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Morris 454

2008 November 10

The soul of this elegant, superbly engineered racer-cruiser is in its breathtaking speed

Tom Morris does not build a lot of sailboats; indeed, he produces just a handful or two every year. But those that do come down the ways of the new Morris Yachts facility in Trenton, Maine, are exceedingly well built. When Morris introduces a new model, it invariably causes a stir in the sailing community. A new Morris is sure to offer an interesting blend of performance and styling with an unmistakable Down East pedigree. In some ways Tom Morris is a visionary, using the latest technology to create fast, high-performance boats with lightweight but thoughtful interiors. In other ways, however, he is a throwback, committed to building boats that can win races, cruise offshore, look beautiful from afar or alongside the quay and serve as a lifetime investment. I'm not sure if he would rather have his boats shock sailors with a surprising turn of speed or take their breath away when first glimpsed lying in a secluded mooring. The new Morris 454, which just may be the most intriguing project yet, will quite possibly do both.

The 454 is a joint project between Morris, Chuck Paine and epoxy guru Mark Lindsay. The design has Paine's signature stamped all over it. Paine has a deft touch, and he has drawn a raised saloon pilothouse that blends naturally into the overall lines of the boat, not an easy task. The bright, well-laid-out interior appeals to cruisers, but it's the efficient, easily driven hull with a long waterline aimed at achieving all-out speed that is the soul of this boat. While the fit and finish have the usual Morris excellence, the structural work has been farmed out to Lindsay and is completed at Boston BoatWorks.

I recently sailed Firefly, hull No. 1, on a cool, cloudy day on the Chesapeake Bay. We didn't have quite enough wind to put the 454 through her paces, but there was enough breeze to clearly appreciate the potential of this world-class yacht.

The details
The hull and deck are made from E-glass and Kevlar reinforcements in a vacuum-bagged, post-cured epoxy laminate over a closed-cell foam core. This construction technique avoids the IMS rating penalty for the use of carbon in the hull. Morris said that when the construction technique is properly engineered and applied, a cored epoxy hull is as seaworthy as a conventional hull. He also noted that it is not necessarily more expensive to repair this type of hull and it offers extended longevity over other hull materials.

The performance advantages of a lightweight hull are clear: the hull has high strength-to-weight and weight-to-displacement ratios and is incredibly stiff. From the cruising perspective, reducing weight in the hull allows for more tankage and gear stowage without forcing the boat down on her lines. The epoxy construction also allows builders more range when it comes to aesthetics, and there is a degree of sculpting that can't be achieved with other materials. The finished laminated hull is then shipped to Morris Yachts for completion.

The upper half of the welded stainless steel fin keel is hollow, creating a bilge sump. This is an innovative solution for preventing slimy bilge water from sloshing onto the cabin sole when the boat is heeled, a problem that afflicts many flat bottom boats. The lower section is an inverted anvil-shaped lead bulb.

The ballast-to-displacement ratio is 42 percent and with the husky bulb placed at the bottom of the 8-foot keel section, you should not need a lot of crew weight riding on the rail to keep the 454 upright when racing to weather in a blow.

On deck
Paine's raised deck design is just a few inches higher than a more conventional coachroof. This becomes apparent when you take the wheel, where visibility is not impeded in the least. The scooped out 58-inch carbon fiber wheel enables the helmsperson to sit on the rail edge for an unobstructed view of the headsail.

The steering system is a Kevlar rope drive with a carbon rudder and stock. It was impressively soft and responsive and even during the few puffs we experienced there was virtually no weather helm. The forward part of the cockpit has comfortable seatbacks, which would be snug tucked under a spray dodger. Together with a transom swim step, these features reflect the genuine cruising intent of the 454.

The mainsheet traveler runs just forward of the wheel, effectively dividing the cockpit into trimming and steering stations. The trend in cruising boats is to move the mainsheet forward, out of the cockpit and over the companionway, but this is inefficient and increases the load on the boom. I have a feeling that midboom sheeting was never an option when the 454 was conceived, reflecting the performance side of the design. It seems that a genuine racer-cruiser can still be produced, but it took an innovative builder like Tom Morris to really pull it off.

Moving forward, the deck has an aggressive nonskid surface and well-placed wooden handrails. The stanchions are ably supported, but be aware of the short support arms that extend outward. Stout chocks through the toerail include provisions for amidship springs, essential for a boat this size. Overall, the deck hardware is primarily high-quality Harken.

Eight opening overhead hatches and a couple of Dorade vents provide plenty of ventilation below. The six sleek portlights along the hull are fixed, which let in light but not water, a proper arrangement. Morris is particularly proud of the lovely "picture windows," as he calls them, in the pilothouse, which are actually bent at about midheight. This is a difficult manufacturing process but creased windows are 86 times stiffer than flat planes.

The mast is carbon fiber made by GMT and the rig is 15/16, just slightly fractional. The standing rigging is discontinuous rod. While each owner can address sail inventory individually, the sailplan is designed to be convertible, allowing for different philosophies for racing and cruising. When competing, both Paine and Morris suggest that the 454 should carry a large, roachy main with a maximum 152 percent overlapping genoa. With a hull shape designed to prosper in light air, this could make the boat a bit tender during short-handed cruising situations. The main should then be converted to a smaller, flatter, full-batten sail used in conjunction with a roller-furling 100-percent jib. This will provide more than enough horsepower in all but the lightest air and keep the boat on its feet in a real blow offshore.

Morris recommends the Harken Battcar system for both racing and cruising mains. Both symmetrical and asymmetrical chutes are designed to be flown from the masthead. The genoa tracks run close along the cabin sides, and along with the single-pod, inboard chainplates, provide very tight sheeting angles. Despite the cruising look of the boat, the 454 can hold its own with most of the one-design boats upwind.

Down below
Of course the first thing you notice about Firefly's interior is how bright it is belowdecks. My own experience has shown that people tend to feel better when the interior is filled with natural light and the sea and horizon are visible. The second thing you notice is the varnished butternut trim. It is a distinctive, handsome wood, and of course, it's lightweight. Weight considerations have been cleverly masked throughout the elegant interior; for example, the joinerwork is made of cored panels. I was actually surprised to see Corian countertops and a microwave in the galley. But they sure look nice.

The arrangement includes a V-berth cabin forward, with a private head and large hanging locker opposite. The saloon is located below the pilothouse, with an offset table and settees that can form excellent sea berths. The pilothouse area includes a large U-shaped galley to port with the nav station opposite. This is a wonderful arrangement, as the galley and nav area are where you tend to spend the bulk of your time below, especially while under way.

In fact, as we clipped along Tom Morris and I sat chatting in the pilothouse and it was quite pleasant. Tom pointed out, and I had to agree, that the boat felt soft in the water, and it was very quiet below.

The aft cabin has single berths on either side, which also can serve as excellent sea berths. There is another head to starboard with a hanging locker opposite. Different interior plans that suit an owner's individual preferences and tastes can be accommodated due to the semicustom production of each 454.

The 454 is powered by a 51-horsepower Yanmar saildrive that provides plenty of punch without the need for turbo charging. It also offers good fuel economy. Access to the engine is excellent from behind the companionway and through a removable panel in the aft cabin. In fact, the engine actually faces aft, allowing for most service points to be reached from this handy access point. The 60-gallon fuel tank is aluminum while stainless water tanks hold a total of 82 gallons.

Under sail
Taking the helm I was impressed with how light the boat felt as it moved through the water. Of course, the huge carbon wheel is so light it makes steering a two-finger chore. We were sailing on a moderate reach, with a working jib on a roller furler and full main. The apparent wind vacillated between 8 and 14 knots but our speed never dipped below 7 knots and occasionally even flirted with 9. The Chesapeake Bay had its usual chop, especially as we neared the ship channel, but the Morris 454 sliced through the water without wetting the foredeck.

Trimming the sheets, I took the wheel and steered upwind. We maintained speed at more than 7.5 knots through 35 degrees apparent. The sail-control systems are well designed as the crew aggressively trimmed the powerful main. I had to train myself not to oversteer because the Kevlar rope drive is so sensitive that you don't need much action on the wheel. Easing off on a reach, we had a nice gust of wind that sent us scurrying along at more than 8 knots. I could only imagine what a thrill it must be to be out on the ocean accelerating down the face of a swell.

The Morris 454 is designed to be fast, and the displacement-to-length ratio is just less than 150 with a sail area-to-displacement ratio of 21.36. Speed on paper doesn't always translate into a boat that handles well on the water. The 454, however, is a lovely example of a fast hull superbly engineered. This boat may well become a benchmark for others in the sailing industry.