The word ‘Fortress’ conjures up images of safety, strength, durability, and reliability.
Fortress was the name chosen for one of World War II’s most famous bombers and it renowned for its ability to take a heap of punishment yet still get the crew home.
The McLay 4.4m is also aptly named Fortress, as it exhibits those same qualities of safety, strength, durability and reliability, qualities that have personified McLay for more than a decade.
The hull is rolled rather than pressed from aluminium sheet and features rolled in planning strakes on either side of the centre line, which allow the wing-style hull to lift quickly onto the plane and also to plane at low speeds. This design of the hull also goes a long way to providing a top class ride.
The 4.4m tiller steer dinghy is a great little boat and features a wide 1.85m beam and generous freeboard of 64cm with 3mm aluminium sides and bottom. You could be forgiven for thinking this is just another tinnie, but the Fortress has a number of standard features that set it well apart from the average tinnie.
Foremost among these is the fully welded 3mm checker plate aluminium floor which adds tremendous strength to the hull. This feature also provides the added benefit of a fully sealed airtight chamber under the floor, aiding floatation to a remarkable extent.
An important side benefit of this type of structure is that the centre of gravity is lower than a standard tinnie, which further enhances its handling and safety. The floors are not simply tack welded to the sides either, as two large aluminium stringers run the length of the hull and the floor is also welded to these. The Fortress is built like a battleship and will take a heap of punishment.
Being built in NZ means the boats have to be able to take rough weather and this little Fortress is a beauty. To further strengthen the hull, there is a reinforced keel to prevent damage from grounding on boat ramps, rocks and other rough surfaces.
Creature comfort wise, the 4.4 comes with a standard front casting deck and anchor locker that is self draining together with two pedestal style seats and five seat positions. The boat also has front bow sprit with rope guides and rear grab rails, both of which are quite substantial.
The transom comes standard with a plumbed live bait tank to port and a covered storage bin to starboard, with small rear side pockets for all those bits and pieces anglers need to take in a boat. The flush transom also features a splash well and is designed to be used with a long shaft (500mm leg) outboard .
Reef Marine in Mackay fit these bare hulls out as a full ready to go rig and the standard package includes all the above features plus a gas assist 40hp VMH Yamaha manual start outboard and 20L tank. To further enhance safety, the standard 4.4 comes fitted with a 500GPH bilge pump.
The hull is coated with Nyalic which is a clear very tough finish that takes all the glare from bare aluminium and gives an attractive finish. While it’s not a flash paint job, if it gets scratched or otherwise damaged it is a lot easier to patch and match than a high gloss paint job.
To complete the package, Reef Marine supply a Ruhle 1313WBDH fully galvanised trailer, with galvanised springs and wheel rims all designed again for durability. The trailer is a single axle unit fitted with a jockey wheel, 3:1 winch, Teflon skids and poly roller and is plenty strong enough for the 4.4m boat.
All up the rig as supplied is well set up and water tested before delivery. The outfit is easily towed by a 4 cylinder family size sedan and tracks well and is fitted with quality lights.
So what is this little Fortress like on the water? In a word, sensational
The boat slid easily off the trailer and the split bow rail provides plenty of spots to tie on a painter. On the water, the first thing I noticed was the quick lift onto the plane without that noticeable ‘hump’ that is often a feature of tinnies.
The ride was not quite as quiet as a glass boat but it’s not far behind and it’s certainly the quietest small tinnie I’ve experienced over the last 35 odd years of boating. That sealed air chamber under the floor really cuts out hull noise and gives a tremendous feeling of confidence in the hull.
We headed for the mouth of the river and in the smooth water we powered along at about 52km/h and I marvelled at the ride, smooth and quiet and no fuss. But I knew the mouth of the river would soon show any shortcomings in the hull as the tide was running out against a 15 knot southeasterly wind, producing swells up to about 1.5m and about 3m apart.
This makes for very uncomfortable boating particularly in an open dinghy, but the little 4.4 Fortress took it in its stride. We did bounce a bit and got wet despite the spray chines on either side of the hull, but at no time was there that back destroying bang, bang of tinnies, and not once did I feel the boat could not safely handle the conditions.
Running back in with the wind astern, the boat tracked well and was well balanced with the power of the 40hp Yamaha. Stopping in the middle of this sloppy mess of waves and deliberately getting side on, showed that the hull will not broach easily and again that buoyancy chamber under the floor greatly assists the stability when drifting. The low centre of gravity also helps and is a positive safety feature.
The boat will plane at around 7-9km/h knots, but is really more at home when it is up and away under plenty of power. But that low planning speed will help a lot if you get caught in seas that are rough enough to dictate this slow speed.
Realistically, no sensible angler would be out fishing in the conditions encountered for the review, but it is very reassuring to know that the boat can confidently handle this situation.
Back in the smoother water, I tried out the casting deck while wakes from larger boats went past. I was impressed with the stability; the Fortress was solid without any unexpected lurching or rolling. Two hefty anglers can both move to one side without the boat taking on an alarming lean, which is essential in a fishing dinghy. Netting or gaffing a fish while standing beside the angler would be a piece of cake in this tinnie.
As is commonly the case in an open dinghy, there is plenty of room to move about, but mounting of a sounder and a GPS unit would likely have to be out in the open. This is not a fault, but simply a by-product of open dinghy design restrictions.
Back to the boat ramp, and the tinnie was easily loaded onto the trailer, for the trip back to the Reef Marine’s showroom and workshop.
The New Zealand made Fortress boats are distributed by Reef Marine of Mackay who have a long association with the McLay range. Greg Camilleri of Reef Marine is very enthusiastic about the McLay boats and has never had a warranty issue with one.
The standard 4.4m Fortress fitted out as detailed above sells for $19,430, which is right in the market price range. What sets this boat apart is that fully welded in floor, the solidness of the hull and the ride, which makes it great value for money.
Various upgrades and accessories are available from Reef Marine to enable each boat to be custom fitted out. The 4.4 Fortress is rated for 40-60hp motors and I would go for either the 40hp or 50hp two-stroke. If you chose to upgrade to the 50hp or even 60hp, then Reef Marine can include the upgrade in the package.
Other accessories that can be fitted include a 50L tank under the casting deck, rear step, alloy rod holders and a side console with cable steering. The guys Reef Marine have the gear to fully customise and outfit your Fortress.
I found almost everything about the McLay 4.4 Fortress to my liking. It is solidly built, safe, stylish, and a very angler friendly dinghy. The price is right in the market and represents great value for money.
One thing that I believe can be improved on the basic hull. While it’s only small thing, there is no provision for bow mounting an electric outboard. With the boom in freshwater impoundment fishing and the use of electric outboards in a whole range of fishing scenarios, I think that should be mandatory on all small tinnies.
Overall the worst thing about the review of the McLay 4.4m Fortress was giving the boat back at the end. It is a very impressive little boat and I would have no hesitation in recommending one to any angler in the hunt for a tinnie of this size.
For more information call in and see the boys at Reef Marine at 26 Prospect Street, Mackay, telephone 07 4957 3521 or visit their website www.reefmarine.net.Reads: 4455