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

originally published in Multihull Review magazine (UK) 2007

The editor has asked "Why are there no catamaran equivalents to J Boats or X Yachts?", "Why were there far more multihulls racing in the Crystal Trophy 30 years ago than racing offshore today, even though there are now more multihulls?" and finally "Why doesn't anyone sail/build/race catamarans like the Farrier/Dragonfly trimarans?"

It certainly something that has also puzzled me for some time. Although the biggest developments during the last 25 years have been the huge growth in the number of multihulls and in chartering, the monohull market has also been changing. Twenty five years ago most race boats were designed and built as one off's under the IOR rule. Most were "disposable" boats with only a limited competitive life and were un-useable afterwards as a cruiser. Thankfully that's over now and these days many yards produce performance monohull cruisers, of which the J boats and X Yachts are probably the most successful.

The purpose of this series of articles is to try and discover why there are no multihull, and especially catamaran, equivalents to these production performance monohulls.

People go sailing for many different reasons. That's what makes the sailing scene so interesting and yacht design so difficult. Some people are cruisers who like the live-aboard life style and want to visit new places. Others sail for the challenge or to get away from it all. These two groups probably form the majority of sailors, but we must not forget those who only want to race. Nor, of course, the many for whom sailing is simply about having a tropical two week holiday afloat with their mates.

Then finally, there are those, like me, who, whether racing or cruising, have to be on a boat that is fun to sail.

And it's probably only this last group which really needs a boat with good performance above all else (for of course one needn't have a fun boat or even a fast one to race - look at the Optimist!).

Unlike a pure racing boat, a performance cruiser should be not just a "toy for the boy" but must also appeal to the whole family. I remember watching a TV show when Nigel Mansell (F1 racing driver) was test driving a Sunseeker 105 powerboat. He opened the throttles and obviously enjoyed the surge of speed. His wife sitting next to him was clearly terrified. He can afford a toy like that, but most of us cannot.

Indeed the second hand value of your new boat will be an important factor when deciding which one to buy, for most people only keep their boat a few years and race boats, in particular, devalue even faster than cars. These resale considerations alone mean that a performance cruiser cannot be too extreme, which can lead to the problem that while real racers may perceive that such a boat is too slow, cruisers will think it too fast.

But I've found that many people can't actually sail as well as they think, and even those who can, often re-sell their boat to less skilled sailors. That's one reason why the Firebirds capsized so often 15 years ago; more recently the Reynolds 33 seems to be suffering the same problem.

I used similar arguments 25 years ago when developing the Micromultihull rules when I tried to ensure that trailable, racing multihulls under 8m long were more than just large beach cats, and that they would also be genuine coastal cruisers. The Micro offshoot, the F28 class of pure racing boats was never very successful and quickly died out, as of course did the sponsored F40. The fact that the majority of micromultihulls have indeed been production cruiser racers shows that the micro rules did what I had planned.

It is always hard to generalize, but fortunately these days the Recreational Craft Directive makes it possible to describe basic types of boat, for although the RCD has many faults, it does divide boats into four distinct categories.

So it may be helpful if we now look at how performance cruisers fit in the general scheme of things. Category D is for beach cats, great for racing and having fun out on the water, but for cruising - no! Category C boats are coastal sailers and there are many performance cruisers to choose from. The editor cut his multihull teeth over 20 years ago on the first production Strider, racing and cruising it far and wide - often singlehanded.

But he wasn't the only one doing that. I remember that after winning the 1987 Micromultihull European Championships in my own Strider, we left Cherborg after breakfast, sailed 16 miles in the first hour and, although then slowing down, arrived back in Poole in time for lunch. I also did my share of cruising in Striders; the singlehanded sail from Plymouth to the USSR being the best known. But that was all when I was 20 years younger, and although I now own a 25 ft Merlin (another of my designs, similar to a Strider), I freely admit that a larger boat has a lot of appeal.

Although the Dragonfly and Farrier trimarans are still sold, actively raced and, like the Strider, will always offer great fun sailing, the problem is that there are now many available second hand so it's difficult for builders of new boats to compete on price with superficially similar older models.

As we all know, micromultihulls and boats like the F31 make great day racers and coastal cruisers, but they can never be considered offshore or live aboard cruisers. So Category B boats which are roughly between 9 and 11m and capable of offshore and trade wind ocean sailing should, on the face of it, have great appeal.

A typical Category B design is my 32ft Eclipse. I vividly recall racing Eclipse under spinnaker down the Solent at a steady 14 knots from Cowes to the Needles. Close behind us was an 8m Dragonfly also racing hard under asymmetric and looking very dramatic with spray flying everywhere. Yet, try as they could, they could not overtake. During an earlier Round the Island race, Eclipse had overtaken the fastest Mumm30 to windward while other monohulls like the J92 were left far behind, something Eric Lerouge implies is impossible on a cruising catamaran. For Eclipse is a cruising catamaran; once its racing days were over Eclipse served us well as a liveaboard cruiser for four years and 20,000 miles cruising in both the Atlantic and Pacific. And as everyone knows, Eclipse ultimately proved more seaworthy than even I had expected.

Despite its performance on the race course Eclipse was very comfortable, much more so than the similar length Crowther catamaran which I recently sailed from the Canaries to Panama. So there is no reason why one can't have a boat even faster than Eclipse, yet still have sufficient accommodation and comfort for a basic live aboard cruiser.

It's much easier to have good performance and sea going comfort in a bigger boat. Load carrying is improved and larger boats are theoretically faster, especially offshore. Which leads us to the last RCD category. Category A boats tend to be over 11m long and are basically all those that can be sailed round Cape Horn, and so include the vast majority of new catamarans now available.

Unfortunately most are built for the charter market and few are performance cruisers. For example during a Yachting World boat test (Feb 2003) held in 25-30 knot winds a Catana 52 reportedly sailed at 9-10 knots off wind and at 7.5 knots to windward. And that's a boat from a yard that gives performance a higher priority than most of its rivals. I sailed a smaller sister in similar conditions and was very surprised not to exceed 9 knots, so the boat test result was not untypical.

In an earlier issue Eric Lerouge wrote of "breaking a magic 10 knot barrier" which is a pretty damming indication of the emphasis most builders put on performance. There is no reason why a modern, comfortable cruiser can't sail in the high teens in 25 knots of wind and flat water; after all my 8 berth 35ft Banshee could do that over 20 years ago.

It seems there has been no improvement in the performance of production catamarans since the 1980's, even though racing trimarans have improved by leaps and bounds. It's clear that the reality is all a long way from the 250 mile a day, 12 day Atlantic crossings people might expect from a large Category A boat. Indeed one of the major reasons why people aren't buying catamarans these days is not because of the fear of capsize but rather because they simply don't sail very well.

I'm not saying large boats with good performance don't exist. When we were anchored in Curacao, off S America, we were next to an Outremer 55 that did indeed average 250 miles a day across the Atlantic, but at a cost; GBP400,000(!), 6 keen crew and very small accommodation for the size of boat.

So that's a quick précis of the types of performance multihull one could have. As a multihull designer what would I recommend buying?

First I have to disagree with Eric, and indeed with most other designers, as I don't think it necessary to have a boat over 12m to get good accommodation and performance with sufficient seaworthiness for offshore sailing. Furthermore, I am not as brave, strong or as tough as the average Frenchman. Unfortunately I am not even as wealthy; so, even if I wanted one, I could never afford a 40ft catamaran, let alone a 50-55 footer.

Why shouldn't I have a big boat? I always say that one should buy the smallest boat one needs, not the biggest one wants. That is in part because I do not believe that a 50ft boat can be easily handled by two people.

True, big boats can sail offshore with a small crew, but most people don't sail the oceans. Instead, they daysail and coastal cruise, tying up in marinas or anchoring every night. Imagine trying to get a 50ft x 28ft catamaran into Queen Anne Battery Marina or Trequier single handed, and then mooring it without help.

And that's assuming they have room for you and you can afford the mooring fees.

The thought of trying to reef a big mainsail at 2 am in the rain and a following gale, gives me the shivers, especially as I don't like the idea of having to rely on electric halyard winches which many of the larger multihulls do.

In 1986(!) I wrote an article called "Multihulls in the Year 2000" . In it I talk about a new "F30 class" and also wrote following:

"Most experienced sailors know that boats over 35 feet are hard to handle by two people and that regular crews are hard to find, so we predict a high growth in the numbers of boats (both monohull and multihull) around 35 feet, but with an emphasis on performance rather than on floating cottage style accommodation."

It seems I was wrong (as far as multihulls are concerned at any rate)

If you are only interested in racing then a beach catamaran would seem to make the most sense. But maybe you feel too old to wear a trapeze harness. Almost certainly your family will want a boat with cruising potential, while I know several experienced couples who bought a performance multihull instead of a racing monohull so that they could cruise without needing a big crew.

So my ideal boat for those who want a fun boat, want an "affordable", easily handled boat and a boat that can be lived on and cruised long distances is a Category B catamaran, not the average large French or S African charter catamaran.

So how would I go about designing a Category B performance multihull, and what can be done to encourage more production performance multihulls? Well, I have a few radical ideas, and will be outlining them in the next article.