Can a boat be all things to all people? Last year in Rhode Island, two sailors who had differing ideas about what a sailboat should be went shopping for one to go partners on. One was mainly interested in performance and wanted a speedy club racer with sufficient amenities for one or two couples.
The second, with a wife and small child, was looking for more of a cruising boat, one that was stiff and stable but with excellent accommodations below. They settled on a Beneteau First 345, and at the end of their first sailing season both were satisfied with their choice.
Beneteau is far and away the most successful sailboat builder in the world right now. Its closest rival is another French company, Jeanneau, and in the United States only Catalina and Hunter match the kind of mass market appeal that Beneteau has enjoyed during the last half-decade. With 30 models available and annual sales last year of more than $70 million, Beneteau clearly is doing something right. Prior to the slowdown of recent years, Beneteau was cranking out 5,000 boats annually, about 400 of which were built in the U.S.
The company was founded by Andre Benjamin Beneteau in 1884 in the Atlantic coast town of Croixde-Vie as a builder of wooden fishing boats. In the mid-60s at the instigation of Andre’s granddaughter, Annette Roux, the firm took its first tentative dip into recreational boating waters with a small yacht called, appropriately, the Halibut. By 1974, Beneteau had captured 11 percent of the French sailboat market, but it wasn’t until the mid- 1980s, when the strong U.S. dollar sent Americans searching overseas for bargains, that the company, along with other European builders, began making serious inroads into the U.S. sailboat market. Today, with Roux as chief executive officer, Beneteau exports 60 percent of its boats, primarily to the United States and Australia.
A favorable currency exchange may have initially attracted American buyers to French boats, but a blend of high style and performance gave them an increasing share of the market. Both Beneteau and Jeanneau had to overcome what Michael Lecholop, Beneteau’s U.S. vice president for sales, called a misperception about their quality created by the strong dollar.
The exchange, he said, made the boats appear to be much cheaper than they actually were. Eventually, Beneteau gained a reputation for producing a boat of reasonable quality at a reasonable price— with the added plus of performance. In 1987, Beneteau felt confident enough of its U.S. sales to build its own plant in Marion, South Carolina. The firm, which had sales of $22 million last year in this country, is third in the American market behind Catalina and Hunter. In terms of quality, Lecholop said Beneteau considers its competition to be Tartan and the now defunct Pearson.
The Beneteau First 345 was designed as a moderate displacement racer/cruiser, and much of its popularity has been because of its success in blending the two functions. In fact, it could be said that the First is a racing boat that contains a cruising interior. The architect is Jean Berret, a Frenchman noted for his cruising and racing designs (he designed the 1985 Admiral’s Cup winner, Phoenix, a Beneteau onetonner).
At 12,600 pounds displacement the 345 is not overbuilt by any means but still substantially heavier than, for example, the Farr 34 (8,176 lbs.) or the J/35 (10,000 lbs.). On the other hand, it’s significantly lighter than a full-keel 34-footer like the Mason 34 (14,020 lbs.) yet carries 690 square feet of sail compared to 602 square feet on the Mason.
The First has a PHRF rating of 120 in four of the largest national fleets (slightly higher in several other fleets), making it reasonably quick—faster by 20 seconds per mile than both the Tartan and Pearson 34, and faster than the Cal 34 and Catalina 34.
Within the Beneteau model line, the First series represents the performance-oriented designs, while the Evasion and the newer Oceanis are geared more for cruising. The fin keel and spade rudder of the 345, coupled with a shallow bottom, have minimal wetted surface. The keel comes in either a deep (6′ 4″) or shoal draft (4′ 10″) version. The boat is mastheadrigged and equipped with running backstays in addition to a permanent backstay, and carries as a norm a mainsail of 258 square feet (roughly) and a genoa of about 431 square feet. The running backstays apparently are necessary to help stabilize the tall stick when going to windward in heavy weather, but they will be a nuisance to the leisurely cruising couple.
The deck is clean and easy to move about, including the side decks leading forward. The cockpit is deep, roomy and protected by its coamings and wide side decks.
The First came with either a cruising or a racing package. In the racing version, the mast is a foot taller, a tiller replaces the wheel and the mainsheet traveler is positioned across the rear of the bridge deck rather than across the cabin top. Unless you are adamant about having a wheel, the racing version seems to make the most sense because of easier access to the traveler. The 345 was in production from 1984 until 1988. More than 500 were sold—all but about 20 built in France.
French-built boats once bore the reputation of good design-poor quality. The French, their American counterparts would say, lacked modern, temperature- controlled facilities and often turned out suspect laminates. We’re not sure what the old Beneteau facilities were like, but visitors to their newer plants tell a different story. Jono Billings of Jamestown Boat Yard in Rhode Island, an authorized Beneteau repair yard, called the South Carolina plant “the most modern I’ve seen. It’s clean, there’s very little smell and it’s really well organized.”
Jono Billings’ repair work raises another issue about Beneteaus—their reputation for hull blistering. He said that one series of boats was made with a defective catalyst that resulted in a high rate of blistering. The company won a lawsuit against the resin maker and offers free repairs on all affected boats. According to Benetau, the catalyst problem affected several models between 1983 and 1985.
According to our own survey, Beneteau’s overall conblistering record is high-average, about on a par with Pearson Yachts and C & C. The newer Beneteaus, that feature a blister barrier in the gelcoat, come with a limited 10-year warranty.
With six manufacturing plants, there’s no mistaking that a Beneteau is a mass-produced boat with all the signs—interior liners, molded-in berths, lots of veneer, etc. But the result is a surprisingly well constructed boat. Hulls are made of uncored reinforced fiberglass, laid up in alternating layers of chopped strand, omnidirectional mat and woven roving saturated with polyester resin. The hull is reinforced by interior stringers, structural bulkheads and by the interior fiberglass liner and pan.
Deck, cabin top and cockpit are a single glass molding, with built-in nonskid surfaces where appropriate. The deck is balsa-cored, and the 1985 model we looked at exhibited some exposed core material visible from within the chain locker that had been saturated with water, according to a recent marine survey. That trouble spot could herald further the deck delamination, the survey concluded.
The hull-deck joint is a standard inward flange arrangement fastened with 3M 5200 sealant and further strengthened by the aluminum toe rail, which is riveted to the hull. The boats, according to Lecholop, are rated for offshore work under Bureau Veritas standards, the French equivalent of Lloyd’s of London. Still, we prefer through-bolts to rivets; even if strength isn’t the issue, bolts greatly facilitate future repairs.
The Isomat spar is keel-stepped. The keel, which is cast iron rather than lead, is secured to the hull by means of a laminated plate integral with the hull. The keel bolts, visible in the shallow bilge, appeared to be rusty despite a coating of some flexible compound. The rudder is fiberglass with a stainless steel stock (here again, the surveyor found excessive moisture, indicating potential future problems).
One problem with foreign-made boats is that all components may not meet U.S. standards. On the 1985 boat, the surveyor, A.D. Robbins and Co. of Dover, New Hampshire, found that the gate valve shutoff fixtures for the galley sink drain and engine seawater intake apparently were not of marine-grade copper alloys and thus corrosion prone and subject to failure. All other fixtures were bronze or stainless steel and satisfactory.
On an early October Saturday, with a moderately strong southeasterly wind blowing, Godzilla (nee Witch of the Waves) moved smartly out of Narragansett Bay on a close reach toward Brenton Reef tower. Sail consisted of an unreefed main of undetermined French make and a 140-percent roller furling jib from Ulmer-Kolius. The 345 is powerful and fast, and easily cut through the waves and over a cross swell coming in from the Atlantic. According to on-board instruments, the boat was moving along at close to its 7.1-knot hull speed on the reach— about normal for the conditions, the owners said. Switching to a beat, in 18 knots apparent, the boat naturally slowed (here, the crew attached the running backstays). On a run back toward the bay, Godzilla sped along at close to seven knots.
With its fin keel and fairly light ballast, the 345 reacted to gusts but was easily controlled. The regular crew felt the helm was nicely balanced, but we detected a tendency to round up in gusts. Some owners responding to our questionnaire also cited annoying weather helm.
The spade rudder, while requiring some working, made for fast tacking and quick response to the tiller.
The owner of a 1987 model with a cutter rig reported excellent heavy-weather performance under staysail and reefed main. With a sloop rig, the boat flattens out when reefed before 20 knots. We’ve heard conblistering flicting opinions about the shoal draft version’s pointing ability; based on our sail, the deep keel is closewinded.
The most common complaint in our questionnaires was the boat’s poor speed and maneuverability under power. “Strong helm to fight when under power,” wrote one, whose boat was powered by the standard Volvo 2002. “My only complaint is that under power the boat’s performance is marginal,” another said. The owners of Godzilla, which was powered by a 28-h.p. three-stroke Volvo 2003, had no such complaints. (Engine access from three sides, via the aft cabin and behind the companionway steps, is excellent.)
The cockpit is roomy and comfortable with sufficient freeboard and beam to keep things dry from whatever spray was sent up by the bow. The outboard sides of the coamings, over which the crew can hike out, are patterned with nonskid—a nice touch and “something you won’t find on a cruising boat,” said a racer in the crew.
Shrouds and lead blocks are inboard, allowing narrower sheeting angles. It is difficult, however, for the helmsman to reach the bridgedeck-mounted mainsheet traveler. Raise the jib, and you have a boat that’s best sailed by two.
Clearly the boat is better set up for racing than short-handed cruising. Jibs are trimmed on #43 Lewmar winches retrofitted with cheap rubber collars that serve as a form of self-tailing. In reality, the setup was cumbersome and difficult to release under load; replacing them with genuine self-tailing gear is a priority of the owners.
The interior of the 345 is neat, functional and roomy. The layout, in typical Euro-style, has an aft cabin, dual settees in the saloon and a surprisingly roomy double V-berth forward. The aft cabin, to starboard, is a little cramped vertically, especially the berth under the cockpit—okay for sleeping but not much else. (One couple mitigates this by sleeping athwartships.) Another owner found it the perfect enclosed playpen for his toddler. The 345 comes in a second configuration, with two tiny quarter cabins and the head forward of the main cabin. This version is favored by the charter trade, but the single aft cabin seems preferable for ordinary cruising.
Aft and to port is the head. Both owners liked the location for its privacy and convenience. Like most enclosed heads on a boat this size, the compartment is a little small and could use a grabrail. The head is equipped with a Brydon marine toilet, fitted with a Y-valve leading to a holding tank.
Gray water from the shower is led forward to a bilge sump behind the mast step. Fresh water was contained in two tanks under the settees, totaling about 100 gallons. Some boats have rigid tanks; Godzilla has a flexible, bladder-type tank that seemed in good condition. Its light weight is another concession to performance, and it won’t last as long as a quality rigid tank.
The L-shaped galley is forward of the head and equipped with a three-burner propane Electrolux stove. Refrigeration is an icebox. To starboard, there is a good-sized chart table, a bit cramped for head- room on the outboard side for anyone over 5′ 10″. The main saloon is spacious, the double settees comfortable (one reader praised the quality of French foam). The amidships table contains Beneteau’s trademark wine rack plus additional storage space in the legs; beneath it is another trademark—the small bilge cover that converts to a dustpan. Headroom is more than six feet. Storage is ample and inconspicuous throughout.
It’s almost impossible to find the inside of the hull because of the liner, the liberal use of teak veneer, and padding on the upper bulkheads and ceiling. The overall appearance is pleasant, not gaudy, and the padding is functional as well as aesthetic. Nevertheless, we’d hate to search for the source of a serious leak beneath all the interior decoration. In the original Benetau First series, the settees and bunks were covered in subdued fabrics—green in this instance; the newer First S-series have the unusual Philippe Starck interiors with dark wood bulkheads and lots of silver and stainless steel, which Lecholop said “you either hate or love, but you won’t forget.”
The forward V-berth cabin, apparently the sleeping spot of choice for most 345 owners, is spacious, comfortable and private. There’s a hanging closet to port, drawers to starboard and lots of natural light from a translucent hatch.
Natural lighting in the main cabin is supplied by side ports covered outside with a sporty, one-piece smoked Plexiglas panel. This is an inexpensive way to manufacture portlights, and it is stylish, but of course they cannot be made to open and the absence of frames often makes for an unfinished look. There is a double overhead sliding hatch that also serves as a spinnaker launching area. Several owners complained that the overhead fluorescent lighting is too dim.
Satisfied Beneteau 345 owners list style and performance as their motivation for selecting this model. They also refer to good value for the money. We’d have to agree on all points. You can get a Beneteau for under $50,000—in the low forties for an older model, which is somewhat more than a Hunter 34 but slightly less than a comparable Tartan. The boat sails exceptionally well, and the interior is pleasant and accommodating. It’s not a Swan or a Sabre, but it is a reasonably well-put-together production boat that sells for a fair price.
The boat’s strong point is definitely its performance. The deep narrow fin keel and spade rudder, plus shallow bilges, running backstays and flexible water tank make it unsuitable for long-term cruising. We worry too about the riveted toerail, maintenance on the iron keel and gate valves—all indicators of less than top quality construction.