Expedition 55: Best of Both Worlds
Ted Hood's latest creation redefines the long-range cruiser.
A spring northerly ruffled Narragansett Bay, and I was about to go for a sail with Ted Hood aboard his latest Robin. In short, things couldn't get much better. Before our departure, crab cakes and a pineapple-and-kiwifruit salad appeared on the shiny teak cockpit table, and the lunch conversation turned to the theme of the day: cruising in the fast lane. Although the new Hood design features all the comforts of home, I was intrigued by the promise of a vessel as capable under power as under sail. Ted, in his usual unassuming way, shared design details between bites and seemed as eager to go sailing as he must have been when he launched the first Robin in 1959.
Midday heating had discouraged the northerly, so we were greeted by a glistening calm when we slipped the Expedition 55 out of Hinckley Yacht Services, the big marina complex Ted created in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. This was an ideal time to test the six-cylinder, 300-horsepower John Deere 6068 housed belowdecks. The barnyard favorite proved fit for sea duty, and with neither smoke nor excess noise, the diesel sprang to life, pushing more than 50,000 pounds of cruising boat effortlessly. The knotmeter registered nine, with still more juice left in the throttle. I marveled at the lack of vibration and the efficiency of the spray chine molded into the forward portion of the hull. Ted checked the bow and stern waves and pointed out how the boat's flat run aft and wide stern kept it from squatting as hull speed was reached. The thrust derived from the four-bladed Bruntons Varifold folding prop left a churning stream of whitewater smoothly slipping astern-another good indicator of the engine's power.
As if by magic, Newport's famous sea breeze materialized, and the transition from power to sail was nearly instantaneous. Facnor electric-furling headsails and mainsail turned the arduous side of sail setting into mere button pushing. I watched Ted, 80, checking sail shape with the same analytic gaze that once assisted him in making Hood Sailmakers the biggest loft in the world. He zeroed in on the furling mainsail and its vertical battens, quickly deciding that the first batten was positioned a little too high.
Meantime, I took the helm and discovered a big boat with a friendly feel that tracked well at seven-plus knots and had a wide groove. It used its form stability to stand up to the gusty sea breeze, which filled in with 20-knot puffs. Cracking off on a reach, the knotmeter was back in John Deere range, twitching between nine and 10. Steering was butter smooth and fingertip light with the hydraulic system's power assist, and when the boost pump was turned off, it was stiffer but still manageable. Visibility from either of the dual wheels in the cockpit and from the electronic helm in the pilothouse was excellent, and the sheet leads and winches all seemed well placed. In less than an hour, I was convinced that the Expedition 55 performed well under both power and sail.
The Expedition 55 is a distinct departure from the successful Little Harbor line of cruising sailboats that Ted designed, built, and sold. This heavy, high-sided sloop with the big John Deere and tankage for 500 gallons of fuel, at first glance, seems more motorsailer than performance sailboat, but a look aloft dispels the stereotype. Standing as tall as a church steeple is a triple-spreader rig that's half again as long as the boat. Turning compromise on its ear, Ted has drawn upon the best of both worlds to deliver a long-distance cruiser that can motor by many trawler yachts and turn in similar performance under working sail.
To take advantage of the horsepower, Ted added lots of flare and freeboard to the bow along with a spray-taming chine that keeps the water where it belongs. Belowdecks, the accommodations plan mimics what's found on yachts 10 or 15 feet longer, while topside, there's indeed a feeling of harmony between power and sail. Wide beam and high freeboard give the flush-deck hull of the Expedition 55 considerable windage, but on the return from our sail, it became clear that the boat is still maneuverable. With Ted at the helm and a gusty wind on the beam, he spun her around in little more than her own length and backed into a tight slip. It was a good example of the boat's responsiveness, the skill of her skipper, and, as Ted put it, the value of a not-so-old-fashioned bow thruster.
Ted says he's always felt that wide beam and large genoas were both good for performance and readily adaptable to cruising boats-a vision verified by the 55 under sail. He adds that the shoal-draft Scheel keel was ahead of its time, and on this boat, by adding a centerboard to the Scheel keel's flat bulb, he's ensured good windward performance.
The 55's extra freeboard adds a bit of a trawler look and increases windage, but it also affords drier decks on a rough slog to weather.
A neat bit of seafaring subtlety lies behind the design of the inside steering station. The enclosure provides superlative shelter but isn't part of the interior volume of the vessel, and in the unlikely scenario that the windows are damaged by heavy seas, water is kept abovedecks by companionway "washboards" that can be slipped into place during a storm. This, like the watertight bulkhead forward, is a seamanlike feature of definite value for serious passagemakers.
When the sun reappears and the crew emerges from the comfortable pilothouse-like hard dodger that protects the front of the cockpit, they can take the helm at either of the twin wheels. The hydraulic-steering system and dual-rudder design integrate flawlessly with the autopilot.
Tekad Marine, in Turkey, did a good job of laminating a rugged, well-engineered hull. Vinylester resin was used for the outer skin coats, and a schedule of E-glass stitched roving and mat constitutes the laminate on either side of one-inch ATC Core-Cell AL-500 foam-sandwich material. The Expedition 55 was built on a male jig rather than in a female mold. Computer-generated station templates were used to define the transverse shape of the hull and deck, and these were set up on a center-line strongback, with battens slotted in place defining the hull's contours. The foam core was secured to the jig, and the outer layers of fiberglass were laminated over the core. Once cured, the vessel was rolled right-side up, the jig removed, and the inside hull skin applied. The core was cut out in high-load areas and in-filled with extra layers of glass laminate. The deck was built in a similar fashion, with solid-fiberglass backing plates used where appropriate. Once fully cured, a combination of bonding and mechanical fastening joined the hull and deck. Fiberglass tanks were built into the hull, and a stick-built approach to the custom interior made good use of the shipwright's carpenters.
Robin's interior is finished in satin-varnished cherry, and there's a teak-and-holly-veneered plywood cabin sole. Throughout, the carpentry skills of the Turkish builder are a clear indicator of traditional craftsmanship. Adding European flair, in both head compartments I found extensive use of ceramics and metal appointments as well as marble surfaces and recessed bullet lights with metal trim. Aft, the owner's cabin features an island berth of suite proportions, and with its own head and the cockpit-length separation from the main saloon, true privacy can be maintained.
The saloon makes use of all 18 feet of the boat's maximum beam and provides for a dining and entertaining experience usually seen only on much larger yachts. The interplay between the galley, to starboard and aft, and the combination dining table and port settee as well as the "cocktail alcove," to starboard, means that between offshore adventures, guests have no need to hold a drink and hors d'oeuvres on their laps. Add to this the large, collapsible cockpit table, and entertaining can take on a whole new level of sophistication.
From stem to stern, the layout should work as well at anchor as it does at sea. There are plenty of storage lockers and drawers, along with room for 800 amp-hours of 24-volt ship's batteries and a large inverter. The tradeoff for all this creature comfort in the stern of the boat is the lack of a "climb-in" engine room, but that's compensated for with good access-panel openings to get at key components associated with the engine and generator. By no means, however, is there full-360-degree convenience for the mechanic coping with an overhaul, and when it finally comes time to repower, some disassembly of the surrounding joiner work and the engine will be necessary.
The Expedition 55's deck, forward of the mast, is that of a no-nonsense flush-deck cruising sailboat, sporting the right gear placed in the right location. Whether it's the functional stem rollers and powerful Lofrans Tigres anchor windlass, rugged chainplates, or the utilitarian choice of Awlgrip nonskid rather than teak, the E-55 is all about form and function.
The in-mast-furling spar, from Charleston Spar, has winches and rope clutches located where they're handy and easy to use. The genoa can easily be poled out on a self-stowing, extendable carbon-fiber whisker pole. The massive triple-spreader rig and the Facnor headsail furlers handle 2,000 square feet of working sail and make reefing and furling possible for a shorthanded crew. The mainsail itself is a tricky compromise between performance-enhancing draft and roach and a flatter, no-roach, easy-to-furl alternative. During our sail, Ted demonstrated how to toggle a power furler to clear a furling mainsail that starts to bind. He emphasized the importance of not trying to overpower the bind by winching either in or out; instead, one should gently toggle back and forth, coaxing the bind to release.
As might be expected aboard any Hood-designed sailboat, the rig and deck hardware are in the right place, and the layout of sailhandling equipment proved to be well thought out. For example, Ted pointed out why the inner forestaysail was tacked well aft of the headstay, closer to the main, where the sail would actually clean up the airflow past the large, turbulence-producing obstacle the mast represents. It also moves the center of effort of this handy heavy-weather sail aft and adds versatility to the sail plan.
Under sail, the high freeboard has some beneficial effects. It allows the center of buoyancy to move up and to leeward of the centerline, in effect causing it to separate from the fixed vertical center of gravity, thereby significantly increasing the righting moment. Much of the Expedition's ability to stand up to its high-aspect-ratio sail plan has to do with this additional freeboard and the vessel's wide beam carried aft. The powercruiser-like chine that's been molded into the forefoot of the vessel works in conjunction with the freeboard and flare to keep the decks dry when powering dead to windward. And the wide stern and leaner forward sections help dampen pitching moment in a seaway.
For decades, Ted's formula for success has been to design, build, sail, and sell the boats he envisions. The latest Robin is an amalgam of power and sail, an effort to draw from the best of both worlds-and after a close look and a short sea trial, it was clear that the man from Marblehead may well have done it again.
Ralph Naranjo lives in Annapolis, Maryland. His book, The Art of Seamanship, will be published by International Marine next year.