Offshore Yachting : February March 2013
FOR MORE THAN THREE DECADES, THE BENETEAU FIRST RANGE, THE EPITOME OF A CRUISER-RACER, HAS GIVEN CLUB RACERS THE WEAPONS NEEDED TO DO BATTLE. KEVIN GREEN SPOKE TO PRODUCT DIRECTOR ERIC INGOUF FOR AN INSIDER'S VIEW ON THE DEVELOPMENT AND FUTURE OF THIS POPULAR PRODUCTION BOAT. FIRST CLASS TACK & GYBE 044 It was 1884 when shipwright Benjamin Bénéteau began producing sailing trawlers at Croix-de-Vie on France's stormy Bay of Biscay. The operation expanded rapidly in the post- war years and by the 1960s his grandchildren, Annette Bénéteau Roux and her brother André Bénéteau, were producing fibreglass boats. As Vicsail dealer Brendan Hunt told the large group of First owners at a presentation in Sydney recently, the brand has always been about innovation, from the early days of experimental inboard engines in sailing trawlers to the emergence of the cruiser-racer First 30 in 1977. Since then, 65 First models, ranging from 18 to 64 feet, have been produced -- the branding has even included windsurfers and dinghies. The best sellers are the First 31.7, which sold a staggering 1400, and the successful 40.7, which sold more than 1000. Racing in the China Cup last year, I was among the largest 40.7 fleet in the Southern Hemisphere when the 30-boat Hong Kong fleet took to the water. That model has been succeeded by the injection- moulded First 40 CR, which continues to dominate the cruiser- racer arena, as seen by the numbers competing in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. The list of designers involved in ensuring the Firsts live up to their name reads as a who's who of naval architecture: Germán Frers, Finot- Conq, Philippe Briand, Bruce Farr; KEVIN GREEN / CRAIG GREENHILL / SALTWATER IMAGES with Volvo-winning designer Juan Kouyoumdjian the latest in this illustrious line. These men have always adhered to the brand's key attribute of a single layout per boat to ensure close control of weight distribution and overall trim. MAN ON A MISSION Another key man in the First story is Eric Ingouf, a Cherbourg-born sailor who has dedicated the last 33 years of his career to managing the range. Eric says his job, which brings together designers, builders and owners, has given him a colourful and rewarding career at Beneteau. After joining Beneteau in 1980 from Elvstrøm Spars, Ingouf went on to be involved in high level racing for the next 20 years, running the company's special boat projects for the First range, as well as being involved in the development of the Oceanis cruising range. The family man, whose eldest son is a naval architect for a major racing team, followed his love of the sea, which stemmed from spending time around harbours on the Normandy coast from a young age. Eric cites one of his major achievements as being the competitiveness of the First 40: "Pushing the designer to be confident in the fact that the production boat is the right weight to be competitive through handicap -- for the First 40.7 under IMS, and the First 40 under IRC -- are, for me, my best work." Despite the First range contributing a mere 9% of production -- tiny compared to the Oceanis's 70% -- the Firsts are very much in the DNA of Beneteau, explained Eric. The 57-year-old remains passionate about Beneteau even after 33 years' service with the company and travels the world enthusiastically talking to First owners. In his recent visit to Sydney, he was particularly keen to talk to the skippers preparing their Firsts for the Rolex Sydney Hobart and other offshore races. Having sailed with Eric several times over the years I can also vouch for his perfectionist approach to running a sailboat. When the twin- ruddered First 30 launched a few years back, he and I trimmed the new boat incessantly off Les Embiez to ensure we overhauled a much larger Oceanis that was on our beat. The former Whitbread racer reminded me that "We always need to change to remain competitive" -- whether on the drawing board or a sticky beat with a larger competitor. NEW INNOVATIONS Under Eric's project management some interesting innovations have made it off the drawing board and into the First 30 and 35, including a movable helm. This 'swinging helm' can move in three positions to reflect the typical sailing angles of the boat and, of course, it greatly helps weight distribution on these smaller yachts. The latest innovations to the range are for the entry-level boats, an important market segment and logical way to introduce sailors to the sport. The new 'First Twenty' features a big top main, smaller jib and swept-back spreaders with no backstay. This B&R style rig is also a new feature on the First 25. But the ATTENTION TO DETAIL Eric Ingouf sail testing the First 30 in 2011.
December January 2013
Offshore Yachting April-May 2013