Tradeoffs—life’s made of them and sailing is no exception. If you want to be able to point high, reeling off the knots to weather, you’ll need a deep keel to minimize leeway and keep you tracking. But if you want to gunkhole into shallow anchorages and tuck up into the mangroves of the Caribbean where a five-foot draft is already a nuisance, you’ll need a shoal keel. What’s a sailor to do?

This is exactly the dilemma that English builder Northshore set about addressing when they launched their first variable keel Southerly 33 in 1978. The swing keel concept caught on and since then, Southerlys have come to be known as yachts offering the best of both worlds. They’re passage-making ocean crossers that point up to 30 degrees off the wind but can slide into the skinniest water where other boats fear to tread.

With the 540 model, Southerly has once again combined the best of both worlds to deliver tradeoffs for sailors.


Over 1,110 Southerly yachts have been launched since the seventies and the brand is now owned and built by Discovery Yachts Group. Their latest introduction is the Ed Dubois-designed Southerly 540 with sophisticated lines, a hefty displacement and an ease of handling that makes her a true couple’s cruising boat.

Up on Deck

The Southerly 540 is a serious bluewater passagemaker with wide side decks, good handholds along the curvy coachroof and tall lifelines. The cockpit divides into two secions—the working cockpit for the crew, and the social cockpit for guest safety and comfort. In the former, twin helm stations with large consoles hold Raymarine multifunction displays, instruments and engine and thruster controls. Between the two wheels is an electric Lewmar 65 winch on the centerline to manage the mainsheet as there is no traveler. The social part of the cockpit is nice and deep to keep occupants safe even when heeling. The entire cockpit is designed so that the sole may be removed in case a repower is needed when the engine may be lifted out completely without tearing apart the interior.

The Solent rig has a keel-stepped 80-foot aluminum Selden mast with triple aft-swept spreaders. For easy upwind work there’s a self-tending jib and for light beam breezes the 145% genoa will get the job done. Both headsails are on electric Furlex furlers. The 894-square-foot mainsail comes standard with in-mast furling but traditional hoist and in-boom furling versions are available as well. Between the mainsail and the jib, the sail area is 1,443 square feet so this big boat is definitely not underpowered.

The 540 has a small swim platform at the bottom of two sets of steps that lead down both the port and starboard sides of the transom. The steps are steep and fairly narrow and not the easiset to maneuver when descending. The platform serves as an access point to the stowage compartment that’s accessible via the transom. That’s a great place for fenders, dock lines and maybe a water hose but it’s not intended to hold an inflated dinghy.

Dubois kept the lines of the 540 true to Southerly’s aesthetic but added his own superyacht flare including triple vertical fixed hull ports and a swoopy coachroof with large wrap-around windows. The relatively low exterior camouflages the massive interior volume and headroom. The boat looks in proportion, sleek and ready for speed rather than bulky and tall.

The 540 is built for speed in bluewater.

Below the Waterline

This is where it gets really interesting. Twin canted rudders and a 7,000-pound iron keel make up the Southerly’s underwater profile. The keel retracts completely into a box with a cast-iron grounding plate that the boat can sit on if grounded. A centerline skeg protects the propeller and shaft and keeps the rudders off the bottom when the keel is fully retracted.

The keel, which is controlled by a hydraulic ram, is designed to bounce off a submerged obstacle. Theoretically, it can hit a coral head, swing up and clear and let the boat keep moving. The draft varies from 3’5” to 11 feet and that’s where the versatility of a shoal draft vessel meets superior upwind performance. With 11 feet down, the Southerly will point high even in a serious sea way and that made us excited for test day. Sadly, the Chesapeake Bay served up weather that would not let this 54-footer do what she does best; romp along in snotty seas and gusts to 40.

However, they say that a the true sailor is proven in light conditions and it was impressive that in our six knots of breeze, the 55,000-pound cruiser glided along at 3.5 knots at 60 degrees apparent wind angle. With the keel one third down to keep us tracking, we slipped along the flat water while smaller boats around us stood still. This is perhaps not what comes to mind when thinking of a world circumnavigator, but these are the conditions that are out there more often than not. It’s good to know that this heavy boat will still keep moving even in a sneeze of breeze.

Our test boat was powered by a 150 HP Volvo Penta diesel with a straight shaft and a four-bladed feathering propeller. Company specs note that a 160 HP Yanmar is also available. At wide-open-throttle and 3100 rpm, we motored at 9.5 knots. At a more moderate, and fuel-efficient 1900 rpm, our speed was 7.5 knots.

Stepping below deck, you'll find all the comforts of home with a raised salon, galley, nav station and much more.

Creature Comforts

Dubois also tapped into his superyacht background for inspiration on the 540’s accommodations. The single most differentiating feature is the raised salon with its portside circular settee. This layout is necessary to provide room for the keel box below but has the added benefit of putting seated guests at eye level with those fantastic saloon windows. You’ll never feel “buried below” on this boat.

The nav station is to starboard, on the same level as the saloon so the visibility forward from here is excellent and with the added autopilot control, this is really another helm station, which will be especially handy when cruising high latitudes or dealing with inclement weather.

The galley and the rest of the accommodations are on the lower level. Take the steps down and aft to reach the galley and its refrigeration drawers and generous countertop space. Keep moving aft and you’ll reach the sumptuous stateroom where owners will lack for nothing, certainly not for stowage space. The centerline bed is flanked by an extensive amount of furniture with drawers, cubbies and hanging lockers. To starboard is a vanity desk and seat and the head has a dedicated shower stall. The teak joinery is exceptional as you’d expect from an upscale English builder.

The VIP cabin is in down the forward set of steps from the saloon in the bow. It’s perfect for a visiting couple with a bed on the centerline and plenty of stowage options. Just aft and to port is a cabin that can either hold over/under bunks or perhaps be built out into an office or workshop. A second full head completes the forward section.

Down on this level and opposite the keel housing cabinetry, you’ll also find two seats abutting a small table with a built-in chessboard. It’s a nice little lounge that will provide a couple with togetherness over a game or some separation when needed.

Final Thoughts

Southerlys are built in Southampton, England. As semi-custom cruisers they command a premium but they also deliver quality. The hand-laminated, vacuum bagged vinylester/foam core sandwich hull (solid glass below the waterline) has a fine entry so she can put her shoulder into big head seas and carve a path straight through. That’s certainly a reason to pay more. But the real differentiator (and benefit) is that variable keel and what it allows cruisers to do. Whether you need to outrun a storm or scoot into the shallows, you’ve got the freedom to do both on the same vessel. So that at least, is one sailing tradeoff eliminated.
Draft3'5" to 11'00"
Air Draft79'8"
Displacement54,806 lbs
Fuel capacity213 gal.
Water capacity176 gal.