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Grand Soleil 50

1998 March 7

Powerful yet opulent

In the rarified world of luxury sailing yachts, Grand Soleil has become a name synonymous with fast performance boats built to the highest standards. Italy's Cantiere del Pardo, builder of this well-known line, has relied on designer German Frers for its family of boats until now. Doug Peterson was chosen to design Grand Soleil's new 50-footer. Peterson's unique America's Cup experience brought the very latest in hull design and materials to the Grand Soleil 50, a beautifully appointed cruising yacht with competitive performance around the buoys.

The 50 oozes speed and streamlined comfort, with the long sheer and sleek deckhouse pioneered by Finland's Nautor, which is now a sine-qua-non of this type of boat. A tapering blue line accents the 50's sheer and it has a classic, if rounded, look, with a beamy transom that provides additional stability downwind. The powerful hull, with its slightly winged keel, is easily driven but displaces just over 31,000 pounds. This makes it a heavier boat, but not excessively so when compared with its luxury competitors.

My immediate impression was that of a fast cruising boat also intended to race. The 50's performance in light to moderate air certainly falls into that category. The standard rig has an I of 61 feet, 8 inches-best suited for boisterous European waters. The test boat had the optional tall rig, which tops out at 65 feet, 3 inches. This rig is advisable for Mediterranean and U.S. waters, where winds tend to be lighter. The 50's shallow keel, fitted to the test boat, draws 7 feet, 1 inch, while the deep keel draws 8 feet, 8 inches.

Above-deck comfort
You step aboard into the large T-shaped aft cockpit and look forward along wide teak-covered side decks (teak is an option, but you must have it on this boat, if nothing else for its appearance and adhesion qualities). The boat is long and sleek with a highly efficient deck layout. Twin anchor rol-lers and deep anchor locker are at the bow, with a hatch leading to a deep sail locker in the center of the foredeck. You can also access this locker from below. Convenient, streamlined teak grab handles adorn the deckhouse. The wire stays are set well inboard, allowing you to walk forward in seconds. The wide, T-shaped cockpit has beautifully contoured benches, correctly angled both for your upper and lower back. Whether seated or standing, it is easy to brace yourself when the boat is hard on the wind, using the strategically placed ridge for your feet in the cockpit floor. The helm seat is comfortable at any angle of heel, with engine controls close to hand and ample space for instrumentation. The visibility forward is outstanding, largely because of the low deckhouse.

From the cockpit, you step easily down to the transom, where a modest extra expenditure will provide a hinged swim platform and shower. Behind, there is space to store sporting gear, inflatables and so on. The yard will even provide a convenient swiveling gangway if your cruising tastes lean toward Mediterranean ports, where you moor stern-to.

Classically Italian
The main hatchway lies amidships, accessed from a small central cockpit, with halyard winches and stoppers close to hand. The main halyard has an additional stopper on the Sparcraft mast, allowing a single crewmember to reef the sail up forwardÑan important safety feature. The companionway leads into the saloon, an eloquent symphony of flowing curves and meticulously finished cherry wood combined with a white vinyl deck liner. Seven hatches, numerous opening ports and Dorade vents allow ample ventilation.

The saloon is understated yet opulent in a classically Italian way with an airy feeling and plenty of space. The impeccable construction includes locker liners and even hidden joinery, while the massive door handles and locker fittings will survive hurricanes. Six or seven people can dine to port in the U-shaped dining area, the midships bench tipping up to reveal a large storage space. Indeed, one of the outstanding features of the Grand Soleil is storage, which is more than adequate for long passages, something that some competing designs tend to neglect. With storage for 127 gallons of water and plenty of space for a watermaker, you could cruise anywhere.

A superbly designed galley lies to starboard of the companion ladder, complete with three-burner stove and oven, a freezer and double sinks. An ingenious touch crafted by a designer who does not like washing up, the dish lockers drain into the sinks, allowing you to put away wet dishes. A large, top-opening refrigerator lies immediately forward of the stove. This is the kind of galley you can wedge yourself into, especially if you install the optional galley strap across the opening. The navigation station at the forward starboard side of the saloon has a comfortable seat, room for electronics and books with the electric panel immediately outboard and, bless-the-builder, a hinged top for the table with a proper support.

A double cabin with berth to port is forward of the saloon. A large head and shower is located in the bow, which in turn opens up into the sail locker, equipped with stainless steel rails for stowing sheets and other gear. The head is beautifully finished with waterproofed cherry wood, while the double berth is fitted with two optional leecloths for use at seaÑa rare feature in yachts of this size. Again, I was impressed with the enormous amount of locker space in the cabin and head. Anyone taking off on a serious passage would need a locker inventory to keep track of where things are stowed.

A small aft foyer with a door, which I would dispense with, opens to port of the companionway into a shower to the right and into the aft stateroom, with yet another head and shower to starboard. The test boat had a centerline king-sized berth (version I), with seats on either side of the foot of the bed where you could sit and converse with your partner without the cockpit floor obtruding into your line of sight. Side and cockpit ports provide a sense of airiness often lacking in these configurations. The builder also offers an alternative layout with a queen-sized bed to port and a single, full-sized berth to starboard with a hinged pilot berth above it. Such a double-cabin design would be excellent for a large family or for chartering, but I must confess that I prefer the luxury of a king-sized bedÑat least in port.

The surprisingly small engine room lies between the companionway and the aft stateroom, into which the builders have squeezed a 63-horsepower Yanmar. Access is easy enough; I must confess I would prefer more room to maneuver with space for a small workshop, but this is a matter of personal taste.

Strong passagemaker
I sailed the 50 on a sparkling Chesapeake Bay fall day, with a wind in the 5- to 10-knot range. We powered effortlessly out of the marina with perfect control astern and at close quarters. A 71-gallon fuel tank allows true long-distance range while motoring at 8 to 8.5 knots, but the engine is somewhat noisier below than one can reasonably expect in a boat of this size and quality. Certainly, the aft cabin would be somewhat of a sound box under power for any length of time.

In open water, we set the UK Spectra main and 130-percent genoa in short order, the latter on a Harken roller furler. The boat accelerated smoothly and powerfully, surging along at over 7 knots on a close reach in a remarkably short time. The fingertip control and light touch from the Solimar steering system were truly extraordinary, the best I have ever encountered in a yacht of this size. We hardened on the wind. The 50 heeled slightly, then settled down to work. She was at her best slightly cracked off at an angle between 35 and 40 degrees to the wind. I received an impression of power and control, of an ability for effortless long-distance passagemaking. Equipped with the right gear, this boat will excel as a true bluewater cruiser, capable of hundreds of miles a day in absurd comfort even when relatively short-handed, especially if you invest in the Harken electric-powered winches and other options which abounded on our test yacht. We came about smartly, the boat spinning on her fin keel with assurance. Within seconds, we were hard on the opposite tack, then bore off and jibed with ease. This is a large yacht but one with extraordinary levels of solid performance and control. Reefed down with a small staysail on the babystay, she would take almost any weather in comfort. The only downside: the lee runners, required in winds over 20 knots due to the tall rig. Nonetheless, in the final analysis they add up to little extra work under way.

Relatively few sailors will be able to afford the $421,000 base price of this extraordinary yacht. Those who can will have the luxury of customizing their boats for cruising or racing as much or as little as they wish. The test vessel was equipped with every imaginable cruising option from teak decks and a full sail inventory to leeboards and a collapsible teak cockpit table. For an extra $100,000 you can have almost anything you want aboard a Grand Soleil that will take you to any cruising ground on earth.

Few yachts measure up to the impeccable standards and powerful performance of the Grand Soleil 50. With the right equipment or a larger crew, this is a boat designed for long passages and deep blue water. If you see me on the dock, please give me a lift along the way.