Separate from the Pack
A sea trial in southern France leads the author on an adventure he never imagined.
Every now and then I get to go to the South of France, which is no hardship. For anyone based in the UK, where conditions for boating are marginal most of the year, occasionally quite pleasant, and life-threatening the rest of the time, there is little to complain about on the Côte d’Azur. You can eat well there. The scenery is attractive. And the weather is the clincher. Whatever the time of year, when an invitation pings up on my screen, I don’t waste much time thinking about it.
This invitation was a little bit different: Come and check out the new Sealine C330V in Cap d’Agde. In November. I had to look at a map. There it was, well to the west of Cannes, Antibes and Saint-Tropez, way down towards Spain. The nearest airport wasn’t near at all. It was Barcelona. But what’s a three-hour drive?
If I had known then that three hours would be more like eight, and that my drive from one country to another would take me through a third—or what many of its inhabitants firmly believe should be a third—I might have had second thoughts.
Gallery: Testing the Sealine C330V in the South of France
The C330V started out as a sterndrive model, which Sealine has always been well known for. One of the first boats I ever tested as a fledgling journalist was a boisterous little sports cruiser called a Sealine 255, with two four-cylinder Volvo gasoline engines and excellent, lively handling. Indeed, I had so much fun wringing it out for the photographer, who was hanging onto the platform of the boat in front, that when I caught up with him afterwards and waited for him to compliment my helming skills, all he said was, “You were a bit close.” Still, it made the front cover.
I have been out on a lot of boats since then, and even though my own little 20-footer not only has a cabin, a head and a bed, but also an 80-hp Yamaha fastened to the back, I can probably count on one hand the number of outboard boats I have tested that have any kind of cruising aspirations.
And the C330V doesn’t just aspire, it has actual cruising credentials—just under 34 feet long, two cabins, a proper galley and even an upholstered foredeck—so I was intrigued by the possibilities. For me, this was a new kind of boat for a new kind of boating. Count me in.
My rental car at the airport had a cartoonish quality, but I enjoyed the elevated driving position and got used to the way the engine stopped whenever I put it in neutral. I even figured out the satnav, although I was bemused by the way it kept trying to take me off the freeway and through various mountain villages on a route that looked scenic but would probably take all day. It was only when I was physically directed off the freeway by a guy in motorcycle gear that I realized what was up. I was in Catalonia, and this was an independence protest. The freeway had been closed by separatists. The roads and villages were jammed with displaced cars, all of us going nowhere. For hours and hours.
I wouldn’t say there was a carnival atmosphere, but the protesters were businesslike and the police had no choice but to pretend to be in charge, so the rest of us sat around, read books, and sought out lunch in the bars and cafes. It was way past dark by the time I got to Cap d’Agde.
Sealine used to be British before it went the way of most UK brands and got bought up by overseas capital. In this case, though, it wasn’t just bought but moved lock, stock and barrel to Greifswald on the Baltic coast of eastern Germany, where Hanse Yachts, one of Europe’s biggest players, also builds Fjord motor boats alongside Dehler, Hanse and Moody sailboats.
Although fitted out in the Hanse shipyard, Sealines are molded in Poland. A lot of European yards do the same thing—the Poles seem to know a thing or two about fiberglass. “It goes back to the Iron Curtain era,” explained Andrea Zambonini, the Sealine product manager at Hanse. “Under communism, the Poles specialized in GRP, and in East Germany the focus was on component assembly.” Funny how the politics imploded, and yet 30 years later the legacy of a centralized industrial policy still makes sense.
We were on board the C330V at its mooring in Cap d’Agde, which turned out to be one of those bizarre man-made marina resorts that sprang up along this stretch of coast in the 60s and 70s. In November it was very quiet, although the weather, of course, remained pleasant compared with the onset of the UK winter. The Ferris wheel stood idle against a blue Mediterranean sky, and here and there a hardy local sat in the sun outside a café with his newspaper and espresso. There’s a famous nudist beach just to the north, but it was way too chilly for that.
Two 300-hp Suzuki outboards were bolted to a specially designed bracket on the stern, purring away quietly and set so low down that from the salon you couldn’t even see them. I had tested the 330 before in its sterndrive configuration and been impressed by the layout. In particular the overall design struck me as clever: This is an asymmetrical boat, with a wide, practical side deck to starboard and a much
narrower one to port. The logic is that a boat this size doesn’t need two side decks, but the extra interior space is very useful.
That example had a pair of 220-hp Volvo diesels on Duoprop sterndrives (other options are available), and we got 30 knots out of it. It was an excellent family cruiser and a very fun sea trial. But apart from the huge storage locker that results from taking the engines out, what benefits did Hanse see in making an outboard version?
“The owner gets a faster boat for the same price,” Andrea explained. “Also, the engines are very accessible for servicing. When you’re not using the boat, you can raise the engines out of the water—and if you need to change an engine it can be done in two hours.”
He had clearly spent time thinking about how the customer sees things: “In 10 years, when you come to sell the boat, it has better re-sale because the values of the boat and the engines are regarded separately—you think about it in a different way,” he said. As an alternative consideration in 10 years’ time, he added, when the technology has developed, you could easily re-engine the boat for electric power; the engineroom is already there to take the batteries.
Andrea was certainly right about it being a faster boat. Our C330V topped out at 40 knots as we barrelled down the coast a few miles offshore. A chill north-westerly breeze was raising a short chop, which the hull dealt with dismissively. In handling terms, I felt, this is a boat that would repay a little study. It took me a while to master the trim, but once I had it figured out I discovered an engaging little machine that was responsive to the helm and throttles, and fun to drive. Trim tabs might be a worthwhile addition for more longitudinal control, not to mention levelling her up in a crosswind. Cruising range wouldn’t be bad at all: Allowing a 10 percent fuel reserve, around 30 gallons per hour at 30 knots equates to about 140 nautical miles.
Just a few miles west of the Cap d’Agde breakwater lies the estuary of the River Hérault. From here you can navigate up to Agde itself, at the junction with the Canal du Midi, which cuts through south-western France and links the Atlantic Ocean with the Med. Long before the marina resort and the nudists arrived, this ancient town, with its black basalt cathedral and winding streets, was an inland port. Its well-known circular lock, 96 feet across with three sets of gates, is one of the wonders of the French waterways.
I had a week’s boating holiday on the Midi many years ago. Being ancient—it was finished in 1681—the canal has few engineering marvels, like tunnels and aqueducts. It mostly follows the contours, meandering through vineyards in the shade of old plane trees. It’s absolutely fabulous.
Sea trial completed, we found an excellent restaurant for the evening, Les Halles des Poissons. This has a reputation for some of the best seafood on this coast, and a great wine list. In November, it was also the only place open. A late night was on the cards, but with a flight to catch and an early start, I had to bow out. Catalonia may be small, but it can take a while to drive through it.