HMS interviews Southampton footballing legend Franny Benali and discovers how his newly discovered love affair with boating and the water came about. His experience will likely strike a chord with many new to boating …

Premier Marinas
training day

Your career as a high-achieving professional footballer player, author and commentator is clearly one driven by a passionate dedication to your sport. But away from the public eye, before taking up boating, what leisure pursuits rewarded you with solace and a means to ‘restore the soul’?

Fitness has always been a part of my life, and I would say running is my favourite pursuit for me to have a healthy body and mind. It gives me a great workout and I love being able to run outside and enjoy some great scenery in the Southampton/Hampshire area. 

Your professional career is synonymous with Southampton, a city famed for being home to one of our nation’s top football teams, as well as boasting a maritime heritage known the world over. To what extent was the sea in your consciousness then, living and working in such close proximity to the water? 

I feel it’s always been there in my consciousness. Born, raised and living in the city my whole life, the sea is a big part of me. I remember as a small boy the port being such a bustling and noisy place, full of activity. Cruise ships, commercial vessels in and around the docks and trains running to and from the water’s edge meant the city was always buzzing. Days out would often involve a visit to a local beach and swimming in Southampton Water, or leisurely days spent visiting the New Forest.

What special appeal does boating have for you and your family, and what led to you wanting to take it up as a leisure pastime?

It’s a brand-new hobby that up until now I have never fully explored. The Premier Agapi Boat Club is a simple concept with a flexible subscription membership suiting myself as a novice and also experienced boaters. It’s perfect, really, if you want to enjoy boating in a supported environment without the commitment of ownership and the hassle and costs of maintenance. The team are on hand if you need them to support your training, and the boats are just there ready to use. I’m already enjoying seeing a different side to the area where I live and grew up; I knew this was an easy decision.

How did you come to learn about the Premier Agapi Boat Club, and what in particular appealed to you about this form of boat ownership?

I was approached by the team at the Boat Club as they wanted to work with someone to help introduce the concept to others who might not have considered boating as a pastime. While I was initially concerned as I had no boating experience to speak of, I was quickly reassured by their professionalism, the thorough training and support offered, and the fact that the boats are fully loaded with safety equipment. I have a number of ongoing interests and wanted to make sure that as a hobby, boating would fit in to my busy work and home life. The simplicity of the boat club approach means I can book online and use the boats whenever I want on the Hamble, from Chichester and also internationally through a new ‘roaming’ partnership with the other Agapi Boat Club centres. It also means I can progress and use other boats as my experience develops. 

Agapi’s Mark Williams with Franny Benali

Tell us about the boat itself and what you and your family particularly like about it … 

Well, to start with, it’s a whole lot of fun! The club’s entry-level Ring 680 is the boat I’ve used so far. It’s a top-quality boat small enough to build your confidence and develop your handling skills, but it also has the power to really experience what powerboating is all about. I’m looking forward to progressing shortly to the Agapi 800. It’s a bigger boat and the power obviously steps up with that. The comfort and quality of the boat are clear to see, and it even comes with a two-berth cabin, a toilet and a cooker! I think it’ll be great for day trips out with the family. 

I’m told that you proved to be an ardent Powerboat Level 2 student! What aspects of the course did you enjoy the most, and why would you recommend it to others who may be new to the pastime? 

I genuinely enjoyed every minute of the course. Learning a range of new skills and understanding so much about boating while spending most of the time on the water was exciting. The course was conducted in a really professional but relaxed manner; I felt safe in the hands of the trainer, who was extremely knowledgeable, and I left feeling that I had a good grasp of the basic techniques, as well as the confidence to get back out on the RIB straightaway. In my view, the course is an essential starting point for anyone who is looking to take this pastime up in a safe way.

Can you tell us a little about  some of the adventures you’ve had so far with the Premier Agapi Boat Club and how these will contribute to your family’s leisure time generally? 

I’ve only just started out on this journey. I can’t wait to share all of this with my family and friends this year with some days out to places like Beaulieu, Lymington and the Isle of Wight. The Premier Agapi Boat Club at Chichester will open in March, so I’m looking forward to exploring a whole new area and potentially using some of the overseas locations too. 

You undoubtedly revere a challenge. Do you anticipate that your growing boating experience might lead you to plan any special adventures further afield? 

Who knows? I’m always up for a challenge, so we’ll have to wait and see! Check back on my blog in a few months’ time, but boating opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Based upon your experiences thus far, what particular ‘dos’ & ‘don’ts’ would you like to pass on to others contemplating taking up boating and/or joining a boat club as you’ve done? 

Anyone thinking of it should in the first instance speak to people who know. I was fortunate to be introduced to the Premier Agapi team, who have been incredibly helpful and supportive at every stage, including sorting out PB2 and VHF radio training. The boat club approach is a fantastic way to build your knowledge and experience without having to commit to ownership, which is a big step for most people – especially if you’ve got no previous experience like me. I don’t believe I’d have ever been able to class myself as a ‘boater’ otherwise. I have certainly enjoyed the flexibility and the lack of hassle that comes with being a club member – I get to experience all the enjoyment knowing that the team are dealing with everything to maintain the boat behind the scenes.

Franny Benali fact file 

  • Franny is a former professional footballer – he played full back. 
  • He has lived in Southampton his whole life. 
  • He spent 20 years at Southampton Football Club, playing 389 games. 
  • He made his final appearance in 2004.
  • Francis signed for local non-league club Eastleigh in the summer of 2006 and played 22 games over the course of the season before finally hanging up his boots in 2007.
  • Now retired, he remains a big part of Southampton Football Club, working regularly with the Saints Foundation and becoming a club ambassador.
  • He has completed three ultra-endurance challenges, all in aid of Cancer Research UK, the first of which saw Franny run between every Premier League ground in 2014, covering over 1,000 miles, running for 21 consecutive days. 
  • In 2016, he ran and cycled to every Premier League and Championship football club, covering an incredible 1,400 miles in just two weeks, running a marathon and then cycling at least 75 miles every day.
  • In 2019, he attempted seven Ironman distance triathlons in seven days! Franny has raised over £1.2 million for Cancer Research UK.
    In 2016, Solent University awarded Franny an Honorary Degree and he is now a Doctor of Sport for services to the local community.
  • In recognition of Franny’s contribution to charity, he was awarded the Freedom of the City in 2016.
    He was awarded an MBE in 2020. 
  • Now an inspirational speaker, renowned for his endurance charity work, he has raised over £1.2 million for Cancer Research UK. 

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