Can a modern fast cruiser be all things to all people? Toby Hodges trialled the first Swan 55 to find out if Nautor's decades of experience can achieve such a feat
When it comes to choosing a modern performance cruising yacht, it could be argued that many of the current crop of designs share very similar trends, particularly those from Med-based brands or those aimed at warmer weather sailing. And for good reason: there are multiple attributes gained from long waterlines, voluminous hull shapes with beam carried aft, twin wheels and rudders, and spacious decks and cockpits. All of which may lead you to assume the new Swan 55 is simply following suit, another one of many.
But that would be forgetting something crucial, a one liner that can still close most arguments: ‘It’s a Swan’.
The most famous pedigree in modern cruising, the Finnish yard already has over 50 years’ experience of building at this size. Its first S&S 55 launched in 1970, while back in the late 1980s the Swan 53 was drawn by the same Mr Frers as today’s Swan 55. The Italian-owned builder and its long favoured Argentinian designer know their market and are exceedingly comfortable with producing this size and type of yacht.
Nautor Swan very much pitches this model as a bluewater cruiser, albeit with an emphasis on ‘fun’. Where some may consider a centre cockpit or more protected helming position crucial to ocean sailing, Swan knows many more seek the helming pleasure and deck space its more modern format provides. That’s not to say this Swan 55 is not fit for distance cruising, just that its primary purpose might be aimed more at enjoyable sailing than bashing around a horn. We got to try the former when sailing the first to launch out of Tuscany in June.
We sailed Alegher from Scarlino, Swan’s Med base resort, 100km south of Pisa. Thankfully, the frustrations of a breathless morning evaporated as quickly as the forecasted breeze filled in during the afternoon – it went from a vacuum of glassy seas to a Force 4 south-westerly in less time than it took to trim accordingly.
The Swan 55 responded by heeling over, accelerating on to its full waterline before remaining on a consistent angle. Indeed Swan confirmed that Frers designed the boat to minimise heeling to around 20° and that this is the optimum heel angle for theSwan 55’s hull, to give maximum power going upwind for minimal drag.
Frers designed recesses in the hull for the rudders to work best at this angle too, where the windward rudder is almost clear of the water and the submersed rudder is near vertical. “These are family boats so we want to minimise heeling,” explained Swan’s Vanni Galgani, adding that part of the righting moment is given to the hull, not just the keel. That said, the angle was enough to employ the large foot braces at the helm, and I needed to keep a firm grip on the sturdy deckhead handrail when moving forward below decks. However, the consistency the Swan 55 went on to demonstrate in speed, feel and heel is a real asset of the boat – it points to reliably fast yet comfortable cruising.
An aluminium rig comes as standard, but most owners at this size choose carbon, including the owner of the test boat. Although a cruising sailor he also chose a racing-style flat boom instead of a more typical V-boom and a self-tacking jib as opposed to the standard 110% genoa.
A small jib makes for an unorthodox combination with an inner staysail too and suggests pointing upwind and reaching with furling sails are more the target.
Sailing upwind in 11-15 knots wind and a building swell, the Swan 55 averaged 7-7.4 knots at 26° to the apparent or 40° to the true wind. The 80% jib and sheets which are run through longitudinal tracks well inboard on the coachroof helped it to point high – that said, tacking angles were tricky to calculate as we mostly gybed through tacks due to the inner forestay being rigged and a teething issue with the jib furler.
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Keeping it clean
Neat sheet angles and leads help define the deck design. The coamings are brought aft which, importantly, gives a dry perch for the helmsman and some cockpit protection. And as these coamings also widen aft it helps provide the same width cockpit as the 58. The increased space also allows for six clutches each side, while tunnels for the jib sheets lead neatly through the coachroof to help keep the decks very clean.
Nautor has employed a tried and tested winch layout, two each side for handling the headsail sheets and running rigging and a central mainsheet winch. All are the same size (allowing for cross-sheeting), all powered as standard and within reach of the helm. Yes, it’s a similar layout on the Swan 58, but the Swan 55 really does feel that much more manageable, with the winches slightly closer, and the freeboard, displacement and loads all lower.
A captive mainsheet is an option, but I think the winch on a plinth setup, another trickle down from Swan’s larger range, works well. The electric winch for the sheet together with a powerful vang helps give good control, while the plinth provides a bracing point between helm pedestals. The blocks for this have been repositioned forward on subsequent builds to prevent the sheet fouling the pedestals.
In the lighter breeze the helm felt neutral, as could be expected with large, twin rudders, but pointing or reaching with the true wind in the teens, it came to life with a nice level of feedback through the Jefa wire steering. While beating and fetching, enjoying a sail out towards Elba island, I couldn’t help but look forward to a kite run back downwind. However, this being an owner’s boat, and with the wind and waves still rising, we were unsuccessful in our pleading to let us use the big sail.
The wind increased to 18-20 knots, which gave us a sporting yet comfortable reach home under white sails. The log varied from 8-11 knots depending on the waves, averaging 9.5 and nudging 11.5 knots on quick surfs.
It was fun, dependable mid-displacement performance cruising, but we were slightly underpowered with the small jib, which lacked enough drive forward to ride the waves for any period.
The performance option of the Swan 55 has the same mast, but with a larger crane for a semi square-top mainsail and a longer bowsprit (the righting moment therefore stays the same). Frers has lowered the bowsprit a few inches below the stemhead, an aesthetic tool designed to help reduce the appearance of freeboard. It gives the option to mount a hydraulic Code 0 furler, while the sail locker is long enough to store these offwind sails. This space is very handy although the opening on the test boat is too restrictive – it has been improved on future boats to make it easier to get furling sails in.
Those after added performance can also choose a 3.4m T-keel. The test boat carried the standard 2.5m T-keel, where a shallow 2.1m L-shape is offered to help appeal to the US market, plus a 2-2.85m telescopic option which takes no interior space.
In terms of maximising deck space at rest, Swan has some trump features. The Swan 55 boasts its first double hinging transom, a maxi yacht-style feature which gives access to the tender garage while more than doubling the traditional amount of space aft. This also necessitates an open transom design which, although not ideal for ocean sailing, does have triple height guardrails and a central pushpit stand.
The wide cockpit with its L-shaped benches makes for a large social space. The benches are shallow enough to make the raised backrest cushions a must tick option and place a reliance on the large sprayhood for added protection. This has removable sides/panels and can become part of the bimini, plus there’s a huge boom awning option to give full cockpit sun protection.
The interior is calm, spacious, comfortable and exudes quality. While the layout choices include three cabins, two or three heads, plus a utility cabin, the clever part is in offering different uses or orientations of multiple areas to allow owners to adapt a production yacht to suit their needs without Nautor needing to customise each hull.
So as well as the options the excellent aft port utility cabin brings, you can choose various chart table formats and different guises for the layout of the two cabins forward of the mast.
It is certainly rare for a yacht of this size to offer two forward cabins, with one being the master, but unique is the option to do away with the guest cabin, remove its dividing bulkhead and create one ‘supersuite’. This could include a desk, a walk-in closet or a TV lounge with a convertible sofa berth.
The utility cabin aft will appeal to long-term cruisers, as it can be used to stow bikes and water toys, a workbench etc as standard. Alternative options include a single berth, with or without extra heads, and a separate entrance from the cockpit for a paid hand. Of the 12 boats sold so far all owners have opted to have a berth here. The test boat also had a rail aft for wet weather gear/spare warps, a small drawer fridge below the berth, a 5kg washer-dryer and a work surface inboard above the generator. The only downside is a lack of standing headroom.
Choices for the starboard side saloon include a small chart table forward with 2.5m-long berth as per the test boat, a central chart table with two armchair seats either side, or a conventional chart table. While the test boat format provides the option of a pilot berth, the downside is a compact navstation area, particularly if you’re wanting to use this as a desk as well. A valuable feature is the deep drawers below, complete with locking pins to secure them at heel.
Eight can sit around the saloon table, up to 11 including the sofa berth, yet the table is cleverly designed not to monopolise that space: it can be compact for access when you need, yet extends, swivels and flips to double in size.
The L-shape galley layout also works well, a practical format thanks to the inboard sink area providing extra worksurface and providing some bracing side to side and fore and aft. Stowage space, both cold and dry, is good throughout (particularly if you don’t choose the huge dishwasher forward as per the test boat), and there are customised fittings for all of the cutlery and crockery. However, there’s only a small single bin.
The spacious aft starboard ‘VIP’ guest cabin is larger even than aboard the 58 reportedly, with tall headroom, good light and stowage in a full height locker outboard. It can be a twin, a twin which converts to a double (arguably most practical), or a fixed double and can have ensuite access as an option.
Swan has been clever to include both an aft heads and separate shower, despite the narrow doorway. It’s a little tight to get into the shower but it is full height with a tall hanging locker outboard. Meanwhile, the shower stall forward of the navstation is excellent, nice and light with a practical seat. Having a connecting heads and shower allows all crew to use a proper shower while not invading the owner’s space or privacy – a downside is the multiple doors that can swing into each other.
And while a forward owner’s cabin tends to feel like a bit of a compromise on a cruising yacht of this size, it’s a layout and concept many people will choose, particularly for Med sailing and aft berthing. Swan has also made it feel as large as possible, with a nice open entrance area, masses of natural light and a low berth which can be a double or split into V-berth twins. Stowage is a little limited here for bluewater cruising however.
The forward guest cabin is also surprisingly spacious with good light, headroom and stowage, though the two opening hatches are small.
For a €2m yacht, there were a few unexpected niggles on this first hull that needed addressing or have since been changed: the main engine room access needed improvement, some doors or drawers fouled others, and while the grain of the veneer is expertly matched, it had already scuffed and worn in some high use areas.
That said, the big ticket items are impressive: the engineering and quality of installation stand out. Electronics are controlled from one panel on the bulkhead by the companionway, neatly segregated into 24V and 230V switch panels, with the breakers and battery switches further below. A well insulated engine bay (more learnings from Nautor’s large yachts) contains a powerful Yanmar 110hp as standard, plus a 3.5kW genset further aft. The latter is enough to run aircon, but induction cooking would require a larger unit.
Soleboards lift on suckers and reveal stowage wherever possible, tanks central below the saloon and plumbing below the galley. Robust TruDesign through-hull fittings are used with softwood cones tied to all seacocks. The sole is supported by an aluminium grid, which is independent of the structure and allows cable runs to be kept out of the bilge, while studs and foam lining help prevent the boards from moving and creaking.
The build is very much like the 58, using glassfibre with carbon reinforcement up to the sole and on top of stringers, Vinylester resin and Corecell foam sandwich (including the three watertight bulkheads). The standard boat is finished in white gelcoat, any other colour is painted.
However, in an issue where we are championing new, more ethical boatbuilding practices, green options and renewable energy from big production yards, these still appear to be missing on the options list with Swan.
Those building yachts designed for the bluewater are typically and rightly cautious about fitting new technologies. Nautor’s neighbour Baltic Yachts is already advanced with hybrid propulsion, regeneration and using natural fibres, so with the Finn’s boatbuilding skillset, you can be assured Swan will find solutions – it’s just surprising it’s not ahead of the curve here.
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To stand at the windward helm of a Swan 55 powered up at heel is a rich, rewarding experience. This model offers a pleasant blend of sailing: a predictable nature for cruising yet a sporty enough spirit for performance sailing. Such a Swan should arguably be the ultimate fast bluewater cruiser, something Nautor pitches this model as, and while there are features which help that argument there are others which equally suit coastal Med sailing. However, Nautor has a storied history in doing just this – yachts which are as at home port hopping the Côte d’Azur as they are crossing the Atlantic or coastal racing with friends. The 55’s looks and long, low lines are certainly alluring and arguably more elegant than Swan’s recent crop, perhaps in a respectful nod to the timeless 54. And yet it boasts so much more space than the 54, particularly aft and on deck, while the 58 which only launched two years ago feels a much bigger boat, one on the limit of and perhaps better suited to, needing a paid hand. Yes, the deck space afforded by the large cockpit and beach terrace is an obvious draw, but some of the features that will be valued most highly on this Swan 55 are the customisable layouts below, particularly the aft utility cabin, plus the accessible stowage and access to systems. In short, the 55 offers ‘premium cruising’, Swan style.