Sailing a Christmas cracker

PUBLISHED: 16:51 31 January 2011 | UPDATED: 09:07 01 February 2011

Look no hands. With autopilot connected the boat can be left to sail herself, allowing the skipper time to get some chart work done, make a coffee, visit the heads or change into his wet weather gear!

Look no hands. With autopilot connected the boat can be left to sail herself, allowing the skipper time to get some chart work done, make a coffee, visit the heads or change into his wet weather gear!


“Dear Father Christmas, in view of the tightening financial squeeze I’d like to do my bit and ask you for only one present this year… A Beneteau Oceanis 31, thank you,” Garth Cooper.

The cockpit is a good size without taking over the boat. The large hatch incorporates Beneteau’s out and down washboard system. All lines are brought back to the cockpit. The port seat moulding forms the standing headroom area at the front end of the aft cabin, while the starboard moulding incorporates a deep locker. Main instruments including chart plotter are grouped round the wheel binnacle.

IT REALLY ISN’T all that often that I feel moved to like a modern designed lightweight plastic boat, but Beneteau’s Oceanis 31 comes in that category. I’ve been trying to get hold of one to test for 18 months and was delighted when a pal called up to say he’d bought one and would I like to take it out for a spin.

The concept of the 31 had intrigued me for some time. People who have them kept telling me they were good value for money, well finished, well appointed, packed a lot of useable space inside and sailed like the proverbial dream.

David Forster bought his 31 at the end of last year and has spent much of this season tweaking and trimming her. Being a bachelor he sails single-handed a lot and as the boat isn’t a natural single-hander he’s developed some little tricks of his own to make it all work. As an electronics expert he also likes to get involved in the detail and ensures he knows intimately how everything on board works. The boat On first impressions the Oceanis 31 doesn’t look a lot different from many of the other makes in its class. Destroyer bow, generous but not vast beam carried well aft, giving a fine entry and comfortable back end. Internally this results in a sensible-sized two-berth forepeak, a light and airy saloon, adequate nav centre, good easy-to use galley, a generous heads and a really good comfortable double berth aft cabin - and the storage is there to match.

Yet it isn’t extreme. The main cabin area deckhead is a single plastic moulding with Velcro’d access hatches to get at the services. Warm cherry coloured veneers on bulkheads, doors, and galley and instrument facings balance this white area. The only place you won’t find any is in the heads where it’s a functional all-white wash down finish. Even the main starboard dump locker in the cockpit has the same veneer finishes.

For several bigger and supposedly faster boats tacking down river on our test, this is all they saw. The portlight is one of three into the rear cabin, the s/s cap covers the mains electricity connection, and the larger section of the aft seating to port is a hinged cover for the gas and the liferaft storage. The central hatch gives access to the steering gear.

In terms of boat handling the design gives a boat which doesn’t slam at sea, that points upwind remarkably closely, holds a steady course downwind and if you are too close-hauled and getting over-powered she lets you know gently but firmly. David confirms she has very few vices.

“When the 31 came out I was persuaded to try it and was taken by it immediately, One consideration was the size of the heads, it’s big for a boat this size, and generally the boat gives me more room, is a more comfortable hull, and a better boat to sail,” he said.

The test I joined David at Woolverstone Marina on the Orwell with the wind slanting diagonally across the river from ENE, about F5, giving us either a close haul or a tacking stretch depending on which reach of the river we were in. Preparing the boat was straight-forward, David explaining his philosophy and how he liked to sail the boat. Out in the river we hoisted sail with a single reef in the main, an action that was both easy and unobtrusive with single-line reefing.

With the full headsail out we bore away and headed down river.

Aragon immediately lifted her skirts and flew. In a distance of three miles we tacked through and overtook an Oyster 46, a Southerly 38 and danced the foxtrot with a superbly sailed Colchester smack until we realised they were cheating and had their engine on full bore! It was a most satisfying feeling passing so many boats going our way. Even a full rigged Najad 385 centre-cockpit could only keep ahead of us by any noticeable margin until she too was forced to reef - we simply took a roll in the headsail as we left harbour and took to the sea, passing all and sundry.

With the sun out the horizon remained hazy and the sea lumpy.

We only once took spray over the bow when the wash from a passing powerboat crossed the set of the waves and smacked the resulting maelstrom into the windward bow.

After a bash outside we turned back towards the harbour to see how well she’d handle in a quartering wind and sea. The boat was remarkably steady and the cockpit proved a comfortable work area; she wouldn’t scare a young family.

Her only vice, if you can call it that, was when the wind went over 20 knots, she would round up no matter how much opposite rudder you applied. Her heeling angle didn’t increase; she simply turned up into the wind and said enough’s enough.

If there’s one fault I’d correct in the layout of the deck gear it’s that of the mainsheet. It runs on a short track just forward of the main hatch. The main sheet is lead aft on the port side via the winch on the coachroof. This set up increases the forces on the main sheet needed to control the boom, on the other hand the cockpit is completely clear of a thumping great load of rope tripping people up, or indeed clocking them one round the ear as the boat goes about.

Personally, I am not a fan of these mid-boom mainsheets and would probably go for a mid-line fixing at the foot of the binnacle with the end of the boom under greater control. However, it didn’t detract from the overall fun of sailing the boat.

All sailing handling, hoisting lowering, reefing and trimming is done from the safety of the cockpit. The only things he goes up on the deck for is to stow the mainsail in its storage bag and then zip it up - and here again someone has thought about it, the zip starts at the mast throat and not the boom end, so you can walk the zip aft comfortably and keep the sail secure in the worst conditions.

It also means that the largest lump of the dropped sail is quickly enclosed in the bag and isn’t left blowing about in the wind while you struggle to zip up the bag from the aft end. Most bags zip up from aft and it’s frankly a struggle to tame the sail sometimes reaching up way above your head to the topside of the boom.

Running up river between a broad reach and almost a dead run Aragon was calm, composed and rather quick.

Under power she handles precisely, the 21hp Yanmar driving a Brunton’s Autoprop giving her plenty of oomph to beat both tide and wind. Like a lot of modern boats she also handles well astern, you point and she goes. She’ll spin round in her own length and without a bow thruster is safe precise to handle in a packed and confined marina.

Down below The real cruising boat is a blend of on the water performance, safety and comfort. The Oceanis 31 has it in spades. Realising that more owners are likely to use chart plotters and electronic gizmos than traditional compasses, dividers, parallel rules and paper charts, the navigator’s desk is small; it’ll hold a folded half chart. To use it you have to sit on the aft end of the starboard saloon settee/berth.

The reasoning behind a small chart table is that for a family cruiser the heads cum shower unit is more important. Most navigation is done using the instruments at the wheel.

The heart of a cruising boat is the galley, and the French seem to have got it right once again. Left of the cooker is a glasses rack in a recessed locker; the cooker is gimballed and has an open pan store below. To the right is a large double deck plus freezer refrigerator, and a double sink unit with storage under. There is a generous amount of overhead crockery and dry goods storage.

Forward of the galley is the main saloon area, with a three-seater wrap-round settee to port with a double-leaved folding saloon table.

The base of which is the access hatch to the mast wiring connections.

To starboard is a berth-sized straight settee, the aft end of which forms the seat for the aft-facing navigator’s desk. Behind the settee backs is cave storage with more under the berths. Under the port saloon berth is mounted the hot water calorifier, water pumps, filters and pressure system expansion tank and various valves for isolating parts of the system. Following French tradition you can even feed salt water into the hot water system - the French cook, wash up and shower in salt hot water, rather than use precious drinking water.

Forward of the main bulkhead is a good-sized two-berth forepeak, with a cupboard unit and hanging locker. There’s full standing headroom under the fore hatch.

The companionway, which lifts to reveal the front of the engine and the pair of domestic batteries, is made of GRP with wood facings and is held up with gas struts. To starboard is the heads compartment, which is bigger than in many boats on the market. The head itself is placed aft of the compartment facing forward. Outboard is a locker giving access to the black tank, with a shelved locker forward of it. Both are faced with mirrors. The sink unit, which incorporates an extending showerhead, has built-in storage under it and access to the main skin fittings and the shower drain pump.

To port of the companionway is the access to the aft cabin. This gives an athwartships double berth; the foot bulkhead divides it from the huge cockpit locker to starboard. There’s light let into the aft coachroof bulkhead (a matching one on the starboard side gives light and air to the heads), one into the cockpit seat moulding and a further one aft in the transom. There’s good standing headroom and a hanging wardrobe at the entrance to the cabin.

Version There are two versions of the Oceanis 31, the Avantage and Elegance, Aragon is the latter and the spec includes leather wraps on the s/s saloon grab rails and the wheel, electric windlass, extra blinds and mosquito nets on all hatches, wood covered companionway steps, additional mirrors in heads and cabins, and freezer unit in the fridge compartment.

The hull is fitted with a 1.8m deep fin keel.

There is a version with the shorter keel with a depth of 1.3m. The third option is fitted with a ballasted stub keel, which houses a drop keel giving a 2.2m draught when down.

All have balanced rudders right aft and have props on shafts exiting through a skeg.

The boat is fitted with an electric anchor winch. David wanted to convert it to a remote system so he could drop and lift the anchor, which self-stows in the bow fitting, from the cockpit. Buying a standard vehicle remote solenoid and a hand-held remote and doing the fitting of the equipment himself, he saved himself hundreds of pounds over the cost of a “marine” version fitted.


LOA 9.66m

Beam 3.39m

Draught 1.80m

(Shallow 1.30m)

(Lift keel1.3m/2.20m)

Mainsail 24.60m2

Headsail 24.60m2

Engine Yanmar 3YM20 21hp

Fuel 130l

Water 130l

CE B6/C8/D10

Contact: Fox’s Yacht Sales, Ipswich.

Tel: 01473 695010

Price: The version tested was £86,000

on the water.