Though the newer Océanis range has more accommodation than the earlier First hulls, you get a lot of boat for your buck with the Bénéteau First 38, as Dick Durham discovered
There are Bénéteaus and Bénéteaus. Traditional sailors will cast a weather eye to the lean and hungry-looking hulls of the First series of yachts, while the comfort-seeker will be well served by the more voluptuous Océanis boats.
Certainly, the older First boats have something of the founding father of the company about them.
Frenchman Benjamin Bénéteau started off way back in 1884, building fishing boats to go offshore for the tuna shoals.
John Thompson, 57, from Albourne, West Sussex, who works in building services, sails Siesta, his 1986-built Bénéteau First 38, with his wife Ruth and occasionally their sons George and Sam, from Brighton Marina.
The family have cruised down-Channel to the West Country and across to France.
John, who used to race with top skippers, like Lawrie Smith, was a grinder aboard Victory in the 1983 America’s Cup, and is always keen to get the best performance.
Bénéteau First 38 performance
We left Brighton Marina in brilliant winter sunshine with a northeasterly wind of 18-20 knots apparent.
With a Spring ebb just setting westwards, we had to be careful not to get set down onto the east wall of Brighton Marina, where photographer Lester McCarthy was taking the photos for this article.
But we need not have worried: all 15 tons of Siesta can be thrown around with the dexterity of a Harrier Jump Jet.
Close-hauled, she clocked up 6.2 knots once in the groove and tacked through 90° – an angle which can be improved by 10° when she’s in racing mode.
After we put her about, the wind picked up a touch and she sped away at 7.4 knots with the wind over the quarter and we were sorely tempted to carry on to Fécamp for dinner.
When we ran off down-Channel, she made 6.5-7 knots. She will heave-to, but this takes considerable trial and error.
Life below decks on the Bénéteau First 38
Climbing down Siesta’s tight, safe companionway, the saloon is framed by the cutaway bulkhead.
The interior design has not dated, like so many of the Bénéteau First 38’s contemporaries.
The smartly upholstered headlining is fitted with wood veneer strips, giving the space a sense of perspective.
The U-shaped settee, to port, converts to a double berth with the drop-leaf table. To starboard there is a single settee berth and a small pilot berth.
The cherry and oak sole and quality finish in real timber – with plenty of grabrails and hand-holds – add to the smart, seamanlike living quarters.
The forward cabin has a V-berth with shelving each side and a hanging locker. It is adequately lit by a forehatch.
The forward heads, to port, has a shower, a rather dated-looking padded vinyl deckhead liner and a red plastic sink. Opposite the heads is a good-sized hanging locker.
The forward facing nav station, to starboard, has a huge chart table, which is well fiddled and has a deep space beneath for almanacs and charts.
There is a lot of room to mount radar, VHF radio, chartplotter and other electronics, and plenty of space for navigation tools: pencils, rubbers, dividers and binoculars. It also has shelving for a CD player.
The galley is well designed, with ample worktop space, double stainless steel sinks a top-loading fridge and a gimballed, two-burner stove with an oven and a grill. There is plenty of cupboard storage space.
The headlining in the double-berth aft cabins on both sides is rather unpleasantly like a grotto I once saw in Wookey Hole: its undulating surface is cheesy-looking and drooping.
There is plenty of space, with hanging lockers, shelves, a cupboard and even a sink with double taps in both.
There is a seamanlike second heads, ingeniously installed on the centreline between both aft cabins, behind the companionway stairs and in front of the engine compartment.
Her sweet-lined and racy-looking hull is easily driven and the accommodation, while not offering the huge volume of so many modern yachts, is ample for family cruising.
It is said that Bénéteau, the world’s biggest boatbuilder, has seen more of its designs sail across the Atlantic than any other boat.
The Bénéteau First 38 is no exception. Many are sailed in the USA and more than one has made a circumnavigation.
Construction of the Bénéteau First 38
Her hull is hand laid over a structural grid system, which is glassed directly to the hull with floors and stringers.
The 2ft-high structure incorporates limber holes so that bilge water cannot remain trapped in one section.
The bulkheads are glassed and bolted to the hull. The deck is a balsa-cored glassfibre sandwich and the hull-deck joint incorporates the aluminium toerail.
Bénéteau First 38 deck layout
There’s a good-sized anchor locker, which takes a 35 lb CQR on chain and warp and there’s a shelf to fit a windlass below deck.
Her fairleads are cut into the toerail and she has cleats at bow and stern, but not amidships.
On a boat of this length, it would not go amiss for mooring springs.
She has a real teak laid deck, which John says takes less maintenance than cleaning GRP.
She has good foredeck space for changing sails and wide sidedecks.
Her low coachroof gives her a sleek look and John has removed the sprayhood: ‘Now the kids have grown up, she looks better without it.’
The mainsheet traveller is fitted to the coachroof forward of the companionway.
She has a secure cockpit: while not the deepest I’ve seen, it’s not too wide and has good line of sight ahead for the helmsman.
She has Lewmar 30 halyard winches and Lewmar 46 self-tailers for the headsail sheets. There is another pair of Lewmar 30s for the spinnaker sheets.
Siesta has a stainless steel gantry – not standard – which supports the radar, GPS aerial and a base for a wind generator.
However, John is going to remove it, as he feels it detracts from the boat’s appearance
and her performance.
There is stowage beneath the humpbacked helmsman’s seat for fenders and warps, but the only other cockpit stowage is a shallow starboard-side locker.
An excellent feature of this boat is the removable cockpit sole, which allows the engine to be craned out easily if required.
She is fitted with a 50hp Perkins diesel. Going astern, there is an issue with propwalk as she has no skeg, but once under way, she steers predictably.
Going ahead, she handles well and can turn in her own length.
Yachting Monthly’s 100-point results
Performance – 10/10
As we took her through her paces she proved fast-paced, sea-kindly and highly manoeuvrable.
Many of these boats have crossed the Atlantic and at least one has circumnavigated. She can sail upwind in strong winds without any slamming.
At the helm – 9/10
Good all round vision, thanks to her low coachroof. She has a balanced spade rudder which gives excellent control, especially downwind.
But without a protective skeg the blade is always exposed to potential damage.
Deck layout- 7/10
An amidship cleat would have been an advantage. There’s even a fairlead amidships in the aluminium toerail. Her headsail sheet tracks are well inboard for close-winded work. Her cockpit is on the shallow side but feels secure.
Sailplan – 8/10
The masthead rig takes a large genoa (48.50m2) which is a handful in a breeze.
She carries a vast spinnaker (109m2) which you probably would not consider setting if short-handed. Her reefing system requires one crew on deck.
Design & construction – 9/10
She’s a great boat to look at with her fine ends and sweeping sheer. She is also well built and unsparingly laid up. Her iron keel is connected to bolts which are incorporated into the hull liner.
Maintenance – 8/10
The shroud plates are exposed in the saloon. Brilliant access to the engine all round: from the aft head, both aft cabins and via the cockpit sole.
The teak deck caulking needs work sometimes but John prefers tending to this than cleaning GRP.
Chart table – 9/10
The chart table is a traditional, forward-facing nav station with good bracing positions and plenty of room for mounting instruments and stowing pilot books.
Galley – 8/10
The galley is on the small side but it works well in a seaway.
This is a cooking area made for a boat which is likely to make serious passages.
Therefore food under way is more important than culinary efforts in port.
Heads – 9/10
The one area of the boat which is seriously dated. But forgetting the look, the space is adequate.
I liked the ‘hidden’ heads aft: from where you access the front of the engine.
Living below – 9/10
She is well thought out and comfortable, both at sea and in port.
There are plenty of grabrails and hand-holds. She sleeps up to 10 crew at a push, but nine comfortably.
First published in the February 2011 issue of Yachting Monthly
From the moment you lay eyes upon her racy shape, powerful hull and lofty rig, you know you are looking at a thoroughbred. This boat will take you anywhere, safely and at speed. For the price, she’s one of the best buys on the second-hand market.