Is the Beneteau First back to its iconic best with the new lightweight, sporty cruiser-racer for all levels of sailors, the Beneteau First 36?
You might not appreciate it at first glance, but this could well be the best performance production yacht we’ll see for some time. This realisation creeps up on you slowly, and is further confirmed the more time you spend aboard the new Beneteau First 36.
I’m far from alone in thinking this and the Beneteau First 36 won the highly competitive performance category in this year’s European Yacht of the Year competition – and with unanimous votes from the 12-strong jury.
The Beneteau First 36 is neither brash nor sexy. Rather, it’s modest, simple even, but, as you soon discover, ergonomically brilliant. It’s not perfect of course – a comparatively small and fiddly heads compartment ensures that – but it is a superb marriage of design, engineering and industrial nous. All of which begs the question, is this finally a return to the dual purpose cruiser-racer roots of the First?
First and foremost
What’s in a name? A lot. More than 25,000 yachts in over 70 different model formats have launched bearing the First branding over the last 45 years. These boats gained a reputation for offering cruising comfort combined with race-winning potential, all at an acceptable price point. That hasn’t really been the focus for many years – until now perhaps.
This Beneteau First 36 was conceived initially in 2018 by Seascape, the sportsboat specialists which Groupe Beneteau bought and rebranded the year before. It became a major collaboration between the brands, their designers and engineers. This is the Slovenian yard’s first new Beneteau, tasked with reviving that dual purpose ethos of First and designed to bridge the gap between its sportsboats and the larger, more luxurious French-built Beneteau First 44 and Beneteau First 53.
Seascape founders and mini Transat sailors, Andraz Mihelin and Kristian Hajnšek, have collaborated with Sam Manuard on all their designs to date. The racing scene has since caught up and Manuard is now the in-demand Class 40 and IMOCA 60 designer.
Mihelin defines their creation concisely: “It’s designed with one purpose: to motivate people to sail more.” That’s quite the task! Yet since I first sailed with Mihelin on their debut Seascape 18 in 2009, we have seen and frequently discussed how sailing has changed. The desire for space and comfort has driven a burgeoning multihull market, while the planing monohull market has been left largely to a few skilled niche yards such as Pogo and JPK.
Get people sailing
Typically, when you crave the conditions to really send a yacht, you get no such luck. I had two trials out of La Rochelle, where we spent the majority of the time in single figure windspeeds. That said, there was plenty of opportunity to see just how easily driven – and easy to drive – this design is, and to learn more about how it achieves that from the designers and builders who joined us on board.
The light breezes dictated that our preferred option was to reach whenever possible with a big (140m2) blue gennaker, where we could induce some heel and make average speeds of 8-8.5 knots. The Beneteau First 36 is designed to hit double figures in around 14 knots wind and we noted how it starts planing in the high 8-knot boatspeeds in around 12 knots wind.
It also has the stability and control to keep plenty of sail up when speed reaching. A couple of my fellow European Yacht of the Year jury members did get to sail it in 20 knots and recorded figures of 10-13.5 knots under Code 0 at 90° and up to 14.5 knots under kite at 120°. That’s rapid for an 11m monohull.
The Beneteau First 36 is also quick upwind, even in the light stuff, where we typically made around 7 knots in these conditions, although it’s not one for pointing too high – start to pinch (less than 45° true) and you quickly sacrifice half a knot.
The sporty feel on the helm and how it moves on the water is the real take away. It’s a light boat with plenty of rocker and is responsive to longitudinal weight distribution, so crew weight distribution will be important when racing. Nevertheless, on the second day in slightly lighter breezes and with eight people aboard, we maintained a consistent 7.5 knots, occasionally touching 8 knots with the gennaker (with little attention to crew weight positioning!).
It’s the ease of that speed that stood out. For a 36ft boat to be averaging high rather than mid single figures, is the difference between sporty and displacement sailing. That translates to a significant increase in fun factor too. The First has a very high sail area to displacement ratio and although it’s technically a planing/high performance boat, it doesn’t look like one whether on or below decks.
How do they do that?
The mastery lies in the engineering and build. The Seascape team has produced an impressively light standard boat, a fully cored, vacuum infused hull and deck with sandwich bulkheads. Everything is structural with no needless weight. It’s closer to specialist race boat building than the more industrial methods its parent company specialises in, yet without the expensive exotic materials. The wide but short foam cored swim platform weighs just 8kg for example, and the overall light displacement is under 4.8 tonnes.
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“There’s no silver bullet here, it’s lots of small things,” Mihelin comments. All scantlings were optimised by Kiwi specialists Pure Design and Engineering and adapted by Manuard and Hajnšek to within labour cost targets.
The ease with which you can maintain good speeds on the water is one thing, but then there’s the ease of sailing the boat. As the boat’s interior designer Lorenzo Argento proved, you can spend long periods reaching with no hands on the wheel as it tracks along effortlessly. He is so impressed he has bought a Beneteau First 36 for his 60th Birthday.
In fact, there was very little pressure increase in helm on all angles, whether sailing upwind under jib at 7 knots, or beam reaching with the code 0 at 8.5 knots.
“Sam’s brief was that we don’t want a boat that’s hard to sail,” says Mihelin.
The Jefa steering links to high aspect rudders on stainless steel stocks. Were twin rudders really needed on this, as it’s not an overly beamy shape? A well mannered boat is part of the core brief, Manuard replies, adding that with this type of hull shape even pros would struggle to control it with a single rudder when pressed.
Manuard has found fame with his scow bow shapes so I was also curious if he’d considered that approach here. “We thought it out of the scope of the boat – it’s not an extreme racer,” he explains. “The scow comes with negatives, the slamming is really difficult to bear… the biggest point of this boat is that it suits a lot of people.”
The designer used reverse sheer as a styling and space trick, to keep the bow and stern comparatively low (the latter to avoid a bulky appearance), yet maintain reasonable coachroof height for access. The deck design is also deliberately simple. “It’s one of the reasons we threw out a tiller system,” says Mihelin, explaining that the Beneteau Group has a lot of customer and user data, and knew that 90% of 37.7s were sold with wheels.Nevertheless, a tiller is an option many racing and short-handed sailors would love to have on this boat.
Keep it simple
The clean, working cockpit transforms from cruising to racing mode by removing the aft sets of cockpit benches and table, leaving just the short forward benches. This not only jettisons some weight but frees up key space to work the sheets, particularly the primary winches, where there is then space enough to stand and grind.
A prime benefit of creating a lightweight shell is that you can take weight out of the appendages too. Here a 1.5 tonne cast iron keel and unfussy Z-Spars aluminium rig comes as standard, while a square top main was rejected because it adds weight to the mast and the additional complication of runners.
All running rigging is left exposed, led aft to a bank of six clutches each side of the companionway. The jib sheets are led through low friction rings, controlled via in- and outhaul purchase systems each side, to give full cockpit control of jib sheet leads and angles with minimal weight. Tail bags help keep the cockpit and companionway area tidy and the six-winch layout is designed to allow cross-sheeting of all sheets to the windward side.
There’s a slot in front of the wheels to work the mainsheet winches, and without the aft benches, more space to sit and trim the main or jib. The traveller controls and backstay purchase are led neatly to camcleats here too, within reach of trimmer or helm.
The stanchions are through-bolted with supports for hiking crew, while an offshore hatch on the foredeck provides bracing if changing headsails. On deck stowage is in a quarter locker and one large main aft locker, from where the steering gear is accessed.
Lightweight performance yachts are typically stripped or have a very minimalist feel, an impression you certainly don’t get here. The Beneteau/Seascape team has been clever in maintaining a feeling of warmth and a certain level of cruising comfort needed for a dual-purpose boat.
The surprising part is perhaps how this is achieved, in that many of the kilos that have been saved, by using sandwich bulkheads rather than any structural plywood for example, are added back in the form of proper doors, tables, wooden floors and trim. It makes a difference between cruising and camping aboard.
Key criteria were to include a proper navstation for racing with a chart table large enough to be used as an office desk, and a three cabin only layout. The thinking is that a two cabin yacht of this size would typically have a stowage area in place of the third cabin, whereas here the identical aft cabins are adaptable and can both be used either as doubles or a single with large work cabin/stowage space.
Overall, the interior is kept symmetrical and simple with easy flowing access. The central island, with its integral two-level fridge, is an excellent feature. Conceived by Argento, it provides bracing where you need it most, yet a clear passage each side, which will be valuable for moving or stacking sails. A large wooden chopping board extends work surface space by joining the island to the sink or chart table.
The saloon has long, sleepable berths with particularly comfortable cushions, however, with tanks below the berths, practical accessible stowage is found wanting. An angled V-shaped entrance to the forward cabin and heads helps extend the saloon and there is decent space at both ends of the table to sit or walk around.
The small heads compartment and decision to go with a door that opens inwards will be an area of contention, and the lack of separate shower a potential deal breaker. The solution is more reminiscent of an airline- or train-style toilet. While it is possible to shut the door after you, it takes a bit of practice and larger crew will need contortionist skills. The folding sink is neatly done, with a drop down mirror above it, but it leaves you questioning the long term practicality and durability of such a fitting.
Build quality is impressive. The Beneteau First 36 has a vacuum infused Vinylester hull and deck and a Corecell foam core. “Using foam helped us take 200kg out of the hull”, says Seascape’s CTO Hajnšek, adding that Pure Design helped them to get rid of balsa as a core. The lightweight sandwich technique results in all the liners weighing just 60kg for (an estimated 200kg saving).
Seascape will know better than any that it can shed another 300-500kg by removing timber and using a different keel. It leads one to think there’ll be a turbo edition of this model in the future, with tiller, water ballast and foam cored furniture.
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The First 36 strips away sailing complexities in an effort to ensure it can be fun for crewed racing and short-hand sailing. This is the planing boat amateur sailors can enjoy. It’s no glitzy head turner, we’ve yet to see how it will rate and perform on the race course, and it’s fairly basic with small tanks for cruising. However, it still firmly ticks the cruiser-racer box. It’s built with production ‘standard’ (non-exotic) materials, and thanks to good design and engineering, it delivers on the water. Is this a new First icon then? The First marque used to dominate the value-for-money cruiser-racer sector, and this model arguably takes us back to those roots. And yet the 36 introduces another factor above these – high performance that is approachable enough to encourage fun for all levels of sailors. The heads is arguably a mistake and will be inconvenient for larger crewmembers. I also wonder if they can be built quickly enough to this standard, while hoping that the more sustainable materials Beneteau is already employing on its First 44 can be used for this model soon too. But how refreshing! A stiff, planing boat that puts the focus back on sailing is surely the way to go. Easy speed equates to more sailing time. The 36 is indeed class. First class.