Bénéteau Print E-mail
Sunday, 23 January 2005

THREE MEN & THEIR BOATS

One hundred and thirty three years ago, young André-Benjamin Bénéteau came home from a fishing expedition and told his mother he was leaving home.

In the poor French village of Croix-de-Vie, a boy started work as soon as he was strong enough and sturdy André-Benjamin had been fishing alongside his father and brother since he was eight. He  realized this was not something he wanted to do for the rest of his life but, in the Vendée village where fishing was the only métier, there seemed no option.

Some of André-Benjamin's boyhood friends also disliked going to sea but, whilst they merely dreamed of a better life, this young man planned how to make dreams come true.

Determined to overcome the problems of lack of money and schooling, young Bénéteau set off to walk to Toulon, where he would sign on in the French Navy.

André-Benjamin- naval architect

It seems strange that someone who disliked going to sea should join the Navy, but André-Benjamin knew it would feed him, clothe him, make him literate and teach him mathematics. He would study hard, spend nothing and decide on a future career. Before long he had that planned for, studying the classic lines of the naval vessels, he realised he had 'an eye for a boat'. When his naval stint was over he en-rolled at Rochefort's prestigious college of naval architecture.

In 1884, the newly qualified young man came home to Croix-de- Vie, set up his workshop on the hard and built his first fishing boat. Fishermen liked to have a boat built in their home port, where they could watch progress, so reasonable success was assured, but it was quality, not convenience, which brought orders flooding in. Even the uninitiated could see that Bénéteau’s boats were in a different class from those built by the other local yard. Their entries were sharper, the lines finer and performance superior. They sailed closer to the wind, came about more quickly and, when light airs kept others in port, Bénéteau boats would ghost along on a breath of wind. Soon the young constructor had more orders than he could handle. It was time to move to a real workshop, at nearby St Gilles, and start training people to work for him.

André-Benjamin's wife Valentine took over the local café and the combined incomes made the family very comfortable. Soon Bénéteau's reputation had spread to the Spanish border and all went well until, in 1909, things were disrupted. The summer was exceptionally windless and frustrated fishermen sipped eau-de-vie in Valentine's café, then went to look at André-Benjamin's latest build. Before long they noticed that, although work was advanced, there was no sign of a mast and there were unusual heavy timbers in the hull. They were horrified to learn that this boat was to have an engine. 'Sacre dieu' they exclaimed 'it will frighten the sardines away and we will starve.' Valentine's café was boycotted, gendarmes escorted Bénéteau too and from work and, on launch day, mounted police had to control militant fisher wives, intent on stoning ‘the devil boat’. The fishermen would not acknowledge the benefit of a motor, even when the boat returned with its hold packed with sardines. Pascal Guitonneau, the only local who had signed on as crew, was stabbed as he disembarked!

Sugar Bread

The fishermen eventually took to engines and André-Benjamin's son André - known as ‘Pain du Sucre’ - inherited a thriving business, in 1928. The locals loved young André but suspected he had preferred socialising to studying naval architecture under his stern father's guidance. 'Will he make it?' and 'Does he have talent?' were on everyone's lips, but it soon became obvious that a revolutionary boat was taking shape in the yard. The 12 metre 'Jeannot' started a dynasty whose, now legendary, tulip bow was to make the Bénéteau name famous outside France.

At first, the firm was carried along on foundations laid by André-Benjamin but, unfortunately, Sugar Bread was too easy going and too much of a perfectionist. He gave too much credit and, if a client couldn't afford the best wood, André would use it anyway and charge him for a poorer quality His wife Georgina struggled to collect payments and control spending for, as long as André could pay the wages and put food on his table, he was happy to jog along. After the war, even Georgina's efforts couldn't keep the firm in profit, for many young men had not come back and older ones patched rather than purchased new.

Dédé

Only a handful of men worked in the yard when the next André - called Dédé - took over, in 1964. He decided the future lay with fiberglass but, although locals were not actively hostile to this material, they were not going to ‘risk their lives’ in it.

If André's sister had not met Louis-Claude Roux, the ‘Bénéteau’ name might have gone from boating annals then. Annette was studying for a banking career, but Louis persuaded his future wife to devote her clever mind to the yard. She told a reluctant André that his small fishing boat ‘Fletan’ was ideal for the pleasure boat market and took a stand at the 1965 Paris Boat Show.

The Boat Show

André and Annette kept rearranging their tiny stand but, beside glittering showcases of established manufacturers, their efforts looked amateurish. Annette began to regret what she had done, for Bénéteau bank statements were red and failure could mean bankruptcy. It was a disheartened duo who arrived to man their humble display. The doors opened but most visitors were interested in deep keel ocean cruisers and luxurious motor yachts. Those who climbed to the 5th floor barely glanced at little Fletan, before going on to better presented boats. André and Annette became increasingly dejected until, as Annette says 'the miracle happened'.

The miracle

A smartly dressed man strolled around the dinghies, pausing occasionally to ask a question. He reached the Bénéteau stand and, for the first time, someone gave Fletan a second look. In fact, this visitor examined it for a long time before saying 'You are to be complimented. That is an excellent design and I would like to order 30.' Imagine how those two felt! One moment bankruptcy looming, next the sweet smell of success. Before that day was half over they had taken orders for 100 boats; by the weekend, the press was clamouring for their story.

The tiny boat, on one of the humblest stands, had become a star and Bénéteau's future was assured.

Marian Martin

Last Updated ( Sunday, 23 January 2005 )
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