Gunfleet Marine is one of the most interesting new boat builders for many years. This British yard is backed by the financial might and industry knowledge of Richard Matthews, whose knowledge of this sector of the market is unsurpassed.
The company promises innovative, luxurious serious cruising boats with good sailing qualities. Rupert Holmes sailed the first model, the Gunfleet 43, to discover whether the promises are realised on the water.
The first 43 was launched in September 2011, forming part of a range that includes a 58-footer and an upcoming 74. For the 43, Gunfleet's target market is experienced sailors, who plan to sail primarily as a couple and don't want to compromise on the comforts they enjoy at home.
First impressions are of a boat with well-lit and sumptuously appointed accommodation that's geared around maximising the owners' comfort. The aft cabin, its generous ensuite, galley and saloon are bettered by only a handful of boats of 50ft or even larger. The compromise is that the guest accommodation is more modest than that of some rivals, however guests staying on board for periods of up to a few weeks should find no reason to complain.
Digging below the surface does not disappoint – the depth of thought that has gone into making this a superb long-distance cruiser quickly becomes apparent. Despite the light and airy feel, there are handholds and bracing points within easy reach throughout the accommodation. Even the generously proportioned en suite to the master cabin has clearly been conceived to work as well at sea as it does in harbour. Stowage is plentiful and commendably deep fiddles will keep everything in place at the navigation station, saloon table and galley work tops, even in severe weather.
Again the layout has been well thought out to make the boat easy to handle by the smallest of crews, while also providing space of guests. The extensive after deck areas make ideal spaces for non-sailing guests in good weather or sunny climes. There are wide teak pushpit seats, full-length sun bathing spaces on each side of the aft cabin coachroof - it's an ideal space for the purpose and certainly better than being banished to the foredeck as is more usually the case.
The huge lazarette will appeal to anyone looking at long-term sailing or living on board and all that's lacking here is customised organisation to neatly stow the kit and equipment specified by each owner. There's also a dedicated locker for an 8 person liferaft launched through its own transom door, plus a swim platform with a fold-down boarding ladder.
Rig and deck gear is of a high standard and configured to make it easy to achieve accurate sail to trim to maximise performance and precision handling, with a proper mainsheet traveller, towable genoa cars and Dyneema main and headsail halyards.
Our test boat was fitted with four electric winches in the cockpit – an upgrade on the standard four manually operated units. The primaries are commendably easy to reach from the helm, as is the mainsheet. There's also a Lewmar 40 self-tailer at the mast for headsail and spinnaker halyards.
The rig is an 11/12ths fractional, with two sets of swept-back spreaders and a powerful adjusting backstay that will help to flatten the mainsail and reduce forestay sag as the wind increases. The thought that has clearly gone into the deck layout, and the high level of standard equipment, including a three-blade folding Volvo propeller, all points to a boat that will be appreciated and enjoyed by experienced and knowledgeable owners.
Don't be deceived into expecting that the boat's generous accommodation means the underwater shape has been overly compromised in order to maximise volume. The forward sections are surprisingly fine, which helps to create an easily driven shape, confirmed by the minimal wash left when motoring in flat water at more than seven knots. Allied to this an efficient low-centre of gravity keel, with a substantial lead bulb beneath the cast-iron fin, and a balanced spade rudder.
Our test boat was fitted with a slab-reefing mainsail, with single line reefs on the first two reefs led back to the cockpit, while in-mast furling is also an option. Our test took place in light airs, with the wind varying from 5-9 knots conditions, that can be more revealing of a vessel's sailing qualities than a test in moderate breezes: a thoroughbred sailing boat will respond well and remain fun to sail, while it may even prove impossible to make reasonable progress on a lesser craft.
The Gunfleet 43 was positively enjoyable to helm, with a precise feel and good feedback even in the lightest patches of wind that belied the 12.75 tonne displacement. The boat responded enthusiastically in the puffs with quick acceleration, but its considerable stability meant the increase in heel was almost imperceptible. She tacked repeatedly through 90 degrees – a respectable figure given the light airs and one that should be usefully bettered in a moderate breeze.
When close-hauled it's easy to get a good view of the headsail luff and the custom designed curved-spoke wheel neatly gets round the usual problem of poking fingers through moving spokes when using a plotter at the helm. The small almost non-overlapping jib is easy to handle and quick to sheet home, even when short tacking. With the big mainsail the first to be significantly depowered as the wind builds, the headsail can also be expected to maintain its shape at significantly higher windspeeds than a big overlapping genoa can manage.
Overall there was a really nice mix of rewarding and responsive handling, with a reassuringly solid feel. Given the conditions it's no surprise that the helm was finger-light, but there was plenty of feel and the boat would track reliably without constant attention.
We weren't able to test the boat in marginal broaching conditions, but the large balanced spade rudder can be expected to cope better than a yacht with a skeg-hung alternative. The same holds true for the twin rudders fitted to the centreboard version of the 43. It's abundantly clear that the 43 would be easily handled by an experienced couple on a passage of hundreds – or even thousands – of miles.
Equipment and extras
There's an unusually high level of quality standard equipment, both above and below decks. The boat is also built to facilitate the installation of further equipment, for instance air con ducting is already installed, there's space for a front-opening freezer below the fridge, room in the engine compartment to fit a diesel generator and even space allocated for a small washer drier,
Long term ownership
There's no escaping the fact that a boat with the comfort and conveniences of the Gunfleet is a complex vessel. However, despite the initial appearance of opulence, all services are planned with ease of maintenance in mind and the innovative CZone electrical bus system, originally developed for superyachts, has integrated fault-finding.
It's also reassuring that the company is seeking to develop long-term relationships with manufacturers of quality equipment. Gunfleet's commitment to customer service appears to go much further that many, seeking to maintain a direct life long connection with owners, rather than a loose network of dealers.
This is a boat with a many desirable attributes, particularly the kind of ergonomics, quality and attention to detail that's borne of deep knowledge, good design and a refusal to cut corners. This of course, together with the unusually long list of standard equipment, also helps explain the boat's hefty price tag. Would I recommend the Gunfleet 43?
If it's genuinely within budget, for a great many owners the Gunfleet 43 will deliver more fun, enjoyment and pride of ownership than the same outlay on a larger vessel. It's also likely to be less hassle in the long term than a bigger of a similar price (2012 guide price £512,400 inc 20% VAT), and yet just as comfortable for a couple with up to two regular and four occasional guests.
There's a lot to like about the way in which Gunfleet is planning to develop its business. The company's target market is not one that tends to make rushed decisions, but it can certainly be expected to slowly grow into a dominant and innovative boat builder that looks to the long term.
There is already a wide choice of boats in this marketplace, including the Najad 440, which offers many similar features, but lacks the practicality of the Gunfleet’s lazarette and is almost 10 per cent heavier. The Hallberg Rassy 43 is a superbly high quality boat, but the design’s origins are older than that of the Gunfleet and its interior, particularly the aft cabin, is no match the British boat. The Southerly 420 is a marginally smaller boat with well-planned accommodation, but lacks the on-deck stowage space of the Gunfleet.
Rupert Holmes has cruised and raced more than 60,000 miles, between 60 degrees north and 56 degrees south. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular boat and gear tests. He owns two yachts, one currently based in the Aegean and the other in the Solent.