Issue: September 2003
The letter to the editor of the sailing magazine posed a good question. Where, asked the author, can I find a small production keeler, like the Hood 23s and Endeavour 24s of the 70s”” What he was asking was where are the small yachts a dinghy sailor can graduate to when the kids have grown, the skipper joints are starting to ache and the bank balance is showing signs of recovery after 15 years of merciless assault by the family. The direct replacement for those Aussie built 24-footers is not immediately obvious, but in the absence of a home-grown product may I suggest Beneteau”s First 27.7 as a candidate. A $135,000 yacht is probably not a firsttimer.
That would involve a heavy discussion about relative wealth and the values of the 21st Century. The Vicsail Beneteau people suggest the First 27.7 may perhaps be a keen sailor”s second keeler, the step up for the J24 owner, or the skiff sailor who wants to move on. It certainly has the performance to keep those sailors interested, and it has basic creature comforts to entertain the family on a picnic cruise or for a weekend. There is an enclosed head, but no hot water, though Vicsail will install a cockpit shower as standard equipment. But get your priorities right; this is a fast boat first and a camper/cruiser second. It was designed for speed, not for any rating system.
This yacht flies downwind under its asymmetric spinnakers and it is light and responsive to sail. The 27.7 is light at 2500kg and with 600kg of ballast it will need crew weight, correctly distributed, to keep her upright and charging. The lifting keel, a fibreglass fin with a lead bulb, is raised by a hydraulic pump, which takes 60 strokes to lift the keel and you open a valve to lower, where it is fixed in place. An electrically-driven pump is an option. The rudder is a lifting fiberglass blade in an alloy stock. But to quote the Vicsail guys, this is more a boat you can trail than a trailable boat. At the time of our sail they were getting her ready for Hamilton Island Race Week and were planning to tow the boat there and back. The layout below decks is a simple openplan.
In the bow is a double-vee berth, about 6ft long (don”t know what that is in metric). There are two long settees (around 2m) in the saloon and a big double cabin aft on the port side. The galley features a single-burner gas stove, an icebox, and a foot-operated water pump. The navigation table is surprisingly large ” a swing-out seat is optional. The removable-leaf table attaches to the keel case. Timber lockers in the saloon, mounted on the hull side, are removable for racing. The Jabsco manual toilet has its own room on the starboard side; the toilet room includes a rack to hang wet gear, more important, as someone pointed out, on a small boat than a big one.
Behind the companionway steps you can find the 10hp Yanmar Saildrive, which pushes this little boat along at 6 knots flat-out, 5.5 knots cruise. Up on deck you have to have an asymmetric in 2003, don”t you” The timehonoured pursuit of teetering on the foredeck waving a pole in the air while the big bag of conventional spinnaker above you tries to wreck your day and your boat is an activity that belongs in the past century ” or perhaps the century before that. On the First, the front of the spinny pole sits permanently in an alloy hoop at the bow and the back end clips to a small padeye in the deck.
To launch the pole unclip the pin at the back, push out the pole and lock the pin to another padeye. Hoist the kite. The stern is wide; designers Group Finot have created a mini Open 60. The keel rocker profile is deep in the bow area to provide volume to offset this wide stern, and certainly as she planes and plane she does, the nose lifts as it should. The skipper handles the mainsheet; coarse tune to the aft hand, fine tune (the one that matters) to the fore hand. You can unclip the mainsheet from the fine-tune block if you want to, say, pump the main on a reach. When tacking, or gibing, the helmsman steps between the two tackles.
The footrests are well placed for upwind work. If the 27.7 is a joy upwind, downwind she is huge fun and very, very quick. At all times she is responsive and dinghylike. The idea is not to let her heel, but if she does there is no great increase in helm load or decrease in speed. At one point we realised we had not adjusted the genoa cars (we were carrying the No.2 headsail). Soling Olympian Nev Wittey, crew chief for the day, tugged on the control lines (both sides lead back to the cockpit) to pull the cars forward and I felt all weather helm vanish from the tiller and, with almost neutral helm, she was actually easier to wriggle closer to the wind.
We saw a best speed of 6.3 knots in 16 knots of apparent wind, at a bit of over 40 degrees True, good speed for a 28-footer. Downwind she almost cracked 10 knots (around 9.9) in about 14 True. We also saw 7.5 knots in 10 knots True at 145 Apparent and she could have happily gone deeper than that. Ullman Sails are building a bigger kite, so in the future 10 knots should be a piece of gateau. A truly modern small boat should be fast and easy to handle; the First 27.7 meets those criteria and extends them, a borderline sportboat, which is more civilised than other sportboats.
It also provides reasonable accommodation without pretending to be what it is not. I like to keep personal feelings out of boat tests, but I will make an exception in this case. A couple of times a year after a test sail I wonder if I could possibly raise the purchase price. The Missus always puts me straight with the usual stuff we need a new kitchen (no, she WANTS a new kitchen), the house could handle a coat of paint and the cat needs a brain transplant. In the case of the 27.7 it took her a lot longer than usual to talk me around.
Words and Photos by Barry Tranter