THE place — Johannesburg Boat Show 2013. The boat — the new 9m Lee Cat which I had just spotted standing proud on the Honda stand. I was intrigued with the changes I could see had been made since I reviewed the Expressa 900 in 2008 and looked forward to chatting with Leon and Carl Lee of Lee Cat, based in Port Alfred, who have been building boats for the past 35 years.
On the second day of the show I bumped into Carl. “I heard you were snooping around my boat,” was his opening gambit. I saw a spark of excitement in his general dour demeanour and said, “Let’s talk.” Carl then told me the boat on the stand had been sold and two “sold” plaques had been attached to the back of the motor cowlings of the 175hp Honda motors that the Lees had chosen to power their new craft.
“But if she’s an updated Expressa, why isn’t she called an Expressa?” I asked. According to Carl, she’s not the Expressa as they’ve redesigned the hull completely, hence the new name for the new design. The new Walkaround Version II incorporates a brand new hull design that Carl is convinced makes this the best all-round sportfishing craft they have ever designed and made. That’s saying a lot when you consider just how many boats they’ve built.
Following further discussion with brother Leon, it was decided I would review the craft off Port Elizabeth prior to her being handed over to her new owner. I couldn’t wait to experience the new 9m Walkaround for myself and find out how the redesigned hull reacted to the ocean.
In my boat testing experience it’s not often that you get the perfect day for a boat review in the Windy City, but as I flew in over the bay I saw the sea showed a long swell, ruffled by a mild land breeze, and was bathed in full sunlight — just perfect.
When I arrived at PEDSAC, Port Elizabeth’s premier deep sea fishing club, the 9m Walkaround Version II was ready and waiting to be launched into the harbour from the club’s slipway. Seeing her alone — not surrounded by other boats — was a spectacular sight. This large, trailerable craft is sleek in design and will make any boat lover stop and stare. I did just that. Now I could fully appreciate the beauty of this craft.
Just 15 minutes later, as the 9m Lee Cat Walkaround Version II was being put through her paces in front of my camera, I was speechless. Her beauty was completely unveiled as she powered over the choppy sea, virtually set free in the environment where she is totally at home — the ocean.
I photographed her from every conceivable angle, downloading into my mind as well as the camera’s memory card not only the way she looked, but also the way she rode the water’s surface and the way the water’s surface allowed her to ride.
I couldn’t wait until it was time for me to transfer onto the 9m Lee Cat Walkaround Version II within the flat water confines of PE Harbour. Now at long last I could get behind her helm, take the throttle lever in my hand and feel the magnificent craft react to the open ocean as we headed out to sea.
Leaving the constraints of the breakwater behind and setting her SOW at 20 knots, I set a southerly course directly towards the horizon, feeling the craft’s ride as the sea began to provide us with an increased chop and swell.
I hate to compare one craft’s ride with another because the ocean seldom provides a level playing field. However, my senses told me that the hull change from a semi-displacement version to a full-on planing hull with a more rounded entry than her predecessor, as well as the widening and flattening out of the aft planing section of the sponsons, made her ride remarkably soft. Then I remembered Carl’s words: “We wanted to attain an easier planing hull, yet still retain the comfort of the 4m Expressa and, above all, maximise fuel consumption.”
I am well aware of the trade-off in hull design needed to achieve this, and the big question is always whether the boat manages the transition from the drawing board to physical performance out on the open water.
As we glided over kilometres of ocean I kept an eye on the NMEA screen on the Lowrance HDS12 that displayed all the technical information from the 175hp 4-stroke Honda motors. The display of revs, speed, trim position and fuel consumption allowed me to understand more fully not only what I was physically feeling of this craft’s performance, but also added the technical aspects to my mental equation. The remarkable consumption of this big craft of just one litre per motor per nautical mile at a constant 20 knots was impressive and was in agreement with what Carl had told me.
However, it’s the overall feel and performance of the craft that I need to report on. Indeed, these are the aspects of the 9m Lee Cat Walkaround Version II that readers cannot judge by looking at brochures, photographs or even by trusting word of mouth.
To begin with I determined the best trim settings for these counter-rotating propped motors. They seemed to be sweetest when trimmed out about 30% on the trim scale. I now found myself in sufficiently choppy water to undertake the full range of tests I like to run in order to properly judge the craft’s performance.
The “mystical 20 knots” is usually the most comfortable and relaxing running speed for planing hulled craft of this size at sea, and this certainly held true for the Walkaround Version II. Although I’m not one for excessive speeds, it had to be done, and I gradually worked our way up to just above 33knots without any trouble. The craft was sufficiently comfortable and unaffected to any great extent by sea conditions.
On a course running with the swell even at these high speeds, which I don’t normally advocate, she showed no indication of yawing or dropping a sponson. On the same run at 20 knots she provided a dream ride and I didn’t need to trim up her bow at all under the conditions we experienced. This craft’s high-speed performance is largely determined by the aft sections of the sponsons. I experienced no problem keeping her on course and did not have to constantly adjust motor trim.
I must have misunderstood Carl regarding the boat’s turning capabilities. I put her through extremely tight turns, even at excessive speed to simulate surf launching conditions. I was amazed at her response. The way this 9m long craft went into the turns was great, but the way the props held water and pushed this large craft out of the hole and onto the plane really was remarkable indeed.
“So, Carl, what’s the problem?” I asked. “Nothing,” he said. “I told you she turned well.” I must have misunderstood him horribly, but the good thing was that it forced me to repeat the test — with the same good results — thereby proving to myself that she really is able to take on big surf.
On a craft like this which can be used both for long-range tuna fishing as well as billfishing, I needed to see what her wake formation was like for trolling for the latter. At 5/6 knots, which we use predominantly for sailfishing, I couldn’t believe how tight her wake was. I then watched carefully as I edged the throttle up to 8/9 knots — the speed for pulling konas. The wake started to spread out at over 8 knots, but still generated plenty of clear blue water in which to pull a full spread of big lures.
When you’re billfishing it’s essential to have a craft that can backup well, and this boat did that with ease. After trimming the motor up a fair amount to avoid the outboards wanting to pull the transom lower into the water, I still found we were getting a fair amount of water on the deck, but to be fair I must mention that the transom gate that’s available for this model had not been fitted.
Finally, I needed to test her performance on the drift and at very slow troll speeds. With one motor just in gear she is extremely stable, making her a very comfortable craft for light tackle game- and bottomfishing.
I was able to achieve an SOW of between 16 and 17 knots on one motor with the other raised, which was less than Carl said he had experienced on the flat water of the Kowie River.
Whilst the twin Honda 175hp motors provided all the power one could possibly require during normal offshore boating, if an owner wanted extreme top-end performance — in excess of 40 knots or a higher planing speed on one motor — then I would suggest installing twin 200hp or 225hp motors.
Years of experience has taught the Lee brothers what their clients require when it comes to a boat’s internal layout. They have tweaked their original designs based on personal experience and clients’ requests. Now they have what they believe is a practical and very comfortable sportfishing craft in so far as deck layout and helm station facilities are concerned.
The helm station-cum-wheelhouse is surprisingly big for a trailerable craft with a wide walkaround facility — spacious enough with five of us aboard during sea trials. Although it’s unusual to retain the central positioning of the steering, I have always found it to be very practical on the boats I have reviewed. This location allows for plenty of “dash” area for fitting the gauges and electronic instruments, and allows two other persons to stand upfront with the skipper when travelling long distances.
On the 9m LeeCat Walkaround Version II I enjoyed the helmstation and the accessibility and space it provides to the skipper. This area is well designed with lots of height, is protected by laminated, armour-plated glass windows and is certainly big enough to provide protection for all of the craft’s crew in inclement weather.
From the crew’s perspective the fish deck is large with nice high gunnels to protect one when fighting fish in big seas. The reasonably large aft fish hatches are constantly flooded with about 30mm of seawater that drains out when you’re running, but re-floods to keep the fish and hatches clean. A circulating livebait well is in the starboard aft transom, together with a cleverly placed saltwater deckwash.
Forward of each of the fish hatches is a large fuel hatch which holds six 25 litre plastic jerry cans. All the tanks are connected by a fuel supply system and a series of shut-off valves to change tanks when needed. This gives the boat 300 litre fuel capacity.
In the centre of the fish deck is a uniquely designed above-deck hatch that incorporates seating around both sides and aft. It opens up via the top section to a very spacious interior for stowage.
Talking of stowage, the large upfront hatch under the central bow area has a flush toilet and a raised area for either stowage or for use as a bed. This hatch also provides access to the back of the instruments and steering, should this be required.
Another noteworthy aspect of the boat’s construction is that there are no below-waterline cutouts for any through-hull accessories. All the plumbing — including for the toilet, deckwash and livebait well — is channelled to the transom for water intake.
In a review on a craft like this I prefer to spend more of the limited space detailing the boat’s on-sea performance, rather than listing the vast array of accessories and features that make this craft so special. These can be seen and appreciated in the photos and marketing material supplied by the builders.
Lee Cat have built this craft using only GRP/glass fibre, totally avoiding using any wood in her construction, thereby preventing the likelihood of deterioration in any wooden components in their craft that are based in very hot areas of East Africa, the Seychelles and Madagascar.
Their fibreglass moulding is of a very high standard and is indicative of a factory built and run by people with a great deal of experience in this industry. All this results in a product that is soundly made and finished off to the highest standards.
The 9m Lee Cat Walkaround Version II is without doubt the finest craft to have come out of this Port Alfred factory. She is testament to the tenacity of the Lee brothers and their consistent determination to upgrade and innovate the designs of their range of sportfishing craft, ever aware of the importance of producing a very high-quality product.
Whilst the core of the business is big commercial craft up to 75ft, the brothers’ passion is their range of 8- and 9 metre outboard-powered sportfishing craft such as this one. I am extremely pleased that I was able to spend many hours at sea reviewing her.
Finally, a word to the person who purchased this boat at the Johannesburg Boat Show: you made a wise decision. I have no doubt that this craft will bring you many, many wonderful hours out at sea.