No one builds more sailboats than Groupe Beneteau. Grown from a yard that turned out fishing boats and yachts over 100 years ago on the Vendée Coast of France, the family-run business now manufactures 17 models of sailboat. With plants on both sides of the Atlantic, ownership of Jeanneau (the other French boat making giant), plus the Lagoon catamarans, the Wauquiez semi-custom yachts, and a line of power boats, the firm operates on a grand scale.
One of the many advantages of bigness is in design. André Beneteau, a naval architect and grandson of the founder, along with his in-house partner Francois Chalain, handled design during the early years of fiberglass. Since 1979, however, the company has sought the best and the brightest of outside minds. At that time, Beneteau paid the reigning master of continental raceboats, André Mauric, to draw the first “First” racer/cruiser. In 1986, the company commissioned Philippe Briand to inaugurate its line of performance cruisers called “Oceanis.” German Frers, Marc Lombard, and Groupe Finot have all authored one or more Beneteaus. And the Bruce Farr office, winningest of modern design teams, is responsible for a half-dozen new models. Just as central, however, is the company’s partnership with Jean Berret and Olivier Racoupeau.
Claimants to four World Championships, Admiral’s Cup and Mini-Transat successes, and coming from deep Open 60 experience, Berret and Racoupeau know a lot about performance. Designers of monohulls, megayachts, and luxury catamarans, they know a good bit about style. Nine of the 14 cruising boats introduced by Beneteau in the past five years have come from them.
Almost exactly 20 years ago, Beneteau involved Berret in a pioneering design exercise. The builder matched the naval architect with interior designer Philippe Starck. Called “the new Courboisier” and”l’enfant terrible of modern design,” Starck was all the rage. From nightclubs and hotels to pasta, cutlery, and crockery, his shapes were à la mode. Starck turned the new First 35s5 into a “designer sailboat.” The boats even sported patches on their transoms “…like designer jeans.” More than just different, they were popular, and cemented the company’s position as a leader in style.At the 2006 Paris boat show, Beneteau debuted a four-boat line intended to capitalize further on its “design advantage.” Light and space were emphasized, ease of handling and intimacy with the elements were watchwords. The 40, 43, 46, and 49 (all Berret-Racoupeau designs) form the “fifth generation” of this full-cruising line. By combining Berret’s naval architecture with interiors designed by Nauta Yachts of Milan, Beneteau hopes to not only update its large-cruiser line, but to make it more exciting, distinctive, and attractive.
Best-known for work in mega-yachts, Nauta is a relative newcomer to the production boat marketplace. We were curious to assess the results of this new marriage.
The 46 (like its near-sisters) looks too racy to be a cruising boat. Its house is long, low, and streamlined. The coachroof starts in mid-foredeck, rises minimally to encompass the big windows, and descends again to blend with the coamings. On one hand, the impression is all flow and unity—not “flush-decked,” but visually integrated. On the other hand, accents like the wooden toerails and eyebrowed handholds pick out its slightly curved sheer and lower its visual height. The 46’s slit-like hull ports make its hull look longer and lower. Its oversized windows help flatten the profile. Stem and stern angles strike a distinctive balance, crisp yet traditional. While we wouldn’t go quite as far as Wayne Burdick, president of Beneteau USA, who pronounced the boat “floating art,” we have to agree that it is unique and attractive.
With more favorable performance ratios than the Beneteau 473, the 46 also goes beyond previous generations in terms of sailing potential. Furthering “comfort at sea” begins with stability. Its lowered center of gravity and elevated freeboard give it more initial stability than previous designs and its mega-beam and firm bilges give it the power to carry sail well up the wind range.
The Beneteau 46 has limit of positive stability of 120 degrees (the minimum used for past Newport-Bermuda Races). Subjected to a capsize screening formula, the 46 squeaks by with 1.95 when a score of over 2 is cause for concern. Practical experience (like the Fastnet storm of 1979 and the Queen’s Birthday blow in 1994) confirms that the boats with the best numbers don’t always perform the best.
We also acknowledge that by the stability (STIX) formula used by the International Standards Organization (or ISO, the EU’s standards maker), the Beneteau 46 STIX score of 40 is more than suitable for “Category A, oceanic cruising.” It may be curmudgeonish to cling to the belief that deadrise and displacement are your friends in ultimate conditions; that the area beneath the negative stability curve should be much smaller than the positive (so the boat won’t remain upside-down), and that despite the imprecision of stability numbers, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Despite their proven record for crossing oceans, beamy, lightly ballasted boats (and Beneteau is not alone, here) is not our first choice for taming the North Atlantic.
With this new generation, Berret and Racoupeau refine an archetype introduced earlier with boats like the 473. Reflecting a trend illustrated best in Open 60 development, the boats have fine entries, muscular midsections, and a beam taken wider and further aft than boats before. This “wedge” provides an abundance of form stability (allowing for a reduction in the dead weight of ballast, plus a purported roll-damping that smooths out downwind sailing) as well permits roomier cabins and cockpits.
It took a while for the Open 60’s upwind performance to catch up with its downwind prowess; the same is true with Beneteaus. By keeping the 46’s waterplane relatively balanced when it heels, however, designers have made it easy to drive. Swept-up buttocks lines help minimize drag from its hefty hindquarters in light air. In a breeze, its long waterline and above-average prismatic coefficient help to minimize wave-making and add to its potential top end. Given the designers’ history in Open 60s dating back to Isabelle Autissier’s New York-San Francisco record run in 1994, it’s not surprising that they have rendered these beamy boats surprisingly nimble.
Efficient foils are a part of that. Beneteau keels are cast iron. Most builders use lead, which is much denser, to reduce the size of what hangs below the hull. The 46 uses only a third of its displacement in ballast, however. With an “anvil end” plan (iron bulbs don’t get enough of the weight low enough), its standard keel (5 feet, 7 inches) provides good righting moment, its generous lateral plane aids tracking, and its medium-aspect, moderately swept-back fin contributes potent lift. Large, deep, and elliptical, the rudder is up to its task.
Sailhandling systems have evolved to make modern boats significantly easier to sail. One good example is in-mast mainsail furling which Beneteau offers at no extra charge on the 46 (and its other Beneteaus). Vertical battens (which promote improved shape and close-to-maximum area) plus better-engineered mechanisms have prompted eight out of every 10 buyers (over 300 Beneteau 46s have been sold) to choose this convenience. Also, smaller foretriangles (a J reduced from the 473’s 18 feet, 3 inches to 16 feet, 6 inches), plus jibs reduced from 150 percent overlap to 135 make for headsails that are much easier to tack and trim. We applaud the pre-engineered anchor in the foredeck made to accept a detachable forestay. Thus, a boat like this can hoist a hanked-on storm jib in heavy winds and waves and vastly improve its sea-worthiness.
Not only is the boat’s twin-wheeled cockpit big, its detail and design show that the builder has been paying attention to cruising customers. All of the essentials (vented propane locker, cubby to accept a six-man life raft, convenient emergency tiller system, well-placed cupholders, quadraphonic speakers, etc.) plus well-sited winches and accessible sail controls are there. Touches like the patented helming seat that pivots up and out of the way for centerline boarding plus the socket in the table meant to accept a cockpit light are thoughtful.
A drop-leaf table divides the cockpit well into comfortable seating sections; high, curved coamings foster a secure feel. Between the cockpit well and the companionway is a broad bridgedeck that offers protection and security for going below plus a great platform for handling sail controls.
The 46’s waist-deep anchor locker (with windlass) is representative of the emphasis given to cruising realities. So, too, are its double, offset bow roller; well-designed stainless cleats (bow, quarter, and mid-deck); three cockpit lockers, convenient (teak-clad) swim platform; and hot and cold outdoor shower. Nonskid surfaces are done in the “semi-aggressive” diamond-point pattern that the company has been using for almost 30 years.
Nauta Yachts advertises its ability to “turn your vision into a yacht of remarkable and unmistakable character.” With the Beneteau 46, chief designers Massimo Gino and Mario Pedol have delivered on that promise. The boat is true to the original “vision” of comfort at sea that fueled the growth and acceptance of the Beneteau line, and it is also an exciting step forward in cruising style.
From the outset, “light” has been a Beneteau strength. With the 46, luminosity continues to be a priority. It has skylights and hatches overhead, and wherever you might be in its saloon, there are windows to let you see out.
Step down from the saloon and you enter one of two (or three, depending upon layout choice) remarkable cabins. Headroom, elbow room, and creature comfort are there in good measure. Heads, galley, and nav station are “serious” and spacious. Offering the feel of a raised saloon or pilothouse with the function of a full-bore cruiser in a boat that has the silhouette of a racer is quite a feat, and one that genuinely broadens the definition of “comfort at sea.”
Since its founding in 1985, Nauta has created “soberly elegant” designs by “reconciling opposites rather than compromising.” In the Beneteau 46, they combined “modern” components like the low, squared-off saloon furniture with “traditional” touches like a wood and white décor and forms (like the chainplates and cleat-style handrails) that are functional. Fiddles sculpted to double as handholds, a centerline sink, workable galley, and opening ports incorporated in the oversized house windows exemplify the attention to practicality as well as style. Furniture, cabinetry, and locker fronts are all done in moabi, the distinctive reddish straight-grained African hardwood.
No one likes it when someone floods the head compartment when they shower. Nauta’s cure in both heads is a semi-circular, blue plexiglass shower door.
Latches and handles weren’t precise and secure enough to merit high marks. Laminated floorboards should be sealed along their edges, and we decry the absence of drawers in the sleeping areas.
Thanks to the succession of sport-fishing boats that roared by us as we exited Government Cut after the Miami Strictly Sail show in February, we got a chance to see how the boat behaves in big waves. Under power, the flat sections forward of its keel tended to land with a thud. When we sailed through the big wakes, heeling a bit in the 10-knot breeze, however, it sliced more gently. When we finally found a patch of ocean to ourselves, the 46 acquitted itself well by settling down close-hauled at about half the true wind speed.
Though it is relatively light for its size and carries a good-sized rig, we wouldn’t call it “sensitive.” Creating its own breeze, the 46 we tested powered through puffs and lulls without great variation on the knotmeter. Its helm remained light, and it tacked through 90 degrees with minimal fuss. She has a balanced rudder set well aft, and you could tell. Steering was precise and easy under both sail and power. Tracking was excellent.
Owners who have sailed in heavier air than we did advise “reef early, and her helm will stay well-balanced.” Control is not a problem, they report, even in power-reaching conditions. “The rudder is big, deep, and virtually stall-proof.” Its overall volume makes the 46 “big” by just about any standards, but its designers have succeeded, we believe, in making it a capable and rewarding cruising boat to sail.
Theoretical hullspeed for the 46 is over 8 knots. We were able to better that on the speedo without pushing our Yanmar 76-horsepower diesel much over 2500 revs. Thanks to integrally molded engine beds and a serious effort at oundproofing, noise and vibration were more than acceptable. Engine access from the after cabin was adequate, but removing the port side panel was finicky and difficult. Owners are advised to have the engine’s alignment checked yearly as part of routine maintenance.
Builders need to give sailors reasons to buy a new boat, or else companies will sink beneath the sea of used boats on the market. No one plays that game better than Beneteau. Not many builders can come to market with advances in accommodation, performance, and style season after season. The “secret” of the company’s success is how it leverages its size and position.
First, they remain affordable. Iron vs. lead in keels, deck-stepped spars, grid-reinforced engineering that has changed little over the past two decades, vinylester resin in the face of epoxy. Couple that with global contracts, hour-efficient techniques, and superior relationships with their vendors. Tooling that is amortized over 300 units becomes very cost-effective. And, says Burdick, “there is a great deal of commonality in this new (four-boat) generation of Oceanis—hatches, hardware, fittings, etc…” Beneteau can afford to price its boats competitively.
But they are more than monolithic. Over the years, they have consistently shown a commitment to innovation. Maximizing the impact of design, both by ranging far and wide among bidders and by creating fruitful teams, Beneteau has shown the sort of leadership that energizes sailboat development. The Beneteau 46 proves the point; along with the others in its line, it has broken new stylistic ground, set new performance standards, and improved accommodations. “The aft cabin on the 46 doesn’t ruin the boat’s profile,” says one owner, “yet it’s big enough to live in.” We had no idea what to expect when Beneteau invited a group of megayacht stylists aboard, but we wound up liking the result.