I have personally owned a Formosa 51 for well over 15 years. I consider myself lucky to have corresponded with her original owner and know most of her history. Prior to owning our Formosa I owned sailboats made by Bristol (Halsey Herreshoff) and Hunter (John Cherubini). As a professional mariner I have captained deadrise fishing boats and delivered sailboats up to 77 feet in length. I even served as first mate on a Chesapeake Bay Skipjack for a summer. On holidays in the Caribbean I have chartered Jeanneaus, Beneteaus and even Leopard Catamarans. I always found myself missing my Formosa 51.
The Good – When you own a boat something like 85-90% of your time is spent at anchor or tied to a dock. Once you experience the comfort factor of a large traditional boat like the Formosa 51 you will find it very hard to enjoy a lighter modern fin keel sailboat, especially at anchor. Many of these boats are chosen by live-aboards for just that reason. Not only do you get the comfort of a heavy boat in a choppy anchorage but you also get an enormous amount of storage space down below. In the pilothouse version your floorboards lift up to give you full access to work on your engine while standing up! These boats only draw 6’3” so this allows you to travel the Bahamas and get into many anchorages that other 50 foot boats cannot. If you are a US East Coast Sailor her main mast height of 63’ will allow you to do most on the ICW without a problem. Her full keel makes her to track well under power and sail. Once you learn to work with prop walk you can maneuver her in tight marinas with confidence, nothing happens quickly on a full keel boat. When it comes time for a haulout her beam and tonnage allow you to use any yard with a basic 25 ton lift. The construction of the boat is simple and straightforward, no high tech materials or special fittings to deal with. Most work can be taken on by the owner if they choose to do so and this can help you save some money. I almost forgot to mention – an excellent starting price for a 51’ fiberglass boat.
The Bad – These boats are getting old. Like any older sail or power boat the condition can vary widely, some have been well cared for while others have been neglected. Have you heard the phrase leaky teaky? Water intrusion in the deck and pilothouse area is sometimes a problem especially if the boat still has the original (now coming on 50 years old) teak decks. This is not an issue for just Formosa’s, my Hunter had major deck coring issues. Have your surveyor check the boat thoroughly in the usual places, the hull (blisters), the numerous through-hull fittings, bulkheads, chainplates and rigging, engine, drivetrain, electrical systems, and particularly the black metal fuel tanks. Chances are that the boat you are looking at has had any major problem areas dealt with as most insurance companies require a survey every five years. If the boat you are looking to purchase has the original wooden spars check over the base of the mast and booms for rot. You can take on a lot of repairs yourself but be aware fixes on boats of this size can be considerable; three to five times more than an equivalent 30 foot boat is a good rule of thumb.
The Ugly – Sailing yachts that are 50 feet or longer must cost well over a million dollars right? The Formosa 51 and her sisterships made owning a traditonal ketch rigged sailboat affordable for hundreds of people. You can still find these boats listed for sale even today. Why? They were built to last. Go ahead and try to find a wooden ketch from the 50’s or 60’s still sailing and in good condition, they are few and far between. The boat building industry will never build a boat like this again; they cannot afford to do it. At the time these boats were being built it was easy press to beat them up when comparing them to more modern fiberglass hull designs. Marketing and magazine writers wrote lazy articles about build quality and sailing performance, give me a break. What is truly ugly is that William Garden is not celebrated for his long lasting impact to the yachting world by introducing his designs to the fiberglass boat building industry.
A good strategy for someone looking to buy a Formosa 51? Always remember that there is no such thing as a free or low cost boat. Look for a well maintained boat that has a recent survey. We would not even consider a boat with original wooden spars or a teak deck. We also wanted a boat with a rebuilt or newer engine. Standing rigging should also be renewed every fifteen years. We also looked for a boat that did not have black iron fuel tanks. Believe it or not we found several boats that fit these criteria. Our boat was a Charter Boat after she was sailed across the Atlantic from Africa. The third owner did a major refit to have her in tip top shape for the Miami Charter Scene.