Cat Not Dog
A simple but efficient cruising rig of high-aspect fully-battened mainsail, and self-tacking blade jib with a luff furler.
With reefs and furling these two sails can serve the boat in a wind range from 5-40ts.
In this article, ALEX STONE looks at the main considerations to be taken in account when buying a cruising catamaran.
The cruising catamaran market is coming of age. Yachties of all stripes are seeing the indisputable advantages of good, fast, safe, comfortable cruising cats. They’ve come to understand that yes, you can have all those attributes simultaneously, and at all times, in a blue-water sailboat. Sailing fast and comfortably with no heeling the new normal. Why just a few weeks ago, we cruised from Mahurangi to Man o’ War Bay in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf in two hours – a distance of 35nm at an average speed of over 15kts – and the glass vase of flowers sat on the saloon table the whole time, while my beloved snoozed contentedly on the couch, leaving me in splendid isolation at the wheel. Our kind of sailing!
The secondhand market reflects this, with cats and tris being sought after, and commanding high prices. The new boats market is awash with new designs, especially production models from European boatbuilding factories. And for these, the glossy ads and brochures look oh-so-alluring. And herein lies the rub. For in seeking out both secondhand and new cruising catamarans, there is a mini collection of ‘buyer-beware’ ground rules. And like so much in the realm of sailboat cruising, some involve compromises – or at least being clear about your expectations are to start with.
But first, some history. In one of the circularities of history, when European ships first encountered Pacific Island peoples and their sailing craft, starting with the Spaniards in the mid-16th Century, they were constantly amazed by the speed of the Pacific oceangoing multihulls. Indeed, in later colonial Indonesia and the Philippines, the Dutch and the Spaniards would send a traditional multihull if a message to HQ or an outpost needed to get through in a hurry. But then inexplicably (but probably as a result of cultural chauvinism), European boat designers did not pick up on this heritage. Imagine where multihulls would be now with an additional few centuries of development!
Multihull design was re-visited in the 1960s by alternative lifestylers, starting with the popularity of the easy-to-build (and very safe) Wharram-designed plywood catamarans. New Zealand’s great seafarer David Lewis, he of Polynesian navigating methods fame – his circumnavigating cat Rehu Moana was a Wharram design. The OSTAR race, single-handed across the Atlantic saw the rapid development – often by crash and burn methods – of racing multihulls in the 1970s/80s, led by French sailors in the early part of that nation’s obsession with short-handed ocean racing. In the 1968 OSTAR, the little-heralded proa Cheers was third across the line, skippered by an American, Tom Follett. A high point of this era’s development was Eric Tabarly’s very successful trimaran Pen Duick IV. Since then, the French have led the development of ocean-racing multihulls. And of course, the America’s Cup has contributed immeasurably in the development of wing-masted, foiling catamarans.
Now, French-designed and built cruising catamarans dominate the European and Northern hemisphere markets – boats from the factories of Catana, Fontaine Pajot, Lagoon, Outremer etc. The South-African-built Leopard cats are prevalent among multihull charter boats in the Caribbean and the Med. Their low-cost production is one of their advantages – a result of the decline of the South African Rand, nothing to do with the quality of the build. But these designs, by their nature, tend to be focussed on on-board accommodation, and are most of the ‘commodious’ type of modern cruising cats – with an inevitable compromise in performance (except for the Outremer range).
It’s appropriate then, that among the best of modern cruising multihulls are those that come from Australia and New Zealand, out here on the edge of the Pacific. Aussie designers Jeff Schionning (with his Waterline and Arrow ranges), Lock Crowther, Tony Grainger and Farrier (mostly trimarans) lead the way. And from New Zealand, the boats from the drawing boards of Malcolm Tennant (the GBI’s the Tourissimo etc), Ron Given (from Paper Tigers up to many ocean-cruising cats), and Gary Lidgard (the incomparable Fusion 40). Because of nature of boat-building industries here, very few are factory-made production boats. The Australian Seawind and Lightwave ranges are exceptions to this rule.
There are many modern cruising cats and tris out there to choose from. But which suits you best?
So here’s what to look for, and what compromises may be entailed, in seeking out your dream multihull.
This article will be of interest to multihull sailors considering trading up (or down); and be useful also, to experienced catamaran sailors who need to pass on information about buying cats to those inevitable, envious friends asking questions. Or just to enter into some long-standing debates about cats, their performance and expectations. So here goes, in ABC order.
An undeniably big part of falling in love with a boat. With multihulls, your ethos may need to stretch to embrace ‘form follows function.’ The reverse sheer of many modern cat designs, where the gunwale rises in the middle, and dips towards the ends, and the vertical, sometimes forward-sloping bows, take some getting used to for many yachties. But they are there for very valid reasons, and so are beautiful simply for that.
Most good modern cats and tris are built with generous airtight compartments behind sealed bulkheads fore and aft. This is a good thing, for safety and performance reasons. If a cruising multihull has big lockers filled with stuff way aft, this is also warning sign that sailing performance will be compromised.
You may be buying a sailboat, but auxiliary motors are a major consideration. Yes, they have to be reliable and sailing-efficient and docking-efficient and cost-efficient, in that order. Well, that’s just my viewpoint: shuffle those priorities as you wish. And with motors, there are sub-headings to consider too:
Diesels, petrol outboards, or electric motors? Most bridgedeck cruising cats on the market will offer the first option – diesel motors running through saildrive units. All good – but it’s one of those things that have become popular simply because they’re popular. Conventional wisdom at work. An addendum to this is that cats with petrol-powered outboards generally have a slightly lower resale value.
If your second-hand cat has diesels that may need replacing, take a good look at electric motor alternatives. Oceanvolt is the place to start, with elegant motors that can bolt directly on to existing saildrive, or replace them. If this look like a viability, be sure to also have enough accessible storage space aboard for the battery banks. This may be the space already taken by the diesel tanks, or under the cockpit seats. If you do opt for the latter, remember to account for the storage space you will be losing. The impressive NZ cat 88 has Oceanvolt motors. For any yachtie frustrated with the complexities of on-board diesel maintenance, the sealed, single moving part of an electric motor will be an attraction! It’s little-known that Elco, the oldest yacht auxiliary manufacturing outfit, started in 1893 with – and is still supplying – electric motors.
We had an electric motor for our earlier GBI cat – a Torqeedo outboard, equivalent to a 5hp petrol motor – and it worked just fine. At very slow speeds, the solar panel output would match what the motor was drawing. The solar panel, battery, and motor combination weighed less than the equivalent petrol outboard and full fuel tank. We had a range of about 20 miles. Only with our system, the ‘fuel tank’ could top up itself.
Hydraulic motors? Some cats have a single diesel that powers two small hydraulic motors at the propellors. This is actually a clever set-up: the diesel can be best-placed for weight distribution and space-saving; and it doubles as a generator. The hidden advantage is cruising in developing countries where small seaports may not have top-end yachting engineers on hand – but everywhere, there’s a bloke who can fix the hydraulics on bulldozers and trucks.
Retractable or otherwise? If they’re retractable motors, make sure they can be lifted by a woman. This is a critical safety consideration – all too often it’s your man who collapses, and it’s the woman who 41has to raise/rendezvous with emergency services, or get going back to a safe port. On some cats, the retracting system takes up interior hull space that could be given over to accommodation. Your call. But retracting motors do mean more speed under sail.
One or two motors? Of course, most tris will have one auxiliary motor, in the main hull. Some cats up to 40ft overall length and especially older designs, may have a single motor mounted in a nacelle that drops down from the bridgedeck. In small cats – say like the Great Barrier Express or Tourissimo – a single motor is no worries. But at around 35-40ft, it’s a definite advantage (for docking, for safety at sea, and power generation) to have two motors.
Engine controls? On cats, it’s very handy to have engine controls leading to both sides, if you have two steering positions. On our boat, we have the slight handicap of two wheels, but engine controls only on the starboard side. Nothing a bit of good HQ-foredeck communication can’t fix.
Generators or solar panels or windmills? The same toss-up with decision-making about this, as with monohulls. Only on a multi, you have far more space for solar panels. On our boat we have fitted two 250-Watt solar panels for the house electrics system (on the coachroof), and two 125-Watt panels for the stand-alone fridge-freezer system (on the targa) – with no aesthetic, or windage downside.
This is often cited as a great advantage that cruising catamarans have. But it does need a little finer consideration. First, consider how often, in reality, will you be wanting to do this. For you may not need this attribute often – if at all.
Most cats with mini-keels will be beachable – but sometimes only for short lengths of time. We once encountered a fairly heavy boat that had been sitting on its keels on the concrete floor of a boatyard for some months. In that time, the hull around the keels had distorted from the pressure. Yes, this was an obvious red flag about the structural stiffness of those hulls. Of course, for a mini-keels beachable cat, the rudders will have to be shorter than the keels (they usually are).
A daggerboard cat is beachable too – just be a bit more careful about protecting the hull bottoms. And of course, you will need a tip-up system for the rudders.
Skyborne at anchor, showing the anchor bridle working, and the stainless-steel roller box for holding the stowed anchor under the front cross beam.
For a light boat like ours, this is a slight weight compromise up front, but which makes for easier anchoring, especially with regard to attaching the anchor bridle.
Most cruising cat designers have settled on a beam of around 6.5m for boats in the 35-40 ft range; and most marina developers have followed suit, offering ‘catamaran berths’ that will accommodate this (mostly for a premium price, of course). The repeated use of the word ‘most’ is not bad grammar here; it’s another thing to look out for. Because some cats, especially those designed with speed in mind, will be wider.
But most Travelifts (there’s that word again) at haul-out facilities will not stretch to boats wider than 7m. Think ahead when buying your cat – and especially tri. Take a look at the slipping options close by for you. We know a couple who have to sail for a coupla hundred miles to reach a yard that can accommodate lifting out their – yes, lovely to sail – trimaran. But this happens with catamarans too. Just saying…A beam wider than 6.5-7m can also be tricky in some tight-manoeuvring-in-marina situations.
Some older secondhand cats on the market will have bulbs below the waterline at their bows – like a container ship. These were often an add-on attempt to minimise hobby-horsing by these designs, usually brought about by less-than-efficient hull designs. A cat with these bulbs is clearly advertising its limitations.
BRIDGEDECK HEADROOM; BRIDGEDECK CLEARANCE
A good rule of thumb here is that if your catamaran is less than 35ft overall (10.7m) and there’s standing headroom in the bridgedeck saloon, there’s a dangerous compromise elsewhere in its design. For any boat that will be going offshore – even in close-by coastal waters – a bridgedeck that is too low above the static waterline of the boat, receives slaps underneath from the waves. These can be noisy, uncomfortable and downright dangerous. Bridgedeck clearance, measured at the dock, should be at least 700mm above the water. Maybe down to 600mm, but no lower.
Some cats in the 20-35ft range will have a central nacelle to house a single motor, either a lifting-up outboard or a fixed saildrive. These sometimes sit exactly where the two bow waves converge, so are right in turbulence/drag central. You’ll need to go on a rigorous test sail on your intended cat to find out.
This view shows a wide boat (7.5m) with adequate bridgedeck clearance above the waterline.
Also, a streamlined coachroof for less windage (but still standing headroom in the saloon) and clear visibility for the helmstation from a wheel on either side.
Some modern cruising cats have cabins that have vertical front windows. This is great for for’ard visibility, and maximising interior space, but a great compromise in windage. Boats that look like this will not perform well under sail to windward – indeed many will be slower than a well-found monohull. Big wrap-around saloon windows may look cool like designer shades, but their large area and potential flexing in flatter sections, can lead to leaking at sea.
THE CAPSIZE THING
Yes, cats and tris can capsize. But so can monohulls sink. Each occurrence is about as rare as the other. Which are you more comfortable with? A multihull capsizing is usually the result of a combination of extreme conditions, poor seamanship and poor design – in that order. But a capsized cat or tri provides a stable lifeboat, with all your gear still there. A sunken monohull does not.
Some modern cruising cats are designed so the side-stays will fail before the cat heels up to an un-recoverable angle. But if you’re seriously looking at a multihull, you’ve probably gotten over this irrational fear already. Let’s move on.
Starting with a discussion on the important criteria odisplacement and payload, and how they affect modern cruising multis.Skyborne at anchor, showing the anchor bridle working, and the stainless-steel roller box for holding the stowed anchor under the front cross beam. For a light boat like ours, this is a slight weight compromise up front, but which makes for easier anchoring, especially with regard to attaching the anchor bridle.
Though at least 30 years old, this Grainger is still a fine cruising cat. Image Lesley Stone
DISPLACEMENT AND PAYLOAD
The acres of space that bridgedeck cruising cats offer has tempted many owners to pile on weight everywhere. An example of this is a friend’s boat (she’s sold it now) that was the same length and accommodation as our 12m cat, but was literally twice the weight. There were Teak extras everywhere, Teak deck veneer, oversize motors, you name it – all too easy to install. And all having an effect on that boat’s performance. But still, it was (and remains so) a fine cruising boat – just not quite so fast. It’s the boat pictured above - a 30-year-old Grainger design Mind you, we got it up to 18kts with the kite up, and under autopilot …
A note on the consequences of your choices here. If you have opted for the long-lean-fast hulls, you won’t have much margin for generosity of payload. (See Hull Shape, coming up …) You may need to ask guests to limit their luggage weight – but, hey, if airlines can do it, why can’t we?
GALLEY UP-GALLEY DOWN?
This debate appears almost to be resolved among experienced cruising cat sailors in favour of the galley-up option – ie in the bridgedeck saloon, not down in one of the hulls.
Galley-up always provides the cook with a view – and sometimes a handy serving hatch to the cockpit area.
Which does leave an inordinate number of boats in the secondhand market with the galley-down configuration. The best advice on this is to make up your mind for yourself: go cruising overnight(s) with both options. Yes, some people do prefer galley down, for their own reasons – it may be that they feel more secure, less-seasicky down there (if the galley is well-ventilated); it may be that you prefer food preparation away from the sitting/lounging space. Your choice. Galley up or down also affects the placement of your fridge/freezer. On our boat, we’re totally sold on the galley-up configuration, with windows above the kitchen bench leading directly to the cockpit. This makes for easy al-fresco serving and eating, and great ventilation for the galley stove too. And this was after initially favouring galley-down – so we are converts.
Armchair Admirals may regale you with horror stories of cats and tris misbehaving at anchor, and sailing alarmingly around the anchor point. This is exaggerated. But it does pay to have a good, and easy-to-attach bridle system that leads from the outside bows to the central anchor chain or rode. This minimises the swinging at anchor. Also, anchors that are deployed directly from underneath a cat’s bridgedeck, rather than from a point below the front crossbeam, come with attendant hassles. In real racing multis, naturally the anchor is kept away from the bow, but this is not really a concern with cruising cats. Generally, cats and tris have lighter anchors too.
Yes, light multis can move about at anchor, especially those with wing-section and/or rotating masts. This can be minimised by cleating the mast off to one side; or if you have two masts (a ketch or a biplane rig) by setting the masts in opposition to each other.One advantage offered by all multihulls is the ability to anchor in shallower water than the keelboats.
Some cruising cats have the halyards leading from the mast base, down under the bridgedeck, to a central winch placed behind the cabin. This system usually has too much friction from the additional three turning blocks; and offers poor visibility to what you’re doing. Not recommended. One way to get around this visibility problem, is to lead your halyard tail around the central winch, and to a side genoa sheet winch – if there’s a fair lead to do this. But you’re also then adding to the resistance. We shifted our mainsail halyard and topping lift to side-deck winches – and left the lesser-used halyards in the awkward position. This works for us. By the way, a 2:1 mainsail halyard is common on multihulls – this to make up for the added inward pressure from the full-length battens in high roach or square-top mainsails.
Hull beam:length ratio, and displacement:length ratio
Look along the length of any cruising cat from dinghy-eye level. For many, the hulls will appear rather chunky, with volume distortions on the inside, leading up to the bridgedeck (this is to allow interior space for bunks and stairwells). If this distortion is well above the waterline, that’s okay.
For any kind of performance, your cat will need hulls of a (waterline) beam:length ratio of at least 1:12. Or a minimum of 1:10. The commodious types of cruising cats will often be very different to that – some down to 1:6. Buyer beware. Similarly, a trimaran with an almost monohull-like central hull will not be very fast either. The ratio of hull length to displacement is also important. Australian Tony Grainger explains on his very fine website: “The longer the hulls for a given mass (displacement); the lower the displacement to length ratio, the more easily driven the hulls are and the more sea kindly the motion of the vessel in a seaway. ”Reverse bows? They look like the new fashion. But they’re not just a fad.
Tony Grainger again: “... for displacement hulls reverse bows are the state of the art in our technological quiver where performance is paramount. They can be beautiful and those that are will endure just as many of the classic sailing yachts of the past have endured for their beauty.
“The important thing is not whether the bow points forward or aft, the important thing is whether all of the design features work cohesively in style and in function.” A new trend in fast cats are fuller hulls in the forward sections. The may look strange to traditionalists, but if the boast is from a reputable designer, trust him/her.
This shows the relatively beamy hulls of this French design.
Also the solar panels and windmill for additional energy generation, and the accessible liferaft stowage.
A number of modern multihull designers take great care to place the mast step on a flat section of the deck, or on a horizontal step in the coachroof as it slopes down. This is for ease of working at halyards around the mast base; and a good thing for safety at sea. A mast step on the top of the coachroof is both unsafe and usually structurally less sound.
MINI-KEELS OR DAGGERBOARDS?
An enduring debate amongst cruising cat sailors and designers; and one with the jury still out on the benefits-vs-compromises balance. Most of the ‘production comfortable cruising cats’ will be marketed with mini-keels. The advantages of this arrangement they will say, lie in the fact that this allows the boat to be beachable, reduces draft, protects the saildrive and rudder, offers internal diesel or water storage, minimises complications (no hassles with raising or lowering daggerboards), cleans up interior layout (no daggerboard cases running up through the hulls) – and anyway, there’s no significant performance downside.
But there is one, and where it counts most for safety – in storm conditions. Fixed mini-keels won’t allow a boat to slip sideways under duress, and this can provide complications aplenty when wind and waves are high and threatening. After surviving a full-on oceanic storm in our light daggerboard cat (see Australian Multihull World November 2020) we found that the retracted board could now be flush with the hull – thereby allowing the boat to slip sideways safely.
The hulls on this cruising cat are narrow below, and wider above the waterline, making for a more spacious interior. Image Lesley Stone
But Grainger notes “I’ve never heard of a cat tripping sideways over its keels but please enlighten me if this has been the case.” Here he’s talking about capsizing.
Daggerboards will give the boat better all-round performance, on all courses relative to the wind. Going upwind, you’ll have deeper, higher-aspect and more efficient underwater foils; you’ll go faster and point higher. On a reach, especially in a smaller cat, you’ll have the option of raising the leeward daggerboard – which will allow the boat to safely slip sideways if the windward hull lifts out of the water. Downwind, you can reduce drag by lifting both daggerboards.
Grainger writes: “I generally recommend that daggerboards are a worthwhile investment if the owner has a preference for sailing to windward rather than motoring or waiting for a favourable breeze, and if the boat is going to be kept light enough to have a power to weight ratio that will do justice to the dagger board configuration.
“As a rough guide I would suggest that a 40’ cat which had a sailing weight of six tonnes or less would benefit from daggerboards, while a relatively heavy cruising cat would gain very little benefit from the more efficient foils.” And that’s the important point here: is your aim primarily to have a performance sailing craft? Or a more commodious vessel, that you’re happy to motor-sail more often?
LAYOUT & ACCOMMODATION
TOP: Interior layout, Skyborne. Six comfortable berths in a 12m cat.
More than enough accommodation for a fast, light cruising cat, with a galley-up option.
ABOVE: An extreme of layout stuffing, in a catamaran that will definitely not be a good sailing craft.
Space, lots of space, say the pictures in the ads for the modern cruising cat. Especially those from European production-line facilities, with big marketing budgets behind them. Great lighting, and wide-angle lenses all add to the impression. And plans of the layouts will show double berths in en-suite cabins aplenty.
Here’s where a reality check is needed.
The width of a bridgedeck cats can also be their downfall. Some of the ‘commodious’ types of cats have been stacked so full of bunks to look almost like dormitories. Trimarans, of course mostly have their accommodation concentrated in the main hull, with bunk spaces leading out over the deck, but never into the amas (the outriggers).
On our boat, a light Schionning-design 12m cat, the bunks are all within the bridgedeck volume, and the bows and sterns are pretty lighweight. The single bunks are pretty wide, and could easily ‘top and tail’ two kids. The engines are lifting outboards in the boxes beside the twin steering wheels. In many of the ‘commodious’ cruising cats, you’ll see an extra double cabin in this space, thereby being able to boast about extra accommodation for four more people. But ask yourself – do you really want 10 people on a 40ft boat? Mostly we go cruising with another couple, and we each have our own hull and heads.
If the design you’re looking at has accommodation that stretches fore-and-aft to a greater degree than this, it will certainly come with performance compromises.
Another thing to look out for is where the dinghy will be hanging. Ours is suspended from the targa – and it’s lightweight, being an inflatable and not a hard-bottom type. If your cat has the dinghy hanging right at the aft end of the boat, it will probably contribute to the sterns dragging.Which leads us directly on to …
Much of the current mythology of cats and tris is based on their touted superior speed. But it ain’t necessarily so. Modern, composite-hulled, moveable ballast keelboats are very quick indeed, and can have a speed advantage over multihulls – especially the commodious cruising types – in light airs upwind or dead downwind. To gain the performance advantage, your cat or tri will have to be of lean hulls, lightweight, with deep daggerboards and an efficient rig. But this combination is possible – and commonly so. There’s a whole new chapter (books, even – but mostly experiential learning) on the different aspects of seamanship and sailing fast multihulls. That’s the subject of future article(s).
Unlike many monohulls, you can get away with a surprisingly limited wardrobe of sails on an efficient 53multihull. We cruise happily, and fastly, with a blade jib (self-tacking, and on a forestay furler), a Code Zero (also with a luff furler, so it can mostly stay up overnight at anchor), and the usual fully-battened main with deep reefs. We can go on the wind, faster than the wind, in light airs with the Code Zero. Once above 10kts, we’re fine with the blade jib. A genoa is not necessary for cruising, with this set-up.
The heeling motion of a monohull is a shock-absorbing effect. Cats do not have this luxury. Gusts of wind are imparted more as shock loads to the rig. So you’ll notice a catamaran will have seemingly over-sized rigging and attachments. This is normal. In fact, if the rigging seems just like on a comparable length monohull, that’s a red flag.
Another collateral to this is that going up the mast at sea on a cat is decidedly more uncomfortable than on a monohull, which has its motion smoothed/regulated by the dynamic forces of heeling. At the masthead of a cat, you’ll be whipped around in a much sharper motion, and in four directions. Be prepared.
STEERING: TYPE AND POSITION
Two wheels on this Schionning cat. Each has good visibility, and allows the helmsperson some shelter behind the cabintop.
Most cruising cats on the secondhand market will have wheels, and most will have only one. In a wide boat, this can be tricky, especially in a docking situation.
So consider: if there’s a central steering position, is it really practical? Some are placed up high, with a view over the coachroof, but this comes with added windage (for the boat), more wind in the face (for the helmsperson), and a safety concern about falling down the ladder. Boats designed for blue-water sailing will never have this feature. And yes, there are central steering positions on some cats that offer very limited visibility forward.
If there are two wheels, do they both have engine controls leading to them? If not, will you be comfortable doing close manoeuvring always from one side? (With someone on the other hull calling distances etc)
If the boat offers tiller steering, is it comfortable enough to use? Or does it mean the poor helmsperson will always be exposed to the wind and the spray? And for both tiller and wheel steering, are there options for steering standing up and sitting down?
And lastly, a significant safety/emergency consideration: does the boat have a ready, easy option (and emergency tiller, for example, that can be attached to the rudder post; or a spinnaker pole or suchlike, that can be re-deployed as a steering oar?)
Look for added weight up-front in a secondhand cat. Often, owners have been tempted to fill the commodious for’ard storage hatches, or under them, with extra water- or holding tanks. This is not a good thing.
Buying a cruising yacht is a major investment for most of us. These are just a few pointers to getting your choice just right when you are looking at switching to a multihull, or upgrading to a bigger one. Choose wisely, and you will be well rewarded.