This Elba 45 looks set to be one of the most popular Fountaine Pajot cruising catamarans yet. Sam Fortescue travels to Portugal to find out why
Fountaine Pajot Elba 45 review: This could be the yard’s most popular catamaran yet
Such was the hype surrounding this yacht that Fountaine Pajot had sold over 100 Elba 45 hulls before the first one even emerged from the mould. The customer response persuaded the La Rochelle-based catamaran builder to start work on a second set of tooling so that it could complete more than 50 of these yachts each year.
True, at 45ft LOA, it is bang in the sweet spot for cruising cats, but even so it is almost unprecedented to have pre-sold the first two years’ worth of production.
Armed with that knowledge, my expectations were high as I crossed the protected waters of the Río Sado just south of Lisbon in Portugal for the sea trials. And though I certainly wasn’t disappointed by what I saw bobbing at the dock, it takes more than a glance at the Elba 45’s lines to understand the appeal she exerts.
That’s not to say that first impressions aren’t good. As with most modern catamarans, the Elba 45 has towering topsides, especially towards the bow, so has quite a physical presence. Couple this with the extensive glazing of the saloon and the large hull lights, and you have a modern-looking boat. Olivier Racoupeau’s design is aerodynamic in the way that Lagoons, for instance, are not: she has slightly back-swept forward windows and a flowing curve to the coachroof.
There are a few small details which give away the degree of careful thought that has gone into this new model. There is a useful skirt to the transom wings so that you can step easily aboard from the side, for instance. And on this model, the davits had been replaced with the optional ‘transformer’ bathing platform (€17,200), which can hydraulically raise a tender up to 3.2m long, and 150kg in weight.
The headroom under the hard top is also excellent. It all adds up to about two years of design work across some 150 meetings between Berret-Racoupeau and Fountaine Pajot. “The 45 is the core of the market of Fountaine Pajot, so we were not allowed to make a mistake on something that didn’t work,” Racoupeau tells me phlegmatically. “It’s always such a big challenge to innovate or take a risk.”
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Although Racoupeau designed the Elba 45’s hugely successful predecessor, the Hélia 44, he went back to first principles on the new boat, testing a range of new hull shapes with lower drag. “We reduced it [drag] by 10% and that helps the boat sail better at medium and high speed, and more efficiently under engine,” Racoupeau explains. “It may not sound like much but, for us, that’s a big deal.”
The design team even managed to make the hull some 15cm longer and 15cm beamier in the process, introducing a small chine in the aft section. “This kind of hull shape will be used on future Fountaine Pajot designs,” Racoupeau confirms.
Another big focus for design work in the new boat has been the flybridge. The Hélia, too, offered a lounging space under the boom next to the helm station, but the Elba 45 has really gone to town.
Seating for four or five and a big sunpad cover more than 10m2 – nearly three times the area offered by the Hélia. On an overcast day in Portugal, you don’t really get it, but it’s not hard to imagine dinner with a view up here, and it means good company for the helmsman mid-ocean.
There’s a console with drinks holder and a convenient little recess for belongings, and still space for solar panels along the trailing edge of the hard top. The trade-off is a slightly higher boom, which in turn raises the centre of effort of the sail, creating more lateral force.
“We have really enlarged the flybridge with more comfortable areas and relaxing areas,” says Racoupeau. “At the same time, I really wanted to keep the classic Fountaine Pajot steering position in the middle, where it’s safe. I didn’t want to put it on the flybridge.”
That helm strikes an effective compromise between an outright flybridge, which adds cachet for some, and a bulkhead steering position peeping over the coachroof. There’s room for two behind the wheel, and a roomy pit ahead of it for someone to grind away at three large Lewmar 50 coachroof-mounted winches.
If you were single-handing, you’d need to engage the autopilot to move round and trim, but all the sheets and control lines apart from the optional gennaker or code sail come back to the helm station, mostly on nice short runs that keep friction down. Even the genoa sheets come back across the coachroof: great for sail handling, but posing a risk with their flailing in the tack.
Elsewhere on deck the Elba 45 boasts an impressive range of outdoor space, with the emphasis on eating in the cockpit and lounging either there, on the flybridge or on the foredeck sunpads. The deep cockpit offers sofas and a sunbed so you can choose where and how to conduct your afternoon siesta. And you can opt for a built-in plancha grill or a barbecue next to the transom seating unit.
For all that, though, the most noticeable fruits of Racoupeau’s redesign are found inside. “Volumes in the saloon and in the cabins are much bigger,” Racoupeau claims. I don’t have a Hélia on hand to make the comparison, but one thing strikes as soon as I enter the saloon: this boat is all about liveability and interior space.
At 17m2 area, the saloon may not have changed shape much, but it has been reconfigured to make the galley more open and improve stowage. The boat is no Tardis, though, so of course there is a compromise that won’t suit all. “From our personal experience, we saw that we make less and less use of the chart table,” Racoupeau explains. “We go there for information, but not to sit down and work like we did in the past.”
So the chartplotter and instrument panel has been demoted from the front of the saloon to a smaller area around a technical cabinet on the starboard side of the aft door. You can still pull up a chair and consult the read-out – which is now just a step from the bottom of the helm station stairs – but there’s no dedicated space to spread out a chart and get to work with the plotter and dividers.
This is an issue that divides sailors. But if you, like me, rue the loss of the chart table, then at least the coffee table or the flat surfaces behind the sofas would serve.
Interior size matters
The volume previously dedicated to the chart table has been used to increase the saloon and galley. “We have introduced the concept of the meridienne,” says Racoupeau, “a place where people can have a drink, read something on the iPad, lounge in a chair; always staying in the middle of the area to be able to discuss, share with friends.”
This is a successful ploy, with the deep, comfy L-shaped sofa looking more like something borrowed from the superyacht world than standard yacht seating.
The galley is well equipped, with the sink along the aft bulkhead of the saloon and the hob to port, punctuated by the stairs down to the cabins below. Splitting the galley in this way may not be ideal, but it does create more space, and keeps the connection with the cockpit via the swing-up aft window and fold-away door.
The standard boat offers a large 190lt refrigerator to starboard, and an optional 130lt refrigerator or 90lt freezer by the sink. Freshwater capacity is a reasonable 700lt, and there is an option to include a 60lt/hr 12V watermaker for bluewater cruisers, or a beefier 180lt/hr model on the 220/110V system.
Two basic interior configurations are offered – the maestro (owner’s) version, which dedicates the whole port hull to a double cabin with fold-out TV, dressing table, truly copious clothes storage and a large shower room and heads.
The alternative is the charter-friendly four-cabin, four heads set-up, costing an extra €4,000. There is also room for a single crew berth in the starboard bow and a crew heads to port, although this would chip away at very handy sail locker space.
Racoupeau’s redesign has also opened up the vestibule between the two starboard cabins by removing the wooden ceiling that divided this space from the saloon on the Hélia. “It gives the feeling of more room, with more fresh air in the corridor and in the hull,” he says. “From my point of view this is the worst place in normal catamarans: dark and enclosed.” It sounds like a small detail but, strangely, he’s absolutely right.
The quality of the finish is as you would expect in a series yacht, all in a light grey oak for the furniture, dark oak flooring and a choice of neutral upholstery as standard. It all feels very sophisticated and urban, but arguably lacks a bit of warmth. Luckily, there are plenty of options.
However, the area in which Fountaine Pajot excels is in its hull lay-up, using a sophisticated vacuum infusion process for consistent high quality. They use polyester and vinylester resin over glass, with a final coat of epoxy primer under the antifouling. The spacious transom engine compartments reveal how neat and tidy that finish is.
The yard also insists on some good additional design features, such as the way the stub keels are mounted. They are simply glued into a deep recess moulded into the hull, so there are no keel bolts to rip out in the event of a grounding or of striking a submerged object.
Those keels provide helpful ballast low down to make the boat more stable, but they also slightly improve tracking to windward. During our test, we didn’t see more than 12 knots of true wind, so the boat was only occasionally hard pressed as gusts punched their way down the steep mountainsides. However, she managed a decent 40° off the apparent wind without making excessive leeway, judging by the wake astern.
The Elba 45 is fun to sail in that nippy way catamarans are: you look down and realise that you’re barrelling along at 8 knots without even trying. With the fully battened main and the standard 120% genoa, we managed an easy 7 to 8 knots beating into around 12 knots of true wind.
It is designed with an 18.1m mast with double diamond stays for a good amount of bend and a more powerful mainsail shape. There is also an option to have a lighter carbon fibre mast. It all adds up to a maximum 74m2 fathead main and a 45m2 genoa.
“There is no self-tacking jib on our boat,” says Fountaine Pajot sales manager Erwan de Vuillefroy. “We prefer to have a genoa a little bit bigger to have a better-balanced sailing plan.”
The larger headsail keeps boat speed up in light winds and means that there is less need for a dedicated reaching sail. Unfortunately we weren’t able to test this claim because our boat, rushed down to Portugal for sea trials, didn’t have the correct mast.
Nonetheless, there is the option of a central longeron which protrudes beyond the bow to provide a tack for reaching and downwind sails, at a cost of €5,850. The sail itself costs about the same again and should have made speeds of 10-11 knots feasible in the conditions we had.
I found the wheel a little undersized for the boat, and too sticky – something that could no doubt be rectified. A feature I liked better was the ingenious hook sheave mounted on the car that pulls the mainsail up the mast. Thanks to the sheave, there’s a 2:1 purchase on the halyard already, but the hook pulls the headboard of the square-top main in close to the masthead. It doesn’t engage until the halyard is nearly bowstring taught, keeping the sail loose for a low-friction raise.
Standard propulsion comes from a 40hp Volvo Penta diesel in each hull, coupled with fixed props. You can upgrade to 50hp units for a relatively modest €1,000 per engine, which would make a worthwhile option if you’re expecting to spend a lot of time motoring. And for less than €1,900 ex. VAT you would certainly want to upgrade both with the 18in Volvo folding prop to reap an extra knot or so of boat speed.
A greener option?
Fountaine Pajot realises its boats are large chunks of non-recyclable plastic, but is nevertheless trying to cultivate greater eco awareness. Solar panels and water management systems aim to make the boats less polluting, while the manufacturing process aims to use fewer dangerous chemicals and waste is minimised and recycled.
But the biggest potential green win comes from a tie-up between FP and Volvo Penta, which is using the smaller Lucia 40 as a testbed to co-develop their own electric propulsion system.
This would undoubtedly be a comfortable boat on which to make an ocean crossing – the design work by Racoupeau and Fountaine Pajot has seen to that. But remembering that old adage about the 85% of the time that bluewater cruisers spend at anchor, the Elba 45 excels at offering big volumes for living on the water. You may spend a bit more time on passage compared to a more performance-orientated cat, but comfort ensures you’ll barely notice.