The CT 54/56 design started when Robert H. Perry was working for Jay Benford, a Ferro-cement builder, in Seattle, WA. National Fisherman published a 47-foot ketch designed by Perry that attracted the attention of John Edwards. Edwards was looking to start a boat builder with construction in Taiwan and sent a letter to Perry. In 1972, Perry began drawing for Edwards even as he started a new job in Dick Carter’s design office. Edwards soon found that building in Taiwan would be even less inexpensive than he originally thought. They increased the design to a 54-foot ketch. The yard would be Ta Chiao which means “Big Bridge” in Mandarin. Perry describes the design as his version of “the type of boat Bill Garden did…when I was young his influence was so heavy I’d have to fight it.” While attributed to Perry and inspired by Garden, Ted Brewer played a significant role. According to Don Gibson who was the exclusive US distributor of CT’s, the 54 is more a Brewer design while the 65 CT is classic Perry. Bob Perry writes about Brewer’s involvement, “The CT 54 was my very first GRP design and I asked Ted Brewer to help me with the structure and to generally look over my shoulder while I was working on the design.”
Famously after submitting the design to Taiwan, the yard sent back a wooden model perfectly carved except for the transom. A note said that they could figure out everything except the transom. Could he please carve his transom and send the model back? Perry says, “I’m not good with tools. I just froze up. Not knowing what to do, I went to the hardware store and bought a Surform rasp.” He carved half the transom and knowing he couldn’t replicate it, he stopped there and sent the model back.
While originally designed for Hans Christian Yachts, the design switched hands and became the first of Ta Chiao Brother’s CT series. Perry explains that John Edwards only paid him $350 of the agreed upon $700 commission for the design. One day, he received a call from C.T.Chen, the president of Ta Chaio. They agreed that if C.T. paid him the rest of the commission he would own the rights to the design. After receiving an Express Mail check for $750 which was more than the $350 outstanding, Perry wrote a letter to this affect which was produced in court in Taiwan. Perry and John Edwards never spoke again. Edwards went on to found Hans Christian Yachts with a different designer and Taiwanese yard.
Ta Chiao built 104 hulls from 1975 until 1986 when the mold wore out. But people were still clamoring for the design, so they made the 56-foot mold. They produced about a dozen of these 56’s. At this point, Don Gibson, the US importer and Michel Tissier, the European importer, got into a disagreement. They were expanding to a CT 48 design, but they disagreed what she should look like. The yard sided with Michel who wanted a more modern design with an unbroken sheerline. Don refused to import the CT 48. Soon, Michel went out of business, but Don was still at odds with Ta Chiao. The whole organization petered out. Although the CT series is gone, Ta Chiao was still distributing parts for the CT 54/56 as recently as 2 years ago to current owners.
The CT 54/56 is a handsome, old fashioned, stout looking cutter-ketch. She is 54 foot on deck and 62 overall. The bow flairs clipper style with a 8 foot bowsprit and trailboards giving her that classic look. She has a two piece dolphin striker with a teak baluster. Her molded hull seams look like wooden planking, and the low freeboard and striking sheer give her personality like a Garden design. The teak caprail and raised quarterdeck have carved ornate teak handrailing. While forward she has a half inch bulwark, the raised deck aft is nearly flush with the caprail.
Ta Chiao really varied the design of these CT’s. Ta Chiao actually produced two different versions of the cabintrunk. One had a Robert Perry deck and another was modified by the yard. The yard’s version increased the headroom which was too low in Perry’s original design. Perry says, “I think about three-quarters of the 54s had the yard’s deck,” in his autobiography, Design According to Perry. One I recently previewed had a total of fourteen bronze portholes with three forward and four aft on each side. An owner told me that his has sixteen portholes with eight on each side. Later on another I previewed, I counted six portholes on each side. While both of the ones I previewed and his have four square portholes on the pirate stern, he has seen those with two or three on the stern. Underneath, she has a very full keel and attached rudder. Perry describes her a big keelboat with a nice shape. The deadrise is moderate and garboards thin. Her beam is 15.1′ – about an expected figure. Perry writes that he thinks the 56 is a much better design. He “fined up the bow, decreased the angle of entry considerably to make the boat faster on the wind…flattened the buttocks” for speed.
The CT Yahoo Groups owners association is the pre-eminent place for CT enthusiasts. On their home page they write about what attracted them to own a CT. The CT’s “classic lines are incomparable in their grace, and a joy to the eye, inspiring conversation and admiration wherever a CT54 CT56 goes. One of the safest and most comfortable yachts ever built. Flexibility to serve for entertaining, as a world cruiser or local live aboard – in comfort and style.”
CT 54’s can generally be broken into two era’s of construction. From 1975 to 1981, Ta Chiao was learning and made some mistakes. The deck and cabintrunks are prone to leaks and rot. These boats are considered lower in quality and “leaky teaky.” In 1981, Ta Chiao upgraded their techniques. They made a 4 inch thick deck cored with plywood. They sandwiched a 2 1/2 inch core layer of plywood between top and bottom layers of 3/4 inch fiberglass. This change fixed the deck leaks and rot so common with the earlier construction. A good way to inspect the deck layering is by opening up the emergency steering fixture aft.
Another progressive change was a switch to modern aluminum rigs and stainless hardware. Most of the early CT 54’s had spruce spars and bronze chocks and portholes. As time went on, more and more CT’s were rigged with aluminum spars and stainless hardware. Whether spruce or aluminum these masts are keel stepped. Ta Chiao continued to refine and improve their construction techniques. The later the build year generally the better quality build. The CT 56’s are the highest quality but quite a bit more expensive. All have solid fiberglass hull layup, encapsulated ballast, keel stepped masts. The ballast consists of a mixture of lead and sand according to one owner. Forward the deck mold is lower and uses a bulwark hull-deck joint while the raised quarterdeck is the standard inner flange.
When first built, owners would stay and oversee construction in Taiwan. Another owner comments, “The CT54/56 build quality had ALOT to do with how the buyer/owner was involved with the layup and not what year the boat was built in. I have personally seen many CT’s of the 80’s and 90’s that were in very poor shape so to make a blanketed statement that anything before a 81 is junk seems silly.” Some owners stayed longer than others. The yachts where the owners stayed the longest are thought to have the best care during construction at Ta Chiao. It is irresponsible to make a blanket condemnation of pre-1981 CT 54’s.
Perry notes that although he and Ted Brewer produced a laminate schedule and structural layout, Ta Chiao did not follow any of this work. They “called fro multiple hatsection longitudinals, but the yard used a beefy single-skin laminate with no longitudinals. In those days, especially in Taiwan, there was no structural problem that could not be overcome with more mat and roving.” This means that at least the early 54’s had little structural framing to stiffen the hull.
What To Look For
“Don’t touch CT 54’s before 1981,” told one owner. “That is unless the price is really low. The construction techniques were really bad.” That seems harsh, but you should definitely be wary of any CT 54 and more so the earlier the build date. Leaky teaky characterizes the CT 54 build reputation. While heavily laid up, the Ta Chiao Brothers had not quite hit their stride. No matter the year, the deck ought to be carefully looked at and after 30 years is due for replacement or removal. The early model cabintrunks are commonly rotten. The spruce spars and mast step should be checked for rot. Any original stainless steel from the 1970’s Taiwan is suspect and prone to pitting.
All 54/56’s have significant teak on deck, and must be taken care of or quickly, the boat will show poorly. If not properly cared for, the seams of the teak cap railing can look like sore, bloody wounds. The CT’s are high maintenance yachts but well worth it and beautiful when properly cared for. The teak decks can be removed. If there has been a modernizing, check out the workmanship. The rudder is common problem on CT’s. These rudders are hollow and ship water. One particularly fastidious owner after purchasing his 54 saw the rudder leaking water after haul-out. He ordered a new rudder which dully came, and he installed. The next time he hauled, sure enough, the water poured out of the rudder. The most common owner modification to prevent a soggy rudder and resulting delamination is to drill holes in and fill the hollow with PVC foam, an easy and effective solution. This prevents delamination and corrosion, the main worries. Even Nautor Swan rudder are usually full of water. The goal is not a dry rudder but a durable one.
The teak bowsprit forward is wide and easy to mount. The windlass will probably be a giant, archaic looking piece of hardware. The deck should be leaky teaky with mitered edge pieces and black cocking. Two dorades give ventilation from the foredeck. Chainplates mount through the outer edge of the deck. These have self-tacking booms on the inner staysail which clutters up the foredeck. The raised quarterdeck is a good two foot step up. The primary winches vary in location and size. They can be mounted outside of the cockpit on stainless flanges or normally mounted on the combing top. The cabin trunk continued a little ways aft. Two dorades give ventilation to the aft stateroom.
Your impression of the cockpit will depend on the version. Ta Chiao built owner versions that have a smaller cockpit with high combings. It is difficult to lie down on the port and starboard benches. They built charter versions that have a very large cockpit with low combings. These have pretty long seating which is comfortable for lying down and oddly are more sought after by owners. One owner notes, “I often was sailing shorthanded with just another person. Ours was an charter cockpit. One of us would sleep on the benches which are long and comfortable. It was great.” In 1986 when the 54 molds wore out, Ta Chiao created the 56 which lengthened the cockpit. One of the main differences between the 54 and 56 is a fore and aft split cockpit. A navigation area is aft while forward is an entertaining area. The companionway opens with louvered doors and a handle.
When you first go below, you feel like you are descending the upper story of a palace. The widening stairway gives the entrance a pomposity. The raised saloon has a settees port and starboard. The layouts vary as Ta Chiao produced these on a very custom basis. One owner says, “Of the 12 or so CT54s I have seen, no two were alike, especially below deck.” On some the galley is starboard paired with a portside dinette both forward of the salon while on most others it seems these are aft of the saloon. Forwardmost is usually a V-berth and guest head port with shower. Aft of the saloon, both sides walkthrough to a master stateroom. Most have four stateroom layouts with port and starboard berths here. Aftmost, the island queen or athwartship king is cozy with excellent light from the hatch above, a porthole on each side, and the stern pirate portholes along with a large master head with separate stall shower. The wood used in the interior varies. The sole may be parquet flooring or teak and holly. The cabinetry and paneling is solid teak. The yard allowed owners to choose the color of teak from honey colored to dark purplish almost like mahogany.
CT 54’s generally have 120 HP or 135HP Ford Lehmans under the saloon. Some rare versions have a large Perkins diesel. To access the engine room, you pull up the saloon floorboards. They break up in many pieces. Port and starboard are fuel and water tanks. Forward is room for a generator. Forwardmost is another 200 gallon fuel tank. This engine setup really opens up the living space. With the engine and tankage below, you have more room for accommodations. The setup is similar to the Gulfstar Sailmaster 47 though lower in the bilge which leads to better stability. The disadvantages are the disruption for using the saloon. Though once you get a hang of the floorboard layout, the disruption is minimal – one board for checking oil or batteries or any of the tanks. Expect to replace the black iron tanks if they have not been. These last 20 years. The fuel tanks consist of two saddle tanks and another tank forward. Access to the engine, generator, and tanks is relatively simple except for the forward tank. To remove this fuel tank, you have to take out the forward bulkhead and saw the tank out. With all this tankage, you can cruise for awhile without refueling.
Bob Perry says about seatrialing the first 54, “Blasting around San Francisco Bay on my very first design was something I’ll never forget…the helm balance was perfect, as far as I could tell with the boat’s hydraulic steering. Ted Brewer convinced me to increase the size of the rig…this turned out to have been a good move. It was a great-looking boat, salty as hell.” One owner notes how “the staysail and mizzen beautifully balance each other. I have cruised going 9.5 knots under staysail and mizzen.” She is a long range cruiser with a soft motion and surprising legs. And clearly she can handle heavy weather. One owner was off Cape Hatteras in 50 foot seas and kept going fine. Along with modifying the cockpit for the 56, Perry changed the underbody of the 56. He cutaway the forward section of the long keel. This reduced the wetted surface of the 56 making her more sprightly than the 54, but then she does not sail to weather quite as well as the 54 with the fuller keel. Perry made the keel more distinct from the hull and flattened the buttocks for better speed.
CT 54’s are old world cruisers with strong layup. Robert Perry ostensibly designed her with inspiration from Bill Garden and guidance from Ted Brewer. Her graceful clipper bow, pirate stern, shapely sheer will be sure to get compliments in any harbor. One brokerage 54 is located in Fort Lauderdale and asking $219,000 and a couple brokered ones in Europe for $175,000 and $250,000. A 56 in Fort Lauderdale is asking $339,000. An older 1978 CT 54 looks overpriced at $550,000 in Mexico. Upkeep is significant on these yachts. Well-maintained ones are gorgeous. One side benefit is a helpful owners association on Yahoo Groups which you should contact for more information about these fine yachts.