Hokulani: Heavenly Star

For the Hood family of Westport, Connecticut, a Sea Ray SLX is a touch from heaven.

The curb appeal of Jim and Julia Hood’s rambling home on Compo Beach in Connecticut is massive, but even more so, the smile appeal of the family that lives within. Even Oliver the English Setter is amenable as teenagers tumble about, changing out of school clothes and preparing for an afternoon of fun on the water. Through almost every window of the house you can see a yawning Long Island Sound and feel the promise of its shimmer.

The SLX's seating passes the crucial teen test.

The source of the Hoods’ fondest family-oriented fun is a sprawling, teak-drenched 350 SLX, a boat of the bow rider persuasion crossed with the luxurious amenities and spaciousness of a cruiser. “It has designated seats for 18 adults,” Jim says, “and that’s not an exaggeration. It seats 18 full-sized adults comfortably, with nobody scrunched in. We have friends with 40-foot boats that can’t seat as many, and only three or four of their guests can be outside in the sun. That wouldn’t do for our family. We love the wind and the salt and the warmth of summer. This boat offers shady areas, yet plenty of options for sun, too.”

This is the Hoods’ first season with the SLX, and also the first summer they’ve had a slip in the Compo Marina, just a short walk from their home. “We were on the waiting list for 20 years,” Jim explains, “and when we finally got the space, we were required to put in a larger boat than the one we currently owned. We’d always loved Sea Ray, and wanted a bow rider–style boat—something family-oriented with open platforms for socializing and play—but the minimum size requirement for the slip was 35 feet. Amazingly, the all-new 350 SLX was announced just when we needed it.”

Almost immediately Jim, ever trusting of his local MarineMax salesman Dave Dzurilla and the Sea Ray brand, ordered up an SLX with all the trimmings. “I bought it sight unseen,” he says. “The only thing I had to go on were schematics and renderings, but I just knew it would work for us.” When Dzurilla delivered the boat, just after sunup on Memorial Day, the family was floored—especially the couple’s kids, Sebastian, who attends the George Washington University, and teenagers Brittany and Karalyn. “You’d think we’d bought the Queen Mary,” Jim says. “Everyone was so wowed by it.”

Swim platforms were made for joyful leaping.

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And so began a summer of fun for the Hoods and a nonstop parade of family friends. “Having a boat like this is like having a floating entertainment center,” Jim says. “It’s just so practical. We can take a dozen people out without anyone ever bumping into anyone else. Everybody has a seat and there’s plenty of room for food and drinks.” This works especially well for mixing adults who want to relax and chat with kids who want to play in the water. “It’s almost like having a furnished patio, a kitchen, a living room and a bright, airy, civilized bathroom in a house. You’re together, but you can have physical separation and privacy.”

The SLX’s layout also works well for partitioning groups of teenagers. Aside from the occasional photo bomb, Brittany (16) can have her pack of pals onboard for a day of fun without overlapping Karalyn (13) and her friends. Brittany just received her captain’s license and takes great pride in her turns at the helm, especially putting the Axius joystick to work while docking.

“It’s incredible,” Jim says of the Axius option. “I’ve been driving boats all my life so I’m very comfortable with single- or twin-engine operation. Having said that, the Axius is a dream. What it does for people who are a little less confident is offer extraordinary refinement of control.”

Jim also opted for teak throughout the SLX, another upgrade he can’t say enough about. “It’s gorgeous. The regular fiberglass with the carpet works fine, but there’s nothing like the look of the teak, the way it smells and even the way it feels on your feet. We also upgraded the stereo because we all love listening to music. It’s Bluetooth-enabled so the kids just push a couple buttons on their phones and we’re listening to something cool.”

And such is the curb appeal of the Hoods’ life: You see a beautiful family racing along in a gorgeous new boat, music pumping, kids snapping selfies, adults in repose, and you can’t help but assume, “Wow. They’ve got it all.” But in deeper thought we all know, no matter the luster, no life is a boatload of pure happiness.

If you were to look more closely you might notice that tucked discretely near the helm of the Hoods’ SLX is a photo of a fourth child, smiling and vibrant. Austin, son and brother, was taken from the family suddenly while away at college the year before. There can be no crueler blow. The 350 SLX is a physical celebration of his love for life, and especially his love for the ocean and water sports. The boat, Hokulani or “Heavenly Star” in Hawaiian, is named for Austin.

“There’s no ‘happy part’ to that,’” Jim says. “But the more positive part is that every time I see this boat and the name on it I feel a little warmth in my heart. It’s never easy, and you can’t talk about it all the time, but when you commemorate someone in a way like this it allows people to remember without saying anything. Without having a therapy session every time. When everyone sees the boat and the name there’s no way not to remember what it all means. Whether that makes you sad or it brightens your heart or brings up a particular memory of a time you were with that person, it can only be positive and healthy.”

Nature makes the best office space.

When he’s not traveling for business, Jim and the family’s grinning dog, Oliver, spend their share of weekday hours on Hokulani. The management consultant works from his laptop as the SLX swings taut in the Sound’s urgent tides. Jim also connects with his memories. “Having a physical representation that I see every day, that I touch and experience, brings me closer to my son.” The boat and the days spent enjoying it has also brought him closer to Sebastian, Brittany, Karalyn, Julia and their abundance of friends.

“We are so lucky to live here and have so many ways to engage in the water,” he says. “Some people might have a house on the shoreline and look out, but they miss so much. It’s something altogether different to be in the boat. Not only does the water have different personalities as the weather and seasons change, your days have different personalities. Sometimes you go out and the kids just want to laugh and bounce on the tubes or wakeboard, other times you just want to drive fast and feel the wind in your hair. Then there are times when you just putter along the coastline and have nice conversation, or you take a two-hour trip just to get to a great restaurant that you’d never take the time to drive to in a car.”

To extend the prized New England boating season, the Hoods put up the SLX’s isinglass and turn the sleek bow rider into a cool-season cruiser. “On a summer day we can open the big sunroof and see the sky and feel more of the environment,” Jim says, “but when it’s a little chilly the whole main cabin can be enclosed in the isinglass. Twelve people can be comfortable and very warm.”

The only trouble the family has with the new boat is choosing how to use it. “It’s about 11 miles across the Sound to the incredibly pretty waterfront towns of Greenport, Smithtown and Northport. If we want we can do that in 20 minutes, but more often we’ll go over at a gentle speed so people can talk and relax. We’ll have brunch at one of the restaurants we enjoy, then get back in the boat and putter home. Pretty soon it’s five hours later, and all of a sudden you’ve realized you just had a great day!”

For all of the awareness, fun and comfort it brings, the Hood family wouldn’t trade their Sea Ray for nearly anything. “We cherish this boat and our time on the water,” Jim says. “It adds so much to our lives and the quality of our days.”

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