Most new-boat models last a year, maybe two. Some iconic small boats may live for a decade if they’re lucky, though they usually pass through multiple design iterations. The newest Fleming 55, which we toured at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, looks exactly the same as it did in 1986 when the model was first launched.
Since then, an impressive 261 units have emerged from Fleming’s yard in Southern Taiwan, making it not only one of the most successful motoryachts ever, but in a category of one for its staying power and popularity among owners. Competitors like Grand Banks moved on from the trawler design to sleeker, more contemporary-looking motoryachts. But not Fleming. There’s a cult-like following for this 55-footer, with telltale features from the 1980s like the sharp-edged, raised bow, boxy superstructure and flybridge with radar arches.
Of course, there have been some modifications. While the hull, superstructure and structural layout of the interior have changed little since the original design, the interior design has constantly evolved to reflect the wish lists of the 55’s intrepid band of owners to stay in sync with contemporary fashion trends.
“It’s a lot like Porsche’s 911. The silhouette is the same but pretty much everything else has changed,” says Kevin Althoff, brand specialist with Fleming East Coast dealer Burr Yacht Sales, the world’s top Fleming seller.
Except for the interior-exterior comparison, the Fleming 55 is nothing like the Porsche 911. It was designed as a no-nonsense, long-distance cruiser that two people, typically a couple, could handle alone, without crew, with an offshore hull that could take on big seas, while also voyaging for thousands of miles on a single tank of diesel. It fueled the dreams of hundreds of intrepid cruisers who wanted to see the world on their terms.
Despite the dated appearance, the design has endured remarkably well. Its signature low freeboard, wide and deep side decks, spacious flybridge, and the self-contained pilothouse allowed couples to manage the boat efficiently.
Adding to the appeal, the 55’s semi-displacement hull from American naval architect Larry Drake has also passed the test of time. That distinctive, flared bow keeps the decks dry even in gnarly seas, while the long, deep keel not only protects the props in skinny water and helps the yacht track straight, especially in following seas.
And harking back to the Porsche 911 analogy, it’s the mechanical improvements that have helped the 55 stay modern and relevant in today’s crowded cruiser market. The latest 55s come with Cummins QSC 500-hp common-rail turbo diesels that can punch the 68,000-pound Fleming to a very un-trawler-like 21 mph.
Throttle back to a typical 11-mph cruising speed, and the efficiency of the Cummins delivers a miserly fuel burn of just 10 gallons per hour, or a gallon per mile. Ease down to 9 mph and the 55 will run for over 2,000 miles on a tank.
“It’s this duality our owners love. The ability to cruise near silently and economically at low speeds, yet if the weather takes a turn for the worst, there’s the speed to get you home fast,” says Althoff.
Inside, it’s all old-world elegance and craftsmanship, with lovely satin-varnished cabinetry and teak-and-holly floors mixed with contemporary fabrics and upholstery.
The rather narrow main salon opens out onto the roughly 250-square-foot rear deck, which is big enough for a party. At the forward end is the well-equipped U-shaped galley in the favored “galley-up” location.
The salon also comes with one of our favorite features, a dumb waiter that shuttles food and beverages to the flybridge, avoiding the need to carry everything up steps. That’s probably a one-of-a-kind feature for a 55-footer.
My favorite space on the 55 is also considered its most-beloved feature: the elegant pilothouse. The twin Stidd helm seats, comprehensive array of instruments, and doors on either side for easy access to the side decks make it a great place to captain the yacht. There’s also easy access from the pilothouse to the wraparound Portuguese Bridge, and directly up to the flybridge, which has a second helm and extensive seating under the shade of the huge hardtop.
Below-decks, the layout is essentially unchanged from the original design. That means a long, central corridor with twin-berth cabins on either side. The rather cramped master cabin pushed up into the bow is one of the yacht’s few drawbacks.
Fleming responded to criticisms of that tight master by introducing the Fleming 58 in 2012, which could be specified with a spacious master cabin amidships across the full beam. Despite that, the 55 continues to be the brand’s best-seller.
Which proves that bigger isn’t always better. Even after 36 years of production, and a price that starts at just over $3 million, there’s still a three-year waiting list for the iconic 55.