For anyone wrestling with the tradeoffs between deep-draft sailing performance and shallow gunkholing cruising capability, the Southerly 540, with its lifting keel, may be the perfect solution. The Ed Dubois-designed 54-footer is now part of the Discovery Yachts Group Line and is built in Southampton, England. We went aboard to see just how this big boat can be managed shorthanded and venture virtually anywhere in the world.
Design & Construction
The hand-laminated, vacuum-bagged vinylester/foam core sandwich hull (solid glass below the waterline) has a fine entry, which allows the boat to put her shoulder into big head seas and carve a path straight through. Despite her exceptional volume, the 540 has a low profile with a nearly-flush deck and a rounded coachroof. The fixed angled windows swoop back like a shaped eyebrow wrapping around the raised saloon inside.
The keel draft varies from 3ft 5in to 11ft, which affords a lot of flexibility when sneaking into the shallow anchorages of the Caribbean or resting alongside the dock back home. Below the waterline, the Southerly has twin canted rudders and a centerline skeg that protects the propeller and shaft. The 7,000lb iron keel retracts completely into a keel box. Both the keel, which is raised and lowered via a hydraulic ram, and the box fit into a long cast-iron grounding plate that is capable of supporting the boat’s entire weight.
The tall (nearly 80ft) keel-stepped Solent rig has triple aft-swept spreaders. It carries a self-tending jib and a 145 percent genoa, both on electric Furlex furlers. Between the mainsail and jib, the sail area is 1,444ft, but switch headsails to the large genoa, and you’ll add another 500ft for fast, off-the-wind passagemaking. A gennaker can also be flown from the bowsprit. In-boom furling is standard, while in-mast furling or slab reefing are available as an option.
Topsides, Dubois did not compromise on the essentials for safe offshore sailing. Bluewater details include clean side decks with molded-in handgrips along the coachroof and nice high lifelines: the latter a necessity when cruising offshore that is all too often overlooked. The cockpit includes a working section with twin, elevated wheels behind two enormous consoles holding Raymarine instruments. A single Lewmar 65 winch is located along the centerline between the two helms for managing the mainsheet. There is no traveler.
Lewmar electric winches and arrays of Spinlock rope clutches manage the lines and are within easy reach of the driver and mostly away from the guests. The social part of cockpit is a step-down and anchored deep in the center of the boat where its occupants will be safe, comfortable and out of the way of ropes and elbows during maneuvers. The entire cockpit is designed so that the sole can be removed in the event of a repower, thereby allowing the engine to be lifted out with relative ease.
The aft swim platform is not as large as on other vessels of this size, but there’s still plenty of room to board easily from a dinghy or even get scuba gear ready. Two sets of steps lead from the deck down to the platform. They are quite steep, so it’s best to hold on while in transit.
Belowdecks, the Dubois team drew on its megayacht expertise to create some truly luxurious accommodations beginning with a raised salon amidships. Not only does the raised seating there make room for the keel box below, it also provides space for a party of eight that can easily see out the large ports when seated at dinner. The standard layout includes three cabins with a VIP cabin forward, a master suite aft and an over/under cabin to port.
The galley, with a three-burner Force 10 stove/oven and refrigeration drawers, forms a portside walkthrough to the master stateroom aft that is notable for the amount and quality of the furnishings. Owners won’t need to leave much behind when packing for an extended cruise. The whole suite looks more like a well-furnished hotel room than a boat cabin.
A dedicated nav station is to starboard, on the same level as the saloon seating for better visibility forward. Autopilot control here will let you steer in comfort from this same spot in inclement weather. House batteries (the 540 is a 24-volt vessel) and an Onan genset are tucked under the sole.
As expected aboard a UK-built boat, the fit and finish are exceptional throughout, and light pours in via the large fixed cabintop ports and hull ports, the latter configured as both horizontal and vertical slits, the same as aboard many superyachts. There will be no hardship in staying below, especially at the built-in starboard side chess table flanked by a pair of cozy seats—a welcome getaway for anyone wanting a bit of a break from the social fray topsides.
The Southerly 540 is what you’d call a “serious” boat. No strangers to bluewater passages, over 1,100 Southerlies have crossed oceans and participated in any number of round-the-world rallies over the years, often managed by shorthanded crews or even couples. You can imagine my dismay, then, as we set out for our sea trial on Chesapeake Bay with the wind gusting to all of 6 knots. On the plus side, we did manage to scoot along at a respectable 3.5 knots at a 60-degree apparent wind angle when we (briefly) felt 7 knots of true breeze over the deck.
During our sail, the keel was about 1/3 down, just enough to keep us tracking and minimizing leeway. Beating into a snotty seaway with the keel fully lowered, the 540 should be able to point quite high (up to 30 degrees) without making too much leeway.
Our test boat was powered by a 150hp Volvo Penta diesel with a straight shaft and a four-bladed folding propeller. A 160hp Yanmar is also available. At wide-open throttle and 3,100 rpm, we motored at 9.5 knots. At a more moderate and fuel-efficient 1,900 rpm, our speed was 7.5 knots. With 213 gals of fuel and 176 gals of freshwater, the Southerly 540 will be able to not only reach far-flung destinations but remain self-sufficient for extended periods.
The variable-draft keel was launched on the first Southerly 33 in 1978 and devotees of the concept have been many. The consensus seems to be that “Once you’ve gone variable, you never go back.” A fixed keel is offered as an option, but who would negate the most attractive feature of this design? Add in standard features like twin rudders, powered winches, a self-tacking jib and easy handling by a couple, and you’ve got a globetrotter that will be at home anywhere.
LOA 55ft 2in LWL 49ft
Beam 15ft 8in
Draft 3ft 5in (board up); 11ft (board down)
Ballast 18,400lb (grounding plate and keel)
Sail Area 1,444ft (main and self-tacking jib)
Air Draft 79ft 8in
Fuel/Water (GAL) 213/176
Engine Volvo Penta 150hp
Ballast Ratio 34 SA/D Ratio 16 D/L Ratio 208
What do these ratios mean? Visit sailmagazine.com/ratios
Designer Ed Dubois
Builder Southerly Yachts, Southampton, England, southerlyyachts.com
Price $1.35 million (sailaway) at time of publication