With a slew of the industry’s highest awards to her name, the Beneteau First 36 clearly warrants some investigation. Seahorse journalist Øyvind Bordal chooses the wild conditions of the 2023 Rolex Fastnet Race for his test sail.
When I wake up, I don’t know where I am. Everything is moving, there’s a lot of noise, water rushes everywhere around me. A red light in front of my face confuses me. Then I hear a deep voice with an eastern European accent. I realise it’s a head lamp with a man behind it. And he says it’s my watch.
Suddenly I remember. I’m lying on a sail bag inside a boat, sailing the Rolex Fastnet Race. And it’s windy. Very windy. I’m wet to the bone, so cold and exhausted that it seems impossible to move my body. But it doesn’t matter how I feel. I have to go.
It’s hard to crawl out into the cockpit without falling. Every time the boat crashes into a wave, the jolt transmits through my body and the boat shakes. Numbers on the mast display flicker in the dark, shadows on the rail must be people, waiting to be replaced. We’re sailing upwind under storm jib with a double reefed mainsail. In the night sky I see lights from helicopters. Voices on the VHF radio are dealing with another Mayday.
The Rolex Fastnet Race of 2023 became one of the races that will be remembered. It was boat breaking conditions – winds gusting to 45 knots, in a very confused sea state due to wind against current. It was really extreme: one boat sank, four dismasted, there were a lot of emergencies with crew being rescued with helicopters after personal injuries and boats breaking apart.
And it was the perfect opportunity for putting the First 36 to the ultimate test: How would the lightweight composite construction fare? Would a cruiser designed to plane in 12 knots of wind be safe and sound – and would it be competitive at this level of racing?
When the First 36 was launched back in March 22, it made quite a splash. Finally, the audience could see the first mid-size model of the much talked about rebirth of the First series – a new, reinvented generation of the legendary, 40-year-old line of boats from Beneteau, known for hitting the elusive sweet spot between comfort, performance and a reasonable price.
In a way, the new First 36 proved to be no different. Except for one thing: It bridged the gap between the latest technology and the mainstream market. The professional racing industry has developed means to enhance performance quite radically and make much faster boats. But according to the developers of the First 36, there has been a lack of connection between this vast sea of new knowledge and the mainstream market for production boats.
The team of passionate sailors at Seascape and Beneteau was put together for this design challenge and spent four years pondering on how to solve the puzzle. They enlisted the help of naval architect Sam Manuard, arguably the most celebrated designer of professional race yachts in recent years, who shared notes with designer Lorenzo Argento, the man behind Brenta, A-Yachts, several Wallys and also designer of the new First range.
Lorenzo actually liked the 36 so much that he now owns one himself (see panel). Structural engineering was key and for this Pure Design was brought in. They put together the structure of the latest generation of America’s Cup boats and several IMOCAs, and are widely regarded as the best in the world in their field of expertise. Finally, for research and innovation, SITO, a young and award-winning industrial design team was chosen.
‘We have always been very outspoken about our belief in this boat’, says Tit Plevnik, the head of communications and customer experience at Seascape, Beneteau’s partner for small and medium Firsts. ‘We are not afraid to say that this is an unseen combination of performance and comfort. No one else has taken it so far in the mainstream market. I know that some smaller custom or semi-production yards have done similar things, but no one has achieved this in the mainstream market, where Beneteau is solidly placed.
‘Two promises were made’, Plevnik continues. ‘The first was to provide a boat with a full cruising interior – but still displacing only 4.8t, planing at 12kts of TWS without any special skills required. So basically a cruising boat, just a lot faster and more fun. The second was to build a boat that was also a club racer. Which means it had to be competitive under rating.
‘Obviously, this was a big ask. But now, after two seasons of sailing, the first point is fully proven. Sailing journalists all over the world agree on the exhilarating planing capabilities and our customers constantly tell us that they experience a boat that has finally made speed easy. They have been given a whole new sailing experience without sacrificing the wonders of a modern, comfortable cruising boat. You just ease the sheets and it’s a planing boat with a galley and a bathroom.
‘At the same time, the living space equals a First 40,7. We measured it carefully, so we know. Volume and performance can co-exist – if done correctly. It also feels like a bigger boat above decks. A charter fleet of at least 12 boats is upcoming in Croatia and will be ready in 2025. So the boat is already accepted in the mainstream cruising market.
These factors are the background of the numerous awards we have received: European Yacht of the Year, British Yachting Award, Cruising World’s Boat of the Year, Sailing World’s Boat of the Year, Voile Mag’s Boat of the Year and Sail magazine’s Boat of the Year.
‘But until recently the second promise was yet to be proven,’ Plevnik says. ‘The new First 36 has been competing locally and has done well. But the big test for the racing – or more precisely, the rating aspect – was the Rolex Fastnet Race 2023. And since the race happened to be sailed in extremely demanding conditions, it also had the benefit of being a full-scale test of the seaworthiness and build quality of the boat.’
As we taxied slowly into rainy Cherbourg on the morning of the fifth day, we could conclude several things: First of all, absolutely nothing broke on the boat. There had been no creaking, no rattling sounds, even though the boat was banged against steep waves for several days and nights. The investment in structural bulkheads, infusion moulding and building the hull and deck as one structural unit has resulted in a really robust, seaworthy vessel.
The boat behaved well all the way through and we felt safe and taken care of. The last 100 nautical miles through the Channel was downwind under gennaker in 30ktsplus of wind – finally conditions where the First 36 could flash its most distinctive feature: planing capability. And yes, we picked off one boat after another, no one in sight being faster than us. We topped at 21.4kts, even achieving 20kts on jib and main only, after wind picked up beyond the range of our only remaining gennaker.
The First 36 Fastnet Race idea began with a British owner signing up for a double-handed entry. The Seascape team suggested this was changed to a fully crewed entry and that a crew with some pro sailors was provided so that the opportunity could be used as a test of the boat’s racing potential.
The boat was not fully optimised for IRC, it was a standard boat, although rigged with a carbon mast. Also, it’s important to note that this wasn’t a fully professional, company-endorsed team which had gone through actual training with the boat. We had no time for trimming, testing or tuning and we had not developed an optimal sail plan based on polars. The team came together two days before the race, a mix of eight pros and amateurs from seven nations. None of them had sailed together before.
But it was a strong team and an honour for me, as a sailing journalist, to be a part of it: Sam Manuard was the skipper, and Jochem Visser was watch captain, Jure Jerman and former Mini pro Andraz Mihelin were also part of the crew. But it’s also worth mentioning that most of the race was upwind, which is not the most distinctive strong point of this boat. Eighty per cent of the time the race was sailed with jib and main only. Only the last 100 miles were sailed under gennaker. Still – and I find this truly amazing – we came 13th in IRC 1, a class with more than 100 entries.
Only roughly 60 per cent were able to complete the race at all. It was the smallest boat in IRC1 and at least in the top end of the fleet it was the only cruising-oriented boat. The competition was professional crews who knew their raceboats really well – boats optimised and proven to perform well in IRC. And it’s obvious that with an optimal sail plan and some training and tuning, we could have been at least three to four hours faster, which would have put us in top five. Had the race been sailed predominantly on open wind angles, goodness knows what might have happened.
In the aftermath, Plevnik sounds pleased too. ‘Looking back’, he says, ‘the Fastnet became the final proof of concept. We now feel that we can tick all the boxes, lean back and say that we really created the boat we envisioned when we started working on this dream back in 2017.’
Sam Manuard, naval architect
As I see it the First 36 is a boat that can let you have fun while sailing as well as having a great time with friends and family while cruising. That was definitely the design specification. The whole design team made a collective effort to bring enjoyable inside space, clever ideas on how to live aboard as well as keeping the boat light and fast. To achieve that we did not want to corner ourselves into something too radical in terms of hull shape. A subtle balance has to be found between absolute performance and motion through waves, which is basically comfort at sea.
I was pleased to experience that fine balance during the Fastnet, where we did have a bit of everything: reaching, upwind and downwind in all conditions from very strong winds to light winds. The motion through big waves upwind during the first night of the race was very much appreciated, especially coming from Imocas and Class40s which are really brutal in waves.
We were sailing safely and enjoying the difficult conditions as much as we could. The build quality and the level of structural engineering is also part of this feeling of punching through waves reasonably well. Having a stiff and sound boat is paramount in those conditions as well.
Downwind was also quite fun and we could keep the kite up to 30kts TWS in the short waves of the Channel. There also, the balance of things (hull shape, rig, appendages, light displacement) helped to keep the bow out of the water. We did not have any occurrence of nose diving, which is a big advantage when sailing with friends out of a racing environment. This all-round aspect is also quite remarkable in the light winds where the boat reacts to every puff and sail trim. All in all, a very positive test.
Lorenzo Argento, designer
While working with the Seascape/ Beneteau team on the preliminary brief and concepts, it started to excite both my memories – I spent few months on a First Class 10 back in the Southampton days, sailing her from Newport RI back to England – and my current (given that nearly 40 years have gone by) dream to own and sail the “perfect” boat.
I have been lucky enough to have sailed a number of boats in my career and when asked what is the “perfect” sailing boat, my answer has always been pretty vague. At this point I may have an answer: performance.
Performance is not simply speed or ability to surf in anything above 12kts TWS off the wind. Performance is the pleasure of steering a well-balanced boat in breeze from six TWS up to 35 TWS. It is the pleasure of being close to the water. It is the pleasure of being on a big, yet small boat which feels very “safe” and behaves comfortably yet has the loads of a light boat and is perfectly manageable by a 60-year-old man! Performance is to feel safe, in control, sailing at 15/16kts. Performance is to pull together a bunch of friends to race the Aegean 600 and feeling at peace in the very demanding weather conditions. Performance is to use exactly the same package to go cruising in one of the best, yet most demanding, cruising grounds on the planet (Greece). Performance is easy maintenance (read easy cleaning!) and very practical, comfortable interiors which you literally “hose down” to clean. Performance is integrated structural components that are very well executed, very well engineered and proven to be very solid under all conditions.
I must credit the work of everyone involved. The Beneteau team, the Seascape team, Sam Manuard and his ability to to summarise his wide experience (both as a sailor and creative designer) into a very easy to “read” and use package. Pure Design for optimising what may seem an easy boat to design, but given the weight constraints for the given construction technology (polyester resin and E glass), came up with a superbly optimised scheme. What else? As a user – owner – this is what I mean by the perfect boat.
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