Sailboat Review: Beneteau First 36

Beneteau's First 36 is designed from the bottom up for one purpose: to go sailing.
Beneteau First 36 sailing
Beneteau First 36 Jon Whittle

When France’s Groupe Beneteau purchased the Slovenian shipyard Seascape in 2018, it acquired designs, tooling and production facilities, along with a team of sailors who know how to build no-frills boats that are slippery and fast. And, yes, very fun to sail.

So much fun, in fact, that once Cruising World’s Boat of the Year judges named winners for the formal 2023 categories, we chose to conjure up a judges’ special recognition award for the First 36 as Best Sportboat. Our dilemma, you see, was that in the fleet of 17 sailboats we considered, there wasn’t really anything quite like the First 36 in terms of size or performance. But, oh, what a ride we had.

With about 12 knots of breeze blowing up a moderate chop, right out of the chute we hoisted a full main, set the big kite and were off, pegging 10 knots SOG on a broad reach. Later, in a bit more breeze and with the reacher safely stowed, we pounded upwind at close to 8 knots under the jib and single-reefed main. Big sail, little jib—it didn’t matter. The Jefa steering and twin rudders were buttery-smooth and totally in control.

Boat of the Year judge Herb McCormick noted: “This is a boat that was conceived ­working backward from the goal of a pure, unfettered sailing experience, and it fully delivers on that score. No surprise, our colleagues at the performance mag Sailing World honored it with their top Boat of the Year prize.”

Beneteau now has two First production lines, the First SE (SE stands for Seascape Edition and includes the former Seascape 14, 24 and 27) and the ­Beneteau-conceived First 44 and First 53 ­models. Like the First and First SEs up to 40 feet, the naval architect behind the 36 is Samuel Manuard. Design is by Lorenzo Argento (designer of the 44 and 53); structural details are by Pure Design & Engineering; and interior styling is by the Slovenian industrial design studio SITO. 

The idea was to build a boat equally adept at cruising as it is at doublehanded and club handicap racing. The trade-offs involved are immediately apparent when you step aboard through the First’s open transom and twin wheels. Removable cockpit boxes (with cushions) provide seating and storage in cruise mode, or can be left on the dock to make room for a racing crew. Hardware is all top notch, from suppliers such as Ronstan, Harken, Spinlock and Antal. The First even has fittings in the cockpit sole for a drop-leaf table that can come and go, depending on the type of sailing to be done.

On deck, jib sheets are routed through adjustable downhauls and inhauls that provide endless ways to shape the head sail. Forward, a 3-foot-3-inch composite sprit does double duty as an anchor roller and place to tack down off-wind sails.

The boat we sailed in Annapolis, Maryland, was fitted with the standard aluminum rig; a carbon-fiber mast is an option, as are several North Sails packages The First’s base price, posted online, is $260,000. But well fitted out, like the boat we sailed, a more realistic number is $350,000.

The First 36 is built using construction techniques in which all components are tied together to contribute to structural stiffness. Hull, deck, and interior bulkheads are vacuum-infused and cored to add stiffness and save weight. Furniture modules are also vacuum-infused and bonded to be part of the boat’s structure. Below, there is just enough wood used for fiddles and trim to give the interior, with LED lighting, a sense of warmth.

Beneteau initially offered just one keel configuration for the First, a 7-foot-5-inch ­cast-iron fin with a T-bulb down low. An option for a shoal-draft foil of 6 feet, 3 inches is in the works.

The builder also offers just one interior layout, with twin staterooms aft and a V-berth forward. There is a single head, also forward, that includes a shower, as well as a clever fold-up sink over the toilet to ­maximize usable space.

In the salon, an L-shaped galley with a sink, a two-burner stove and an oven is to port at the foot of the companionway; opposite is a sit-down nav station. In between, on centerline, there’s a stand-alone island icebox (a fridge is an option) whose top is at counter height, making it a handy place to set things down. Forward, two outboard settees flank a drop-leaf table. Both seats would make handy sea berths ­underway. As McCormick said, accommodations are more than ­adequate for spending ­extended time aboard, ­whether en route to a regatta or off coastal cruising on weekends or vacation. 

Here’s my take on the First 36: It might not be the boat for an owner looking for all the creature comforts of home in a dockside setting, but if the idea is to get out there and go sailing, well, it might be the ideal boat. 

Beneteau First 36 Specifications

SAIL AREA861 sq. ft.
BALLAST3,420 lb.
WATER53 gal.
FUEL19 gal.
HOLDING13 gal.
ENGINE29 hp Yanmar saildrive
DESIGNERManuard Yacht Design, Lorenzo ­Argento, Pure Design & ­Engineering
PRICEManuard Yacht Design, Lorenzo ­Argento, Pure Design & ­Engineering

Mark Pillsbury is a CW editor-at-large and served as a 2023 Boat of the Year judge.