My father and I used to walk the docks in the mid-1950s as both entertainment and education. We’d pay particular attention to the construction details of the cruising catamarans. Each time one would sail into the harbor, we’d row over and look for the rippling or cracks. We were seldom disappointed. Most large cats in those days had obvious structural problems where the amas joined the akas.
Enter Jed Clampett of the Beverly Hillbillies—or, at least the actor Buddy Ebson who played him. Ebson was an avid yachtie and ocean racer who took it upon himself to promote the ‘Polynesian concept’ of lashed-together, super-flexible catamarans. My father was intrigued with this ‘decoupling’ concept, as was I when I later sailed aboard the Gougeon brothers’ Adrenalin with her pivoting amas.
Another early ‘multi-freak’ influence was Hobie Alter, who delighted in rudely sailing circles around boats costing millions more. Of course, I swooned at designer Jim Brown’s cruising ‘light is right’ philosophy—even while simultaneously constructing a heavy displacement ketch in the ‘70s. Then Dick Newick (watched by Roger Hatfield later of Gold Coast Yachts) started smearing glue on St. Croix—and another ‘multi-dude’ thrilled me.
Still later designer Ed Dubois—yes, of mega-yacht fame—and I had many conversations about the design parameters of his 40-foot tri Full Pelt.
Even worse, I fell under the spell of Joe Colpitt and started racing internationally on a succession of his ‘hot’ trimarans, Transient, Alien, and Virgin Fire. We carried off the top Caribbean prize—the Heineken Multihull Trophy—a couple of times while I was navi-guesser aboard.
I’ve sailed many thousands of offshore miles on multihulls while racing, cruising, and chartering.
The point is—I’ve been watching multihulls and cruising catamarans progress for almost all of my 64 years. I consider myself pro-multihull. And, if Steven Spielberg ever buys the film rights to one of my books, I’m going to dash out to buy a Catana C62 or a Fountaine Pajot Ipanema 58.
… no, I’m not holding my breath!
The reasons why multihulls are currently so popular are obvious—mega-room for the family, speed, deck space, entertaining room, cabin privacy, etc.
Two advantages of a multihull that are particularly important to me are their relatively shallow draft and the fact that they barely roll in a cross swell. This opens up millions of square miles of anchorages that are off-limits to my current Amphitrite 43.
“Oh, my GOD!” shouted one of my old cruising buddies after hearing me muse on the above, “Don’t tell me that Cap’n Fatty has heard the Call of the Cat!”
Not quite. But I have repeatedly been hearing a comment that worries me. Relatively new cruising sailors come up to me and say, “Well, I’m not like you, Fatty. I don’t have a lot of offshore experience. Plus, I’ve got a growing family. And, well, their safety is my top priority. So, naturally, I purchased a SuperWide 55 Cattlemaran with the SuperTall flying bridge option …”
Here’s my two-cents: multihulls are not, per se, easier or safer to sail offshore than monohulls. Both are waterborne craft that require a certain level of seamanship to safely transit oceans aboard—especially with a family.
Please note: I am not saying that modern catamarans are not seaworthy—only that all vessels have pluses and minuses, including catamarans. There’s nothing magical about a modern cruising cat—all boats are variations on a theme.
For my wife Carolyn and me, the ability to easily (and forgivingly) heave-to is a big plus. Many multihulls—especially those without centerboards—do not heave-to well. This is a major drawback for us, especially when the seas build to the point they are slapping the wing. But everything is a compromise. On the positive side, many cats like the Pajot and the Catana have JSD (Jordon Series Drogue) pads aft on their inner hulls by the aka—and are extremely well mannered upon JSD deployment.
See what I mean about pluses and minuses?
The ability to reef under any-and-all conditions is the bedrock skill of the offshore sailor. Which would you personally rather reef—a boom that is chest-high or one which requires oxygen and a stepladder?
While I used to walk the docks with my father, I now stroll international shipyards with Carolyn.
We almost never see a monohull’s rudder or prop driven into and through its hull—but it is quite common for cats that drag on the beach to lose watertight integrity by having their outdrives and rudders punched up in this manner.
Obviously, the rigs of multihulls have to be made extremely strong. This costs money—both initially, and ultimately—to maintain rig-strength to the required standard.
When a mono-maran (what multihullers call lead-mine boats) experiences a gust, it heels and relieves some of the load. If the gust increases, a monohull heels even further.
Not so, a cruising cat. It must stand up to the load or flip.
This is why experienced monohull sailors reef for the average wind, while experienced multihull sailors reef for the highest gust.
Very few monohulls are jokingly named This Side Up!
The last time we sailed down to NZ we had relatively good weather—which ain’t saying much. There’s a bit-o-breeze down there. Approximately 120 other cruising vessels made the same passage that year. Some of these vessels were pretty beat-up—as well-used, hard-sailed circumnavigating vessels tend to be. Three of the 120 dismasted. Each was a newish luxury catamaran.
Was it the boat’s fault or the skipper’s fault? I don’t know. The point I’m trying to make is that we all must learn to sail our boats—and that each design concept is different. However, the sea is the same. She is a harsh mistress. If you don’t obey her rules, she drowns you. This is nothing new. All boats are compromises.
You don’t have to glance through the pages of this magazine to know that many catamaran companies are doing a superb job of answering the needs of their customers—as they should be.
But, as the title of this magazine suggests, cruising is as much about lifestyle as sailing. Maintenance costs both time and money. Which do you think will be more economical to repair and maintain—one diesel or two?
Should things like this be considered before selling everything you own and completely changing your life?
I think so.
In the ultimate storm which would you prefer to hide behind—a thick, stout, heavily-laid-up bulkhead or a sliding glass door?
… your choice.
Here is the truth of it—a skipper/owner has to accept responsibility for everything in relation to his craft. By buying it, he owns it—not just in the sense of ownership but also in the sense of offshore responsibility and approval. There are popular catamarans that are perfect to live on, perfect to entertain on, perfect to gunkhole aboard; perfect to go coastal, inter-island, and offshore cruising aboard—but they are not necessarily the same vessel.
Only the buyer can buy a seaworthy craft. He’s the one with options. The only option for the builder is to build a boat that sells—or go out of business.
The problem would be simple if we could just throw money at it. Many inexperienced sailors think this is possible. Two of them (one a Silicon Valley millionaire just getting into – and quickly out of – cruising) decided to spare no expense because their families deserved the best. They had brand-new high tech cats built for them and hired respected, competent USCG-licensed captains on their maiden offshore passage. Yet both ‘never reached’ the Caribbean (as they say in the West Indies) because they were abandoned in mid-maiden-passage.
On more than one occasion I’ve been criticized for mentioning the downsides of various cruising designs on the premise that it is bad for the struggling marine industry. Maybe. But the dot.com millionaire who watched his loved ones being dangerously winched up to that waiting USCG helo above might have gone on to buy many more boats over the course of his life, if he’d have managed to complete his maiden, multi-million dollar voyage without major mishap.
Perhaps I’m old fashioned in this regard, but I feel properly handled boats costing more than, say, $500,000 should be able to return to the dock under their own power at least once.
Is that too much to ask?
Of course, we all know that poop-happens—even to monohulls. For example, the Oyster 825 Polina Star III just spit off her keel and sank off Alicante, Spain, on July 3rd 2015. Nobody can blame that on having an additional hull or two.
The point is—we, as customers, have to be aware of what happens to these ‘flash’ boats after they are launched. That is part of the job of a free press—and part of my job as well.
This is why we call ‘em boat tests, not advertorials.
I, personally, don’t want to go offshore on a monohull that has its keel attached by Velcro. Ditto, aboard a multihull with its rig attached in the same manner.
This is only logical.
The bottom line question is this: Are there 50-foot monohulls built today that I won’t go offshore in? You are darn-toot’n there are! Are there 50-foot multihulls that fall into the same category? Yes, most def.
There’s nothing intrinsically safer about modern fiberglass production multihulls—especially ones that make your ears pop as you climb up to their flying bridge. They, too, require a certain level of seamanship to operate safely—just like their monohull counterparts.
Ed – Much has been written about the two multihulls that were abandoned on their maiden voyages as mentioned in this article. Both incidents are well documented. These websites fill in some of the details, but there are lots more:
Editor’s Note: Once again, Carolyn and Fatty are crossing the Indian Ocean—on one measly hull.