In a two-part article, Alex Stone looks at the main considerations to be taken into 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).
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 helmsman from a wheel on either side.
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.
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.
An extreme of a layout stuffing, in a catamaran that will definitely not be a good sailing craft.
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 has 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.
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.
Let’s do that in the next issue, starting with a discussion on the important criteria of displacement and payload, and how they affect modern cruising multis.