It’s a brave owner who opts for a custom cruiser. But this is the second boat Philippe Penichou has created with 72-year-old French builder Guy Fillon. Toby Hodges went aboard
In the good old days, of course, all yachts were custom-built to order from wood. But now the choice is generally confined to pre-designed and moulded shapes, the model lines of the production yards. But is it practical, affordable or even feasible to consider a full custom build today?
French sailor Philippe Penichou didn’t know the exact spec of his dream family cruiser, but he knew exactly who he wanted to produce it. Guy Fillon, a boatbuilder in Lorient in France now into his seventies, was once the ‘master of aluminium’, building Whitbread boats such as Gauloises III and Disque d’Or III, and he had already built Penichou’s first yacht.
Fillon first built a 44ft aluminium twin-keeler for Philippe Penichou and his wife, Olivia, which was launched in Etel in November 2003. In both cases the yacht was quite large for the time it was commissioned (44ft in 2001 and 60ft in 2011) and, despite searching around, nowhere could the Penichous find anything that matched their needs and budget.
After eight years of cruising and keeping their 44-footer in Corsica, they sailed her back to Fillon. He was on the dock in Gavres, Lorient, waiting to take their lines, unaware that they had just sold her.
“I said to Guy, who was 72 at the time, ‘It’s a shame you can’t build our next boat,’” said Penichou. “He replied: ‘Why not?’”
When I received a message from Philippe Penichou, inviting me to sail Biphoux, his Portsmouth-based 60-footer, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to find out what he had got for his money, time and effort.
Birth of a custom 60-footer
In the space of 14 years, Penichou had gone from never having sailed to commissioning and managing his second custom yacht.
After looking at various designs and yards over the next couple of months, he and Olivia once again decided that none met their requirements. The decision was taken with Fillon to build Biphoux from scratch. “We have a love/hate relationship with Guy,” said Penichou, “he is like an artist with no consideration to budget!”
This passionate artist is a fifth-generation boatbuilder and Biphoux would likely be his last project. Fillon suggested they speak to Gilles Vaton – he had recently built a boat to one of his designs. Vaton has drawn a wide range of ocean racing designs over 35 years, most notably Adrien, an 85ft maxi that broke the solo non-stop east to west round the world record in 2004.
“Gilles already had a 17.5m design similar to what we were after,” explained Penichou, “and I wanted to keep the budget as low as possible – which is how it began.”
Vaton’s design of Biphoux is certainly bold. The forefoot is so sharp it looks as though it was traced around a set-square. Indeed my first view of Biphoux took me by surprise. Moored alongside a frosted dock in Gosport in February, she looked out of place. She seemed like a powerful performance design, I thought, another lightweight carbon plaything of the Med. It was only on closer inspection that I realised she is actually entirely aluminium.
“Many people ask us if she’s a Wally,” said Penichou as he welcomed me aboard. “A few years ago, aluminium was the only option we knew of for custom boats.” The hull was built in a rented yard near Lorient, “but they were not involved with building the boat – so we had to find all the guys to do it,” Penichou stressed. After eight months, with the hull and keel joined, the project outgrew that facility and they had to move the whole thing to Les Sables d’Olonne.
No average family cruiser
The interior and deck were fitted out by a variety of subcontractors over 16 months. The neat deck details and custom fittings they produced stand out. Step below and you can instantly see the gains of going custom. The impact of the full-beam aft saloon under the cockpit is undeniably the most striking aspect and makes Biphoux feel like an even larger yacht down below.
“We couldn’t understand why people have such huge master cabins,” explained Penichou. “We just wanted a cabin for us and our three kids.” So the cabins, all forward, are comparatively compact, and the aft heads suffers from being a bit too tight, but the payoff is this capacious living area.
The layout is comparable to a centre cockpit design, but with the saloon aft. Gilles Vaton drafted the accommodation plan and the Penichous designed the rest around their wishes. I instantly warmed to it – the galley and navstation are so large and central and, together with the saloon, form an open-plan central heart to the boat.
The area below the neat coachroof is comparatively low and it turns out twin engines are sited there. Two compact engines (55hp) allow for a lower sole, provide redundancy should one fail, and assist with manoeuvrability, eliminating the requirement for a bowthruster.
Managing a build
Despite Penichou’s deserved pride as he showed me around, he is candid about the intense project it proved to be. Although the work impressed him, the fitout was a trying time. “[Les Sables] was a nightmare to visit,” said Penichou, who was working as a sales executive for a bank in London at the time.
It could take him eight hours to reach the shipyard. Consider that by the end of the build he was visiting the boat every two weeks and you can imagine the stress of trying to manage such a project.
“Without an independent project manager it was difficult for me to manage both my job and the boat while spending some time with my family too,” Penichou explained. “Thankfully Olivia, who was involved in every decision, stepped in any time I couldn’t. During this 30-month project we went through up and down experiences and without a common passion for sailing it would have been a real challenge for our marriage and family.”
Biphoux was launched in March 2014. Eager finally to have her at their home berth in Haslar Marina, Philippe and Olivia Penichou sailed her back together the following month after a brief commissioning period. It was a sobering shakedown into strong headwinds.
But that summer they finally received their just rewards: a cruise around Norway, Scotland and Ireland, with their three boys, Hugo (14), Paul (12) and Jean (10).
“Thirty months after the first discussion with designer Gilles Vaton, we sailed her to Gosport, our home berth,” said Penichou.