Can a South Carolina luxury upstart navigate waters teeming with center consoles?
If Bryan Greenwood and Jim Isaac were nervous when I nailed the throttle on their $900,000 flagship, the pair of sales managers didn’t show it. Still, I know I was nervous. Standing at the helm of their brand-spanking-new center console, the Phenom 37, I clutched a pair of controls that put 1,200 horsepower at my fingertips. Then with 30 pistons fully summoned, the trio of V10 Mercury Verados smoothly, and quietly launched the 11,000-pound vessel with an authority that was, frankly, astonishing. The damndest thing wasn’t necessarily the holeshot takeoff, which was plenty impressive itself, but the progressive nature of her velocity. In a matter of seconds, the Garmin display read 65 mph. If I wanted to push her further, Greenwood assured me: “She’ll do better than 70—no problem.”
Nah, I told myself, bounding and carving smoothly through the chop, I’m good—really good.
The 37’s warp-like acceleration was not only due to winged Mercurys at her stern, but the fluid dynamics engineering poured into her stepped hull. That gleaming, meticulously designed underside is but one of a myriad of ways Phenom, a boutique company formed beneath the umbrella of Charleston’s Sportsman Boats, hopes to not only stand out, but put the hammer down amidst a crowded center console market.
Several weeks after the joy ride and I’m huddled up under a 37-foot Phenom hull at the Summerville, South Carolina factory where Sportsman and Phenom boats are built with the company’s newly minted National Sales Director Shaun Reale. An obvious boat geek with a long history at Sportsman as a regional sales manager, Reale is explaining not only the theory behind the steps—by introducing a cushion of aeration beneath the hull, you can make her run 15 percent faster and far more efficiently at a flatter planing angle—but the importance of the millimeters-wide flat line along the surface of her four-to-a-side hull strakes. They’re angled very precisely—and proprietarily, he says, “so it just stays hooked up in a turn. Especially when you’re underway at speed.”
After experiencing that locked-in turning ability at a frankly ridiculous speed in Miami, I’d have to agree.
This 37, and her 34-foot-long smaller sister, are the brainchild of one of South Carolina’s most storied boat builders. Tommy Hancock got his start back in the late 80’s when he launched Sea Pro boats, a company that specialized (and is today run by his brother Jimmy) and still specializes in center console fishing rigs. Hancock stepped out of the business when the company was sold to Brunswick in 2004, but he couldn’t leave well enough alone. In 2011, Tommy and a group of partners opened a small factory in Summerville. Their first boat, the Sportsman 23 center console, rolled off the line in 2012. “Then we kind of got off to the races,” Hancock says in a friendly Lowcountry drawl. “Now we have nearly 400 employees.”
With bay boats and center consoles ranging in size from 20 to 35 feet, the waters around Charleston are all you really need to understand Sportsman’s proposition—and their appeal to salt-infused southern families and anglers. On summer days, it sometimes feels like every third or fourth boat fishing the Charleston Harbor jetties, motoring up Shem Creek or posted up on the sandbars at Kiawah or Morris Islands, is a Sportsman. I was actually just out on a Sportsman 23 shooting a massive, converted clam-trawler turned megayacht for May’s Power & Motoryacht cover. The weather was freezing and dreary, with the harbor and shipping lane a confused maelstrom of current, groundswell and windchop. The 23 handled the gnarly conditions with zero drama. “Where Sportsman is in the marketplace, obviously, is saltwater center consoles, right?” says Hancock. “It’s also kind of the upper-end of the mid-tier. We’re not, you know, competing against the likes of Grady, Boston Whaler or Yellowfin. But we try to give our customers a lot for what they pay.”
As of now, Sportsman’s flagship is the 35-foot Open 352 center console. Starting at $370,000 and with plenty of options, including a Seakeeper, 12V air conditioning and Gemlux outriggers, the boat is equally at home chasing fish or nosed up to the sandbar. Hancock had a hunch though, that there might be a market for a factory-direct, boutique brand that ups the 352’s ante. “I’ve been an avid bluewater offshore fisherman my entire life,” he says. “I’ve had a sportfishing boat since the early 90’s. I’ve fished all the big tournaments. I’m just passionate about that. And you know, I saw this need to build a serious, high-performance custom to semi-custom center console. It could pull up on a sandbar with a family and be one of the nicest boats on the sandbar, but could then be equally comfortable offshore with a serious crew fishing for pelagics—marlin, dolphin, wahoo—that kind of thing.”
When contemplating the new line, Hancock looked to his fleet of owners for their insight. He asked them, “If you were looking to buy a super high-end boat—top line fit, finish, what would be important to you?”
“We also had a core group of our Sportsman dealers who we felt were selling a brand that might be somewhat competitive with Phenom,” says Hancock. “We asked, ‘what makes this product successful for you, and what would make it better?’ We used that sounding board as well. And then, we’ve got a group here that has—probably more years than I care to admit—experience in this industry. And our design team is, I think, a little bit unique. We come up with really cool ideas and have spirited team meetings. For Phenom, we had the idea of four brand pillars. Family, fishing, luxury and performance. We challenged each discipline of our company to bring those things to the design meetings—and maximize those four things.”
After countless hours of back and forth, Hancock says, the goal became something specific, and high-end. A boat 50 percent family-friendly inshore cruiser and 50 percent hardcore offshore fishing machine. When it came to Phenom’s distribution and customer service model, Hancock pointed out that Sportsman is on target to sell nearly 2,000 boats this year, and thus, necessarily follows a dealer sales and service model. Phenom plans on factory direct sales—while maintaining service relationships with Sportsman’s already extensive network. Outside of the main factory, Reale points out a big pile of dirt that will soon be transformed into a Phenom-specific factory and showroom that will allow the company to deliver what Hancock calls “a white glove, concierge-type service that we believe these customers deserve and should expect.”
Hancock and Reale said that Sportsman was already well-situated to create a smaller, in-house brand because as the company’s campus has evolved into the truly massive complex it is today, they brought most construction work in-house. Thus design, upholstery, powder coating, metalwork and all fiberglass work is done on site. Phenom was launched as a sort of skunkworks in the main facility. Literally behind a huge black curtain, a small, Phenom-specific team began to craft the first hulls and run through a vast litany of options and engineering.
After settling on a 34 and a 37 as their first models, speed was of the essence—the new line of massive Mercurys would be up to that task. The hulls those motors would drive, are a proprietary design. As the engineering team tweaked the computational models, Hancock says he really came to understand what makes them stand out. “The range of efficiency is what blows me away,” he says. “The efficiency really starts kicking in at, like 25 miles per hour and it stays until, let’s say, 45. The Sportsman 352—that’s not a stepped hull, so that efficiency kicks in at around 30 and goes to 38 or 40. So the window of efficient running and consumption of fuel on a non-stepped hull is smaller.”
In practical terms, on a rough day offshore, say the captain of a traditional v-hull might not feel comfortable pushing into the 30 mile per hour (26 knot) fuel efficiency window, but 25 mph (21 knots) is doable. The Phenom hull is in that window, even in snotty seas, “and on a calm day, you can stay in that efficiency window all the way up to 45,” adds Hancock.
Construction-wise, all Phenom fiberglass consoles, doors and hatches are to be vacuum infused. Instead of throwing away huge plastic sheets after the infusions are done, a new reusable silicone vacuum bagging technology is relied on.
Aboard a trailered 37, Reale demonstrates more practical results of the Phenom team’s thinking. Air conditioning ducts in the beautifully appointed cabin are hidden so that cold air pours down silently from an upper shelf. If you’re not using the cabin, a set of cabin-floor-mounted rod holders keep prized fishing gear out of the weather. At the stern, a pair of burly doors swing out on both sides for accessing the water or beach or landing fish. They’re secured with latching seals and hinges solid enough to absorb big broadside waves.
The helms are clean as a whistle, with redundant VHFs, massive screens and beautiful faux-teak helm-steering mounts. There’s also what my Miami run revealed to be a vital, power-regulated forward window for ventilation underway, and AC vents to keep you cool in dead-calm summertime conditions.
Just behind the 37, a beautiful new gray and white 34 sits dripping on a trailer. Equipped with triple V10 400’s, Reale says it was just clocked at 77.5 mph, or 67 knots. He chuckles: “It was fast enough that we can safely call it 78.”
The boats, and the Phenom operation are undeniably impressive, but I have to ask Hancock the obvious question. Just up the road, Summerville’s Scout boats is building its own line of pretty damn nice center consoles—as are a host of other builders, including Sportsman. Is he nervous launching into an already crowded center console market? First off, he says they’ve started out slow. They only plan on turning out around 18 boats this year—and after the Lauderdale, Miami and Palm Beach shows, they’ve already secured enough orders to keep them busy. Second, he reiterates that his team seriously studied the market. “We’re really trying to shoot with a rifle here,” he says. “We’ve kind of identified a niche within a niche. Initially it was saying we’re building a 50 percent fishing and 50 percent sandbar boat, but really, this is 100 percent great sandbar boat and a 100 percent great hardcore fishing boat. You name another boat in the 35- to 40-foot center console range—I don’t care which one it is. They’re not going to have the features we do. We thought we could do it better. And, you know, like any entrepreneur—we’ve got a product and that feel we can do it better. That’s who we are. That’s in our DNA.”
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This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.