"This is the most refined IRC boat we have produced," so says Farr Yacht Design president Russell Bowler when speaking about the Beneteau First 34.7
Beneteau are clearly very proud of the new Beneteau First 34.7 have issued several bold statements about the complexity of the new boat in their ever expanding stable.
How could such a small production racer-cruiser be so complex? When viewed from her port side she hardly looks revolutionary.
Sure, her sawnoff transom is quite trendy, but overall her appearance in elevation gives her the look of a scaled-down Beneteau First 40.7 and although this boat has been a firm favourite with the IRC fleet, she doesn’t stand out in a crowd.
Look at the starboard side and you have the first clue as to what the fuss is about. A carbon retractable bowsprit, a first for Beneteau, is a standard item aboard this new model.
Her carbon mast on the other hand is a £9,000 option, which includes rod rigging. And all but a couple of the first 60 boats that comprise Beneteau’s 2006 production will be fitted with a black spar as opposed to the alloy standard.
While not strictly a first for Beneteau, the rapid adoption of the carbon option is a significant change in the market.
When she’s viewed out of the water, the Beneteau First 34.7’s T-keel is another big change, as is her small rudder. So, what has spurred the switch? Within the brief to the Farr office was the stipulation that the new boat should perform well under IRC.
According to Farr Yacht Design president Russell Bowler the fact that stability is not assessed under the rule emphasised the need to produce a boat with as much righting moment as possible, yet light with it.
This meant there would be a big emphasis on weight in the keel and weight-saving everywhere else. Reducing the wetted surface area was also very important.
Nothing particularly new here other than that as a production racer-cruiser she had to be durable and built to a price, constraints that don’t always exist for full-on race boat commissions.
The design process began with accurate positioning of the centre of buoyancy to achieve a slippery yet seaworthy boat.
After this, early design considerations involved matching the centre of effort of the sail plan against the keel fin.
The balancing act continued with the centre of gravity of the keel bulb against the centre of buoyancy of the hull. A typical L-shaped keel would place the ballast too far aft and require more volume aft in the hull. The solution was a T-bulb configuration.
Here, a flattened bulb with soft chines to get the centre of gravity of the ballast as low as possible, as well as achieving the greatest effective span on the fin.
Above the waterline the sail plan is in keeping with similar boats, with a provision for overlapping head sails up to 150 per cent on the fractional rig.
But when it comes to the downwind area, the masthead asymmetric spinnaker stacked on the cloth with 91m² (980ft²) of sail. In Bowler’s words: “We squeezed as much downwind sail area in as we dared.”
Maximising righting moment means keeping weight out of the boat elsewhere, but the brief for the Beneteau First 34.7 meant it could not be a stripped-out racer. Beneteau’s answer was a simple but bold one when it came to her layout and construction.
Down below, the absence of a forward cabin is noticeable from the minute you enter her saloon.
Instead of the more normal Vberth double forward cabin, a large heads occupies the space forward of the mast.
Positioning the heads here not only keeps the weight of a conventional cabin out of the bow, but provides a convenient wet area for retrieving the kite through the large foredeck hatch.
In fact, Beneteau have also developed an option for a 470-style kite bag that clips into the hatch area.
The main saloon has a pair of simple settee berths either side of the fixed table that utilise the inside face of the hull as the seat backs. This maximises the feeling of space and keeps weight to a minimum.
The chain plates are linked to mini-bulkheads that transfer the load down to the keel without the need for beefy longitudinals to attach tie rods to, again saving weight.
Further aft a simple yet spacious and effective galley is set to port with plenty of stowage space and easy comfortable access.
Opposite lies a small dedicated navigation area; again, practical, well-proportioned and with plenty of stowage for blocks, tackles, tools, duct tape and all the other odd items that keep a race boat going on the course.
Stowage for the anchor, chain and warp is under the floor at the bottom of the companionway – easy to access and keeping weight amidships and low.
Under the cockpit lie two double cabins, which can either be supplied as an open-plan arrangement or with the starboard one of the two built with a door to form an owner’s cabin. I’m not sure why you might want this option aboard a raceboat, but no doubt there are some who think differently.
For construction, her deck has been injection-moulded to provide a clean finish inside, so no inner liner is required.
More significant is the move to a completely integrated hull and floor structure thanks to Beneteau’s new lnfujection system.
By using a set of inner and outer moulds, the hull and internal structure are created in one hit by a combined process of infusion and injection.
Although the construction technique has been driven largely by environmental pressures and the need to control emissions, Beneteau say it ensures greater accuracy in the resin-to-fibre ratio of the boats, as well as the consistency of overall weight.
What’s she like to sail?
But for all the techie talk, what is she really like? Such is the obsession with 40-footers, there’s a tendency to see something in the mid-30s as being on the wee side.
This is not the case with the Beneteau. Indeed, place her alongside a 36.7 and she feels a bigger boat in all areas apart from the foredeck. And the same is true when you take the helm.
Her large stainless wheel spans almost the entire width of the cockpit, the beamy open transom exaggerates the feeling of space and the long cockpit allows plenty of room for the crew to work the area without clambering over each other.
All this in a cockpit that’s deep enough and sufficiently secure to take the family cruising every now and then, as well as having a set of decent cockpit lockers, something the X-35 lacks.
Under way she has a solid, dependable, chunky feel to her helm. Lock to lock is just over half a turn, which on most boats would produce a twitchy feel, but not aboard the Beneteau First 34.7. In fact, it took me some time before I realised.
Instead, she’s direct, smooth and has a comfortable seating position for the helmsman who can sit astride the wheel without crowding the mainsheet trimmer.
Upwind she’s easy to get into the groove and downwind she has the sprightly feel of a bowsprit-blaster, where the rewards of heating her up on a reach require a quick response to bear away as she picks up speed or a gust comes through.
Up to here she’s an easy boat to get on with, but lose concentration and she’ll bite. Although we never lost control downwind with the rudder completely immersed and the boat speed up in the 7-9 knot range in just 10-14 knots of true breeze.
Upwind she’s more prone to losing grip and rounding up if the helmsman and mainsheet trimmer are not keeping her on her feet.
Even in flat water and with what you might think is reasonable feedback through the wheel, she gives little warning and once the rudder has stalled there’s no regaining control until you’ve got her back on her feet.
The problem stems from the rudder’s size, a deliberate design trade-off under IRC. Rudders are not measured under the rule, so keeping it small reduces drag downwind.
But to make this side of the equation work, careful mainsheet trim upwind is vital to avoid unwanted handbrake turns.Aside from this little quirk, other niggles were to do with her control line layout, which isn’t as refined as the X-Yachts X-35.
Trimming the main with the coarse and fine tune in hand, along with the mainsheet traveller and the backstay, makes you feel like a circus act trying to ride two horses.
The fine-tune block and jammer need to be fastened to the mainsheet car rather than the pedestal moulding to make full use of the traveller and a windward sheeting car would make life that bit easier for the mainsheet trimmer through the tacks.
Elsewhere, cross-sheeting the spinnaker sheet onto the secondary winches might get your weight to weather, but the sheet chafes against the cockpit coamings.
Upwind the positioning of one of the stanchions makes skirting the genoa more tricky than normal and the solid kicker obstructs the 20/20 displays.
Admittedly these are niggles that could easily be sorted, but they are nonetheless further examples of the difference between this boat and the X-35.
Nevertheless, overall, I was very impressed with this boat. She felt like a good handicap racer, a boat that could be picked up and raced effectively in very little time and one that would light up in a breeze downwind.
This, along with her simple but practical accommodation layout, makes her a well-rounded design and an appealing choice.
First published in the May 2006 issue of YW.
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