Imagine you’re driving an old rusted-out pickup truck over railroad tracks,” my boyfriend, Phillip, said while trying to answer one of the many questions our friends had for us after we’d just spent the last five weeks crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a catamaran. I didn’t agree with him. Phillip hadn’t added the part about the bags of cement in the back—bouncing cement really captures it.
What does it feel like to cross an ocean on a catamaran? It’s fun, fast and can often be teeth-jarring. Each time water trapped between the two hulls rumbled, thundered and finally bashed its way out, I had to convince myself that we had not just hit a whale. While I had felt our 1985 Niagara 35, Plaintiff’s Rest, slam into a wall of water plenty of times and suspected a hull breach, this was different. It was a special breed of bashing: a violent, shrill collision that made me sure, not just suspicious, the boat had cracked in half. The bashing on the cat stopped sentences. It stung bare feet on the galley floor.
I can’t say it is like that aboard all or many catamarans, as this was our first offshore passage on one, Andanza, a 2005 Soubise Freydis 46. Maybe others are as smooth as a Cadillac. But we met several long-time catamaran sailors in the Azores who seemed to agree. “Canned goods jump on the counter,” said Mr. Outremer. “It’s true,” Mr. Lagoon chuckled, “I filmed it.”
“But the cat was much faster, right? How fast did you go?” Our friend’s eyes grew wide with thoughts of our top boatspeed. Phillip and I both agreed, in 15-plus knots of wind, the Freydis was a rocket. I was fortunate to be at the helm when a wave lifted her stern and she skidded down at 19.5 knots—the highest speed recorded on the trip. You would have thought Jason Bourne just took his shirt off in front of me. It was exhilarating. At the helm, the bashing feels like the mighty legs of a mustang beneath you. That’s fun. Down in the berths, however, it feels like his hooves hit your chest, and you’re grateful the hulls are made of Kevlar. Clicking off 240 nautical miles in one day is cool to brag about, but the entire crew aboard Andanza agreed: while a boatspeed of 12-plus knots was beneficial, it was not comfortable.
“What was the motion like then? Did she hobbyhorse?” our friends asked, with the obligatory hand motion. (I’m still not sure why they call it that.) At “bash speed,” there was nothing springy or playful about it: the motion was more like the boat was trying to scramble out of quicksand with you on her back. Her erratic movements had the crew rocking and swaying like that little metal ball in the maze, trying to find the hole to drop through and escape. Let go of either your cup or plate at dinner, and the boat would buck it off the table just for fun. Pretty soon, you just ate every meal out of a firmly held bowl and drank later, very much monohull style.
Unlike a monohull, however, you could pull back on the reins by reefing and cruise at a comfortable 10 knots with impressive ease in winds ranging from 15 all the way to 30. I don’t believe I ever want to experience Plaintiff’s Rest in 30-plus winds or going 10-plus knots. Driving a shopping cart in a demolition derby would worry me less.
“Wow, 10 knots and no heeling!” our friends exclaimed, leaning together for theatrical effect—and they’re right. Even traveling at top speeds on the catamaran, we may have rocked and bashed around, but we were not thrown into tables, walls or counters: which is all part of the joy that awaits you offshore on a monohull. Brave the companionway steps with any item of importance in hand aboard our Niagara, and you’re asking for a purple hip.
That said, Phillip and I believe (and many other monohull sailors will probably agree) there is a certain beauty to heeling, especially when coupled with a monohull’s ability to lean into and slice through the water: that there is something thrilling about a monohull’s grace and gallantry. Many sailors even like the feeling and see value in it, as heeling allows the boat to extend its waterline, build inertia and tack with fluidity. Where a monohull would glide through a closed stunt course like a BMW, a cat takes it like a Hummer. As one fiery little French gal in the Azores put it, shaking her head and crinkling her nose when she learned we had crossed on a catamaran, “They do not dance with the ocean.” Similarly, Phillip swears that the “box effect,” which makes the cat harder to engage and quicker to stall, would enable our Niagara to outpace the Freydis in light winds any day. For now, that’s just a theory, but it will be a fun day if cat owner ever throws down the gauntlet.
Heeling is also a natural indicator that tells you how well a boat is handling the wind. It was surprising to watch winds build from 15 to 25 knots with the cat’s heel angle not changing. It just went faster and bashed more. Winds that would frighten me on our Niagara were simply un-felt on the Freydis, which can be good—or not, since ignorance brings its own set of risks. One of our concerns aboard the Freydis was that we not put so much wind on the beam that we capsize. How much is too much? There is only one way a catamaran will tell you.
“I’ll bet it was nice, though, having a second engine,” our friends said. “It was,” I agreed. “We had two of many things. Two props to unfoul, two saildrives to inspect, two engines to maintain, two water pumps that leaked and, OK, only one muffler melted.”
Again, as with everything aboard a boat, there are pros and cons. Double the stuff means double the work, cost and number of spares you have to carry, although a catamaran also offers double the space for storing things. The cockpit and saloon, in particular, are easily twice as roomy as a monohull. If you want a boat that will allow you to host a happy hour party equivalent to a Hefner affair, you need a catamaran. Any more than four people and our Niagara becomes a blur of elbows and sucked-in tummies as people squeeze around one another and things quickly get too intimate even for Hefner’s liking.
In all, our experience on a catamaran is admittedly limited to one cat and one ocean crossing, something few people do. If your primary goal is to cruise along the coast and spend most of your time on the hook, the catamaran is likely the perfect boat for you, because it’s stable, comfortable and spacious. However, if you’re thinking of taking one across the pond, strap on, light the bashing rocket, and get ready to have a heck of a lot of fun.
Annie Dike lives in Pensacola, Florida. She is an author, blogger, filmmaker and the creator of havewindwilltravel.com