Matthew Sheahan sets off on a shakedown cruise around the Channel Islands and Brittany to find out how the new Oyster 54 shapes up and whether he and the owner had ticked the right boxes during her build
For once, there was no need to remove every cushion, lift every floorboard and squeeze into the engine room for a boat test.
Having acted as the owner’s consultant in this, our second Oyster, I had been party to many of the decisions made over the course of the conception and build of this Oyster 54.
I had acted in the same role for James Eilis’s previous Oyster 47, Rukuhia, and enjoyed seven seasons of cruising afterwards, which placed us both in a far better position to make judgements this time around based on practical experience.
Between order and delivery, Raiatea had grown and changed her model name from the 525 originally announced, to the 54 after Oyster decided that more stowage space could be provided in the lazarette by extending her transom slightly.
On paper we had tried to create the perfect cruiser, but to find out whether we’d got it right, we headed off on a week-long shakedown cruise in the direction of Brittany.
This trip would involve more sail changes, anchorages and dinghy deployments than we had carried out in an entire season aboard the previous boat – perfect.
Our cruise plan was deliberately open.
Despite having brought the boat around from Ipswich to St Katherine Docks in London and then on to Hamble, we were still getting used to her capabilities under sail and power as she appeared to be considerably more slippery than the 47.
In the event, a bow thruster joystick failure meant our plans took a diversion and we headed towards Guernsey.
The prospect of nosing into small French rock-strewn harbours with a brand new boat, high topsides, no bow thruster and plenty of breeze and tide didn’t appeal.
Once the new part had been fitted in the Channel Islands, we headed off to Lezardrieux.
Where, as it turned out, the harbour was empty enough to turn a supertanker and the breeze insufficient to snuff a candle.
Good performance in my book is a combination of long legs and handling that doesn’t frighten the family.
The ability to change gear without having to leave the cockpit by opening the leech of the genoa and twisting off the main to depower makes for a less physically demanding experience and extends the wind range for a given configuration.
Aboard the 47 we had achieved a sail plan that was a doddle to handle from the cockpit without having to resort to an in-mast furling mainsail and complex hydraulic systems.
The idea behind the Oyster 54 was to have precisely the same arrangement, but within a considerably bigger sail plan.
A fully battened, single-line reefing mainsail and a standard rope-operated furling genoa can both be operated manually.
Although in practice the electric primaries, mainsheet and halyard winches mean that there are few operations that don’t involve a gentle squeeze of a Lew mar button.
Another essential ingredient is decent sails that keep their shape through a broad wind range.
Once again, North did us proud with a suit of white sails in Spectra Gatorback and a well-cut, stable, asymmetric cruising chute.
The result is a powerful, yet easily manageable sail plan which in 30 knots of breeze demonstrated that the Oyster 54 can power-reach happily under two reefs and 50 per cent headsail.
The bottom line is that she’s a far slipperier and more responsive boat than the 4 7 and great fun to sail.
Where she really impresses is in her light airs performance (we mostly had 5-20 knots of breeze).
Of the few disappointments above decks, stowage quickly became the biggest bugbear.
With no forward sail locker to stow the spinnaker or staysail when on passage, changing sails became a back-breaking chore, digging the sails out from the cavernous lazarette and hauling them along the side decks.
Fender stowage was also an issue and frequently resulted in us tying the four of them to the pushpit rather than see them buried in a locker that couldn’t really cope with their size.
Where to stow all the kit?
For each increment in boat length, sail area increases by the square, volume by the cube and stability by the power of four.
It’s a great way to justify the sometimes breathtaking increase in cost per foot!
What came as a surprise with this 54-footer, however, was that with our usual cruising team of five, kit bags and sailing gear still cluttered cabins.
Despite the extra length, there appears to be little extra practical stowage space below other than in the saloon and galley.
Sleeping cabins may be slightly bigger, but once you’re under way and have gone through the first 24-hour watch cycle, you’d be hard pressed to notice.
The lack of a workshop/walk-in hanging area is frustrating – a small wet locker towards the aft end of the galley provides the only place for clutter and wet kit in the boat.
And it’s only just large enough for foulweather gear and the odd broom and you have to drag it through the galley to stow it.
There are fewer drawers for torches, knives, tape, sail ties, etc, as well.
In addition, the main power switches and relays are positioned under the navigator’s seat and only easily accessible to those who enjoy limbo dancing.
Having said all that, the galley is a big improvement over the 47 and is very easy, comfortable and safe to work in, even when sailing upwind.
Throughout our test, our notorious appetites were never left unsatisfied and the very few meals eaten ashore gave testament to the Oyster 54’s functionality and practicality.
Eating aboard at anchor, drinking ashore in pubs, the pattern became quite familiar.
The saloon is spacious, yet practical and secure with handholds in all the right places.
The navstation is sited low in the hull, but its fit-out is just what we wanted and perfectly executed.
The whisky stowage is also safe when under way and practical when at rest. And then there’s the oak joiner work, which is quite simply beautiful.
On deck of the Oyster 54
When flying the asymmetric on the carbon spinnaker pole and using just one extra line as a guy, the tack line becomes the downhaul as you wind the guy back.
In this configuration, you can sail as low as 170° true for very little additional effort. As a result we don’t carry a conventional symmetric spinnaker.
A non-standard carbon boom by Selden. The Y-shaped section provides a mini Park Avenue-style boom with just enough landing to ensure that the mainsail sits tidily and easily on top.
Of all the on-deck decisions, this one took the longest to make. But has proved to be the best option for us-easy to use and practical and well worth the extra cost.
One end of the double-ended mainsheet ends up alongside the halyards and reef lines at the companionway hatch.
The other is led to a powered winch at the aft quarter of the cockpit and within easy reach of the helmsman.
Being able to ease the mainsheet to bear away is essential for any boat, especially one with a decent-sized main.
We have gone for pinstop cars rather than traveller control lines to keep the cockpit clutter to a minimum.
Most of the time you can use the kicker to provide mainsail leech tension.
On a long passage you might set up the traveller to leeward beforehand
Below deck the Oyster 54 in detail
The galley is the best part of this boat below decks. There is enough space to ensure that cooking doesn’t become a logistical exercise, yet there is always somewhere to brace yourself when under way. A galley for keen appetites.
As navigator and serial web surfer I’m particularly pleased with this navstation.
The boat’s laptop is stored in its own locker and hooks up to a dedicated remote screen and wireless keyboard and mouse.
The system can display different chartplotting systems and AIS targets as well as acting as a repeater for the radar.
Offering the forward double cabin to the other crew members and guests as they join the boat will make you appear benevolent.
Indeed, at rest this cabin, like all other forward doubles, is sumptuously comfortable.
Upwind in a blow it is a different story, yet our dedicated crew rode it out.
The owner’s double aft.
There was only one person in our crew who didn’t think this cabin was maybe a little too big and might have compromised the on-deck stowage. Yet strangely no one sought to challenge him on the matter.
The Oyster 54 is a terrific sailing boat, not for her straight line speed or any particularly nimble handling.
But for her balance – balance between powerful sailing characteristics in a breeze.
Where her high righting moment makes it difficult to dip the leeward rail and the ease with which she ghosts along in the light.
Balance between decent manoeuvrability and noise/vibration free, effortless pace on passage under engine.
And balance between a healthy amount of sail area that ensures that you can spend more time sailing than motoring and yet can manhandle her without a squad of 6ft fitness freaks.
She might be only 8ft bigger than our previous boat, a mere 17per cent, but the sum of her parts makes her a far bigger boat to manage. Yet a few days into our trip and she’d shrunk – a good sign. A few hundred miles more under her keel and I suspect she’ll feel almost normal.
So will the increased distances and shortened passages that are now possible with such an injection of pace.
It is this and her ability to provide enough volume to offer versatility in her layout that will make her a popular size in the range.
Tweaking the stowage arrangements will address one of the few serious criticisms and set her on a path towards being a new benchmark for Oyster.
First published in the September 2009 issue of YW.
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