Small, brilliant and fast: we sailed on the First 18, th 5.5 metre model of Bénéteau’s sports range, a boat that is perfect for sailing novices and also forhaving fun racing
by Luca Sordelli
I HAVE TO CONFESS THAT, FOR ME, TALKING ABOUT THE FIRST 18 MEANS GOING BACK IN TIME, to the First 18 designed by Jean Marie Finot, that Bénéteau launched in 1978. It was a real cruising-sailing boat in miniature, 5.5 metres long with four berths and even a small fold-down kitchenette. On deck there was a large (so to speak) and deep cockpit, and a small deckhouse that was honed with the unmistakeable yellow/orange colours of the French firm’s racing range. It was an accessible dream, a small boat for great sailors. During the eighties it accompanied a lot of future sailors over their first miles.
Now it is the turn of the children of the people who had once dreamed of adventures from the advertising and brochures of the little First boat. Things have changed, the way in which people start out at sea is different, and most of all the boats have completely changed. But Bénéteau’s desire to provide the perfect tools for anybody who wants to get involved in sailing, whether racing or as a family, remains the same.
So it is no coincidence that the French firm has recently re-launched the entire First range, with four models starting from the bottom up: 14, 18, 24and 27. They are also appearing thanks to the French giant’s purchase of the Slovenian constructor Seascape, and they have been designed by Sam Manuard, who is the creator of a successful line of Mini 6.50s, fast, very nimble boats for racing (whether alone or as a duo) in the ocean.
Its designer described the First 18 as “a boat that was created to give you 80% of the fun you get with a Mini 6.50, but by only putting in 20% of the effort”. And so on board everything is very simple for a three-man crew (or even three children and an instructor, the boat holds an EU C category status) with tiller steering and two bladed rudders to keep control of the boat even when it is heeling, a fuss-free cockpit, mainsheet without traveller and an efficient spinnaker chute. There is a drop keel, and a handle at the foot of the mast means you can reduce draught from 150 to 18 centimetres.
The First 18 is also very easy to get into the water: when I arrived at Port Ginesta the boat was still on its trailer, but two of us took around twenty minutes to ready it to sail. There was a practical 915 Wh Torqeedo electric motor (you can also opt for a more traditional 3.5 hp petrol outboard) to get us out of the harbour, and it just took a few moments.
But all this simplicity shouldn’t fool you, far from it. With a 500 kg displacement, there are 24 square metres of canvas to sail close hauled, as well as a 32 square metre asymmetric spinnaker to be used downwind. To give you an idea of how times have changed, the old First 18, going against the wind, could use 17 square metres of sail, and the spinnaker measured 18.5 (there was also a storm jib, of two square metres!).
My test took place on a lovely day with a Mediterranean breeze blowing at around 12 to 14 knots, with some gusts of up to 16, and some light waves. There were two of us on board, and we had fun. Really a lot of fun. Getting comfortable with it is very easy, and the First has a hull that is forgiving if you overlook something, but once everything is ok it runs on rails. The square top mainsail opens “automatically” when there are gusts, which makes life a lot easier for the helmsman, even though there is no traveller.
I really liked the acceleration as we came out of a turn, and the fact that the bow never dipped when the wind got up. Raising and striking the asymmetrical spinnaker was child’s play, even when there are just two of you, thanks tothe chute. Sitting in the cockpit is comfortable, with the toe holds in just the right places, and the same goes for the sheets and the winch.
So essentially, manoeuvring is something that comes instinctively. And we too were immediately able to concentrate on speed, and on getting our “little First” to surf when the right wind and waves appeared. That was all very easy, and all lots of fun.
And between one bit of planing and another, I got to thinking how far off were the times of the other First 18, the forefather of the one we were travelling on. Times when you even used to go cruising on a five-metre boat. It was a different way of sailing, without any nostalgia or regrets. Quite simply, a different kind of sailing.
BÉNÉTEAU FIRST 18
ROJECT: Naval architecture Manuard YD • Design EP Studiio
HULL: Length 5.55m • Maximum beam 2.38m • Maximum draft 1.50/0.18m • Shallow draught 1.10/0.3m • Displacement 500 kg • Ballast 125 kg • Shallow ballast weight 145 kg • Mainsail area 14.50 m2 • Jib area 9.20 m2 • Asymmetric Spi area 32 m2
MAIN PROPULSION AS STANDARD: Tohastu 3,5 CV • 2 cylinders • Swept volume 209 cc • Bore&Stroke 54mm x 44mm • Weight 37 kg.
ELECTRIC PROPULSION: Torqeedo 1003 cs • Battery 915 Wh • peso 14,9 kg.
PRICE: Starting from 21,300 Euros, EXCL. VAT
EC CERTIFICATION C4
2 rue du Grand Large • CS 82531 Givrand
F-85805 Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie Cedex
(Bénéteau First 18, easy sailing – Barchemagazine.com – July 2019)