Boat International, USA

Songtao: “Sticking to what I know best” is how designer Ted Fontaine describes the Friendship 53, his newest entry in the production sailboat field. Alessandro Vitelli joins her for a sail in Narrangansett Bay.

Ted Fontaine has carved out a niche for himself in the megayacht world, with a series of neoclassic sailing beauties, each on an evolutionary step in conservative, timeless design incorporating contemporary technology. And, to top it all, they’re fun to sail. Not content with establishing himself as one of the leading megayacht designers, in 2001 Fontaine decided to enter the production sailing yacht market with the Friendship 40, a “cruisable” luxury daysailer. That success, in turn, has lead to the recent launching of the Friendship 53, which adheres to the 40’s formula of offering a huge cockpit, comfortable accommodations below decks, and sailing systems simplified to the greatest possible degree, all in a lovely and luxurious package.

Fontaine has been a steadfast proponent – in fact, one of the principal developers – of the design school which stipulates that heavy displacement shoal draft centerboard sailing yachts, designed with minimal wetted surface, offer the best combination of interior volume, performance, sea-kindliness, and all-around cruising practicality. He has applied this conviction to boats ranging from the Friendship 40 to 130-ft plus megayachts. The Friendship 53 is no exception, in both aesthetics and in performance; you can’t miss her shared DNA.

In the water, the Friendship 53 is all about curves, an artfully integrated series of lines flowing into a coherent whole. If I hadn’t personally seen CAD-CAM computers being used in Fontaine’s design office I’d suspect he’s still hiding ducks and splines and French curves somewhere. Songtao, the first hull of the 53 series and our test boat, looks like she belongs in the water, there is no other way to describe her. And she certainly acts as if she did, as was amply proven in a delightful and revealing sailing afternoon under perfect conditions on Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. Leaving a tight marina berth was child’s play, thanks to ample power and an effective bow thruster. Clear of the marina entrance, electric winches and a Leisure Furl boom system took care of setting the mainsail in no time at all. The single-part mainsheet is controlled by a hydraulic ram (essentially a reverse 6:1 purchase), operated by foot switches at the helmsperson’s fee. A Reckman hydraulic roller furler set the 100% jib in seconds, and within a couple of minutes we were close hauled at over seven knots. From my perspective, all boat tests should be like this.

Sailing reveals the wisdom of combining a generous sail plan with a heavy displacement hull. The Friendship 53 is steady as a rock – always a desirable feature in cruising yachts, where a stable platform means more relaxing sailing – yet offers a lively turn of speed and precise steering. She’s not a racing boat, after all, and surfing ability and reliance on human ballast for stability are very much beside the point. She’ll get you there fast enough – too fast actually, you’ll want lots of time to appreciate and luxuriate in her cockpit while under weigh; I’ve seen smaller and less comfortable cockpits on 80-footers.

Once you reach your destination, the 53 continues to shine. One would assume that the large cockpit imposes some compromise in accommodations; and if your idea of a fun cruise is to pack six or more people in a 53ft boat for a week, so it does. I happen to be in complete agreement with her designer: a sailing yacht in the 50-foot range, rigged for short-handed sailing ease, is best enjoyed by two people, with perhaps another couple of occasional guests. Day sailing, on the other hand, can be all sorts of fun with a crowd. The 53 gives you just that – a lovely and private master stateroom forward, a second occasional guest cabin tucked aft, two en suite heads, and the aforementioned huge cockpit for the picnic crowds. The cockpit, incidentally, separates the main seating area from the helm with two pods bearing the primary sheet winches. The helmsperson thus has all sail controls at hand – well, at foot in the case of the main sheet – and can essentially single-hand the boat with ease. An abundance of integral drink holders and a drop-leaf table suggest how the “guest” part of cockpit should be enjoyed.

Other than the two staterooms, the preponderance of the space below decks is taken up by the main saloon and the galley. The former can provide intimate space for gourmet dinners or ample room for convivial activities in inclement weather; the galley is more than adequate to provide for either of these occasions. If you insist on cruising with more than four people, or need sleeping area for a gaggle of small children, the dining table can be lowered to make up a temporary berth.

I was, at first, struck by the almost complete absence of a proper navigator’s station. Upon further reflection, and further conversation with Ted Fontaine, this seeming anomaly started to make sense; a large monitor at the helm can display chartplotter and/or radar readouts where they are most useful, making the traditional chart table below redundant. Traditional design incorporating contemporary technology, indeed, Fontaine’s primary focus in megayacht design also manifests itself in details like the jib halyard tensioner, a typical big-boat adjustable lock set by a removable tail temporarily led to a winch; once the roller furling jib is hoisted there is no need to carry a coiled halyard on deck for the rest of the summer.

Quality and attention to detail are evident everywhere: the stainless steel end plates at the companionway hatch and the start pattern scupper strainers are good examples of that perhaps unnecessary but so telling extra touch that true craftspeople delight in. The teak trim on deck, as well as the joinerwork below, are of excellent quality. If I may be allowed a small criticism, the absence of proper locking scarf joints in the teak cap rail is noticeable, particularly in contract with the execution of the other trim.

I might have incautiously mentioned, earlier on, that the Friendship 53 is not a racing boat; and implied that she is intended for the more contemplative sort of cruising sailor. But scratch any sailor worth his or her salt and you’ll find some competitive instinct. We were lazing about Narrangansett Bay, as I said, putting Songtao through her paces and checking out her systems, when it occurred to me that the muted whine of electric and hydraulic trimming devices was increasing in frequency. Sure enough, there was another sailboat nearby. And sure enough, in short order we reeled her in and passed her. Another pleasing aspect of the Friendship 53, this one: you can cruise and relax, but when that urge to be the first at anchor strikes you, you can indulge it. In grand style.