Bente certainly isn’t following the crowd with its new 39, but does maverick style translate into usability?
And now for something different. Every now and then a boat comes along that is unusual, the result of different thinking and new ideas. As we cut upwind into the driving rain on a bleak spring day off Kiel, however, I admit I began to question whether this funky looking pilot saloon design, with its expansive use of glass and latte-coloured paintwork, had substance to match its style. Yes, the Bente 39 has character, but would it override the conditions? Could it make a lasting impression?
I quickly realised that this yacht is not simply fresh-looking, but is packed with intelligent ideas that work. For starters, it’s capable of producing a sailing experience that can make you howl with delight. I soon learned that, in the case of the Bente, being different is a good thing.
Bente is a young, dynamic German firm that creates yachts it describes as individual, sexy and affordable. The modish term for its approach is disruptive thinking. At the 2015 Düsseldorf Boat Show, the startup brand had a stand that admirably reflected the company’s blank sheet of paper approach, offering up a storyboard of its journey to create an affordable 24-footer, its first model, more than 100 of which have now been built.
Although quirky, the follow-up Bente 39 is no niche product. In fact it fits in to various categories, from a family pilot saloon or fast charter boat to an ocean racer or short-handed cruiser. Granted the coachroof/cockpit design won’t suit round-the-cans racing, but other than that it has broad potential and the first six sold have all had entirely different configurations. Can one design really serve so many purposes? It was time to find out.
Shaking up the market
To know Bente you have to know Alex Vrolijk, the turbo-talking, fast-thinking visionary behind the company and son of celebrated naval architect Rolf Vrolijk. This Bente 39 is born out of Vrolijk’s frustrations with the current cruising boat market. “I’ve been in the industry for 18 years and not seen a lot of development,” declares Vrolijk, who feels manufacturers are more likely to be influenced by other brands than by clients.
Vrolijk, who now sails with his wife and dog, and regularly needs to cover 200 miles to get to his desired cruising grounds, sought a yacht in which they “could sail faster and more enjoyably”. He wanted a Class 40 while his wife wanted a cruising boat so they ‘met in the middle’, with a design Vrolijk describes as a cross between a Dehler and a Pogo.
The result has a modern planing hull shape, a large cockpit and a glass-roofed pilothouse. He thinks it’s crazy to sit in a saloon ‘downstairs’ and wanted a companionway his dog could descend easily. The glass dodger, with the light and airiness it brings, is the real USP of the Bente 39. “You can see what’s happening from below when sailing and have an old school proper navigation seat,” Vrolijk explains.
It also creates superb protection for the cockpit, which includes a raised helm area to see over the superstructure. On boarding Vrolijk’s prototype 39 in Laboe, I instantly appreciated how this dodger might help give us some protection from the inhospitable elements that awaited.
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Having been handed some of the most miserable, wet conditions I can remember for a boat test, it is a testament to the Bente 39’s attributes that by the end of the day I had to be persuaded to head back to port and virtually wrestled off the helm with the threat of missing my flight home.
As we set out upwind towards Kiel, my immediate impression was of the easy, light and direct feeling you come to expect with twin rudders. You can tell it’s a stiff boat, which reacts instantly, almost jerkily, to helm command, more like a sportsboat than a cruising yacht, and I appreciated that direct level of control once the gusts kicked in. Bente puts a strong focus on shape and structure, featuring fully cored hulls and decks, which use vacuum-infused vinylester.
Sailing into a squally wind that would gust from 14-25 knots, with one reef in the main, the Bente 39 clocked 8-8.4 knots at 40° to the true wind in an average breeze of 16-20 knots. We did a few windward/leeward legs later on and played with various angles, but speeds remained consistently around or above 8 knots while on the wind.
The traveller is key to depowering the main upwind, and is led to cam cleats each side so it can be actively played by the helmsman if straddling or sitting forward of the wheel. One enquiring look at Vrolijk after the boom passed inches from my nose during a tack was enough to be told the boom is going to be shortened by 20cm on the production boats.
The two winches on each side work well for trimming, but can get a little busy with both sheets and masthead runners to deal with. Bente is looking at adding a third winch option. Currently anyone sailing short-handed would need to activate the autopilot before managing sheets.
Turning to try to escape the black clouds, we hoisted the gennaker and let the fun really start. The majority of the time the wind was up around 20 knots or more and once the log touches 10 knots, the Bente 39 starts to plane.
The enjoyment simply ramped up as the conditions improved and we found the breeze and sea room to let the Bente loose. With a break in the weather we pointed the bow north-east out to sea, on a smoking reach across the waves towards the Danish islands.
And what a blast! Free from any effects from the land, the wind stayed up at a consistent 22–30 knots. We kept one reef in the main and the masthead gennaker up and found a sweet spot at about 100-110° to the apparent wind. The Bente 39 sat on the plane for 90% of the time, even though the swell was coming across our port bows.
It was addictively easy fast sailing. We weren’t actively trimming – I simply carried the gusts down a little and watched the log dial up from 10 to 13.5 knots. It was consistently great fun at a pleasant angle of heel. The Bente 39 never threatened to broach – the chines run all the way aft to create a boat with wide shoulders and high stability.
The Bente has a racy enough feel to delight those who like sailing modern planing yachts, while still offering the full protection to the crew that the pilot saloon design brings. You can nestle into the aft-facing glass, with feet up on the cockpit bench and be completely sheltered from the wind and rain.
The doghouse/coachroof proved an engineering challenge. Much glue and heat testing was needed to finalise the polycarbonate glass windows, which were pressure-tested to 3.5 tonnes per square metre. The frame is built in carbon from a four-piece mould, hydraulically pressed into the deck mould.
The impact of all that glass and natural light on board really connects those in the interior to the sailing. Heat and privacy will obviously be an issue. There are currently two flat opening panes for ventilation, while opening ports are also being added to the aft-facing coachroof windows. The test boat also had air con installed and Bente plans to use a reflective coating on the glass.
Clever deck details
The deck ergonomics have been especially well-considered. The Bente 39 proved an easy boat to get around, there is great protection and bracing, a reassuring toerail, and grabrails where needed, including rails integrated into the coachroof structure.
The step-up from the cockpit to the aft deck and helm area is a practical design as it separates the helmsman from those seated in the cockpit and affords clear standing vision over the coachroof. It also means the traveller can be mounted outside the main cockpit.
The running rigging is organised through Constrictor clutches neatly mounted under the rigid canopy. These will take some familiarisation as they are installed very close together, while another tail bag would certainly help tidy up the rope tails. The lazarette area aft spans the full beam with two deck hatches for access and in the two-cabin version tested, there is even more stowage in a large, deep cockpit locker.
Lightweight, high-quality deck gear is used intelligently on the prototype. Approximately 350kg of furniture can be removed for racing, including the 40kg cockpit table, which is sturdy enough to stand on but has Seasmart quick fittings for easy removal.
The interior of the Bente 39 is one you will either admire for its originality, modernity and novel solutions, or be put off by its unconventional layout. Admittedly, there are accessibility and headroom issues in some areas, but my overriding impression was of an interior bathed in natural light and where you always feel connected to sailing and the water – which is the reason we go afloat after all.
There are no conventional ‘going below’ connotations. The pilot station itself is offset to starboard on the same level as the cockpit, before two gentle steps down into the galley/saloon.
“You destroy everything to create headroom in the saloon,” explains Vrolijk, who decided to give the lion’s share of space and light to the cockpit, pilot station and galley. The saloon, although large enough to seat seven around the table and include a 2.1m berth to port, only has seated headroom so feels more like a snug.
For the production versions, the sole structure has been lowered 5cm to increase headroom. You can also remove the elm (or walnut) soleboards completely and leave it as bare grid structure, Pogo-style.
There are no liners, which helps keep weight down, and the painted surfaces and mouldings show a good quality of finish. The paint is different shades of white – the only colours you see are options for the upholstery and the soleboards. The clever use of shadow gaps in the main bulkheads also serve to break up the expanse of white. The Bente 39 will never be described as quiet, tranquil or cosy.
The pilot/navstation is a squeeze to get into, but can be made to measure. You feel secure once seated where you find a great place to lord it over the saloon, passage plan on the angled table, monitor sail trim and enjoy a protected watch keeping position.
The galley is spread across the beam. Here food prep can be done on either side/tack, with a central fridge and a large worktop that helps connect it to the saloon. The fridge structure also helps disguise an area that can be used for the future option of a swing keel.
Bente tries to use sustainable materials wherever possible. The worksurfaces in the galley of the bente 39 are made from recycled PET, finished with recycled paper with a nano surface printed into it, which doesn’t mark. A plant-based epoxy and hemp is used for some internal mouldings, and the fridge uses cork for insulation.
The water tanks below the saloon berth take up valuable stowage space but are placed for optimum weight distribution. The comparatively small tankage will limit cruising range, but Bente told me the semi-custom build means tank capacity can be increased by around 50%.
The forward master cabin is minimalist, with rolled up fabric in place of cabin and locker doors to save weight. But there is plenty of light and stowage, and headroom rises to 5ft 10in.
The aft cabin has a huge double berth under the cockpit on which you can sleep lengthways or athwarthships, albeit with only 50cm clearance inboard between the mattress and the cockpit sole.
It’s light and roomy with a hatch that provides quick access to the cockpit – a logical solution for a couple would be to use this cabin while on passage and the forward cabin in harbour.
The heads compartment is also generous with Perspex doors separating the heads/shower area from the washbasin and clever swing-out lockers to keep toilet accessories dry. A locker aft contains the majority of seacocks, all mounted in one easily accessible position.
Bente in build
Bente looked at how they could build a boat most efficiently and economically with its first 24, while this Bente 39 has a more low-volume, semi-custom approach. It is reportedly aiming to build five to ten a year and had sold six at the time of our test.
Bente shares a part of the Judel Vrolijk office in Bremerhaven and subcontracts its builds to Yacht Services in Poland, laminating specialists 5km from the German border used by many other brands including Eagle daysailers.
And the name? Bente is the wife of one of the design team, who said she wouldn’t go aboard the 24 if there was no heads. So from then on each idea had to pass the ‘Bente’ test.
The Bente 39 provides a higher level of performance than might be expected for a conventional cruising yacht and all from a properly protected cockpit. It’s a win/win mix for fast cruising as you can sail at very respectable speeds but don’t have to trade off a vast penalty in terms of comfort. Yes, there are a few luxuries you need to forego in order to help keep the weight down and the nature of this hull shape means that sailing upwind in waves could make life aboard uncomfortable. However, thanks to a combination of smart design and stiff build, the pay-off is a delightfully rewarding sailing experience, particularly off the wind. The Bente 39 can’t easily be pigeon holed. It’s a Jack of many trades and its styling, glazing and interior layout will certainly divide opinion. But it is fresh, fun, wacky, modern, affordable – meaning good value for its build quality but not cheap – bright, innovative and, above all, different.