Beneteau has taken its famed First marque into the competitive sector of luxury performance. Matthew Sheahan sails the Beneteau First 53
There is big talk and bold talk, but often it is no talk that speaks loudest when it comes to a new launch. As I walked down the quay towards Beneteau’s latest as it sat stern-to the dock I was greeted by just that: silent smiles from the crew.
There was every reason why the world’s biggest boatbuilding company might want to deliver a fanfare to accompany one of its latest new models. It has been 13 years since it launched its last 50ft racer/cruiser. The First 53 is the new flagship of the range and this latest model celebrates the First marque, which is now over 40 years old and has delivered some important landmark designs for the sport.
So, there was every reason to make a big noise. But they didn’t. No brochures, no fast talk, no speeches and no well rehearsed tours. Just a welcoming gesture, a nod and a USB stick holding the hard facts on the boat’s full CV. The reason was clear: this particular new model speaks for itself, especially if you approach her from behind, where first impressions will play a large part in understanding what she is all about.
From the outset, there is no mistaking how beamy it is. For its length, its 5m beam makes it like an aircraft carrier and, with the folding transom/bathing platform lowered to reveal the dinghy garage that can house a fully inflated 2.4m RIB, along with the ample stowage either side, there was no mistaking one of the key features of this boat: space. It is a feature that runs throughout this design.
Even so, it’s about much more than just volume. Viewed from the aft quarters its near vertical topsides run from the chainplates all the way back to a stern that turns quickly through to flat, beamy sections yet without a hard chine. With such a wide run aft, twin rudders are inevitable while also allowing the open space below decks for that dinghy garage.
But what really grabs you is a sleek, minimalist, teak laid deck with barely a rope in sight. Such clean looks took me right back to one of my favourite boats, the Wally 77 Genie of the Lamp, which I still maintain was one of the most important boats of the modern era. When launched in 1995 the mini maxi’s ground breaking concept and clean style triggered a new generation of design that lasts to this day.
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The First 53 shows similar traits with a flush, uncluttered deck where all the control lines are led back to discrete housings and a pair of winches mounted in front of each of the twin wheels. The mainsheet is anchored with a single block in the centre of the cockpit sole which itself is as flat and flush and the size of two full sized billiard tables.
The link between this and the infamous Wally style is no coincidence. Lorenzo Argento drew the interior and deck of the First 53. Having spent most of his career at the Italian design office Luca Brenta, which was responsible for some of the Wally designs, it’s not surprising the combination of innovative thinking and elegant styling show through aboard the 53.
But carrying the First marque means this is a performance boat too. The 53’s hull and rig was designed by Roberto Biscontini whose background lies mainly in high performance design, having worked for the Italian and New Zealand America’s Cup teams. But the brief went beyond creating a good looking, quick boat. Beneteau has put a huge amount of effort into figuring out what today’s customers will want tomorrow. And it is this that characterises the new First 53.
Designing for the future
In essence, this is a boat for the owner where competition was once the main focus but where cruising has now started to gain favour. To satisfy both criteria, performance and handling remain important, but so too is practicality at rest.
On deck the focus on short-handed sailing with plenty of secure space for guests is clear in the cockpit where the twin wheels and control line arrangement keeps the operation of the boat within a well defined area. The L-shaped guest seating is ahead of any of the rope clutches and well away from any control lines including the jib sheets that run under the deck.
There is nothing particularly unusual here, yet subtle details like the access to side decks aft around cockpit coamings that also form the helmsman’s seat, provide an easy and secure route up onto the uncluttered side deck.
In addition, the aftermost corner of a boat is often a popular hangout for owners or guests and with the guard wires set 950mm above the deck this area feels very secure. Cockpit locker space is ample and easy to get to and when it comes to cruising the dinghy garage says it all.
On the foredeck there is also good stowage for fenders and sails while a fixed bowsprit that includes an integrated bow roller, code 0 tack point and gennaker attachment point demonstrates the dual-purpose nature of this boat. The same can be said of the powered jib furler that is mounted below decks to keep the tack of the sail as low as possible – there are some compromises that owners used to racing would find hard to make.
But other compromises there are. While she’s an easy boat to handle short-handed, when sailing in race mode the cockpit layout suggests that things could get crowded quickly as the space between winch and helm is surprisingly snug. For some it will feel too small and cramped when trimming the mainsail off the windward winch. If you do, it’ll also be tricky to hoist kites and code 0s quickly as the winch will need to be unloaded first.
Having said that, there is a racing option to have a centrally mounted single mainsheet winch, which would make life a bit easier, especially given the ability to have powered winch buttons in the side decks. I’d tick this box even if I were using her for cruising.
For all the focus on style, feel is at the heart of a First. Here, the 53 delivers. Being 53ft long, displacing 15 tonnes and having twin wheels and twin rudders would numb the feel on the helm in many cases. But not this boat. Even in the light breeze we sailed it felt balanced, very responsive and slipped along at 6-7 knots on a reach with the code 0 in the 7 knots of true wind.
With a helm that feels this good it would be easy to focus on the silky smooth Jefa steering system and while this plays its part, the real answer lies with features that are more difficult to see. The careful distribution of buoyancy fore and aft allows it to pick up waterline length quickly when heeled to just 5-10°. From here it increases righting moment as rapidly as the wetted surface area (drag) is reduced.
Such a win/win/win sounds easy in principle, yet it took the study of 25 different hull shapes in a full range of wind and sea conditions for computational fluid dynamics (CFD) specialist Dr Rodrigo Azcueta of Cape Horn Engineering to decide on the final hull shape.
The rig and keel combination is also important. The boat we tested had the optional tall carbon rig that saves 100kg over the standard alloy mast, which is 1m shorter. Our boat also had the optional 3m deep keel with its cast iron fin and lead bulb. For those focussing on racing these are necessities.
But for those looking to cruise first and race later, the standard 2.5m keel is a more appealing option and will open up the number of smaller harbours you can get into. (There is an even shallower version available set at 1.9m aimed at the east coast US market.) Setting the cost to one side and with the cruising bias in mind I’d be going for the carbon mast and the 2.5m keel option although this was not what we sailed and I would want to try before buying.
Beamy hulls with their wide, flat underbodies no longer drag like a grumpy child at the shops, just as boats with twin rudders no longer handle under engine like a supermarket trolley. Thrusters have helped when it comes to manoeuvring under engine and a stern thruster is an option aboard the First 53.
This will be popular with those who plan to sail short-handed, but while desirable it is not essential with the three-bladed Flexofold prop in the shaft configuration, which offers plenty of grip, and the retractable bow thruster that provides plenty of grunt up front.
Playing the angles
There is a price to pay with such a beamy, powerful boat and that is the intimidating sight to leeward when the boat is heeled. With its 5m beam and flush, clutter-free decks, scrambling down the deck to the leeward side in a seaway might not be that easy.
Fortunately, forward of the wheels the two cockpit tables with their chunky steel posts will provide some form of security as might those on the steering pedestals. But behind the helmsman the trip downhill is not so secure unless you are right aft by the pushpit.
Descend the companionway steps into the main saloon and aside from noticing the gradual descent rather than the more typical steep plunge, along with the excellent grab rails on either side of the steps, it’s the strikingly spacious accommodation that grabs you.
Large rectangular portlights along with a pair of opening hatches in the deckhead allow light to stream in to illuminate the light coloured Alpi teak woodwork and white lacquered lockers and bulkheads. This is a familiar style aboard today’s production boats and the First 53 carries it off well. But like the hull and deck, there is more to this design than at first meets the eye.
One good example is the angle of bulkheads that are set at 70° to the centreline as opposed to right angles. When viewed in plan it is easier to see how designer Argento has been able to create this additional feeling of space by aligning them and other aspects of the interior to the outside face of the hull.
In many ways this would appear to be an obvious thing to do; yet it has only been possible through the more modern, vertical topsides that have become more commonplace today.
“There has been a great deal of focus in recent years within the production scene to create interiors that resemble apartments,” he said. “But while I wanted to create a different feel below decks, it was also important to me to make sure we moved back to a boat interior. This is not a home but it needs to be comfortable, softer, kinder and a more subtle mix of the two worlds.”
The sofa to starboard facing a low coffee table makes this point where a large amount of space has been dedicated to simply relaxing. By comparison, the dining area to port is much smaller than you might expect for a boat of this size. Typically it caters for just four but extending the table and seating boosts this to six.
The U-shaped galley that is set towards the centre of the boat is generously proportioned, a secure area with plenty of worktop space. And it’s here you start to notice some of the detailing that reflects a return to more traditional features such as the chunky laminated fiddles around all the work tops, and hand rails that allow you to pass through the entire accommodation with ease when the boat is heeled.
But there are areas that are a big departure from the norm, the most obvious being the lack of a navigation station. Most of us would admit this area plays a different role now that electronic navigation has taken over. Dining tables are often a far better place to spread paper charts when doing passage planning. Yet, like ditching your landline at home, I’d still be hard pressed to give up the navstation completely. Aboard the First 53 you have to.
There is no conventional switch panel either. Instead the First 53 uses its ‘Ship Control’ system where controls for lights, the generator, battery monitoring etc. can be run from your computer/phone/tablet using the boat’s own WiFi network. Admittedly there is a switch panel hidden in flush locker on the starboard side, so I guess I could resort to that once my device had been lost/crashed or simply run out of power.
Elsewhere, the huge forward owner’s cabin has light streaming in thanks once again to the hull portlights. The feeling of space in this cabin benefits from placing the heads to starboard and the shower to port. The accommodation further aft is much simpler and completely conventional with a pair of symmetrical doubles set beneath the guest cockpit. Less conventional is that it is only currently offered in a three-cabin layout.
So below decks, just as above, the First 53 stands out for its volume. And that’s no accident. Beneteau decided it wanted to compete with the likes of Solaris, Grand Soleil and Italia Yachts by producing a boat that had the space of a 55 for the price of a 50-footer.
On the face of it with a base price tag of €482,800 ex VAT it seems to have achieved that and undercut its rivals. Yet, when you tick the extras boxes it doesn’t take long for the cost to rise to just under €850,000 – which brings her into the same ball park as her competitors. And with such stiff competition from equally appealing boats there is no simple answer to this one: you’ll be spoilt for choice.
I’d say the First 53 is the most elegant boat Beneteau has ever produced. Sleek, subtle and thoroughly modern in both style and specification, the execution of the detail is impressive, albeit with some questionable proportions forward of the helm stations. It looks like being a slippery boat too with impressive light airs performance and polars that suggest it’ll be a blast in a breeze. But what impressed me in particular is something that Beneteau is especially good at – identifying its customers and building a boat for them at the same time as pressing at the boundaries of technology and style. It doesn’t always get it right but the world’s largest boatbuilder has to be admired for having the nerve to try. In this case, with 20 already sold within the first few months it’s on course to become a potential Beneteau benchmark.