The Tofinou 9.7’s blend of modern design and timeless looks creates intoxicating results, reports François Tregouet
There are some too-rare boats that turn every head, and everything about them attracts your attention. The new Tofinou 9.7 is, without question, one of these.
You can assume a certain level of classic beauty in the genes of a Tofinou, but there is a defiantly current look to this model too. Although Tofinou has maintained its reputation for more than three decades, many competitor brands have risen to the challenge in recent times. Is this the model that reasserts the status of the Ile de Ré yard? To answer that, we would, of course, need a much, much closer look.
Unveiled at the 2019 La Rochelle Show, this boat stood out among the more conventional hulls with their big volumes and clinical white polyester. Low on the water, painted vermilion red, with an anthracite grey or silver cockpit, a teak covered deck and the merest blister of a varnished mahogany coachroof, the latest Tofinou certainly turned the most heads on the pontoons. But from where did such a modern yet timeless looking design materialise?
Two owners of Tofinou 8s wanted rigorously one-design boats to compete on equal terms in as many friendly match-races as their lives as young retirees would let them. Thus was born the project of the Tofinou 9.7, the seventh and latest addition to the family. For a modest size yard, which produces no more than 20 boats a year, to have so many models may come as a surprise.
It’s important to know that new models do not replace their elders, they merely enlarge the family while bringing their own personality in a tradition of ‘hand-made’ that is becoming increasingly rare. It’s a philosophy that happily takes the place of strategy at the Latitude 46 shipyard and which has its roots in the unusual back story of this boatbuilder.
The resurrection of Tofinou
The very first Tofinou was a wooden dayboat designed in 1928 by Edmond Merle for Mr Edouard Menuteau. Originally from the Ile de Ré off France’s west coast, and faithful to his island home, the sponsor made his fortune in West Africa.
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He named his boat Tofinou, meaning ‘Men of the water’ in honour of this tribe from Lake Nokoué in Benin. In 1986, Bertrand Danglade recovered the hull from a mudflat on the island. She was magnificent but in very bad shape. With his friend Philippe Joubert, they decided to make a polyester replica. From this mould were to come 230 Tofinou 7s, a success which launched the Latitude 46 yard.
Created in 1987 at St Martin de Ré (at latitude 46°N), the workshops are now located on the other side of the bridge linking the island to the mainland and the city of La Rochelle. The broad specifications of a Tofinou have not changed in a century and have crossed time superbly: a simple, stable, swift boat, easy to handle on your own, and which can take the ground twice a day.
This is a highly tidal area with springs exceeding 6.5m. Fishing activity has somewhat fallen by the wayside, but has been replaced by a racing calendar, which brings together many passionate owners on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts as well as in Switzerland.
Right from the start the Tofinou 9.7 was designed to create the sweet alchemy that makes sailors put rationality to one side when buying a boat. Naval architecture was entrusted to Michele Molino, who took over from his late mentor Michel Joubert and his partner Bernard Nivelt, the fathers of the Tofinou 8, 9.5, 10, 12 and 16.
However, Peugeot Design Lab was also called in to take a closer look at the deck and cockpit of the Tofinou 9.7 with a fresh eye from the automotive world. Christian Iscovici, CEO of the shipyard, explains that by giving “slightly steeper and more angular lines to the project compared to the old Tofinou”, the designers have modernised the aesthetics of the concept.
A silver band on the coachroof may give the illusion of “headlights up front,” says Molino, but he insists the Tofinou avoids the pitfall of copying and pasting automotive recipes and has resisted the temptation to default to neo-classic design.
Not only is the 9.7 a pure sailing boat, but it is also a true Tofinou with her teak deck and numerous varnished mahogany inlays. Compared to the earlier models of the brand, however, coamings and coachroof have changed from solid mahogany to veneer-covered composite.
Indeed, such examples of smart build techniques mean the final weight is limited to 2,300kg, exactly the displacement of the smaller Tofinou 8.
Light weight, smart shape
On the day of our test sail the Tofinou 9.7 was moored alongside in the port of St Martin de Ré. A heavy sky threatened rain. This, combined with the boat’s noticeably low freeboard and lack of guardwires were a little concerning, and prompted me to bring my full wet weather kit and lifejacket.
Though it is transportable, the Tofinou 9.7 has the beam (3m/9ft 10in) and form stability of a modern hull and a high ballast ratio thanks to its 900kg lead keel some 2m beneath the surface.
The slight heel apparent when stepping aboard gives the reassurance of a keelboat, even though our test-boat had the swing keel option. With keel raised the draught is 1.22m, but taking the ground will require legs, and deploying those is always a delicate exercise. Tofinou also offers a vertically lifting keel version with a minimum draught of 0.9m, though the well for this has a significant impact on the accommodation.
Not that interior space is the priority of this dayboat, as you’d guess, with only 1.34m headroom. But for owners and their guests to be able to enjoy the yacht as often as possible, the option of a more fitted out heads compartment than the simple chemical toilet available would have made a useful option.
The standard layout has four berths including the saloon seats. However, as these might largely be unused on a boat made for daysailing, I also think the ‘comfort pack’ would be more the practical choice, as this includes a sink and a hob to warm up a simple meal or drinks.
The companionway hatch is cleverly designed in two sections to make it as compact as possible. These sections, which lift on gas struts, give the headroom needed to go below. During our test the hatch remained closed as the rain fell in torrents as soon as we cleared the pierheads at St Martin de Ré.
The mainsail is easily hoisted from the cockpit, to which all sail handling lines return, though they remain hidden. Even the Karver KJ jammers disappear under a false coachroof – the fact they can be controlled remotely allows this, but they do require a certain amount of familiarisation. The self-tacking Solent jib, which has a track integrated at the foot of the Axxon carbon mast, unfurls easily.
There were only two of us on board, but thanks to really well thought-out ergonomics, everything was within easy reach. You can clearly see the care taken by Peugeot Lab to integrate the instrument repeaters, which are all in the right place and at the right angle to be both visible and protected from the reflection of the sun and from water.
This is an aspect sometimes neglected in yacht design, with instruments being added later where room can be found for them, rather than being sited in the best practical place and from an aesthetic point of view.
The conditions were gusty, almost stormy, which kicked up choppy seas in the bay between the island and the mainland. Despite the frequent changes in heel and pitch, we were always able to position ourselves securely thanks to the central footrest. This is reversible so the teak cockpit sole can be made flush again once at rest.
The cockpit is cleverly divided into two areas: comfort forward with the more technical sailing elements aft. In between, are two very well placed Harken winches. An optional pair are located on the after end of the coachroof, to which all halyards return.
Without these additional winches, line handling would be much more complex – having to take the halyard across the forward end of the cockpit every time a sail is hoisted or lowered, for instance, would make the divided cockpit concept much less successful.
Despite the short chop, the Tofinou 9.7 didn’t take much water over the deck. Heel is kept under control using the mainsheet, attached to the centre of the cockpit sole, and the fine-tuning sheet, which runs on the traveller at the stern.
Only two or three waves, which were either slightly larger than the others or were less well negotiated by the helmsman, succeeded in reaching the cockpit. This stretch of water is relatively protected, and things might be quite different in a big sea, but that’s not what this boat is about.
Upwind speed is within the norms, between 6 and 7 knots in 10 to 12 knots of breeze. But as soon as you ease the sheets a little, the boat accelerates to more than 9 knots with a pleasant feeling of gliding across the water.
Whether sitting on the cockpit bench, the varnished mahogany tiller (optional) in your hand, or up on the sloping plane of the coaming with the telescopic tiller extension between your fingers, it’s a seductive feeling. The bow reacts to the slightest degree of angle given to the twin rudders (a single rudder is used on the fixed keel version).
With the tide falling and the gate at the port due to close, we didn’t have time to try out the gennaker or the asymmetric spinnaker. These are both tacked to the composite bowsprit, which is tensioned by a fibre bobstay. Aesthetics have prevailed over function here: there is no bow roller, so it is more suited to the use of a light anchor with a rope rode, rather than a heavier anchor and chain.
It may take a little time to get used to the Torqeedo electric motor, a €12,000 option over the original 15hp diesel, but it’s in keeping with the boat’s ethos to bring you back to port silently every evening. It’s therefore worth considering whether you’ll always be returning to a home port where you would be able to recharge the battery easily after sailing. And you’ll need to monitor how much battery power is left to ensure you can get back to port at a practical speed.
But the benefits of a fossil-free solution and silent motoring plus, as I found, the notable torque available. are attractive, and I was particularly impressed to note that, as soon as we put the motor astern, the Tofinou stopped in half a boatlength.
They say you can’t buy charm, but the Tofinou 9.7 has plenty of it. The collaboration between the Ile de Ré shipyard, the Italian naval architect and the Peugeot Design Lab might have been risky, but it has proved to be a real success. The use of quality materials where you can see them and advanced technology where necessary has been combined with undeniable care. The aesthetics have overruled the practical aspects in some instances, but the result is coherent, and seriously appealing. Like many prized objects, the Tofinou, with its painted hull and varnished coachroof, will require diligent care and maintenance. But whether it’s for daysailing, weekend trips, cruising or racing, short-handed, or fully crewed sailing, there’s no shortage of possibilities for sailing with the Tofinou 9.7. You might need to remember to provide coordinated clothing for your crew – whether you are in St Maarten, Geneva, St Tropez or Cowes, you will want to be sailing in style!