At first glance, the Beneteau Oceanis 323 is exactly what you would expect a Beneteau Oceanis to look like: a beamy, high-sided cruiser with a modest rig, a centre mainsheet and minimal hardware to break up the expanse of white deck.
The appearance of the Beneteau Oceanis 323 suggests simple, economical family sailing, lots of room and a modest performance – or does it? Closer inspection makes you think again, because the hull looks surprisingly slippery.
It is, in fact, essentially the same hull that Groupe Finot and Jean Berret designed in the early 1990s for Beneteau’s single-handed offshore racer, the Figaro.
Since then it has been used for two other sporty Beneteaus, the First 310 and First 31.7, as well as the Beneteau Oceanis 323’s predecessors in the Oceanis range, the 311 and 300.
It says a lot for this hull that the French boatbuilding giant has now used it for six models over more than a decade.
Various tweaks to the bow, stem and topsides have been made to suit the design in question, but the underwater sections have remained unchanged.
Something else you might not appreciate on seeing the Beneteau Oceanis 323 afloat is that her standard keel is an iron bulb whose tip plunges to 5ft 11in (1.80m) below the water.
Combined with her race-bred hull, this healthy draught and a displacement / length ratio of a mere 129 should make the new Oceanis rather more sprightly than her cruisy get-up suggests.
The 311, by contrast, draws just 4ft 7in (1.4m) – that’s 2in (50mm) less than the Beneteau Oceanis 323 with her optional shallow fin.
Visually less subtle than the tweaks to the topsides and coachroof styling that have transformed the 311 into the Beneteau Oceanis 323, is the introduction of navy blue gelcoat as an option.
Listed among the extras for a few hundred pounds, it has become increasingly popular in recent years and had been specified for both the new-generation models I sailed recently from Beneteau’s home port of St Gilles Croix de Vie – the Beneteau Oceanis 323 and her bigger sister, the 373.
Turning the wheel
From on the boat, of course, you don’t see the blue – just the white of the deck, so you’re prompted to keep your sunglasses close at hand.
Teak-covered seats offer some visual relief in the cockpit, where submouldings screwed to the floor of tillersteered boats – like our test model – are a due that wheel steering is on the options list too. One moulding is a foot-brace; the other allows the pedestal to be fitted.
If you choose a wheel, as most owners have so far, you will still be able to take advantage of the easy boarding through the transom afforded by the twin backstays and the hinged centre section of the stem seat.
That’s because Goiot have come up with a nifty system that allows the wheel to be rotated through 90° about its vertical axis, so it lines up fore-and-aft and leaves a generous passage on the starboard side of the pedestal.
Another option chosen by most owners is a mainsheet traveller. We had the standard system of dead-eyes instead, and found a problem: with the deck block mounted on the port side, we ended up with the boom well below the centre line when sailing upwind on starboard tack, while on port tack it was virtually amidships. A little re-thinking is called for here.
Easing the mainsheet on port tack and reducing mainsail twist by using the kicker was impossible, because the 4:1 purchase was woefully inadequate and the tail was jammed in a cleat on the underside of the kicker rod itself rather than being led aft.
To my mind, that’s taking economy too far. The rest of the rigging and deck hardware was better.
For example, blocks were sewn into the mainsail’s leech to reduce friction in the single-line reefing system – though there were only two reefs.
Unless you have a spinnaker (or, more likely, a cruising chute), you will probably be able to manage with the standard arrangement of five Spinlock XAS clutches on the port side of the coachroof.
Sited ahead of the Lewmar 30 self-tailer, they handle the mainsheet, jib furling line, two reefing lines and main halyard.
The genoa halyard lives at the mast, as does the topping lift, so Beneteau have managed without fitting a winch, clutches or deck organisers on the starboard side.
Reinforcement in the moulding allows them to be added later, once you’ve cut through the headliner to reach the deckhead.
Nothing else stood out at deck level apart from some blocks and shackles that looked on the small side for a 32-footer.
In assessing their size, however, it’s important to remember that the Beneteau Oceanis 323 places less strain on her fittings than some boats of similar size because she has a conservative sail plan and a lower righting moment (her ballast ratio is a modest 25.7%).
Her stability curve shows that the shallowfin version achieves her maximum righting moment at 50° of heel and has a vanishing angle of 118° – hence her Category B status.
By way of comparison, the figures for the twin-keeled Sadler 290 – which is 3ft shorter – are 60° and 140° respectively, taking her into Category A.
How powerful the Oceanis would be upwind in a breeze was hard to tell. In 12 to 16 knots of apparent wind and a modest chop on top of the Atlantic swell, she made a respectable 5.5 knots or so and tacked through an average of about 80°.
The unbalanced mainsheet system made the recording of tacking angles rather arbitrary, though there’s no reason to suspect that the boat shouldn’t hold her own in most company – at least in moderate conditions.
I suspect she might lose out in lighter airs because her maximum upwind sail area is just 546sq ft (50.7sq m), and she felt underpowered during the lulls.
Increasing the headsail’s area would help – several square feet could be gained while still allowing it to be sheeted inside the rigging.
An appreciably larger rig, on the other hand, could jeopardise her stability. Therein lies a fundamental difference between the likes of the Oceanis and boats such as the Sadler, for example, Beneteau choosing the relatively low-ballast, smallrig approach, with the former opting for lots of low-down ballast and a relatively larger spread of sail.
Since the Beneteau Oceanis 323 is a cruising boat, it might seem churlish to be too picky about the finer points of her sailing performance.
But the spirit of the Figaro still remains, serving as a reminder of her racing pedigree and alerting the crew to her potential, whereas some no-frills cruisers hardly seem interested in even trying to sail.
Her balance and responsiveness, in fact, encouraged me to helm from the cockpit coaming.
It was a reasonably comfortable perch even though the standard tiller extension was on the short side and, of course, the mainsheet was out of reach. Nor can the sheet be reached if you prefer to sit inboard; that’s the trade-off for an uncluttered cockpit.
Not being able to dump the mainsail quickly can lead to problems in breezy conditions with boats that are prone to broaching, so it was good to find that the Beneteau Oceanis 323’s rudder kept her on track until the toerail was approaching the water, at about 35° of heel.
For a wide-bodied boat with a rudder that has to be shallower than the shallow fin (the same rudder is fitted with either keel), that’s a respectable angle.
Downwind, the boat was eager to surf and held 7 knots for lengthy periods.
With a folding prop instead of the fixed twoblader, she’d have done even better and the undisturbed water-flow over the rudder would have improved the feel of the helm.
Saildrives tend to reduce the disturbance because of the greater distance between prop and rudder, but Beneteau are unusual among high-volume builders in choosing to stick with shaft-driving engines.
A shaftlog is moulded into the hull, leaving just enough shaft exposed to accept an anode and a rope-cutter.
The Volvo 2020 provided ample power and, while it didn’t run quite as smoothly or as quietly as a well-installed saildrive, noise and vibration levels were unobtrusive at most speeds.
Another difference between the two types of drive is that shafts tend to result in more of a kick in astern, so it was no surprise to find the Beneteau Oceanis 323 pulling to port initially before gaining full steerage way within half a boat-length or so.
Back at the dockside, it was time to look around on deck and to note that the Beneteau Oceanis 323 still finds room for a veritable cavern of a cockpit locker to starboard, despite having a bigger heads compartment than the 311.
The calorifier tank at its forward end is covered by a false floor, above which on our test boat was the mains distribution system and battery charger.
Some electrical experts are uneasy about having this type of equipment where it’s close to wet warps and fenders and likely to suffer from condensation.
Leaving the cockpit and moving down below, you’re greeted by large areas of dark mahogany that contrast sharply with the white of the galley worktop, the tray moulding and the headlining.
The layout is conventional, with sea berths both sides in the saloon, the starboard one doubling as a seat for the aftfacing chart table. Given the enormous heads compartment on the other side of the bulkhead, I wonder whether a little more of the boat’s length might have been devoted to the nav quarters, but that’s a question of priorities. Beneteau know what sells.
Also of note in the heads – apart from the sheer amount of space – was the mounting of the seacocks in the locker below the sink, so close to the edge of the moulding that they looked almost impossible to work on or replace.
Still investigating out-of-the-way areas, I was mildly concerned by the system of limber holes in the grid formed by the inner moulding.
The theory is that any water will find its way through them to the deepest point in the bilge, though I wasn’t convinced that it might not be just as likely to disappear into the labyrinth of tunnels and fester in some dark and remote corner for the rest of the boat’s life. Sponging out any water from self-contained shallow moulded trays might be preferable.
Reaching the bilge at all was a challenge, thanks to the tight-fitting floorboards whose unsealed end-grain could result in their swelling and getting even tighter.
More unsealed end-grain was in evidence in the joinery around the engine, where water is likely to collect from the stern gland, fuel filter, water filter and the dribbling anti-siphon valve.
Engine access was generally good, though the moulded step unit was an unwieldy lump to move. It didn’t even have a handhold to provide a convenient grip. Shifting it out at sea without gouging the adjoining woodwork would be a challenge.
Removing the cover from the after cabin revealed the fuel filter with the forced-air ducting immediately underneath, just where you would want to position a driptray.
Another area of concern was the mounting of the battery switches at the forward end of the after cabin’s berth, where water sloshing around in the shallow bilge was only a matter of inches away and could easily make contact with the circuitry.
Having seen behind the switch panel of an Oceanis 311, I was interested in the arrangement on the Beneteau Oceanis 323, so I spent 10 minutes unscrewing and gently prising away the panel outboard of the chart table to be faced by something not dissimilar. Let’s just say that it could be made tidier and easier to reach.
Poking into lockers and crevices and behind panels throughout the boat revealed plenty of sharp screwheads, unsealed end-grain, dollops of bonding paste and roughly-cut mouldings, suggesting that the smallest Oceanis is assembled for economy rather than built for beauty or to last forever.
Still, it would be unfair to detail every niggle, because most are by no means unique to Beneteau.
On the plus side down below, the berths were all of a generous length, light and ventilation were provided by plenty of hatches and opening ports, and stowage was reasonable.
Removable plugs and panels in the headlining allowed access to most of the deck fittings.
A change for the better?
To sum up, the Oceanis 323 sails reasonably well and gives you a lot of boat for your money: for under £60,000, you can buy a boat with a fair number of extras for family cruising.
It’s a formula that has worked well for Beneteau in the past, and it will no doubt continue to work with this new model.
First published in the June 2004 issue of PBO.
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