Senator 780W

Things quickly get confusing for anyone buying a new boat – after a while all models start to look the same and vital statistics begin to blur. At about this time the heart takes over and the best-looking boat is often the one that ends up being towed home. Lindsay Wright reports.

Senator 780W
Senator 780W
Senator Boat’s owner, Wayne McKinlay, may or may not be aware of this, but either way he has tackled the difficult task of making pontoon boats look good and come out on top.

McKinlay is a man of many boats ( he’s built about 500 in the last six years) but few words, so he lets Murray Thomsen, Firman’s Marine sales manager, do the talking for the launch of the new Senator 780W (wide body).

"Most of our market research comes from talking to customers," says Thomsen. "We could see people wanted a bit bigger boat, a more stable fishing platform, and a bit more comfort to go away camping with the family. A big, soft-riding, safe and capable boat – for people who don’t mind spending $100 or so a year for an overwidth towing permit."


A large component of the Senator pontoon boats’ styling comes from the folded 3mm plating used to build the pontoons. "The folds break up that big, ugly plane area," says Thomsen. The pontoons are tapered towards the bow to give the boat sheer and separated into three, separate chambers by watertight bulkheads.

Below the pontoons, the Senator 780 packs extra buoyancy tanks either side under a 4mm treadplate cockpit floor – giving her about 2500kg total buoyancy, says Thomsen after a quick calculation. Four, full-length stringers and keel bar add strength to the nuggety build scantlings and all welding, inside and out, has good penetration and buildup. "Some boat builders grind the welds off for a smoother finish – we don’t because we believe that reduces strength."

Several Senator boats are in commercial use with DOC, the Ministry of Fisheries and NIWA and are valued for their stability and load-carrying capacity. All hulls are all to survey standard.

But there’s nothing commercial about the 780’s interior finish. The red and grey colour-coded upholstery, crafted by Napier’s Charman Motor Trimmers, blends with the grey Lidowall marine carpet, as does the upholstery on the 1.9m bunks forward. One thoughtful touch is the carpet wrapped around cabinetry edges with the ridges running horizontally, as opposed to the vertical ridges on the bulkheads and hardtop interior.

The 780W is full of thoughtful touches. It must have one of the highest handrail per metre counts of any leisure boat on the market. Full-length alloy rails are fitted inside the dodger deckhead and curve out to the aft corners. Other handrails run the length of the hardtop roof and there’s a handy ridge at the aft end to prevent extra water from coming over the top and being sucked inside in rough conditions.

Settling into the thick foam seats in the 780W, there is plenty of all round visibility through the 6mm tinted toughened glass windows and the sliding side windows allow plenty of cross draught. The hardtop feels solid and secure.

Controls fall readily to hand from the skipper’s seat, though it takes a bit of a stretch to reach for the Furuno GP 7000F GPS unit. "All the wiring is done in-house," says Thomsen, "and we can fit anything an owner wants."

A lockable, bifold sliding door provides access to the forward cabin – Murray says the door may be replaced by a single slider and part bulkhead in later models, as it could develop a rattle when the boat gets a bit older. "This is still very much a prototype model – we’re still open to ideas."

A chemical toilet is stowed beneath the Vee berth and storage bins occupy space beneath the squabs. "We can put watertight hatches inside the pontoons – so people can use that area for stowage too, if they want." A tinted Weaver hatch allows in plenty of sunlight and fresh air – and access to the anchor windlass.

The niftiest touch of all is the galley unit. The passenger seat is mounted on a cabinet which rolls back to reveal a complete kitchen unit. It features a two-burner cook top and stainless steel sink, with aluminium gas bottle, sink and 20-litre water container stowed neatly beneath it.

More thought has gone into providing plenty of that rarest of boating commodities – stowage space. For a start there’s room for eight dive bottles in the full-length shelves running either side of the cockpit. Life-jackets fit in a locker under the skipper’s seat and there are deep bins beside both seats for cell phones, keys and other belongings. Two big bins forward (under the cockpit floor) are separated by a bulkhead, so they can be used either wet or dry for live bait or fish, or gear stowage.

The ‘W’ part of the 780W comes into play in the cockpit: with a generous internal beam of 2.11m there’s room for a gang of fishers and the wide gunwale provides good sitting room for overside angling. The gunwale comes in at mid-thigh on my 1.9m frame and a ridge in the cockpit provides good toeholds when leaning outboard. The step-through transom door (to port) has nylon sliders to prevent any rattling and a boarding ladder folds down for easy access from the water.

Walking forward is safe courtesy of the generous side decks atop the pontoons and the hardtop handrail. A small wavebreak is fitted to deflect any water coming over the bows and an eight-holder, rocket launcher is standard.

On the foredeck, a hefty aluminium bollard is welded to the deck, and offset to allow for an anchor windlass. All cleats are welded to the deck or hardtop.

The 780W is no lightweight – all up towing weight is 2480kg – and Thomsen says recommended horsepower is in the 200 – 300 range. An ultra smooth 250 horsepower Mercury Verado hangs off the transom of the test boat, taking its fuel from a 400-litre, centrally-mounted, underfloor fuel tank.

The tank filler is mounted on the stern coaming and feeds through a surge box which allows for fuel expansion problems on hot summer days. The Verado’s air intake is fitted inside the transom coaming to minimize the intake of engine-damaging salt spray.

Thomsen says twin engines are an option for the boat, and mounting them outboard either side of the transom will reduce draught for shallow water work.

Three batteries provide cranking power – operating through a Voltage Sensing Relay which monitors individual batteries and charges them accordingly.


A few days of mucky, midwinter easterlies were behind a two meter swell – the colour of pean and ham soup – that rolled into Hawkes Bay as the 780W and a Senator 750 photo boat powered out of Napier’s Iron Pot boat basin on the day of the test.

The first few centimeters of travel on the Mercury Smart Craft Digital Throttle and Shift ("Fly by wire") brought the big Merc’s impressive low-end torque into play and the 780’s transition to planing mode was so smooth it was almost undetectable.

At 25 knots over the big, lazy swell, the 780 got a bit of air but never looked like being fussed and the 22 degree deadrise transom made the re-entry crunch free. This is a heavy boat – make no mistake – and the weight makes itself felt in the smooth, predictable ride.
There’s very little hull slapping or water noise and the Teleflex electric steering felt positive and gave reasonable feedback from the business end.

There are no strakes on the 6mm thick alloy hull and the downturned chine does a good job of firing water away from the boat, leaving the hardtop windows almost speck-free. At rest the boat rode easily and a boat-to-boat photographer transfer, from 750 to 780W, was accomplished without drama. Senator builds boats to go places; one of the company’s 1020 Offshore Series is charter fishing from Norfolk Island and was delivered there under its own steam.

Back at the Iron Pot the 780W powers easily onto the DMW Premier dual-axle trailer. DMW trailers are standard with all Senator boats and Thomsen recommends sensor braking when towing the 780W.

It all fits together quite nicely, thank you, and will scrap a few preconceived notions about ugly pontoon boats. The 780W is a top line offshore power boat – with the additional buoyancy benefit provided by the pontoons.

Specifications Senator 780W (Price as tested $133,000)

LOA 7.97m
Hull length 7.8m (bow to outboard bracket)
Beam 2.7m (outside pontoons)
2.11m (inside pontoons)
Height on trailer 3.17m
Length on trailer 9.23m
Transom height 63.5cm
Transom deadrise 22 degrees
Weight on trailer 2480kg
Hull thickness 6mm
Deck thickness 4mm
Pontoon thickness 3mm

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