Note: We have sold our Beneteau 323. In this article and another, Beneteau Oceanis 323 Sailboat Review with Photos (which is based on our online ad), we share much of our experience with that lovely boat.
Canada’s east coast is not exactly the ideal sailing ground for beginners intent on going distances along the rocky coastline. The North Atlantic swell, frequent fog, numerous micro-climates and powerful winds all the way from the state of Maine to Newfoundland present many challenges to inexperienced skippers of large or small sailing cruisers alike.
Yet, the South Shore and Eastern Shore areas of Nova Scotia, along with Cape Breton, make up the sailing ground we have enjoyed for five sailing seasons with our Beneteau 323. And we haven’t made it to Maine or Newfoundland either, not so much for lack of crew and boat capability as mainly for lack of time.
Most sailing forums we have visited since we bought our Beneteau Oceanis 323 five years ago, point to the 323 as an excellent weekend cruiser in terms of overall comfort and seakindliness. However, the 323 is also popular with sailing charter outfits, particularly in the Aegean Sea area. The Aegean Sea has its weather tantrums, but generally it is a sailor’s paradise because of the Cyclades and other island groups which provide quick and easy access to sheltered places with full services.
So, if many owners hail the Beneteau 323 as a great weekend cruiser, as we indeed found her to be, what about its capabilities as an extended-range coastal cruiser?
The answer is simple: she does a fine job of taking on challenging seas and winds and compares well in overall performance with many heavier 30 to 40-foot sailing cruisers. Making extended sailing journeys safe, comfortable and enjoyable is a matter of careful planning and having the right safety and navigation equipment. The Beneteau 323’s 180-litre fresh water tank and 75-litre diesel tank are sufficient for long legs between full-service ports and marinas. Tank capacity is not really an issue, as long as you carry extra jugs of drinking water.
The real issue is battery power. The 323 comes standard with two small deep-cycle batteries, good enough for weekend sailing without recharging, but not for all-night cruising with nav lights on. So why not simply add more batteries and havea substantial battery bank? Because, in our opinion, the 323 being a good performer under sail, remains a light sailboat at approximately 9,000 lbs empty. With a hull length of 30 feet and a water-line length of 29 feet, she is fast for her size but sensitive to additional weight and weight distribution lengthwise. One can’t simply add substantial batteries without a penalty in speed and pointing ability, given the batteries’ aft location. The last thing you want to do with a light cruiser is to load up the aft section of the boat.
The alternative, other than running the inboard engine to recharge the batteries: a wind-powered generator coupled to a state-of-the-art solar panel, together with batteries of a higher quality than the ones supplied by Beneteau dealers. This type of equipment would not add much weight to the aft section of the boat. Furthermore, as LED light bulbs become more affordable in the near future, they should replace the standard light bulbs supplied by Beneteau USA, especially for lighting required for night navigation. This will drastically lower the loads on the batteries and extend the recharge period of the batteries.
The 323 must be kept in trim for best performance in light air and also for pointing ability when sailing upwind in stronger winds and choppy seas. If the speed over water is allowed to drop below five knots in choppy seas, the lateral drift becomes an impediment to reaching the intended destination within a reasonable amount of time. (It should be noted, in passing, that our Beneteau 323 has a shoal-draft keel. Upwind performance is likely better with the optional 6′ fin keel and sport rigging.) The lateral drift, as we experienced it on several occasions, is due to a combination of excessive heeling angle and low speed over water. One way to reduce being heeled over while beating to windward in windy and choppy sea conditions, consists in depowering the main. This technique is well explained in the DVD provided by Neil Pryde, the Beneteau 323 sail-maker. Depowering the main involves making adjustments to the shape of the main by sliding the mainsail car to the lee-side stop to flatten the main, with extra tension applied to the foot of the sail. Doing this on many sailboats will take the curve out of the mainsail and reduce heeling. Some skippers advocate another de-powering technique for the mainsail. It consists in positioning the mainsail car well to windward on the rail and loosening the main sheet enough to give the mainsail a twist that will cause it to spill wind. The pros and cons of either de-powering method are surely listed in sailing magazines or books we haven’t come across yet. Whichever method provides best overall results, after five sailing seasons on the Beneteau 323, we have yet to answer the basic question as to whether the mainsail should be de-powered first before being reefed. 😉
Despite the very comfortable cockpit and roomy interior, the 323 behaves almost like a large sailing dinghy because she is highly responsive to input from the helm or changes in the combined pressure centre of the sails. She is fast for her size (waterline length almost equal to hull length) and highly responsive and maneuverable; however, you can’t have everyone on board sitting in the cockpit and, worse, sitting on the lee-side, lest you’ll be penalized in terms of performance. Since you can’t expect, especially in rough weather, to have people stay inside the 323 or to sit on deck near the bow, the only way to maintain her in trim is to stow additional fresh-water jugs under the V-berth, forward of the fresh-water tank. There is generous space up there to stow heavy and useful items. Small weight distribution adjustments add up and enhance sailing performance.
Another small balancing improvement consists in having the main anchor (a 35 lb one in our case) securely fastened on the protruding anchor roller, instead of having it stowed in the anchor locker. If you can manage to stow both the main and secondary anchors in the bow locker without getting rodes tangled, so much the better. It’s feasible since the anchor locker is indeed fairly large, especially if you don’t have a windlass mounted on the shelf inside.
Avoid overloading the cockpit locker, unless there is no other room for heavy safety equipment. Keep in mind that the cockpit locker is already laden with the factory-installed hot water tank and holding tank. This alone has an impact on the Beneteau 323’s lateral balance, unless both tanks are empty which is usually not the case. On long cruises, we usually carry a 25-liter portable tank of diesel that goes into the cockpit locker and we have no choice but to hang the 2 hp outboard motor for the dinghy on the stern pulpit. Hanging the dinghy on overhanging davits over the stern would not make much sense on a weight-sensitive sailing cruiser. Instead, after much research and many phone calls, we found a light inflatable dinghy that fits perfectly ahead of the mast, fully inflated and ready for use. Naturally, it is flipped upside down and still leaves room on either side to easily reach the bow for working the anchor or whatever else needs to be done before the mast.
However, the space constraints ahead of the mast on a Beneteau 323 don’t allow for an inflatable much longer than seven feet, which is barely sufficient for two adults and a light teenager in a well protected harbour or anchorage. Anyone thinking instead of towing a hard dinghy behind in heavy seas should think twice, knowing that the inconvenience in foul weather of towing a hard or inflatable dinghy by far outweighs the advantage of being able to hop quickly in the dinghy from the swim platform and make it to shore within minutes. A towed dinghy in foul weather is a liability. We learned that lesson the hard way.
One of the nice features of the Beneteau 323 includes having enough space underneath the floorboards to stow quantities of canned food and juice bottles, etc. Again, the natural reflex would be to use that space to its maximum starting from the forward part of the cabin and make your way aft, as needed.
The floorboards on the 323 do not come standard with fasteners. Although we’ve never suffered a knockdown in heavy seas resulting in all the food stored under the floorboards to fly around the cabin, having the floorboards individually secured is highly recommended if you intend to sail in potentially rough weather.
Our Beneteau 323 has sailed upwind in sea and wind conditions rough enough that the deck, forward of the dodger, was awash 20 to 30% of the time. Staying inside the cabin in such conditions is not pleasant for anyone prone to seasickness. Making a sandwich in the galley becomes a circus act unless a holding strap is installed for the cook. Yet, after a bumpy ride in choppy seas for two hours or more, we found that nothing was spilled and no loose objects ended up broken on the cabin sole. But one should avoid carrying glass containers of any kind. The sea can be unexpectedly brutal at times and there is nothing worse than having pieces of broken glass flying around the cabin.
Once, we were sailing in fair weather conditions not far from shore, but in open waters, when some kind of rogue wave picked up our 323 like a toy and threw her on her beam’s end. The three of us were all safe and sound having had time to brace ourselves and hang on to something solid, except that a hard coffee cup in the cockpit was tossed against the beautifully finished hardwood in the companionway, leaving a dent. Just imagine if, instead of hitting the hardwood finish, the cup had flown straight against a person’s head… Things to think about when choosing your on-board dishware.
During the first couple of summer seasons sailing around in our Beneteau 323, we thought our sailboat was too light and that a heavier, stiffer one would have given us more stability and comfort. We have since tossed that notion overboard. Why? We have read sailing books and talked to a number of skippers who sailed larger sailboats in the same waters as we did in similar weather conditions. The upshot of it all? We think the Beneteau 323 has most of the stability and comfort features other recent sailboats in the 30 to 40 foot range would have.
Finally, sticking to the original question as to whether or not the Beneteau 323 is more than a weekend cruiser, one should determine if she is capable of heading back to her home port on time, against wind and waves in rough weather.
Once our Beneteau 323 sailed upwind all night in large but diminishing residual swell (max. 7 to 10 feet high by our estimation in total darkness), with a long period between each, off the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. We had to tack regularly to avoid drifting too far away from the coast. Thus, we sailed along a line approximately 10 to 12 miles from the shore to avoid rocky ledges that line the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia’s coastline.
Another sloop or cutter perhaps, a Mason 44, much larger and heavier than our Beneteau was sailing in the same direction, but hugging the coast and making much better speed. As long as we could see her, we observed that she didn’t tack once. We were moving along at 5.5 to 6 knots and the Mason 44 was going 8 knots by our estimation. The ocean swell from a residual storm was from the SW though the wind was from the NW. Why such a difference in performance, I wondered.
A plausible explanation came to mind the next morning as we decided to take a break by going ashore, just as we came abeam Jeddore Harbour, 10 miles out to sea. As we closed in on the shore, the NW wind turned to NNW, then North near the mouth of the Jeddore River. In other words, the closer to shore one could sail, the more favourable the wind was for westbound sailboats. The Mason 44 had likely opted to hug the coast despite the higher number of shoals inside the 10-mile limit, and probably enjoyed a more favourable wind.
The closer we came to the mouth of the river, the harder the wind blew, sometimes overpowering our Beneteau 323 with two reefs in the main and full jib. From dawn, the sea appeared covered with whitecaps and no other boats were to be seen until we reached Jeddore.
Notwithstanding the uncomfortable sailing conditions that night, we managed to cover about 70 nm on a course made good, despite many tacks, in about 12 hours. Our 323 had covered an honourable distance given the majestic ocean’s loyal opposition.
To those Beneteau would-be buyers who fear, without hands-on experience, that a shallow-keel Beneteau 323 might be too tender to their licking, our advice is to avoid considering only the the ballast to displacement ratio, and to take into account the sailboat’s ballast position (keel-end bulb ballasts have a higher righting moment) and her CSF number. The 323 does not heel over excessively, in our experience, thanks to its generous, but not excessive, maximum beam combined with a relatively flat bottom, and especially with proper tweaking of the mainsail. And we did sail stiff cruisers before, one of which had a nearly 50-50 ratio. She heeled over just as much, or just as little, depending on how one perceives the natural tendency of a sailboat to heel over under sail. A popular and respected discussion on this topic was initiated by boat designer Ted Brewer. The main remarks that came out of it are as follows:
“There’s much more to “stability” than a good CSF* number.
*From Ted Brewer: CAPSIZE SCREENING FORMULA (CSF): Some years ago the technical committee of the Cruising Club of America came up with a simple formula to determine if a boat had blue water capability. The CSF compares beam with displacement since excess beam contributes to capsize and heavy displacement reduces capsize vulnerability. The formula is the maximum beam divided by the cube root of the displacement in cubic feet; B/Displ.333. The displacement in cubic feet can be found by dividing the displacement in pounds by 64, of course.
The boat is acceptable if the result of the calculation is 2.0 or less but, of course, the lower the better. For example, a 12 meter yacht of 60,000 lbs displacement and 12 foot beam will have a CSF Number of 1.23, so would be considered very safe from capsize. A contemporary light displacement yacht, such as a Beneteau 311 (7716 lbs, 10’7″ beam) has a CSF number of 2.14. Based on the formula, while a fine coastal cruiser, such a yacht may not be the best choice for ocean passages.“ (Source: http://www.cruisersforum.com/forums/f47/capsize-ratio-5964.html)
Based on the above technical discussion, it can be said that the Beneteau Oceanis 323, while not so much of a racing type as its cousin, the Beneteau 311, is by design quite stable for coastal cruising but not as heavy and stable as your typical blue-water cruiser. This is something to keep in mind weather-wise, before attempting short crossings in serious seas, such as from Cape Breton to Newfoundland.
One last word on the tenderness aspect: once, as we were approaching the Canso Ledges under sail turning towards the entrance to the Bras d’Or Lakes across the Canso Strait, the wind piped up enough that we decided it would be safer to put in for the night in Canso. As we had to negotiate narrow channels into Canso, we doused the sails and motored in through the rock-lined channels. While in calm waters protected by low-lying rocks but still exposed to the ocean wind, our Beneteau 323 heeled over under bare poles as if she were under sail. Our first impression at the time was that the 323 was tender. The next morning, after a good night’s rest in Canso, we learned that a full gale had blown over. Without having a wind speed indicator on our 323, one can only imagine that the powerful wind that made us heel over under power the previous evening was the brunt force of the gale.
Back to our all-night sailing adventure: we gained increased confidence in the 323’s ability to take on strong wind and waves nearly on the nose and still make good headway. As for the size of the SW residual swell from a gale that passed over the area the previous day, darkness prevents any reasonably accurate estimation. What we I do know is, while working to get the anchor off the roller and into the locker, I had never experienced repeated weightlessness to such an extent on any previous sailboat. Luckily, the large dodger kept us dry and reasonably warm for an early September night sail, although at one point, we had to wear mittens.
Finally, to answer the main question as to whether or not the Beneteau Oceanis323 is a weekend cruiser or an extended-range coastal cruiser as well, our answer is simple: with enough cash available for additional equipment and time to spare, we would now be sailing down towards the Caribbean for the winter. And that’s being conservative in our sailing ambitions!
Final observations on comfort at sea: Most sailboats will pound in the waves when beating upwind in choppy seas. The Beneteau 323 is no exception. However, we found she slices nicely through choppy seas provided her speed remains between 5.5 and 6 kts. Above that speed, one would have to fall off the wind somewhat to take the waves at a greater angle in order to minimize pounding. But then, more spray from the windward side gets around the dodger and into the cockpit. Either way, they are inconveniences that are part of sailing. Not everyone can afford a hard sliding roof extension that can cover the whole cockpit such as on “Foncia”, super-skipper Michel Desjoyeaux’s Open 60 (see in particular images #17 & 18 on Foncia’s website).
Last but not least, from a purely regulatory perspective, a Beneteau 323 built in the USA meets or exceeds all current International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards and directives in effect at the time of manufacture (See Beneteau 323 Owner’s Manual under SPECIFICATIONS OF THE BOAT, at p. 24.) On the same page, it is stated that the Beneteau 323 is certified in the “B” design category as an offshore vessel, i.e.: capable of withstanding expected Force 8 wind conditions and waves up to 13 feet high. Realistically speaking, we would not initiate a crossing when such weather conditions are forecast for the planned sailing area. However, the same paragraph goes on to state that the “B” certification does not apply to any equipment installed by the dealer or the owner. As a matter of common sense and good seamanship, no major blue water crossings should be attempted with the Beneteau323 unless further requirements are met. This is a conservative and safe approach to follow, even though it is well known that smaller sailboats have made and still make major crossings.
As a final point, the insurance policy on our Beneteau 323 provides that the boat shall not be sailed further than 50 miles from shore. From where we usually sail, this limitation would allow us to sail from a point on Cape Breton no more than 100 miles from the Newfoundland coast in good weather conditions*. Going in the opposite direction, i.e. towards Cape Cod, we would have to curve our course slightly toward the coast, crossing the Bay of Maine, in order to sail from Cape Sable Island (Nova Scotia) to Cape Cod, while remaining within insurance limits. From Cape Cod on, the whole Eastern Seaboard is yours to discover, coming from Canada of course.
* The comment made in the book “Where the Wind Blows – A Guide to Marine Weather in Atlantic Canada“, at p. 109, about sea conditions in the Cabot Strait should have a sobering effect on small craft operators intending to make the crossing. In addition, this book is very useful for sailboat operators wanting to better understand coastal micro-climates referred to at the beginning of this post.
See also: Beneteau 323 sailboat review with photos on this site.