In the early 1980s, after 25 years as a production engineer at Grand Banks, Tony Fleming set out to design and build a motoryacht of his own. The British-born U.S. citizen knew exactly what he wanted: A low-profile design with a fine forward entry and a dedicated pilothouse that could cruise efficiently on a twin-engine semi-displacement hull and run in the high teens when the extra speed was necessary.
Thirty-six years later, the Fleming 55 continues to be built at the same Taiwanese yard and to the same rigorous standards that Fleming insisted on in 1985.
Few boat models can claim as long a production run on the same hull design as the Fleming 55. The Grand Banks 42, whose construction Fleming oversaw, had a 30-year run. The Holland 32 lobster hull has been in production since 1979, but among larger boats, few hulls, if any, have had the longevity of the Fleming 55.
As of 2020, 258 Fleming 55s have been built, and even though 58-, 65- and 78-foot models have been added along the way, the 55 continues to be the best-selling boat in the line. In the early days, when it was believed that 55-footers could not be handled by one couple, shorter versions were built by plugging the aft cockpit of the 55-foot mold. But in 1992 it became clear that the 55 could easily be handled by two, so production of the shorter builds ceased.
Other than tweaks as molds wore out, the 55’s hull shape has essentially been the same since 1985, but because the builder puts an average of 8 to 10 improvements in each boat, the total changes made to the original Fleming 55 design now number in the thousands. Fleming is known to be obsessive about constantly making its boats better, more efficient, more comfortable, quieter and safer.
Although it’s been more than 10 years since Tony Fleming started turning operations over to his nephew and protégé, Adi Shard, and one of Fleming’s longtime engineers, Duncan Cowie, he continues to provide feedback as he cruises the world on his own Fleming. Suggestions for improvements also come from dealers, mechanics, salesmen, owners and yard workers. If it makes the boat better, it’s implemented on the next 55. It’s one reason why many owners will buy a 55 and years later buy a newer one.
Burr Yacht Sales, which has facilities in Edgewater, Maryland, and Stuart, Florida, is the world’s largest Fleming dealer and has sold 124 of the 258 new Fleming 55s built to date. Burr also resells what they refer to as pre-cruised 55s.
Kevin Althoff, who’s worked for Burr Yacht Sales since 2007, says the longevity of the 55 comes from the overall layout and original design. “There’s nothing that really has to change. If it was a poor design, they would have changed it,” he says. “But they don’t have to come out with a new model and rush it into production,” he says. “They’re constantly tweaking it without customers demanding it. It’s kind of like the Porsche 911.”
The Fleming 55 was designed to have a low center of gravity. The floor of the cockpit, the salon floor and the sidedecks are only 18 inches above the water, which makes the boat very stable at sea or in a rolling anchorage. “You can step off the dock and through the side gate with the groceries and you’re not stepping up,” says Althoff. “The easiest way to get more volume in a boat is to go high. At Fleming, they took the opposite tack.”
It’s that low center of gravity that helps make the Fleming 55 so seaworthy and capable of going practically anywhere, including more challenging northern waters.
Martha Comfort, regional manager at Seattle’s Chuck Hovey Yachts, Fleming’s West Coast dealer, says there are about 50 Fleming 55s cruising the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada. She cites the Fleming 55’s covered walkaround decks, Portuguese bridge, inside access to the flybridge, redundancy of systems and range—900-plus miles from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, at 10 knots—as reasons for the design’s popularity. “It’s every boater’s dream to do that cruise up to British Columbia and Alaska,” she says. “The Fleming is the perfect boat for that.”
Althoff says Fleming 55 owners make similar voyages on the East Coast. “We have some owners who are constantly moving to Maine and the Maritimes and back down to the Bahamas and Caribbean. It’s the dedicated pilothouse that makes the Fleming a great boat for going north,” he says. “No foul weather gear needed.”
Althoff cites the dedicated pilothouse as a key to the boat’s successful design. “It’s a separate space. You can watch a football game in the salon and take a phone call in the pilothouse. And it’s a good thoroughfare,” he says. “You have easy access to the flybridge and to the side doors on each side. They could make the pilothouse table larger, and eliminate the side doors,” Althoff says, “but Fleming has stuck to their design because it works well for a cruising couple.”
Gail and David Bernstein of Fort Myers, Florida, have owned two Fleming 55s. Lifelong sailors, they owned everything from a laser to a San Juan 7.7 and a J/29 that they raced on Lake Travis while they lived in Austin, Texas. When they retired in 2002 and bought their Florida condo, they intended to buy a cruising sailboat, but quickly learned that their sailing friends mostly motored around Florida’s Gulf Coast because the waters are shallow and not particularly sailing friendly.
“We then decided to go to the dark side,” Gail quips. In 2003 they bought a pre-owned Grand Banks Eastbay 38, which they used on weekends to explore Florida and the Bahamas. Four years later, they purchased a new 2008 Eastbay 45, but they wanted to go on longer cruises and have better amenities.
“We decided to go for a trawler with more room for guests to come along, and being old sailors, we were okay with going slow,” David says. “We were more interested in the journey than the destination, and we wanted a better galley for Gail. “I got tired of my Cokes sitting too close to the freezer plate and exploding,” Gail says.
They looked at Offshores, Marlows and Grand Banks Aleutians. At the Miami Boat Show, they toured the Flemings. They had looked at the 55 in the past before they were in the market. “We liked the way it looked,” Gail says. “We like traditional boats, and it was nicer than the Eastbay 45 because it was a bigger boat.”
The Fleming 55’s third stateroom was a big selling point for Gail. “I’m a bookkeeper, and I like having a place for a computer to pay bills rather than having it sit in the middle of everything,” she says. “And the Flemings have an excellent reputation as being seaworthy,” David says.
They also got a recommendation from neighbors who owned a Fleming 55. “It was their second 55 and they said how reliable it was,” David says.
In 2013, the Bernsteins bought a 2008 Fleming 55 through Burr Yacht Sales. They had the third stateroom modified and turned into an office, but operating the 55-footer was not without its challenges. “When it was my time to drive, at first, I was all white knuckles,” Gail says. “When we flew back to Texas, I told David, ‘I am going to be comfortable driving the boat or we’re gonna sell it.’” Asked how she overcame that obstacle, Gail is succinct. “Practice,” she says.
She is now totally comfortable driving the 55. “Whenever we go into a marina, Gail always has the helm,” David says. “She handles the docking and I handle the docklines. When we leave, I drive, and she handles the lines, but it’s amazing how many marinas we go into and she backs that 55 into a slip and people say, ‘Did you see her do that?’”
The Bernsteins spent the next two years cruising the Bahamas and Keys and going as far north as the Chesapeake Bay. “That was our first time going up and down the East Coast, David says. “We did a real slow crawl up and back on the ICW. It took about four and a half months.”
They liked it so much that they sold their Lake Travis home. “We loved that house, but being on the boat was better,” David says. “After that we pretty much spent every summer on the boat. Then we got to thinking, we really like this boat. It’s a good size for us, but maybe we want one that is configured exactly the way we want.”
In 2015 they ordered a new Fleming 55 from Burr Yacht Sales. The Bernsteins worked with the dealer and the manufacturer to come up with a completely new layout for the third stateroom office. They also changed some things in the galley, including replacing the dishwasher with storage drawers.
They took delivery of their new 55 in 2016 and found that over eight years, Fleming had made a lot of changes, including a switch from Naiad stabilizers to ABT-TRACs. “I feel like I got 5 percent better fuel efficiency on the second 55,” David says. “I attribute at least some of that to the ABT-TRACs.”
They also liked that Fleming moved the air conditioning vents up in the salon and galley. “That was a nice change,” Gail says.
The builder also changed the prop shaft couplers to Seatorques and upgraded the built-in fuel polishing system. “On the old one, I had hoses I had to connect between tanks to and from,” David says. “On the new one all I had to do was throw a few levers.”
The Bernsteins generally cruise at 8 to 10 knots. At 10 knots, the Fleming 55’s twin Cummins QSC 500 diesels burn 10 gph, or a gallon per mile, a really efficient fuel burn for a 55-foot boat.
Top speed is listed as 19 knots. David says the 55 does about 17.5 knots in pretty favorable seas. They try to avoid horrible seas, not because the boat can’t take it, but because he says the owners can’t. “In 4- to 5-foot seas on the beam or stern it’s a perfectly normal trip,” he says. “If it’s on the bow the slamming gets to me after a while. The boat can handle it, but we don’t like it.”
Because they’re strictly daylight cruisers, they’ll use the speed on the 55 only when they have a lot of ground to cover. “The first time we went to New York City from Cape May, New Jersey, we stopped in Atlantic City,” David says. “We didn’t like Atlantic City, so now when we come out of Cape May, we put the hammer down for 3 to 4 hours, and when the ETA says we can slow down and still be in New York before dark we slow down.”
The Bernsteins have made it as far north as the south side of Cape Cod, but in 2020 Covid-19 prevented them from cruising at all. They are making big plans for 2021. In November of 2020, they took delivery of a new Fleming 58, and they plan to get farther afield this year. “We’ve never been through the Cape Cod Canal,” David says. “But we’re hoping to go to Maine this summer.”
And what about Tonto’s Reward, their 2016 Fleming 55? Right after they took possession of their new 58, they sold her, bringing another boater into the Fleming 55 pipeline.
Weight: 67,801 lbs.
Fuel: 1,000 gals.
Water: 300 gals.
Power: (2) 500-hp Cummins QSC diesels
Price: $2.5 million
This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.