There is no such thing as the right boat for everyone, but there is the right boat for the right time. For today’s fervent offshore racing soloists and doublehanded teammates, that boat — right here, right now — is the Figaro Beneteau 3.
This pint-sized ocean racer isn’t just another cruisy crossover from Beneteau, the powerhouse of production boatbuilding. There is zero intent of comfort below its low-slung deck, unless your idea of luxury is a white, wet and noisy fiberglass cavern. It’s not just a beastly Class 40 type, either. For righting moment and power, it doesn’t rely on hundreds of pounds of seawater sloshing ballast tanks. For Figaro Beneteau 3, there are two unmistakable arcing carbon side foils projecting from slots in its topsides. The foils are no gimmick. Beneteau, nor Figaro face fanatics, don’t do gimmicks.
The foils don’t necessarily “lift” the 2.9-ton platform completely free of the surface, as do the foils of modern multihulls and extreme craft like the soon-to-be AC75. The foils are there for a hint of lift and a pile of righting moment, which ultimately means a faster, smoother ride into the night.
The boat is built exclusively for the Solitaire du Figaro race, what Gianguido Girotti, Beneteau’s general manager says is, “the unofficial world championship of singlehanded sailing.” The Figaro Beneteau 3 will not get much love from international handicapping systems initially, or possibly ever, but that is beside the point. It’s a one-design class boat, plain and simple, with a guarantee from Beneteau that they’ll be the same from prod to stern — give or take a few kilos here and there.
The sport’s best shorthanded sailors spawn in the harbors and ports strung along France’s Atlantic face. They arrive on the scene as hungry rank-and-file dreamers with a sponsor or two and eventually the best of them emerge as round-the-world solo racers in anything insanely fast and crazy. The stage onto which all rookies, past and present, must step is the Solitaire du Figaro, a multi-stage late-summer race that runs the length of the coast, covering nearly 2,000 nautical miles over two weeks.
When the race was first held in 1970, entries varied in size and shape, and as editions passed, the boats grew bigger, more complex and more expensive. Stakeholders of the race made a strategic move in 1990, transforming the event into a one-design talent showcase, putting success — and failure — into the hands of the sailor instead of the caliber of his or her equipment. Enter the Figaro Solo 1, a stout 30-footer built to handle an occasional pasting in the Bay of Biscay. A decade’s worth of Vendée Globe Race legends emerged from these contests, including the likes of Yves Parlier, Michel Desjoyeaux, Dominic Vittet, Jean Le Cam, Philippe Poupon, Franck Cammas, and Pascal Bidégorry.
The Solo 1’s use-by date ushered in the Beneteau Figaro II, a robust double-rudder, symmetric-spinnaker design that delivered yet another generation of offshore greats, Volvo Ocean Race winning skipper Charles Caudrelier, counted among them.
For 16 years, pros and amateurs alike put “crazy amounts of mileage on the boats,” says Beneteau product manager, Luc Joëssel, before the class and competitors agreed enough is enough. It was time to elevate the official Figaro class — and the race itself — higher, mirroring the groundbreaking foil-assisted 60-footers of the IMOCA 60 Class.
“All the top design offices answered to the call,” says Joëssel. Ultimately, the firm founded by Marc Van Peteghem and Vincent Lauriot-Prévost got the nod. Beneteau, with its longstanding relationship with the race, remained as builder of choice. They now have the monumental task of delivering a fleet of precisely matched offshore one-designs. Introducing side-foils was a big deal for involved, as well as a big investment in the necessary tooling. Reliability is essential.
“The philosophy of the class,” Girotti explained to Sailing World’s Boat of the Year judges, Chuck Allen, Tom Rich, and Greg Stewart, “is that if 50 boats start, 50 must arrive at the finish for the good of the event. In offshore sailing, too many boats don’t finish.”
Girotti also points out that in the previous edition of the Solitaire du Figaro, not only did every boat finish, but the first 20 competitors finished the first 500-mile leg within 20 minutes of each other. “These guys are maniacs with their trimming, they do it 24-7 because it’s in their DNA,” says Girotti. “They are always stuck to each other, which must make them push that much harder.”
Beneteau built a Figaro 3 prototype with input from a few of the race’s past and present champions, as well as French composite companies typically associated with grand-prix builds like the Ultime 100-foot trimarans and IMOCA 60s. To deliver a strictly-measured one-design to every competitor, says Joëssel, “required us to ensure tolerances remain negligible as each completed boat rolls off the assembly line in Chevine, France. The intent is to give to the sailors a boat that will require less time illegally modifying and more time sailing.”
Any discussion or concern of how the boat and its unique side foils will be handled by handicap rating systems is inconsequential, says Girotti. Again, that’s not the point. The Figaro Beneteau 3 is built for the race, and for aspiring sailors who have no intentions of ever making the Figaro race’s start in Le Havre. Take, for example, Charles Devanneaux and co-skipper Matthieu Damerval, who doublehanded the prototype in the 2018 Pacific Cup from San Francisco to Hawaii — finishing only three days behind 70-footers, with an elapsed time of 11 days, 4 hours and 24 minutes (racing under an experimental rating).
Demand for entry the June 2019 La Solitaire URGO Le Figaro is high and by February 2019, the first 50 boats will be delivered to awaiting skippers (assigned by lottery), measured and ready to race. The “controlled” released is intentional, says Joëssel, a ploy to ensure the playing field is level and prevent them from pushing the inevitable measurement edges too soon. From this first batch, Beneteau’s plan is one boat per week to reach 100 by the close of 2019.
The Figaro Beneteau 3’s price (as sailed and presented for Boat of the Year) is $250,000, which includes a six-sail North Sails inventory, electronics, cordage, all the race-required safety equipment and a shipping/dry storage cradle. Construction is polyester infusion with a mixed use of CoreCell and balsa cores, placing more structure where it’s required most and less where it’s not, to help get its overall weight to 2.9 tons.
Finalizing the deck layout was a complicated exercise, says Joëssel, as controls need to be centralized around the cockpit in order to minimize the competitor’s exposure on deck. “After hours and hours working with all the guys on the mock-up,” he says, “it was all validated on the prototype.” The most complicated piece of the puzzle, however, was with the foils and their adjustment.
In conjunction with Multiplast, which has built many of the best big rigs in high-speed ocean sailing, Joëssel says they invested substantially in a complex set of molds in order to maintain strict tolerances through the use of several measurements and jigs. “Everything is measured and weighed straight out of the molds,” he says. “So far, the maximum discrepancy is 40 kilos.”
Should there be any funny business with pre-race tampering, he says, they have the numbers for everything before any of it gets into the hands of the sailors. The same is true of the carbon-fiber rigs. So far in the first 20, says Joëssel, 50 grams is the variance, and “there’s less than a kilogram in the rudders.”
The 2.5-meter keel is cast iron with an iron-encased lead bulb. There is no fiberglass shell for protection, but there’s a reason: “Eventually, a fiberglass shell will leak, which will then lead to repairs and once you get into that, modifications will happen,” says Girotti.
By now, one should see the pattern: they take the Beneteau 3’s one-design reputation seriously.
“Tolerances in other classes today are unbelievable,” says Joëssel, “to the point where they’re not really one-design. Ours is a more rigorous approach to making sure everyone has their opportunity on the water.”
“This is essentially Beneteau’s grand-prix division,” says Stewart. “I like the launch idea of 50 at once. It allows them to find little issues if they’re there and apply them to the following boats before they go out the door. I think them going after the market where two young sailors can conceivably campaign this boat is great.”
While the tolerances are reportedly minimal, Boat of the Year judge Tom Rich, a custom boatbuilder, says the Beneteau 3’s build quality matches its purpose. “Maybe it’s a bit rough on the finishing touches,” he says after crawling through the innards of the boat, “but it’s a raceboat with a lot of structure. The standard boat is white, white, white. There’s nothing exotic.”
The interior isn’t meant for lounging with Rosé; it’s more like crashing in a state of exhaustion and fatigue, coddled in a bean bag chair or atop a pile of sails, wedged between ring frames, and still dressed in foul-weather gear. Two adjustable Class A-compliant piper berths, will mostly likely be used for gear stowage.
While the below decks may be standard and simple, the thoroughness in the deck and hardware layout, the judges say, is thorough but straightforward as well. Feel on the helm is smooth all the time. “It sure feels like a big boat,” is Rich’s first assessment after a walkthrough with Beneteau representatives at the doc before sailing. “The stability is unbelievable. I thought it was really stiff upwind, especially when you feel the leeward foil bite. The rig is the right size for the boat. It’s plenty big with a really wide shroud base.”
In roughly 10 knots of wind for the sail testing, Stewart, a naval architect, and Allen, a sailmaker, immediately recognized the Figaro Beneteau 3’s most important trait: a sensation of lift and righting moment from the active foil. “As soon as you feel it load up, the boat rises and just starts crushing it,” says Allen. “It’s like a baby Comanche [the 100-foot VPLP record machine built for American yachtsman Jim Clark).
Stewart’s assessment is that the boat has “a nice feeling upwind, with a really positive grip. The toe-in was set perfect and there was no noticeable wake off the transom. The foils don’t lift the boat, but rather straighten it upright. The lift component is pushing against the displacement, and there’s your righting moment increase.”
The foils, both of which are fully-deployed once the boat is off the dock and sailing, are adjusted independently through a block-and-tackle purchase led to the cockpit. They adjust fore and aft, with about five-inches of total adjustment. In light air, the judges say, it would be neutral to forward, and as the wind builds, they would be incrementally adjusted aft (but not under load). “When the foil is working the boat lightens up and feels really amazing,” says Allen. “When you start cracking off and going downwind, you can feel the bow rise. With the rig back and all that buoyancy forward, it will surf, for sure. The bow will pop out and you’ll be loving it.”
Stewart says there’s “a lot going on with the hull shape,” that makes it all work, notably its full bow section forward, which will prevent the boat from tripping over itself in a seaway. “With such a powerful sailplan, the power steering you get from the twin rudders is awesome,” says Stewart. “It will sail like a boat longer than 35 feet with all that volume in the ends.”
The class sail inventory includes a 440-sq.ft. North Sails 3Di square-top main, J2 and J3 jibs, a furling code zero, and A5-sized and A2 Airex spinnakers. With such a quiver, and with most of the sail-handling business conducted in the back of the yacht, there’s multi-colored spaghetti pouring into the cockpit at all times, requiring vigilant housekeeping. Foil-adjustment lines lead to winches, tack lines and halyards snake through banks of jammers. The gear layout is comprehensive, and the judges each agreed all control systems work flawlessly. Sets and douses, tacks and jibes were easy with four hands or two and an autopilot, which means more efficient downwind maneuvers for Figaro competitors used to jibing a symmetric spinnaker.
Faster, easier maneuvers may end up being one undesirable side effect of the Figaro Beneteau 3. If competitors think the racing is intense now, just wait until the sailing becomes elevated. And while on the topic of elevated, the judges unanimously agreed that while all of this year’s Boat of the Year candidates were of extremely high quality and execution, it was the Beneteau 3s innovation that makes it stand out above the field.