Big, beautiful, oceangoing flagship for a new generation
The new 523 from Beneteau replaces the Oceanus 50, one of the best-selling big boats of all time and the longtime flagship of charter fleets worldwide. I don't know if we're allowed to say this kind of thing anymore but I am going to risk it. From the moment you first step aboard the 523 you realize that this handsome sloop is completely put together like an elegant French woman, who can not only stand her watch and hand steer through a gale but then turn out a stunning meal afterward. At once a powerful bluewater performer and a supremely comfortable coastal cruiser, the more you look the more you find that every piece is in place to make the 523 appeal to a wide spectrum of sailors.
The prolific design team Groupe Finot has established a solid relationship with Beneteau, including the designs for the company's current models 323, 423 and 473. Instead of re-inventing the wheel with the 523, the team has refined and upgraded what has already been proven through countless miles of ocean sailing and countless hours of chartering fun.
Measured by volume the 523 is huge, the LOA is actually a tad more than 53 feet while the beam is 16 feet, carried well aft. However, as soon as you take either of the two helms and put the pedal down, the boat feels surprisingly manageable. In fact, we tacked several times in a span of five minutes as we angled for more sea room during the test sail off the port of Miami. We came through the wind with a minimum of fuss and accelerated quickly. Of course both main and jib sheets are led to self-tailing electric winches, making the close maneuvers a push
The 523 has clean deck lines and a fast, flat underwater profile, but it is no lightweight, displacing nearly 33,000 pounds. This much boat requires an honest rig and the 523 has one with 1,625 square feet of working sail area. An optional inner forestay adds a staysail to the equation, although the boat is a sloop by design. There are two keel options, the standard deep-draft model that draws 7 feet, 6 inches and the shoal option with a 5-foot, 11-inch keel. Unless shoal depth is critical in the areas where you sail, I'd opt for the standard deep keel; the performance and the motion will be better.
The 523 has a solid fiberglass hull with cored stringers and decks. Beneteau has developed a construction methodology that combines the obvious advantages of scale production with a commitment to building boats that stand up to the demands of the sea. The interior components are prefabricated when possible and efficiently assembled as the boat moves down the line. We can moan and groan about the loss of craftsmanship in today's boats but the truth is that a computer-controlled jig and laser torch makes a cleaner cut than a man with a saw.
Beneteau's joinerwork is exceptional but what is even nicer is that it builds boats, even 53-footers, in a fashion that people can afford. Bulkheads are bonded through 360 degrees and furniture facings are laminated to the liner and hull where applicable. Hull stiffness and support for the externally fastened iron keel is achieved with a grid system in the bilge that in turn is part of the huge hull liner. This liner is essentially a hull within a hull. The rudder stock is carbon fiber.
The cockpit of the 523 is impressive. It is comfortable for a crowd but still set up for efficient sailing. The dual helms are located well aft, each with a rounded molded seat and depending upon the point of sail one helm always affords excellent visibility. The wheels themselves are bulkhead style. The engine controls are to starboard, which is fine but engine controls on both sides would make coming alongside to port much easier. Each helm station does have full instrumentation.
There is a large drop-leaf cockpit table with a stout stainless steel base for leg support and also a stainless handrail-important features in a wide cockpit. The aft end of the table is designed to house a full-sized chartplotter, visible from either helm. The twin-wheel design creates terrific access to the swim platform that includes a boarding ladder with teak treads and a hot-and-cold shower. There are two large aft lockers and waterproof speakers. I like the life raft locker on the aft deck, it is accessible in a hurry and keeps the raft out of the weather. There is also a convenient wet locker on the aft deck, just in case you are really thirsty after your afternoon swim.
All sail controls save the genoa halyard are led aft. And this makes sense; why clutter up the cockpit with a long halyard tail that rarely is used? The mainsheet traveler is forward of the companionway and a bit on the short side. The rigid vang is standard, which means that you might as well dispense with the standard topping lift. Seven rope clutches to port and three more on the starboard side of the aft end of the coachroof are the circuit boards of sail control. The genoa tracks are nearly 12 feet long and the sheets are led to electric winches easily controlled from the helm stations. The headsail furling line can also be controlled by an electric winch. Just be wary, I like to feel snags when I am a furling in the headsail and electric winches can cause damage.
There is a double stainless steel bow roller and stemhead fitting. A horizontal windlass, which I much prefer to vertical models, is standard. The chain locker is deep, stowing the ground tackle where it should be, low in the hull. The bow pulpit is Euro-styled, meaning that it's open, with a teak boarding step. This allows you to come bow-to when Med mooring, an increasing popular option as sterns become more cluttered with cruising gear. Also, steering in forward is usually easier than in reverse and having the cockpit off the quay affords more privacy. Deck hardware is robust and good quality.
There are several different interior arrangements available on the 523. The most popular plan features the owner's cabin forward with two spacious double cabins aft. There is also the option of a separate, deck-accessed crew cabin forward. The huge owner's stateroom features a double island berth with bench seats to either side. There are two large drawers under the berth and full-length shelves along the hull. There are hanging lockers to port and starboard and a vanity/desk to port. Halogen lighting is used overhead and this cabin alone has five opening hatches for superb ventilation. Of course when a tropical downpour pops up you'll be scrambling to close them all. The en suite head has plenty of elbow room and a separate stall shower.
This plan puts the table and settee to port with the galley opposite in the saloon. The U-shaped saloon is deceptively large with a versatile, modular table and a bench seat that also serves as a well-placed support when working your way from the companionway forward in a seaway. The feeling of spaciousness comes from pushing the interior components out to the extremes of the hull. This sacrifices storage to some extent, however a close inspection reveals plenty of lockers and shelves. Panoramic panels overhead flood the interior with light but when it's too bright, sleek pearl colored shades can be deployed to diffuse the light and keep the cabin cooler.
The galley is opposite and features a three-burner Force 10 cooker. The 12-volt fridge is front opening, convenient on port tack but tricky on starboard. There is plenty of counter space and forward facing double stainless sinks lean toward the centerline for good drainage. There are lockers above and below. There is a hatch directly overhead and two opening portlights. A galley strap is necessary when cooking in heavy weather. The navigation station is stashed just aft of the galley. The curved wooden seat offers a good platform on either tack. The chart table is more than adequate, especially in these times when many designers dispense with nav stations altogether, and there is a panel for repeaters. The electrical panel is located outboard and offers good access to the wiring behind. The standard electronic navigation package includes Raymarine sailing instruments, chartplotter and autopilot. Radar and PC interface are factory options.
The two aft cabins each have enclosed heads with showers. The berths are legitimate doubles, and there is also room to maneuver so you can stand up to dress for watch. In other words, the cabin is not all bed. There is a small hanging locker, storage under the berth and shelves along the hull. It would be nice to see a dedicated space for a large duffel bag. Lighting and ventilation are excellent, with opening portlights and hatches, features that turn these aft cabins into pleasant living areas and not just sleeping quarters. The optional crew cabin contains a double berth forward and a head. Access is through a large Lewmar deck hatch. Unless you need this cabin for additional crew, I would prefer to see it used as a forward garage-it's a great spot to stow bulky gear like sails and fenders.
The plumbing and electrical systems on the 523 are well laid out, easy to use and access for repairs. The total freshwater capacity is 250 gallons, plenty for a week or more of cruising in the tropics, however most owners will likely add a watermaker. An 11-gallon hot water heater is big enough for several showers. There are meters for all tanks. On the electric side, there are 110-volt outlets throughout as well as well-placed 12-volt sockets. Four 140-amp batteries provide plenty of power for house needs and a single 140-amp battery is isolated for engine starting. A 100-horsepower Volvo diesel pushed us along at 7-plus knots and was very quiet in the cockpit. Access is adequate from behind the companionway and through the aft cabins. A fuel capacity of 119 gallons translates into a cruising range of well over 500 miles.
Back on the Atlantic, the winds were fluky. One minute we had 12 to 15 knots true, the next 6 to 8. In the puffs, we clipped along on a close reach with a 140-percent genoa and fully-battened main at 7.5 knots. The helm was very light, fingertip steering from the high side. As the wind eased, the 523 maintained momentum, an advantage of a big boat, and kept moving at near 6 knots. Cracking off onto a beam reach, the 523 really found her stride. I was impressed by the easy access to the headsail sheets from the helm. Two people can handle the boat without a lot of sweat and noise. We could have used a spinnaker for deeper reaching but that is, unfortunately, the nature of new boats tested fresh after a boat show. You have the fake plants and color brochures aboard but no extra sails. Coming back through the wind, we caught a nice lifter and raced back toward Government Cut at 8 knots. Overall, I was pleased not only by the 523's speed but also by its soft motion through the choppy waters near the inlet.
There is little doubt that the Beneteau 523 is another best seller in the making from the world's largest sailboat manufacturer. If your sailing plans call for long-term offshore cruising or occasional coastal escapes, I would take a hard look at the new Beneteau 523.