Toby Hodges test sails the Garcia Exploration 52 – a bluewater adventure cruiser that is made of stern stuff
If you were to take your partner or family to some of the world’s most remote waters, exploring the oceans from the tropics to the polar regions, which yachts would you shortlist for the job? Be honest.
For true peace of mind, for something that will look after you in all conditions, including shallow anchorages and drying harbours, you would probably relegate performance, speed and response on the helm to the back of your mind and focus on finding the sailing equivalent of a 4×4 off-road vehicle.
The Garcia Exploration 52 ticks all the boxes. It’s a rugged, aluminium bluewater cruiser with a shallow keel, lifting centreboard and twin rudders that enable it to dry out. But it is not simply a bare metal battleship; it also includes a deck saloon with an internal steering position, and premium accommodation.
It is a yacht that seamlessly blends the world of luxury cruising with out-and-out expedition yachting. It invites you to go off the beaten path, but in substantial comfort.
The Exploration 52 is in every sense the larger sister of the original Exploration 45, which was conceived by bluewater cruising guru Jimmy Cornell and designed to be a go-anywhere yacht. Cornell, the founder of the ARC, has logged over 200,000 cruising miles. His brief for Garcia, and designers Berret-Racoupeau, was to create both the ideal bluewater cruiser and a yacht rugged enough to take on the North West Passage.
“I wanted a strong, fast, comfortable, functional and easily handled boat perfectly suited for both high latitude and tropical sailing,” said Cornell, declaring the resulting Exploration 45: “as close as can be to my ideal long- distance cruising boat.”
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The Exploration 52 shares the angular, robust look of the 45, including the bare alloy hull and the reverse angled, ship’s bridge-style coachroof windows, but offers more space, stowage and comfort.
The build quality is also the 45’s equal, incorporating watertight fore and aft bulkheads. The bow/forefoot section is reinforced for ice breaking and includes a towing eye so that the yacht can be dragged ashore with a tractor, if necessary. Yet within the alloy hull and its welded stringers, you’ll find a wonderfully warming, high-quality finish, a forward facing navstation and a deck saloon offering 270° views.
Aquarius, the yacht we tested, was the first Garcia Exploration 52 to launch and was highly customised for its owners, who were setting off for the Canaries the following day on the first leg of a five-year world tour. The family/utility cabin was being used for loading a cargo of medical supplies bound for Senegal.
Like Cornell’s boat, which was designed to sleep a number of friends and family, the interior of Aquarius has a flexible layout that can accommodate up to ten at a time. Yet on the 52, unlike the 45, the interior feels neither cramped nor short of stowage.
We sailed the Garcia Exploration 52 in fine conditions from La Rochelle, with a Force 3 to 4 and only a slight sea. Under genoa and main we achieved 6 to 6.5 knots pointing at 45° to 50° to the apparent wind. She certainly felt like a sturdy 20 plus tonne yacht.
Aquarius was laden with a few tonnes of extra payload (she can carry 6.5 tonnes over her lightweight displacement) and the resultant helm sensation was more neutral and purposeful than particularly rewarding.
But once we footed off to reach at 100° to the apparent wind, and hoisted the A-sail, we were averaging a respectable 9 knots in 12 to 15 knots of wind. Once under way, she keeps a consistent speed, our maximum on the day was 9.5 knots.
But heat the Garcia Exploration 52 up too much and you can lose grip on the rudders. I found this a little surprising for an ocean cruiser with twin rudders, but bear in mind the blades are deliberately short for beaching purposes.
Indeed, designer Olivier Racoupeau confirmed that the blades are 1.15m deep compared to 1.45m on a more conventional non-centreboard design, but says that the shallow draught of the Garcia Exploration 52’s rudders is by no means extreme.
I enjoyed the sail, but only when there was enough apparent wind in the sails. Aquarius has the optional cutter rig with genoa and a self-tacking staysail, which is an ideal way to adapt the sailplan to suit conditions. The staysail is used in 25 knots plus, according to Garcia, hence we sailed under full genoa.
Once the wind was down to eight knots we were wallowing at 4.5 knots under white sails. Any negative thoughts about the Exploration 52 being sluggish, however, need to be balanced by the fact that she was fully laden for world cruising. Two pallets of medical equipment filled the starboard cabin and her full tanks added an extra two tonnes.
Admittedly the rig looks short, confirmed by her conservative sail area/displacement ratio, but this is all in keeping with the go-anywhere, dependable nature of this boat. The centreboard obviously reduces the amount of ballast beneath the water, but Garcia and designers Berret-Racoupeau address this with smart weight allocation.
The fresh water can be pumped from side to side for ballast, the tanks are low and central, and even the chainlocker and windlass are located well abaft the bow, near the mast foot.
The hard-top that overhangs the coachroof on Aquarius is customised to the owner’s height. The area beneath this overhang can be sealed off with a canopy, trapping the heat coming up from the interior. I cannot recall a better cockpit position from which to stand a watch, no matter what the weather.
Of course, the navstation down below would provide even greater shelter, but it gives me shivers just thinking about how bad the conditions would need to be for me to need more shelter than the forward end of this cockpit!
The cockpit is set up for the crew to sail the boat without needing to leave its protection. The inboard primaries are just in front of the twin helms – a practical and safe position to work – and all control lines are brought aft under the coachroof where they can be easily managed.
There are useful cubby holes in the coamings to keep rope tails tidy. I particularly like the Marine Deck cork decks and cockpit surfaces, which the owner specified. This material is cheaper and more sustainable than teak, yet it’s grippy, comfortable for bare feet and can be washed with soap and water.
Aesthetically, the stern arch will attract and repel buyers in equal measure. Aboard the Garcia Exploration 52 it is a practical solution for mounting an array of aerials, solar panels, a wind generator and even the davits, although when sailing offshore, the tender can be hoisted on to the foredeck using the genoa pole.
Aquarius is also fitted with a hydrogenerator. “At over six knots running speed, the Watt&Sea hydrogenerator should cover all our power needs,” says the owner.
Step through a pair of heavy-duty doors and you move from sheltered cockpit into a haven of comfort. The deck saloon has 270° sightlines out of the slanted coachroof windows. You can see the horizon while standing in the galley and adjust the autopilot or operate the throttle from the forward-facing navstation.
It is a relaxing and settling interior, finished in either teak or oak. There is a step down to reach the accommodation forward or abaft the saloon, as with any deck saloon, but the benefits include light, space and views plus the central stowage and tankage beneath the floorboards. There is even space to increase the standard 1,000lt fuel capacity by an extra 400lt.
“One of my requests was to be able to sleep up to ten at a time,” said Aquarius’s owner. To this end, the starboard midships cabin can be used for stowage or sleeping, and the port aft cabin has a second fold-down bunk. The deck saloon table also lowers to form a large bed.
The comfortable forward cabin contains an offset double berth directly in front of the main bulkhead, so the owners won’t feel like they are in the bows of the boat. Instead the heads and shower are situated forward, with two watertight bulkheads further forward.
The engine room is abaft the companionway, and is well insulated with access both sides. The 660Ah battery bank is located centrally. In addition to the solar, wind and hydropower, generators, there is a diesel genset and second alternator.
Watertight hatches in the aft cabins provide access to the stern compartments and all through-hull fittings are welded in aluminium with valves above the waterline. There are separate wet and dry hanging areas in the aft heads compartment.
The Garcia Exploration 52 combines a belt-and-braces expedition vessel with a silver-plated luxury cruiser. Owners may not set any speed records or spend too long at the wheel, but they will cruise off the beaten track in exceptional comfort, whether in the cockpit or down below. Where Jimmy Cornell squeezed stowage and accommodation slightly on his 45 so he could have eight berths for friends and family, the 52 has the extra length to provide all the space and stowage you could wish for. For those with the ambition, the Garcia Exploration 52 is the ultimate go-anywhere yacht that also caters for the crew that has no wish to rough it. If there is another new yacht on the market that offers such peace of mind for remote cruising combined with this level of comfort, do let us know.