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6,000nm Helia Review
Well, technically we hit 6,002 nm on Starry Horizons as we pulled into Regatta Pointe Marina but that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well, so for the purpose of this post, we will round down slightly. There are others out there with more experience on their Helias, but after picking up our boat in France and sailing all the way to Florida, I finally feel qualified enough to share my thoughts. So buckle up kids, this is the post for those of you who are interested in some of the more intimate details about our boat.
What I Love
Sailing: Overall, I enjoyed sailing the Helia. The few times we got on a good beam reach in calm seas, she took off. We haven’t done too much upwind sailing yet, but downwind was easy, comfortable and relatively quick!
Construction: This boat is well built and you can tell. We had some pretty decent winds during our passages and at no time did I ever fear that the boat couldn’t handle things. We were very cautious with our sail plan which helped, but this boat is solid. It’s not an Antares so don’t expect perfect finishing everywhere, but she’s got it where it counts.
The Helm: This space is going to get even better with the hardtop we’re having custom made, but the positioning of the helm is great. The person on watch can still be social with others if they’re in the cockpit or even in the galley. When it’s just the two of us for long passages, ease of social interaction makes a difference. Visibility is also good, with the sole exception being the port aft portion of the boat.
The Space: I’ve heard the term “condomaran” used in a derogatory term, but personally I think those people are just jealous. We love how much liveable space we have on the boat. Our master stateroom is huge, the galley (almost) has enough space for all the items Amy wants and if the salon and cockpit start to feel restrictive (can’t see how this would happen), we can just hop up to the lounge deck and enjoy even more open spaces.
Interior Navigation Station: Others have varying opinions, but we really liked having a place inside the boat we could set up a dedicated laptop to download weather reports, send/receive emails, and use our charting programs. We also kept our logbook here and had easy access to information to update it. It would be nice if it had a backrest, but we just used one of the cushions from the salon to make a temporary backrest.
Wire Runs: Other boats do it better I’m sure, but I’ve been relatively pleased with the easy access to wire runs inside the boat. Outside the boat for our solar panels was a bit of a different story, but overall we’ve been able to figure out how to get our wires run.
Engine Power: We chose to upgrade to the 55hp Volvos and we’re glad we did. They give us lots of power and with the Flexofold props that we had Uchimata install, we’ve felt pretty comfortable maneuvering the boat around the dock, even in decent winds. As an added plus, there is a decent amount of space in the engine compartments so getting down there to work on things hasn’t required me to do my best Russian gymnast impression.
Raymarine Electronics: Four of the five boats in Amy’s fleet had Raymarine electronics, so we had a pretty good familiarity with them, but the system we installed on Starry Horizons works very well. Our plotter has it’s own wifi network and we can connect our phones/tablets and see/control the system. This led to much greater peace of mind when you could wake up, check your phone and see how things were going. And our autopilot worked flawlessly during the crossing.
Vesper AIS: Another custom thing we had Uchimata install, but our Vesper AIS is a godsend during our passages. In fact, we liked it so much that I now say it should be on someone’s “must install” list if they want to go cruising.
Equipment Quality: In general, the quality of the important equipment from the factory is good. We have a Victron inverter/charger, Volvo engines, Onan Generator, and CruisAir Air Conditioners all from the factory. If we were building the boat ourselves, it’d be tough to do much better.
Her Looks: Superficial? Probably, but I don’t care. I still think the Helia is one of the best-looking cats out there.
Things I Don’t Love
Dinghy Davits: FP raised the davits from the first Helias to ours, but in my opinion, they’re still not high enough. We took our outboard off and stored it in the generator locker so we could try and pull the dinghy as high as we could but waves still touched the bottom of the dinghy! We are reworking the bridle for our dinghy so that we’ll be able to pull it even higher and hopefully keep the outboard on as well, but a better davit design would make all that work unnecessary.
Bridgedeck Clearance: One of the biggest surprises for us was how much slamming and wave slapping we experienced. Slapping against the hulls is a bit easier to understand, but the amount of slamming was unpleasant and unexpected. Starry Horizons is well equipped (meaning heavy!) but this was disappointing.
Trampoline: Another personal preference, but both Amy and I think the factory trampoline is quite uncomfortable to lay on, and I dislike how “springy” it is. I never felt like I had good footing when I went forward while underway. We replaced it after six months.
Everything is in French: While this is understandable for a French boat, it can be very frustrating trying to map out electrical wiring when everything is labeled in French!
No Starboard Aft Winch: We went with the “Bowsprit and Gennaker Gear Option” which includes an aft winch on the port side to use for the sheet for a headsail. However, it doesn’t include a corresponding winch on the starboard side. There are two problems with this:
- Instead of a dedicated winch, there is a block along the toe rail to take the line back up to a winch at the helm. This makes moving around the helm difficult and blocks off the deck. Not ideal! Since we also used the aft winch for our boom preventer and a sheet we rigged up to an outboard jib lead, it got a lot of use.
- We’re going to be reworking the winches to add one to the starboard side. However, FP didn’t design for this possibility and the headliner in the owners cabin is flush up to the deck, meaning we’ll need to do some creative re-design. On the port side, they dropped the headliner down to accommodate the bolts for the winch.
Reefing: I really dislike having to go to the mast for anything while underway. We went with the “automatic” first reef, which is really just a single line reef, but the other two reefs have lines that go up the leech of the sail but require you to go pull a webbing strap through a grommet and into a snap shackle on the mast in order to secure the tack. It’s not so fun to pull this strap through when the boat is slamming into large waves! We have moved to a single line reef for our 2nd reef and will be removed our 3rd reef, as if the winds are that high, we’re just going to be taking down our mainsail.
Chain size: The Helia comes from the factory with 1/2″ chain. I didn’t quite realize just how big this is and how much it weights and went ahead and ordered 300′ of it in preparation for some of the anchoring in deep water we’ll be doing. The bow of the boat immediately sunk down! We’re going to swapping out our windlass gypsy and chain to Acco G4 5/16″ chain. This will save us almost 600 pounds of weight! Speaking of which… anyone need 300′ of 1/2″ galvanized anchor chain? Please??
Cleats: During a wild day in Las Palmas when Starry Horizons was jerking forward and back thanks to the wind and swell, we managed to bend a cleat. We’ve had several people tell us they’d never seen that before. In addition, our stern cleats were starting to come loose by the time we arrived in the States. We had large backing plates made to help reinforce things and hopefully prevent those type of issues in the future.
Automatic Bilge Pumps: I tested out our bilge pumps by blocking off one compartment and filling it with water. I was quite dismayed at how much water (several inches) was required before the pumps kicked on. And since the bilges are all connected, it would take a lot of water in the bilge before they activated automatically. The pumps are activated by air pressure sensitive Rule Eco Switches, but as I looked up the installation diagrams, they are not installed correctly. The lines leading from the “cup” to the switch are not straight as they have to run throughout the compartment. These sensors may be a good idea, but it’s a bad execution.
From the “What the F&*K Were They Thinking” Files
Mainsail: I know I’m not the best sailor in the world, but I’m not truly incompetent either. However, I could not figure out how to get the mainsail down easily in anything over 10/15 knots of wind. It would “billow” out, catch the wind and refuse to come down, requiring me to go to the mast and manually pull it down. Doing this was the most scared I felt on the boat and thanks to our boat guru Pat, we rigged a downhaul to help us cross the Atlantic which worked well.
After getting back to the land of internet, I discovered that other Helia owners have had this same problem and in talking with them, I/we have determined what I consider to be two root causes:
- There are no intermediate cars on the mainsail from the factory. I have never sailed another boat like this and it means that the distance from the cars on the sail (where the battens are) ranges from about 11-14 feet! When the sail drops, having this much distance from the cars leads to the billowing effect and prevents the sail from coming down.
- Friction. The factory-supplied main halyard is a 14mm line and is rigged with a 2:1 purchase. The stopper used for the halyard is rated at a max 14mm and halyard rubs against the sides of the entrance into the mast. As the weight of the sail aloft decreases as the sail falls, the remaining weight of the sail isn’t enough to overcome the friction in the system.
In my mind, this is the absolute #1 negative of the Helia and in spite of seeing assurances sent by FP to other owners that the factory setup works and that it was tested out by riggers, my practical experience has led me to strongly disagree. I believe that most Helias are going into charter and thus are being used in relatively calmer conditions where it may not be a big deal to go forward and help the mainsail down, but for serious cruising it is unacceptable.
To remedy, we’re adding 4 additional intermediate cars, which of course necessitated the modification of our stack pack, as well as upgrading our main halyard to an 11mm T900 line. Just running the line through the stopper, you can feel how much less friction there is! We’re also contemplating getting rid of the 2:1 halyard if the new setup still doesn’t work the way we want it.
(Okay, I’ll get off my soap box now, but as you can tell, this is an area that I strongly believe FP needs to address)
Navigation Lights: FP may have changed this, but they did not offer a tri-color light at the top of the mast as a factory option. In big seas, there is no way that another ship is going to easily see the deck level navigation lights! On a boat this size, I believe a tri color should be standard.
In addition, the stern light is located inside the cockpit! When using the nav lights at night (when else would you really use them??) it lit up the whole cockpit. And in case you haven’t done a lot of night sailing before, this is not a good thing as it really messes with your night vision. We ended up adding a tricolor light and moved the stern light to the end of the davits.
Running Rigging: This was a debatable one to put in this category, but the fact that all winches and stoppers are rated for a max 14mm line and the factory genoa sheets are 16mm lines pushes it over the edge. I had wondered why it was difficult to get the genoa sheets into the winches and finally figured out why when doing research on the Harken winches we have. In general the rigging on the boat is pretty low quality and we’re working on replacing it. The fact that the owner’s manual lists the main halyard at 55m/180ish’ when in reality it is about 63m/207ish’ (discovered after running the new halyard through the mast!) also helps push running rigging into this category.
Overall, we’re satisfied with our choice of a boat. There are a lot of things that FP does well and most of the things we didn’t love about the boat are fixable. We’re going above and beyond by doing some pretty extensive outfitting to make the boat even more awesome and I’m pretty comfortable saying that by the time we’re finished, she’ll be the most customized Helia in the world. At the end of the day, we still believe that she will be able to take us safely around the world and in a decent level of comfort, which is what matters most.
Lounge Deck Review
If you’ve been following us, odds are you’ve heard of or seen pictures of our lounge deck. Cruising friends “Oooo” and “Ahh” over it. It sure comes up in Fountaine Pajot’s marketing pictures. Who doesn’t love the idea of the lounge deck?
As we toured boats at the Annapolis Boat show way back in 2013 we looked at the lounge deck, thought it was gorgeous, but wondered “how often would we actually use it?”
While we are cruising, the answer is EVERY DAY. Looking at other catamarans, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have a lounge deck, as long as they have access. For the most part, it’s wasted space on their coach roof.
Our guests love sitting up there. They don’t have the 24/7/365 sun exposure we worry about, so the lounge deck becomes very popular.
There’s the beautiful time of day in cruising called “sundowners”. Hopefully, your projects for the day are done, you’ve got a cocktail in hand. If it’s typically hot out where we are, the weather starts to cool off as the sun sets. Stepping on top of the lounge deck gives us a pretty wonderful view of the horizon.
We do have two words of caution.
One: The aft portion (the proper seat) hardly ever faces the sunset. Prevailing winds go from east to west, and therefore, sunset is typically directly behind us. If I really want to face the sunset, I sit on the top of our helm station or without a backrest on the lounge part (Go-Anywhere Chair optional)
Two: Fountaine Pajot has been gradually increasing the height of the backrest towards the stern of the boat. It used to be just a few inches (see top photo). Then ours is mid-back. It looks like the Helia Evolution has been raised a few inches again. But, I am super impressed with our friends on Let It Be’s solution. They replaced their cushions and had a cushion with built-in support installed to the height they wanted.
I’m pretty pleased with the lounge deck, and it’s been a feature we’ve been surprised to love so much.
20,000nm Helia Review
Upon our arrival into Fiji we crossed the longitude 178° 51′ E. This meant we had officially sailed halfway around the world (!) on our Fountaine Pajot Helia from the factory in France. Since my original review, Fountaine Pajot has released the Helia Evolution, which did address a few of my original gripes, namely the dinghy davits, so I’m going to try and focus on things in this review that will hopefully be applicable to all Helias.
To answer the basic question I know everyone is thinking; yes, we are still very happy with our Helia. Since we left France in November 2014, we’ve:
- sailed almost 20,000nm
- crossed two oceans
- visited 20 countries
- published over 325 blog posts
- almost 50 YouTube videos
It feels like the time has flown by, but actually writing all that out, we’ve done a lot in a bit over two years!
Through it all, our respect and admiration for the Helia has continued to grow. We did a lot of research before choosing to buy a Helia and all of our experiences since then have just served to confirm that we made the right choice. That’s not to say that the Helia is the perfect boat. All boats are a compromise in one way or another, but for our requirements, it’d be hard to do much better.
In my first review, I mentioned that we enjoyed sailing the Helia and that definitely hasn’t changed. Overall, she’s a very comfortable boat at sea, capable of taking everything we’ve thrown at her and more.
I keep pretty detailed spreadsheets from all our passages and I figured some of this data may be of interest:
- Overall Avg SOG: 6.7 knots
- Overall Avg NM/Day: 160.8nm
- Fastest Passage SOG: 7.45 knots (Grenada to Panama) over 1,249nm
- Slowest Passage SOG: 5.7 knots (Marquesas to Tuamotus) over 547nm
- Note: we purposefully sailed slowly on this passage to arrive in the Tuamotus in daylight and with proper tide conditions
- Fastest 24hr Run: 8.71 knots and 209nm (Grenada to Panama)
- Slowest 24hr Run: 4.92 and 118nm (Marquesas to Tuamotus)
The Helia isn’t the fastest boat in the world, but she definitely isn’t the slowest either. Since we’re doing a trade winds circumnavigation, we’ve spent a majority of our time going downwind. We have, however, experienced all kinds of conditions.
Sailing Dead Downwind
Many purists will say you shouldn’t sail dead downwind because it’s slow, but man is this an easy point of sail. We’ve had lots of success with a wing on wing set up, starting with main and genoa and recently with genoa and screecher when AWS is 15knots or less. The Helia is so wide we don’t need poles and we’ve seen wind gusts to even 160deg AWA and the sails stayed full. With the genoa and screecher, we’ve even been able to sail all the way down to 8-10 knots TWS. Main + genoa requires more wind to keep the main full.
This is where it gets fun. Come off the wind a bit and the Fountaine Pajot Helia can really come alive. Main+genoa on a reach usually gives us about 7-8 knots. Using our screecher gets about 8-9 knots. We’ve seen bursts of 10+ knots boat speed when conditions are just right. For comfort reasons, we don’t usually push this hard out in the open ocean, but our 209nm day was a perfect combination of smallish waves, right wind angle and just enough wind to allow us to keep full sails. And we did it using just our main and genoa! We are confident in saying that our Fountaine Pajot is faster than most cruising boats.
I don’t care what kind of boat you’re on, upwind sailing is just no fun. Bashing into waves is uncomfortable, plain and simple. Our longest/worst stretch of upwind sailing was the start of our Fiji to New Zealand passage. We had 25-30+ knots AWS where we sailed at AWA’s of about 47-42 degrees. With several reefs in the sails, we still managed to do about 6.5knots but we lost quite a bit of leeway. If you want to sail to windward on a regular basis, get a cat with daggerboards.
This comes with a major disclaimer that I’m no world-class racer, but there are a few annoyances about sail trim on a Helia. The genoa track cars are too far inboard to be of great use while sailing deep wind angles. We’ve solved this problem by rigging up a block at the shrouds to be used with an additional line tied to the clew of the sail as an outboard jib lead. This has worked well.
The mainsheet traveler spreads almost entirely across the coachroof. While sailing downwind, you want the main let far out. However, the shrouds and spreaders are in the way. The mainsail, when let all the way out, can chafe against the rigging. We reinforced the mainsail at the contact point for the spreaders, but after hearing of chaffing stories from other Fountaine Pajot owners, we are very careful not to let out the mainsail too far.
To be fair, you would likely encounter these issues on pretty much all other cats, not just Fountaine Pajots, but it is still something you have to account for.
In my first review, I mentioned how disappointed I was in how much Starry Horizons slammed while we sailed across the Atlantic. Since then we replaced our 300′ of 1/2 chain with 300′ of 3/8″ HT G4 chain and reworked the dinghy bridle so that we can actually keep the outboard on the dinghy during passages. This saved us about 500lb of weight up at the bow of the boat and has essentially solved the problem.
We still experience “wave slap” on the inside of the hulls, but any cat will experience this. Very rarely do we now experience the whole boat shuddering slamming effect.
We get a lot of compliments from guests about how new she looks. We both do quite a bit of work to keep her looking good. This also speaks to the quality of her construction. Sure there are a couple of gelcoat cracks that have shown up, and we can hear a few more creaks while out at sea, but after 20,000nm that’s not unexpected.
Even in some of the worst seas we’ve experienced, I’ve never been concerned that the structural integrity of the boat was at risk.
The Helia really is an easy boat to sail. We’ve modified things so that all lines are led back to the helm (we purchased single line 1st reef from the Fountaine Pajot factory and modified the 2nd reef to be single line reefing as well) which means we can enclose the helm and be incredibly protected.
It was important to both of us that we be able to essentially single hand the boat in case something happened to the other person and with the Fountaine Pajot Helia, we can do that. The electric winch makes raising the mainsail a breeze but it can be frustrating having to go back and forth to the helm pod to adjust the autopilot when raising or reefing by yourself. Having two people does make this easier.
I touched on this in my first review, but it bears repeating. We love the space we have in the Helia. We’re usually the ones hosting get-togethers in an anchorage because the Helia has more space than almost all the other boats there. The lounge deck is a great spot for sundowners, we can work out up on the bow, the galley has enough counter space to actually prepare food and the jealousy on people’s faces when they see the size of the owners’ hull is readily apparent. Fountaine Pajot has done a great job of organizing the boat and the living space.
We give up some speed to cats with thinner hulls and daggerboards. But since we’ve spent 85% (107 days on passages out of 2 years) of our time at anchor/on a mooring/dockside, I’d rather have more space.
Maintenance and Repairs
We’ve been incredibly fortunate with how Starry Horizons has held up so far. Overall we’ve had far fewer troubles with her than other boats (and other Fountaine Pajots) we’ve met. Here are some of the big-ticket items we’ve had to work on:
- Cracked Mini Keel
- We discovered a crack in our port mini keel while hauled out in the BVIs. We’re fairly sure we haven’t hit bottom on that side yet. Our best guess is when we “beached” the boat in La Rochelle on the asphalt ramp so Uchimata could do some work on the props for us. Can’t really fault the Helia for this one.
- Leaking Hydraulic System
- Our hydraulic steering system had a leak coming from the “drain fitting” on the hydraulic pump. It wasn’t a big leak and was easily fixed by adding some Teflon tape.
- Genset Impeller Destruction
- Since buying the boat, I’ve since come to discover that Onan generators have a reputation for eating impellers. We’ve gotten a Raw Water Flow alarm several times and the solution has always required replacing the impeller. Again, a simple fix, but rather annoying, and we haven’t found a longer-term solution.
- Oil and Filter Changes
- Classify this one under preventative maintenance. So far our generator and engines have run almost flawlessly (with the exception of the genset impeller) so all I’ve had to do are scheduled oil and filter changes.
- Owner’s Side Shower Sump Box
- The drain for the shower in the owner’s head is constantly getting backed up. This is due to the accumulation of soap scum/hair/etc that gets down that drain. The sump box itself is easy to open up and clean. However, the long hose run from the drain to the sump box isn’t. We try to use a snake to clean the hose, but it doesn’t work all that well.
- Leaky Hatches/Engine Compartment Courtesy Lights
- I have now rebedded all the courtesy lights in the engine compartments. I have also rebedded all but two of our deck level hatches. It appears that Fountaine Pajot used silicone to bed all of these things, which was a terrible idea. The courtesy lights leaked salt water into the engine compartments, which has caused some premature rusting. Using Sikaflex or 3M 4000UV has fixed the hatches and BoatLife Life Seal fixed the courtesy lights.
One More Gripe
The owners’ hull sliding door… The nut and bolt system for keeping the door in the track sucks! The nuts are constantly coming undone. When they unwind up the bolt, they grind into the track and prevent the door from moving. Try to tighten the nuts all the way down and the level of the door raises too high and scrapes against the ceiling panels! Those same ceiling panels are glued in so you can’t easily remove them. It’s difficult to adjust anything or get easier access to the track. Frustrating all the way around, and you’d think Fountaine Pajot would have a better solution.
This review tried to focus strictly on the Helia itself. We’ve also done quite a lot of modifications to Starry Horizons.
I’d like to again reiterate that we’re extremely pleased with our Helia. We are happy to be part of the Fountaine Pajot family. She’s a great compromise of safety/performance/liveability at an acceptable cost.