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Great Loop Gallop

Beneteau is promoting its Swift Trawler 34 on a four-month passage of the route around eastern North America

The Beneteau Group is known for innovative boats, but for its Swift Trawler 34 it has also cooked up an inventive marketing campaign: Race it around the Great Loop in only four months, get the marine industry to share expenses, bring boating writers on board for different legs to maximize publicity, and then sell it at the end of the trip.

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The Great Loop route is increasingly popular with cruisers and Beneteau’s goal is not merely to advertise a new boat but, more ambitiously, to stimulate the market for it as well. If it works, the Swift Trawler 34 will lead the way for the major expansion Beneteau is planning in the U.S. powerboat sector.

Of course, there are risks in sending any boat on a 7,000-mile maiden voyage at a fast clip and on a tight schedule with an ever-changing roster of captains and crew. But even the risks have an upside. Beneteau knows there is the possibility of some sort of failure along the way and that’s partly why people follow these types of endeavors — to see what breaks down or gets bashed up. So the trawler’s ample storage space is packed with spare parts, including a new $4,200 replacement propeller in case the original is damaged en route — which it was, when the boat hit a submerged log in early June on the Trent-Severn Waterway in Ontario, bending two of the prop’s five blades. The boat was hauled at Crate’s Marina and the spare wheel was installed.

“If it were risk-free, we wouldn’t draw some of the reporters and readers,” says Laurent Fabre, head of sales and marketing for Beneteau Powerboats America. “But we want to show how simple it is to drive a single-engine boat and make people realize that doing the Great Loop is affordable, easy and convenient. Things will go wrong and when they do we’ll show how to deal with them. We’ll all learn from it.”

Extended liveaboard cruising, such as on the Great Loop, is exactly what the Swift Trawler 34 is designed for, and its compact size and bow and stern thrusters make it nimble and easy to handle for day trips as well. It is comfortable for two people and adequate for four; low enough in both water draft (3 feet, 7 inches) and air draft (12 feet with the mast down) to clear the Great Loop’s shoals and low bridges; and fast for a trawler, with a semidisplacement hull that cruises at 17 mph and maxes out at 24 mph. It also has one of the most fuel-efficient power plants for any trawler of its size on the market, a key factor in Beneteau’s decision to go with a single screw and a major selling point with the ups and downs of gas prices.

Not too big, not too small, not too slow, not too thirsty — and very comfortable. This boat is designed to ring all the bells for baby boomer boaters. To ensure that these points are not lost on potential buyers, Beneteau named this particular boat The Greatest Loop. It cast off in May from Annapolis, Md., on its circumnavigation of eastern North America and is scheduled to return in September to City Dock — a very ambitious schedule.

I was on board for the first leg, a two-day passage from Annapolis to New York. Even though I’m not a trawler guy, I can report that my major complaint with this boat is that Beneteau kicked me off it after only 300 miles and wouldn’t let me stay on for 6,000 more.

Different tribes

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an unusual person for a ride such as this, given my boating theologies. I belong to the wrong denomination: I’m a sailor. I’m happiest when the engine is off. To be honest, having recently cruised north of 60, I have harbored a quiet interest in trawlers, knowing the day might come when either my health or my boating ambitions change. Also, trawlers can be very attractive boats — life is too short for an ugly one — and I respect the basic ethos of the design: practicality and function over glitz, quiet over noise, reliability and safety over flash or fashion. To their credit, these boats are built for the long haul and they provide a lot more livable, usable, comfortable space than a sailboat of similar size.

Having chartered Beneteau sailboats, I can admire their handling. Beating up the Francis Drake Channel in the British Virgin Islands a few years ago in a strong headwind — typically a sailboat’s most difficult point of sail — our Beneteau 322 was fast, fun and tracked very well. There’s a reason the brand is so popular with racers.

Best known in this country as a sailboat builder, Beneteau got its start building sturdy fishing trawlers in France more than a century ago. Today it offers several powerboat models (Anteres, Flyer, Barracuda) in addition to the Swift Trawler line and the CNB brand of luxury yachts. Beneteau says it’s the world’s largest sailboat builder and it builds hundreds of 31- to 49-foot models each year at its factory in Marion, S.C., providing more than 5,000 American jobs in the process. Sailing and power yachts as large as 57 feet are imported from its factory in France. Beneteau has 20 manufacturing operations in France, Italy and the United States, and it just opened a new facility in Brazil.

The Swift Trawler

The Greatest Loop has a suite of Raymarine instruments standard on the Swift Trawler 34.

The Swift Trawler 34 is the smallest of Beneteau’s trawlers. (There also are 44- and 52-footers and a 42-foot model has been discontinued). Length overall is 36 feet, 7 inches — 32 feet, 9 inches on the waterline — and beam is 13 feet, 1 inch. There are aft and starboard entrances to the pilothouse/saloon, along with transom and starboard hull-side doors. The standard 34 has helm stations inside and on the flybridge, both placed to starboard. (The 34S model has no flybridge.) The side door to the pilothouse is a big help when single-handing. Controls are straightforward and easy to access, and the helm is smooth and responsive.

The layout below features a stateroom forward that comfortably accommodates two, a cabin to port with twin single berths and a head to starboard. The settee in the saloon folds out into a double berth. The saloon/pilothouse is offset slightly to port, allowing the starboard door to open fully, and provides unobstructed visibility from the helm.

The boat’s thrusters provide amazing maneuverability in tight quarters, including the ability to pivot 360 degrees. With a skilled helmsman, such as the captain on our leg, retired Coast Guard navigator Patrick Hopkins, boat control is very impressive. A shallow keel provides some protection to the propeller and rudder in the event of a grounding. Trim tabs help balance the boat at speed.

Beneteau designs and builds its powerboats around the engine, and for the Swift Trawler 34 it chose a single turbocharged Cummins 425-hp QSB5.9 6-cylinder diesel, with a five-blade 26-by-27 RH50 prop. Cummins Onan supplies the diesel generator, which easily fits in the ample storage area under the aft deck hatch. Standard instrumentation is Raymarine.

The galley is small and efficient, with a double sink that cooks will appreciate. The refrigerator is adequate for short trips, but an auxiliary ice chest would be needed for extended cruising away from the dock. Freshwater capacity is 85 gallons.

The suggested retail price for the base Swift Trawler 34 is about $280,000, and options such as a generator, air conditioning and electronics will kick it up to the $350,000 range. The Greatest Loop was tricked out with all those and much more, including an infrared thermal imaging camera on the mast and wireless Internet service, and would retail for about $423,000.

All Swift Trawler models are built in France. The Greatest Loop (hull No. 202) was shipped to Baltimore in March and trucked to Annapolis, where the local Beneteau dealer, Annapolis Yacht Sales, commissioned it. Beneteau plans to start building the Swift Trawler 34 in the United States if the market for it develops, and to make that happen the company opened a powerboat division office last year in Annapolis, which is overseeing The Greatest Loop’s voyage.

The price of speed

Patrick Hopkins was the captain for the first leg of the voyage.

Beneteau says the Swift Trawler 34’s 16,356-pound light-
displacement hull is designed for optimal cruising performance at 17 mph, burning 11.6 gallons per hour; top speed is just shy of 24 mph, burning 20.5 gph. When we left Annapolis, the dock price of diesel was about $4.55 a gallon, so filling the Swift Trawler’s 211-gallon fuel tank would run about $960. At that price the boat burns roughly $53 worth of diesel an hour at optimal cruising speed or $93 an hour at maximum speed. (Fuel prices can vary significantly by region, with some of the highest prices typically in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Visit for representative prices in different regions.) 

Beneteau says the boat’s cruising range is around 936 miles at 7 mph and around 200 miles at top speed. Our average speed on the first leg was a bit less than 20 mph, and we used 225 gallons of diesel at an average burn rate of 12.4 gph. The total fuel bill for our 315-mile voyage from Annapolis to New York was a bit over $1,000. Beneteau paid somewhat less because ValvTect Petroleum Products is one of the project’s sponsors, so The Greatest Loop gets a discount at marinas that sell its fuel. Beneteau estimates that the total fuel bill for the 6,000- to 7,000-mile Great Loop voyage will run about $30,000.

The hull

To achieve both light weight and strength in its boats, Beneteau molds a proprietary integral solid fiberglass grid into the hull and the bottom is balsa-cored to increase stiffness and dampen noise, according to Garth Hichens, owner of Annapolis Yacht Sales, the local Beneteau dealer. Although Beneteau uses the same materials and processes to manufacture sail- and powerboats, there are obvious differences in the hull forms. What’s not so obvious is the higher grid density in the powerboat hulls to handle the extra stresses of a bigger engine, greater speed and bigger accommodations, compared with a sailboat of similar size.

Hichens says it is this grid technology that creates the company’s light but strong hulls and helps boost fuel efficiency, speed and handling. “Beneteau has won awards with its grid design. More Beneteaus have sailed across the ocean than any other brand,” says Hichens, who owns Beneteau sail- and powerboats. “I have 50,000 miles on the ocean, and I’d sail a Beneteau across any time.”

The trip

The first leg brought the boat from Annapolis, Md., to the skyscrapers of the Big Apple.

Although The Greatest Loop is a modern boat, it arrived with some timeless maritime traditions. Beneteau CEO Annette Bénéteau-Roux (granddaughter of founder Benjamin Bénéteau), is said to prohibit the sale of boats on the 13th day of the month. The Greatest Loop could have started its voyage from Annapolis on a Sunday — May 13 — but we didn’t cast off until May 15.

On our second day out, our able and experienced captain, Patrick Hopkins, quietly allowed as how bananas are considered bad luck on boats. This was unfortunate because I had already brought a bunch aboard, and my wife had baked a loaf of chocolate banana bread — neither of which he touched the entire trip. But the boat did not sink, hit anything or break down on our watch. Could it be that the dreaded Banana Curse had something to do with the log they hit after we’d left the boat?

Our trip began at a lively launch party at Pusser’s Caribbean Grille, on City Dock in Annapolis, where a hundred or so friends, family and business associates showed up to toast The Greatest Loop on its way. With a crew of four — Hopkins; Maryline O’Shea, marketing director for Beneteau Powerboats America; my wife, Julia; and myself — we cast off just before sunset under overcast, calm conditions. We were soon ripping up Chesapeake Bay toward Rock Hall, Md., a pretty and popular town on the Eastern Shore across the Patapsco River from Baltimore. Thirty-five miles and just 90 minutes later we were tying up to the fuel dock at Haven Harbor Marina, as distant lightning quietly flashed over the dark horizon to the south.

The next morning we cast off at dawn and were soon flying up a smooth but hazy Bay at nearly 20 mph, dodging crab traps and bound for Atlantic City. While Hopkins helmed, O’Shea fed The Greatest Loop’s social media, posting to the boat’s website and Facebook page — a key part of the marketing for this project. The boat’s transponder sent regular updates of our position, and Hopkins also posted to a log on the boat’s website.

As a sailor, I found the speed and range of the Swift Trawler 34 to be disorienting. In two hours we were entering the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, a fair tide boosting our speed a couple of knots. About four hours later we were done with Delaware Bay and having lunch in Cape May, N.J. — a passage that took me three days to cover in my sailboat several years ago. By late afternoon we had zipped up the coast, cleared the rollicking Atlantic City inlet and were docked in a quiet and comfortable marina at one of the city’s many gaudy casinos.

The writer and his wife, Julia

Thursday, our final day on board, dawned with a stiff breeze out of the north, and Hopkins wisely stowed cushions and the microwave below as he “secured for sea” in anticipation of a rough passage. Despite the conditions, it was fascinating to watch the amusement parks, beach houses and seaside development ebb and flow as we cruised north about a mile offshore. Just as the beaches of Sandy Hook and the hills of Atlantic Highlands came into view off the port bow, the bristling skyscrapers of New York began to poke above the horizon ahead.

Coming into New York by sea is always a thrill and, as we approached the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the waves settled down and a relatively calm New York Harbor opened up ahead with Long Island stretching off to starboard. Hopkins altered course to cross the southern Sandy Hook and northern Ambrose Light shipping channels as quickly as possible to stay clear of commercial traffic.

Crossing under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, we passed a half-dozen cargo ships anchored in quarantine off Staten Island, awaiting inspection. We soon cruised by the iconic symbols of the Big Apple — the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Battery Park and the towering buildings of the financial district of lower Manhattan — and nosed up the Hudson River, pulling into Liberty Landing Marina on the New Jersey side to refuel. A half-hour later we were tied up at Chelsea Piers on the west side of Manhattan, Leg 1 of The Greatest Loop’s voyage completed safely and on schedule.

Along the way

Although Beneteau is generating a lot of public interest in the Great Loop with this project, it is also drawing criticism from seasoned “Loopers,” some of whom believe racing around the route defeats the purpose of the trip: taking time to slow down, meeting people who live along the way or cruise beside you, and learning about what you’re passing. A slow trip for The Greatest Loop isn’t possible this time around, but in our short leg and brief stops we still managed to meet some colorful characters.

In Cape May harbor, we refueled at Utsch’s Marina — a family-owned full-service facility that’s extremely convenient and legendary for its crusty, no-nonsense staff. In our banter with Dockmaster Wayne, for instance, he introduced himself to O’Shea as “Dockmaster No” because that is how he typically answers his customers. I remembered him well from my previous visit. So it was stunning, as we prepared to leave an hour later, when he came over to give us a bottle of the marina’s private label Utsch’s Cranberry Wine — an act of unexpected generosity (if not the ideal wine selection). Against all odds, we had managed to crack the ice after all.

The next day, as we refueled at Liberty Landing, O’Shea’s efforts to hire a chase boat for a photo shoot quickly introduced us to Jim Chambers, a master mariner who keeps his trawler, Osprey, at the marina. A harbor rat of aristocratic order, Chambers spent decades with the New York Police Department marine unit, captained the harbor dinner boat Spirit of New York, has chaired the Mayor’s Cup Committee and is a consultant to the operators of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island ferries. He recently renewed his captain’s license for the 11th time — no small feat because renewal is every five years and requires a strict physical examination.

Mayrline O'Shea, marketing director for Beneteau Powerboats America

Inside Osprey’s wheelhouse is a framed letter of tribute for Chambers’ participation in the boatlift of civilians after the Sept. 11, 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center — a nine-hour rescue of more than half a million people from Lower Manhattan that’s considered the largest water evacuation in history. Today, directly across the Hudson from where Chambers keeps his boat, the new Freedom Tower has topped out at 104 stories and now dominates the New York skyline.

Although The Greatest Loop might not be staying in any one place for long, it’s simply not possible to run the Great Loop and miss the country it goes through or some of the people who live there.

Freelance writer Stephen Blakely sails an Island Packet 26 on Chesapeake Bay.

See related article:

- About the Great Loop and The Greatest Loop

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.


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