“The wakesurfing market continues to be popular and something that consumers want to do,” Dan Ryks, category manager for sterndrive and inboard propulsion at Mercury Marine, tells Soundings Trade Only. “The product has landed exactly where we expected it to be.”
Ryks is referring to the company’s MerCruiser Bravo Four S forward-facing drive, which came to market in mid-August and is aimed at the robust wakesurf category. The Bravo Four S is a sterndrive with the propellers mounted on the front so they are beneath the bottom of the boat. The drive will be paired with enhanced Smart Two digital controls that integrate with the boat’s wake and ballast systems.
To create the Bravo Four S, Mercury Marine used computer-aided design for concept refinement, and robots to laser-cut the components. Additionally, the company leveraged its decades of experience with the Bravo Three twin-propeller sterndrive.
One area Mercury focused on was quieter boating. The engine company invested millions in a facility to reduce noise, vibration and harshness at its Fond du Lac, Wis., headquarters. Ryks says a great deal of effort went into minimizing the three elements on the Bravo Four S.
The upper section of the Bravo Four S is essentially the same as a Bravo Three, except for the badging. The lower unit is the new component with the propellers on the front and an exhaust outlet in the rear. The unit has a deep skeg; Ryks says the diameter of the new drive’s lower gearcase is a little larger than that of a Bravo Three. The propellers are all-new designs with a four-blade prop in the front and a three-blade aft.
Mercury’s propeller division made five new sets of stainless-steel wheels for the Bravo Four S. They’re the same diameter as Bravo Three prop sets, and the pitches range from 19½ inches to 25½ inches in 1½-inch increments. There are three choices of gear ratio: 2.2-to-1, 2-to-1 and 1.81-to-1. Ryks says the 2.2-to-1 should be the most common selection. The gears are similar to those used in the Bravo Three and are spiral-cut from hardened steel.
The new drive can be paired with a 250-hp, 4.5-liter V-6; 350-hp, 6.2-liter V-8; or 430-hp, 8.2-liter V-8. In keeping with the focus on reducing noise, the engines have the throttle body pointing toward the stern to help reduce intake sounds.
While the size of boats that the drive will be used on should be anywhere from 20 to 30 feet, Ryks says the engine and drive packages will be focused more on the horsepower than boat size.
The Bravo Four S should feel familiar to boatbuilders. The transom assembly is the same as the one used on a Bravo Three, and the new drive doesn’t need special tools for installation. The X-dimension is also the same, and the gearcase is tall enough that the propellers are spaced properly from the hull. Transom assembly remains the same.
“One of the things we wanted to maintain with OEMs was the installation process,” Ryks says. “The Bravo Four S is an easy choice if a builder offers a sterndrive surf model already. It can slot into a traditional runabout, but there might be other changes made to make it a true surf boat.”
Compared to an inboard boat, a sterndrive with a trimmable, steerable drive maintains an advantage in handling and efficiency because users can trim out the drive to reduce drag. The experience on the water is similar to one with a conventional sterndrive, except that the Bravo Four S can make a boat turn more deftly than with an aft-facing drive.
“It’s going to be a tighter turn radius that gives it an interesting handle,” Ryks says. “We’ll be able to handle tight corners well.”
One reason for the handling is that the position of the propellers puts them in cleaner, denser water. With a conventional sterndrive, the forward part of the drive cuts through the water, sending aerated water past the drive to the propellers. On a forward-facing drive, the propellers have no obstruction forward, so they get a cleaner bite, which gives them more grip. That grip translates into tighter turns.
Chaparral Boats was one of the first companies to get a prototype Bravo Four S, and Austin Ashley, a marketing/product specialist for the company, did much of the driving on the Chaparral 23 Surf equipped with the drive. “When you turn, it’s definitely quicker,” he says.
There’s more to MerCruiser’s entry into the wakesurfing world than the forward-facing drive. The Bravo Four S also comes with an enhanced version of Smart Tow for wakesurfing and other tow sports.
Smart Tow is a system of digital controls that includes launch-intensity presets, allowing users to select wake characteristics and set the speed as low as 7 knots, among other features. Ballast control comes through CZone, which is available on the same digital display.
“We feel the need to supply a total package to our OEMs,” Ryks says, adding that Smart Tow is compatible with Medallion and Murphy control systems, as well as a number of multifunction displays. “As long as an actuator is compatible with our software, we’re OK to operate with that.”
Mercury will not be offering its own ballast systems, nor building its own wake-shaping tabs. Builders will continue to rely on compatible products. Chaparral, for example, licenses Malibu Boats’ wake-shaping systems that use side gates and tabs. Smart Tow is compatible with that setup.
After spending time with the Bravo Four S in the Chaparral 23 Surf, Ashley says he thought the new drive would be popular because so many consumers are loyal to MerCruiser — and may have wanted the brand to release a product of this nature.
“Where this is going to come in is reaching the crowd that is die-hard MerCruiser, and it will be able to help us reach a wider customer base,” he says.
While he had expected MerCruiser to come out with its own wakesurf drive sooner, he says, “I applaud Mercury for not rushing it to market without being ready.”
Based on his experience with the Volvo Penta and MerCruiser drives, Ashley says customers have bought into forward-facing drives as a way to get good wake-sports results. “You have the benefits of the sterndrive, and you can fill it full of ballast, put the back end in the water and create a good wake,” Ashley says.
Ryks adds: “That’s the fun part of a drive like this. It’s meant for fun experiences.”
This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.