In the space of 15 years the luxurious Gunboat cats have gained something of a cult following. Toby Hodges can see why when he creams round the Caribbean in the captivating Gunboat 55
A platform at anchor
Drop the sails on the 55 and you can nose right into the best anchorages. The rudders lift up manually and the boards swing up hydraulically into the hulls, after which the cat draws just a couple of feet. We pulled into a stunning cove in Anguilla, tucked in behind a headland sheltering from the squalls in just 7ft of aquamarine water.
Anchoring is a one-man push-button operation from the helm and I was amazed at how quickly you can change mode. Within minutes we had gone from full-bore reaching to prepping lunch in the cockpit.
The galley island with double sink works particularly well. Drinks and meals can be prepared within easy reach of the helm and saloon – and the views are unbeatable. There was little need to spend much time in the hulls, but each is fitted out luxuriously, with lightweight padded lining and teak trim.
The after part of the saloon is enclosed using transparent soft (‘semi-rigid’) panels. These can be slid off like a cabriolet – the breeze flows and it feels open yet still with sun protection. Although ideal for the tropics, this soft-top solution will not suit cold-weather sailors. It provides no security, and could make crew feel exposed in a blow.
Gunboat noticed that its owners typically left aft areas open. So it eliminated the aft sliding door and window bulkhead, creating one big space. “It opens up the sightlines dramatically,” says Johnstone. “I don’t think you’d get any greater 360° sightlines than what we’ve achieved.”
Another crucial decision was to target the 55 at couples. Two cabins are standard and the upkeep needed has been reduced to a minimum. The bridgedeck living area is treated like one big open-transom cockpit, with watertight doors closing off the hulls. The teak sole can be simply hosed clean via scuppers running to the transom steps.
The optional transom gates for those on passage would certainly be advisable to keep crew in and green water out. Otherwise one bad poop and your saloon could be a swimming pool. In such an instance, the engine hatches might also prove too exposed and tricky to access were there a mechanical problem in big seas.
The racing GB
Many Gunboat owners want to race competitively as well as cruise. So, as with performance superyachts, they strip the boat, get a couple of rockstars aboard and thrash their ‘cruisers’ around a course, never dropping off double digits. A handful of the older 62s and 66s are now impressively tuned-up.
It was a buzz aboard Toccata at the Heineken Regatta. Loud certainly, from the winches and the whooping, but the striking aspect is that the three predominantly involved in sailing her were next to each other, within close proximity – and communication.
The party GB
Gunboat owners are made to feel like part of a family. They socialise together before and after racing and even have their own prizegiving. Toccata’s owner, Chris Groobey, summed up the cult feeling with his delight at being ‘allowed’ to be part of the Gunboat family after three years on the waiting list.
Above all, Gunboat crews have fun. If you don’t like to party, it’s perhaps not the scene for you.
Building in North Carolina
Gunboat began in 2000 building cats in South Africa. Peter Johnstone explained how labour costs prevented the company building in the US before now. But in North Carolina two years ago he found low labour rates and skilled workers.
The 55s are built in infused carbon to strip resin content to a minimum. Even the tooling is infused to ensure maximum vacuum pressure. The deck is built in one piece from gunwale to gunwale.
Once the production run of eight 60-footers has finished in China this year, all production will shift to Wanchese. A 65, 72 and 77 are next in the pipeline, in the same style as the 55, plus a custom 78 and a potential 100-footer.
LOA 17.35m/56ft 11in
LWL 17.35m/56ft 11in
Beam (max) 7.62m/25ft 0in
Draught 0.61m/2.80m/2ft/9ft 2in
Disp (lightship) 12,500kg/27,558lb
Sail area (100% foretriangle) 137.2m2/1,477ft2
Engine Yanmar 2x39hp/OceanVolt 15kW electric
Sail area:disp 25.9
Price ex VAT: US$1.9 million (£1.3 million)
Designed by: Nigel Irens Design
The Gunboat 55 offers fast cruising in an environment that is quite unparalleled. It is something like open air sailing yet from inside. It successfully mixes heady adrenalin runs with warm-water, shoal-draught cruising. And it’s manageable by a (ballsy) couple.
With this 55, therefore, Gunboat has created a production model that has set the bar higher than anything else I have tested. It is a cat that not only oozes cool, but one with multifaceted talents. It is certainly capable of converting a dyed-in-the-wool performance monohull sailor like me in one outing.
For the majority of us without US$2m to spare, there might still be a 55 floating around the Atlantic somewhere to salvage. The story of the dismasting of the first of the line in what is now believed to be a waterspout is a sobering reminder of what Mother Nature can throw at us. And with the speed and power of such a design comes added responsibility – 55 owners and crew will need the skills and experience to deal with, or avoid, heavy weather.
I concluded my last test on a Gunboat, the 66 four years ago, by saying that it made all other boats seem rather dull. Well the 55 has the looks and arsenal to make the 66 herself seem a tad tame.
This is one powerful weapon, but in sensible hands a superlative one.
This is an extract from a feature in the June 2015 issue of Yachting World