Why Sail a Catamaran?
originally published in Practical Boat Owner magazine (UK) May 2008
I started designing catamarans over 30 years ago, back in the days when they were usually home built and owners were considered part of the lunatic fringe. Over the years, that conception changed as more and more sailors realized the catamarans’ merits.
This has led to a bewildering variety to choose from, however there are only three main types.
First is the open deck catamaran, looking something like a big beach cat and with accommodation only in the hulls. These are especially popular in smaller sizes as they are easily trailed and are usually cheap to build. Trailer-sailer catamarans are typically twice as fast as the average small monohull, or, to put it another way, you can get there AND back in a day.
Light in weight, no deep keel and with easy beach-ability, a trailable catamaran is much easier to launch and retrieve than a monohull. Something that is even more important on a day sailer than on a larger boat is the fact that the deck area is not only large but also it stays level and dry. Despite their small size, these boats are seaworthy; my longest sail in one was a 1400 mile singlehanded cruise to the USSR from Plymouth in 1989 in a 24ft Strider Club.
However, the crew can be exposed in bad weather, and after sailing most people like to sit round a table for a meal or to socialise. Although a boom tent is a popular option, these days I prefer a solid deck cuddy. Last year we relied on a deck tent on our new boat, an open deck 25ft Merlin, but this year we fitted an easily removable cuddy. It has transformed our cruising comfort, so much so that we lived onboard full time for three months this year. Our summer cruising ground is Desolation Sound in British Columbia, which is great - until it rains! Staying warm and dry at all times is essential and is one reason why I wouldn't now live aboard an open deck catamaran
So the second type are the catamarans that I call cuddy catamarans where the accommodation is in three distinct areas: the two hulls plus a central deck cabin, which usually contains the galley and saloon. Although the drawback is that you have to go outside to visit the heads or guest bunks, the gain is extra privacy. It’s also an efficient use of space as there is no need to have passageways down into the hulls. Furthermore, one can have standing headroom in the saloon on a smaller boat. There is easy access to the foredeck, and there’s no need to go near the gunwales.
Finally there are conventional catamarans with a full bridge deck cabin. Although a few small ones exist, those under 26ft are usually cramped, so the concept works better over 30ft and best over 35ft.
Last year I sailed a 33ft catamaran from the Canaries to Panama, and I kept careful count of the boats in each anchorage; 15% were catamarans, so, as many people cruise older monohulls, it’s quite probable that 30% of all new ocean cruisers are now catamarans.
Nowhere is the popularity of catamarans more obvious than as charter boats, for they now dominate the market. Indeed the vast majority of new production catamarans are now designed for chartering rather than for family cruising.
Successful charter boats are really just floating hotels; somewhere to spend a few nights while you see the sights. Many couples share their charter with friends, so quite reasonably all want the same personal space. A basic room mini-bar, coffee maker and microwave are enough for the coffees and breakfasts you're likely to "cook".
But when cruising for longer periods you’ll want a comfortable home, not a hotel room. That’s why most cruisers don’t want lots of bunks and ensuite showers. Instead, one good double bunk, plus a sea berth useable when sailing to windward is enough, although maybe a spare for friends or family is useful. More important are a big galley and a good heads compartment.
Absolutely essential is a comfortable saloon with an all round view. After all, when on land we don’t choose to live in a basement, so cruisers, who spend most of their time at anchor, should be able to enjoy the view from inside, not just from the cockpit. Of course being able to stay inside, yet still be on watch, makes passage-making that much more enjoyable.
The so called “galley up” arrangement (meaning that the galley is on the bridgedeck) is popular on the charter boats. That’s because it frees up the hulls for ensuite double cabins. However, it does limit the saloon space and often means there is no sensible chart table. Furthermore, room has to be left for the person cooking and to access the hulls, so much of the saloon is wasted space. That’s why cruisers prefer the “galley down” option which has the galley in one hull and thus a much larger bridge deck saloon.
The deck space on every catamaran is huge when compared to a similar length monohull. Not only that, but the whole deck area is useable space, whereas on most monohulls you are limited to the windward side. Few people like going down to the lee side to see behind the genoa; indeed I find sailing half blind one of the more scary aspects of monohull sailing. A catamaran has all round visibility not just from the helm but usually when sitting inside as well, for one goes “inside” not “down below”.
Over last 40 years I have sailed both catamarans and monohulls extensively. My last major sail on a monohull was in 2005 for a 1500 mile cruise south (obviously!) from Alaska in a Downeast 38. I’ve also sailed pocket cruisers, raced IOR, made an Atlantic crossing on a Swan, and spent 6 months crewing on a 70ft converted 12m.
So I can well understand why people want a monohull over 40ft. Smaller ones are just too uncomfortable, slow and wet. But that doesn’t mean you need a catamaran as long as 40ft to be comfortable.
Personally I am not a fan of large boats. I always say you should buy the smallest boat you need, not the biggest you want. I find it hard to justify owning a catamaran over 40ft for anything except chartering. Smaller boats are more fun to sail, simpler to run and cheaper to buy and maintain. My experiences with my 32ft Eclipse have been well documented and, despite events in January 2006, it remains my first choice as an ocean cruiser for a couple.
Of course I can’t write about catamarans without discussing their safety aspects. Most people worry that a catamaran cannot self-right after a knockdown. But, as data from the Coastguard agencies show, very few cruising catamarans actually capsize. Indeed these days it seems keels fall off monohulls more frequently than catamarans capsize.
However, safe sailing is much more than just having ultimate stability. Running aground on a fin keel monohull is a stranding often leading to shipwreck. On a catamaran you dry out for fun and have a BBQ on the beach.
Unfortunately, collisions at sea are still regular events. A catamarans watertight bulkheads and lack of ballast mean that even if badly holed it will never sink.
It may seem a small point unless you’re prone to it, but generally there is less seasickness on a boat that stays upright. A happy, dry, rested crew is safer than one that is miserably wet and cold.
It’s also very much harder to fall overboard on a catamaran, for sail handling and reefing are much simpler on its wide decks. Keeping one’s balance is easier, so there’s less chance of injury; as one catamaran sailor put it, “It’s no bruisin’ cruisin‘.”
Most catamarans are advertised as being “fast” for many people are easily seduced by the thought of more speed. However, when cruising, speed must always be related to comfort. Just because a catamaran sails upright to windward and doesn’t roll downwind, it doesn’t mean you should always sail one fast.
On a monohull you tend to sail as fast as possible all the time. On a catamaran you only sail as fast as you want to go.
I often compare boats with cars: 6 knots is 60mph, 8 knots is 80; 20 knots is 200. So in reality not many cruising multihulls genuinely do 20 knots in flat water.
A monohull is like an old car; you can keep your foot on the gas all the time. In a new car it’s often hard to judge how fast you are going, it’s so comfortable. In practice, few people buy the fastest car; rather most want a car that is comfortable to drive and handles predictably. Even so, you quickly learn not to drive fast in traffic, in the dark or in bad weather.
It’s the same with a catamaran, where the real trick to successful catamaran sailing is to know when to slow down. Thus I prefer to cruise offshore at a 6 knot average rather than 9. That’s because even 9 knots can be uncomfortably fast when passagemaking, mainly because you are living on board, not just out for a day sail.
I’ve found that peak speeds are about double the average speed. To average 9 knots you’ll often do 18 and later you’ll swear the log never read below 12. Sheer speed is not the main reason we go sailing, for if we really wanted to get somewhere in a hurry we’d use a powerboat. Instead, what is important is to have a boat that is fun to sail. Having a responsive boat and one that will do what you want when you want it are the real differences between boats that sail well and those that don’t.
So what is it like sailing a catamaran? The lack of heel and roll are obvious. Less apparent is that, because you are high above the water and away from the gunwales, the water doesn’t fly past inches away. This means that catamaran sailing is much drier than sailing a monohull, but it also means it’s hard to judge speed. Strangely, some people think that the monohulls’ heel and drenching spray adds to the fun of sailing.
Your monohull will be the most fun to sail in light winds and flat water. That’s because it reaches hull speed quickly, doesn’t heel and isn’t over-pressed, especially downwind. Catamarans, on the other hand, are generally under-canvassed compared to monohulls; so most need at least a Force 4 to sail at their best.
Although a coffee cup will stay on the table sailing to windward, a catamaran’s motion is bouncier than on a monohull. That’s because of its light weight, coupled with the two narrow hulls. Also, it can be noisier below. On a monohull the comfortable, ie lee, bunks are usually below the waterline. On a catamaran the bunks are usually at or just above the waterline and the water rushes past only an inch from ones ear.
In one of life’s ironies, a catamaran has room for stores but can’t take the weight while a monohull has no room, but you can load it up. On any catamaran under 35ft you’ll need to be very conscious about what you take. The implication is that most catamarans under 35 ft are overloaded.
Unfortunately, compared to a similar length monohull a catamaran will cost more. That’s because not only does it have a much greater surface area, but all of the boat has to be built by hand, whereas monohull builders simply bolt on 35% of the boats weight in the form of a cheap steel keel.
But if you compare price to useable space, comfort and speed a catamaran is the winner.
Yes, the variety of catamaran designs can be confusing, and there are many features to consider when choosing one, but the bottom line is that boats are for sailing and for having fun on the water. No one goes sailing to be miserable, wet, cold, uncomfortable or frightened.
That’s why I sail catamarans.