There’s no question that the Neel 47, designed by the ubiquitous, performance-oriented French naval architect Marc Lombard, was an outlier in this year’s Boat of the Year contest. After all, it was the lone trimaran in the fleet of a half-dozen multihulls, the other five being cruising catamarans. But it was also a winner, named by our judging panel the Best Full-Size Cruising Multihull for 2020. When the votes were tallied, it truly proved to be in a class of its own.
A big reason for that was its stellar sea trial. Eric Bruneel, the company founder, earned his boatbuilding stripes as a longtime top executive at cat-builder Fountaine Pajot, but in his spare time, he campaigned fast offshore multihulls on solo transoceanic yacht races. Superb sailing prowess isn’t a passing interest to him; it’s the primary point of the exercise. And it’s the reason, when he struck out on his own, that he went into the trimaran business. The fact is, a well-executed cruising tri will outperform a fully loaded cruising cat. There. I’ve said it.
With a fitful Chesapeake Bay breeze fluctuating around 8 knots, give or take a knot or two in the lulls and puffs, it wasn’t a particularly windy day. But that was more than enough for the Neel 47. Even with a reef in the big, roachy square-topped mainsail, there was plenty of grunt in that primary under-sail powerplant. You steer the Neel from an elevated helm station to starboard, and the view is panoramic; sightlines and visibility could not be better. The boat is close-winded, tacking through 90 degrees with ease, and there’s never a moment of hesitancy like there is on some cruising cats, where you’re left wondering if the bows will spin across the breeze and complete the tack. I made a point of it in my notebook: “Turns on a dime, feels like a monohull.”
As for speed, given the conditions, there was plenty of it. In fact, both upwind and on a reach—the latter while flying a sweet asymmetric cruising chute off its integrated sprit—boat-speed figures basically matched the true-wind number: In 7.5 to 8 knots of breeze, we easily knocked off 7.5 to 8 knots. And the helm was as light and feathery as could be. It was truly a great sail.
Now, of course, every boat is a compromise, and the challenge with cruising tris, when compared with cruising cats, comes with the interior layout and accommodations. Cats are big platforms, and it’s actually quite easy to spec one out with a huge owner’s cabin in one hull, and a pair of comfortable bedrooms in the other, not to mention a good-size living room and kitchen on the central deck between them. But what do you do with a trimaran, where the outer hulls need to remain light and relatively unencumbered for performance purposes, not packed with palatial cabins and heads?
Well, the answer to that on the Neel is to make the central hull as comfortable as possible for the couple who owns it—in other words, to maximize the space for two people. It makes the Neel 47 a unique creature in the current fleet of contemporary cruising boats, where multiple sleeping quarters often seem to dictate the design brief. But with that two-person premise firmly established, the results are interesting and largely successful.
The Neel marketing people like to call the open, single-level layout in the main hull the “cockloon”: part cockpit, part saloon. Yes, it’s a little hokey, but it actually is an apt description. Most everything happens on this main floor: a nice back porch with seating and tables, double sliding doors to enter the interior space, another good dining area, a fine navigation station and adjacent galley, and a comfortable double cabin with wide windows offering sensational views. There’s also a huge technical locker beneath the floorboards. Note: no head. No, that’s forward, down a few steps in the bow, and includes a separate wash basin and shower. It’s innovative, a little strange…but it works.
There are a couple of basic guest cabins in the hulls, accessed separately (not through the cockloon). The message seems to be: You’re welcome to visit, but not forever!
In summation, the Neel 47 is a distinctive, inventive boat. It’s not for everyone, by any means. But it’s a yacht that will strike a chord for some cruisers, especially those drawn to the sea by the pure joy of sailing. Those folks? They’ll love it.
Herb McCormick is CW’s executive editor.