BOAT TEST: BENETEAU SENSE 55
What better place to test the stylish new Beneteau Sense 55 deck saloon yacht than in its home waters of France. KEVIN GREEN reports
The flagship of the three-boat Sense range is very much more of the same, which I hasten to add is a good thing, for those seeking comfortable user-friendly sailing. Along with the slightly older siblings, the nippy 43 and the voluminous 50, the new 55 brings yet more grandeur to the deck saloon concept. With the emphasis heavily on the outdoor-indoor aspect of sailing, the signature features are maximum use of topside space with easy entry to the apartment-style saloon, guaranteeing window cleaners have plenty of gainful employment.
While acknowledging the influences from competitors Moody and Feeling, the deep pockets of Beneteau's R&D department along with designer Berret Racoupeau, ensure plenty of originality such as cockpit crew berths, a versatile transom and ample smart electronics to keep everything moving. At sea the Sense aims to behave like a character in Jane Austen - with impeccable manners - so this requires functional roller-reef headsails and slab-reefed mainsail controlled by electric Harken winches; but in-mast furling is also available. Easy docking options include a bowthruster or the new Dock&Go pod system.
The wide cockpit, and in fact the entire boat, is built around the Mediterranean-style of stern mooring with open transom and owner's suite far away from the dockside bustle, in the bow. The teak swimplatform is partitioned by a retracting bulkhead and lift-up helm seats open the entire area when at anchor. But sensibly, the main hatch is adjustable for safety against following seas. For going ashore there is a dinghy winch, allowing the tender to be stowed on the swimplatform, but I also understand there are plans for a transom arch to hoist it aloft.
The large, sheltered cockpit dominates the beamy hull with high saloon bulkhead plus dodger to protect crew well. A single table is standard and along with a sturdy stainless steel handrail mid cockpit, this arrangement is preferential to me compared to a second table (a rather flimsy plastic one fitted optionally but does have the advantage of containing a useful icebox). Cleverly, the teak cockpit table is electrically powered allowing a button on the helm to transform it into a comfy sunbathing spot. Locker space here is good portside with wide teak-clad seating. Below the starboard seat is access to a crew bunk/occasional cabin, with space for a washing machine and dryer.
The solid mainsheet arch is part of the spray hood/dodger, which also converts the cockpit, via zipped canvas, into a fully covered all-weather area. So it should be party time rain or shine on the Sense 55. The fun continues behind the twin wheels, where fold-up helm seats open onto the stern swimplatform.
The teak-clad swimplatform and the open stern section can be semi-closed by raising a powered mini transom bulkhead. The twin helms are located well aft and are rather exposed to following seas but they do have high backrests, are height adjustable and conveniently fold-up on gas struts. Both binnacles have dedicated Raymarine C90 chartplotters with ST70 readouts and the starboardside one the power controls including, on the review boat, the Dock&Go pod steering system. This uses a joystick via computer sensors to synchronise the 75hp Yanmar's 360-degree swivelling saildrive with the forward Max Power thruster for maximum manoeuvrability in tight marina spots, making it ideal for couples to handle the big Sense.
Elsewhere in the cockpit sail controls are taken care of via two sets of Harken winches, with H60.2s for mainsheet and the smaller powered H46.2s located forward for controlling the halyards; with their tails neatly stored in bins. Banks of large jammers on each side of the cockpit look more than adequate for managing the halyards and running rigging which all run aft.
Our test boat came with a traditional slab-reefed mainsail and 105 per cent genoa, but there are plenty of sailplan options. These include a factory fitted self-tacking jib and there's also an inner forestay vang for an optional staysail (or smaller roller furling jib). The two-spreader Selden spar is held up with outboard shrouds and the optional hydraulic backstay was fitted on our boat. Inboard genoa cars, snug against the low-profile cabin top combined with the outboard shrouds mean clear decks for crew moving forward.
One major downside with the rig is the very high boom height, necessitating the crew to climb the mast when handling the slab-reefed mainsail. When commenting on this Beneteau told me that production models would have significantly lower booms. Good news for most sailors, especially shorthanded cruising couples. Also, given the size of this boat/rig, the optional in-mast furling main would be my preference for serious bluewater cruising.
There are acres of deck space thanks to low-profile hatches, not to mention 55 feet of boat, meaning the forward sections of the Sense can house large sunpads when moored. Anchoring is well taken care of with a large Lewmar windlass/capstan and muscular twin rollers, the sealed chain locker with access below. The optional teak decks combined with the black (transfers not paint) hull added that extra level of elegance to the test boat.
The Berret Racoupeau hull is traditionally laid-up in solid GRP and sports twin rudders, a necessity given its large beam is carried right back and held up by an elongated cast iron keel. A hard chine runs from the swimplatform level at the transom along the waterline, a popular means of reducing the bulk in such wide-beamed, high-volume hulls.
OPEN PLAN SALOON
With a similar cockpit size to the 50 the new 55 uses its extra volume down below. It's positively palatial with two enormous guest cabins and similarly proportioned master cabin in the forepeak.
Three easy steps takes you down into the vast saloon. The Nauta design interior continues the progression from shoreside influences with features such as island bench that cleverly unhinges to become a dinette seat, while also acting as a useful handhold in this vast, open space. The dinette table is height adjustable (though not intended as a sea berth) and has plenty of space to seat a large family or perhaps two sets of charter couples - a possible market for this three double-cabin yacht.
A bold colour scheme with cream bulkheads and lacquered plastic cupboard doors contrasting with burnt orange leatherette furniture sets the tone. This orange material felt supple like calf's leather but according to Beneteau's Yves Maundin is extremely hard wearing, while looking stylish and practical. However the appearance was tarnished somewhat by economising on headboard finishing, with wire staples holding some material.
Over at the portside longitudinal galley an elongated window runs its length with an opening section sensibly above the three-burner Eno stove-oven. When not in use it's neatly hidden by a roll-over worktop. Alongside are twin sinks with separate taps plus dishwasher slotted in below, hidden behind a locker door. There's also space for a washing machine in the outside crew berth. Thanks to generous tankage (970lt) water use shouldn't be an issue - the water tank is sensibly positioned deep in the centre of the hull, which no doubt helps the stability. However, bluewater cruisers would probably opt for a watermaker, which could be powered by the optional 7kW generator or run off the main engine. To the right of the stove is a front-opening fridge with chest freezer unit that adjoins another drawer cabinet. Combined with overhead lockers, it finishes off a fully equipped galley.
Navigation is also well taken care off with full-sized chart table facing astern - conveniently allowing the skipper to eyeball the cockpit through a window or simply by ducking the head around the large main hatch. Here, the navigator shares the dinette seating but the bench tilts, ensuring concentration is maintained on the Raymarine E120 plotter, even when heeled over. Entertainment is controlled by the Pioneer AVH-330OBT system running DVDs, accepting SD and USB inputs and is iPod compatible. On the island bench a 32in flatscreen television appears at the touch of button. Access to the Yanmar saildrive-pod is slightly restricted forward, but has good access either side in the crew berth and opposite from the sail locker, with filters to the rear.
Beyond the saloon are the three cabins with sliding doors either side closing off the two double guest cabins. These are about the best I've seen on this size of yacht, with large beds, plenty of walkaround space and en suites forward for each.
At the forepeak the owner's cabin has a spacious V-berth island bed with two wardrobes and sizable vanity table. Natural light comes from two portlights and an overhead hatch with blind and headspace is around six feet. Adjoining it is a shower cubicle to starboard with plexiglass door and under-seat storage area, while opposite is the bathroom; so plenty of privacy for separate ablutions. Both areas are finished off with composite work surfaces.
Manoeuvring a 55-foot yacht in a congested marina is not for the fainthearted and windage on the tall topsides of the Sense was hefty in our marina, so the optional Dock&Go system came into its own. Click the engage button (which locks the helm/throttle) and simply push the joystick in the direction of travel, twisting it to increase revs as needed. All very intuitive. On the Yanmar engine, the rotating saildrive is electronically synchronised with the thruster when in docking mode.
Clear of the dock, a button click returns normal controls, allowing me to accelerate the 18-ton hull along nicely before briskly turning, thanks to the twin rudders, into the breeze. Hoisting the mainsail out of its lazy jacks was effortless with the optional electric Harken winch - a recommended option for this size of boat and sail plan.
The excessive boom height meant agility was required so the optional (and now mostly reliable) in-mast reefing should be considered - Beneteau tells me about 50 per cent of buyers choose it. With genoa rolled out we sped off west along the beautiful French coast in the direction of Cannes, a port the Sense 55 wouldn't look out of place in. Evidence of the balanced sail plan was felt in a light helm, a useful trait for saving autopilot amps, while clear views forward showed the horizontal telltales on the Dacron genoa. With the breeze moving to double figures the heel increased then slowed as the hull chine dug in and I noted 8.1kts SOG beam reaching in the 12kts breeze.
The teak footrests were too far away for my 5ft10in frame, but were pronounced enough to be useful. Gybing showed the clear benefits of twin rudders as I felt their power in driving (rather than sliding) the beamy hull around. For cruising boats they are questionable, sometimes giving excessive helm torque going astern, but with Dock&Go fitted this isn't an issue and of course, having two rudders allows the cruising sailor some redundancy in case of gear failure.
Sheet handling, as is the modern way, has primary winches near the steerer, but on a yacht this size some extra space might have been good for crew to do the grinding. However, with all four sheet handling winches being electric on the test boat, this wasn't an issue. Control of the large mainsail is also good, thanks to a design allowing the mainsheet blocks to be far back down the boom, located on the solid arch.
Overall, the setup with sizeable winches and sheets, works well when shorthanded and allowed me to easily wind up the gear at the touch of two buttons as I hardened up on the wind. Reaching nearly 40 degrees showed a respectable 7.4kts SOG on the Raymarine E90 plotter, increasing to 8kts at 35 degrees. Functional ergonomics at the twin helms echo those of the smaller Senses, so have the obligatory autopilot (Raymarine ST70) and wind instruments in clear view, along with starboardside Dock&Go plus power controls.
On the whole, Beneteau's declared aim "to make the superyacht world accessible" has undoubtedly been achieved with the eminently sensible Sense 55.
Euro 335,000 (incl. Dock&Go as std.)
LENGTH OVERALL: 17.2m
WATERLINE LENGTH: 15.93m
DRAFT: 2.35m (shallow draft 1.9m)
MAKE/MODEL: Yanmar saildrive
RATED HP: 75
SAIL AREA: 155m² (total)
FOR MORE INFORMATION
From Trade-a-Boat Issue 427, May-June 2012. Photos by Kevin Green; Nicolas Claris; supplied.
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