A visit to the West Coast of France earlier this week substantiated the impression I gathered in and around the boat displays at Salon Nautique de Paris last weekend: The sailboat-building engine of France and nearby countries is in high gear.
Last fall in the United States we saw Beneteau, the largest builder in France, release four new models-the 49, 46, 10R, and First 50-and on display in Paris I saw two more, the new 40 and 43. Like their bigger sisters, which have already been sales successes, they are Berret/Racoupeau hull designs with interiors by the design company, Nauta Yachts. To the casual eye, like the 46 and 49, they’re hard to tell apart, and they share many identical components-wheels, winches, pulpits-in almost identical layouts. (I took a few photos on my camera phone and afterwards couldn’t tell which model was which.) Although belowdecks you can tell that the 40’s saloon is slightly shorter, it’s difficult to say exactly where the 3 feet of overall length has gone. The standardization in design and equipment, much of which is also shared with the 46 and 49, is an industrial concept pushed forward by brand manager Bruno Belmont, and pulled off successfully on the strength of Nauta’s design stylization and the in-house design team’s common sense. The result is pricing that in several cases has delivered new models more cheaply than the models they replace.
Beneteau has nine factories (as best as I could count), spread along or near the coast north of La Rochelle and south of Nantes. One of the plants builds boats under the Cyclades label, a low-priced line for the European market only, except those built specially for the Moorings and sold under the charter company’s label-for example the Moorings 515 introduced last fall. This new factory reportedly makes extensive use of robotics, but I wasn’t invited in to see that.
At two of Beneteau’s facilities, monohulls are built alongside Lagoon catamarans, which represents the largest volume line of cruising cats in the world. Currently, Lagoon’s new diesel-electric-powered 420 (first seen as a prototype in Annapolis) is being ramped up for two lines of production-in itself another first, as having twin sets of complex cruising-cat molds is quite expensive.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Jeanneau launched two new models as well-the 36i and the 42i-which we should see at the Strictly Sail shows this winter: Philadelphia (the 36i) and Miami (the 42i). The builder has been doing injection molding of small fiberglass parts for 12 years already and has recently introduced the process to deck molding, as on the 39i, which was shown in Annapolis last fall. Building a two-sided mold is more expensive, but once gel coat has been applied to both sides, fiberglass and coring and backing plates added, the mold closed, resin injected, and air drawn out, the resulting part is produced more quickly and with a nice finish on both sides. Jeanneau has also incorporated structural stringers and channels in which to fit the bulkheads, speeding up the finish process as the boat is assembled. (For more on Jeanneau’s anniversary party at the Salon Nautique, see my story on www.SailingWorld.com.)
Also celebrating an anniversary-its 30th-and beginning injection molding, the Fountaine-Pajot catamaran company introduced its new Mahe 36 in Paris. The smallest of F-P’s five sailboat models, the Mahe has a one-piece resin-infused hull and a one-piece injection-molded deck. (There are other molded parts as well, of course.) The company is investing in new buildings and technology to keep its prices competitive and expects to eventually build 100 of the 36-footers in a year. Equally important, according to Eric Bruneel, the general manager, both the infusion process (using a vacuum bag to draw resin throughout the fiberglass and coring in the mold) and injection molding also contain emissions and help the company meet current and expected future regulations regarding emissions. While at the F-P factory near La Rochelle, we saw the first molds for a larger new model, the Salinas 44, and the company has also started working on a larger boat, the Orana 48, at its nearby factory for powerboats and larger cats.
Another French builder-Dufour Yachts-had three new models at the show-cruising designs marketed under the Grand’large label, the 425, 485, and 525. These boats, designed by Umberto Felci and Patrick Roseo, round out a line of 10 boats rapidly introduced in the last couple years including three performance boats and seven cruisers from 32 to 52 feet. The cruisers have an aggressive profile, with fairly plumb stems and retractable sprits to go with their teak decks and relatively low-profile cabin houses. Several versions of interiors are offered, and the look is an increasingly common one in Europe, with lots of straight lines, and squared-off settees and tables. I visited this company’s factory outside of La Rochelle and saw that it, too, has begun injection molding the decks of its smaller boats. In Dufour’s case it’s for boats up to 40 feet; a resin-infusion process is used for the decks of all larger boats.
Also investing heavily in injection molding is the Olivier Poncin Group, an ambitious company that, among other things, is building a new series of monohulls under the Harmony label. There are five models, 34 to 52 feet, and close to 400 were produced in 2006; American readers probably won’t recognize the label as no scheme has been set up to import them to North America.
The Poncin Group has also acquired the cat company, Catana, which displayed its impressive new 50-footer in Paris (one of five models). There was a crowd aboard so I didn’t get much of a look, but the boat is in step with Catana’s history of performance orientation. That includes having daggerboards for upwind performance as well as bows canted out several degrees with little bulbs on them. Designed for private owners to cruise as opposed to charter, this boat includes a full owner’s hull, a washer/dryer, wetsuit locker, and a saloon that includes a galley opening to the ample cockpit. At this point it appears that the North American market will see the first of this model next fall at the boat shows.
I didn’t catch the shuttle to Slovenia, so I missed seeing the Elan Marine plant on this trip, but met with Luka Modrijan, the marketing chief for this line of boats that we’ve begun to see more of in the United States. Elan builds both racer/cruisers such as the new 340 that was on display, and the Impression line of cruisers, such as the 384 and 434 introduced in the United States over the last couple of years. (Boats which Cruising World reviewers noted were still pretty fast for cruising-tilted designs-probably because Elan’s designer is Rob Humphreys, a British designer with plenty of racing background.)
Luka said the company is building a new plant and aims to soon be producing 300 boats a year. The goal, he said, is to build boats that are price competitive with larger builders, yet have a higher level of finish. Elan uses robotics to spray its gelcoat and a vacuum-bagging process that improves the strength and finish of its laminates. If you want to check out an Elan, boats are stocked by Marine Servicenter, in Seattle, on the West Coast and Sound Yachts Westbrook, Conn., on the East Coast.
I reported on a couple of racer/cruisers earlier this week-the J/122 and the Dehler 44-you can read about them and a new Jeanneau doublehanded racer in that story on www.SailingWorld.com. For this report I’ll wrap up with an observation about a couple boats that I learned may be introduced in Paris a year from now: the Wauquiez Pilot Saloon 55 and the Feeling 55. Each follows the trend of having a naval architect and an interior designer on the project, and both push the deck saloon trend farther than before.
We saw the Wauquiez Pilot Saloon 41 at the Annapolis show a couple months ago (and you can read a review of it in Cruising World in the February issue-out next month). The 55, designed by Berret/Racoupeau and styled by Couedel/Hugon, follows a similar path, with a huge deck saloon and relatively smaller outdoor dining area and working cockpit. The mainsheet sits out of the way on a distinctive arch, which can also hold a bimini, cockpit speakers, and cockpit light. Aimed at bluewater cruisers, the 43,000-pound boat has generous tankage; it also will come standard with generator, bow thruster, and electric winches. The interior, which will have a true deck saloon with a great view, should be well ventilated: I counted at least 10 opening hatches in the illustration.
If Wauquiez’s 55 makes a statement, the new Feeling 55 by Alliaura Marine might be making a speech. It also has a deck saloon, but the saloon appears to be slightly smaller and pushed forward a bit farther, along with the mast. The steering station is on the back of the saloon’s aft bulkhead, like a multihull (hint: Alliaura builds Privilege catamarans). And the raised cockpit area just aft of that features an area to eat and socialize that’s shaded by a T-top set on an arch, which holds the mainsheet. Farther aft there’s an open area of deck for sunning or launching watersports activities. Completing the cruising cat analogy, the Feeling can be fitted with a swing keel-12’4″ draft when down and only 4’10” when raised.
That about sums up what I saw in France this past week-catamaran cruising design has become so important and pervasive that it’s affecting monohull design. Injection molding is happening on bigger and bigger boats, and if the machine keeps turning, these builders will make it increasingly tough for the rest of the world to compete. I don’t expect they’ll all hit their growth targets, but it’s impressive to see so much investment in the next generation of sailboat design and production.