Nearly five decades ago, the first “FIRST” was launched by French boat builder Beneteau. It was the FIRST 30 and it set a standard for fast cruising sailboats. The line did well and kept evolving over the years with new designs, sail plans and accommodations, and each successive redraw enjoyed significant popularity. This year, Beneteau announced the addition of the FIRST 36 in January and now the FIRST 44 that will be on the water in Europe this summer and at the Cannes Yacht Festival this fall. The latest design is a worthy addition to Beneteau’s racer/cruiser line and it even comes in two flavors to highlight its versatility.
Design And Versions
Designed by Roberto Biscontini who includes America’s Cup racers on his CV, the FIRST 44 went through several revisions before a design was agreed upon. The model is a great mid-point between the FIRST 36 and the FIRST 53, which technically belongs to the FIRST YACHT grouping but shares the same racer/cruiser approach. There are two versions – the FIRST 44 (cruiser focused) and the FIRST 44 PERFORMANCE (racing oriented) that comes with a different deck layout and options for enhanced keel and mast configurations.
FIRST 44 "Performance" Version
The FIRST 44 PERFORMANCE borrows from the builder’s Figaro 2 design that uses water ballast. Two 80-gallon ballast tanks can be filled electrically with just the touch of a button at the helm. This compensates for weight when racing short-handed and crew is not available for optimized balance. The needs and movement of multiple racers aboard were studied in regatta sailing and the results have yielded changes in the cockpit including a foam non-skid surface on the sole that replaces hard teak.
Also, two winches were added at the companionway and the other four were spread out to give multiple users working together more elbow room. A traveler runs along the cockpit sole and is the attachment point for the mainsheet. A 4.5-foot bowsprit is added ahead of the open bow pulpit and the split backstay is hydraulic for better control of mainsail shape. And of course, the performance version includes a deeper keel to drive the boat harder and help her point higher.
FIRST 44 - Standard (Cruiser-Focused)
By comparison, the standard FIRST 44 cruiser features only four winches – two on each side, closely grouped so they stay within reach of the helms and away from the social part of the cockpit. The mainsheet still terminates in the center of the cockpit but now it’s behind the added drop-leaf table and has no traveler. The bowsprit and keel are shorter, and the mast has been moved aft to create a smaller mainsail but more generous headsail options. Even the binnacles that hold the wheels are different between the two flavors with the ones on the standard version looking like superyacht pods.
Both designs have a drop-down transom with room below the deck for a tender, and twin rudders which are helpful since this hull is nearly 14 feet on the beam. Both versions also have the step-up side deck where you walk from the cockpit, around the wheels and then step up to the deck without ever having to climb over the cockpit coaming. The performance version is nearly 1,000 pounds lighter and has a bulb keel that draws 17 inches more than the standard keel. There’s one choice of propulsion and that’s a 57-hp diesel.
Beneteau’s go-to interior designer is Roberto Argento. The layout includes three cabins and two heads. The master is forward with an ensuite wet head while the main head aft to starboard has a nice shower stall. When racing, it’s likely that one of the aft cabins will serve as a sail locker and stowage space.
The saloon is quite posh, especially if the boat will do heavy race work. The whole interior is offset from the midline. On port, there’s a four-person settee next to the deck-stepped mast. This leaves enough room on starboard to walk forward and go to the master cabin that also has its door offset to accommodate traffic flow. A double sofa runs along the starboard side and forms the seat of a small aft-facing nav desk.
The galley has a top loading fridge/freezer and a two-burner stove. The placement of the sink is interesting. Most designers place the sink as near to the centerline as possible to ensure good drainage regardless of the tack the boat is on. The FIRST 44’s sink is outboard, so we’ll have to see how popular that is.
The finish is a combination of Alpi wood and white surfaces that brighten the boat considerably. Two overhead hatches (one forward and one aft of the mast) bring in good light and air, and there’s strategic use of indirect lighting that provides an upmarket feel.
A racer or cruiser?
Some sailors will argue that the racer/cruiser moniker means a design excels at neither, but others point out that a fast cruise under sail appeals to many whether they ever actually cross a starting line or not. It also never hurts to have an extra knot of speed when heading home or dodging a storm. So, is the new Beneteau FIRST 44 a racer or a cruiser? The answer is – yes.
LOA: 46’ 5” (with standard bowsprit)
Beam: 13’ 11”
Displacement: 22, 708 pounds (cruising version)
Draft: 7’ 1” to 8’ 6”
Air draft: 63’ 8”
Aux power: 58-hp diesel
Fuel: 58 gallons
Water: 87 gallons