Is it possible to combine smouldering looks, startling pace and cruising comfort without compromise? Chris Beeson gets behind the wheel of the Bénéteau First 35 in France to find out
The Bénéteau First range has been making waves in the cruiser racer market. But does their latest offering, the Bénéteau First 35 deliver all that has been promised?
The Sydney-Hobart Race 2009 was touted as a battle between three 100ft supermaxis, Alfa Romeo, Wild Oats XI and ICAP Leopard.
Barring disaster, line honours for the 628-mile classic was in the bag for one of them but these carbon colossi were so expensively refined, so awesomely powerful and so expertly crewed that overall victory on corrected time was surely a formality.
When the spray settled, the overall winner was Two True, a Bénéteau First 40 fresh out of the box with only a suit of sails and a bowsprit for refinement.
After collecting his silverware, owner Andrew Saies, an orthopaedic surgeon from South Australia, spent a few days cruising around Tasmania with his family on the way home.
A genuine cruiser-racer, then – and Bénéteau’s Eric Ingouf, head of development for the First range, says the Bénéteau First 35 is better than the 40. We arranged a 24-hour test.
Based on those experiences we expected stylish, spacious accommodation, eye-melting good looks and face-peeling speed.
We also expected Bénéteau’s usual user-friendliness: you shouldn’t need to be Russell Coutts to get a decent turn of speed out of her.
Where’s Russell Coutts when you need him? We motored out of St-Gilles and into the hazy veil of high pressure that was smothering the Bay of Biscay into breathlessness.
The last time I left here, bound for Tortola 21 years ago, it was into the foam-flecked teeth of a Force 6 – a break in the weather after a two-week gale. How times change.
We leant on the throttle, weaved through the forest of bamboo flagstaffs marking fishing pots and headed for Ile d’Yeu, 15 miles west.
It used to be a base for the Vendée’s fishermen but it’s now speckled with picturesque holiday cottages. It would provide a suitably gallic background for Yachting Monthly‘s photographer Graham Snook’s shoot.
After lunch, a patchy 6-8 knot south-southwesterly crept in. We weighed anchor and raised full main and jib – part of a North Sails 3DL4 wardrobe that cost a startling £22,000.
We soon settled into a groove around 26-28° to the apparent wind, startlingly close for the light conditions, making 4.9-6.1 knots.
With her non-overlapping jib the Bénéteau First 35 glided through tacks, losing barely a knot before powering up.
With the wind softening we cracked off on starboard tack and eased onto a deep fetch at 60-70° to the apparent wind, making 3.4-4.5 knots in 4-6 knots of true wind.
Twenty minutes later we hoisted the masthead spinnaker, still at 70° apparent, and slipped along at 5-6.5 knots.
Later, still high of our course back to St-Gilles in the soft conditions, an extra knot or two of breeze allowed us to drop down to 90-100° apparent and we made 4.9-5.7 knots in 7-8 knots of true wind.
We tried to keep the big kite flying at 150° but we made just 3.4-3.7 knots, with 6-7 knots of true wind over the quarter.
Living below on the Bénéteau First 35
The Bénéteau First 35’s companionway is over 2ft wide, so it’s easy to hump sails and bags up and down. Two sturdy, stainless steel grabrails flank the three lipped, non-slip steps below.
Galley and chart table fiddles and the solidly fitted saloon grabrails make her safer below in a seaway.
A saloon that’s secure at sea doesn’t have to be pokey. By extending into the volume aft, Bénéteau has made the Bénéteau First 35 saloon the same size, bulkhead to bulkhead, as the First 40, with the same size settees.
Headroom is at least 6ft 1in throughout and having shrouds and lowers outboard means there are no tie rods intruding into the saloon.
Lee cloths would turn the 6ft 4in settees into good seaberths and there’s some stowage in three bottom-hinged lockers outboard.
Light and ventilation comes through the saloon hatch and six opening portlights.
The obvious downside is the lack of stowage. There’s none below the saloon seating – that space is taken up by water tankage. Every effort has been made to keep weight in the Bénéteau First 35 as low and as close to the centreline as possible.
This includes a well below the sole at the bottom of the companionway to stow the anchor and chain while on passage.
The saloon table is a clever piece of engineering. From a two-leaved table for four, pull a toggle and it folds down into a convivial coffee table.
The calorifier is in the base of the table and, by undoing a couple of handbolts, both table and calorifier hinge to port to provide access to keelbolts.
The double cabin door in the forward bulkhead is practical, making access to the forecabin easy on either tack, and it really opens up the saloon, hugely increasing the sense of space. It’s a remarkably effective design decision.
In the L-shaped navigation station there’s a folding stool. There’s loads of stowage below the table, in a deep recess inboard and in a lid locker just forward. Instrument space outboard is good, too.
Ventilation and light in the galley are very good, but stowage is a bit haphazard. There’s only one sink, a bit too large for use offshore, no splashback panel and most of the worktop is taken up by the lid of the 100-litre Vitrifrigo fridge.
You’d certainly need a galley strap on port tack, though you could brace feet against the companionway steps.
The heads’ white GRP liner means it’s easily maintained and the light from two opening hatches is bounced around by the mirrors on the lockers.
The prominent studs in the deckhead look a little industrial, but are part of her low weight and easy maintenance ethos.
There’s no wet locker, just two hooks and a bracket for the showerhead. Most seacocks are accessible but the shower drain and flushing inlet ones are behind a panel in the bottom of the cockpit locker, so will inevitably be obstructed by cruising gear.
The aft cabin has two opening ports so ventilation is good but it’s a little dark. An extra cockpit hatch further aft would help. The double berth is 6ft 6in long, averages 5ft wide and the plastic fuel tank is under the berth, on the centreline.
There’s a fiddled shelf and a hanging locker but no shelved locker.
The forecabin gets more light and is better ventilated with a big hatch and two hull ports. Again, there are two hanging lockers but no shelved locker.
The berth is 6ft wide at the head, but narrows to less than 2ft at the foot.
There’s a large space below the berth, with transducer access, but the bonded liner is part of the limbered bilge so it could get wet.
Design of the Bénéteau First 35
The Bénéteau First 35 is a very pretty yacht to our eyes. The ‘eyelids’ on the coachroof windows soften her appearance and keep the rain out.
Below decks there’s plenty of light and space, a neutral colour palette, clean lines and clever design. With some reservations about the galley, she’ll be fine at sea, too.
Statistically, she’s no demon in terms of power. Her sail area/displacement ratio, 23.65, is a shade higher than the Arcona 340, 23.2, which is fast but fabulously well behaved. That’s some way above the Najad 355, at 19.2, and in a different league to the Océanis 34, at 17.5. The Elan 340 pitches in at 24.9 and the Dehler 34RS at 25.1, so the First is not extreme.
The performance orientation is mirrored in the displacement/length ratio, an index of speed potential.
The Bénéteau First 35 measures 189 but the Arcona, at 159, is going to slip through the water better, though she displaces 4,800kg versus 5,500kg for the First and 6,200kg for the Najad.
For reference, the Océanis measures 194, and she’s lively, against 205 for the Bavaria 34, and both displace 5,700kg.
Ballast ratio, together with draught, provides an index of stiffness – important for shorthanded sailing.
The Bénéteau First 35 rates at 30.3 against 36.2 for the Dehler, 39.6 for the Arcona and 40 for the Najad, the stiffest by comparison.
The Océanis and Bavaria are in the mid-20s so, while not the stiffest, the First certainly has scope for a cruising couple.
Construction of the Bénéteau First 35
The hull is solid laminate with polyester resin, stiffened by two full- length girders in the liner moulding bonded to the hull and two more either side of the keel between the liner’s anti-grounding crossbeams.
The deck is a combination of solid laminate, foam and balsa core, again injected with polyester resin.
Bulkheads are glassed in at the hull and bonded at the bottom. Hull and deck are glued and screwed together.
The standard keel is a cast iron T-shape but there is an L-shaped shallow draught option, also cast iron.
The rudder stock is laminate injected with polyester resin and sleeved in stainless steel.
The Bénéteau First 35 has a simple, effective fractional sloop rig. The keel-stepped aluminium mast has two sets of sweptback spreaders and a non- overlapping jib for easy tacking.
It’s quite powerful but the deck gear seems well able to cope.
This is the performance rig, the same height as the standard but with rod rigging instead of wire, and spinnaker gear fitted.
There’s also a racing rig, again the same height but carbon fibre.
Deck layout of the Bénéteau First 35
Her hybrid cockpit is big enough for the racing boys’ elbows to fly but secure enough for cruising.
The forward section has benches with space for two either side, a good backrest forward and a footbrace block on the cockpit sole.
A huge, rubber-sealed cockpit locker takes up the starboard quarter.
Aft of the seating is the cockpit- wide traveller, just ahead of the huge 5ft 3in wheel. You can squeeze around it, but it’s easier to hop onto the coaming.
A sole panel immediately behind the wheel lifts to reveal the steering quadrant, great for maintenance or repair.
Aft is a large lazarette, intended for a liferaft, to starboard the engine controls and shore power socket, to port the single bottle gas locker, shower and manual bilge pump.
The aft beam removes to make the cockpit a giant bathing platform.
Views forward from the wheel are excellent, footblocks are good and the helmsman has backstay and traveller to hand, as well as winches for the German mainsheet system.
There are sidedeck mainsheet clutches so mainsheet winches can be used as secondaries.
On the coachroof there are recessed grabrails running forward to the mast, decent wooden toerails and easy passage inside the shrouds on the moulded non-slip deck.
Our test boat had no jib furler and, as the forestay is right on the stem, you couldn’t fit a recessed one.
A removable bow roller bolts through the stainless steel plate at the base of the forestay.
There’s a fair lead to a cleat on a platform beneath the anchor locker lid, and space to fit a low-profile windlass.
Having watched Eric haul himself to near-hernia while weighing anchor, I’d want one.
There are a couple of niggles with the deck layout: when deep off the wind the mainsheet chafes the cockpit coaming gelcoat.
Trimming the traveller and backstay had already worn marks in the gelcoat above the camcleats.
The 29hp Yanmar diesel drives a two-blade Flex-o-fold prop via a saildrive.
At 2,000rpm she makes 5.4 knots and at 2,800rpm boatspeed rises to 7 knots.
Flat out she makes 7.8 knots at 3,500rpm, which is high revs, so perhaps she could do with a three-bladed prop.
Going ahead she turns in a boat length and astern in just 1.5 boat lengths.
The big wheel means controlling her in astern is a cinch.
Maintenance access to most engine systems is good, behind the side-hinged, gas-strutted companionway steps, a panel in the aft cabin and hatch in the heads.
The hardest thing to reach is the oil filter, another panel outside the heads would fix that.
YM’s 100-point results for the Bénéteau First 35
Performance – 10/10
With feeble puffs and no payload it wasn’t the sternest test, but there are plenty of yachts that would have struggled. In light airs she clocked up very respectable speeds – upwind at
6 knots in 7 knots true – so while it might not have been as fulfilling as a 20-mile blast reach in a Force 6, we can’t fault her performance.
At the helm – 9/19
Despite the light air and the size of the wheel, she generated wonderful feedback upwind – she ‘talks’ very clearly to the helmsman. You’d need crew for the jib but the helmsman has the mainsheet within reach. She loses a point because there’s nothing for the helmsman to lean on.
Deck layout – 7/10
She has a fine working cockpit, which is great because her owners will be performance cruisers, but even they will drop the hook some time so she needs a more substantial bow roller. The short cockpit, which also lacks a table, isn’t ideal for relaxing at anchor. Several lines chafe against the gelcoat, including the mainsheet
when sailing offwind.
Sailplan – 9/10
Bénéteau has produced a really well-judged sailplan. Her sail area/displacement ratio is towards the exciting end of the spectrum but it’s not extreme and the sails are very easy to handle, with good-sized winches and effective purchase systems. All she needs, like the Sydney-Hobart winner, is a bowsprit from which
to fly a gennaker.
Design & construction – 8/10
She has smouldering good looks and plenty of pace. Down below she’s light, comfortable, spacious, well ventilated and clever expect to see other builders copy the double forecabin doors. However, the cast iron keel is a cost compromise and we’re not entirely comfortable with a composite rudder stock.
Maintenance – 9/10
Engine access is very good, oil filter aside, and most seacocks are easily accessible. Maintaining or replacing deck gear is easy because all the securing bolts are visible in the deckhead. The calorifier is comparatively easy to get at too, as are the keelbolts. Smooth surfaces mean she’ll be easy to keep clean.
Chart table – 8/10
We like the professional feel of the L-shape, but apart from stowage beneath, what use is the fiddle-free surface outboard? The canting seat position has been improved but we’re still not fans – space saver it may be, but comfortable it is not. That aside, the nav station is a good size and the stowage is fantastic.
Galley – 6/10
Light and ventilation are exemplary but other than the facing lockers outboard, stowage is limited. Aft of the stove are three drawers 6in square and 16in deep – how much cling film do we need? The lid of the big fridge is all the worktop space there is and we’d much rather see a double sink than a single big one.
Heads – 8/10
The heads is easy to clean, well ventilated and bright. Bracing and stowage are pretty good too and there’s a bracket for the shower head. On the downside there’s no wet locker, just two hooks. Another mark is lost for the seacock access, which involves rummaging blind through a hatch into the cockpit locker.
Living below – 8/10
The First 35 has a very clean-looking interior, with tidy lines. The cabin is easily maintained but has enough solid grabrails to keep you safe under way. Stowage is the biggest gripe but she does have just enough space for four people on a week’s cruise. The forecabin is the better of the two sleeping cabins.
Total score – 82
In winds so light that most yachts would be rattling along spluttering diesel fumes, she’s a silent gossamer glider. It’s remarkable to design and build a yacht with this sort of pace, that looks this good and yet is still capable of comfortable family cruising. The First 34.7 and 36, both of which she replaces, set a high bar and this yacht sails clear over it. If you’re a couple who enjoy performance cruising, there’s a lot of competition, but the combination of Farr and Bénéteau looks hard to beat. Just ask an Aussie supermaxi owner.