When Gunboat founder Peter Johnstone approached Nigel Irens—the veteran Brit designer with a string of record-breaking racing cats and tris to his name—about creating a new line of high-performance catamarans, one thing was certain: the end result would be like no production boat seen before.
The flowing lines and no-nonsense mien of the Gunboat 60, introduced at the U.S. Sailboat show in Annapolis two years ago, are replicated in the Gunboat 55, a slightly smaller package that makes an equally bold styling statement. Gunboats are luxury cats in the sense that their construction is top of the line and they are equipped with the best gear available for their purpose—which is to sail long distances quickly and safely. But these are no opulent gin palaces; they are serious sailing machines for serious sailors.
Johnstone created the high-tech fast cruising cat niche back in 2000. Fifteen years on, Gunboat still writes the script for multihull materials technology; there’s little (if any) difference between the construction of a Gunboat 55 and that of a top-flight ocean racer. Hull and deck are a composite of carbon fiber, epoxy resin and Corecell foam, bound together in a sophisticated vacuum infusion process. The hulls and bridge are molded as a single unit, which makes the structure extremely stiff and strong and allows the forward crossbeam to be eliminated.
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Weight saving is paramount at Gunboat, so carbon fiber is featured prominently elsewhere, notably in the Hall Spars mast and boom, and in the interior furniture, which is made up of carbon/Divynicell-foam composite panels. All the systems are planned out to use a minimum of material in order to shave off critical weight. CNC routers cut out the individual parts to exact tolerances. Standing rigging is aramid fiber; the inner and outer forestays are tacked to a jutting carbon fiber beam that is braced by aramid stays taken to the hulls. These, in turn, are strengthened internally by long stringers of carbon fiber, stiffening the hulls to make up for the lack of a crossbeam.
As with the 60, the 55 does not have daggerboards that shift vertically and protrude above the deck when retracted. Instead, Irens equipped the boat with pivoting centerboards that are hydraulically controlled from the helm and stow inconspicuously below the cabin sole in the hulls; a display at the helm shows how deeply the boards are deployed. Centerboards, unlike daggerboards, will kick up if they hit anything, whereas the latter will most likely be damaged. If it gets shallow, the carbon fiber rudder blades can also be lifted by hand within their cassette bearings and propped up with a pair of poles—also carbon fiber. This blend of high-tech gear and low-tech solutions is typical of the Gunboat approach.
With this boat, Irens and Johnstone have redefined the traditional relationship between accommodations and deck layout. One of the 55’s most striking features is the bridgedeck saloon-slash-cockpit, which seamlessly integrates indoor/outdoor living areas into one large platform, surrounded on three sides by large windows and open to the elements at the rear. This “back porch” can be enclosed with soft panels to keep weather at bay. A large sliding window ahead of the helm and sail-handling station provides not only ventilation, but access to the trampoline and mooring/anchoring platform. Above the helm, a sliding moonroof gives the driver a good view of the sails.
The boat we tested had a two-stateroom layout, with owner’s quarters to port and another large double in the starboard hull, with a roomy heads/shower and an aft cabin that was used a workshop-cum-storage area, with access to the generator and washer/dryer. This cabin can also be specified as an office or third stateroom.
It also had the optional galley-down layout, with the galley set aft in the port hull—this was the only aspect of the boat that reminded me of a monohull. It’s roomy and lacks nothing—there’s a four-burner stove with oven, a Vitrifrigo fridge and separate freezer and plenty of worktop space and stowage. The optional galley-up layout is perhaps more conducive to heavy-duty cooking, but you would have to give up one of the comfy settees around the perimeter of the saloon/cockpit area. The dining table to starboard can seat eight, maybe 10 guests.
The hulls are accessed via sliding locking doors with separate bug screens. Both queen-size bunks are set on platforms, with stowage under. Stowage is plenty adequate for two couples, and the fit-out is understated and inviting. The yard offers a number of options for interior wood, including teak, cherry, walnut and Makore. The heads compartments feature large showers and electric freshwater-flush toilets.
Gunboats have always been a marvel of efficiency, with their sail controls grouped around a central forward cockpit at the base of the mast. On the 55, the working “cockpit” has been moved indoors, into the shelter of the deckhouse just ahead of the central wheel. From here, one person can set, trim, reef and douse the sails with no more effort than it takes to press the buttons controlling the two electric Lewmar 58 winches. The self-tacking jib demands no attention once trimmed, and the hydraulically controlled mainsheet is trimmed and eased at the touch of a button. For peace of mind when sailing in squally conditions, the sheet can be dumped at the push of a large red emergency release button by the wheel. All this adds up to a boat that is very easy to sail, once you’ve become familiar with the sail-handling systems.
We sailed the boat on an overnight passage that was plagued by light and contrary winds, but luckily offered just enough breeze to give a hint of the boat’s potential.
“Basically, we aim to get her sailing at close to wind speed,” said boat captain, Chris Bailet. Sure enough, in 7 knots of wind she clocked an easy 6 to 7 knots; in 12 knots, with the screecher deployed, she made 11 knots on a beam reach. I’m glad it wasn’t blowing 30—but 20 would have been welcome. A boat like this makes you recalibrate your expectations of passagemaking speeds; double-digit averages will become routine.
Even in the light airs she tacked nimbly and accelerated as quickly as one could hope for. I enjoyed the panoramic view from the central helm and the sensation of effortless power generated by the tall rig. The test boat sported a suit of Quantum sails, but choice of loft is down to the customer, as indeed is the sail wardrobe itself.
Gunboat will install any propulsion system the owner wants—the first 60 sported an advanced hybrid propulsion setup—but the test boat sported a pair of 39hp Yanmar diesels driving feathering Maxprops via V-drives. The engine bays are large and well laid out, and access to all service points is very good. Fuel capacity is 158 gallons.
The list of standard equipment is lengthy, from instruments to systems, comprising everything you need to sail the boat to its full potential and live in comfort once you’ve dropped anchor.
Every once in a while in the charmed life of a sailboat reviewer, you step aboard a boat that becomes the yardstick by which you will measure all other in its category. The Gunboat 55 is such a boat.
Gunboat International, Wanchese, North Carolina, 252-305-8700, Gunboat.com