I was a bit skeptical when Cuyler Morris rang me up and asked, “Hey, you wanna go sailing?” On first blush, sailing with the president of Morris Yachts on one of the company’s gorgeous new models sounds like fun, but I’ve learned over the years that sailing with Cuyler always seems to involve less-than-comfortable upwind passages. Like the first time I said yes, and we spent nearly the entire trip from Morris’ idyllic Bass Harbor, Maine, facility to Bermuda thrashing into a headwind that topped out at a sporty-and sustained-50 knots. Or the time when we sailed a Morris down from Maine into the hands of its excited new owner in Mamaroneck, New York. Yup, you guessed it: nasty, steep chop and lots of breeze, all square on the schnoz. He should’ve simply cut to the chase and said, “Hey, you wanna bash into a stiff headwind with me on a boat that can take it?”
OK, OK, I’m being a little sarcastic. Sailing with Cuyler is always fun. Besides, there’s no better way to see how Morris’ meticulously crafted semicustom boats perform in just about anything Mother Nature can dish out than to set sail when the breeze is blowing the dogs off their chains. On this most recent occasion, Cuyler asked if I’d be game to travel up to Northeast Harbor, Maine, to put the new M52 through its paces. That was late last June. The forecast was for heavy rain, civilized breezes, and seasonal-just the wrong season-temperatures in the 40s F. We’d be wet and cold, but at least there was a chance to see how the largest of Morris’ successful M Series boats performed at tacking angles greater than 30 degrees apparent and in breeze blowing less than 30 knots. How could I refuse?
Nice Day for a Test Sail
The first thing that struck me as I approached the M52 in the rain, with a warming cup of coffee in my hand, was that it looked almost regal sitting on the end of the dock. Despite the damp, dark brew of low clouds and fog, the hull, with its blue Awlgrip; the white deckhouse; and the deep-brown teak deck glistened. But more than anything else, the boat’s wonderfully low freeboard, long overhangs, and lack of lifelines were just so darn attractive. And I wasn’t surprised. This isn’t the first Sparkman & Stephens design to result in a good-looking boat.
The M52 represents the latest chapter of a successful collaboration between Morris Yachts and S&S. Morris’ late founder, and Cuyler’s father, Tom Morris, met the legendary designer Olin Stephens at one of Stephens’ book signings. Soon, Tom and Cuyler were shown the plans for a 36-foot “daysailer” that the designers at S&S were working on for themselves.
“We’d been thinking about building something that was more suited to daysailing,” Cuyler said. “Those plans were the ones we used for the M36. We hardly made any design changes at all.” Since its 2004 debut, 63 of the M36s have been built, and demand for boats of that genre led to the design and construction of the bigger M42, launched in 2006, and ultimately to the 52-footer that we were easing off the dock on that rainy day in June.
The M52 may have lines that were inspired by the best of a bygone era, but that’s where all comparisons end. There’s nothing old-fashioned about the tall, carbon-fiber rig built by Offshore Spars, the in-boom furling by Leisure Furl, the Navtec hydraulics for the vang and backstay, or the push-button electric primary and halyard winches. Even a purist would have a hard time tut-tutting the ease that these modern conveniences provide, and that’s precisely the point. The boat is designed to be easy to sail. The main went up with an effortless whirr of the halyard winch, the self-tacking, nonoverlapping jib unrolled on its elegantly recessed Bamar furler, and we were off.
On the Water
As we nosed out of the channel into a chilly yet perfect breeze and started trucking along upwind-yep, upwind-the balance of the sail plan, the angle of heel, and the tactile feel of the helm came together in an almost living, breathing way. Cuyler is a racer and a sail tweaker, and each adjustment-to the backstay, the main, the jib car, and the like-provided the subtle helm feedback that you’d expect on a smaller, lighter boat.
In 12 to 18 knots of breeze and flat water, speeds hovered in the high sevens and jumped to the eights in the puffs. With its hardly svelte 34,064 pounds of displacement and deep bulb keel weighing well north of 11,000 pounds, acceleration was more luxury sedan than sports car. But the way this gentleman’s boat clawed to windward and stood up to the gusts was duly noted. We tacked through 70 degrees apparent, and thanks to the self-tending jib, the maneuver only required putting the helm down and accelerating out on the new tack-it doesn’t get easier than that. Plus, I found that the helm station, situated between the varnished teak coamings, provides excellent visibility, and since all control lines lead to powered winch pods next to the helm, the boat is quite singlehander-friendly.
Our course had us circumnavigating one of the countless rocky islands for which Down East Maine is known, and after numerous, effortless tacks, it was time to ease the sheets and bear off. Finally. The boat leveled out. The rain hit me on the back of my jacket instead of on the side of my face, but otherwise, everything else-speed and comfort-stayed the same. Except now the crew had to actually manually ease the sails. Oh, the horror. My only regret was that we didn’t set the big asymmetric cruising spinnaker. Under sail, the boat was efficient, quick, and responsive, while also being stable, sea kindly, and genuinely fun to sail-an excellent combination. Under power, the boat’s 75-horsepower Yanmar was pleasantly quiet, predictable, and effortlessly pushed the boat to hull speed.
That’s Yankee Ingenuity
It was only after we’d returned to the dock and had a hot cup of chowder that I dug into the details, both on deck and below. Let’s start with the most obvious: Where are the lifelines? “All of our M Series boats just look so good without them,” says Cuyler. And I can’t disagree. Besides, stanchions and lifelines can be easily added to installed stanchion bases, he notes. Sure, there are plenty of situations-going offshore or racing, where you need them for safety, but is having a choice-leave them off while leisurely daysailing, pop them in for any serious sailing-a bad thing? Perhaps not.
Close attention to aesthetics is a recurring theme with Morris, but never at the expense of function. Sheets and other control lines are led under the deck to keep the topsides free of clutter. And the sleek-looking bow benefits visually from the recessed, electric-powered jib furler. Anchor gear gets the same detailed treatment. Instead of a conventional double anchor roller, there’s a highly engineered, gas spring-powered system that allows the 75-pound anchor and stainless-steel bow roller to retract easily into a large locker just aft of the furler. With it, you can have the best of both worlds: The boat looks better without having an anchor banging around on the bow when you’re not using it, yet the ground tackle is super easy to deploy when you do.
I couldn’t help but be impressed by the quality craftsmanship on deck, and it was even more apparent below. The entire accommodation plan is wrapped in elegant white and varnished wood joinery. Bulkheads are sheathed in white raised paneling, furniture is hand-built of varnished mahogany, and the varnished teak sole and painted white wood sheathing on the coachroof drive the point home: This isn’t your average production boat.
The interior layout reflects the boat’s purpose: to be an elegant, easy-to-sail daysailer with comfortable accommodations for overnighting. Sure, the boat is up to sailing off to far harbors, if you’d care to, but the accommodations are specifically designed for a couple and guests to sail in luxury. The master cabin forward of the mast has a large berth, lots of stowage, excellent light and ventilation, and an en-suite head with shower. The aft cabin is smaller, but there’s a double bunk, plenty of stowage, and a second head. Guests will hardly be roughing it.
Other interior features reflect the boat’s “daysailer” ethos. The nav desk faces aft and is tacked onto the end of a settee rather than having its own dedicated chair with backrest. And the galley-three-burner stove, multiple lockers, stainless-steel sinks-is well appointed and utterly functional, though the proportions are the result of a conscious decision to keep it simple and make more room for the large saloon.
In my estimation, this boat achieves the goals of its designers and the builder beautifully. It’s push-button easy to sail. It’s solid and stable, and it’s got some get up and go. There’s ample room in the cockpit to bring a collection of friends out for an afternoon daysail, and there’s well-appointed accommodations for an owner and a more intimate gathering of friends or family on a longer cruising mission. And no matter where you go, and no matter what the weather, it’s sure to turn heads in every harbor it visits.