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The Construction and First 5,000 Miles of The Midnight Hour

From-Multihull International, March 1990 By Rob Ward

With merely my third year’s subscription form for MI on the desk it may seem a bit presumptuous to put a new ribbon and double spacing on this battered Olympia and write a few words, the need to ‘show and tell’ seems to come with involvement in seafaring in more than one hull, after all, ‘they capsize, don’t they?’

First, the born-again sailor tells of the conversion; I used to sail monohulls (eyes cast down in shame). Five thousand miles in a battered Invicta 26, a bit like a Contessa. This nearly put paid to my sailing for ever; the Channel storm, chartwork on my knees, cooking the two-stroke’s plug on the stove, westerly projectile vomiting off Cape St. Vincent in an easterly blow. Then a shared long-keel Alan Pape design. Next a ferro Endurance - 19 days to Barbados with spinnaker and genoa up all the way. Finally back from the West Indies in a friend’s French monohull with a capsize off the Acores. (Oh, they do, too!)

Then (cut to image of daylight dawning; Debussy’s La Mer; and expansive passage), Mike started writing from Australia’s East coast about the 21ft Wharram he had built, and beautifully too judging by the photos. Tacking up and down the sound between Brisbane and Stradbroke Island; laughing at the expensive monos in a few quids worth of plywood and epoxy; beaching at full tilt; sailing flat-stick up to his mooring - it sounded good. The road to Damascus was strewn with bits of crumpled paper with doodles of boats with more than one hull on them.

To continue in a slightly more sober vein, the light having dawned (the concept being embraced) the levelheaded sailor who has seen one or more proper-job storms at sea wants to know: will a multihull cut it? This is the only excuse for this piece of writing. And before I write the last few hundred words to this I must admit that this is not a fully qualified answer.

Part Two comes in the spring when The Midnight Hour will have continued from Lanzarote. to the Caribbean and returned Insha Allah - to Restronguet. The Midnight Hour is a Woods’ Design MIRA 35. That is, an open-bridgedeck cat, built on Banshee hulls. I constructed her on the north coast of’ Cornwall in The Old Coal Store at Trevemper Mill, close to the head of the Gannel, a small tidal estuary giving out onto Crantock Beach, well-known for its picturesque lines of Atlantic rollers; we were to launch her there!

After 20 years of surfing and close involvement with board design and manufacture, I was comfortable with glassfibre work of a high order. So I altered Richard’s spee. from all-plywood bulkheads and beams and foredeck to glass/foam sandwich. The beams were shaped in foam, like a surfboard and glassed over on the bias 450, using the foam as a mould. I’d do it differently now, but when I jacked up the starboard hull under the skeg some six feet high to put in the rudders and both hulls went up silent and parallel, my confidence in the many hundreds of hours of conscientious laminating began to grow.

The removal of the front wall of the Old Coal Store and the miraculous refusal of the entire roof structure to collapse on top of 3,500 hours of hard work confirmed in me the knowledge that God loves multihulls. Tiptoeing down to the Gannel without a police licence, ('er, what 35' long and 20' wide load, officer?") went off with but one hitch; someone had parked a fishing boat in the middle of the Gannel Road. As in a dream it came together. The fishing boat was hoiked off. Gerald Northey roared up the dawn Gannel with Zarvon, his jet drive, custard-coloured crabber and towed us more gently down to our drying mooring where the next months were spent watching herons and kingfishers and fitting out.

Now the readers of this magazine will know some of the penalties paid by the Believer for his beliefs - mine were; broken bones (two), marital stress (not divorced) and financial strain (not bankrupt). But one dark, pre-dawn Spring tide in December we hauled off our shinglebank and motored under the footbridge to the mouth of the Gannel, not yet knowing how the surf would be. In the half-light it looked good. Light northerly breeze to take us off the rocks of Pentire Head; a fairish channel alongside them and only - Oh God! - a six foot swell. A set formed way outside and to our relief peeled off prettily dying into the channel. We pushed through two sets of waves before we unfurled the Profurl reefing-genoa and tacked up to Newquay harbour.

After a few weeks under Captain Sampson’s eagle eye we took her round to Falmouth via the Scillies. It was a thrill. The rolls of glass, the drums of resin, the boxes of foam had become more than the sum of their parts; a boat.

How does she go? My 5,000 miles in The Midnight Hour have been far more comprehensive miles than the 20-odd thousand miles sailed in the monohulls; they were, by and large, two-tack ocean crossings. Everyday of this summer I day-charted on the South coast. It was, as I recall it, a fairly mellow season. I did some five runs to the Scillies and passages up and down the South coast anchoring-off most days and passing not one day in the situation preferred of Insurers; a marina.

The first demanding passage was (excluding the run to Helford with 20 - no misprint - Germans aboard, and the day with my blind charter which was a joy), to run to the Scillies in a force 6 northerly. At four in the afternoon the tide was running hard to the north and, as expected, the sea began to break quite, hard.

The Midnight Hour, has a cruising rig of modest proportions, some 50 square metres. In stronger winds she suffers no disadvantage. We had two reefs in and much of the Genoa rolled up and were still logging nine knots. The difficult part for an inexperienced cat sailor was the waves which, breaking at about 3 or 4 metres, were of a size and steepness designed to lift the starboard hull far enough to cause cheers of excitement from the charterers (a gung-ho lot), and nervous pacings-about and clappings of the binoculars to the blind eye from myself. My rational self referred to the designer’s calculations which stated: won’t capsize with all sail up fully sheeted-in until force 8. So, even bearing in mind gust strength, the fact that much of our sail area was flopped between the lazy-jacks and wrapped round the forestay, allowed me to feel tensely okay about the situation.

Thereafter three days of clear skies and fair winds give us the wonderful Scillies at their best and ‘a good time was had by all’. By the end of August, we had sailed almost daily and often nightly for some four months. We embarked a small party for the trip south. We got the crossing of the Bay right, starting on day one of the charter with a stiff northerly. Fully loaded her handling was somewhat more ponderous but, under Autohelm, she still easily took off on surging surfs well past our trailed log’s max. of 10 and on past the estimated 13 before it hit the stops. Anyway , the spinner barely touched the water at these times!

The next few weeks were fun, but I don’t want this to turn into a ‘what-I-did-on-my-holidays’ anecdote of self-indulgent proportions. I would however like to pass on a couple of the moments where my experiences and mistakes may inform the general pool of knowledge of cruising multihullers. After La Coruna, we made a short passage to Camarinas rounding Cabo Villano in a force 8 and feeling its impact more fully as we reached into Camarinas. We motorsailed against a wind gusting 55 knots to an anchorage at Ligunde beach, some twenty metres offshore. Pines and the crest of a hill were breaking the wind so well that we were describing the winds as ‘light variables’, whilst the monohulls two hundred metres out spent gay nights dragging anchor up and down the Ria.

Our favourite couple was Bernard and Madeleine, (French), who had a virile alloy sloop with a range of equipment designed to terrify and paralyse its owners so that they should never set sail again from however tenuous a haven. The worst offender was the wind generator set up in the sturdy double-backstays. As the gusts came honking down the valley above Ensenada de la Vaca, the generator would set up a truly intimidating howl. Below, all would visibly shrink. Next there was the anemometer. Struth! if we’d .known we were sailing in 55 knot winds we’d have gone home immediately ( we owe the knowledge to them). Finally, there was the weather fax machine. Producing a special transparent plastic scale, Bernard demonstrated that - with the isobars pertaining in Finisterre - bearing in mind that nasty kink at the bottom, if we set sail we should, most certainly, get Gallicly bollocked.

And, of course, we did.

It was brisk in the morning with a large north swell, breaking occasionally. By midday it was strong with steep, breaking waves of four metres. By the evening it was force eight and two of us on board, after twenty years of undercalling wave sizes as surfers, were obliged to admit to some of the waves being over six metres. The Midnight Hour was surfing hard, throughout the day. We started with a double-reefed main and a goosewinged genoa. By the time things became ‘interesting’, bits and pieces of our inventory had been hauled down and we had the rather unsatisfactory arrangement of the genoa, partially furled, barbered out to port with the lazy sheet. I won’t say how fast we were going at times, but on some surfs we hammered along like a power boat, overtaking the flat in front of the swell we had surfed and dropping in on the wave face in front. In other words we were surfing faster than the swells.

The high prismatic coefficient that Richard Woods had put into the hulls seemed to keep the bows right of trouble. As a steep wave came up behind, the bows would dip in until the water level reached, say, 12" from the deck, then as she took off the dynamic lift would bring the bow out, dry as far as four feet back from the knuckle. It was a most extraordinary experience, but we became complacent. At four o’clock, wrote in the log, ‘Aaaargh! a really steep one maybe six metres,and took no further action.

Thirty minutes later the truth of the instructions in the back of the Autohelm owners’ manual was born home to me graphically, It states (as I recall), ‘the Autohelm should not be employed whilst sailing downwind in large breaking seas as it lacks anticipation’.

Don’t we all? The three of us on deck, watched the drama unfold in slow enough motion for us all to make a passable reply in unison - of the famous scene of Butch Cassidy in "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’ in which they are obliged to throw themselves off’ a cliff: we looked down the pit that opened up in front of the boat. We turned and saw the blueish black monster. We felt the boat lurch obligingly into a surf. Joy joined joy as the wave broke on the starboard quarter ,and slewed her aided by the genoa out to port - round to starboard and as we plunged into oblivion, three sailors with one accord cried, ‘F..argh!' The port bow submerged, water flowed back the full length of the boat into the cockpit, diagonally. The boat slowed up. The bow slowly emerged. water draining off’. The sail refilled and The Midnight Hour picked up her skirts and got on her way again.

Mike looked at me, somewhat pale, and said in a serious kind of way, ‘We just buried the lee bow’. I did what I should have done, at the stage of the first, 'argh' and reduced sail ‘drastically’ to use Donald Street’s favourite epithet. With half storm-jib sail area we cracked on some sixteen miles in the next two hours and recovered our composure.

I hope the tale makes amusing reading. I think there are a couple of lessons there. Surfing can be fun and relatively safe. Perhaps a helmsman is more to be trusted than a box of tricks. Sail maybe reduced in gale force running conditions without loss of self respect. A pair of booms would make for a balanced downwind rig in strong conditions, where on sail may lead to a broach. Cruising catamarans are designed with safety factors which would amaze a monohull sailor. The Midnight Hour never felt as if her weather quarter would follow her lee bow - really! Mike and I sailed on (after Peniche and Madeira) to fascinating anchorages in Ilhas Desertis and the Selvagen Islands.

Since when I’ve sailed daily around Lanzarote, Graciosa, Lobos and Fuerteventura. The winter has made mock of the Admiralty Pilot’s somnambulant remark that, ‘Gales force eight are rare in the area covered by this Pilot’. My respect for the cruising catamaran augments, but as I said, we’ve two crossings of the Atlantic to complete before I’d ask you to consider, my opinion informed.