Farr 51 Pilot House Yacht Review

Issue: November 1996

It is a dark and stormy day. The yacht is flying towards the distant coastline at almost 10 knots on a deep reach, in a breeze gusting more than 20 knots beneath turbulent purple skies slashed occasionally by the spear of forked lightning. The skipper and crew of one – me – are sitting in the saloon. The autopilot is steering; the skipper is in the helmsman’s chair, radar and chartplotter immediately ahead of him. We have 360-degree vision. We are warm and dry. There is little noise in the saloon, from either the wind or the sea rushing past.

“Wanna watch TV?”, says the skipper.

We think about it. Nah. Daytime TV sucks, is the verdict. And we don’t have time for a video. We both have a little laugh, feeling guilty because we’re sailing fast in boisterous weather and suffering no discomfort. This cannot be what modern sailboat cruising is about! Can it ?

The boat is the Farr 51 Pilot House, built by Binks Yachts in South Australia, probably Australia’s longest-established production yacht builder. David Binks took his existing hull, got Bruce Farr to design a new keel and rudder and created the pilothouse model, a configuration that most European yacht builders today have in their line-up.

The first boat was commissioned by a Melbourne builder, a one-time ocean racer who wanted to replace his cruising yacht with a faster boat. The internal layout was tailored to his requirements, but Binks offers great flexibility with the layout as the boats are virtually custom-made. The fitout is almost exclusively timber. But you can’t knock the pilothouse layout, unless you are planning to round Cape Horn. The interior is like that of a modern power cruiser, or a cruising multihull.

You step down only two steps from the cockpit into the saloon , then down again to the galley, master cabin in the bow and the small bunk-berth cabin on the starboard side, which are all on the same level. There are two double-berth cabins aft under the cockpit.

The case for the (optional) lifting keel is incorporated into the galley structure, so it is unnoticed. The top of the keel casing is used as a servery. The keel is a fin made of 12mm stainless steel with an antimony lead bulb, flattened on its base for slipping. On the lifting keel the lifting mechanism is hydraulic. So is the steering. The rudder is a hollow carbon blade on a carbon stock.

This boat was cutter-rigged. The gap between inner and outer forestays is too small for easy tacking, so you roll up the genoa to tack, then unroll again. The genoa furler is electric, but the staysail furler is manual – the inner forestays can be detached if needed. Sheet winches – Harken #64s – and main halyard are also electric.

There is no point dwelling too much on the interior layout, because prospective owners will doubtless specify their own requirements. In this boat David Binks hand-picked the lightest-coloured teak he could find and, presumably because of the amount of light admitted by the pilothouse windows, the boat avoids the “teak cave” atmosphere that was universal not so long ago. The dinette arrangement includes two loose chairs, which clip to the table legs when under way, but can be moved around the large saloon area.

Tall people will find headroom limited at the sides of the saloon. The builder is considering the lowering the floorline if needed. The forward galley arrangement should work well – it has for years on power cruisers. The test boat had a four-burner stove with oven , microwave, fridge and freezer and Corian bench top surfaces. There are plenty of cupboards for stowage. Behind the helm station is an icebox and the grog locker in the centre of the cockpit table can also carry ice. This boat had air conditioning, with fore and aft split for more control. It also heats.

The master cabin forward has an island double bed and a terrific en-suite bathroom, with a grab rail right around the vanity and toilet and a clear-fronted shower recess. The other bathroom is at the aft end of the saloon, featuring a retractable shower lead.

You go through the bathroom to reach the open-fronted wet hanging locker, set against the hull side.

On the test boat, the two cabins in the quarters each has a double berth, hanging locker and plenty of small stowage lockers. Each has an opening window, in the fronts of the cockpit seats, with flyscreens. These cabins are not huge and can be hard to enter when the boat is heeled. The alternate “standard” layout features a single cabin aft, with double berth set athwhartships. Both layouts have a small cabin right in the forepeak, accessible from the deck, which can accommodate two crew berths, or act as workshop or bosun’s locker.

Out on the water, it is an eerie morning. Out to sea a Naval frigate is charging up and down at top speed in the gloom. The Navy must have been saving up to afford the fuel. We motor out at 8 knots with the 78hp Volvo Penta TMD22 turbo diesel, driving a three-blade feathering prop, spinning at more than 3000 rpm and sounding a bit urgent. Bring the bow into the wind, press a button for the two-speed winch on the main bulkhead and up goes the main. Press another button and the headsail unrolls. We sheet in by hand just to show we know how.

We start sailing in a gentle offshore thermal, which builds until the instruments show 4.7 knots of boatspeed beating into 8.7 knots of wind. We bear away and get 4.9 in 7.2. Then the front comes through. The sunny winter’s morning turns nasty. We have cloud, rain, lightning and wind. Now we get 8 knots of boatspeed in 17.3 knots on the wind; 9 knots in 21 at 90 degrees. The boat is heeled and charging, but still incredibly quiet. This hull is easily driven – at lower speeds there is almost no wake noise – and remains directionally stable. But nine knots seems to be the upper limit in this relatively light breeze with full main and headsail.

When we roll up the headsail, gybe for home and unroll the headsail again, with the breeze on the stern quarter we still get 8-9 knots in lower apparent winds. At these speeds, when a cruising skipper would have reduced sail, the hull is nowhere near wanting to take charge, responding happily to the wheel at all times. It is easier to steer from leeward, as there are no foot supports.

The cockpit is immensely wide, a good picnic area. The table, mounted on the centreline, provides a handhold when moving around when the boat is heeled. As we close the coast the wind comes abeam and the skipper trims the headsail. He pushes the button for a second, the sheet comes in and he laughs. Boys and toys. Why this preoccupation with speed in a cruising yacht? In my limited cruising experience the chief priority was to keep warm, followed closely by a desire to eat frequently and well. But the high, controllable performance demonstrates that this hull is easily driven and easy to sail. That matters to all cruisers. It means you can go fast, or you can go relatively fast under reduced sail, with reduced effort from the crew.

I had two coastal cruises this year. In a 38-footer we were happy to average 5 knots under sail, motor, or both. In a 44-footer the target was 6 knots. In this 51-footer you should be able to maintain 7-8 knots without stress under sail or power or by motor sailing.

The Farr 51 is a dry hull, because of the high freeboard – there’s a comforting bulwark right around – and because there is little pitching. Like all modern hulls she has a fine entry, with maximum beam well aft and plenty of beam maintained right to the stern. We were pushing the boat towards the top end of the full rig, and when the hull reaches its optimal angle of heel it goes no further, perhaps a characteristic of a bulbed keel.

We brought the Farr 51 back to the marina while sitting in the saloon , the skipper steering with the autopilot’s joystick. We had to go outside to put her back into her difficult marina berth in a fluky crosswind, but we had the aid of the bow thruster, one of the great inventions of the 20th Century.

This 51 footer is about being comfortable, when sailing long distances short-handed. All the amenities are there so the whole family will be happy when cooking, dining, sleeping and bathing. And sailing of course. And when the passage is done and you drop anchor you undo two zippers, one each side in the mainsail’s boom bag and pull out the cockpit cover. Tie each side to the dinghy davits and it covers the full length of the cockpit.

I forgot. That was my third priority when cruising – staying out of the wind, the rain and the sun.

What does modern cruising cost ? Binks lists the basic boat, with fixed keel, at $865,000. Extras on the test boat, and there were many including the lifting keel, desalinator, and diesel generator, boost the price to just shy of a million dollars

Story by Barry Tranter