Balance 526 Owner’s Review: Little Bird
Many thanks to Tiffany and Frank from California who helped us with this Balance 526 Owner’s Review! This is a great one, some really good insights here on the Balance 526 and catamarans in general.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your Balance 526 catamaran. Which layout did you go for?
We’re Tiffany and Frank from Santa Cruz, California. We have Little Bird, our Balance 526, built starting in the months just before the pandemic started. It’s our 8th boat and 3rd catamaran. Previously we sailed the super fun Seawind 1000 and just recently sold our 2001 Catana 431. Little Bird was completed in October 2021 and we sailed it from South Africa to Grenada in November/December on a 6200 miles, 28 day passage.
Since then, we’ve been cruising the Caribbean. We have the standard owners versions with daggerboards and I think our boat (hull 12) really has all the major (and minor) stuff perfected.
Why did you choose the Balance 526? Was it the finish, the performance or the Versahelm for example?
Even after watching a first video walkthrough online, we knew the Balance was the right boat. It addressed many of the issues our other boats had, and also included so many great new ideas (it’s really true that all the systems are easily accessible without tearing the boat apart or crawling in unnatural positions).
The Versahelm – and really the visibility from both the upper and lower helm – is awesome. I loved my Catana outer helm stations, but have come to love this setup even more. Then, once we got on Vingilote (hull 9?) I was 100% sold. The fit and finish that the Nexus yard is achieving is some of the best I’ve ever seen. Performance was the table-stakes. We were only considering daggerboard performance cats.
When was she launched? How was the build process?
Every once in a while, you connect with a group of people you know will always be in your life in a very good way. The team at the Nexus yard is one of those groups. Roger, Jonathan, and the whole crew took us in and made us part of the family. Even with the pandemic and difficulties travelling, we were part of the build process the whole way through.
We were talking to the team multiple times per week on Skype. With these video calls I could experience every inch of the boat and be completely involved in the process. South Africans know how to build boats and work with composites. I think they’re the best in the world. We launched October 4, 2021.
What’s the best thing about her?
It’s the whole package. Performance, safety, comfort, ease of use/maintenance, quality. Not to parrot their marketing material – but they really did find the perfect balance.
Compared to my other catamarans, I really enjoy the significantly improved performance and total modern conveniences. There are many times we’re sailing at 7 or 8 knots on Little Bird when we would have been motoring our Catana (and that’s a very respectable performance cruiser as well). I bet we sail 25% more overall. That’s huge.
If there was one thing that you would change, what would that be? Or wouldn’t you change anything?
There are always things on boats you take from past experiences and learn from. We’re adding a halyard lock for the screecher/code0 to get rid of all the line twist in the 2:1 halyard. We’re also adding a bit better side curtains to deal with rain shedding. Really minor stuff.
Does she carry weight well, or do you have to be careful to not overload her with gear?
You always have to be careful with weight on a boat like this. It’s 52 feet long, so has great capacity for all the toys – wing foils, surfboards, SUPs, etc… But, there’s no magic beans. It has great capacity, but even more room to overload if you wanted to. We’ve only had the boat for one season, and I already want to do a full inventory – and pull as much as I can off the boat. But I feel fine with the load we’re carrying as a base (washer/dryers, Air con, toys, large lithium bank, etc.). You don’t need to strip it down to get the performance it’s built for.
What are the “Must Have” Options buying new in your opinion? eg Sails, water maker, generator, solar, carbon options, push button sheet controls. Did you opt for boards or fixed keels?
Most of our “must have” options were already included: daggerboards, water maker, good performance cruising laminate sails, electric winches, Integral charging at 18kw (generator alternatives), a huge amount of solar (3.6kw), massive 35kwh of lithium battery storage. This boat is incredibly well thought out. I didn’t want any propane on the boat, so all AC loads are easily addressed by the power system, including home-style Miele induction stove and steam oven. And a great Kenyon electric bbq.
What are the “Nice to Have Options”?
I really thought having 3 air conditioners seemed crazy. But now that we’ve crossed the equator and used the boat in the Caribbean for a season, I’m really glad we have them. It helps so much with crew morale. The Washer/Dryer seemed over kill – but we use it all the time. It’s so great to show up in a new anchorage and not have to run around doing laundry. We have it done by the time we arrive. We feel spoiled on this boat.
Which options did you “pass” on?
I didn’t feel the boat needed to be 100% carbon. Carbon boats are so loud. And the boat sails so well as-is. The boat uses carbon in all the right places to achieve strength and rigidity and keep the weight down, but didn’t want to deal with a carbon mast, etc. and all the associated lightning issues.
How are the electrics, plumbing etc. Can you give us an idea of how you set your power system up, amount of solar, hydro-generation, lithium batteries etc
The systems on this boat are incredible. Everything is so well labeled and easily accessible behind a cabinet door. On the passage, we had a fresh water pump go bad (manufacturer issue). We had a spare in inventory, and the swap-out only took 10 minutes. Barely any tools required. The electrical system is top-notch. We have a full 220v (european) and 110v (US) system. We can plug in anywhere and use whatever tool or appliances we find anywhere in the world. It’s really how all boats should be built moving forward. Also, we don’t have a need for a generator, so we greatly reduce not only the weight of the genset, but all the spares you’d end up carrying for it.
Is she easy to maintain? Servicing engines, standing rigging etc
This is one of the highlights. I’ve never been on a boat that has better access to the systems. All the mechanical and electrical systems are super accessible – behind a cabinet door or in a compartment you can access easily. That makes a huge difference. Everything is really well labeled as well. Also, we opted for standard SS rigging, so we can service anywhere. The dual Yanmars are great.
Is she easy to sail short-handed? To shorten sail? Is the running rigging complex? Do all the lines lead back to the helms, for example? Can you give us an idea of your sail plan.
This boat is about the maximum size I think you can sail easily as a couple. All the lines are run to the upper helm. There are also winch switches to control the forward winch and combing winches from the helm. Really, the only limiting factor becomes the weight of the sails as the boat gets bigger. This rig is huge, and we’re right on the border of what you can pull out of the sail locker with one person.
What’s she like in heavy weather / a blow / big seas. How is the ride in general?(pitch/roll)
This boat sails unbelievable well. The big issue in a performance cat is how can you slow it down. I think the Balance really hits this well. You can go fast, but getting it back under control is well within reach. I don’t want to fly the hull on my house. And I never felt like the Balance would get out of control. Of course, you need to stay on top of things, but the boat doesn’t hobby-horse at all. Weights are held low and centred. It can get loud at 18 knots, but any boat would.
How is the Versahelm position. Good in weather? How is the visibility when docking?
The Versahelm is awesome. The visibility through the forward windows is like having a pilot house. The upper helm is great for both anchoring and docking. Visibility lines were really well thought out. In all honesty, we don’t steer much from the lower helm with the wheel. It’s nice to have it as an option, but on passage the boat does so well with autopilot you don’t have to hand steer much. When you need to be under the cover of the lower helm, you likely don’t want to be steering anyway!
How does she sail in light winds?
See above. If I had to pick one thing about this boat, or why you should buy a performance cat – this is it. You will sail a lot more. Not 5 or 10% more… more like 25% more. This boat can move in really light winds.
How does she sail close-hauled? How high does she point to true in a good sea state?
We made many passages to weather moving north from Grenada to St Martin this season. Typical days when everyone in the anchorage seems to leave at the same time in the morning. We were routinely pointing higher and passing performance-oriented monohulls. I can’t think of many times we got past. It’s remarkable how much these RDL sails matched with deep daggerboards help you point. Some of the best sailing we’ve ever done.
Typically, what’s your average speed on passage? What’s the top speed you have logged surfing?
We sail very conservatively on passage. We didn’t break anything in the 6200 mile crossing; no halyard chafe, etc. We could count on 200+ mile days. I’m sure if we pushed a little, we could routinely do 240 comfortably. We had pretty confused seas most of the way from South Africa, so we took comfort over speed. We’ve hit 22 knots several times. It never seemed out of control, and at times the only way you knew was by looking at the speed display.
What’s she like under power? Speed, manoeuvrability?
Great; we opted for the 57hp Yanmars which don’t weigh anymore than the standard. Although we tend to sail a lot more than motor! The props are well matched and I’ve never felt it wasn’t pushing enough.
Is she easy to dock?
Yes, the sight lines allow for easy docking and the ZF throttle controls are very easy to operate. The boat is light, so having the daggerboards down a bit helps from getting blown sideways. The transoms are easy to step off and secure the boat.
What is she like at anchor?
The anchor setup is very well thought-out. Our boat is the first that has the new Sparcraft longeron and integrated anchor launch. It works flawlessly. The anchor locker is deep enough to prevent coning. Livability is wonderful. The cockpit has plenty of seating and lounging areas. The flow is great from cockpit to galley, but I also know I can close things up very securely in a large following sea.
What’s she like when it ́s raining hard?
You can close up the upper helm and bring the Versahelm down to the lower helm; still with great visibility out of the forward windows. You can also come completely inside and steer with the autopilot from the forward-facing helm. We’re adding a little more robust side curtains, as I spec’d mesh to focus on shade. I should have thought a bit more about rain.
Is she comfortable down below? Cabins/saloon/galley/heads. Can you give us an idea of the configuration you went for? How is that famous shower?
The forward berths are surprisingly comfortable in a seaway. They actually end up being very close to the mast (centre of effort) as opposed to something like a v-berth. I was worried it would be too bouncy on passage, but it’s not. They can be loud, but that’s more a factor of speed. .
I’m 6’3” and have more than enough headroom in all areas of the boat. The shower is awesome. It’s large, but you can sit easily on passage and take a shower if needed.
How is the finish of the interior? Does she creak under sail?
The cabinetry is top-notch. A work of art really. You can just look at the grain-matching the yard’s cabinet maker does – it’s incredible. The zebrawood we selected is hard to work with, but you can tell they’re perfectionists. That goes through to the structure. No creaks, and everything lines up. After 8000 miles it’s the same as when the boat was splashed.
What is your favourite spot on the boat?
Is she good for hosting guests?
Really great. The wide beam provides really great areas for people to hang out. The connection from indoor to outdoor also helps with everyone feeling “together”. There are plenty of places to hang out, and the boat feels so open and light. You never feel like you’re “down in a hole”. Those vertical windows are awesome.
What kind of modifications have you done and why?
Our electrical system was a huge focus for me. I’ve always felt trying to make a boat a“US 110v” or “EU 220v” boat is obsolete. Boats go all over the world and should work all over the world, and with equipment made all over the world.
When you take LP gas and a generator out of the equation, you really open up a chance to rethink everything. The boat has both a 230v and 110v AC system. So the cooking appliances can be real residential-grade products (in our case Miele). That works best and is most available in EU 230/50 hz.
Much of the smaller appliance stuff was from the U.S. and is 110v/60hz. We can also plug in to any shore power on land. All without the need for autotransfomers and other heavy gear. It’s simple and bullet proof. And with the Integrelon-engine generators (smart alternators) and 3.6kw of solar, you’re never worried about generation.
Any plans for further customisation?
We’re in process of installing a halyard lock for the 2:1 screecher halyard. Twist becomes a big issue with that much line, and a halyard block is a more elegant solution .It also takes a lot of compression out of the mast.
If you were to swap her for another boat, what would that be? Or maybe you wouldn’t swap her?
No plans, but I’d do the bigger Balance built at the Nexus yard.
How is the after sales service from Balance?
Great… everyone has been really responsive and I can always pick up the phone and talk to the factory. They’re still small enough where you have real people to talk to and help when there’s an issue. They stand behind their product.
Anything else you would add to help people thinking of buying a Balance 526?
It really is an awesome boat. It’s a performance cat, but not something that’s over-the-top. You’ll sail a lot more than most other boats, do faster passages, but also live in comfort. It’s the best of all worlds.
How would you rate the Value for Money of an Balance 526, bearing in mind future re-sale potential, quality, price and so on.
These boats are expensive. I think building in South Africa, you get a lot more for your money. The craftsmanship is top-notch. I’ve already had offers to buy it, so resell looks very strong.
Follow Sailing Little Bird
You can follow Tiffany and Frank on their Balance 526: Little Bird on the Sailing Little Bird Youtube channel.
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