Lessons Learned: La Rochelle & Fountaine Pajot Factory Tour
We recently spent three days in La Rochelle on a family visit to France this summer and we wanted to share what we learned about the process for taking delivery of a FP catamaran out of La Rochelle in case it’s helpful to others doing the same. We were able to take a sail on a new Saona 47 as it was being commissioned, we visited the stores and chandleries in the area, we met a number of people on the commissioning team and we took a tour of the FP factory.
You’ll need to arrange a ride to the factory if you are staying in La Rochelle, taxis are not dependable and ridesharing doesn’t exist there yet. Rent a car or see through your broker how to arrange a pickup at the train station that goes to the town from Gare La Rochelle. This is serious advice here people, we arranged a taxi, it didn't come, we walked to the train station, there were taxis but the drivers were on breaks, so our broker found a Hertz and had to rent a car. Thanks Frank!
Fabrication, Assembly & Delivery
We understand the actual manufacturing process for the boats to take roughly 7-8 weeks. The FP production line is really cool to see and if you get a chance, you should do a tour if you can. It’s thirty-minutes outside of La Rochelle where they build all ‘small’ FP catamarans, from 40 to 50ft.
We were hosted by Vincent Laigo, who is the lead designer for all the FP catamarans at the factory, he’s a lovely man and arguably has the best job in the whole wide world, (he's here on the left of me and my selfie stick.) They appear to be launching one boat a week, roughly and have taken additional quality control steps with their product spike which I’ll discuss further. This is what I understand the process to be, but reserve the right to be wrong as I wasn’t taking written notes at the time.
They start with these huge double-sided molds for the deck/cockpit. Those large single pieces that fused together with layers of gelcoat on the outsides and fiberglass and foam in between. They have separate stations for this part of the process for each model of boat. The hull is a single sided mold and the bulkhead pieces are all cut initially to specs while the cabins and head enclosures are made separately in single units to be inserted later in the process. Before the hull comes out of the molds they are lined on the bottom and sides with square blocks of balsa wood cut from the strongest pieces of the inner ring of the tree (imagine a block cutting board). It was explained that each individual balsa block is pre-treated to make them individually water tight.
The hull is then lined with huge pieces of fiberglass again for additional reinforcement and the thickness is to safety certification spec. Once this is done, the whole hull piece is wrapped in a massive plastic bag on the inside and vacuum-sealed. Then resin is injected into the bag at precise measurements to infuse all the fiberglass and the full interior of the hull together. The resin is then sucked out through hoses and they measure the resin coming out to be sure to get the specs they want. It’s one huge solid piece at that point, which is incredibly impressive. The idea is to have each individual small block water sealed, then the whole thing again sealed as one piece so if there was a puncture, any water intrusion would be contained. Then they attach the bulkheads which slide in place with small custom adjustments made by hand as needed based on any unique characteristics of the resin process. They fiberglass and glue those pieces together as the full resin piece cures. We were able to see exactly where the crash boxes were at this step, which made me feel better.
The next phase is assembly. They lower in the cabins and kitchen enclosures as single units, then the engine mounts and sail drives are put in and the electrical network is laid out through a series of plastic pipes between the stern and bow; then the system installation process begins. They lift the deck and helm piece (complete with the lifelines) over the hull, deck and saloon piece and it finally becomes a boat!
After this point, the electrical continues along with the installation of the winches and major finishing. They eventually move the boats into a separate space to lower them into a water pool for different tests: engine, AC, leaks, etc. and after this point the boats are ready for delivery to the port for masting, inspection and commissioning.
It takes about ten working days for them to arrange transport from their factory to the La Rochelle port which is about a thirty-minute drive in a rental car. They don’t make those arrangements until your final check clears the bank.
The tour reminded me a lot of the Tesla factory tour, high-quality work, clean and organized facility and filled with what appeared to be very experienced people fully committed to their mission. The place was spotless and each station has a workflow and timeline on big sheets of paper. I do think it would be good to be there to see our own hull going through if it’s possible, though it’s a seven week process so you would only see bits of time. They didn't allow cameras on the factory floor (sorry)...although I can't confirm or deny any were taken.
During this whole process, there’s a series about twenty quality control categories, checked by maybe a dozen different people through the course of the manufacturing line. All the twenty or so categories of systems on the boat are checked and rechecked at different times in the process, which was reassuring.
Fountaine Pajot has an impressive operation and we didn’t have any major concerns coming out of the tour or how the boat was built. It was good to see under the hull on a finished boat out of the water. On the Saona 47 there is an opening under the boat to access the life raft in the cockpit locker and large O-ring hooks underneath that I hadn’t noticed; that’s a requirement for safety certification in case of a capsize. I asked Vincent all about this and he of course didn’t say it could ‘never’ happen but he was confident it wouldn’t, assuming a 40 foot wave isn’t at your beam.
The final delivery and masting stage was interesting. When you take delivery of a new car, you get a chance to look at it final as you ordered it and it’s perfect, then you sign the final paperwork. This is more like building a house, there’s an ongoing punch list. The boat goes from the FP factory and is put into the water at the Port de La Rochelle, and inspected which is when Uchimata goes over the boat and takes about 100 pictures and add pieces of tape to mark issues from their Quality Control checklist. Uchimata has been approved by FP to work on the mast, they hull treatment and the underwater lights before the boat is launched in the water. When we saw the new FPs on the dock where they are launched, they had a bunch of tiny pieces of yellow tape for tiny scratches or imperfections in the gelcoat; which we were surprised by, but apparently its normal. FP has people at the dock who fix all these little imperfections at the same time they put the mast up, but Vincent and Uchimata independently confirmed the boat doesn’t leave the factory with anything left undone that’s important.
After the mast is up and yellow tape is gone, it passes a final inspection by Uchimata and they take delivery of the boat on the owner's behalf, which is when you would need insurance because at that point it’s officially yours. This was also good clarification because I had thought the boat was ours when the broker delivers the boat commissioned but this is not the case. We would like to be there for that if possible as well.
Check out our blog on commissioning for the rest of the story.