Copyright 2017 - Woods Designs, Foss Quay, Millbrook, Torpoint, Cornwall, PL10 1EN, UK
  • home built Flica 37

  • plywood Romany 34

  • lightweight 14ft Zeta mainhull

  • Strike 15 trimaran at speed

  • 28ft Skoota in British Columbia

  • 10ft 2 sheet ply Duo dinghy

  • 24ft Strider sailing fast

  • 36ft Mirage open deck catamaran

I wrote this in 1999 after a visit to the Annapolis (USA) boat show. The comments are still relevant even if the boats I mention are no longer in production:

Ideally before buying a new catamaran one would test all the alternatives in all conditions. Obviously that's not very realistic, so in practice - after collecting information from web sites and brochures - one normally heads off to the nearest boatshow. If it's an English show you're "lucky" because there will be only one or two boats to chose from. But what if its a French or American show when the choice of multihulls is as varied as monohulls?

When I was at the Annapolis boat show I tried to visit all the multihulls and pretended I was a first time buyer on the look out for a family cruising boat. The results were interesting and I ended up with a very short list of boats that I'd want to test-sail. So what did I look for? Before even getting on board I had a quick check on the bridgedeck clearance. Could I get underneath when in an inflatable dinghy? If not then the clearance would not be enough for comfortable cruising. Next I checked whether one could actually board the boat from the side as well as from the stern (The UK is just one of many places where its unusual to moor stern-to) - and also tried to envisage boarding from a dinghy. You will want to show off your new boat to family and friends. So the acid test: "Could your mother get on board?"

Once on board I'd sit in the cockpit. Were the seats comfortable, did they have good backrests? Did they feel safe? When standing in the cockpit could I see forward over the cabin top? Did I feel that I could fall out of the back? Next I'd sit in the helmsman's seat. Could I see both bows and both sterns (essential for safe manoeuvring under power)? Could I get from the companionway to the seat safely, even in a cross sea? Yes I know they say catamarans don't heel, but they do move around a lot when sailing offshore. I put a cross against boats where I had to "go round the outside" to sit in the seat. While sitting there I'd imagine a tack. Could the crew handle the boat and winch the genoa without getting in my way? Were there enough winches to be able to reef on either tack? Even before venturing below my list of possibles had become considerably shorter.

Then I'd move inside. Now I know that standing headroom and a big open space create a good first impression, particularly if there are already 10-12 people on board, but the way you move around a boat during real sailing is very different from one's first visit at a boat show. At a show you race from cabin to heads to galley. Whereas normally you go inside to sit down, to use the heads, sleep or cook. In fact you don't even cross the bridge deck from hull to hull very often. So I gave black marks to boats which had big open spaces without handholds -much like one would on a monohull in fact. I'd check the number of bunks. Say 8, in which case logically I'd expect that 8 people could sit in the saloon, and that the galley would be big enough to cook a meal for 8. The fact that most large cats fail this test just shows that most are built for the charter trade and not for family cruising. You don't choose to live in a hotel, you live in a house. Charter boats are only floating hotels, ie somewhere to spend a few nights while you see the sights. A basic room mini-bar, coffee maker and microwave are enough for the coffees and breakfasts you're likely to "cook". But that's totally inadequate if you're actually going to spend some time aboard.

One of the great attractions of a catamaran is that you don't "go below" you go "inside". Although its nice to be able to see out when at anchor its essential to have all round vision when sitting inside so that you can be on watch under auto pilot when on passage. Staying warm and dry transforms sailing and is one reason why I wouldn't now cruise on an open deck catamaran. Next, moving out of the saloon, was the heads compartment big enough to have a good shower (you definitely need imagination for this) but I'd turn round and pretend anyway. Imagine lying in a bunk on a Sunday morning. Your partner brings you a cup of tea. Have you got someway to put it down safely? Most boats claim to have a "vanity unit" but does it have a fold down flap? If not you won't find it easy applying makeup. Few boats are large enough to have separate eating and lounging areas. So, although most saloon seats are comfortable when eating, they must also be comfortable when relaxing. Can you put your feet up, lean back and read a book. You can't if the saloon is one of these modern semicircular shapes.

I know everyone uses GPS these days, but many people still like a paper chart to route plan. So is there a usable chart table? I don't think you should need to use the saloon table on a 40' cat. For one thing it may be covered with the kids toys. Does the area round the nav area allow space for radar, SSB, weather fax, PC? Never mind TV, stereo etc

Note: every thing I've said relates to DESIGN, I haven't yet offered any advice on what to look for when it comes to build quality - maybe that's an article for a surveyor? But here are some quick pointers to see whether the boat has been carefully built. Check whether there is excess sealer round deck fittings. (Cautiously) run your hand inside lockers - especially near the gunwales and other inaccessible areas to check for rough glass. Always open up under bunk lockers etc. Check that all plywood has been well painted. Pull on a couple of stanchions to check for deck strength. Are the stripes carefully aligned or do they wobble up and down. Do the strips of "carefully selected" teak trim meet with equal care.

Now that you're down to only one or two boats, what next? Well fortunately immediately following the Annapolis show are the Multihull Demo days, two days of extra show when one can actually sail the boats. Admittedly it's only for a couple of hours, but nearly 40 boats showed up in 2000. Possibly equally important to sailing your shortlisted boats is that you could sail another boat and watch "your" boat sailing. These demo days originated in the UK about 15 years ago, but for various reasons died out. It certainly something that should be incorporated into all in-water shows. Nearly every builder (and for that matter many reviewers) say something like "our boat is the fastest for it's size". So it's actually very interesting to see the boats out on the demo days. Those that have confidence in their boats performance tend to sail near each other. Those who sail away from the rest of the fleet are the dogs (after all if you really had a fast boat you'd want to show off against your competition wouldn't you?) It was often surprising to see which the dogs were.

Just because a boat looks fast doesn't mean to say it is. The Savannah 26 that I was sailing was one of the smallest boats and with its aerorig and high central cuddy both the builder and I freely admitted it looked odd. Yet we could keep up with most of the fleet. Overtaking a Lagoon 42 was a highlight, as was sailing through the lee of a PDQ 36 when we were reefed (we had a 70 year old on board who was a rather nervous sailor). It still amazes me that so many people choose a boat without a test sail, however brief. So I guess you now want to know my conclusions! Well with 40 boats on show I eventually decided that I'd have to be 3 different people looking for a trimaran, a charter boat and a family cruising catamaran. This also rather neatly split the field into equal thirds. The final decision becomes a personal, subjective view even if the short list has been decided on logic.

Personally I am not a fan of large boats. I find it hard to justify a boat over 40' for anything except commercial chartering. Smaller boats are more fun to sail, simpler to own and cheaper to buy and maintain. So, having said that the winners were:

Family cruiser: The Gemini. Still there, it's no wonder Tony Smith sells so many. True it has rough edges, but it still offers the best space/performance for its price.

Charter boat: The Belize. This was a real surprise for me. The Fountaine Pajots have come on in leaps and bounds. I hadn't been on one for about 5 years, but the new ones are far superior in every respect to the old ones - except they still don't have chart table worthy of the name.

Trimarans: The Dragonfly 920. It's only competition is its big sister, the 1200, and as I've just said, I don't like big boats. And the overall winner - ie the boat I'd buy if I wasn't a multihull designer? The Dragonfly

Finally, I can't wait to get to the next show with my Eclipse 99. After the demo sails many people came to me and said "how come your boat is so fast?" To which the only reply I could make was "because I designed it". The Eclipse has more space, comfort and performance than any similar sized boat available on the US market and at under $200,000 will be a sure winner.