Deck life: How big yachts are making inroads into short-handed sailing

From the yacht production company that brought you the concept of a deck saloon, Jeanneau's latest range of production yachts appears to be phasing this concept out. Or, at least, taking it to a new level.

The Yacht 54 is the next in its Yacht range and follows on from the bigger sister the Yacht 64.

While it follows the same formula in producing a large yacht easy to sail when short handed and luxurious when at anchor, every aspect of the 54 has been redesigned to fit this purpose.

Still using Philippe Briand for the hull design and the aptly-named Andrew Winch for the interior, Jeanneau's sailboat marketing director Erik Stromberg, wanted to see how far they could push this concept and gave the two designers carte blanche. The result is stunning and interesting in realisation.

Sweet song

What we found was a yacht that for all intents and purposes is the same as every other production yacht, but on closer inspection and out on the water, the differences become more apparent.

According to Stromberg, what Jeanneau is after with this range are yachts that sail well and provide a level of comfort, not seen before, when at anchor.

So first off, let us see if the hull design brief comes up to the mark.

Stromberg called on Briand to come up with a large hull volume to provide high stability when sailing. Looking at the specifications we see quite a beamy 54 footer with very little overhang on the waterline. In regard to its displacement something interesting happens. This is a heavy yacht and although it has a T-bulb keel its ballast is not that high.

When compared to a similar competitor previously tested, the Bavaria Cruiser 51, the Jeanneau, three feet longer overall and three feet longer on the LWL, is more than four feet wider in the beam. So certainly the hull volume is accommodated, which is more apparent when we move downstairs.

It is in displacement where the differences are more revealing, or not. Between the Bavaria and the Jeanneau the ballast and draft are much the same but the displacement of the Yacht is over 20 per cent heavier. This leads to a displacement ratio difference where the Cruiser has a third of its weight in the keel and the Yacht has only just over a quarter.

This equates to a large hull volume indeed. But, does a low ballast ratio provide good form stability or does it lead to a yacht quick to heel? Let us look at the sail plan in relation to displacement.

The Yacht 54 mast height above the waterline is ostensibly the same as the Cruiser 51, its total sail area however is 15% less. Remembering the Bavaria is a metre shorter in hull length.

So now we have a large hull powered by a lesser sail plan, resulting in a difference in displacement to length ratio for the Jeanneau of 11% over the Bavaria. These figures may appear significant but really the D/L ratio puts the Yacht 54 into the 'Light cruiser/racer' division whereas the Cruiser 51 D/L, being lighter, was tipping into the 'Light ocean racer' division. So really the Jeanneau is sticking to its brief so far.

For the final equation to work it has to have a hydrodynamic hull shape to make it efficient through the water. Not having full access to the hull design plans, it is time to take her out for a sail!

Movin' on

Looking at the side view image in the specs. box, there is nothing untoward in the hull profile, typical Briand one could say. Out on the water the chine is also unpronounced, different from the norm nowadays. It starts at about three quarters of the way aft and flattens out the stern sections only marginally.

In the fairly steady twelve knots of true we had on the day in Pittwater, the hull heeled nicely when heading upwind but certainly not overly so. It would appear the chine would be more a hull shape design feature to hold the yacht heel to an acceptable level rather than also extending out to be an interior hull volume maximiser for which a lot of yachts tend to use it.

In the 12kt breeze on each 30° angle of sail we stuck true to the yachts velocity prediction performance: six knots upwind; over 8kts at 60° and over theoretical hull speed around the 90° mark. No seaway in Pittwater, so no good indication of seaworthiness in the open ocean. These numbers were with the self-tacking jib. It was only after I got off the boat to take photos that they set the big genoa to get her to heel nicely onto the wide chine.

Tacking was easily under 90° true and no problems with self-tacking everything.

If reaching up or down a coast, big miles would be a doddle with a nice blast reacher unfurled.

Given Stromberg was looking for a large volume yacht that sailed well, it would certainly appear that Briand has hit the brief. This is a yacht comfortable to drive belying its near 16 metres of length. It fits the brief also in that Jeanneau wanted a yacht easily sailed by just a couple of people. For that to happen it needs to be sea kindly and properly set up on its deck configuration.

How well does the deck layout cover the desire to be comfortable and easily handled?

Functionality and form

Jeanneau were looking for a yacht to give just as much pleasure when not moving. The beauty of working with such a large yacht is you can accommodate both.

It all starts with a large cockpit. Stromberg says cruisers spend 80% of their time in the cockpit so it should be welcoming. To this end the Yacht 54 has several areas of its cockpit to serve different functions.

A large steering station provides all the instrumentation and navigation systems you need in the binnacle pods for helming. The engine control panel may be low down but it is angled upwards to make it easy to see. The throttle lever is alongside the wheel so it is also easy to grasp and use.

Helm seats could easily fit two and lift outboard and lock upright if you want them out of the way. Sitting outboard is easy if you desire and all sight lines around the deck and through the large dodger are excellent.

The primary winches are close at hand for the helm and all leads: sheets, halyards the lot, come back to the two coaming winches either side; leaving the companionway cabin top clear of rope. A lifting seat forward of the helm tucks all the bitter ends out of the way.

One down side may be the primary and secondary winches are close together so using two winch handles at the same time would be annoying. Jeanneau, however, are expecting most owners or charter companies to make these winches electric to remove the need for handles. Jeanneau also have available its automatic sail tacking system to automate tacking/gybing.

That is the sailing side taken care of! How about the recreational side?

First off the rank is the drop down transom. Pretty standard nowadays for boats of this size, but none are like the Yacht 54. The fold out and down transom opens up a step underneath where sit two waterproof, roll-out cushions. These cushions provide comfortable lounges looking out of the stern of the yacht. There is a hot shower available at the transom.

Second design feature is the extended cockpit lounges encroaching forward of the companionway. By not having halyard winches on the cabin top these lounges are 3.4 metres long yet well-tucked underneath a high, large dodger providing full body protection from the weather. The armrests even have a cup holder moulded in.

The cockpit table is solid and safe. It can include its own refrigerator. But probably the neatest trick yet is the stowage of the life raft behind a door on the aft edge of the saloon table. This keeps it out of the way but still easily accessible in that unhoped-for emergency.

The average person could stand underneath the dodger yet, as it is well forward and the winches well aft, you are not infringed gaining access over the coamings to the side decks.

A bulwark runs the full length of the toerail and, with the staunchions set on top, the lifelines are higher than normal for extra safety.

Cabin top is enormous and although there are plenty of hatches, there would still be space for solar panels here plus on the dodger and bimini.

The next interesting recreation station is at the bow. A teak-laid recess runs forward from the hatch and holds a nice comfortable sun lounge for a bit of peace and quiet. An optional mini bimini can also be added to keep the sun off the dial.


Jeanneau see the Yacht 54 taking a far chunk of the charter market so, to that end, the pitch is to make the interior luxurious yet functional and strong.

Since the charter market does not require yachts to be built for long-distance sailing you can see certain items take the sedentary cruising ethos rather than the capability to take a long pounding at heel. Most obvious is the preponderance of drawers and cupboards having soft-closing doors. When in a seaway the last thing you need is to be waiting for the cutlery drawer to close!

Despite this, everything else down below is indeed sumptious but hardy.

There are five different cabin versions and each option can include a skipper cabin in the forepeak. Our test boat owners intended to go sailing by themselves with the option of visitors in the port aft cabin. This option meant the galley replaces the aft starboard cabin under the cockpit.

The aft galley was a great decision by the owner, it includes a laundry washing machine, twin drawer fridge with separate freezer and plenty of bench space on both sides of the walkway.

A downside would be the encroachment of the cockpit floor into some of the headroom. On the up side however, this option provides the added bonus of good side access to the 60 kilowatt Yanmar engine.

Speaking of engine, this hull easily made over seven knots at cruising revolutions and over hull speed at full revs.

Forward of the galley, alongside the companionway, is the forward facing navigation station. It is a pleasurable place to sit and all instruments required are at hand. the chartplotter is on a hinged back so it can be moved around.

The saloon area can come in various configurations including large tables folding into small tables; tables raising and lowering to make extra bunks or day lounges to watch television that raises out of the starboard hull side panel.

There is a myriad of storage options all over this yacht. The main saloon bilge storage is filled with bins that slide fore and aft for easy access.

My only gripe is I could not find an easy way to access the keel bolts for checking, but all other seacocks were certainly easily accessed.

From the saloon it is down two steps past the mast bulkhead into the master cabin. This has two side seats for relaxing or dressing.

The large double bed has walk around room and full headroom while sitting up at the bed head. The interior designer wanted the owner to be able to see all the way through the saloon to the cockpit.

Another intriguing design is the hull portholes inserted well forward in the hull so, when sitting up in bed, you can easily see out across the water. This would have made it a difficult construction feature so well done on making the effort. This is replicated in the port aft cabin with its porthole well aft to provide the same amenity.

Leather trim over any stainless handles; solid wood fiddlework all around with chamfered edges; strong but soft-covered grab rails on the hull and along the cabin roof. These are all nice touches. Stromberg wanted a 'cut-down' Yacht 64 with the same level of luxury but at around half the price.

By also taking out half of the 64s weight as well, it has managed to provide a yacht with fast comfortable performance that will also knock the socks of anyone else in the harbour.

Priced at the charter market Jeanneau has already sold a heap. Private owners may need to option it up to make it into their dream yacht.

But what a yacht.

Test by Phillip Ross

Yacht supplied by Performance Boating Sales, with thanks to Lee Condell.

Race Yachts
Jeanneau JY55