-assisted long-distance catamarans to service planned far-offshore North Atlantic windmills. Those distant windmills, and thus the boats, were never built, but Mennem, Jutson and eventually Øino figured they were onto something. Øino and Mennem are known for high-end luxury builds, but nothing available paired up with their own ideal adventuring and exploration vessel. “So the idea was a really simple work boat that my wife and I could travel around the Mediterranean on, hopefully, when we started taking it a bit easier,” said Mennem. “We all discussed the thing over many, many hours. And the formula we came up with was to have the biggest catamaran that would work with the biggest outboards at the time—425-horsepower Yamahas. I wanted all the running gear out of the water. I didn’t want it to sit around having everything getting gross on it. Plus, not taking up much space and being supremely reliable and practical.”

The build further evolved: Aluminum hulls 46 feet long, built of 1/4 inch plate would allow for a simpler build than creating an expensive fiberglass hull mold—and would be strong, repairable and durable. Pulling up on a beach, there’d be no worries of scratched gelcoat, cracks or delamination. Their boat would have watertight crash bows, three watertight bulkheads per hull and meet Lloyds Special Service Craft (CE-8) commercial design standards. Other unusual touches included engines canted outwards at 7 degrees to help the boat lean into turns more like a traditional monohull. The hull shapes would be asymmetric and designed especially for a keel-spanning foil. That asymmetric shape meant the foil wouldn’t have to extend below the keel as it would on a symmetrical hull, but could actually bow inward. Thus it wouldn’t adversely affect the boat’s draft. A foil can create downwash that affects engine and hull performance. So, Jutson’s proprietary hulls would counteract that by getting the foil a bit deeper, both improving cushioning amidst waves and creating more bank in turns. “He got the balance such that we only needed a central foil and nothing aft,” said Mennem.

Sturgis and Dixon perched up under the hull and atop the stainless steel foil. Note how it’s bowed upwards, so it’s not the Explorer’s lowest point. This is not only good for impact avoidance, but also aids in turning.

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

The foil would have to be strong enough to support 40 percent of the Explorer’s 20,000-plus pounds, thus SAF 2205 stainless steel. “It’s a Swedish steel product that has double the yield strength of 316 stainless,” said Jutson. “They can pretty much take anything. We’ve had boats up here, the foil has impaled a large log, two feet in diameter, at 30 knots. We got the log off and there was just, no damage.”

The first two Vandal Explorers would be built at the Tenderworks facility in Leiden, Netherlands. Øino would handle the styling, but the whole idea, said Mennem was “More is less. I think anything that’s built for a purpose, and really designed around a job, is beautiful. But we also wanted it to have a tough, kind of go-anywhere Tonka toy look.”

The 46 Explorer features a head in the starboard hull, a small, but comfortable cabin to port and a substantial flybridge. Mennem’s open cockpit holds a small galley with a fold-out table, and tons of deckspace for toys and gear. For utility and safety, the boat is surrounded by a lattice of thick, black-painted stainless grab rails and an industrial rubber rub rail to not only cushion impacts and replace bumpers, but knock down sea spray. Side decks are surfaced in a non-skid rubber and forward windshields are reverse raked—and not only to shed water. “A lot of these Italian speedsters have a very (forward) raked windshield and the sun’s hitting it at 90 degrees so that makes it incredibly warm,” Mennem said. “These windows keep the boat incredibly cool because the sun never glances through the windscreen. Similarly, the bollard cleats … they’re not like those fold down cleats, which create corrosion from water leaking. They’re going to last forever. Everything we did, we tried to do for a reason.”

To that end, the team succeeded. The duo decided to take their boats to Cannes in 2022. They generated considerable interest­. Sturgis was particularly intrigued. So much so that he not only convinced Mennem to take him on as Vandal’s American representative—but to also build a boat that could be demonstrated in Florida.

The 46 Explorer has copious rear deck lounging, gear hauling and storage space. The railings are also at a functional height and the stern platform is a perfect fishing perch.

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

Fritz and I rolled up to the Explorer in Ft. Lauderdale late the night before our Bimini departure with plans to spend the night aboard. She looked, quite simply, beautifully rugged and purpose built. I’ve owned eight VW campers throughout the years, and I like to think I share some of Mennem’s appreciation for beauty through utility. With her blue-painted, black railed hull, Fritz and I both agreed—the boat looked ready to rumble. She was dark when we arrived and most of her systems—from the lights to the head—were off. Rather than waking Sturgis, I reckoned I’d test his claims of intuitive design. I managed to immediately activate the Raymarine system and navigate through her MFDs. Within about a minute, we had deck lights, water and thankfully, a functioning head. Down in the cabin, the climate control was also easily workable, but it was so nice outside that Fritz and I opted instead to pop open the screened roof hatch and turn on the cabin fans. Soon, we were comfortably snoozing on the Explorer’s king-sized bed.

Sturgis, LeRoy and Le Tutour arrived just after 5 a.m.. We dutifully loaded up photo, snorkel and fishing gear and a pair of Lift foilboards and were making way through the Lauderdale jetties before dawn. The weather models had incorrectly called for calm. But there was around 8 knots of southeasterly breeze and two to three feet of nearly head-on chop. A tempest far to our northeast was also sending down healthy, long lines of groundswell.

The first time Sturgis brought the boat up to speed in the crossed up seas, I was up on the flybridge with Fritz. I’ve been programmed to expect a boat’s interactions with swells to be, well, slams. This was anything but. And rather than ‘sneezing’ the air out forward and drenching us with spray like some cats, the hulls were designed to jet that air out the back. You’d hear—and feel—a ‘whoosh’ as the foil engaged and that air escaped. The foil too, was creating a kind of cavitation—with millions of air bubbles effervescing around it. It’s not, Jutson emphasized, the damaging “boiling” cavitation that happens to boat propellers—which are moving orders of magnitude faster.

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

At the helm, Sturgis described a childhood plying Bahamian waters by motor and sail with his younger brother. Dad was a Lauderdale yacht dealer and mom did custom yacht interior work—with the yard’s tradesmen teaching the brothers carpentry, electronics, hardware and plumbing. The Sturgis’ endured many miserable Gulf Stream crossings. Thus, a primary factor that drew Ryan to the Vandal boats was simply the extended possibilities they create. “This boat will get you out on the marginal days—comfortably,” Sturgis said. “The days when it’s just too rough for a monohull, you can run to Bimini and get perfect water on a lee shore using way less fuel.” I had to agree. During the 25- to 30-knot crossing, amidst headwinds and head seas, the Vandal averaged around .7 to .8 gallons per mile. Nearing Bimini, the seas calmed. After checking in with customs in Alice Town, we marveled at the huge Bull and Tiger sharks that prowl the marina’s waters. Then we cruised back out through gin clear water along Bimini’s western beaches. Fritz and I were about to jump out of our skins to go for a swim, but with updraft clouds shadowing the water, we decided to run south to Gun and Cat Cays where we could already see clear skies for photos and unleashing the foilboards—maybe alongside the Sapona.

Off southwestern Cat Cay, the sun broke through and the winds and seas ramped up. We opted to make multiple runs to test the Explorer’s handling. Alongside a line of exposed rocks, the swells bunched up into four-to-five-foot, tightly spaced peaks. We bounded straight into them and then surfed down in the opposite direction at 30 knots. There was simply none of the bowsteer you expect from a powercat. She was maneuverable too. When you laid her over into a turn, she didn’t bank as steeply as a monohull, but with that foil and those canted engines, she didn’t lay flat on the water like most every other powercat either. She turned, in short, like a boat.

Alongside Sapona, conditions were still fairly choppy, but Fritz and I leapt off the high rails while LeRoy dazzled us with his skills on the electric board. With a boost from the trigger controlled, Bluetooth-linked motor, he’d tap into a rolling swell and surf it for awhile—then head back toward us and do it again.

Fritz and I tested out Lift foils last summer for Power & Motoryacht, but the conditions around the Sapona were still rough for a beginner duo, so we made for a tucked-in stretch of beach just off Alice Town. Sturgis dropped the anchor in 15 feet of translucent water and deployed a sturdy black ladder that can instantly be deployed on either side or off the transom. Then Fritz and I took the triggers. Learning to foilboard is arguably more challenging for a surfer than a non-surfer. Unlike the Vandal, foilboards lift completely off the water at speed—maybe ten knots. Then, as the drag disappears, they accelerate dramatically. Lacking the stabilizing surface area of the surfboard’s ‘hull’, you’re balancing atop a stalk with a tiny airplane assembly beneath it. Throttle down too much, and like an airplane, you stall and fall out of the sky. Go too fast before you understand the nuanced balance and you’ll either rocket into the air or nosedive in most dramatic fashion. It’s a radical, fun-as-hell and completely new skillset. It also gives a direct understanding of the efficiency benefits of mounting a foil beneath a boat.

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

Fritz and I made increasingly confident circles around the Vandal before eventually handing them off so Sturgis and LeRoy could really show us how it’s done. As they ripped through the glass, we had a blast just snorkeling around and leaping off the boat—in Fritz’s case from the upper rails. A few hours and snacks in, Sturgis wanted to dive a nearby submerged airplane wreck. But as we loaded up the boards, Le Tutour asked if he might get a dramatic shot from the water. “Drive straight at me and turn away at the last second,” he said. Sturgis looked at him askance. “Don’t worry man,” Le Tutour said. “I trust you.”

Le Tutour has quite a reputation as a talented lensman and he’s filmed LeRoy doing, frankly, a lot of stuff you or I might consider death-defying. As he sat out there atop a half-submerged foilboard clutching his camera, Sturgis closed in on him at full throttle before leaving him chewing the Vandal’s wake at the last instant. Le Tutour maintained a Zen calm. “Do it again,” he said. Nerves of aluminum.

With Le Tutour back on board, we realized time had flown. A strong front was due the next morning and if we left now, we’d reach Lauderdale just in time for our flight home. Bearing west with the seas on our stern quarter, Sturgis told me about Vandal’s upcoming projects and her expansion into a factory in Poland. Currently, they’re building a pair of one-and-a-half-stateroom 60-foot foilers—one powered by twin 2,000-horsepower Volvo IPS’s and the other by four Mercury 600 outboards. They’ll be used as superyacht and racing sailboat support vessels. After showing off the 46 Explorer in Florida, Sturgis said the feedback has led them to design a 48-footer powered by twin 500’s or even 600’s. Though only two feet longer and just over two feet wider, the 48 will feature an enclosed, climate controlled cockpit and three staterooms. She will, he said, offer the same utility, but a lot more space for families. “It’s also the enclosed boat idea,” he said. “Some people will use it to cruise and spend longer periods of time aboard because this original boat was really designed for Ben and his wife as more like, a long weekender.”

Ten miles off Bimini, the northerly groundswell became more pronounced and a few times, the Vandal soared off a six-footer at 28 knots. But as before, landings were soft and Fritz and I just whooped it up. Then, about halfway home, the wind completely died and we realized we were amidst a sizeable dolphin pod. We stopped to throw out a few lures hoping they were fishing for something and marveled at the glassy water, hundreds of becalmed blue bottles and a surreal Gulf Stream sunset—devoid of other vessels. We didn’t hook a damn thing, but sitting off the stern with my son after an epic day made the Vandal’s purpose as clear as the waters beneath us. She’s built to take you where you want, when you want, so you can do what you want. What could be better than that?

After the wind died on the way home, warm Gulf Stream waters provided an epic sunset.

Photo: Gwen Le Tutour

Vandal 46 Explorer Specifications:

LOA: 46’
Beam: 14’
Draft: 2’6”
Displ: 26,015 lb. (loaded)
Power: 2/425-hp Yamaha XTO
Fuel: 348 gal.
Water: 158 gal.
Cruising speed: 28 knots
Top Speed: 40 knots

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This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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