I had the opportunity to tour the Fountain Pajot and Nautitech production facilities over two consecutive days while traveling in Europe
on business this September. Two boats that remain on our short list are the FP Helia 44 (and possibly the newly announced 47) and the Nautitech Open 46.
I thought I would provide my feedback here while the visits are still fresh in my mind. Unfortunately, nether factory representatives would allow me to video or take pictures so this is the best I can do. And sorry in advance for the length of this post but I want to provide as much details as I can for those that are considering purchasing
. I would encourage anyone who wants to buy a new catamaran
to take the opportunity to visit the factory. It is an incredible opportunity to thoroughly understand and appreciate what goes into the building of these large cruising catamarans and it will go a long way to help you understand all the systems and structure of your own boat
Sorry, couple of more things to say before I give you my thoughts, I want to thank both companies for hosting me, both factory representatives took a lot of time out of their day to give me the tour and answer my million questions. Also, a big thank you to Stephane from Gulf Stream
in La Rochelle who works with owners and factories to commission and deliver all makes of boats built in France
. If you are looking to commission your boat in La Rochelle you would be hard pressed to find a better person to help you with all your outfitting and custom needs, he has been doing this for 22 years. Stephane answered another million questions I had and provide me with some great information about the differences between the manufacturers. One thing he said that I want to pass along is that the difference in the boats being built today even compared to a few years ago is big. This is due to better design tools, better designs period, improved materials and components, and better construction techniques. The catamaran
industry in France
is in a boom time and consumers are very smart in terms of buying
quality so there is a lot of emphasis on building safe and reliable boats to keep owners happy and not complaining on the internet
for all of us shoppers to read. Stephane also said that in terms of overall quality, all the boats from Lagoon
, Neel, FP, Nautitech in his opinion are about the same and will reward their owners with reliability
There are two FP factories, the one I toured is just outside of La Rochelle and is where the 40/44/50 and soon the 47 are made. The Nautitech factory is in Rochefort just south of La Rochelle. The differences between the two production facilities was very apparent. This FP facility turns out 150+ boats a year compared to around 60 for Nautitech (Note: Nautitech plans to expand their production to 75+ a year and, also because of demand, did not shut down production this past August in contrast to FP who did and used this time for equipment
maintenance). Despite this, the difference in employees is not as great, something like around 200 for FP and around 150 for Nautitech based on the counts given to me by the factory representatives. In addition, the FP facility was significantly larger than Nautitech’s. The FP facility was extremely modern and geared towards higher production with lower labor involvement. For example, all the deck
molds at FP are built on platforms that are connected at two ends to hydraulic lifts that lower the molds for layup
and infusion and then raise and turn the mold
for release right side up. By contract
at Nautitech the deck
molds have to be moved outdoors for headroom
, lifted by temporary glassed on eyes, and then rotated into the upright position. At FP, all fiberglass
construction is performed in one building and this was massive and very clean and orderly with good air quality. By contrast Nautitech performs fiberglass
construction in several buildings and these were pretty dusty, disorganized, with poorer air quality (fiberglass fumes were pretty strong). At FP, they carefully monitor
the construction of each boat with a massive project
plan for every task of construction down to the minute and this is completely monitored by input into a production computer system. In contrast, Nautitech production control and monitoring seemed to be paper based. From the first spaying of the gel coat in the molds it takes FP around 8 weeks to complete a boat vs. twice that for Nautitech, again this based on loose numbers provided to me by the representatives.
Ok so those are the key differences that I identified in the facilities, now here are some of the key differences I noticed in the construction of the boats.
Material – FP uses Divinycell in the deck and balsa in the hulls. Nautitech uses Divenycell in both the hull
and deck. The representative at FP indicated that they only use Divinycell in the deck because it is required for CE certification
. I asked about the concern of having balsa core
in the hull
in terms of potential water
absorption and the response is that the core material is never exposed to pentation from a fitting or fastening as these areas of the hull and deck are solid fiberglass. Further with the resin infusion used by FP it was very clear that resin fully penetrates the gaps between the small blocks and that water
would not be able to migrate easily. It would be interesting to know the pros and cons between balsa and Divinycell and the associated weight differences between them in full section with infused resin. Also if there is any difference between adhesion to the fiberglass layers. The actual resin infusion process is pretty basic and I didn’t see any difference between the companies. Both companies use very controlled core placements and fiberglass schedule. All the glass is pre-cut and labeled for placement. At Nautitech I noticed very careful smoothing of the fiberglass layers and the infused parts
looked really good and clean. On the FP I did see a few wrinkles here and there on the infused parts
. Please do not take this as indicative of anything since my sample and time to inspect was so limited. Further, a wrinkle here or there in the cloth has no bearing on the overall quality of the boat and would be entirely expected. Further, I didn’t see the process of laying out the cloth while at FP.
Bulkheads – both construction techniques where pretty similar and both appeared to be very carefully bonded to the hulls and decks. Both companies fully glass in the bulkheads. There has been some discussion in this forum on how this was being done. One key difference is the material again. FB uses balsa cored bulkheads in many locations in contrast to Nautitech who again uses Divenycell bulkheads made on site. Both companies use marine
ply bulkheads for key structural areas.
Hull to Deck Joint – again very similar between the two companies. Decks are joined to the hulls with overlapping flanges and glued. I am not sure what compounds are used for this but there is no mechanical fasting used. The flanges are wide and provide a lot of surface area for gluing. It seems that FP has modified the hull to deck flanges with the new 40 as compared to the 44. The 40 has horizontal flanges, similar to Nautitech, verses a vertical flange on the 44. Look at the 44 and you will see a rub rail which is covering the hull/deck seam. Again, these boats have sailed thousands of miles with no issues on the hull to deck joins so the lack of mechanical connection is nothing to lose sleep over.
Hull Construction – a key difference between FP and Nautitech is the way the hulls are built. FP uses a single mold
for the entire hull structure (both hulls and bridge) verses Nautitech who uses three molds (port & starboard outer hulls and then the inner port/starboard hulls with the bridge). Once these pieces are infused the outer hull sections are joined to the mold and the seam is glassed together. This is exactly how Outremer
does it as well. Nautitech says that they are forced to do this because of the ledge (hull shape) they have in the hulls (look at a picture) that allow for a finer underwater profile while providing more usable space in the cabins. The only concern that I have for this approach is in the bow areas that are very narrow, it would seem to be difficult to lay the cloth and properly wet it out. I don’t know this for a fact and again, hundreds of boats have sailed many thousands for miles constructed this way with no issues.
Keels – there is a pretty significant difference between the two companies. First in the shape of the keels, the Nautitech keel
had a very different section, much narrower, longer, and a better foil shape than FP’s. The way the keels are fitted to the boat was very different. FP molds into the hull a socket if you will where the keel
is inserted and then glued. This provides a more mechanical join to the hull then the Nautitech keel. The Nautitech keel is placed and glued on a flat section of the hull. This area of the hull has a molded in sump box that is very nice to have for collection of water in the hulls. This sump box fits within a recess in the keel. The keels have a top flange for more surface area for gluing. Again, I have no idea if this is a significant difference and if the Nautitech keels are any more susceptible to failure without the more mechanical connection that FP has. I haven’t heard of any Nautitech’s losing their keels. Both boats can fully support themselves on their keels. The Nautitech representative told me that they had to ship a keel for a 40 recently in the Caribbean
that hit a reef. I assume it would be relatively straight forward to replace either keel type on these boats.
and Prop Placement – looking at the FP 44 and Open 46 it is clear that there is a difference in the rudder
placements. The Nautitech rudders are as far aft as you can get them and the engines are shifted forward with the engines aft of the sail drives. This puts the props pretty far forward of the rudders and moves the engine
weight pretty far forward as well. This is in contrast to the FP ‘s where the sail drives are aft of the rudders and the rudders are further forward. I have no idea if this makes any difference in handling under power or sail or if there are pros or cons to the different configurations. What I do like is the amount of engine room space on the Nautitech. With the engines forward in the wider section of the hull, there is plenty of room to get into the engine compartment and around the engine to work on it.
Furniture – both representatives pointed out benefits to the way their furniture is built and placed into the boats. FP builds their furniture on site and claims that this yields a better fit with utilization of the space available. By contrast Nautitech uses the extremely advanced manufacturing capabilities of the Bavaria
production facility in Germany
to make the majority of the furniture for the Open 40/46. Looking at the Nautitech furniture pieces I was extremely impressed with the way it was built and assembled. (think Ikea on steroids) Clearly Bavaria
has a state of the art facility and can do some very cool things with wood. Again, no idea of the pros or cons of either approach, they are just different. It would be extremely interesting to understand how the total weight of the furniture between the two boats compares. One thing the Nautitech representative told me is that they do not use composite wood on the Open boats (40/46), they do use it on the larger Catamaran they build. I forgot to ask if FP uses any composite wood for weight savings and how much this actually saves would be interesting to know.
, and Plumbing
– One word “OMG”!! When you see the miles of wires, hoses, pumps, electrical
, thru hulls, tanks
that lay before you all exposed it is enough to make you want to reconsider boat ownership
. Having to trouble shoot problems will not be easy when all this stuff gets covered up. Both companies seemed to do a great job in providing some organization for the chaos with tubes for long inaccessible runs. The key to all of this is to have a good owner’s manual that provides all the schematics of these systems to make it as simple of possible to trace down problems. Be sure to ask to see this as part of your evaluation before you purchase
. Visit your boat when these systems have been installed and are still exposed so that you can take a lot of pictures for your reference. One very minor point that I will make regarding the FP 44, for some reason they glass in the bow navigation
so if you were to ever have to replace these wires you would need to figure out how to run new wires. Again, a very minor point.
Incorporating Owner Feedback – both companies have a process to take owner and dealer feedback on aspects of the boat and components that need to be improved or changed. At FP I saw Helia Hull 169 under construction and at Nautitech I saw Open 46 Hull 11 in construction. The Helia 44 is 3 or 4 years into production and much owner feedback has been incorporated into the current
version of the boat. These items include many components and some basic design elements that have gone into the Evolution version. Similarly Nautitech has already incorporated many improvements since Hull No 1 was launched in April including better ventilation in the main and aft cabins. Both companies have dedicated customer service
and support personnel who are also responsible for collecting owner feedback and passing this along to the design and manufacturing teams.
Quality Control – both companies have dedicated quality control personnel and processes. The Nautitech representative indicated that they weigh each boat at each stage of construction to maintain consistent tolerance to design specs. If I do order an Open 46 I will request this weight information and how it compares to design. No one wants an unnecessarily heavy catamaran. I didn’t ask what the factory would do should a boat come in too light or too heavy from design specs. Both companies do water testing for leaks
above the water line. Neither company currently has a test pool to test engines and other below the water line systems and thru hulls. This is currently done when launched. Both companies have plans to build testing pools and better above the water line leak testing.
Final impressions – nothing that I saw would prevent me from purchasing
either boat. Both companies have been building quality boats for a long time and have many happy owners. Both companies clearly care about building a quality product that is going to be as safe as possible for their customers. These boats are extremely complex with many different components and parts and all of them are going to have some issues at some point with something that will likely yield internet
rampage from owners. Is there anyone out there that blogs just to say how much they like their boat? Look at the big picture, when was the last time you heard of a large production catamaran that is newer then 10 years old fall apart at sea?
For me the decision really comes down to the right balance between performance, comfort, and cost. And the boat that hits my sweet spot on those criteria will be the boat I buy and with confidence that I can go and cross an ocean and the last thing I need to worry about is the quality of the product.