Boat Review: Morris 454

Quality of the construction and attention to detail make this boat exactly what you expect a Morris Yacht to be. This new Chuck Paine design from one of America’s premier builders is a true thoroughbred that combines great looks and high quality construction with great sailing abilities.

Writers and editors will all agree that the worst opening line for any story, bar none, is “It was a dark and stormy night”… Well, critics be damned, that’s just what it was. We had left Annapolis aboard the new Morris 454 Next Boat (that’s it’s name) in a mild evening breeze and ran up Chesapeake Bay at a pleasant 5 knots for a few hours. Designed by Chuck Paine, the 454 is a moderately light displacement racer/cruiser with a tall rig that really likes light airs and can get up and going when most cruisers would be motoring. We were on our way to Newport, R.I., 350 miles away and this seemed an auspicious beginning.

Sailing aboard was Cuyler Morris, President of Morris Yachts and an Olympic quality sailor, Tripp Estabrook, a noted Newport sailor, and myself. It was a capable and harmonious crew so the trip held the promise of good company as well as good sailing.

We ran out of wind near the entrance to the C&D canal that leads from the Chesapeake into the top of Delaware Bay, so we were motorsailing when the thunderheads began to roll in from the west and the lightning started to crash all around us. Soon the rain arrived followed by the wind, so life in the cockpit was wet and watch keeping something of a challenge as we navigated down the ship channel. The squalls, which were riding on the leading edge of a cold front, passed early in the morning leaving us with a remarkable dawn that combined a murky, pink sunrise with a sky filled with thunderheads in which lightning illuminated the cloud canyons with bursts of brilliance—the silver linings, if you like. We came through the night damp but pleased with the boat’s performance.

As the front passed the wind came around to the northeast, our course, and built to 20 knots or so. We reefed the main, rolled up some jib and slogged into it for a few hours. The 454 has extremely good manners in blustery conditions and rising waves. The boat didn’t leap and slam through the waves like a pure lightweight racer, but surged comfortably and surely as the elliptical bow sections of the hull landed softly on each passing wave. Sailing 45 degrees off the wind in 20 knots with gusts to 30, the 454 held a comfortable 8 knots. And when we cracked off for Atlantic City, N.J., where we intended to hole up for 24 hours, the boat accelerated to 10 knots and fairly skipped through the waves.

The next afternoon we set off again for Newport with the wind in the north and northwest and still piping above 20 knots. Reaching at about 80 degrees from the true wind and playing the main traveler in the puffs, we had the 454 averaging 9 knots. By the afternoon of the next day, after a rollicking reach across the New York Bight and around Montauk, we sailed into Newport. We made the last 200 miles in just under 22 hours. That’s fast sailing in a 45 footer. Moreover, we arrived well fed and rested, which is a good way to measure the sea-keeping qualities of an offshore boat.

Design & Construction
The collaboration between Chuck Paine and Morris Yachts goes back to the beginnings of the company 30 years ago and has created a line of legendary cruising boats from the little Annie to the amazing 48-footer Reindeer.
Along the way, Morris and Paine have continually evolved their design and building process to stay ahead of the fleet of production boats. Morris only builds a few cruising boats a year and each one is a semi-custom work of art crafted from the most advanced cored epoxy or vinylester laminates, cored furniture-quality interior fittings and ultra-efficient aluminum or carbon-fiber rigs. The net results are offshore cruising boats in the finest tradition; boats that can cross oceans safely and comfortably, will win their classes in distance and point-to-point races and will, at the end of the day, be good investments.

Paine has a lovely design touch and has given the 454 a sleek hull that looks balanced and modern. The narrow entry at the bow and the long straight lines running aft give the hull a soft motion through the water and a nice turn of speed both up wind and power reaching. As an old time Maine builder might remark, the 454 has “no vices.”

The 454’s sail plan offers a lot of power in a rig that we discovered proves easy for a single watch stander to handle even in blustery conditions. The 106-percent jib—no genoa—sheets inside the side stays for close sheeting angles and easy trim.

On Next Boat the owner specified a sheeting arrangement derived from Volvo round the world racing boats that allows for extremely precise control of the jib’s foot and leech tension. This really helps when reaching and running with a small high aspect jib since you need to apply a lot of leech tension to keep the sail from twisting off at the top.
The mainsail is the rig’s real driver and is relatively huge for a racer/cruiser. With mid-boom sheeting, the traveler on the cabin top and the control lines running aft, you can power up and depower the big sail easily as the wind puffs. Plus, with this sheeting arrangement, the cockpit is free of mainsheet clutter.

Under the water the 454 sports a modified fin keel with a large aft-swept bulb. Draft has been limited to five feet, 10 inches to enable the boat to cruise the better cruising grounds when not racing or sailing offshore. The rudder is a high-aspect, balanced-spade design with a lot of surface area, which was much appreciated as we steered through the beam and quartering sea off New York; the helm always felt light to the touch and steered straight and sure.

The 454 is designed to be fast but it has not been built to the ultra-light standards of current grand-prix winners. Instead, the boat has been spec’d to rate well in PHRF and IMS events and built to a standard of strength and quality that ensure it will still be racing and winning in 30 years.

The hull and deck are high tech laminates in vinylester or epoxy with Corecell closed cell cores. The hull is built with continuous E-glass laminate layers in both the outer and inner skins and reinforced with layers of unidirectional fabrics. The deck is bonded to the hull with 3M 5200 and stainless steel bolts on eight-inch centers. Interior structural bulkheads are solid marine plywood panels that are tabbed with fiberglass to the hull and deck. Non-structural panels are lightweight LitePly panels.

Morris cruising boats are built to order on a semi-custom basis so owners may work with both Paine and Morris to come up with the right combination of materials to suit their needs and budgets. If you want to splurge on carbon and epoxy, Morris will do it for you. But, whichever way you go with a new hull, you can be assured that it will outlast you.

The Morris Touch
Over the years, Morris Yachts has built boats for some of America’s most experienced sailors who become part of the extended Morris family. In the process, these owners become collaborators with both Chuck Paine and Morris as their sailing experience continually adds ideas and data to the design and building process.

The 454 is a boat that began life as a custom 45 footer called Firefly which turned out to be a superb offshore racer and a capable and fun cruising boat. The semi-custom boats that are now being built are filled with great ideas and design features that are well proven over the years.

The sleek raised saloon, which fits the hull nicely, provides a lot of space below the floors for tanks and storage. The large windows provide a huge amount of light below decks as well as excellent visibility. On Next Boat, the dinette and chart table are under the raised saloon so you can sit with your coffee and have a lovely view of the world outside. A unique touch in these large windows are the bends or creases that shape the panes to the cabin and provide an extra degree of strength—in fact, they are 86 times stiffer than flat panes.

The galley is down a step forward from the dinette and has a large U-shaped design with the double sinks on the centerline, the stove outboard and the vast fridge and freezer forward. The Corian counters add elegance and make the galley easy to clean. Along the way to Newport we fixed several meals in windy and rolling conditions and found the galley to be truly a seagoing galley with fiddles in the right places, good hand holds and well thought out work spaces.

Across from the galley Next Boat had lower and upper berths, both of which are excellent sea berths. They are the right width to be sung when the weather cloths are in place and they are over the boat’s center of gravity where the boat’s motion is at its least.

The quarter cabin aft also makes a good sea berth with the added benefit of being able to close the door. It was amazing to slip off to that berth after going off watch, closing the door and settling down for a couple of hours sleep in almost complete silence even though it was honking on deck. Such is the benefit of a cored hull and deck.

While the layout on deck and down below has been designed with short handed sailing and offshore passages in mind, the details are what really set the 454 apart from the fleet.

On deck, teak toe rails, cockpit trim and cabin-top handrails are varnished in the Maine tradition to a deep and lustrous shine. Below decks, the cherry veneers and solid cherry doors and drawer fronts, have been selected for matching grains and color tones and then varnished until the surfaces are as smooth as mirrors—matte finish on the large panels and high gloss on the drawers, doors and cabinets.

Open a drawer and you will see the dovetail joints that hold it together. Open the electrical panel and you will be met with the most highly organized, color coded and labeled electrical system on the planet. Use the head or take a shower and you will find that everything you need or want is at the right arm’s length and that the spaces are designed to work both at sea and in port.

When you think about the details that go into a modern cruising boat—all of the equipment, systems, furniture, electronics—and taking that all offshore where the water is bumpy and the wind gusty, you have to think about creaks, leaks and rattling sounds as everything moves and shifts. Aboard the 454, as we sprinted across the New York Bight and surged from wave to wave, it was a marvel to go below and not hear a creak or a rattle and not find a door flopping open or a drawer disgorging it contents. The boat was tight, secure and set up for going to sea.

When you think of the Morris touch, it is easy to think of varnish. But in truth the Morris touch is the total absence of surprises when it gets a little rough out there.

BWS thoughts
The 454 is a true sailor’s boat. It sails well in a wide range of conditions. It is easy to handle around the docks and offshore. It has well thought out systems that will carry a family to first-in-class in a regatta or safely around the world. It is as handsome a cruising boat as you will find anywhere. And, it is a boat that can be customized for an owner’s needs and desires.

And, in 30 years a 454 built today will still be winning races, still be turning heads and still be an asset a family will be proud to own, especially on dark and stormy nights.

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