An exclusive three-day test on the new baby of the Oyster range, the Oyster 495, shows that big things can come in (slightly) smaller sizes, says Toby Hodges
Oyster 495 review: an impressive smaller Oyster
Good things come to those who wait. After tirelessly chasing the breeze for over 100 miles, we found our just rewards. It was a hazy, moody morning as I rose from the privileged comfort of the aft berth of the new Oyster 495. Twin thrusters were pushing us effortlessly off the dock in Guernsey, our late night stopover, as I took my coffee from the galley espresso machine up on deck, noting how quickly and easily I was beginning to enjoy such creature comforts.
Once out past the harbour arms, white caps indicated a solid breeze. The sails were unfurled at the push of a button and Carpe Diem, Oyster 495 number one, began to heel and power up properly, as if finally set free. This was the moment for me that Oyster’s latest design came alive and transformed into what is arguably the definitive modern day luxury distance cruiser.
It has been a long, highly publicised build up to the launch of Oyster’s first boat fully conceived in the four years under software entrepreneur Richard Hadida’s tenureship. This is a model the CEO has talked about from the start, one to widen the luxury brand’s net and bring more, and younger, people on board. It seems that strategy is already working, as, out of the 15 Oyster 495’s already sold around the world, only two are to existing Oyster owners.
This is also the smallest yacht the Southampton firm has developed from scratch since 2005, and warranted a new yard in Hythe to take production in-house and build up to a schedule of 12 Oyster 495s a year.
49ft for the 49th year
This is only a 49 in name though, not in the looks, volume or price tag. The Oyster 495 is as much a part of the small superyacht style of Oyster as its last few launches from the Oyster 565 to the Oyster 885, all by Humphreys Yacht Design.
First impressions centre on its size: the deck space and internal volume that all the beam and freeboard height creates. Yet while the duck egg vinyl wrap intentionally sets off a vibrant aesthetic, it’s the rest of the renowned quality and styling on the boat that really hits home.
The integral boarding ladders which fold down from the guardrails are optional but arguably essential, though once aboard you quickly realise how easy it is to move around the deck and through the superb cockpit.
Below decks you’ll find a clever new layout which, for me, makes the galley a star of the show and helps ensure the aft cabin, with its views and space, is best in class.
Once I discovered the deck stowage, engine room space and mechanical layout, I was convinced this could be a serious world cruiser and was excited about the chance to spend proper time aboard, a long weekend-style mini cruise, to see how it performs and how practical it is.
Oyster reserved our three-day slot aboard the first Oyster 495 during its ‘world tour’, in which it is premiering this new model in the Baltic and Mediterranean.
With a ridge of high pressure settling over the south coast, the obvious option to find wind was to take the north-easterly across the Channel. We met a spell of glorious summer conditions once out of the western Solent, sailing close-hauled over flat water at 7 knots in 10 knots localised seabreeze, before we pointed our bows across the Channel and settled in for many hours of reaching with and without asymmetric spinnaker, or motorsailing when the wind dropped. With double figure apparent wind speeds you can reliably sail at a speed similar to or exceeding that of the engine at cruising revs, meaning you can passage plan at 8 knots.
Although the standard Oyster 495 comes very complete, the test boat was equipped with plenty of optional extras including a carbon mast and in-mast furling carbon spectra sails to help bolster performance. As I was to discover in the Channel Islands, the boat still likes to be powered up before you get much communication on the helm, and in the lighter breezes I had to watch the numbers to avoid wandering off course.
Initially, the helm felt overly heavy, despite the dual rudders. Our skipper, Oyster’s CCO Paul Adamson, was quick to access the steering gear through the pedestals and after some tweaking the result was slightly lighter. However, long geared linkage of centre cockpit steering to twin rudders will always mean hopes for direct feedback need to be measured accordingly.
Built for breeze and ease
To have extra breeze the following day was transformational. With the true wind in the teens or more The Oyster 495 comes alive. It’s powerful and stable, exactly what you want from a distance cruiser.
It was also a really impressive display of how easy it is for one person to manage. I sailed Carpe Diem right into Sark’s Le Grand Greve cove, using the pedestal push buttons to furl the jib, then the main and finally to command the windlass to lower chain as we glided to a halt with no engine or any other hands required.
The push button ease with which you can manage this boat is a big deal. Three new clients of boats in build have converted from power to give sail a go, says Adamson. That said, they’re expensive options, with retractable bow and stern thrusters alone costing around £40,000.
While a standard Oyster 495 has an aluminium rig with electric in-mast furling, Oyster has been working with Seldén on a new hydraulic in-mast furling system for this optional £140,000 carbon rig. The test boat had a full hydraulics package to serve the outhaul, vang, mainsheet and backstay, the twin compact pumps of which need comparatively little oil and are remarkably quiet (good for not waking the off watch). The push button system is being developed and uses a smart pressure release mechanism to prevent accidental overloading.
That afternoon was full glamour: sunny sailing in a puffy 15-20+ knots, which meant gusts in the mid- to late-20s over the deck. With some heel induced, the Oyster 495 stabilises and powers up. On the times we did really press we only managed to stall on a couple of occasions in the higher gusts and even then the round-up came very gently, politely inviting you to depower the main.
In general, speeds remained in the high 8s when close-hauled, rising into the 9s when we freed up a bit more, while we nudged double figures broad reaching in flat water and in stronger gusts. Around the 9-knot mark is the comfort zone, with comfort the byword – the 495 promotes a lot of confidence to keep sail up, without shipping water or overloading, and has a reassuring, forgiving motion through waves.
The helm stations are typical for modern Oysters in that they’re relatively high up to give clear sightlines from the wheels and headroom below decks. Add to that the freeboard height and you may wonder if it feels exposed. However the deep footwells with angled sides really suit standing at heel, while most will realistically engage autopilot and seek cockpit protection during lengthy watches anyway.
First class layout
I took to helming seated outboard on the coaming, which feels a more natural position at heel than trying to reach forward from the helm seat. The pedestals are well designed, particularly the grab handles each side, although a smaller or repositioned throttle lever would be prudent to prevent consistent snagging.
The positioning of the primary winches has also been very well considered, on a raised step each side outboard of the coamings and perfectly in reach of the helm. It’s also a useful step out from the cockpit to the side deck.
The standard block and winch is installed as well as the hydraulically controlled mainsheet, showing a system which can also easily be adjusted from the helm. I appreciated how a preventer line is rigged on each side of the boom, with clutches on deck allowing this to be set up on one side and the tack line on the other.
The intelligent, practical design elements continue around the clean decks, including genoa sheet leads kept neatly inboard alongside the coachroof. Reverse sheer helps generate headroom below without needing to extend the coachroof forward of the mast, while removable dorades and cages help keep the foredeck flush.
A quick swim at the anchorage and a hot shower on the bathing platform was necessary to prove the benefits of the new cassette platform design. An electric ram pushes it out horizontally aft from the lazarette to extend deck space. The full beam lazarette itself is enormous, and while the sail locker is certainly beneficial it could use a larger hatch as it was a squeeze to try and get the gennaker through.
The cockpit is perhaps Oyster’s best yet relative to its size. It provides excellent protection, particularly under the sturdy sprayhood with its large clear panels. The huge table makes it clear this is where the majority of meals will be taken, with deep benches easily long enough to seat eight or to lie down on. While much design work has clearly gone into the flowing lines, I found the backrest angle a little severe, so cushions might be a wise extra.
We eventually had to wrench ourselves away from the stunning Sark anchorage to try to catch favourable tides back across the channel. Sailing to the Casquets under sunset we met a dying breeze in the Channel for the long motor and night watches across the shipping lanes.
At cruising revs we clocked 8.5 knots at 2,100rpm burning just 6lt per hour of the tank’s 880lt. Noise levels were very acceptable down below too, thanks in part to some excellent insulation. Adamson puts this know-how down to Oyster’s larger yachts and says a key is that the acoustic sandwich insulation used is all glued with no fastenings that can transmit sound.
Life at heel
Spending proper time aboard on passage is the ideal way to assess the practicality and comfort of the interior in use and at heel.
In terms of styling and quality of finish, today’s Oyster is top drawer. Rather than the typical passageway galley seen on a centre cockpit model this size, the 495 has the beam for a seaworthy U-shaped galley to port, while the starboard passageway provides stowage space and helps open up access to the engine room. It’s a one-fits-all layout, but a solution the yard is understandably delighted with. Smart features seen on the latest larger models are also included, such as the formidable lighting system throughout and the digital switching touchscreen monitors which clearly show and interrogate all systems.
Sturdy handholds lead you down six deep steps to a saloon bathed in light and natural ventilation, the latter from the large, forward-opening coachroof windows. The table on the test boat could be lowered to extend the starboard sofa into a double or daybed. It also has a handrail which extends out, which is needed at heel as there’s a large open area to navigate across – a longitudinal rail on the deckhead would make sense here.
The adjoining galley is excellent, ideally shaped for working at heel, with abundant natural light. The fact that we as a crew all offered to cook or make drinks so often said plenty. Although modestly sized, with relatively compact outboard lockers and only a half height fridge aft, extra optional fridge/freezer space can be chosen here, in the cockpit and particularly in the passageway. Practical elements include the inboard sink and surround acrylic work surfaces with radiused upstands and an integrated bin. If being picky, a larger porthole to the cockpit to pass drinks through would be handy.
A generous chart table and plentiful space for instruments encourages passage planning and quiet study in the navstation. The coachroof windows extend aft to encourage extra light both here and in the galley, but the navstation is too low to enjoy that benefit. I found it comparatively dark and would prefer to see out more, but the large computer monitor was deemed to be more useful than a hull port here.
Aft stateroom cabins have long been an Oyster calling card and the Oyster 495 continues that tradition to the extent this is arguably the best you can get in 50ft. A step in the cockpit helps create a wide passage forward of the berth with 6ft 4in/193cm headroom.
It’s taller still in the adjoining heads, a clever design with an area sculpted out from between the engine room and galley to create a proper shower stall.
From the stowage, both in cedar-lined wardrobes, drawers and small lockers around the berth, to the superb lighting, overhead escape hatches, blinds and ventilation, it all smacks of quality. The vertical hull portlights steal the show, inviting prime sea views, especially from the privacy of the sofa to port.
Accommodation forward of the saloon comprises a compact Pullman, ideal for kids or a delivery crew, and a generous guest double. These share a good sized heads and separate shower, although with no wet locker, foul weather gear will likely end up cohabiting the shower too.
Once again it’s the headroom and light that stands out in the forward cabin, the latter thanks to long twin overhead hatches with mushroom vents plus hull ports.
For a yacht which is so nice and light below decks, and which has such fine sea views from the cabins, my main issue is that you can’t actually see the sea properly from the saloon, galley or navstation. The coachroof windows are too high to see out of when standing in the saloon, the hull ports too low when seated.
It can be argued that a prime benefit of Oyster’s long favoured semi-raised saloon is that it’s low enough to adjoin the surrounding areas and high enough to house the large polyethylene fuel and water tanks, together with the battery bank, below the sole. The test boat has standard 800Ah gel batteries, sealed in airtight containers and ventilated overboard by fan, while all systems including the aircon can run off the inverter.
Further aft, the grey water runs into the deep keel stub, a smart idea to centralise weight in otherwise wasted space. The stub also helps keep the rest of the bilge dry, holding liquid in one place, with strumboxes used for the bilge pumps to help prevent blockage. Some of the infused glassfibre construction and carbon reinforced stringers are visible here – a solid laminate with Vinylester outer skin is used below the waterline.
Where Oyster’s larger models have a workshop cabin leading into the engine room, the Oyster 495 doesn’t have the space for this, yet the layout solution here and access to the engine room are superb. Twin doors open out to reveal the motor mounted in the centre of the boat, at max beam, a saildrive to negate shaft space and allow for an 8kW genset accessed via its own door immediately aft.
Opposite is excellent stowage in the passageway, including freezer and washing machine, with optional 110lt/hour watermaker below the sole.
Benefits of a prototype
Our voyage was temporarily paused after a leak was traced to a cracked skin fitting in the lazarette, a watertight compartment aft. It was a fitting for the emergency boarding ladder, a practical device which allows the release of a pushpit-mounted soft ladder from the water, but one that was mistakenly installed with an incorrect part. We are told it is not a feature on other models and all subsequent Oyster 495s will be fitted with a bronze or TruDesign skin fitting.
Lazarettes are often decked out with a single level floor, yet here Oyster understandably wanted to make as much of the cavernous stowage space available as possible. It’s stowage world cruisers will love, but fitting storage units to take individual boxes might help prevent loose items sliding around pipework and steering gear.
The incident highlighted the prime value of having a model that is thoroughly tested before going into full production.
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Credit to Oyster for doing a full tour with this first boat and for encouraging extensive trials. The longer you spend aboard any yacht, the more likely it may appeal but equally the more chance there is to find fault. Most niggles I picked out seemed to be in hand, although a larger sail locker hatch would be on my wishlist, while bluewater sailors may wish for a wet hanging locker. This might be a small mollusc by Oyster’s modern standards, but it’s one big pearly shellfish for most of us. The yard has managed to include so many of its big boat features into a 16m yacht which can be handled by a couple without crew. It’s a lot of money, but that includes an impressively full spec and the prestige club element of buying into a brand which offers renowned service and a prize draw in its world rally. With a draught under 2.3m (or 1.83m with shoal keel option), the 495 can not only take you across an ocean in supreme comfort but it can then squeeze into shallow harbours. It is slightly heavier with less sail power than some competitors and won’t suit those doing lots of lightwind helming, however, it has a high, powerful and forgiving shape for tradewind sailing. For liveaboard voyaging in a luxury monohull of this size, the 495 sets a new standard.