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Beneteau Oceanis 55

2014 January 14

Magic carpet ride
All the creature comforts wrapped in a sweet sailing ride are found in the latest cruiser from the world's largest sailboat builder

This latest addition to Beneteau's long running Oceanis Series just may be the most impressive model yet from the world's largest sailboat manufacturer. From the commodious cockpit that seamlessly mixes comfort and control, to the powerful 7/8th rig that is balanced by a fast and stable hull form, to a price that represents an excellent value in a tough marketplace, the Oceanis 55 has upped the ante when it comes to large, production cruisers.

Although I sailed Oceanis 55 hull No. 3 after the Miami boat show in February, I was writing the review while sitting aboard my boat at a marina in Fethiye, Turkey. I had just returned from walking the docks, the kind of stroll we sailors do to check out the boats, where I was treated to a brief history lesson of the Oceanis series. Just a few boats away was an older Oceanis 473, a capable Bruce Farr design that I have sailed thousands of miles on and admire for its seaworthiness. At the end of the dock was a much used Oceanis 50, still in charter service, and the Speedo wearing Germans aboard, with laundry adorning the lifelines, seemed quite happy with the boat.

Over on H dock was a new Oceanis 48, a boat we tested last year and in some ways the predecessor to the new 55. The design evolution is striking, as the 48 was handsome and modern in every way, certainly dating the earlier boats. Still I was struck not so much by how the boats differed but how they had all achieved their objective-getting people on the water, connecting sailors with the sea.

The details

Pardon the digression. Back in Miami we had a good day to put the 55 to the test. It was blowing 20 to 25 knots from the east with a lumpy cross sea. I joined the boat at the fuel dock at Miami Beach Marina and soon we were powering out of the inlet. The boat was equipped with the standard 75-horsepower Yanmar diesel and a fixed three-blade prop, and we punched through the chop at an easy 8 knots. The company's "Dock and Go" close quarters maneuvering system, employing a stern pod and a bow thruster with a joystick control, is an option. Once clear of the second red channel marker, we hoisted the main, unfurled most of the genoa and gained sea room by sailing close to the wind on starboard tack.

Designed by the Berret Racoupeau Group, the 55 has a deck length of 52 feet 6 inches and a long waterline of 49 feet 9 inches, translating into an overhang ratio of less than 10% and a hull speed of 9.5 knots. The significant beam of 16 feet 3 inches is carried well aft and contributes to the voluminous cockpit. A full length chine tends to disguise the freeboard a bit, and more importantly, lends form stability and helps keep the boat on its lines. It's a very clever design element.

The 55 also features optional twin rudders, not just twin helms, providing excellent steering control when heeled. Our test boat was fitted with the 5-foot 11-inch shoal keel. The standard draft is 7 feet 3 inches and there's also a "very shallow draft" option of 4 feet 9 inches. Leave it to Beneteau to offer three keel options-there is nowhere in the world too shallow for the Oceanis 55. All three keels are cast iron and bolted to the hull through a stainless plate in the bilge.

The cockpit is huge and completely uncluttered. The mainsheet system is mounted on a Targa arch above the cockpit. The sheet leads run forward, then back underdeck to a secondary, inboard winch at each helm station. This allows the helmsperson to trim the main instead of requiring a crewmember to do it from a control point on the coachroof. The headsail sheets are led, mostly underdeck, to primary winches that have been moved inboard and are easily accessible from either helm station. The 55 can be readily handled by a couple, an impressive design and engineering achievement. It is a 37,000-pound boat after all.

On deck

Of course, sailing efficiency is just part of the cockpit design, comfort is also paramount. In the style of motorsailers and catamarans, there are lounging or sunning areas on either side of the companionway. There is also a handsome and substantial teak cockpit table with stainless railings, opening leaves and a built-in 12- or 24-volt refrigerator. The opening transom seat is controlled with an electric motor that allows it to pivot and fold into a swim platform with the press of a switch. It is covered with teak decking, has a hot-and-cold shower and a stainless ladder that's easily deployed.

One subtle design change has been to move the mast and resulting center of effort slightly aft, which helps balance the boat and also allows for a near masthead rig. I have suspected that we'd see the popularity of fractional rigs wane, to my mind they have more limitations than advantages, and the trend toward masthead or near masthead rigs seems to be underway. The 55 sports a generous 1,430 square feet of sail. The air draft is a towering 78 feet 5 inches. The 7/8th rig allows an asymmetrical or code zero to be set from the masthead, making either sail more efficient. A classic mainsail is standard along with a high cut 105% genoa and asymmetrical spinnaker.

The side decks are wide and easy to navigate. Teak decks seem like a natural option for an elegant boat this size, they look great and provide excellent traction. The deep chain locker can house all the ground tackle you will ever need and the bow fitting includes double stainless steel rollers mounted on a short but stout stainless sprit. The sprit also serves as the tack point for the A sail or code zero.

Down below

The interior, designed by the Italian firm Nauta, has a modern European flair and is flooded with light and air. Long portlights combine with numerous opening overhead hatches to create a very pleasant environment. I confess, in-the-hull ports make the old-fashioned me a bit nervous as they seem more vulnerable in the event of a collision with a vessel, piling or nasty storm wave. But they sure do make the interior nice, and nothing beats natural light in the interior of a sailboat. The finish is in Alpi mahogany veneers that contrast nicely with the white overhead panels and recessed lights.

There are five different interior layout plans. The three-cabin model features a large owner's cabin forward with an island double berth, en suite head and complete with a clear Lucite shower stall. This model also includes two double cabins aft and a second head and shower aft to starboard. The saloon is spacious with an expandable table and wraparound settee to starboard and double settee to port. There are overhead lockers and some storage areas below the settees. One thing that is not in abundance are handholds.

The galley is to port, just beside the companionway, a location consistent will all five layouts. The double stainless sinks face aft and the stove and oven outboard. Storage is not abundant but certainly adequate in overhead lockers and drawers below. There are both top- and front-loading fridge compartments and a decent amount of counter space.

There is another three-cabin layout that features a third head. Two four-cabin models offer the fairly standard two doubles forward and aft, and a more innovative design includes an owner's cabin forward with three doubles aft, one a quarter cabin tucked away to starboard with over and under bunks. Finally, the five-cabin model includes an external crew cabin all the way forward. As a delivery and charter captain I have slept in this cabin on other models and I am not fond of it.

As mentioned earlier, a Yanmar 75 is the standard power plant and access is excellent. The fuel capacity is 106 gallons, which is plenty but the standard water capacity of 96 gallons seems a bit light. Of course a watermaker is a logical solution, and an additional freshwater tank is also an option.

Under sail

Out on the turquoise ocean off Miami Beach, the Oceanis 55 was stretching its legs. Sailing 45 degrees off the apparent wind, we powered through the waves at 8-plus knots. Two things impressed me. First, the ride was soft; the 55 was not pounding at all. Many flat bottomed modern hulls pound in a seaway but the 55 forefoot stayed connected to the water like a magic carpet ride. Secondly, we were completely dry in the cockpit. Just imagine sailing at 8 knots upwind into occasional 6 foot waves and not having a drop of water reach the cockpit? A combination of the forward chine, a clean entry and a cockpit placed well aft was proving very comfortable indeed.

With sufficient sea room we cracked off, and with the breeze just aft of the beam jumped up to low double digit speeds. Despite being slightly overcanvassed the steering was impressively light and the boat tracked true through the confused seas. We executed several tacks and came through the wind efficiently, especially with a partially furled headsail. I made my way forward as we sped back toward the inlet. The boat felt solid in the water, there were no creaks or groans. From the perspective of the bow the clean deck lines became apparent. Sailing flat and fast I was thoroughly enjoying myself and thought that Beneteau was still doing what it has always done, connecting sailors to the sea.