Altima 56By Capt. Richard Thiel
Who among us has not, after boarding dozens of boats and talking to dozens of salespeople, wished we could just design and build our next boat ourselves so she would be exactly the way we want her? Well, that's precisely the position Frank Scortino found himself in some eight years ago. An experienced boater and successful businessman from Montreal, he was looking for a 50-something-foot motoryacht similar to those being offered in the Pacific Northwest: a pilothouse design with substantial bulwarks, good seakeeping, three staterooms, and a decent turn of speed. He couldn't find one.
So he roughed out his own design and then set out to find someone who could translate his sketches into a set of working drawings and, preferably, build it. A boating friend recommended a yard in Taiwan that was owned and operated by Charles Chang, a veteran builder who had experience with exactly such vessels. Chang was able to fine-tune the sketches, supply Scortino with a hull, and build his boat, a 56-footer. End of story?
Not quite. Unfortunately (or as it turned out, fortunately) one of Scortino's friends saw the drawings and, deciding the boat was perfect for him, made Scortino an offer he couldn't refuse and purchased the boat before she was finished, leaving Scortino with a nice profit but still boatless. So he had Chang build him another one. And someone bought that boat. The same thing happened again and again, and before he knew it, Scortino was in the boatbuilding business, without ever intending to be.
Chang's yard eventually moved to China, where it's now called Activa, and Scortino added other models to what became the Altima line of yachts: a 45, 53, 61, and 68. Soon a part-time venture had become a full-time business. Today, having built 24 of those 56-footers, Scortino has a new version of the boat on his hands, which serendipitously came to him thanks to decisions another boat buyer made. A customer had contracted to build a 56 but decided halfway through the build process that he wanted the 68 instead. Of course, Scortino was delighted to accommodate him, but that left him with a stock boat that was different from any of the 56s that preceded her.
At this point an explanation of Altima's build philosophy is probably helpful. First, the company does not build stock boats. It really doesn't need to because the yard is so efficient, it can deliver all but the 68 in nine months or less from the date of signing. (The 68 takes a year.) Second, Altima is a semicustom builder. Although it offers standard versions of each model, it's happy to modify them to suit individual taste—basically it will do anything short of move bulkheads.
The owner of this 56 took full advantage of such flexibility. Desiring to build what he termed a "mini expedition yacht," he eliminated the lower station (ironically, one of the very features that began Scortino's original quest) in favor of a dinette that, instead of running fore and aft, now turns to starboard and extends past centerline. To compensate for the loss of the lower station, he ordered the optional hardtop and full soft bridge enclosure and reverse-cycle bridge air conditioning. So configured, it is a convivial, all-weather gathering place.
The conviviality extends below. Here those seated at the dinette can converse with the chef and enjoy a fine view aft (as well on all other points), because the owner also opted for four Sub-Zero refrigerator/freezer drawers on the aft leg of the U-shape galley, instead of the standard 23-cubic-foot upright refrigerator that normally occupies the outboard leg. In so doing he had to give up refrigerator capacity but did gain a cabin-side window where the upright was.
This configuration probably wouldn't have worked—certainly not for a couple—were it not for three things. One, the 56 comes with a staircase to port that allows quick transit between the bridge and the main deck. Two, a pantographic door to starboard (a port one is optional) gives out onto wide side decks protected by high bulwarks. Thus a helmsman can quickly and safely reach any area onboard during nearly any kind of weather. But thanks to a third, optional feature, the owner of this 56 may never need to.
The Docking Master wireless controller allows anyone to maneuver a boat in just about any manner that does not require throttle input. Besides being a helluva lot of fun to play with, it makes the 56 a bonafide two-person boat, which it might not be minus it. That's because sightlines to the transom are blocked by the 8 1⁄2-foot-long bridge overhang/tender deck, which shelters the entire cockpit. With Docking Master, a task that would've ended in shouting and gnashing of teeth (especially docking stern-to) becomes a serene one-man job.
Despite the fact that the owner eliminated the lower station, the three-panel windshield remains, and it, combined with his choice of light, high-gloss anigre (teak and cherry are no-cost options) creates a continuous main-deck area that is uncommonly bright and cheery. There's nothing out of the ordinary in the way the saloon is furnished, but there is an unusual feature that I really like: a day head in the aft port corner. This makes so much sense and is so convenient (I've seen them on sportfishermen), I wonder why more builders haven't tried it. On our boat it was finished in anigre and granite, but I'd make the interior all low-maintenance fiberglass, have the door open into the cockpit, and add a shower. Voila! The ideal place to change out of a wet bathing suit.
Such a practical amenity no doubt appealed to the man who built this 56, but likely so did other more practical matters like performance and handling. The 56's solid-fiberglass (Divinycell above the waterline), semidisplacement hull turned in a fine performance in mild test conditions. Her foot-deep keel generated good tracking and no outboard lean in tight turns. Generous fuel tankage (900 gallons in two saddle tanks) translated into good range—328 miles at 17 mph—and her steering (five turns lock to lock) was light, surprising since it's not power-assisted.
In fact there was a lot that surprised me about the 56. I thought I'd like the added room on the main deck. However, I ended up realizing I'd rather have the lower station (but I'd definitely keep the under-counter Sub-Zeros for the great aft sightlines they allow). I also had some ergonomic issues with the instrument panel: The gauges are horizontal and thus hard to read and the engine controls were too far for me to reach when I was seated. But the biggest and most pleasant surprise was a list price, as tested, of less than $1.4 million.
For more information on Altima Yachts, including contact information, click here.
You'd think that on a boat with just two fuel tanks, fuel transfer wouldn't be an issue. And normally it isn't. But there are circumstances when you need to move fuel around or draw it from a particular place. Considering there are those two fuel tanks and two gensets, each with two lines (supply and return), there's considerable potential for confusion on the Altima. That potential is minimized thanks to these two elegantly simple, intuitively laid-out, and well-labeled manifolds, the top for supply and the bottom for return. In no time at all, you can move fuel to or from anywhere on the boat. And best of all, they're mounted on the starboard aft engine bulkhead, where they're easy to get to.—R.T.
This article originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.