Fast, tough, stylish and easy to handle, the Grand Soleil 34.1 is an impressive alternative to some of the the better-known performance cruisers in this size range, says David Harding

Product Overview


Grand Soleil 34.1 review

Price as reviewed:

£50,000.00 (from)

Getting to know a boat you haven’t met before can be a true voyage of discovery. And in the case of Andy Iyer and his family, with their Grand Soleil 34.1, Bella Donna, it has been a most agreeable voyage.

Many of us have long known of Grand Soleil’s reputation as ‘the poor man’s Swan’. It’s not a bad reputation to have. Like Swans, Grand Soleils have never been slow, small or basic; always performance-orientated designs from the mid-30ft range upwards, and nicely finished too. The more recent models have been even sportier than their predecessors and perhaps rather more minimalistic below decks, whereas the earlier ones are more in the mould of the cruiser-racer as we used to know it.

The classic cruiser-racer appeal of the Grand Soleil 34.1 is one of the features that attracted Andy and his wife Milena when they were looking to move down from their Beneteau First 40.7. They had raced in the highly competitive 40.7 circuit in the Solent, where most of the top crews included professional sailors and the fleet often boasted more than 25 boats on the start line.

After competing for several years, winning a good many major events and also using the boat for holidays in the Channel Islands and elsewhere from time to time, Andy and Milena decided the time had come to buy something smaller for family cruising.

‘Having had a 40-footer, I knew we didn’t need another boat of that size for sailing in the Solent’, Andy explained. ‘For a start, having a draught of 2.6m (8ft 6in) is quite a restriction.

‘A boat of 33-35ft would be big enough for the three of us (the couple along with their son, Gus). It’s easier to handle and a draught of 2m or less would let us go pretty well anywhere we want to go.’

With plenty of performance potential, the 34.1 was often bought for racing, but makes an equally good, quick cruising boat. Photo: David Harding

Exploring the options

The question, of course, was what to buy. Andy and Milena did a lot of research and looked at a plethora of boats, including Dufour 34s and Elan 333s. Their favourite, the Maxi 1050, cost a good deal more than they wanted to spend.

Then they stumbled across Bella Donna in a rather run-down state, but Andy instantly recognised her potential and could see she was a boat that would sail nicely. The fading blue gelcoat, worn-out running rigging, green growth on deck and sails that were well past it didn’t put him off.

It turned out that Bella Donna had been bought new 15 years earlier, in 2000, and raced by an owner who had then had to stop sailing. She had been left for some time on a Hamble River mooring, which explained her run-down condition.

The cockpit is narrow enough for comfortable leg-bracing when heeled. Photo: David Harding

Not being familiar with the Grand Soleil, Andy did some research and it all tallied with his own assessment of the boat as a thoroughbred performer. A deal was done. ‘We couldn’t believe our luck’, he said. ‘Some people have to go a long way to find a boat and we found this one on our doorstep.’

Reviving and restoring this Grand Soleil 34.1

Bringing Bella Donna ‘back to full fitness’ took a few years. Strangely she didn’t have an anchor roller, or even navigation lights, and it looked as though she had never been slept on. Andy and Milena had all the essentials fitted, together with an anchor windlass, Webasto heater, new seacocks and canvaswork and, of course, new sails.

‘The first time we took her out, we had quite a blow and couldn’t make the boat go upwind,’ explains Andy. ‘She just went sideways.’ New sails from Rolly Tasker put that to rights and allowed Bella Donna to show what she was capable of.

Long genoa tracks along the inboard edge of the side decks reflect the use of the original large overlapping headsails. Photo: David Harding

When you look at the Grand Soleil 34.1, both in the flesh and on paper, it’s clear that, as Andy recognised, she’s designed to sail. The designer, Alessandro Vismara, made her relatively light and gave her a high aspect-ratio lead keel with a slight swelling rather than a bulb at the tip. Combined with a generous spread of sail supported by a keel-stepped mast, this contributes to her reputation as a boat that goes well in light airs. She’s known to power up quickly and heel readily, though she doesn’t run out of grunt when the breeze picks up.

Several features of her design give you a clue as to her age. For example, she has a masthead rig and a slight rake to the stem. The chainplates are set well inboard and she’s designed to carry an overlapping headsail of around 140%.

She’s among the last generation of designs to sport a rig and sail plan like this, many designs from the late 1990s onwards having moved towards high-fractional rigs with outboard rigging and close-sheeting, minimal-overlap headsails. These changes happened in northern Europe sooner, whereas the Grand Soleil 34.1 was designed with the IMS (International Measurement System) rating in mind.

A folding wheel keeps it as big as possible while still allowing the cockpit lockers to be opened. Photo: David Harding

Regardless of any technical analysis, the Grand Soleil 34.1 is a pretty boat. Like Andy, I had never met one before seeing Bella Donna, and without the Grand Soleil logo on the quarter following the hull-wrap, there were no signs of her identity. From a distance I would only have identified her as a late-1990s performance cruiser.

One thing she is without question is a delight to sail. She needs only about eight knots of apparent wind to get up and go, even with the new 120% headsail. Andy chose to go down from the original 140% when ordering the new sails because the boat is so easily driven, and rolling down a smaller sail compromises the shape less, especially with a foam luff.

Light and sprightly

So easily does the Grand Soleil 34.1 start moving that Andy often takes in a few rolls once the apparent wind reaches 12-15 knots, as it did during our photo session. We were back to full sail when I hopped aboard again afterwards, and that’s when the breeze started to freshen further.

What surprised me was how the boat remained beautifully light and with almost neutral helm even with the gunwale kissing the water from time to time. She seemed happy in gusts of more than 20 knots, showing no signs of losing speed at angles of heel that would see plenty of boats struggle.

The inner forestay is taken to the chainplates when not in use. The purchase is led aft to the starboard coachroof winch. Photo: David Harding

Most of the time we kept her flatter despite having the boom practically on the centre line. ‘That’s how she likes it’, explained Andy, ‘with a little back-winding in the luff of the mainsail.’

With an overlapping headsail like this, there’s a danger that easing the traveller would choke the slot. Then you would need to wind in some headsail and end up changing down a couple of gears.

As long as we feathered into the fresher gusts, we could keep her tramming along happily at between 5.5 and 6 knots through the water. Of course this was with no weight on the rail. In racing mode with a full crew she would achieve a good deal more.

Another way she differs from many beamy cruisers is that the helm balance changes little in the gusts. So often you need to apply big corrections to compensate for changes in heel angle.

The coamings make a comfortable perch outboard of the cockpit. Photo: David Harding

Life was much more relaxing on the Grand Soleil 34.1, even though we were pushing her harder than cruising owners might typically choose to. Progressively rolling in the headsail and taking a couple of slabs in the main will keep her happy up to 25 knots or so, after which the No.4 headsail hanked to a removable Dyneema inner forestay is the best solution. Andy sets this up before leaving port if he knows he’s in for a breezy beat.

Efficiency on deck

Once the headsail is within the area of the foretriangle, the sheets are re-roven inside the shrouds and taken to cars moved to the forward end of the long tracks.

The biggest change on deck from the original is the wheel steering. Grand Soleil 34s were built with a tiller, but Andy says it was so short that it made the helm uncomfortably heavy. Coming from a big-boat background he prefers wheel steering anyway. Grand Soleil recommended the Jefa system for the conversion, which was carried out by Hamble Yacht Services.

Neatly finished joinery in light mahogany includes decent amounts of solid trim. Photo: David Harding

It works well, giving a light and precise feel. It did, however, call for the use of a folding wheel, because the biggest wheel that would fit between the cockpit seats would otherwise make it impossible to open the lockers.

There’s a locker each side: full-depth to starboard, housing the fuel tank and with enough capacity to swallow a good deal of cruising kit, and a half-depth locker to port.

Between the seats is a leg-bracing width if you’re sitting inboard. Outboard, you can sit on the coamings and lean back against the guardwires, bracing one foot against the pedestal if you’re at the wheel.

Perfect arrangement

As on the Dehler 33 and SJ 320, the mainsheet traveller runs across the stern. It’s an excellent arrangement on a tiller-steered boat, placing the mainsheet trimmer abaft the helm. It’s less efficient with a wheel if you’re fully crewed. For short-handed sailing, on the other hand, it works well.

It was good to be able to play the main on the breezy reach back across the Solent as we charged along at eight knots-plus, with the helm remaining light and the deep rudder keeping us on track except for one minor spin-out. Andy had the rudder replaced and made much lighter after the heavy original was found to have osmosis.

When a boat feels as taut as the Grand Soleil 34.1, it gives you reassurance in the way it’s built. Some boats feel loose and floppy and change shape as the breeze picks up, but not this one. When you look at the substantial stringers in the topsides, and the matrix in the floor pan, it’s clear that the builders meant the boat to be rigid.

A 120% overlapping genoa is smaller than the 140% original, but more than powerful enough. Photo: David Harding

Bella Donna is a dry boat, too. Even the cockpit locker stays dry, while the ‘bilge’ (such as it is) beneath the sole boards in the saloon is more prone to dust than it is to damp. Most unusually with a keel-stepped mast, no water comes down either inside or outside.

Andy sensibly checked the keel bolts with a calibrated torque wrench when he bought Bella Donna, only to find they were still exactly to the settings recommended by the yard.

Below decks

In terms of layout, the Grand Soleil 34.1 is conventional, with a generous chart table opposite the galley. Andy and his family find this useful as a desk when working aboard.

The interior is nicely finished in light mahogany, with plenty of neatly dovetailed solid trim. A few parts of the stiffening matrix project above the sole; otherwise there are no mouldings below the headliner.

Headroom is over 6ft, the berths are a generous length and the settee berths in the saloon have lee-cloths for use at sea. Tankage is aft, so the space beneath the rest of the berths is available for stowage.

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Well-mannered performance cruisers like this, as the Iyer family have discovered, are highly versatile boats. ‘I like the size,’ says Andy. ‘She’s not massively expensive to run because she’s not huge, but still big enough to allow us to go away on holiday for two weeks.’ With help when needed from friends and specialists around the Hamble, Andy has done a lot to turn Bella Donna into a fast, smart and eye-catching family cruiser. He makes sure he keeps her this way, too, with a leave-nothing-to-chance maintenance regime that includes mousing, removing and washing the running rigging every year. If any lines don’t come out soft and supple, he replaces them immediately. A boat like Bella Donna is worth it, says Andy. ‘We’ve had her since 2015 and she’s done everything I have asked of her and then some – she has never let us down. She really is a great little boat.’


LOA:9.99m/32ft 9in
LWL:8.87m/29ft 1in
Beam:3.27m/10ft 9in
Draught :1.98m/6ft 6in
Sail area:55.65m2/600sq ft
Designer:Alessandro Vismara
Built :1999-2005