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Athena 38

1998 November 10

State-of-the-art, big cruising cat

The Athena 38 makes a remarkable entry into the expanding market of much-refined large cruising catamarans. In creating this four-cabin cruiser, producer Fountaine Pajot Catamarans of La Rochelle, France, embraced new technology and groundwork from foregoing evolving generations of the big cruising cats, while coupling it with state-of-the-art creature comforts. The effort shows.

The product of the estimable design office of Joubert-Nivelt and interior design office of O. Flahault Design, the Athena 38 was conceived to support cruising of all kinds, especially coastal. Unlike some of the wan predecessors of the big-cat genre, this catamaran, with soft shaping to its hulls of multifoam core-fiberglass-resin molds, is easy on the eye-even a bit seductive.
The Athena, the second smallest of Fountaine Pajot's five-cat line and introduced some 21/2 years ago, betrays its origins from the country that in recent years has led the evolution of this boat type. The Athena 38 will be easy to handle for the owner couple. Alternatively, as a charter boat, four couples will have absolute privacy in this symmetrical layout where the cabins are all in the ends and separated by the head-shower-one in each hull. The low-aspect, 3-foot-deep keels and adequately powered rig will provide the level of sailing ability one can now expect from this type of catamaran.

Thoughtful deck plan
I stepped on board the Athena 38 at the transom, taking the nonskid steps (noting the handy wash-down freshwater hose on the inside of the hull) up to the stern, which is basically all cockpit. It is 10 feet wide with comfortable bench seating rimming most of the area, providing seating for up to 12 people. The triangular-shaped table at the port corner, out of way of the companionway, can comfortably seat six people for moonlit al fresco dining.

You will find yourself looking for the bows of the boat, which are not conveniently visible as you stand on the cockpit sole, though you could peer forward by looking through the large double patio-type sliding Plexiglas doors and big sweeping saloon windows. The aft bulkheads of the cabintop structure intrude on some of the sight lines. There are trade-offs to the big cat luxuries and this is decidedly one of them. However, it had less impact on my enjoyment of the boat than I thought it would.

At the bulkhead to starboard is the 20-inch-wide wheel with engine controls and performance electronics module. The flybridge-type molded plastic chair places the helmsperson at an unusually high position, which felt odd at first. But after 20 minutes at the helm, I realized that despite the fact that I was farther off the water, I felt closer to the sail dynamics, and this was fine. Being closer to the foretriangle and having excellent visibility was empowering, engaging my senses.

The mainsheet leads to a self-tailing Lewmar 44 (as on the boat I tested; Meissner winches are also fitted) at the aft starboard end of the crowned cabintop and at the helmsman's reach. The genoa sheets lead through sheet stoppers to the primaries, with one being the mainsheet's and the other at the opposite side of the cabintop. The 111/2-foot-long, double-ended traveler, just aft of the cockpit, is rigged for large loads.

Halyards are on the mast, a sturdy deck-stepped extrusion from Z-Spar. The large, roached, full-batten mainsail, sliding on recirculating ball-bearing cars, is 538 square feet. This could be a bear to handle for one person; the designers came up with a neat contingency solution by positioning the anchor locker windlass in line with the mast. The main halyard can be led at a fair angle to the electric windlass (a Lofrans on the boat I tested) so one can opt to hoist under electric power.

Simplified anchor deployment
The anchor setup is ingenious. The stock of the CQR is sucked with the chain through the hawsepipe opening just below deck level at the aft end of the trampoline webbing. The business end stows outside, tangent to the opening. Dropping anchor is a matter of releasing the windlass break. With bridle rove to each bow and connected by snap shackle to the chain, the anchor stays centered on the bridle and out at the bows.

The locker, roughly 3 by 3 feet, can also hold sails and fenders in the segmented area adjacent to the chain locker. Main deck storage is in the voluminous lazarette under the aft cockpit seat, where deck gear, running rigging, spares and even diving gear, including tanks, could fit.

A 10-foot inflatable, hard-bottom or rigid dinghy with outboard neatly stows from davits cantilevered just behind the cockpit. The whole thing nestles neatly between the hulls. A multi-purchase launching system was rigged on the boat I tested, which worked very well in raising a 10-foot inflatable. For heavier dinghies, it would be possible to lead the hoist rope to a primary winch.

The boat I tested was fitted out with the reliable ProFurl headsail furling system. The drum was mounted on the forward beam below the bobstay. The mainsail, which is loose-footed, hoists and drops through lazy jacks. Its cover remains attached in the boom boltrope groove of this radically cocked boom. When the main's up, the cover stows tightly rolled around its internal battens. When the main's down and flaked, it's just a matter of tying the integral bungees and sliding the zipper to the end.

I passed through, not down, to the Athena's saloon, sliding the sturdy, 5- by 2-foot cockpit door. The area, roughly 13 feet wide with an average 6-foot-plus headroom, is largely a wide, plush keyhole settee, with a pedestal-mounted, 4-foot-wide table capable of seating six to eight people in the center. A navigation area that includes minichart table with drawer and built-in electronics console above is basic to a fault, though full-chart navigation for long hauls can be done on the dining table because heeling isn't a factor.

On the other hand, the U-shaped galley to starboard reveals a clever bit of planning. The double, 1-foot-diameter, round sinks-which, since most dishes and pans are round, was handier than a square sink-is at the end of the U and is usable from three sides, with hanging and lower cupboards opening on two sides. The two-burner nongimbaled stove and oven are just beneath an opening hatch. The unique wedge-shaped, top-opening icebox must have been designed with the universal adolescent's perpetual hunger in mind. There enough space to keep up with a teen's metabolic needs, and it is accessible from three sides. Saloon finish materials are mainly vinyl and fabric, with dark, fine-grained wood for the joinerwork.

Since there is no "going below" on this sailboat, the saloon is like a continuation of the cockpit, awash in light. Window treatment sweeps from the front side of the cabin through nearly 180 degrees. Its eyebrow shade, expanding to 1 foot, 3 inches of overhang, keeps the greenhouse effect to an absolute minimum, according to Jim Huber, who has put more than 2,000 miles on his Athena. He and his wife Bonnie own Great Lakes Catamarans, Inc., of Cambridge, Ontario, the Fountaine Pajot dealership of the lakes.

The five-step companionways to the hulls are off to the right and left at the aft end of the saloon. Athena's designers obviously understood that light and air were necessary to enhance these potentially cavernlike accommodations. The four opening hatches and two side ports per hull do a lot in diminishing this effect, as does the 6-foot, 3-inch average headroom in the hulls. Each master cabin, with 6-foot, 4-inch headroom, includes a dressing area with hanging and shelf storage. The double is quite large, roughly 4-feet, 9-inches by 6-feet, 6-inches. The forward cabin, with dressing area and slightly narrower double, is at the end of the 11-foot-long, brightly lit passageway.

The head compartment is about midway. I felt like I was inside a capsulelike world that Sen. John Glenn may have known from his space exploration days. With typical French efficiency, the telephone-booth-type shower (80 gallons of fresh water) is all part of a grand fiberglass mold treatment. Its feature point: The big, heavy-duty Lewmar hatch-an escape hatch in an emergency-provides a grand view of water rushing past or of dancing nighttime phosphorescence. The head hatches have been set into a slightly projected reveal, which, in lieu of the hatch, is designed to absorb the water pounding when the boat is under way.

With foam placed in the stern and transom and in forward areas, the Athena is unsinkable. The forepeak area, which is usable for light stowage, is designed to absorb contact, while the keels have nonstructural, sacrificial components in case of accidental grounding. The cockpit drains are elaborate, including a half dozen or so large drainage holes at the saloon door sill, which drain directly through the bridgedeck. For extra security, a hardpack liferaft stows on a special underside bracket at the aft end of the cockpit.

Moving under sail, power
The twin 18-horsepower Yanmar saildrive diesels purred as we powered from our slip at Waitemata Marina, in Auckland, New Zealand. Putting the starboard engine in reverse and port engine in forward, we spun hard to the right, actually turning within the Athena's length. With the screws spinning far from the cockpit, the Athena powered quietly with little vibration at most rpms. The engines are on beefy mounts in well-insulated wells. The engines are accessible to all sides by removal of the aft cabin berth cushion and underlying panel. The Athena pushed along at 71/2 knots on flat water at 2,600 rpms. At this rpm, turning fixed, two-blade props, the auxiliaries use about 4/10 of a gallon per hour. Fuel tankage is 40 gallons.

The electrical system runs off two banks of two batteries each, one for anchor operations, the other for under-way operations. To ensure that the batteries, with a total of 70 amp-hours, don't flatten out, the two are separate, though in an emergency they could be connected through a crossover key. To prevent the windlass from using up the battery power, the port engine must be running while the windlass is in use.

With sails set, the Athena took off-though nearly imperceptibly at first. I watched the speedo jump to 10 knots as we sailed on a beam reach across the Hauraki Gulf (future ballpark for the America's Cup contestants). There was only slight heel and, when the puffs hit, we watched the speed instead of the heel angle. I took Tikitiboo-as this brand-new Athena was named-to close hauled. She tracked firmly, taking the puffs in stride while tacking at close to 40 degrees. In the dying breezes that we later encountered, she did not perform as well. But under chute, she maintained her sweet ways. And even when the wind increased with gusts of 25 and 30, she was still well-mannered, even though slightly overcanvassed.

Compliments of Sunsail Charters, Auckland, who purchased the 38 for its Auckland and Tonga fleets, I spent five days on this Athena. This is a cruising cat that provides a superior level of sailing and cruising comfort. I found the boat to be just about everything a cruiser could be in the way of comfort and privacy. The Athena at anchor or sitting on the bottom becomes like a raft, ideal for sunbathing and diving. At a price of $199,000 (base boat, which includes sails and shipping to the east coast), the Athena is a huge amount of boat. All you need add is the windlass, bimini, autopilot-and sun.

LOA 38.05', Beam 20.66', Draft 3.1', Displacement 11,000 lbs., Sail Area (main and genoa) 914 sq. ft., Base Price $199,000, Fountaine Pajot Catamarans, Zone Industrielle, 17290 Aigrefeuille, France, (33) 5 46 35 70 40, fax (33) 5 46 35 50 10