There's a whole lot more here than headroom and easily handled sails
The hull form is sleek and sophisticated, the eyebrows above the ports denote competence and self-worth, and some of the accessories belowdeck are fine leather. The Beneteau First 50 starts with style, but it carries through with performance. An owner looking for a fast cruiser, an occasional racer, and/or a seasonal bluewater boat will be attracted to this yacht. It's a perfect platform for a family who wants to cruise along the coast and explore New England or the Mid-Atlantic, and it's perfectly capable of charging around a racecourse where, competently crewed, it can stay in step with the division leaders.
When winter approaches, it can sail over the horizon—say, south to the Caribbean for a season of island hopping. But wherever it's anchored or berthed, its appearance will impress onlookers and please guests. "The aesthetic concept is clean and linear," says yacht broker Chris Humphries.
This long, sleek look serves several purposes. The eyebrows over the cabin windows also create flush handrails and perhaps a bit of shade, even as they reinforce the low profile of the coachroof. The wide side decks make it easy to move about, and they also lead the eye forward and out to enhance the impression of length. The dual steering wheels, removable cockpit table, and rod rigging, plus a clean foredeck, help make it relatively easy to race or singlehand.
A clever innovation worthy of note is a husky stainless anchor roller that retracts into the foredeck when under way. A manual lifting mechanism pulls it out of the bow compartment and settles it into position, where it works like a short bowsprit when the anchor is being deployed. This feature not only adds to the stylish, clean look, but also gets the ground tackle out of the way during sail changes, whether racing or not. On this yacht you can't snag the spinnaker on a sharp anchor fluke.
The First 50 is the largest model in Beneteau's performance-oriented line. The hull is solid fiberglass with a reinforcing grid inside, and the deck is balsa-cored. Though the structure is reasonably conventional, designer Philippe Briand has installed a deep, narrow-chord rudder and keel instead of the blunter foils found on typical cruising boats. The rudderstock is injection-molded biaxial and unidirectional glass set in epoxy that has been mounted in ball and roller bearings for smoother movement. The foils—both the skinny keel with a big bulb and the semi-elliptical rudder—could have been transplanted from a dedicated racing boat.
For our test sail last October we motored out of Annapolis, Maryland, into Chesapeake Bay on a beautiful fall day. The yacht's turbo-charged Yanmar diesel hummed along at 2,600 RPM creating a moderate 74 decibels of sound in the main saloon, while the standard three-blade folding prop on the saildrive kept us moving along at 8 knots. Those of us on board asked ourselves why, with such speed under power and the ability to put up a sail, anyone would want a trawler. The yacht certainly handled a lot better than a trawler and turned in about one boatlength with an easy wheel response. The deep keel gave me confidence we wouldn't be blown sideways while docking in a crosswind, and I liked the tactile sense I got from the helm.
When a steady 12-knot breeze started to fill at the mouth of the Severn River, we rolled out the big in-mast furling mainsail. Once it was out and pulling, we set the jib. Both evolutions went effortlessly. While the line loads on the mainsail furler are fairly heavy, the handy electric winch just to port of the companionway makes light work of it. Every skipper who has experienced the pleasure of these furling systems will forever appreciate not having to climb onto the cabintop to wrestle with a mass of sailcloth. Although some long-range cruisers may be skeptical of any sailhandling method that relies on electrical power, it should be said that this yacht is not meant to be a true distance passagemaker. The intended owners are quite happy to do all the hard work the easy way, and because the boom is positioned quite high—at shoulder or head level, depending on your height—having to furl the mainsail manually would be a challenge for even the most seasoned crew.
Sailing under a full main and genoa, the yacht carried just the right amount of weather helm to make it easy and a joy to steer. When a puff did hit us, it felt very solid, accelerating like a racer as it heeled to 25 degrees. We tacked in slightly more than 60 degrees and were always under perfect control when sailing to windward close-hauled. On a close reach the yacht touched 8 knots without difficulty. The optional deep bulb keel (9 feet, 2 inches) undoubtedly contributed to this sparkling performance; the standard fin draws just under 8 feet. A keel this deep might cause problems in some Mid-Atlantic cruising areas and certain parts of the Bahamas, but it will be fine in deep-water areas like New England, the Caribbean, the West Coast, and the Pacific Northwest.
The ergonomics in the cockpit are generally excellent, and there is plenty of space around both the wheels. The winches and stoppers are well positioned for shorthanded sailing, and the low coachroof let me see easily in all directions when I was standing or sitting anywhere in the cockpit. Of course, the low cabin profile and fine bow forward had me wondering about waves and spray in rougher conditions. And even though the cockpit seats are comfy, some padding or a seat back near the helm would be appreciated. Both the centerline and helm foot braces provide good security underfoot when the boat heels. That's always an important consideration when shorter sailors are on board.
The companionway washboards have been built to slide down and stack neatly out of the way, though the bottom board can be left in place to keep water out of the cabin when under way. At anchor the bottom board can be removed to provide an unobstructed passageway below.
Numerous access panels provide excellent access to all the engine's maintenance points. The genset, located astern of the engine, can be accessed via panels in both aft cabins. If mechanical devices excite you, you can lie on one of those bunks and look at the generator.
Moving forward, the open and sleek styling in the main saloon provides even more drama. Light wood trim enhances the space, and the overall impression is modern and clean. In a way it's the opposite of the traditional teak-trimmed belowdeck spaces and functional clutter found on many yachts. As Chris Humphries puts it, "What we have here is a bit like a Manhattan loft apartment. If you are someone who always puts your morning teacup and the evening's novel neatly away, you'll enjoy the simplicity of this interior. If you are happier having a variety of things lying around, this interior probably will seem rather stark."
Dozens of details combine to produce this overall effect. Locker doors open with a double fold as they lift. Seats at the main table are dramatically curved. The nav table swings away to form an additional seat at the end of the table. And the grabrails have been molded into the structure so they blend in perfectly with the decor.
Look under the companionway and you discover a handy leatherlike saddlebag that can hold basic tools or any other items you might need to grab quickly while under way. The hanging locker is in fact a stylish suitcase made of the same material as the saddlebag. You can either fasten it to a bulkhead or take it ashore with you. Because there are lots of hidden storage spaces below, it may take you a bit of time to find the concealed microwave oven. Even the electrical panel has an Industrial Nouveau look.
Interior wood trim is in Alpi, laid in an attractive pattern and finished in a color that is hardly a conventional veneer. Instead, the Alpi has been stacked and then laminated so it achieves a consistent pattern that runs with the grain. When the laminate is properly arranged, it's cut and attached to a plywood core. The sole is made in a parquet design instead of the more-conventional longitudinal teak and holly strips and is stained cherry.
Only one interior layout is available. It features one cabin forward and two cabins aft; both the aft cabins have double berths, and they share a single head and shower. The forward cabin has an ensuite head and shower. All spaces echo the open style established in the main saloon, and there is 61/2-foot headroom in almost all parts of the cabins.
The queen-size berth on the centerline of the forward cabin is accessible from either side. The shower in the forward head is separated from the rest of the compartment by a clever folding door that slides on tracks. The detailing is extremely well done, and the whole area feels a bit like the transporter room on the starship Enterprise.
There's no getting around the strikingly contemporary styling, but all the design features, on deck and below, have been carefully considered and detailed so they are also functional. If you can assess this yacht's features with an open mind, I can almost guarantee that you will be saying "Aha, what a good idea!" as you look around below and as you stand on deck and prepare to set the sails and get under way.
Tom Dove has been sailing for half a century and writing about it for the past 20 years. When he is not test-sailing new designs, you can usually find him on the Severn River in Maryland aboard his Ranger 33, Crescendo.