Senator 540 Hardtop

Hardtops extend crew comfort and sea keeping but their extra weight and height can compromise small boat stability and style. But Senator Boats has accentuated the positives and eliminated the negatives in its 540 hardcore diving and fishing package. Geoff Green investigates.

Senator 540 Hardtop
Senator 540 Hardtop

Firman's Marine has been operating from the same site in Napier for so long it has become a landmark for locals and visitors alike. Ray Firman took on a Mercury franchise in 1971 and although the business has since been sold - to his son Brian - black engines still grace the showroom floor an unbroken 30 years later. The company also sells Yamaha outboards, and on the new boat front, it has Haines Hunter, McLay and Senator on the yard.

Firman's Marine is more than a dealer for Senator Boats. The company has sole marketing rights to the range produced by Wayne McK inley in his Napier factory and it purchases his entire output - about 60 boats per year.

Within the marketing agreement, Firman's Marine has recently appointed Mr Boats, Christchurch, as the sole South Island Senator dealer, and a similar North Island relationship has been in place with Rollo's Marine, Hamilton, for the past four years.

Wayne, a marine fabricator and welder by trade, built his first hull for private use about 12 years ago and established the Senator factory in 1994.

Initially he produced 4.7m and 5.7m pontoon designs, but has since expanded the upper limits of his production range to include 7m pontoon boats and 9.7m standard monohulls. He has also custom built larger one-off vessels and evidence of this could be seen at the side of the factory, where a good-looking 13.5m gamefishing launch was at the lockup stage.

Wayne says the single most popular boat in Senator's range is the 585 Hardtop pontoon model. "It's a size that is easily towed and beach launched, but on a good day it can safely venture 20 or 30 miles offshore.

"The 540 Hardtop is a scaled down version of the 585, but it's still safe, still dry, easily driven and even easier to tow and launch. There's not much else in the pontoon market that offers hardtop protection in such a compact package. It's also going to be a popular model."

The 540 Hardtop is a relatively new model for Senator, although Wayne says he has produced a 540 cuddy cabin version for over two years. "There's about 20 540 Cuddies out there and this hardtop model is number four off the line," he says.

To complete the review I caught the early flight to Napier and, after a visit to the factory and a run down on the 540's features, Brian left me with the boat at the ramp. For company, he had organised three keen divers - Rick, Jock and Kate - all from Napier's Dive HQ. "Use the boat for the day and tell me what you think," he said to us all before he left to go back to work.

It was excellent to be with locals not intent on giving me the hard sell and to be able to use the boat as intended. Each diver had a full dive kit and a spare tank for a second dive, plus Brian had put a large chilly bin (containing bait and berley), fish bin, tackle box and four fishing rods aboard.

There was also my bulky camera case, a jumbo first-aid kit courtesy of Dive HQ and four life jackets, as well as everyone's personal gear. All in all, we packed a full expedition load and with 80 litres of gas in the under-floor tank and two spare totes to extend our range, the Hawke's Bay crayfish were nervous.

Launching the 540 off the multi-roller DMW trailer (standard under all Senator models) was a piece of ease and, although the interior was a little busy, there was space for everyone and every thing. The spare dive cylinders went in the side pockets designed for the purpose (room for three per side) and the rods went in the rod rack on the aft edge of the hardtop (standard feature). A fair bit of the light gear went forward where it was retained by the baggage rail cum foot-rests.

The king and queen seat bases held the life jackets and some of the personal gear and, had we thought about it, the central under-floor storage bin would have been the ideal place to toss the weight belts. But we didn't, so the locker remained empty and the weight belts were dumped on the deck tread floor (the floor is not full width and about 150mm of the hull is exposed on either side of the sealed floor chambers).

Recommend power for the 540 is between 75 and 130hp. The review boat was fitted with a 125hp Mercury, which provided ample power and a good cruising speed. A 75hp engine would not provide the same capable diving package but I think a 115hp would do the job. If diving or serious fishing are a passion, the 540 rule of thumb would be to fit 100hp or more.

While we had fuel to burn our first stop was within sight of home, close to the northern buoy at the end of Pania reef just off the Napier harbour entrance.

I was boat boy and got to anchor (no trouble via the big Weaver hatch in the foredeck) and observe. No one gave much thought to weight placement and the boat coped well with divers sitting on - and rolling off - the sides. There wasn't much to the easterly wind, although it was cool and predicted to build later in the day, and I whiled away the duration of the dive in the comfort of the hardtop.

Underwater visibility was minimal (many rivers empty into Hawkes Bay and the easterlies stir up the sediment) and the crayfish remained unseen. Our chilled divers suggested a sure-fire spot to the north and so we made a 35-minute run up the coast. Standing or sitting, the driving position was comfortable and I came to appreciate the 540's capabilities. It had good balance, rode well in the light chop and looked after everyone by keeping us out of the slipstream and in the weak sun filtering into the hardtop.

The sure-fire spot was marked by aging buoys and the pots beneath them had been left untouched by the owner (Rick's mate) for our benefit. Pulling up the pots was an enlightening experience in many respects. Rick is a big, solid guy, but he needed help to lift the large, steel mesh pot and so we ended up with two men and a heavy pot on one side. Curiosity drew Kate to the scene and I have to admit I inched across to get a preview of the contents. The Senator passed the stability test very well.

Unfortunately, we didn't get through the MFish inspection in such good shape. The Napier compliance officer, whom we had thought was another mid-week pot raider like ourselves, caught us slimey handed with the pot on the side, flapping bugs on the floor and ... no name or phone number on the buoy. At the time I wondered how I was going to tell Mr Firman that, while I knew where his boat was, I couldn't give it back to him but he would get the chance to bid for it at auction.

Thankfully, it didn't come to that, and once the details were sorted (the name was there but mostly worn off) I chatted to Craig, the compliance officer, about his work and what he encountered along the coast. I have to admit one of the legal-sized proceeds eventually found its way into my backpack and it was smuggled aboard an Air New Zealand Link flight where I found myself in trouble with the authorities for the second time that day.

"Sir, could you please keep that bag under the seat in front."

The run back to the reef off Napier went pretty much like the trip to the sure-fire spot and the Senator continued to endear itself to everyone aboard. While I had no issues with the boat, I am not sold on Mercury's fuel saving idea that eliminates two cylinders from the combustion sequence when the engine is running at less than 1800rpm.

The rig's sweet spot was at 4150rpm, at which point the engine was off load and running quietest and we were moving along at a relaxed 28mph (approximate transit times corroborated the speedo). Four thousand five hundred rpm delivered 31mph, which was a good clip considering the waterlogged load and double run-in fuel mix. I didn't try the top speed because the engine was still running in.

After another dive - once again I had the anchoring job and had to mind the hardtop - we made a beeline for home. The easterly had built a little by this stage and there was a reasonable chop, the odd white cap and a mild swell to contend with in the harbour entrance (wind against the river tide).

The 540 tracked well, running down and across the wave pattern at 28mph, and from what I could ascertain in the two-mile run it was both dry and soft riding.

Once back on the trailer (easy), I collected my thoughts about the boat.

For a hardtop model it is relatively small at 5.4m but it carries it well - stability and balance have not been compromised. I would have liked to experienced the boat in a strong crosswind, although the boat's 17-degree deadrise at the transom makes it relatively unconcerned with minor weight imbalances and wind loadings may not effect it much either.

At a guess, you may need to shift a passenger or gear from one side to the other but that's easily done and no hardship. There is 1.82m headroom in the hardtop and the Senator looked pretty good from all angles considering the market it is aimed at.

There are all sorts of variations of the pontoon theme on the market and Senator has developed its own particular design style. Their pontoons are shallow, elongated D-sections (to generate topside height without the need for cappings) and the internal face is scalloped out so that side pocket storage can be provided while maximising the internal beam.

The 3mm thick pontoons are the first items built and they are laid upside down on a jig and the 5mm hull is built around them. The pontoons are divided into a total of three sealed sections.

Wayne says there is enough buoyancy in the two sealed underfloor compartments to float the boat and that the pontoons just offer extra insurance and increased stability so it won't roll over when swamped. "We have left the bung out on purpose and nothing happened except a bit of water backed up over the floor," he says.

The increased protection afforded by the hardtop (for people, electronics and gear) and its water shedding potential when crossing a bar or beach launching through the surf (6mm toughened glass all round), coupled with the pontoon design, makes the Senator a compact but very capable rig.

I thought it worked very well and it's a good design that will probably be the best seller Brian thinks it will be.

Senator 540 Hardtop
Length overall: 5.58m
Beam overall: 2.06m
Internal beam: 1.6m
Deadrise: 17 degrees at transom
HP rating: 75-130
Hull construction: 5mm hull, 3mm pontoons and floor
Hull weight: 500kg
Mercury 125 Classic
Power: 125hp
Cylinders: 4 in-line
Capacity: 1848cc
Key start package with 90hp Yamaha and DMW trailer from $34,820 incl GST.
As tested: $39,995 including GST
Boat supplied by: Firman's Marine Centre 43 Pandora Rd, Napier Ph 06 835 9718, Fax 06 835 6223 Email:

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