Every year, sailboat manufacturers around the world launch their latest models, and every year, SAIL magazine’s experienced boat reviewers spend days and weeks learning what’s new, talking with boatbuilders, examining the boats top to bottom dockside, and finally taking them sailing. This culminates at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, where our review team gets together and makes its final assessments on which boats earn top honors. Results are announced in our January/February issue, and full reviews of the winning boats will be published throughout the year.
For almost 20 years, we’ve called this awards program SAIL Best Boats, but this year, we’re refining and renaming this program to better and more fairly represent the boats we’ve selected. Restricting boats to categories and labels—such as Best Cruising Monohull 30-40 feet and Best Performance Monohull 40-50 feet—doesn’t bring our readers the full picture. Too often, defining these boats by categories results in unfairly comparing apples to oranges, sorting boats with very different purposes and design briefs into the same bracket just because of their LOA, and inevitably kicking out some really terrific boats. So, starting this year, we’re honoring the Top 10 boats, period. By eliminating the artificial straitjacket of size categories and focusing on what are simply the Top 10, SAIL will present readers a more complete and equitable assessment.
So, without further ado, here’s the SAIL Top 10 Best Boats for 2023. After exploring a mix of bluewater boats, racer/cruisers, speedsters, dinghies, and multihulls, we’ve settled on the very best the industry has to offer. We were excited to see that designers and builders are steadily pushing the envelope in propulsion, electrical generation, and more sustainable options for getting out on the water. And as always, we admire the ever-evolving innovations and tenacity of the sailboat industry that makes what we do possible.
Beneteau First 36
The first step in Beneteau’s plan to revitalize its legacy performance brand saw the giant French builder partnering with Seascape, a successful upstart Slovenian yard, to rebrand Seascape’s existing models as Beneteau Firsts. Now, with the introduction of the new Beneteau First 36, phase two is revealed: a wholly novel racer/cruiser, developed by top French racing designer Sam Manuard and the Seascape team with input from Beneteau. The result is a surprisingly versatile, lively craft that will appeal strongly to dedicated racing sailors as well as performance-oriented cruisers.
Construction is no-holds-barred for a mass-produced boat. The hull and deck are fully cored resin-infused structures, with all supporting bulkheads and interior furniture modules likewise cored and vacuum-infused. The only solid piece in the hull is the keel grid, which is all-encompassing, stretching up out of the bilge all the way to deck level to provide maximum security in this disconcerting age of breakaway keels. Either a carbon fiber or aluminum rig can be specified, and a thicket of standard halyards—for masthead and fractional A-sails, a Code 0, a staysail, plus twin jib halyards—make it easy to keep maximum canvas flying forward of the mast. The round-bilge hull carries lots of beam aft on its waterline and begs to jump up on a plane when driving hard downwind.
We were particularly impressed with the First 36’s cockpit layout. A removable cockpit table and a pair of removable storage/bench seat extensions make it possible to convert the boat’s nerve center from a straight racing layout designed to keep full and shorthanded crews happy to a much more cruiser-friendly space. Likewise, below you’ll find good-sized aft staterooms that can be easily shifted from double- or single-berth configurations to simple storage spaces. A proper galley with a separate centerline “refrigeration island,” a full nav station, and a full-size double V-berth forward complete a quite cozy, well thought out interior.
And yes, of course, the boat sails like a bandit. An all-around winner in our book.
Many boatbuilders looking to capitalize on a successful design will create a “new” model of a boat by changing a few particulars on an old hull and then change the name as well. Leave it to the circumspect Danes at X-Yachts to soft-sell an entirely new design, built with all new tooling for hull and deck, by giving it the same name as its immediate predecessor. The previous X4.3 was a bestseller in the X-Yachts “Pure X” range, with over 100 hulls launched worldwide, and the new X4.3 takes what was already an outstanding boat and makes it even better.
The new hull sees maximum beam carried a bit further aft, with a subtle soft or “radius” chine, rather than a simple hard chine, pushing out volume to increase initial stability and boost interior space in the aft cabins. The larger cockpit also has a slightly raised sole, thus increasing clearance over the aft berths. The new deck design incorporates a dodger with improved forward visibility and accommodates overlapping and self-tacking headsails. Forward, a longer integral bowsprit allows for larger off-wind sails to be set, and this combined with a taller mast (or an even taller optional carbon mast) improves light-air performance.
The quality of construction, as on all X-Yachts, is impeccable, with epoxy-infused post-cured structures throughout and a bulletproof galvanized steel keel grid. The boat’s interior is elegant and traditional, exquisitely finished, with more opening portlights and improved ventilation. Under sail the X4.3 is fast and nimble, with a newly designed rudder that grips the water tenaciously even when over-pressed. Best of all, given its build quality, the boat is competitively priced.
It has been a long time since the hallowed Johnstone family has seen fit to throw a larger performance cruising boat into the market. They’ve done very well in recent years titillating us with compact, competitive one-design sport boats, but let’s face it—J/Boat aficionados have been holding their breath, waiting to see if there would ever be a larger J to sail (and maybe even cruise) about in. The new J/45, designed by Alan Johnstone and built by J/Composites in France, does not disappoint. It does a very fine job of splitting the difference between contemporary design idioms and the J/Boats of yore.
Yes, this J is a bit wider than larger Js in the past, but max beam is not carried aft, and there’s a fine sensuous taper in the transom that will warm the hearts of traditionalists. Twin wheels control one rudder—deep, grippy, and highly efficient. There is also a fine integral bowsprit for flying the big sails. The result is a boat that is not optimized for just driving hard off the wind, in the modern style, but is more reliably a traditional all-rounder—more slippery in light conditions, heeling a bit more in heavy conditions, but always quick, easy to drive, and sure-footed.
Construction, of course, is rock solid, with a fully resin-infused foam-cored hull and deck, courtesy of the longest-standing SCRIMP infusion system. The interior treatment, composed by the revered French designer Isabelle Racoupeau, is a breakthrough for J/Boats. It is decidedly contemporary, understated, very elegant, but wrapped around a purely functional layout. We were all greatly relieved to see a boat like this on the water again.
The new Hanse 460 is a step up in performance and accommodations among production boats in its class. The hull features a sharp, reverse bow followed by a short chine, and then it flares out into a broad, flat contour aft. This—coupled with a large, easily handled sailplan, excellent placement of winches and line stoppers at the twin wheels, a self-tacking jib, furling mainsail, and huge cockpit and cabin space—produces a comfortable, fast cruiser that can be sailed by a middle-aged couple.
On a brisk autumn day, we motored out on the Chesapeake at an easy 8 knots, performed a few sharp, responsive maneuvers under power and unfurled the sails to a 12-knot breeze. The Hanse 460 accelerated nicely to almost 7 knots, then tacked reliably through 90 degrees. With the in-mast furling mainsail and the self-tacking jib, tacking was a matter of simply turning the wheel. It’s actually fun.
Unlike many European cruisers, the Hanse 460 is laid out so the helmsman has everything within easy reach. For shorthanded sailing, this boat is hard to match. Sight lines were excellent, and seating was comfortable. The cockpit tables drop to seat level so you can sleep outside under the stars on a spacious berth.
The interior is quite pleasant, with the galley along the starboard side and a large table and seat to port. Everything is finished attractively (Hanse offers a huge selection of colors and fabrics), and there’s lots of light from the hull windows and plentiful opening hatches. The standard layout has a big double berth in the forward cabin and two more double cabins aft, with two head compartments. Other layouts are available.
The Hanse 460 will please a lot of sailors, especially with the price made possible by today’s strong dollar/Euro exchange rates.
Hallberg-Rassy’s newest addition, the 400, quickly follows the Germán Frers-designed center-cockpit 40C, incorporating the good looks and proven elements of plumb bow for maximum waterline, integral bowsprit, and twin rudders in an aft-cockpit version that seamlessly marries traditional bluewater cruising experience with contemporary design and interior trends. Combined with this Swedish builder’s reputation for bulletproof construction, the result is a powerful, elegant, fun, go-anywhere machine.
Hallberg-Rassy’s ethos has long been that comfort and sailability add up to safe, happy sailors, and the 400 manifests this inside and out. Though it follows its contemporaries with twin helms, this boat’s cockpit feels ergonomically sensible and safe while still providing all the entertaining room one needs. Everything is practical and uncluttered, geared to making sailhandling straightforward for one or two people.
This carries through the sailplan as well; the headsail can be either slightly overlapping or self-tacking (a Code 0 is optional), and the mainsail traditional slab reefing or in-mast furling; on our test boat in Annapolis, the vertically battened Elvstrøm main reefed easily with the Seldén in-mast system. A split Dyneema backstay with simple but forceful block adjustment, coupled with the mainsheet traveler forward of the companionway, allow for maximum sail trim and control (and tweakable fun).
Below, offshore features such as beautifully crafted fiddles that double as beefy handholds and comfy settees that quickly transform into secure sea berths are coupled with a flexible layout. Owners can opt for one or two heads and two or three sleeping cabins; the forward cabin comes in three different layouts, including an owner’s version with centerline double bed and en-suite head with shower. Serious cruisers can convert an aft cabin into an enormous work and storage space.
For many sailors, Hallberg-Rassy means proven offshore experience and pure sailing chops delivered in a solid, thoughtful, handsome whole. The 400 continues that legacy with this flexible layout and competitively priced package.
If you look at the specs of the new Dufour 37, you may scratch your head. How is a 34-foot LOA boat called a 37? No worries though, this little yacht is mighty, feeling and sailing like a bigger model.
The first surprise is how the boat feels on deck and below. The cockpit is spacious with long settees and twin wheels that open up the traffic flow. The folding table between the settees is massive—perfect for entertaining at anchor. And let’s not forget the drop transom where the chef can stand out of the way while working on the plancha grill, a big boat feature to be sure.
The interior is deceptively large as well. The owner’s suite in the bow has bifurcated doors for easy entry. With these open, you experience the full length of the boat when you descend the companionway as the eye is drawn forward. There’s another enormous dining table, and the compact galley to port has made room for double sinks and bottle storage—a nice touch. Three cabins are offered, but two plus a storage room would work better for couples.
The Z-Spar rig holds a powerful higher-aspect mainsail and self-tacking jib that make shorthanded sailing a snap. In just 9 knots of true breeze, we slipped along at 6.5 knots on a beam reach and flat water. The gennaker on a top-down furler can be used up to 60 degrees AWA and kept us moving along smartly at nearly 7 knots. She was comfortable and dry throughout the sail.
Small is the new big, and the Dufour 37 delivers with some impressive features you’d not expect on an entry model. The only thing that isn’t big about the Dufour 37 is the price. Expect a well-optioned version to come in just around $200,000, and that means you can have a lot of fun for not a lot of money.
Nautitech 44 Open
The latest addition to the Nautitech line of cruising cats is the 44 Open created by naval architect Marc Lombard. The model leans heavily on elements that have been previous crowd pleasers like the “Open” concept launched nearly a decade ago. It has proven immensely popular because it shifts and reprioritizes the use of space by making the saloon smaller and the cockpit bigger. It’s a Nautitech trademark and makes sense for how and where cats are used.
The 44 Open is a good-looking boat with a sleek profile, and it’s right in the sweet spot for cruising couples. It’s also designed for performance, with a higher bridgedeck to avoid pounding, deeper keels for better tracking, and twin helms out on the hulls from where it’s easy to drive, especially when docking.
The sailplan includes a fully battened mainsail, a self-tacking jib on a cabintop track, and a Code 0 on a furler. Expect to point to within 50 degrees AWA and see 9-knot speeds in 15-18 knots of true breeze. The optional Code 0 drives the boat up to about 70 degrees AWA. Under power, the 60-hp engines (upgraded) push the boat at 11 knots at 3,000 rpm so there’s plenty of power to get home quickly.
The helm stations meet you as soon as you come up from the swim steps. They’re well placed with small biminis for cover, but the seats could use a bit of redesign. They create a pinch point when passing up to the cockpit, and they’re too small for two and too big for one. Another place for improvement is the access to the windlass on the foredeck. It’s tucked well under a fiberglass lip that doesn’t open, and let’s face it, windlasses require TLC from time to time.
Otherwise, the 44 Open is packed with unique features. Favorites include the generous owner’s suite, the well-laid-out galley, and the optional “smart room” that will store all sorts of cruising gear and spares and is worth the price of admission. Overall, a serious cruising couple has a lot to love in this design, and it should be on the shortlist for anyone planning on doing distance voyaging.
NEEL 43 Trimaran
Trimarans are known for having a good turn of speed but also for not having much livable space, which may be why so few of them are out distance cruising. French builder NEEL has been working to change that mindset. With the new baby of the family, the NEEL 43, they’ve dialed in a good combination of comfort and easy, fun, fast sailing.
Step into the cockpit and you’ll be surprised that it has nearly the same dimensions as a cat. There’s plenty of room for 10 people to mingle, and six can gather for a meal. The helm station is offset onto the starboard bulkhead, so the driver remains part of the social activity in the cockpit but still has good visibility when sailing.
Three cabins, one head, a compact galley, and a fair-sized saloon make up the interior, most of which is on the same level. Below the cabin sole, the immense “basement” houses the engine room and utility spaces. Everything is labeled and very accessible, so it won’t be a punishment to do maintenance. As an upgrade, the NEEL 43 offers a 48-volt system, lithium batteries, multiple solar panels, and an Integrel supersized alternator that eliminates the need for a separate genset. This innovative system reduces carbon emissions and extends time at anchor without constant combustion-engine charging.
Fully commissioned and FOB East Coast, the NEEL 43 is $575,000; if you add the whizbang lithium powerpack and Integrel, you can expect to pay another $100,000. That’s not an extreme price for what is a unique cruising experience—one that can keep your carbon footprint small and your hair flying back as the three hulls eat up the miles.
Balance Catamarans launched their 482 last year and heard two things: 1) YES! And 2) Can you make a smaller one? So, this year, they introduced the new mini-me, the Balance 442, and it’s all that was hoped for.
There’s a long list of smart stuff built into the 442—a Karver hook that makes it easier to raise and the lower the mainsail, twin daggerboards that help pointing ability, and rigid solar panels raised off the deck and therefore ventilated from below. There are also options for one or two Integrel supercharged alternators that eliminate the need for a generator, and an optional 48-volt system with a DC-to-DC converter for 12V appliances. The incredible Versa-Helm is a Balance trademark that lets you drive from the top of the helm station or from down in the cockpit where it’s warm and dry.
Perhaps the best part of the 442 is the sailing. Not too many cats will do 11 knots in 16 knots of true wind at 80 degrees AWA. Fewer still will hold onto 6.5 knots of speed at 35 degrees AWA in the same breeze and without making much leeway. When you don’t have to tack through 120 degrees, you stand a chance of actually making upwind progress, and that’s refreshing on a multihull.
Under power, the Balance 442 makes good use of her twin 40-hp Yanmar diesels, but if you upgrade to the Integrel power management system, you’ll also need to opt for the 45-hp engines. The 48-volt system is worth investigating, as is adding the solar panels and the twin Integrels, because with all this, you can expect to stay at anchor for three days without needing to charge (not using air conditioning), and when you do charge, you can do so in 90 minutes.
Like her bigger siblings, the Balance 442 is all about smart systems, livable layouts, and sassy sailing. The sail away price is $1.2 million, which still puts her below many of her performance cat competitors. If you’re looking for smart living and fast sailing, you may have found it.
It will certainly raise some eyebrows to see an inflatable dinghy on this list alongside cruising cats and production racer/cruisers, but the Tiwal 3R has earned its accolades. Building on the foundation of the Tiwal 3, the 3R is a racing version engineered especially for competitive sailors who want to fine-tune their sailing. And with 2,500 Tiwals already on the water, many of whom participated in last summer’s Tiwal Cup championships, there’s no shortage of demand.
The boat has a new sail that requires more structure and support in the hull, so designer Marion Escoffier also drafted an all-new aluminum exoskeleton. The new cage led to new sail controls (including a sporty vang traveler). All of this means this inflatable boat can reach up to 14 knots. To top it off, they’ve also designed an app to help Tiwal owners meet up and share information. For a boat this size, the innovation is a cut above.
But don’t let the performance features lead you to believe this is a no-nonsense racing machine. It’s as playful as it is sporty. Plus, with rugged inflatable hulls, tipping, crashing, and beaching are all consequence-free. It’s light enough to be righted by a child, and two sail size options ensure that no matter who is sailing the boat, they won’t be overpowered.
So, not only is this boat a genuine performance dinghy, it’s also a great learner’s boat. Not to mention that it can be packed into two large suitcases and assembled in minutes (cruisers looking for the ultimate beach toy, take note). Sure, it doesn’t have the option for a four-cabin layout, but we’d say that pound-for-pound this is the best conceived, sportiest, and most fun boat on the market.
Systems: Looking Forward With 48 Volts
Pulling up seat cushions and floorboards on more than 25 new sailing yachts at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis, I was happy to find a few manufacturers who have modernized their boats to follow the broad trend of electrification seen in other motive industry markets. For instance, the Slovenian builder Elan has partnered with Oceanvolt to offer an electric propulsion option for any of their new boats straight from the factory. A 48V lithium battery pack supplies the power and is often installed as a hybrid configuration with a diesel generator.
These hybrid systems make sense. The energy required for propulsion is only a fraction of the total power consumed on a cruising boat. It’s the other house loads that put a drain on our electrical systems. Refrigeration, lights, pumps, and electronics are essentials. Yet, air conditioning and electric cooking have become more of an expectation among new boat buyers. These onboard comfort systems require lots of power, and it all needs to come from somewhere.
Most of the new cruising boats are fit with diesel generators. Still, I found two other manufacturers who offer a 48V lithium battery bank to power everything. Balance Catamarans takes the cake for a clean and robust energy system with a battery pack that gets its charge from two main-engine mounted 48VDC, 9kW-producing Integrel generators. This configuration eliminates the need for a separate genset and provides rapid charging to a battery bank that keeps all the systems powered on, including the air conditioning and electric range. Neel Trimarans offer a similar system as an upgrade on the build sheet of their new boats.
These fast-charging hybrid power systems are the future aboard cruising yachts, and we are already committing to a cleaner and quieter boating future thanks to these intrepid manufacturers.—Phil Gutowski
Meet the Review Team
• Logging some 30,000 blue-water cruising miles with her family, SAIL Editor-in-Chief Wendy Mitman Clarke has raced and cruised all kinds of boats over a lifetime of sailing.
• SAIL Cruising Editor Charlie Doane has been testing boats for the magazine for over 20 years. An avid coastal and bluewater cruiser, he has crossed the Atlantic seven times and has crewed in several distance races.
• Tom Dove became hooked on sailing by a Penguin class dinghy in 1954. He has been reviewing boats of all sizes for SAIL magazine since 1988.
• A USCG 100 Ton Master, SAIL Charter Editor Zuzana Prochazka logs miles on all kinds of boats around the world and never misses an opportunity to raise a sail or crawl into the engine room of a new design.
• Managing Editor Lydia Mullan has been involved with SAIL’s Best Boats competition for five years, sea trialing all manner of boats. However, her first loves will always be dinghies and performance boats.
• Phil Gutowski is founder of BoatRx, a high-tech marine systems company dedicated to increasing the efficiency of onboard power systems.