With a straightforward propulsion package, a time-tested hullform, and an artisanally crafted interior, the Grand Banks 55 Aleutian RP delivers the goods in a very far-flung locale.
I gotta say—it was pretty dang exotic. I had our Grand Banks 55 Aleutian RP (Raised Pilothouse) serenely hovering on the Sungai Laloh, a narrow little slough that was just about the color of red-eye gravy. Dead ahead awaited a TraveLift emblazoned: Grand Banks; off to starboard lay a tropical collage of wind-tossed coconut palms, rusted, rickety tin roofs, and a group of young ladies bailing the bilges of some battered welded-aluminum fishing skiffs; and off to port was a short stretch of greenery which had somehow escaped the industrial sprawl that crowds much of Johor Strait, Malaysia.
What a boathandling venue! And what a boat to be doing the handling in! The merest detent click from the Cummins single-lever engine control at the lower helm produced a measured, predictable response, sending the bow right or left, only faintly disturbing a rock-steady, seemingly immovable stance. By turning in the Stidd helm chair just a tad, I could easily glance through a sizable opening in the galley cabinetry behind me, as well as the big saloon sliders, and observe the stern moving in the same measured, predictable way. A couple of young Malaysian guys were already back there, standing in the cockpit, presumably preparing to deal with linehandlers ashore.
Of course, our 55 was a brand-new, modularly constructed, wholly contemporary vessel, with more than a little evidence of the curves and exterior style lines designer Tom Fexas put into the original Aleutian, a 64-footer with a signature, visor-like brow, a dramatic zigzag sheerline, and a long, highly practical flying-bridge extension over the cockpit. After all, the naval architect behind the 55 project was Earl Alfaro, a guy who’d worked for Fexas at the time of the 64’s development and introduction. Alfaro’s own hand was evident in the design as well, though—he’d given the 55 a certain dynastic solidity, undoubtedly in honor of a boatbuilding heritage that stretches back almost six decades.
“Lovely,” I said, after tapping the Side-Power bow thruster’s joystick one way, then the other, an exercise that engendered a pleasingly positive effect. “This darn boat performs like a Swiss watch.”
Grand Plan: Faster, Smarter
Prior to my test of the Grand Banks 55 Aleutian RP, I had the opportunity to talk with new Grand Banks CEO Mark Richards (seated on right) about his plans for the company’s future. Richards, who’s a high-profile ocean sailor and eight-time winner of the fabled Sydney-to-Hobart race as well as a very successful, long-time, hands-on Aussie powerboat builder, is obviously on a quest to modernize, “to build smarter, faster, and more efficiently.” And to that end, he says that laminates, not only in the 55 Aleutian but in every other vessel Grand Banks markets over the upcoming years, will feature more coring materials than ever before, finer, denser fabrics, carbon fiber in top-hamper applications (to cut weight and improve transverse stability) and vinylester (as opposed to cheaper, less resilient, less blister-resistant polyester) resin throughout. Additionally, he says he is going to modify all or most of the Grand Banks running surfaces, to make them speedier without having to add horsepower. And he’ll also incoporate a construction approach he’s used to great advantage at the boatbuilding enterprise he founded in Australia, Palm Beach Motor Yachts, whereby heavy, conventional hull-stiffening bulk is diminished in favor of glassed-in bulkheads, floors, and furniture that perform the same structural functions. The overall point, he contends, is to take weight out of the boats responsibly and use running surfaces that are super-efficient. “Then,” he adds, “you have something that burns much less fuel but can go faster than ever before.”
Running in Johor Strait
There was plenty of savvy, traditional engineering behind all this boathandling poetry. And I’d already seen a sizable chunk of it during a tour of the big Malaysian yard in Pasir Gudang where Grand Banks continues to focus its boatbuilding energies these days, despite the footprint-broadening acquisition of Aussie-based Palm Beach Motor Yachts last year and the appointment of Palm Beach founder and champion sailboat racer Mark Richards (see “Grand Plan: Faster, Smarter,” opposite) as Grand Banks CEO.
For starters, the 55 has a robust powerplant, with two 715-horsepower Cummins QSM11 diesels and a V-drive configuration that concentrates engine weight aft and thus adds a bit of living space to the interior. Moreover, she has two prop tunnels, a design element that cuts draft and puts more blade diameter, more blade area, and more maneuvering oomph into the water. And finally, she also has a deep and torquey 2.4:1 gear ratio in her transmissions; a hefty, irrevocable displacement of almost 40 tons; and a keel substantial enough to seriously resist wind-induced lateral movement. Combine all these factors and you’ve got the sort of superior close-quarters equanimity I was enjoying on the Sungai Laloh.
My experiences an hour or so earlier, during our sea trial on the relatively smooth but rain-drenched Johor Strait, had been equally gratifying. Our speed and other runs had gone off without a hitch, thanks to near-wraparound sightlines at the lower helm station (I abjured the upper station due to the rain, even with the hardtop), three sets of gutsy, pantograph-type Exalto windshield wipers, a dashboard setup that put our Raymarine electronics suite (including HD Color radar) at an easy-reading angle, and my Stidd’s sweetly adjustable altitude and cushy upholstery.
The average top speed I recorded was 22.4 knots while burning 71.6 gph. Dialing ’er back into the displacement realm, however, produced a whiff of thriftiness, with a fuel burn of just 6.2 gph at 7.9 knots and a burn of 11.2 gph at 9.5 knots, with ranges of 1,147 and 763 nautical miles respectively. Sound levels were whispery, at least until we attained 2000 rpm, and running attitudes were wholly optimum, going from zip at idle to a maximum of 4 degrees at WOT, with no out-of-the-hole excesses.
Ready, Set, Whammo!
Although I mightily wanted to, I didn’t get to slide our 55 into the TraveLift’s slings, a memorable event for any former Grand Banks owner. Instead, the Malaysian skipper onboard did the deal, after explaining that local knowledge was needed to negotiate the dicey depths near the haul-out slip. As we got closer, I could see what he meant—our props were churning the sort of lethal-looking black muck that industrial-strength ports all over the world serve up. I swear I saw a chunk or two whoosh by.
Anyway, my disappointment dissipated once we got tied up and, with photographer Jim Raycroft riding shotgun, I soon hit the bright-white engine room, which we accessed via a hallway leading from the accommodation area up forward. Saddle-type fuel tanks (spotted over the LCG to obviate fuel-burn-related trim changes) flanked the hallway, along with a washer and dryer, a workbench, some cabinetry, and a few other odds and sods. I use the word ‘hit’ here with great purpose—there’s a white-painted, rock-solid, 8-by-5-inch overhead beam that runs athwartship shortly after you step through a watertight door into the 55’s ER and if you don’t duck—whammo!
“Man,” I remarked, backing off, “they oughta put a big red warning sign on that baby. Where am I? Where am I?”
“Malaysia,” Raycroft reported, helpfully.
The rest of the place, which offers standing (5-foot 10-inch) headroom generally, was way less surprising. In fact, it was very much like most other modern Grand Banks engine rooms, meaning it was sensibly laid out (with a comfy span of 3 feet between the mains, beefy engine-encompassing stainless steel safety rails, and overhead access from the cockpit) and loaded with top-grade ancillaries, including duplex 751000 Racors, Groco SC-2500-S sea strainers, a Delta-T ventilation system, Marine Air air-conditioning components, and a 21.5-kW Cummins Onan genset.
The Cabinet Shop Guy
The 55’s deck layouts were somewhat enlarged versions of the layouts of the 53 Aleutian, a traditionally imagined boat launched in 2010 but now supplanted by the 55, which owes her existence to the same (albeit slightly modified) two-part mold but also offers stern sections that are more tapered (to reduce wetted surface and improve performance), chines that are more radiused and softer (to reduce chine-slap and boost efficiency), and a slightly longer cockpit, saloon, accommodation area, and flying-bridge overhang.
Our test boat’s upper helm station more or less duplicated the lower one in terms of gauges and electronics, and there was lots of room on the boat deck (as well as an optional ES1000 crane from Steelhead Marine) for stowing a dinghy topside, as opposed to going with chocks on the standard hydraulic swim platform.
Moving forward from the spacious cockpit, the main deck offered a large, teak-trimmed-and-paneled saloon, then a U-shaped galley (to starboard) and dinette (to port), and finally the aforementioned starboard-side helm station. Detailing was primo. The teak-and-holly saloon sole, for example, sported “a minimum of ten coats” of poly varnish, according to Grand Banks.
Exit Stage Right
Our test boat had a standard-issue door that opened onto her exterior walkway on the starboard side. While the dinette and stairway to the flying bridge obviated having a similar type door to port, the value of the starboard portal is hardly lost on anyone who’s docked a boat short-handed. Being able to step out on deck during a lower-station maneuvering session, whether to toss a line, catch a suggestion from a local, or clarify a point with a crewmember, is often useful and sometimes critical. Moreover, having a door open while docking from inside a boat more directly connects the boathandler with important cues outside, like engine/transmission noise, wind strength, and the general tone of the voices involved. Of course, remote control stations in the cockpit (like our 55 had) are pretty great for this stuff, too. But hey, not in the rain!
The accommodation area on the bottom deck was also pretty traditional. A VIP forward offered a queen-sized walkaround berth with immediate access to the adjoining dayhead; a master stateroom at the rear offered a king-sized berth, a large en suite head to starboard, and the interior access door to the engine-room hallway already mentioned; and a guest stateroom, across from the dayhead, featured bunks that were ample. Sweetly machined Man Ship opening ports were numerous and so were bins, drawers, and hanging lockers.
During my plant tour that morning I’d encountered a young fellow in the cabinet shop, Badrul Munir, who was building steering wheels for a variety of vessels. Standing beside a lofting board laid flat on a well-worn table, he was surrounded by a confounding array of teak pieces and parts, with a completed wheel, awaiting varnish, hanging aloft not far off.
“It’s a work of art,” I told Munir through a translator, after I’d examined the latter item for a moment or two. “Despite all the parts and complexity—it’s seamless, beautiful.”
On the way back to my hotel after the test, I thought of Munir.The talented folks at Grand Banks have been building precisely performing, artisanally crafted, opulently outfitted vessels in Asia for a long, long time. And they’ve generated a righteous heritage by doing so. The Grand Banks 55 Aleutian RP lives up to that heritage, I’d say, in a big-time way.
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Generator: 21.5-kW Cummins Onan, Warranty: 5 years on hull, engine, and drive train; 1 year on everything else
Conditions During Boat Test
Air temperature: 86ºF; humidity 96%; seas: 1' or less; wind: variable, light
Load During Boat Test
264 gal. fuel, 251 gal. water, 8 persons, 300 lb. gear.
Test Boat Specifications
- Test Engine: 2/715-hp Cummins QSM11 diesels
- Transmission/Ratio: ZF 325 IV; 2.41:1 ratio
- Props: 34 x 32 4-blade ZF-FPS
- Price as Tested: $2,382,000
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.