Issue: October 2003
For me a 30 footer is a big boat. Once, when I was tugging (and losing) on a mooring line on a 44 footer I whinged to the skipper that I was not used to working big boats. He laughed at me, because his last job had been on a 128 footer. Everything is relative, as my Auntie Vida used to say as she surveyed the rollup at one of our many family funerals. Only a few years ago the Jeanneau 54 would have been regarded as enormous; nowadays she would share the marina with several other 54 footers.
And nowadays the distinctions between big and small are blurred even further by mechanical aids like electric winches and bow thrusters, which enable boats like the Jeanneau 54 DS to be handled by two people. Another definition of a big boat may be one that cannot be handled by husband and wife, with a minimum of shouting at each other. Even the Sun Odyssey's price tag of around a million dollars (as tested the base boat is $888,000) is no longer a shock.
If you look around Australia's middle classes an awful lot of people these days have access to a spare million dollars. Priced the houses in your street lately ? Of course you have. 54ft (16.38m) is long enough to accommodate a superyacht-style layout. The 54 DS gives you a big, multi-level cockpit where the working area aft is separated from the lounging areas forward. You get a big saloon, galley and navigation area. You get a choice of cabin layouts (with three, four or five bedrooms), and in the bow you have a workshop/cabin, which can be set up as the crew quarters.
The layout and styling are that of a small superyacht. Jeanneau have opted for Italian/automotive saloon styling and the result, to my eye, is very pretty. The builders did not choose this style lightly; in their upcoming 49 they have hedged their bets and will offer a choice of sleek or 'classic' superstructure design to avoid frightening off buyers wary of radical styling. The shorter the hull the harder it is for the designer to blend such a sleek superstructure into the general lines. The hull is by Jacques Fauroux, not a household name here, but he was one of the 70s pioneers of the modern beamy, lightweight, wide-sterned hull.
The French headed down that design track perhaps even earlier than the New Zealanders. This is a 17,000kg boat; the amount of ballast depends on which keel you choose. The 2.3m keel has 5000kg, the 2m keel has 5400kg, presumably to maintain the equivalent righting moment. There are two engine options, 85hp and 100hp. Ours had the 100hp Yanmar, good for around 9 knots. Performance Yachts' Lee Condell was keen to emphasise the boat's robustness. 'The keel bolts, for example, are 32mm, and the emphasis on strength carries through to the rest of the boat'. Certainly the deck hardware is substantial and nicely styled.
The boat shown here had the three-cabin layout ' the master stateroom in the bow, two mirror image cabins aft, all with en suite bathrooms. The master cabin has a centreline island berth; the berths in the guest cabins are huge and square ' you could sleep facing any direction you like. Boxing the compass, if you like. The saloon has a coffee/cocktail settee to port; a drinks cupboard divides the curved settee so it would be snug to seat four.
The dinette to starboard is big, and includes two loose chairs inboard, which have to be secured while sailng. You can see through the pilothouse windows while standing, and through windows in the hull sides when seated. The galley is one step down from the saloon. The galley is big. 'Refrigeration is substantial', says Lee Condell, 'because cruising people will spend a lot of time on board, and non-cruisers will spend a lot of time entertaining on a boat this size'.
The freezer is top loading; the big fridge is front opening with a very tough retaining latch. A stainless steel bar in front of the stove/work area acts as both a grabrail and a fender, depending on which tack you are on. Next to the sink is a deep draining locker to retain newly washed dishes while the boat is sailing. Clever idea.
The mast is supported by three sets of angled spreaders with discontinuous diagonals and single lowers. The backstay (which is not adjustable) is split from the masthead, preferable to a lower split, which can intrude on the helmsman's space. The removable inner forestay is retained near the chainplates for normal use, or it can be led forward where it tacks down to a shackle on the foredeck which in turn is connected to a line running aft, so it can be tensioned from the cockpit. The twin leather-trimmed steering wheels are connected to a terrific system, which is light, but fast in action.
On our outing, with 20-25 knots and a bit more in the gusts, helmsmen new to the wheel steered a course like a drunken sailor until they got used to the quick reactions. When you settle down you realise weight and gearing are spot-on. Between the helm stations is a hatch, which also provides the foot support for the helmsman. Beneath this hatch lives the life raft and dinghy. If you climb aboard over the stern you discover that the lifelines retract into the pushpit tubing, it's a superyacht touch if ever there was one. Our boat had the lazyjack/boom bag arrangement in-mast furling is an option.
There are folding steps on the mast to help stow the main as it is lowered, but as usual on big boats it is not easy to sort out the stow the full length of the boom. Perhaps the boom bag could be deeper; one 56 footer we tried recently had a fulllength zipper on the top of the bag operated from deck level, sealing the bag and enclosing the mainsail. On the Sun Odyssey the furling main is 13 sq m smaller than the conventional arrangement. The standard Dacron mainsail was a very good one. The mainsheet traveller is on the coachroof, the secret behind the huge open cockpit space. The electric Harken sheet winches are right aft and are the secret behind easy handling of a boat this size.
We tacked, retacked and gybed the 54 footer on a blustery day, and the effort would have killed tired old bodies like mine but the electric Harkens were doing all the work though they took a little time to sheet in fully. We lowered the dodger for the photographs, but it is part of a system, which includes the bimini above the helm station and can cover the whole cockpit. The Sun Odyssey had no bow thruster; to sail shorthanded you would surely specify one. The boat sailed well on a nasty day that occasionally had the gunwale down.
Two people did indeed handle her for much of the time in a cold and blustery winter westerly, the sort of wind, which always makes me feel relieved when the sails are put away and the engine is started. We were a little over-canvassed and could have furled more jib. The job of furling is made easier by the ball-bearing traveller cars which have a 4:1 tackle to pull them forward, so that when varying sail shape they can be instantly adjusted without leaving the cockpit and without waiting to tack as you would have to with conventional traveller cars.
One of the crew on our test sail was prospective buyer John, who liked the boat a lot. 'It is very airy down below', he said, 'the teak is well done and I really like the cockpit arrangement. It is particularly good for the family as they are out of the way of all the major action.' The Jeanneau 54 DS looks good, it feels substantial, it is easy to sail and it is capable of many roles. It looks and feels like a minisuperyacht and carries as much marina cachet as would a custom yacht of the same size. And it is great value for money. These days a million bucks ain't what it used to be, but in the case of this Jeanneau it buys a lot of boat.
Words by Barry Tranter