Why we bought Rafiki
written by Rob
We set out to find a safe, comfortable cruising boat that we could live on for our year away. Our sailing experience was on relatively small, “traditional” cruising boats, most recently on Rob’s father’s Nicholson 31. We enjoyed sailing her, but knew we would need something bigger for us to be on for such a long time. We never thought of buying a “production boat” eg a Beneteau as we had always rather looked down on them, having grown up in a sailing community who valued “proper” boats.
We set about looking for a boat in the 40ft size range and saw a lot of Moodys, Westerlys. Bowmans and the occasional Hallberg Rassy or Malo. But none quite matched what we needed. The Swedish boats were lovely, but commanded a very high price and we often wondered exactly what we would be getting for so much money. The British boats were better value, but like most we saw were often either great on deck for sailing, but impractical for us below or had good accommodation, but a completely basic cruising setup that would not suit ocean passage-making.
It was at this point we realised that we needed a boat that must accomplish two, often conflicting things. For long distance cruising you would ideally have two boats, one to sail across an ocean on and one to live and cruise on when you get there. Back in the real world, we realised we would have to change our prejudice against “production” boats and look a little more broadly if we were to find the right boat we needed. For passage making we needed a safe, fast and easy to handle boat that would largely sail by herself and look after us in stronger weather. To live on, we needed a boat with the practicality to make life comfortable, especially with a family: space, good ventilation, shade, fridge/ freezer, watermaker and power for it all.
But production boats are “not safe for crossing oceans” we could almost hear old sea dogs from Rob’s father’s sailing club not quite saying at the bar. Well, what exactly do people mean by this? Do you hear of production boats breaking up mid-ocean with crews being rescued by those in “proper boats”? Simply put, “no”. There are a few well documented abandonments of boats during ocean crossings, but these were usually linked to poor preparation or failures that could have been spotted well in advance. Also, if you look at boats that take part in the ARC, the most popular boats are production boats and we don’t hear of many problems. What about going to windward? Surely one needs a traditional design for this? There is a point to be made here: a high volume boat with a flatter bottom does tend to slam into the waves more than traditional designs. That said, when crossing to Azores from Bermuda, we were sailing close-hauled, as was another boat of more traditional design just behind us. Neither of us particularly enjoyed the experience, but from listening to our friends, they were certainly not happier heeling over in their traditional design, than we were in our production boat. Indeed the wider beam of our boat may have meant we heeled rather less. Also, it is worth remembering that for ocean passages, almost no one goes to windward willingly, regardless of the design of their boat. It’s fun for a few hours round the south coast, but utterly miserable for days on end. You can sail round the world with the wind aft of the beam, so in a cruising context it would be wrong to focus too heavily on a boat’s performance in sailing to windward. In our year away, on passages of 50NM or more, we probably only spent 2-3 days genuinely close-hauled.
So we widened our search and soon found that the Beneteau 473 offered what we were looking for: safety, comfort and speed. However, we also wondered what people who work with boats for a living thought about “production” boats. After all, none of us would consider buying a car from a high volume manufacturer to be unsafe. In talking to boat yard workers, shipwrights, riggers, engineers, etc, all summarised Beneteau in one phrase: simple to build. Critically for us they emphasised that this does not mean sub-standard or not tough. Beneteau put their effort where it matters: the structure of the hull and critical systems, the rest is designed to be simple and quick to assemble. We also learnt that this means simple to maintain: everything is easily accessible, not hidden behind joinery and impossible to get at as had been the case with Rob’s father’s boat. The key difference between a production boat and more expensive designs (especially from Scandinavia) is the interior joinery. It takes a lot of time to fit out a boat inside to a very high standard and this is where much of the cost of these boats lies. In the end, it is a choice between beauty and finish vs function and practicality. If you want to go to sea in a boat that has an interior finish to rival that of an English stately home, then a production boat is not for you, but you will pay for the workmanship put in to achieve it.
We then needed to find one fitted out for live-aboard life and ocean passage-making and found that Rafiki was nearly perfect for us. She has all live aboard needs: fridge, freezer, watermaker, SSB radio, long range WiFi, external sat phone aerial, loads of hatches, fixed bimini, cockpit enclosure, sun shading, wind generator, solar power, well insulated deck and SPACE! She has a great passage-making setup and has now been across the Atlantic three times. In the right winds (15 kts+ from aft of the beam, ie trade winds), she can easily average 7.5kts/ 180NM per day, we managed five days over 190NM and she can do over 200NM a day with a determined crew. All controls are in the cockpit, twin headsails allow for varying conditions, we can pole out both headsails to sail dead downwind (who says this is boring/ uncomfortable? We average 8-9kts in strong winds without unpleasant rolling and have achieved 12-14 kts with our poled-out twin headsails down waves. And remember we are a family boat laden with water, fuel, school books, toys and a huge amount of food), there’s a spinnaker for lighter winds, a dry cockpit for comfort, wind self-steering to reduce power consumption and as backup to the electric autopilot. The fixed bimini and cockpit enclosure may not be the prettiest aspect of the boat, but they are simply amazing: at anchor in the tropical sun, you stay shaded and have a cooling breeze, at sea going to windward (whether across the warmish mid-Atlantic or chilly Solent) you can helm in comfort without getting wet, at anchor in the British Spring, you can eat in the cockpit by candlelight while people on other boats huddle below to get out of a light breeze. The solar power has been a revelation: whilst cruising the Caribbean, we only once needed to turn on the engine just to charge our batteries; when we left the tropics in May, with the sun high in the sky, we saw a maximum output of 28A at over 13V from the panels (many boats’ engine alternators don’t give much more than this). In the UK summer, we got between 20 and 25A, but the cooler ambient temperature means the fridge/ freezer takes a lot less energy). This has been enough to power our fridge and freezer, watermaker and 240V electric breadmaker, all while keeping our batteries fully charged and so greatly prolonging their life. A lot of people scoffed at the idea of running a domestic breadmaker on a boat, we’ve done it and all without the noise and maintenance hassle of a generator.
But don’t just take our word for it. Take a look at this review of the Beneteau 473 when first produced from the US magazine Blue Water Sailing: