Big yachts are not for the fainthearted, and with her high freeboard, sweeping lines and wide beam, the Dufour 56 Exclusive is imposing. Once onboard, however, I started to relax. She seemed spirited, but friendly--and hopefully forgiving.
At 11 tonnes this is a lot of boat, but Skipper Matt Hayes from Sydney by Sail and Performance Cruising assured me that the yacht can be easily sailed single-handed. That being said, he did suggest that it's probably best with a minimum of two, for example to coordinate docking.
To put him to the test we invited two novice sailors, Elle and Karen, to see if this big yacht really was user friendly. As we glided toward the Sydney Harbour Bridge as if by laser, the first thing I noticed was that I could barely hear the no-horsepower engine purring away below. Hayes says the big sloop can easily cruise at nine knots under motor, but we were in no hurry so kept to five as the motor was still being broken in.
From the helm, the view was unhindered by an expanse of low teak decking right to the bow. I was surprised by how minimal the helm station was, and thought perhaps we'd have to sail this big baby just by feel, but soon located the standard wind and speed instruments near the port steering wheel.
On the starboard side was an iPad navigation station, the bow-thruster controls, and a fusion stereo. Of course, options are available to get more instruments on consoles in front of both wheels. The steering was a little heavy as you'd expect on this size vessel, but it was sure and she held her course when I let go altogether.
East of the bridge, five to seven knots of breeze kicked in so we raised the mainsail in the lee of the Sydney Opera House. A former Olympic sailor, what Hayes loves about selling Dufour yachts is that performance is in their DNA.
He pointed out that the boom is angled down to the mast. "This really helps the single-handed sailor because with most boats this size, you have to climb the mast to bring the sail down," Hayes said.
The main is folded on top of the boom in a bag with a lazy jack system to guide it up and down. A lot of big yachts use in- mast furling, which is convenient, but hampers performance. Using one of the two big electric aft winches, it was very easy to raise the main in just a couple of minutes.
The main sheeting system is sometimes referred to as German style. That may seem a little out of place on a French yacht, but it basically means the cockpit is clear, with the sheets and pulleys on the coach roof. The sheets lead aft, and can be easily controlled by the helm from either wheel. This is great for tweaking the main, and when you have good crew, one person can ease sheets from one side, while another sheets on after a gybe.
She started to pick up speed and moved along nicely with just the main up, but Hayes was keen to showcase the 56's impressive performance credentials.
"With the code zero up the other day, she did ten knots in eight knots of wind. I just turned on autopilot and walked around as she was trucking through the water. The 56 is such a solid, safe boat --and so sweet too," he enthused.
We didn't have quite as much breeze for this test sail, but as we unfurled the code zero from the extension on the bow, she accelerated effortlessly. The zero is a big sail--you need quite a bit of grunt to move 17 tonnes--but as the waterline length kicked in, the Dufour leaned and hit seven knots in seven knots of breeze.
This massive sail was very easy to pull out and is sheeted in on a manual winch positioned in front of the helm. The rookie crewmembers were invited to help sheet on manually, and they got the hang of it quickly. They certainly worked up a sweat, but it was a cold day so there were no complaints. From the helm, it was also easy to use the winch--simply lean forward and tweak the headsail to maximise the speed.
On a beam reach she really took off and pointed up to about 50 degrees with the code zero cranked on. A few gybes later I was removed from the helm as the novice sailors gave it a crack and I took care of the trim. It was all seamless as we furled the code zero and put the self-tacking headsail to work.
When sailing short-handed, a self-tacker really is a must--you can turn through the wind as everyone hangs on to their drinks and nothing is spilt. I've found they only really work well if incorporated into the yacht's design from the beginning, and this one seemed to be a natural part of the boat. The Dufour 56 also had tracks for a genoa if you wanted to expand your sail wardrobe for racing.
This boat came with beautifully weighted, twin carbon-fibre black wheels, while the single deep rudder gives a great grip on the water and holds the yacht's course well under the light winds we experienced.
Dufour likes to keep everything tidy, and there were sheet wells in the deck to quickly store sheets and ropes away, sensibly avoiding tripping hazards. In addition, Dufour has pioneered the practise of leading all control lines for the mainsheet, headsail and code zero back to the cockpit to enable short-handed sailing.
Manoeuvring a boat of this size with considerable windage also requires bowthrusters, some of which are still unreliable. However, Dufour have come up with a solution: jet thrusters. These are essentially a couple of through-hull fittings where water is pushed out under extreme pressure.
"It's direct, low maintenance, and not prone to issues such as coral clogging up the tunnel. Push the button and the jet thrusters work straight away," Hayes pointed out.
We dropped anchor and the 56's stern quickly transformed into an expanded entertaining area. I must admit I've never seen anything quite like this before. A few panels were lifted, a swimming platform lowered and, hey presto, a chic space appeared. Amenities included a barbeque, sink and fridge, along with a dinghy garage for storage and water toys--all that was missing was the butler. The indoor/outdoor cooking option is very handy, and there's a huge fold-out cockpit table and plenty of room for eight to dine in style.
The Dufour Exclusive tag means there are extra touches like specially designed cockpit cushions to lounge at the bow and lots of cup holders, which is very important. Even more so are the many grab handles that enable you to always maintain one hand for you, and one for the boat, in a rough sea.
Heading below, it's like a TARDIS; somehow it feels bigger than it did on the outside. That could be because I'm still in Laser mode, but I definitely like light-coloured oak on yachts, especially when married with white leather lounges. The decor reminds you of a French beach, especially when the huge amount of natural light streams in from the many skylights/hatches.
When it comes to the interior layout, Dufour have broken with tradition. It takes a while to realise that the galley is up front and runs right across from one side of the yacht to the other. It's skinny, and looks different too, taking a bit of getting used to, but the cook can actually wedge themselves in when things get rough, while at anchor they can be very much part of the dining experience.
There are two huge food fridges and a wine fridge, as well as a gas cooker and stove. Twin sinks and plenty of storage complete the gourmet package. A capsule coffee maker comes standard, but I'm sure an upgrade would be easy.
The lounge area was very comfortable with a TV that hides away inside a panel when not in use. A large navigation station is situated toward the stern on the starboard side along with all of the boat's electronic controls. It was a little awkward in that you had to twist to see everything, but the space was fine.
When it comes to accommodation, the Dufour 54 Exclusive has an array of configurations but they all seem to include two mega-size aft cabins with ensuites. The hull design flares out at the stern enabling these huge cabins to accommodate guests in hotel-level comfort.
In the bow there are a number of options for a master suite. This one had a separate shower and head, and a half island bed with a real mattress. There was plenty of light flowing in from the on-deck skylight/hatches and side hull windows.
Further forward in the bow there's a huge storage space, or it even looked big enough for crew quarters. We didn't test it, but Hayes said there was room for even more overnight guests as the dining room table could be lowered and converted into a double bed.
In this very functional and elegant design, Dufour still haven't forgotten the basics. There are no sharp edges and lots of secure handholds throughout the interior, which is pretty important--you wouldn't want to be bouncing off the sides when they are live metres apart.
The Dufour 56 exclusive would be a fast cruiser capable of circumnavigating in rare style and comfort. Maybe Karen and Elle are not quite ready for that yet, but they did help demonstrate that this big yacht's versatility and long list of user friendly features can be enjoyed by everyone.
Typical of French style and elegance, the Dufour 56 Exclusive yacht, definitely stands out, and while it's a big boat, it feels compact and welcoming.
Sturdy enough to satisfy the serious sailors, but smooth and graceful for even the most amateur female crew and aspiring captains, like me. It was a joy to get behind the steering wheel (and steering was a breeze), and easy and safe to navigate the deck. No fear of low boom swings overhead, and the impressive wooden deck felt pleasurable underfoot.
My biceps and abs were given a workout when winching the sails, but that was completely due to my lack of fitness rather than the device.
Clever and subtle features included the neat little foldaway deck table, as well as the barbecue at the rear mini pontoon. The multiple bathrooms were also appealing.
When on the deep blue sea, it's always nice to know you can still get a good cup of coffee, so a cute little Nespresso machine neatly tucked in a cupboard pretty well sealed the deal for me.
Caption: AL FRESCO AMENITIES Expansive aft dining and entertaining space around a lovely crafted table with built-in chiller flows through to wide steps leading to a large transom/swim platform perfect for relaxing or launching waterports.
Caption: COMFORT ZONE Dufour's exceptional craftsmanship is on show in the 56's staterooms. The master suite boats a separate shower and head.
MODEL Dufour 56 Exclusive DESIGNER Felci Yachts LENGTH OVERALL 17.15 metres BEAM 5.05 metres DISPLACEMENT (LIGHT) 17,625 kilograms DRAFT 2.50 metres/1.95 metres opt KEEL WEIGHT 4,900 kilograms ENGINE 110 hp FUEL 500 litres WATER 730 litres SAIL AREA 152.7 square metres PRICE $925,101 (as tested)