St. Francis 50

Crafted in South Africa by a legendary boatbuilder, the St. Francis 50 MK II is one lively, fully found long-range cruising cat.

St. Francis 50
St. Francis Marine only builds a handful of boats each year, but high quality is a common denominator of them all.Billy Black

In South Africa, where some of the world's top cruising catamarans are made, boatbuilder Duncan Lethbridge is nothing less than a legend. Lethbridge's company, St. Francis Marine, began building cats in 1989, and many believe it was his inaugural 43-footer that opened the door for catamaran chartering in the Caribbean and the ­subsequent international boom in twin-hulled cruising boats that followed. Later, in 2006, Lethbridge staked his claim as one of the planet's best cat producers when his St. Francis 50 took top honors as the Best Cruising Catamaran in CW's annual Boat of the Year contest. Now, a decade later, the company has resurfaced in the States with last fall's introduction of an evolutionary design, the St. Francis 50 MK II.

The tweaks have been subtle but, taken as a whole, significant. Perhaps the biggest change is the way the boat is put together: Thanks to resin-­infused molding, Corecell foam core and the judicious use of carbon fiber in high-load areas, the MK II is both lighter and stiffer than its predecessor. There are more windows, and larger ones at that. LEDs, pulpit seats, a Harken Battcar mainsail system, paddleboard lockers, a standard gennaker, Varifold folding props and 57-horsepower diesels with saildrives are all new ­features. Plus there have been upgrades and refinements to the boarding ladder, the sliding door separating the cockpit and saloon, and the very nifty boom extension — basically a crane built into the spar — that’s employed to raise and stash a hard-bottomed RIB.

Compared to the average French design, the functional cockpit of the MK II is much more compact but still spacious enough for lounging and maneuvers. There is a large aft deck composed of teak and fiberglass. The steering station is to starboard beneath the hard dodger that covers the cockpit. Visibility behind the opening window is excellent, and by lowering drop-down curtains the entire space can be enclosed.

St. Francis 50
The comfortable saloon of the St. Francis 50 MK II is rather traditional when it comes to catamaran design, but extremely well-executed.Billy Black

The side decks are wide and accessible. There’s a solid bridgedeck forward of the coachroof, with incorporated storage lockers, and a solid plank between the trampolines to the forward crossbeam, under which is a retractable aluminum bowsprit for the gennaker. The aluminum mast and solid vang are from Sparcraft. A nice set of ­molded-­in steps provide access to the top of the coachroof. Two big solar panels are mounted on top of the hard dodger.

In the main saloon, a U-shaped galley to port features a three-burner stove and oven, and front-loading drawers for the fridge and freezer. A nice sliding window provides access to the cockpit for passing through meals or drinks. The nav station and instrument panel are forward of the galley, opposing a dining table with a wraparound settee to starboard. A cool touch is the flat-screen TV that faces the settee and slides forward to provide access to the instruments mounted at the helm station. There are four staterooms in the hulls, and truly impressive heads and shower stalls. The high-gloss woodwork is beautiful, and the finish inside the lockers and the hulls is impeccable. The access to the engines, under the aft double berths, is absolutely unreal.

We sailed the St. Francis 50 MK II on a moderate fall day on Chesapeake Bay, with breezes topping off at around 8 knots. The easily driven hulls were impressive, and boat speeds were basically identical to the wind speed; Lethbridge said that was the case right up to 10 knots. Clearly, this is a performance cat that’s a joy to sail. Under power, the boat registered a solid 9 knots at 2,600 rpm, the sort of pace that would get you home in a hurry when the wind faltered.

With an output of just four boats per year, St. Francis Marine is a small shop known for its high quality, not high production. That makes each unit a little more special. If you’re in the market for a cat that isn’t exactly mainstream but is capable of circling the globe, here’s one you should take a look at.

Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor.