Boat Review March 1, 1998 Issue

Hunter 310

This innovative family boat typifies Hunter’s design philosophy with its B&R rig, radar arch, circular cockpit and good value, but owners cite numerous niggling problems.

Hunter Marine is one of the two largest sailboat builders in the US (Hunter claims more dollar volume, Catalina more boats sold). Its beginnings go back to the 1950’s when Henry Luhrs, grandson of a New York city chandler, used his last paycheck as a carpenter to begin building wooden lapstrake sea skiffs in Morgan, New Jersey. Eventually, he sold Luhrs Boat Company to marine conglomerate Bangor Punta and, shortly thereafter, established both of his sons in boatbuilding. John Luhrs bought fledgling Silverton Marine in 1969 and Warren Luhrs founded Hunter Marine in 1972.

Hunter Marine builds cruising and daysailing sailboats from 14' to 45'. From the beginning it has courted “the broadest possible market.” Its boats have always been at the affordable end of the price scale; some have called them cheaply made. They are also widely known for innovation. Along the way, CEO Luhrs has been at the center of a highly visible racing program. Beginning with the 1980 Observer Single-handed TransAtlantic Race (OSTAR), in which he skippered Tuesday’s Child, Luhrs has sailed where theories meet the waves. Most recently, “test pilot” Steve Pettengill sailed Hunter’s Child to second overall in the 1994-95 BOC Challenge.

Over the years there have been complaints from Hunter owners about the design and construction of their boats. Luhrs acknowledges some of the early problems, but late in the ‘80’s he made a celebrated return from campaigning his offshore boats to again take over as full-time manager of his company. Hunter increased its warranty from one year to five and underwent a period of re-engineering. Since then, the company has introduced new models at better than two a year and has combined its emphasis on engineering and innovation with its offshore racing program.

The Hunter 310 is a member of Hunter’s newest generation: cockpit arches are standard (but can be left off at a small extra cost), the cockpit well is virtually circular, the rig is fractional, the hull is rounded and relatively narrow with lots of freeboard and beam on deck; the sheer is table-straight, and windows pierce hull and deck in astounding profusion.

We sailed the 310 on Chesapeake Bay (unfortunately, in generally light conditions), talked to a number of owners, then journeyed to the Hunter plant in Alachua, Florida to see how the boats are built.

Design
Hunter has an in-house design team, but design input, especially in the racing program, also came from Lars Bergstrom. A Swedish designer/engineer (the “B” of B & R Masts & Riggings—Bergstrom & Ridder), he has been hailed as a genius and was Warren Luhrs’s friend and partner in experimentation for decades. Before he died last year in the crash of the experimental plane (see PS, October 15, 1997), Bergstrom designed the rigging system used now to support Hunter spars, the grid system employed to reinforce Hunter hulls, Hunter’s Child, and Route 66, the pilot project born to take the cruising outcomes of Hunter’s offshore racing “on the road.” He is also known for inventing the Windex masthead fly/wind direction indicator and, at the time of his death, was working on a winged keel with “tacking” winglets.

With the 310, the goal was to combine maximum livability with rewarding short-handed performance. Privacy is a sensible priority in a 31-foot cruiser, and it is the central theme of the 310’s accommodations.

The boat is very comfortable above deck. The circular cockpit well (achieved by taking the seatbacks right out to the sheer) with a molded table/steering pedestal at its center works so well creating space, affording security, and promoting comfort that we wondered why we hadn’t seen it before now.

You may think the arch either painful to look at or a badge of distinction, but there’s no argument that it clears the mainsheet out of the cockpit, is a good place for traveler controls, makes a Bimini very workable, and is good to lean against. Providing a console in the steering station for VHF and instrument installation “beats the heck out of sawing holes in the house for mounting instruments,” one owner wrote. The helm seat pivots neatly to become the gate to the walk-aboard transom. The control assembly for the swim platform-shower is convenient but unobtrusive.

Elsewhere in the cockpit and on deck, we liked the footlight built into the base of the steering pedestal, as well as the serious non-skid, struts as handholds, and windlass mounted in the anchor locker. On the other hand, we found the cockpit lockers shallow, due, of course, to the aft cabin.

Sailing performance depends on a variety of elements. When hull form, sail plan, displacement, and foil shapes harmonize, the 310 sings, but that doesn’t always happen. She is long at 28' 0" on the waterline (as compared with a 25' LWL for the Catalina 30, 26' for the vintage Tartan 3100, even 27' 9" for the speedy Henderson 30). And she is light. She displaces just 8,500 lbs., least of any cruiser in her size range. Her sail area/displacement ratio is right up there with the rapid J-32 (17.39 vs. the J’s 17.55) and her top end potential is high.

But her sail area is small, just 455 sq. feet, less than any cruiser —save the Catalina 30 short rig—in her class. On the drawing board the 310’s sail area may balance her design displacement. On the water a small sail plan usually gets overwhelmed by actual displacement. It’s nice to have sailpower in reserve when the inevitable weight of cruising gear gets added to a boat. The 310 has no such margin. This hampers pure performance, but allows pleasing performance—that combination of good speed, sailing ease, and a sense of security that can make a boat fun even if she isn’t overly fast. The 310 is a good example of how Hunter tries to keep the sizzle in sailing while tuning down the complexity and factoring out the fear.

A crucial part of that process is the B & R rig. First introduced almost 20 years ago, it has evolved into a Hunter hallmark more distinctive even than cockpit arches, and more reverenced even than the hallowed “Cruise-Pac” (that bundle of standard cruising equipment—down to fenders, flares and life jackets—that comes with every Hunter). Attacked for its complexity, irrelevance, windage, and Erector-set aesthetic, no other builder uses it. The rig is the key, however, to Warren Luhrs’ vision of the future of performance cruising—long, light boats with big mainsails and tiny jibs.

The set-up combines cross-stressed diagonals, cap shrouds, and intermediates with swept-back spreaders and a conventional headstay. In the process, the need for backstays, either running or permanent, disappears. Deck-mounted struts that support the spar above the gooseneck help make masts lighter, thinner, and cleaner (thus improving the boat’s resistance to pitching and heeling). The rig fosters big-roach mainsails where area can be added while keeping the center of effort low to minimize heeling. Removing the backstay permits full-length battens.

There are problems, though. One is the tendency of swept-back spreaders to poke alarmingly into the mainsail when sailing downwind. “No one sails dead downwind anymore,” is the standard response, but the 310 is not big or light enough to benefit from the increases in apparent wind that help iceboats, sprit boats, multihulls, and maxis do well tacking downwind. You can live with the problem, but not being comfortable running dead downwind is a liability in terms of seamanship and navigation.

Steve Pettengill broke a shroud when he was racing Hunter’s Child. “No way any other rig would have stayed in the boat, but the B&R did,” he said. “I jury-rigged it (four separate ways.) Good thing I did. We went through two capsizes and three gales after that, but it stood to the finish.”

Combining winglets with a bulb works well to generate lift and promote stability. The bulb-wing keel has thus become Hunter’s standard shoal draft solution. While the short keels are almost as effective as a deep bulb, they do produce a lot of parasitic drag. That’s a problem in light to moderate air, especially upwind. We sailed the 310 shoal draft version in single-digit wind speeds and found her noticeably sluggish.

Construction
Lars Bergstrom was instrumental in one of the more significant developments in modern boatbuilding. He engineered the tubular stress-frame structure around which Ron Holland designed Imp in 1974. She went on to win the Southern Ocean Racing Conference illustrating that, with the loads of rig and keel taken by the structure, Imp could be made radically lighter and thus significantly faster. Today, nearly all production and custom sailboats are designed around some variation on this principle.

The 310’s hull is laid-up by hand in a female mold. The hull is solid glass up to the waterline. A molded fiberglass reinforcing grid is glassed into the hull. This structure is anchored with extra fabric (four layers each of 1.5 oz. mat and woven roving) that wraps around the grid to spread rig and keel loads into the hull laminate. A similar form of local reinforcement happens in the way of chainplates, and around floors, girders and stringers. A Baltek balsa core runs from waterline to sheerline. The deck is cored with a combination of balsa and plywood.

A molded interior locates the furniture and bulkheads which, with veneers stripped back to assure a good taping bond, are glassed to the hull. “Liner boats” are quick to build and most volume builders use some form of modular construction. Anchoring the pan to the hull is critical; Hunter says its method is “overkill”—all surfaces where hull and liner touch are polyester puttied together, the edges of the liner itself are bonded to the hull with fiberglass tape, and the liner and bulkheads are anchored with stiffeners glassed to the hull. A molded headliner goes on before the deck does. There are better insulating materials than fiberglass, and sealing up the underside of the deck can lead to future headaches, but Hunter achieves an attractive overhead finish as well as some sound and thermal insulation through a headliner.

The hull/deck joint is formed by placing the out-turning flange on the deck over the out-turning flange on the hull. The two are joined with 3M 5200 sealant and through-bolted vertically using 1/4-20 stainless steel bolts on 6" centers. That double flange is then trimmed and capped with a vinyl rubrail; it is a strong chemical/mechanical bond that creates no through-hull holes that could let water leak into the interior. The chainplates, however, are bolted (horizontally) at the gunwale through the exterior of the deck bulwark. While this provides a wider shroud base for the rig and frees the interior from tie-rod clutter it does necessitate through-deck holes that could bring leaks. While there is an impressively reinforced laminate in the area, it still seems the assembly will stress the hull/deck joint with shroud tension.

We have seen more innovative, high tech, and efficient laminate schedules, assemblies and parts in some custom and small- production sailboat shops than we saw at the big Hunter factory. What we did see was highly evolved traditional fiberglass boatbuilding geared to produce boats simply, economically and fast. Hunter focuses on the basics: laminates are hand-laid, the materials include the best in woven roving and knitted fabrics, and the resins are low-heat, low-shrinkage formulations. The materials that go into every boat are kitted and weighed. Core samples are burned to monitor glass/resin ratios. The firehose and water testing await.

We were impressed with the composite rudder and rudderstock construction, the design and placement of the arches, setting the mast directly atop the compression post, bedding and installation for the many windows, and the anchor well assembly, to name just a few aspects of the process. Few were the owners we surveyed who had even a small beef with Hunter’s basic construction.

Accommodations
Double berths forward and aft are separated by as much boat as possible. Solid doors enclose both staterooms. The saloon is further forward than conventional, but that opens up the midships area. One owner found the athwartships double berth aft “too low to be comfortable or convenient.” Cross-ventilation is minimal in the aft cabin, but more than adequate throughout the rest of the interior. Light from windows and hull ports also makes the interior exceptionally bright.

“There’s room beneath the saloon settees but not behind them,” said one owner.

Closures on the locker fronts are positive push-buttons. There is an abundance of well-placed, handsome reading and overhead lights. Stowage for dishware is useful and space-efficient; the microwave looks like the boat was designed around it. Admittedly, the trash receptacle is too small to believe, never mind use, and you might say the same about the cedar-lined hanging lockers. Still, the comforts that make a boat a home have been attended to.

“Our water heater was cracked and we were missing a bunch of other hardware,” one owner complained. “The head started leaking after a month or so,” said another.

“The mast leaked and we had to take it down to re-do the mast plate gasket,” reported a third.

But most seem to agree with the owner who found life aboard the 310 “just about perfect for three people and a golden retriever.”

The 310’s shallow bilge, relative lack of heavy-duty storage, the absence of a convenient sea berth, and the placement of an indifferently insulated engine box in the middle of the living/sleeping area are other belowdecks negatives.

Engine access is excellent, but living with a free-standing engine box with its considerable noise and vibration in the “living room/kitchen” is the flip-side of this arrangement.

Performance
The 18-hp. 2-cylinder Yanmar diesel is light (251 lbs.) and sufficiently powerful given the long, light hull of the 310. During our test, the boat got up to hull speed (about 7.1) at 3,200 rpm. Backing to starboard at low speeds wasn’t possible until steerage developed, but that happens quickly with the big spade rudder.

Owners warn that the engine will stick in gear if you leave the transmission engaged (in either forward or reverse) to stop the prop from spinning while you’re sailing. “Shouldn’t happen unless you force the transmission into gear while the prop is spinning,” opined a mechanic whom we queried.

Another owner said the shift/throttle cable came unlinked when he was backing out of his slip. Another claimed the shifter cable broke twice.

“I found that none of the gauges—waste, water, or fuel—worked at all,” said a sailor who bought his boat early in 1997. No other owners reported that problem, but an Illinois owner had a dry compass delivered aboard his new boat. The bilge pump hoses were also cracked. The local Hunter dealer fixed everything at no charge to the owner, he said.

A system that draws praises from many owners is the 310’s rack and pinion steering. “I particularly like the fact that steering is not done through quadrant and cables but rather by a rack & pinion armature and bell crank arrangement,” an owner told us. While rack & pinion steering is over a century old and while there are decided plusses on the side of conventional cable steering, we agree with Hunter that increasing mechanical precision is a step in the right direction. Under the limited conditions imposed by our test sail though, we couldn’t make out helming traits we thought significant.

“My boat does not track well under power. She really needs a wheel lock,” reported an owner from Long Island..

“Easy to sail!” said a convert from Mississippi.

Over and over owners noted sailing ease as a major positive. That comes from smaller headsails with the increased visibility and ease of handling they bring. It comes, too, from excellent sightlines from the helm, a narrow turning radius, single-line reefing, and a cockpit clear of traveler clutter and mainsheet snarl, as well as from a tender-but-steady stability curve and a high and dry cockpit born of tall topsides. It comes from lazy jacks capturing full-length battens to tame a doused mainsail. It’s no accident that the 310 is easy to sail.

With a high sill where a bridge deck should be, a cockpit well that will take a long time to drain, berths and a galley that don’t work well underway, and with her cabin top riddled with hatches and windows, the Hunter 310 is hardly your “go anywhere” blue-water cruiser. But with her sailor-friendly set-up and conveniences, she is, nonetheless, an attractive 31-footer.

We found the 310 maneuverable, reversing course in twice her length or less. We found her relatively close-winded, making good velocity to weather at about 40° from the apparent wind in flat water and light air. She accelerated slowly. She also failed to top 3 knots reaching across a fitful 6- to 8-knot southeasterly on Chesapeake Bay. We concluded she lacked the oomph to move through the water quickly in modest wind pressure. The 310 does not, by our lights, ghost well.

Owners warn each other to “reef early,” but we found her a bit on the stiff side in this admittedly light going. We could see, though, that her rounded bilges provide little form stability and might make her seem tender. One would think, however, that the ballast/displacement ratio of 38% would make her plenty stiff. We’d recommend adjusting sail and course to counter heeling before shrinking her already modest sail plan with a reef.

Deck hardware is intelligently sited, but one owner found that “the sheet stoppers ate up my jib sheets.” The arch solves most mainsheet problems elegantly. Leading a 6:1 double-ended mainsheet (as some owners have done) that trims out of the base of the arch is a refinement we’d suggest.

Conclusions
More (innovation and function) for less (money). A new 310 is priced at $67,950 (FOB Alachua) with full-battened main, roller furling jib, hot and cold pressure water, stove, icebox, safety equipment, Cruise-Pac, and standard Yanmar diesel.

We would prefer the cleaner underbody that comes with the deep keel model but could endure less-than-snappy light air performance in the shoal draft version knowing we were getting a versatile cruiser. She’s very good for creature comfort and livability. We might, therefore, learn to live with her looks.

She’s made well by people we think will be around for the five years covered in her warranty.

 

Contact- Hunter Marine, PO Box 1030, Alachua, FL 32615; 904/462-3077; www.huntermarine.com. e-mail: 104341.56@compuserve.com. Fax: 904/462-4077.

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