2004 September 7
By JOHN KRETSCHMER
A production cruiser gets custom treatment to be the world's largest boatbuilder's new flagship
Where would we be without dreams? For years, Francois Chalain, Beneteau's chief designer and in-house conceptualist, dreamed about creating a production boat like the new 57. His vision centered on a powerful sailing machine with the kind of luxurious amenities and long list of standard features that would permanently alter the public's perception of the world's largest sailboat builder, placing it squarely among the ranks of the elite custom boatbuilders. And as lofty as those aspirations are, there is also a practical side to Beneteau's stunning new flagship. Dealer Chuck Laughlin of St. Barts Yachts in Charleston, South Carolina, puts it in perspective: "The 57 is a natural progression, it's the next step up for Beneteau 50 owners." Step, however, is too mild a word. The new 57 is a leap for Beneteau-this is a departure boat, a statement boat. Designed by Bruce Farr, (with close collaboration from Chalain) this new center-cockpit passagemaker has genuinely raised the bar for production builders as it combines a hull form that allows for luxurious accommodations and yet one that offers surprising performance. What is not surprising is that Beneteau has deployed all of its manufacturing moxie to bring the 57 to market at a base price that will make other builders seasick with envy. We joined an armada of other journalists and interested customers to sail hull No. 2 in Charleston. The boat is a powerful sloop rig, and with the bow sections a bit fuller than Beneteau's usual First Series boats, the beam, of which there is plenty, seems less pronounced. Maybe I was mesmerized but there even seemed to be a bit of sheer. I liked the look as it took the ruler-drawn edges off the boat with a slight softening that made it seem friendlier for cruising and living aboard. However, make no mistake, the new 57 is also designed to win those so-called rally events like the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, and to do very well in the Bermuda races too.
The details The first impression upon stepping aboard is one of space. Despite the number of people milling about, the boat rarely felt crowded. And it felt solid in the water as the sails went up in a fresh breeze. The construction is in line with Beneteau's other big boats, featuring a solid hull and balsa-cored deck. The hull also includes a balsa rib band for stiffening. A massive hull liner that is bonded and laminated to the hull provides structural integrity. I have never been overly fond of hull liners, especially in big boats, but the tooling of this liner, which is essentially a hull within a hull, demonstrates Beneteau's commitment to the 57. Obviously they planned to build a lot of 57s. This is just the type of manufacturing muscle that only Beneteau can deploy to launch a new model. Tooling up for the flagship isn't dramatically different than tooling up for a new 40-footer. The standard, externally fastened fin keel has a draft of nearly 8 feet, 6 inches, which might be more than a nuisance in some sailing areas. The test boat was fitted with the more manageable shoal-draft option, a 6-foot, 10-inch keel section. Ballast on the shoal-draft model is 17,000 pounds, roughly 10 percent more than with the deep keel. The rudder is a balanced spade, positioned well aft for excellent steering control and the stock and bearings combine composite glass and stainless steel. The cockpit is brilliantly designed, that is if you can live with a bulkhead-mounted wheel. I admit that the port side steering station, with a robust teak seat complete with arm rests, is a practical way to open up the rest of the cockpit. And although it's snug behind the fixed windscreen and the hydraulic steering system provides all the advantage you'll ever need to steer the boat, I think I would still select the optional pedestal-mounted wheel. The visibility is better and I just like steering from the centerline. Naturally all sail controls are led aft to huge Lewmar 66 electric primaries, which are a logical option on a boat of this size, especially if you are contemplating any kind of shorthanded sailing. The mainsheet traveler is aft, one advantage of center cockpits is that they make it practical to employ efficient end-boom sheeting arrangements. The optional hydraulic autopilot should be considered essential, just from a sail control perspective as you are slightly removed from things at the helm. An impressive wooden cockpit table is the perfect place for a meal, either under way or, better yet, at anchor. There is also a spacious aft deck, ideal for sunning or simply stretching out and there is handsome teak seating as well. If you're the claustrophobic type, this boat is for you. The low side fold-up perch mounted on the stern pulpit allows for a fantastic view of the 56-foot, 5-inch waterline charging through the water. The aft transom steps are angled for easy access in and out of the water, and include a built-in life raft locker below. A hot and cold shower is a nice touch. The cockpit, which features handsome inlaid teak on the seats, also includes clever rope lockers to quickly stow excess line. I really like the access to the engine room through the removable cockpit floors, a great feature that provides natural light when working below.
On deck The deck includes teak on the side decks and molded nonskid on the coachroof. Teak provides the best traction possible, especially when wet, and besides, it looks great and the new teak deck systems are relatively low maintenance. Stainless steel grabrails along the coachroof are well placed and the beefy stanchions and robust lifelines give both the fore and aft decks a feeling of security and easy maneuverability. Overall, Beneteau has upgraded the deck hardware on the 57, from the eight stainless cleats, including two midships cleats per side, to the impressive stainless stemhead fitting with two anchor rollers. The genoa tracks are placed well inboard and the leads should be set up for load-bearing adjustment, essential for high headsail loads. The test boat was fitted with manual leads. The triple-spreader, keel-stepped mast is by Sparcraft. The standing rigging includes double backstays for safety (redundancy), although adjustment is only via the turnbuckles. Like most big cruisers, the rig is not really designed for tweaking, although a rigid vang is standard. A furling mast or boom are both options and again, depending upon your sailing agenda and crew size, either might be valid considerations. The two folding steps on the mast help for climbing up to attach the halyard. With the wind gusting to 17 knots, the full-batten main drove the boat smartly. The optional mainsail furling system should be given serious consideration to help when reefing that big sail in a blow.
Down below The interior is breathtaking. Beneteau has done a masterful job of finishing the 57, and if you didn't know this was a production model you'd easily be convinced it was a one-off custom boat built in Italy. The finish is cherry-stained Douka wood, and the sole is Iroko parquet. From the padded ceiling sections, to the carved door frames, to halogen lighting throughout to the elegant drape on the portlights and roller shades on the hatches, Beneteau has provided the accents to create a fine yacht. There are three basic arrangements, offering two, three or four private cabins. The test model included the impressive owners stateroom aft. The derigueur centerline queen berth has drawers below, and a large hanging locker offers more storage. There is abundant ventilation and natural light in this simple but very comfortable stateroom. Indeed, ventilation and natural lighting is terrific throughout the boat. There seem to be Lewmar Ocean deck hatches and Atlantic series portlights everywhere. The aft head includes a molded shower compartment with plenty of head and elbow room. Skipping back to the saloon, the first thing you note are the finely curved companionway steps. A large dining table, flanked by a curved settee and free-standing chairs are to port with the compact but very functional navigation station to starboard. The settee cushions deserve mention, they are made of triple-density foam, intricately shaped and finished in Dralon velvet upholstery. Forward-facing panoramic ports flood the saloon with light. The nav station includes a curved wooden seat and plenty of room for repeaters above the chart desk. The dining table has a built-in wine rack in the center, naturally. A Sharp flat-screen television and DVD is cleverly mounted to starboard-this is an option that might be hard to live without. Again, the overall sense is of spaciousness. Beneteau has taken pains not to crowd the saloon with too much furniture, although the overhead handholds will only be of use to tall people. The galley is to port, aft of the companionway. There is plenty of counter space, a four-burner gimbaled stove and a built-in microwave. The fridge is front-loading, for convenience, while the freezer is reached through the top-less accessible but far better for keeping the cold in. Forward, most boats have double guest cabins, with a crew cabin and separate sail locker. The sail locker is especially useful, like a garage, and it also provides access to the workings of the indispensable bow thruster. The standard power plant is a Yanmar 4LHA-HTP supercharged four-cylinder diesel. This is a reliable, powerful and efficient engine but I wonder if it is up to the job. While the Martec folding prop pushed the 57 through a tough chop with ease, I am a bit wary of using turbo and supercharging for horsepower instead of a bigger engine. Access to the engine is, as noted earlier, either through the cockpit or from behind the companionway steps, which lift with hydraulic jacks. You can also remove side panels in the walkways, and the overall access is great. Fuel capacity is 125 gallons, and the two tanks are located in the aft cabin. The engine is fitted with separate alternators; one charges the 24-volt system that includes most domestic loads and the other charges the 12-volt system that includes sailing and navigation electronics. A 9.5-kilowatt generator is also standard. I am impressed with the system engineering. The dual 12- and 24-volt systems are efficient and there is no skimping on hardware, from the two 140-amp 24-volt house batteries, to the thermal breaks on the electrical panel, the boat is properly fitted out.
Under way Back on deck the wind had eased a bit to 11 knots true and, with a 145-percent roller-furling genoa, we punched through the chop at 8 knots plus on a beat. Easing the sheets, we shot up toward 9 knots, and when the wind freshened to 15 knots true, the speedo hit 9.2. The ride was easy and the motion soft. The steering was effortless. That, of course, is a feature of hydraulic steering. You drive by the sails, not the feedback from the rudder, and until you get used to it, it's easy to oversteer. Cracking off onto a deeper reach, we maintained 8 knots despite a falling apparent wind. Mind you, these boat speeds are obtained with a crowd of people on board and little attention to sail trim. I sure that with a little effort, the 57 will spend a lot of time clipping along in double digits. The new Beneteau 57 is a worthy flagship for the world's largest sailboat builder. It's a world-class yacht and an excellent big boat value. Francois Chalain can rest easy, his dream has been realized in a powerful synthesis of fiberglass, stainless steel and pure French style.