Ever since the first surfer discovered he could hang 10 behind a boat’s wake, back in the 1950s, people have been trying to figure a way to do it better … and safer. Wakesurfing is unquestionably the hottest wakesport going, appealing to a wide range of watersports enthusiasts and surfers. The latter are especially enthralled, because they don’t have to go to the ocean to do it, and instead of riding a wave for 10 seconds or so, riders have one big endless wave that keeps going as long as their endurance holds out. In one afternoon, a surfer can compress years of actual riding time. Another reason it’s so popular is it’s much easier on the body than wakeboarding — at only 10 to 12 mph, the crashes are watersports-veteran friendly.
In the last few years, major ski boat companies have taken creating a giant surfing wave to an art form, and inboard V-drive manufacturers — their props tucked safely under the hull — enjoyed serving a market sterndrive manufacturers couldn’t. Bryant Boats did come out with the SportPorch extended platform extension in 2014, which put the prop far enough under the platform to make it legal for wakesurfing, but the real revolution starts in 2015 with Volvo Penta’s Forward Drive. It’s a game-changing propulsion system whose new spin on the sterndrive is to spin the entire unit around 180 degrees in a prop-forward orientation, which places the spinning blades 26 inches farther forward than its standard Duoprop system. Volvo Penta has some experience at this sort of thing, having introduced the IPS pod drive system with twin forward-facing props a decade ago. Those were designed for larger boats to be used in conjunction with the company’s Joystick docking system. Forward Drive is geared for 20-something-foot watersports boats, and companies such as Bryant, Four Winns, Regal and Chaparral are all jumping on the let’s-go-surfing bandwagon.
There are several significant advantages to having a sterndrive vs. an inboard boat. Like it’s conventional rear-facing Duoprop sterndrive system, Volvo Penta’s Forward Drive gives the driver the ability to trim the unit up and down. In the case of the Forward Drive, trimming up points the props down, but because they are facing forward, the effect is the same as trimming up a traditional sterndrive in that the bow goes up and the wake gets bigger. Trimming down all the way helps the boat get out of the hole quickly, since the unit is actually achieving negative trim (pointing slightly upward). Inboards have a propshaft angle, relating to the hull bottom, that vectors away thrust and prevents traditional ski boats from going much faster than the mid-40s, no matter how much horsepower you put the whip to. Because you can trim the Forward Drive, you can reduce wetted surface when cruising, and a boat such as the 22-foot Four Winns TS222 powered by a 5.7L V-8 can achieve a top speed in the low 50s while getting better fuel economy than an inboard.
The major disadvantage is the inability to trim the props up in the water column when traversing shallow water at slow speeds. When you trim up, the bullet-like nosecone actually points farther down in the water and makes the lower unit more vulnerable to bumping the bottom, which makes beaching a boat with this system a hazard, unless you can find a beach with a substantial drop-off near shore. A special trailer with a lower-than-normal center beam in the rear is also needed.
What it’s Like to Drive
I was on the NMMA Innovation Awards judging panel at the most recent Miami Boat Show, and we got some hands-on-the-wheel experience aboard a Regal 2100 RX Surf. One thing you notice immediately is the lack of low-speed wander that’s sort of a rite of passage for most sterndrive owners to master. Having twin counter-rotating props certainly helps, because there’s no prop torque, but having them biting into clean water also seems to play a factor. The first time you turn yields a different feel, because your pivot point is farther forward. Hard turns feel jetboat-like with incredible cornering.
We got a chance to test the engine’s surfing chops with Haley Parker, a tournament-winning amateur wakesurf champion who braved the chilly February water. Conditions were less than ideal with a 25 mph north wind beating on our port beam. Using most of the 1,000 pounds of available ballast, skewed to port along with seven well-fed judges and Regal’s Wake Shaping Tabs, the Forward Drive carved up a large, well-formed wake. Was it as monstrous as the wake from a Tigé ASR or a MasterCraft X25? Nope. Was it big enough to get the job done? Yep.