When a boat is your home, the space and comfort it provides become paramount plenty of which is on offer in the Aura 51 by Fountaine Pajot
Step aboard the wide transom steps of the Aura 51 and I’d challenge even the most stubborn traditionalist or monohull enthusiast not to be in awe of the space and home comforts on offer. For those thinking of spending long periods of time or even living aboard, this is a definitive, modern, large production catamaran, one which – if you’re lucky enough to be in the market for such a substantial yacht – quickly gets you dreaming of a life afloat, with space to take friends, family and toys aplenty.
That was the case for the highly experienced sailing couple who own the second Aura 51 to launch and the boat we trialled. Johan Salen, co-owner of The Ocean Race (formerly the Volvo Ocean Race), lives and works aboard full time with his wife, Christine, and their dog Leo.
The Salens spent three years sailing their previous performance catamaran, an Outremer 5X, around the world with their son. But after seven years living ashore since then, they wanted a more comfortable boat, yet one still capable of averaging 8-10 knots.
When we met they had just stepped ashore after their first two months of ownership, which involved leisurely non-stop cruising the Glénan Islands, off Christine’s Brittany homeland. And their plan now is to spend the next four years exploring all around the European coastlines before embarking on another bluewater adventure to the Pacific.
Creating an Aura
The Aura 51 is arguably the largest manageable size of catamaran before a professional crew is needed. It’s also the first model to offer the yard’s new Smart Electric option. Fountaine Pajot worked with La Rochelle specialists Alternatives Energies to develop electric pods with hydrogenerators and energy storage and management systems. It has already launched a hybrid version and there’s an electric and hydrogen model in the pipeline. It’s good to see such a large production yard taking proper, positive steps towards cleaner boating.
The Aura 51 replaces the Saba 50, bringing more voluminous hulls and wider transom entrances. The new coachroof design integrates copious solar panels, brings more natural light and a larger flybridge area. The main bulkhead doors fully retract to give a 3m wide opening between saloon/galley and cockpit, while a clever accommodation plan offers four layouts, with all cabins including the six cabin version having en suite facilities.
The Salens have an owner’s hull to port, and three cabins to starboard. For me, the aft access to this via a gullwing door is a real selling point. It makes it all too easy to imagine waking up and walking straight out onto the aft deck and into clear Pacific waters.
The cockpit can be fully enclosed with canopies, which the Salens found useful in driving rain, and the intelligent design allows these to be left mounted ready to deploy. This option can additionally offer some visual protection and security for when leaving the boat. The cockpit also features abundant stowage.
The foredeck may feel a little plain without cushioning options and there’s no access to the flybridge to climb up/jump down in a hurry. However, it boasts a cavernous central locker. On the test boat this easily swallowed two gennakers, the genset, an auxiliary outboard motor and a spare line drum.
Once out of La Rochelle’s narrow channel, we met mirror calm seas, yet raised sails in vain hope. But I was pleasantly surprised to note we could still ghost along at 3 knots in 3.5 knots true wind and up to 4.5 knots in 6.5-7 knots close reaching using only white sails.
That said the Aura 51 needs at least double figure wind speeds to make meaningful speeds. My fellow European Yacht of the Year jury members from Yacht magazine confirmed reaching speeds of 6 knots in 8-10 knots wind during their trials.
The steering linkage is hydraulic, and with no feedback at all it takes time to figure out how much correction to add. There is also negligible visibility from the single helm to the port side, particularly aft, hence there will be a need to dock starboard side too, or else rely on help from cameras.
The helmstation works well with its large bench, wide enough for a couple (and dog!). There is room to pass between the wheel and the winch bench to the side deck or flybridge, yet they are close enough to work both areas.
My thoughts on sail handling and performance are almost irrelevant given the very light conditions we experienced. I was keen to learn more about why the Salens chose this model as it’s unusual for experienced sailors to step down in performance terms. They explained that as they always sail two up now, the average speeds the Aura offers is plenty. Indeed, both Johan and Christine pointed to an uncomfortable motion at higher cruising speeds.
“Once you start going quicker than 10 knots it involves more pitching and is more uncomfortable to live on. If you have a boat that can sail at 8-10 knots comfortably, that’s enough,” said Johan.
Loïc Madeline, editor of Voiles and another jury member, confirmed such easy speeds to me when the wind built to 14-16 knots. They hit 10 knots easily and made a steady 9 knots under autopilot with white sails at 70-75° true – “easy speed with no one really taking care of the sails,” he reported.
The Salens rarely go to marinas so manoeuvring from the single helm hasn’t been an issue. They find using one engine at 2,000rpm the most economic method under power, which burns 4-5lt per hour.
The couple made another salient point: “When you spend a lot of time aboard, you are not sailing most of the time,” Johan explained. “Even with our 5X we were sailing less than 10% of the time.” The Swedish ex-professional windsurfer considers it more important now to have the space to ship the right equipment and watersports toys to enjoy at anchor.
The Salens have a 3.8m Highfield RIB and 25hp motor on davits which they can waterski behind and use for exploration. They also keep a small inflatable in the forward locker, which comes in use in ports and going ashore/lifting up a beach, plus a garage of foiling/windsports gear in the sail lockers. “It’s the toys you can bring to enjoy life that is one of the main benefits a catamaran brings,” says Johan.
Aura 51 below decks
The cockpit hosts the main dining area, but Berret Racoupeau design has really opened up the connection to the galley. The latter is huge, including a generous island that forms the heart of the social space as it might in a modern home. Long, large skylights work with all the coachroof windows to make it naturally bright and an opening forward window adds valuable ventilation.
The lack of a desk/navstation option on the main deck is a pity – there’s not even a conventional switchboard, just touchscreen controls. Indeed, I find the single layout format, albeit understandable for serial production purposes, a little limiting on the main deck. The two large drawer fridges, to forward port, are an excellent inclusion, however they are in a strange position above the companionway as you find yourself half in the stairwell to access them. Personally I’d prefer the option for a forward-facing navstation/desk area there.
Square edges on the furniture are a pet hate – large catamarans such as this still move and pitch around at awkward angles at sea. The corners of the veneers were already damaged on the saloon table, which is disappointing for a seven figure boat.
The owner’s hull obviously enjoys massive amounts of headroom and space, with a sculpted out bulkhead to open out the cabin area. It provides serious lashings of home liveaboard comfort, with a generous changing area opposite the wardrobes, and the crowning element of direct aft deck access aft. The desk amidships is key, an area Johan uses constantly as his office.
The whole forward section is a bathroom with a huge walk-in shower, plentiful light and ventilation and separate heads area, the size of which you’d be happy with in most homes.
In the starboard hull a bulkhead separates the aft cabin so it can only be accessed from the cockpit. Each of the three cabins in this hull still feels large and has its own en suite, even if the athwartships berth forward has a slightly more prestige feel.
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Fountaine Pajot has produced another inviting model, especially for the space and comfort it offers for long periods aboard, mixed with an ability to still sail reasonably well and ensure you can clock good average speeds. As ever, it brings compromises, such as hands-on feel, visibility and manageability, but where do your priorities lie? Johan Salen made a point I have often found myself thinking. Liveaboard sailors typically spend such a small percentage of the time at the wheel, that if you want to get that adrenaline buzz, ‘have the right toys with you’ he stressed – rather than try and get the sportiest yacht to be your floating home. Go dinghy sailing, kiting, or wingfoiling instead once you’re at the anchorage. A large catamaran such as this gives you the means to store such toys; it becomes the mothership, as it were. And that really appeals!