SAIL Magazine Best Boats 2013 Beneteau Sense 55
A rewarding blend of good looks and excellent performance
I’ve long had a soft spot in my heart for Beneteau’s Oceanis line, thanks in large part to a particularly rough delivery I did a few years ago—a delivery that more than corroborated the line’s oceanic moniker. That having been said, I couldn’t help wondering whether the new Oceanis 55 would live up to this standard. Could a design this stylish and comfortable also be a good sea boat?
A product of the company’s well-established yard in St. Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, France, the Beneteau Oceanis 55’s hull is solid fiberglass and includes the company’s trademark molded-in grid and liner for stiffness. The deck is cored with balsa to reduce the boat’s vertical center of gravity and increase sail-carrying capacity. Three different keels are available—all fabricated in iron, as is common aboard European boats—to cater to different draft and performance needs, and there is a chine running the entire length of the hull to aid in tracking and provide additional form stability.
The boat’s twin rudders are a necessity aboard a boat this large and beamy—think an Open 60 racing boat, in which the leeward blade is digging in nice and deep even as the windward one is lifting into the air as the boat heels. The alternative would be a boat that could easily round up when hard pressed as its single rudder loses its grip.
The double-spreader rig is aluminum and slightly fractional to facilitate a variety of different reaching sails. The bow is nearly plumb, in keeping with current fashion and to extend the boat’s sailing length. A short, combination bowsprit/anchor roller provides a tack point for an A-sail and also helps keep the hook away from the stem when anchoring: although you’re still going to have to be careful to avoid dings.
The topsides are punctuated by four large hull ports per side. Although freeboard on the Oceanis 55 is fairly high, it does not appear overly so when you see the boat in the water.
In recent years Beneteau has done nothing less than revolutionize the art of cockpit design, and the results in a boat the size of the Oceanis 55 are absolutely spectacular.
For our test sail, we had a good half-dozen people aboard, but there was still plenty of space for everyone—with room to spare. The cockpit benches are long and comfortably modeled for sitting or stretching out; the drop-down swim step is electrically operated and ingeniously engineered, to provide yet more lounging space at anchor; and the boat’s trademark Beneteau mainsheet arch keeps the boom and its attendant gear well away from people’s heads.
Aft, the sightlines from the helm over the low cabintrunk are excellent, and there is a nice place to sit outboard and play the puffs when sailing to windward. I especially liked the primary winches mounted on a pair of dedicated plinths inboard of the wheels. Not only do they prevent the crew handling the jibsheets from getting crossed up with the mainsheet as it runs to another pair of winches outboard, they allow the driver to take in the effect that his grinding is having on the sail at the glance, without having to keep looking back and forth between the two.
Another nice touch is the pair of lounging benches on either side of the companionway beneath the arch. Not only do they give you a place to stretch out without having to worry about the crew stepping on you during tacks and gybes, but with the dodger deployed they can be a fun place to get out of the weather when on watch.
Five different accommodation plans are available, ranging from a three-cabin, two-heads layout, to one with a couple of single day berths to starboard of the companionway and four cabins with a separate head/shower for everybody. I suppose if you plan on putting your boat into charter, you might want to go with twin cabins in the bow. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and keep the space all to yourself—the master stateroom forward is that spectacular, complete with a separate head and glassed-in shower, a massive berth and plenty of room for changing into your foulies (bathing suit?) when the boat is either on the hook or underway.
As big as the hull ports look from outside, they look even bigger from within. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever been aboard a monohull in which the distinction between the outside and inside was so porous—to the point where it might actually take a little getting used to when the boat is on its ear. During our test sail, I swear there were times I could have watched any sea life there might have been in the area going by as I sat in the saloon. I could also see where the view might become more than a little unsettling after dark in the middle of a gale. Not to worry though: knowing Beneteau and its expertise in the areas of materials and engineering, I wouldn’t be surprised if these windows and their attachments are the toughest part of the whole boat.
Close reaching into a stiff 15-plus knots and a sharp chop off Miami’s Biscayne Bay, the boat easily hit 8 knots, with speeds jumping up to 10 knots as we cracked off and surfed the waves. The boat tacked smartly, despite the conditions, and though our speed dropped a couple of knots, the 55 still kept its way up nicely when hardened up onto a 40 degree apparent wind angle.
Especially impressive was the boat’s feel. Steering directly into the chop, the Oceanis 55’s motion was comfortingly predictable, even as the boat’s high topsides and chines kept the crew nice and dry. Not only was the helm firmly responsive on every angle of sail, it was downright exhilarating feeling her dig in during the puffs, putting that leeward chine and rudder to work, even as the other blade was drying out to windward—a bit like sailing an offshore shorthanded racer, without the fear.
Steering on a broad reach through some serious quartering seas at the mouth of the ship channel, where the wind was fighting a substantial ebb, the boat never once gave me any cause for concern, nor did I ever have to work very hard to keep her on course—the mark of a good seagoing cruiser.
Twin rudders also make life good when maneuvering under power. Aboard our test boat we had the benefit of Beneteau’s Dock & Go joystick control system to help us out of any tight spots.
While I tend to be a purist about such things, preferring to exercise my seamanship when making my way to and from the dock, a system like this makes a lot of sense aboard a big 55-footer. Setting the 75hp auxiliary at 2,000 rpm yielded 5.5 knots of boatspeed, bucking a serious breeze. At 2,500 rpm the boat hit 6 knots—not bad given the conditions.