Has Beneteau managed to turn a niche sportsboat into a fun cruiser? Rupert Holmes sails the Beneteau First 27 to find out
The original version of the Sam Manuard-designed Seascape 27 (now branded as the Beneteau First 27 SE) has long been one of my favourite small yachts. In 2014 I sailed the prototype in Slovenia on a gusty winter’s day with the wind varying from 12-22 knots. Downwind with a big kite it was absolutely exhilarating, with speed hovering at 13-15 knots and occasionally hitting 17.5 in the stronger puffs.
Yet this was not an edge-of-control ride – the boat handled as though it was on rails, with heaps of reserve in the rudders, even when pressed hard. Given more time we could have enjoyed wonderful downwind sailing for 200 miles or more to Split or Dubrovnik, then put the boat on a road trailer for the upwind return leg.
So why change a winning formula? Quite simply, not everyone wants a boat that’s as optimised for speed: creature comforts and simplicity are also important factors. Hence Beneteau’s adaptation to create what’s now called the First 27 (without the SE designation).
Key changes include a shorter aluminium mast with pinhead mainsail, a fixed fin keel with torpedo bulb and 30cm less draught, plus an inboard diesel engine.
The cockpit benches in the forward part of the cockpit are also new and create a more comfortable cruising style, especially with the optional cockpit cushions. They also provide easily accessible on-deck stowage, in addition to the big lazarette.
The interior is brighter, more spacious and more civilised, thanks in part to the lack of a box for the lifting keel, although you still have to step over the frames in the bottom of the boat and there’s no standing headroom.
There are berths for four, including two comfortable settee/quarter berths in the saloon, plus a double in the forepeak and enough space to stow kitbags. The central folding table can also be used in the cockpit.
Between the saloon and forepeak there’s a small galley to port and toilet to starboard. This is neatly arranged, with the latter closed off, except while in use, when the galley units are then similarly concealed.
Sail area is also reduced compared to the original, by a little under 20% upwind and 13% downwind. At the same time, the inboard engine and other changes add to displacement, which is 300kg higher – a significant 21% increase.
Sailing the Beneteau First 27
On paper this looks like a potential disaster, but the reality is different. I sailed the new Beneteau First 27 in Barcelona a few months ago in very light airs, with only 3.5-6.5 knots of true wind and three of us on board. These were perfect conditions to discover whether the boat lacks power.
Close-hauled in 4 knots of true wind we only managed 2.8 knots of boat speed, but the boat came alive in just 5 knots of breeze when it accelerated to four knots, rising further to 4.5 of boat speed in 6 knots true. When fully powered up, maintaining 6 knots upwind shouldn’t be a problem – this is therefore a model that should out-sail many much larger cruising yachts on all points of sail.
Bearing away onto a beam reach, we set the nylon furling gennaker, initially in 3.5 knots of breeze which gradually built to 6 knots. Boat speed throughout matched the wind speed. Bearing away further to a true wind angle of 120° on our return to harbour we maintained 5.5 knots of speed in 6.5 knots of true wind.
The helm was super light throughout, with the boat beautifully responsive both to accurate sail trim and to distribution of crew weight. In the very light airs at the start of our test, sitting to leeward and shuffling forward had a noticeable effect on both the feel in the helm and speed.
A boat that’s so responsive adds significantly to both the fun factor and the sense of satisfaction you get from sailing, which was a welcome change for me at the end of a week testing 45-60ft yachts. However, the Beneteau First 27 has more than enough inherent stability that it’s not dependent on crew weight for this, so you can sit wherever is most comfortable or convenient.
Historically one of the downsides of small boats like this has often been when conditions get tough. However, this boat can be pushed far harder than most owners would contemplate, so the boat will remain safe in this respect, even if caught out in more challenging conditions than expected.
One drawback though, is the relatively short stanchions and pushpits. While they meet all the regulations for a boat of this size, a full height rail would give a better feeling of security.
The inboard engine is a 15hp with shaft drive. It’s a powerful unit for such an easily driven hull, but was chosen as it’s the smallest model that satisfies the emissions requirements of the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Seven knots at cruising revs is easily attained and at full throttle we left the stern wave behind and accelerated to 10 knots! This makes it a very interesting option for a weekender, or even a quick summer evening sail, where the ability to return quickly to base is an imperative.
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This is an appealing fast cruiser that stands out for a number of reasons. Its sailing qualities promise far more satisfaction for daysailing and weekend jaunts than most cruisers can offer. Although compact, the interior is welcoming and provides for all basic needs. And it’s a boat that will be very easy to look after. It’s therefore an interesting option for someone who usually sails in the sun, whether on their own boat or with others, but wants a capable and fun yacht to keep near home for daysails, weekends and occasional longer trips. Indeed it’s clearly cross-Channel capable in decent weather and in experienced hands, with the potential for a fast passage in the right weather. Compared to the SE version, this offers the benefits of simplicity, comfort and the convenience, without sacrificing the key ethos of a boat that’s enormously enjoyable and satisfying to sail.