By repurposing an existing hull design, has Beneteau just reinvented the 55-footer? Toby Hodges steps onboard the Oceanis Yacht 54 to find out
There’s something surprising and quite brilliant about the new Beneteau Oceanis Yacht 54, which I bet you won’t notice at first. I certainly didn’t.
It’s not the powerful looks or performance – anyone who knows the Beneteau First 53 should expect that this detuned version, which shares the same formidable hull shape, should sail well.
Neither is it the space and volume which that hull design affords, although that is obviously significant.
No, this feature is one you come to appreciate more gradually – once you are reclining in the cockpit, or perhaps after you have moved below decks and realise how easily you got there, and how simple it is to move between key areas of the boat. Essentially then, the brilliance of the Oceanis Yacht 54 lies in the deck design.
Those who have been aboard a range of large yachts in recent years will know many have segregated areas for sailing and relaxing. However, these typically come with a downside: if it’s easy to get around these large spaces and decks when flat, it probably won’t be at heel. Indeed, the Beneteau First 53 suffers somewhat from that issue.
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Hence some will place a higher value in designs which have deeper protective cockpits and/or high coamings, yet these can be the very barriers which make for a trickier thoroughfare while stationary.
The Oceanis Yacht 54 offers a formidable amount of exterior and interior real estate, yet makes it safe and easy to move between them, while somehow keeping the whole package visually appealing.
We sailed the First version 18 months ago, describing the all-Italian design efforts of Roberto Biscontini and Lorenzo Argento as perhaps the most elegant Beneteau ever. And while it is an attractive, slippery yacht, arguably more impressive is how well it’s been adapted to suit this Oceanis Yacht’s task of fast, easy, luxury cruising.
This has been made possible thanks to modern hull shapes derived from racing yachts, which have brought about a step-change in internal volume and deck space for production yards.
Viewed from astern the Oceanis Yacht 54 is a yacht which will stop you in your tracks. Unlike the boxy Beneteau Oceanis Yacht 62 from 2016, this is all curves in an appealing, potent hull shape.
The 5m/16ft beam is formidable for a yacht of this length, but where the focus may have been on performance and stability on the First, here it is buying all that extra outdoor space in the cockpit and aft ends. It creates an extension to the living area, akin to adding a covered deck or conservatory to your home.
First impressions count at this size and the Oceanis Yacht 54 stood out handsomely berthed on the inside pontoon of a crowded River Hamble marina – it’s like seeing a Hummer parked amongst the family estate cars at the school drop-off. The UK’s south coast may not be ideal for a boat of this size, however the thrusters did their job of helping to manoeuvre it deftly in and out of this tight spot.
Oceanis Yacht 54 has speed to burn
As well as some bragging rights, a benefit of having a hull drawn by an America’s Cup designer is that it’s likely to get places quickly. This was instantly confirmed when we put the throttle down to search out the best breeze in the Solent and saw our speed threaten double figures.
Speed under motor is a relevant consideration for today’s time-poor owner, who will value the ability to get to their chosen sailing area as quickly as possible.
The test boat had the standard 80hp Yanmar saildrive and fixed three-blade propeller. Despite having to drag that prop around, the high average speeds continued for the rest of our thoroughly enjoyable time under sail.
We were blessed with one of those rare UK summer days that was hot enough to sail in tee-shirts and shorts while still appreciating the bimini above our heads, and also to encourage a thermal breeze to kick in and provide a consistent 15 knots.
Armed with a comparatively no-frills sail package, a fixed backstay and in-mast furling, it was a challenge to tease much shape out of the sails.
The optional genoa fitted at least helped us to fetch and reach at speed and with some heel angle. The standard self-tacking jib makes sense if you have furling offwind sails as the mast is positioned relatively far aft, leaving a large area for flying a variety of different sized foresails.
A taller mast with slab reefing or boom furler is an option, however, the Oceanis Yacht 54 seems powerful enough in its standard guise, with serious form stability and a high sail area to displacement ratio (23.3).
Easy speed, easy miles
The Oceanis Yacht 54 was quick to power-up and maintain a high average speed while beating and fetching, keeping over 6 knots weigh on through 85° tacks.
The instruments only showed GPS speed over ground (SOG) rather than a log readout, so with a strong ebb tide it was hard to gain accurate speed figures. But pointing upwind (40-45°) it clocked approximately 8 knots, which climbs over 9 knots if you free off to 60° to the true wind, and touched double figures frequently when reaching.
Small heel angles are enough to increase righting moment, waterline length and speed. Powering up the Oceanis Yacht 54 becomes quite addictive. It’s a yacht which makes you want to go longer, further, and tempts dreamy thoughts of a tradewind ocean crossing.
Twin rudders set well outboard made light work of the steering, which remained fairly neutral in those conditions. While that is good for minimising the power draw of an autopilot, there was little helm feedback so owners will need to be careful not to over-canvas.
The mainsail is sheeted onto the arch and led aft to the pair of cockpit winches each side in front of the pedestals. With good communication it proved relatively easy for two of us to sail and trim the yacht effectively, but with minimal winches mounted close together you have to be tidy with the line tails, coiling and stowing those not in use. There are neat bins for these below the aft part of the cockpit benches.
Blindspots are an issue under sail. I like to be able to constantly monitor the mainsail, which is tricky to do with just two small panels in the test boat’s bimini. Adding more clear panels would help.
You also need to be vigilant about checking if it’s all-clear to leeward. Things happen quickly at these speeds and we found ourselves crossing the Solent faster than expected and hastily needing to put in tacks before we ran out of water.
The current form for modern, fast, warm weather cruisers with clean decks is to keep things minimalist. That may look sleek, but when you heel it can get ungainly as crewmembers slide off benches and have no real protection from the elements.
Aboard the Oceanis Yacht 54 you notice some key changes over the First 53 which prevent such situations and create possibly the largest, most comfortable and usable cockpit in its class.
When venturing from the cockpit to the side decks, for instance, you realise you don’t have to clamber awkwardly or potentially dangerously over the coamings, but can walk safely around the aft quarters, clear of the bimini structure. These side decks feel particularly safe thanks to a high bulwark – designer Lorenzo Argento told me they managed to achieve this in comparison to the First 53 by lowering the deck, which also increased interior light.
Large helm seats behind the wheels give a feeling of security to the open transom design. And then there is the staple feature of an Oceanis – an arch to take the mainsheet and support a large sprayhood which protects the cockpit.
Rather than the afterthought they can often look like, the bimini and sprayhood are integral to the design and provide a lot of protection without looking overly ungraceful. And they create the ability to enclose all that space. With the addition of side panels it’s the equivalent of a modern covered home extension with bifold doors.
Push a button on the helm pedestal and the transom door opens, revealing integral steps to yet more deck space on the beamy swim platform and aft access to the sizeable garage.
The max beam is taken right aft, which means there is still room for deep quarter lockers. For practical deck stowage, there are shallow lockers below the cockpit benches or helm seats, plus a large, deep liferaft locker in the cockpit sole. Large items such as fenders and toys can be stowed in the garage/dinghy via a deck hatch or in the cavernous sail locker (which is well fitted out in crew cabin guise).
Twin cockpit tables, which can lower to form sunbeds, make it easy to pass through the cockpit while providing some bracing support. Together with the sunpads to each side on the flat coachroof beneath the sprayhood, as well as the long benches, there is a significant amount of lounging space, all of which is kept clear of any sailing systems.
An absolute must, however, would be to opt for the cockpit bench cushions which have in-built backrests, as the coamings below are too low to provide meaningful back support.
Easy does it
A particularly shallow companionway descent leads you into an expanse of space and natural light and an appealing, open and modern design. Again you start to appreciate the ease with which you can pass from one area to another.
To its credit, Beneteau has retained the excellent radiused and fiddled furniture of the First. Not only does this look and feel high quality, but it is refreshingly at odds with many production yacht builders who currently favour squared edges.
The fiddles, combined with plenty of handrails, are also practical – despite the large spaces to negotiate at heel, there are plenty of points to grab hold of for support.
The layout options include a third heads compartment, which takes up a little of the port aft cabin and some galley worksurface, and a crew cabin instead of the sail locker. That’s it. So when Beneteau says this is its ‘semi-custom’ range, it’s not really talking about offering any major bespoke decisions.
The Oceanis Yacht 54 lacks the indulgent saloon seating area of the First 53, but instead you get a more practical set-up with a proper fixed table which can seat four, or six with the addition of directors chairs, and a dedicated chart table to port. The chaise longue abaft the navstation is a marvel, thanks to a section which can raise beneath your knees for serious reclined comfort.
I also like the myriad stowage space. The usable bilge compartments in the saloon and galley all have sole boards which lift on struts. These panels sit on rubber dampeners and are varnished on the undersides (although the ply is left exposed on the sides).
The galley is more comparable to a kitchen in a modern apartment than a traditional dark snug. It is large, sociable and well laid out, with plenty of worksurface, refrigeration and stowage space, which is why I’d opt for this layout unless you really do need a third heads.
A minimalist design is maintained by hiding things away, including the instrument panel. The systems can be viewed and controlled on a mobile device or an intuitive touchscreen using Beneteau’s Ship Controller system.
That impression of space you get on descending the companionway is repeated on entering the forward cabin, which has huge hull ports and twin overhead hatches. Splitting the heads and shower each side also serves to open up the cabin, and again practical stowage is commendable.
The bare teak double seat in the shower is a nice touch, although this and the heads could do with a larger hatch for ventilation and, for this price level of yacht, a heated towel rail wouldn’t go amiss.
The light oak Alpi finish is smart and the fixtures and fittings in general throughout the boat are at a noticeably and consistently higher standard than the Oceanis range, including soft-closing drawers and magnetic door latches, which prevent snagging. It all looks good in showroom condition, albeit a little sterile, beige and in need of some personalisation to make it homely.
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It’s certainly refreshing to take a new production yacht out, armed only with fairly standard white sails, and enjoy some short-handed fast sailing. In this respect you can think of the Oceanis Yacht 54 as a wolf in sheep’s clothing – under its cruising skin lies the beating heart of a performance boat. But it would be wrong to merely consider it as a slightly cheaper version of the First with a different interior. The practical space and comfort it offers, particularly on deck, means that it’s a lot more than that. So much so, that it’s actually arguably more relevant than its sistership. For those looking for a craft to keep in the Mediterranean, which will offer enjoyable fast sailing, a high degree of home-from-home comfort for your holiday aboard and still look stylish enough in the glitzy harbours, this sets a new standard in the 55ft sub €500,000 production yacht sector.