Our WordPress website data shows that over the last six years of blogging my yacht reviews are the most popular posts with our readers by a considerable margin. The data surprised me somewhat, since I am neither an industry nor sailing professional. No matter – I love writing them and people seem to love reading them so I’m going to keep them coming! Having covered thousands of miles aboard our own 2006 Hylas 54, Rover, and as crew aboard the 2015 Hylas 56 Odette, I thought it was high time I put my reflections on these yachts down on paper for the benefit of anyone who might be interested. Moving forward, I plan to segment my yacht reviews into the following sections:
- Designer’s Intended Use (to put the review in context)
- Design Characteristics
- Performance Under Sail
- Sailing Dynamics & Handling
- Performance Under Power
- Handling When Docking
- Ground Tackle Fittings
- Quality / Fit & Finish
Let’s take a look at the Hylas 54!
Designer’s Intended Use
I want to start with this section because any yacht’s performance needs to be interpreted with the design intention in mind. For example, if a yacht were designed as a live-aboard one can hardly mark it down to D- because it doesn’t sail like a scalded cat in light air. And vice versa – we can’t mark down a club racer for its pipe berths and lack of a water maker.
I haven’t personally asked German Frers nor Hylas yachts, but by my interpretation the Hylas 54/56 series was designed as a performance passage maker, capable of crossing oceans at a good pace with the sturdy construction necessary to provide adequate safety margins in severe weather. They are designed to be comfortable to live aboard with a high standard of quality but it’s fair to say “live aboard” isn’t the sole focus of these boats. “Performance ocean cruiser” seems to capture the intent. Part of my interpretation is derived from some of the more notable of the 54’s design characteristics, to which I now turn.
Consistent with the overall industry trend in recent decades, the Hylas 54 carries a considerable amount of beam aft toward the transom. Yacht manufacturers like to claim that carrying beam to the transom constitutes “a powerful hull form” that generates “downwind sailing performance” but the reality is that much of the incentive to design boats this way centers around the accommodation of large aft cabins.
Yet while the large aft section of the hull conforms to industry trends, in somewhat of a departure from other recent designs the Hylas 54 has a comparatively bow fine entry, with a long run such that the maximum beam is actually well aft of amidships. Looking forward from the transom, this design feature is actually somewhat striking to my eye.
Interestingly, when Hylas lengthened this design to create the 56, they added two feet to the cockpit section of the boat which has the effect of moving the maximum beam forward and thereby more in line with the midships area where it is usually found. German Frers, the designer of both boats, designed them with a comparatively fine bow entries to improve performance to weather in a sea state when offshore. Indeed, both boats sail well into a chop, slicing through waves rather than pitching and slowing down. Here a clear trade off between sailing performance and living accommodation can be seen: when more beam is carried further forward the size of the forward cabins is increased notably. I would draw one poignant contrast between the Hylas 54 and another boat of similar size with which I am somewhat familiar: the Island Packet 485.
They Hylas full form (Credit: sailboatdata.com):
Island Packet Hull form (Credit: sailboatdata.com):
The Island Packet carries significantly more beam forward than the Hylas, with the result that the forward cabin, the third stateroom, and the forward head are noticeably larger than the Hylas. Although I’ve sailed aboard a good friend’s 485 in the Abacos, the sea states were relatively flat with the consequence that I can’t speak directly to whether the a significant tradeoff in upwind performance in a blow would be noticed, but it’s a good bet that at least some would be.
The under body of the Hylas exhibits a considerable amount of rocker, a moderately deep forefoot and a moderate draft shoal keel with a torpedo bulb on the bottom rather than wings (or a long chord length keel like the Passport Yachts have).
Hylas did offer a keel centerboard option on these boats but both of the Hylas models I’ve sailed have the bulb keel. The rudder has a half skeg and is moderately balanced. Both the rocker and the forefoot indicate a desire to give the yacht good handling in a sea state, and the well-formed lifting foil of the keel indicates a focus on sailing performance as opposed to marketing gimmicks like appending the keel with wings, etc.
The Hylas is “stick built,” with bulkheads and furnishings directly tabbed to a solid fiberglass hull with stringers. The deck is cored.
Performance Under Sail
First, a note about the different mast and boom configurations available on the Hylas 54/56. They have been built with in-mast mainsail furling, in-boom furling, and conventional mains on a wide booms. They are also variously equipped with either a fixed staysail on a permanent roller furler or a removable staysail on a infinite loop furler. Finally, some of the 56s have been fitted with taller carbon fiber masts rather than the standard height aluminum mast.
Our Hylas 54 has the standard height aluminum mast and the (most commonly found) in-mast furling main. We have a fixed staysail on a roller furler.
As former racers, we wanted to avoid the in-mast furling main but very few of these boats were delivered without it so when we found an otherwise perfect example of the design, we bought her. As it happens, the furling main hasn’t proven to be the liability we feared it would be. It’s a small, very flat sail with borderline negative roach but we have found that on ocean passages the weather is usually such that we either don’t have enough wind to turn off the engine or, when there is enough wind to go under sails alone, there is so much wind that very often we are actually reducing total sail anyway.
In other words, in the open ocean, there are comparatively few times when the winds are in just the right wind range where a larger main would be of benefit. The exception to this statement might be downwind but I can’t recall specific examples where a larger main would have made much of a difference, while I can recall many occasions where we have been reducing sail reaching at higher angles on passages. Surprisingly, the biggest negative with this main has proven to be trying to furl it up in rough conditions. During our trip from Fort Lauderdale to Annapolis we needed to roll it up in winds gusting into the 40s and it became badly tangled in the process. In the future we plan to roll it up long before the winds can be expected to grow to those strengths, so ironically the probability of encountering big winds may be one of the best arguments for going with a conventional main. One dynamic in favor of the in-mast furling main: we have found that it makes sailing much more accessible. We can’t count the number of times we’ve decided on a whim to roll the sail out and enjoyed a short but fun sail that would have been missed with a conventional mainsail because of the level of effort needed to hoist it, take it down, flake it, and cover it. As with everything else relating to a sailboat design, the furling mainsail is a tradeoff.
As an interesting sidenote, the Hylas 56 we crewed aboard was hull #19 and she was fitted with a taller carbon fiber mast and a conventional mainsail. She was noticeably more entertaining to sail in lighter breezes than our 54 is and performed even better when the high-clewed cruising jib was swapped out for a lower clewed genoa. Which setup to go with really depends on where and how you sail. If your venue tends to be light air like Maine or the Chesapeake, and if you have enthusiastic, able bodied crew who are willing and able to climb up on the boom to flake and cover the main, go with a conventional sail. If not, you may have a better experience with in-mast or in-boom furling.
With those caveats stated, here are some reflections on the sailing performance of these boats. First, the form stability offered by their wide transoms means both the 54 and the 56 thrive close reaching in fresh breezes. They are FUN to sail in those conditions.
And it’s not just genoa reaching that offers a chance to enjoy this dynamic: we have been able to hold surprisingly tight angles with the spinnaker out– at times with the wind considerably forward of the beam. Amazing.
When reaching off slightly, we can’t speak highly enough of the fixed staysail our 54 came with. Having it rigged full time means that we use it much more often than we would if we needed to pull it out of a sail locker, hoist it, rig the furling lines, etc, as one needs to do with the removable staysail.
And contrary to some perceptions, the staysail is a very useful sail – particularly in windy conditions. We’ve learned that the best way to depower these boats is to roll up the jib, roll out the staysail, and only roll back out enough jib to get the amount of power we need. The center of effort of this sail configuration is much lower than a reefed jib alone, which means much less healing for the same amount of speed.
When making night passages, we love to throttle the boat down by running under staysail and main alone. We are a knot or so slower but sleep better with much less heel. Terrific!
Downwind these 60,000lb designs need a lot of wind to make passage making speeds – 20 knots or more, realistically, if you’re using only main and jib, so we wouldn’t describe them as being particularly exciting running before it. As with any boat, the spinnaker makes a huge difference and we have been very surprised by the 54’s ability to make decent speeds in comparatively light winds with the spinnaker up.
One amusing sidenote about the in-mast furling main: on the 54, we have been able to sail much deeper angles without collapsing the spinnaker than we could with the 56. The cause? We believe the smaller mainsail allows more airflow to reach the spinnaker.
Another unexpected plus of the little furling main.
Sailing Dynamics & Handling
Although they’re not marketed as “shoal draft” designs, the 54/56 7.5 foot “deep draft” keel option is pretty much a shoal design when compared to race boats, particularly when one considers that much of the 7.5’ draft is actually accounted for by the generous rocker of the hull form. The result is a comparatively short keel that needs at least 6 knots of speed through the water to really start lifting.
Below that speed, the keels tend to stall with the consequence of leeway and lee helm. As a result, these boats aren’t particularly rewarding to sail in under 8 knots of wind or so, particularly in chop. In general, the more wind, the more rewarding they are to sail, especially in close reaches. Their fine bow entries make them power through waves and there is enough responsiveness in the rudder to allow a skilled helmsman to pull the bow of the boat down the backside of large waves to avoid pounding. And speaking of pounding, the moderate forefoot and ample deadrise in the entry make them generally very reluctant to pound under the care of all but the least attentive helmsman.
If they have a handling vice it would be downwind in big breeze. In these conditions, the fine bow entry and wide transoms make them feel a bit like they want to go almost any direction but straight – a phenomenon power boaters know of as “bow steering.” The 54 demonstrates less of this tendency than the 56 but both boats are prone to it. We’ve learned to steer slightly higher angles the moment we encounter the behavior to avoid pronounced yaw and the risk of an accidental jibe.
The 54’s handling in a big quarter sea has been the biggest positive surprise I have encountered with its handling. Regular readers of my blog will know that I absolutely adored my prior boat, a Sabre 42. That boat’s only real handling vice was a tendency to yaw considerably in big quarter seas while reaching. Even with its shorter chord length keel, the 54 demonstrates much better directional stability in those conditions than the Sabre did – the opposite of what I would have expected (especially with the Hylas’ wider transom).
I am not quite sure how to interpret the difference, particularly given that the Sabre handled far better than the Hylas when running directly downwind. One possibility: the difference isn’t one of hull form at all, but rather the fact that the Hylas is running at higher speeds in those conditions and is therefore not being over run by the waves at the same speed. Naval architects, feel free to weigh in with theories!
The Hylas 54’s rudder turns out to be an interesting case study in design tradeoffs for me.
I believe the “feel” in a sailboat’s rudder has a disproportionate effect – for better or worse- on the sailing experience of any particular design. (For more musings on this particular topic, see this article). When we first bought Rover, I remember finding myself disappointed by the lifelessness of the rudder feel during our early coastal sails, even when there was enough wind present to generate weather helm. Interestingly, it’s not a complaint I ever registered with the Hylas 56 unless there was so little wind that the boat was making leeway and exhibiting lee helm. In retrospect, I wonder if the larger, conventional main on the particular 56 I sailed made the difference or if the longer hull form of the 56 model may have positioned the rudder further aft of the keel, changing the dynamics of sailing the boat. Whatever the cause, I found the 56’s rudder to be almost ideally weighted between feel and steering loads in just about any conditions. On the 54, I’ve come realize that while the rudder is too light and numb in lighter conditions, it really comes alive when the boat is traveling more than 7 or 8 knots through the water. Obviously these are conditions normally only encountered in the ocean and I can only conclude that Frers intentionally balanced the need for manageable loads at high hull speeds with the provision of some degree of feel at lower speeds. Once at speed, the 54s rudder really is terrific – but the with the obvious the caveat that you’ve got to be going fast in brisk conditions to find the “fun zone!”
The summary: these are fun boats to sail in big breeze, especially close reaching. They are not all that rewarding to daysail in lighter conditions near the coast, although the 56 with the taller rig and the conventional main performed better there. In big breeze offshore they feel very sure-footed and secure, so I’d have to say the Frers met the design objective quite well with these boats and conceded the right tradeoffs given their intended use as open sea passage makers.
Performance Under Power
I’m going to give the 54 only a moderate score here. In flat water our 54’s 125hp Yanmar burns around 2 – 2.5 gallons per hour but consumes a lot of oil – a quart every 60 hours of run time or so. Our friend with the Island Packet has a nearly identical engine and even though he has far fewer than our 5,000 hours on his, he reports similar oil consumption.
Our engine was compression tested with healthy numbers when we bought the boat and she easily makes full rpm at full throttle, so there is no reason to think the engine is tired. Rather, we are told by mechanics that this generation of Yanmar will consume oil, especially when pushed. It’s annoying in that we have to shut down every 24 hours of motoring on ocean passages to check and top off the oil, especially since we’ve learned that the oil consumption goes up alarmingly when powering into wind and chop.
With a clean bottom we can cruise at just under 8 knots at 2,500 rpm These numbers seem fine but I notice that this boat slows considerably in choppy seas under power. During our delivery from Annapolis to Fort Lauderdale in 2019, we buddy-boated with a brand new Passport 545 down the Chesapeake, and despite starting out at identical speeds in flat water the Passport opened up a striking lead on us once we encountered fresh breezes and an accompanying chop on the lower Bay. The Passport is considerably lighter than the Hylas and her performance under power showed it. We also notice our fuel consumption goes up strikingly when powering into big winds and chop with this boat, though in fairness I don’t have experience with other boats of a similar size and design so I can’t comment on how other designs compare. Although it’s a very different boat, I don’t remember quite the degradation in speed when powering into chop with the Sabre. See the next section on docking for further reflections on the Yanmar 125.
Handling When Docking
Because her rudder is in-line with her prop, and because she has a bow thruster, the 54 is comparatively benign in her handling when docking. I can’t point to any real vices other than the same pronounced prop walk (to port) that many boats exhibit.
This is a large contrast with my Sabre 42 – a boat that I adored but that can only be described as “challenging” to dock and downright evil when backing up in reverse. The Sabre’s prop was offset from her rudder, eliminating prop walk but also eliminating the skipper’s ability to direct her stern by thrusting wash over the rudder. Those dynamics introduced some moderate challenges but it was in reverse where things really went pear-shaped with that boat. She had two modes of operation in reverse: she would either track straight, or, if the wheel was turned with any speed on at all, spin completely out. There was nothing in between and so essentially no way to safely steer the boat in reverse. The Hylas, by contrast, is perfectly well behaved when backing up.
That being said, I do have a gripe about docking the Hylas: the engine. The Yanmar 125 has so much turbo lag that in either forward or reverse you need to have the throttle pinned at full for as long as 30 seconds or more before any boost – and so any real power – can be made by the engine.
That means that we are VERY careful to approach docks at moderate speeds, since we have very weak power either in reverse or forward until some speed has already built up. It’s kind of a big fail with the setup of this boat. As an important counterpoint, the Hylas 56’s we crewed aboard has a 16 valve, 110 hp Yanmar instead of our 125. That engine is much better around the docks: it is able to deliver turbo boost – and so nearly full power – right off of idle in either forward or reverse. Big win for the 56 in this category.
Ground Tackle Fittings
The stemhead fittings on many of the boats I see feel like an afterthought when it comes to being set up for anchor gear and our Hylas 54 isn’t perfect either. I have two minor gripes. First, the anchor rollers are aligned with the windlass, which at one level makes perfect sense. However, because the mooring cleats are positioned so far outboard, there isn’t a way to run a snubber or mooring pendant with a fair lead from the roller to the mooring cleats. Witness:
Gripe #2: both rollers are chain rollers with a center groove for the chain links. That grove badly aggravates the chafe problem. I emailed Hylas about the issue and they said there were no rollers offered with the boats for rope rode or snubber line, only the chain roller:
They could only suggest that I use sturdy chafe gear. Hmmm. Not a great answer. Here are my solutions to both problems. To make a fair lead, tie a small spare dockline to the snubber with a rolling hitch to make a mini bridle. With that change, the lead becomes fair and the snubber does considerably less chafing back and forth. For the grove problem, on the advice of a fellow 56 owner I simply removed the chain roller and pay the snubber out over the axle:
With these changes I’m much more satisfied with the performance of our anchor gear but I would have liked a more thoughtful design here from Hylas. The stemhead on my Sabre 42, by contrast, was brilliant. It had one anchor roller with a very clever fairlead underneath the roller for the snubber, and a second dedicated fairlead to boot. Great job Roger Hewson!
One last note: our 54 was built with the windlass and bow thruster sharing a single battery. In moderate conditions and shallow water, this setup is sufficient but we learned that when anchoring in deeper water and breezy conditions (like Block Island) the battery can get weak pretty quickly. We’ve learned to make it standard practice to start the generator before setting or weighing anchor in those conditions. Hylas 56 #19 was built with a dedicated battery for each of the bow thruster and windlass which improves the performance of both, though running the generator when anchoring in deep water is still probably a good idea even with two batteries.
Quality Fit & Finish
Here I would give Hylas very high marks. I’ve done a lot of work on this boat over the last year, and the manufacturer’s attention to detail is evident. Quality in a boat is a very subjective and reveals itself in a number of small but notable ways. For example on a production boat we chartered a few years ago, we couldn’t help but notice that many fittings were screwed (rather than through-bolted) into thin fiberglass that caused the screws to strip and pull out, resulting in loose hinges, etc. Joinery on the boat was plywood with only the thinnest of veneers. On the Hylas, by contrast, all of the materials used are solid – including the beautiful joinery of the solid wood cabinet doors. In the machinery spaces, we notice a thousand little details that show attention to detail. Hoses and wires, for example, are neatly routed and thoroughly secured with zip ties. A ring frame has been tabbed into the deck and hull in the anchor locker just aft of the windlass to reduce flex in the deck from loads imposed on the windlass. The inside of the cabinets are fully finished. Handy lights have been installed in the anchor and sail locker up forward. I could go on and on but if you’re interested in one of these boats, look around the engine room and the bilge areas and you will see what I mean.
Comparison: Hylas 54 Versus Hylas 56
They Hylas 56 replaced the 54 for the 2010 model year. The two biggest differences between the models are the 56’s more modern deckhouse design and her larger cockpit. Having spent time on both boats, the larger cockpit on the 56 makes a BIG difference when on deck. Compared to the 54, the 56 feels larger than a two foot difference would imply and she feels larger below too – not just because of the additional length amidships, but because Hylas pushed the doghouse further outboard on the 56, resulting in more interior space (but smaller side decks).
Which should a buyer go with? If you regularly have a larger crew aboard than a single cruising couple, the 56’s large cockpit is a significant improvement but at the cost of significant price premiums for he 56 on the brokerage market. If the cockpit may be a deciding factor for you, you may want to see examples of both boats before deciding. If the cockpit isn’t a significant factor for you, I would recommend that you focus on finding a Hylas that has been well cared for and maintained as your most important focus, rather than insisting on a particular model. As with any sailboat, a newer boat will not necessarily be in better condition if it wasn’t maintained well. We have seen some late model boats across a variety of brands that have deteriorated shockingly due to careless owners. By contrast, our 2006 Hylas 54 has meticulously maintained by both of her first two owners. In other words, better to buy a creampuff 54 than a newer 56 that hasn’t been looked after, all else equal. If you view enough boats with a knowledgable buyer’s agent, you will quickly learn to tell the difference.
Comparison: Hylas 54 versus Sabre 42
OK, this really isn’t a fair comparison because the design use case of these boats is completely different, but I thought it would be fun to muse on it just the same! The Hylas is a performance passage maker, while the Sabre was designed as a coastal cruiser-racer – albeit one with excellent quality and the sturdy construction to allow for ocean passages or races. The Sabre is much more entertaining to sail in moderate to light conditions than is the Hylas. She is a delight on almost any point of sail save the aforementioned large-quartering-sea scenario. With her board fully extended to 8’6” she tracks like on rails in any wind strength. In big winds, however, she obviously feels more tender – and so less secure – than the big Hylas. So when the winds are blowing 8 knots, you can be in zen on the Sabre while yawning a bit sailing the Hylas. But when you’re off of Cape Hatteras, beam reaching in 35 knots under staysail and main, you can guess which boat I’d rather have! Tradeoffs, tradeoffs!
Summing It All Up
We are very pleased with our purchase of the 54 for our intended use of extended live-aboard cruising and ocean passage making. She’s met all of our expectations and we’d recommend the design for anyone considering similar adventures.