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Palm Beach 55 Express

Senior editor Kevin Koenig tested The Palm Beach 55 Express, a luxurious, highly customizable Down East-style cruiser from Down Under that can handle anything Mother Nature throws at her, big waves and bull sharks be damned. She is truly …

Down for Anything

People like to tell stories about Mark Richards. For instance, there’s the oft-repeated one about how a few years ago at the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show the champion Australian sailor and founder of Palm Beach Motoryachts noticed a scum line on one of his boats just before the show began. In an instant he stripped down to his skivvies, dove into the dark, dirty water and began to scrub. But, he soon sensed he wasn’t alone. Florida is famous for its sharks, and the most dangerous of them is the bull shark, which can sometimes be found in the state’s numerous canals. And Richards’s keen sense of his surroundings, honed during his time as a world-class sailor, was telling him that one of these man-eaters might be nearby. Most people would have scrambled up onto the dock in a near panic. Not Richards. His boat was about to be shown to the public, and she was not yet perfect. So instead of jumping onto the dock, he simply asked one of his employees for a steak knife so that he might defend himself.

When I first heard that story it sounded apocryphal to me, so I went straight to the horse himself and presented the tale to Richards. His response? “Oh … no, nah.” I nodded smugly, satisfied I could quash the rumor next time I heard it. Then he continued. “That wasn’t Lauderdale, that was Sanctuary Cove [International Boat Show, on Australia’s Gold Coast—perhaps the only place in the world with more sharks than Florida]. I wanted a knife just in case. There’s sharks there. When you’re like me and things don’t get done properly you just gotta get in there and do it yourself, simple as that. Shark or no shark.” He concluded, chuckling, “Yeah. The American boys almost wet their pants.”

Such is the passion behind the Palm Beach 55 Express, which I tested off the Gold Coast. Richards’s commitment to perfection is evident throughout the boat, though perhaps nowhere more so than in her semi-displacement hull. It’s foam-cored and hand-laid using high-end vinylester resins. Richards prefers to roll out or squeegee his laminates by hand, he says, so he and his workers can better control their thickness, and the consequential weight and strength factors. The hull is warped, and has a super-fine entry at the bow that flattens out markedly through a series of deadrise variances to a mere six degrees of deadrise at the transom, a characteristic that helps with stability, both at rest and underway. A keel aids in tracking. The hull is very streamlined, lacks any strakes, and is designed to slip through the water like a dolphin. The effect of all these design considerations is quite impressive indeed. 

At the beginning of the 55’s test, before I took the wheel, the Palm Beach captain buzzed down the Broadwater inland waterway towards the inlet doing 30 knots. There was a 40-foot sailboat moored in open water off to port ahead of us, her own captain lazing in the cockpit. We were nowhere near a collision course or anything like that, but the sailboat was close enough to the channel that the wake from most any 59-footer at our speed would almost certainly have rocked the guy’s world, at least slightly. The sailboat and her captain floated peacefully as we approached. But as we breezed by a funny thing happened. The 55’s hull is so streamlined, so attuned to the flow of the water beneath her, that her wake proved essentially negligible, even at 30 knots. The sailboat remained at peace, and her captain went on lazing, totally undisturbed. 

In the inlet to the Coral Sea, the boat met 7-foot rollers and sliced so cleanly through them at 20 knots that the handwriting in my notebook didn’t even change. And outside the inlet in even bigger seas the boat performed outstandingly well, landing softly in the troughs and tracking straighter than a fat kid running down an ice cream truck. Despite the formidable conditions, the boat produced no creaks or groans due in no small part to the fact that all of her structural components are solidly glassed directly into the hull—a process that takes time, but pays dividends.

The yard where all that magic happens in truth sounds more like a basic-training barracks than a boat factory. Every tool is numbered and has a place where it must be stored. Every worker is issued a vacuum cleaner when he signs on with Palm Beach—Richards’s nickname is “Hoover”—and if the employee fails to use it often enough, he risks termination. For his part Richards wagers it’s the cleanest boat factory in the world, and one of a kind.

The meticulousness in the factory shows up on the boat. The joinery on the 55—an aspect Richards has been a stickler for since his early days as a shipwright—is sublime. The saloon bar looks like a solid piece of teak even though it isn’t. The seams are so tight that I literally had to lean over and study the wood for a while until one finally emerged like Waldo in a crowd.

The twin, straight-shaft, 670-horsepower Volvo Penta D11s (the boat also comes with pods and jets), were sitting pretty below in a spacious engine room that was notable for its teak sole. Yes, teak. It’s decorative, and they put it there just because they can. In the engine room. The 55, with her 59-foot LOA, can hit top speeds cresting 30 knots even with minimal muscle, and she can do that for two main reasons. Number one is that marvelous hull. And number two is her feathery dry weight of 36,400 pounds, which Richards achieved by coring the entire boat: hull, deck, superstructure, furniture, you name it. Compare that to the Belize 54, another high-end, Aussie-built, Down Easter, that is 6 feet shorter than the Palm Beach but has a dry weight that is more than 5,000 pounds heavier.

One onboard feature I thought was pretty cool, as well as indicative of Palm Beach’s salty, keep-it-simple-stupid philosophy, was a tender-launch system that activates with a hand-powered pulley system so straightforward you’d think it belonged on a schooner. Make note though, the optional swim platform I stood on to perform the launch was anything but simple. It’s called “The Transformer,” and at the push of a button it can raise hydraulically by about a meter to become a dive platform (or sink to finish launching the tender). It’ll ding ya about a hundred grand extra, I’d say. That’s a lot of money to be sure, but merely a drop in the bucket compared to the $2,600,000 asking price of my test boat. The Palm Beach 55 isn’t cheap to build, and she’s not cheap to buy. But she runs sweetly, and she looks pretty, and she’s damn sure not going to be delivered with any scum lines.

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This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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