Once you've sailed a cat, you may never go back. Here's what to expect when you go from one hull to two.
With the proliferation of multihulls at boat shows and in charter fleets, it’s a rare sailor these days who hasn’t had at least some exposure to catamarans. Still, while many of us may lust after all that extra space on deck and inside, we continue to do our cruising aboard traditional monohulls. The question then becomes, what’s really involved in moving up to a 21st century cat?
First the good news: you’ll always look like a star when docking a cat. With a pair of engines tens of feet apart, a catamaran maneuvers better than a sports car at close quarters. You can even parallel-park! Docking becomes a simple procedure: first get a bow line ashore, then put the outboard engine in reverse and the inboard one in forward and watch as the boat comes gently alongside.
Under sail, you’ll also find a cat is remarkably easy to drive at speeds higher than you’re used to in a monohull. How much faster depends on the boat. Just as with monohulls, cats come in different performance ranges. You’re not going to be hitting America’s Cup speeds on a cruising boat, but you’ll almost certainly be faster in a cat. This will allow you to venture farther afield, even when cruising for only a week or two.
One mistake monohull sailors often make is to assume that all catamarans are like those in charter fleets. That’s like believing you have a feel for go-cart racing after a day at the rental track with your 8-year-old. Charter cats and performance cats are different breeds. Charter cats are often detuned to keep those unfamiliar with them from getting into trouble when winds pipe up. As a result, if you do your homework, when you set sail aboard your own cat, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find you’re sailing a much livelier beast than the Caribbean charter boat that prompted you to make the switch in the first place.
Stepping onto a cat from a monohull, you will inevitably revel in all the extra space. But weight is a critical factor on multihulls, so you’ll have to exercise some discipline and refrain from installing and stocking everything you’ve ever wanted on a boat simply because you now have space to stow it. On cruising monohulls—particularly those with heavier displacement—your cruising gear makes up a lesser percentage of the boat’s total weight than it does on a light unballasted multihull. A catamaran often weighs half to two-thirds as much as a monohull of the same overall length, which makes every extra pound of added weight a factor in terms of the boat’s performance.
“Try to trial a loaded boat,” advises Rob Poirier, president of Antares Yachts. “You’re going to sail your own boat with full tanks, a dinghy and a bunch of personal gear. Your trial boat should be prepared similarly, so you get a feel for how she’ll sail in the real world.”
Perhaps now is a good time to blow through that little canard many monohull sailors like to repeat: namely that monohulls are better cruising boats, because if a cat capsizes it stays upside down, while a monohull will right itself. That may be true. But when was the last time you heard of a cruising cat capsizing? It just doesn’t happen enough to worry about it. Bear in mind I’m not talking about serious racing cats here—which do, in fact, tip over all the time—any more than I’m equating cruising monohulls with those Vendée Globe monohulls that flip when their keels fall off.
Cruising cats may not flip, but more than one newbie multihull sailor has dropped a mast. A cat doesn’t heel over when the wind pipes up, nor does the helm feel much different when the boat is straining at the bit, so those new to cats often don’t know when it’s best to shorten sail. The tremendous stability provided by a cat’s twin hulls also means the rig gets terrifically loaded up when the breeze is on. Instead of heeling and spilling breeze, as happens on a monohull, the first sign of trouble may be broken hardware, or even a broken mast. Cat sailors have to keep a weather eye open and should discipline themselves to shorten sail when the wind hits certain thresholds. Most builders will specify how much sail to fly in what conditions, and you should follow these guidelines until you gain experience.
My darling wife stoically puts up with bouts of mal de mer so she can go sailing. She might be happier on a cat, as they heel much less and their motion mostly involves pitching on the fore and aft axis. A cat’s motion is, however, less predictable and much quirkier than a monohull’s, so it is still very possible to get seasick. At anchor, at least, a cat’s stable athwartships axis means you can often stay comfortably in rolly harbors that a monohull sailor would find untenable.
Sailing to weather on a cat in a large chop is likely to be disconcerting and a bit tedious, as the waves loudly slam the bottom of the bridgedeck. But the noise is really all you need to worry about. Cat builders are well aware of t`this characteristic, and on many boats, designers mitigate the problem by incorporating round contours or V-shapes into the underside of the bridgedeck. This can’t cure the problem, but it does make it better and is something to look for during a sea trial. It is worth remembering that similar conditions in a monohull are usually pretty unpleasant, too.
Let’s face it: cats have more room than monohulls; they sail faster; the view from inside is better; and they don’t heel over and frighten the guests. Looking dispassionately at catamarans, it’s easy to see why aficionados can’t fathom how anyone would ever sail a monohull.
What Cats Should Have but Don't
It must be an ego thing on the part of some builders, as their boats don’t heel (much), but I’ve noticed that few cats have anything to stop condiments, pencils and the like from sliding off counters and tables onto the cabin sole. You’re still going sailing, and catamarans do react to the waves, so you’ll want to install or specify fiddles on your cat.
Few cats are set up to use spinnaker or whisker poles, yet these are still incredibly useful pieces of gear. If you’re planning on making offshore passages, don’t buy into the “you sail angles downwind” shtick. Taking 10-foot waves on the quarter for days on end as you tack downwind will be almost as wearing on a cat as it is on a monohull and just as hard on the autopilot or self-steering gear. On a recent passage to Hawaii from San Diego, my crew and I sailed more than half the two-week trip with the genoa poled out. We found an old pole at a used parts store and lashed it to pads on the mast—not an elegant solution, but it worked.
One of the wonderful things about catamarans that wins over monohull sailors is the incredible elbow room. Yet that can be a problem in a seaway when you find there’s nothing to hold on to as you traverse the cockpit or saloon. An overhead handrail or two goes a long way to fixing this. Fiddles on tables and counters, if they are strong enough, also make good handholds.
When you go to sea on a cat, it’s doubtful you’ll ever need a gimbaled stove. But you’re still going to be bouncing around a bit if the breeze is forward of the beam, so potholders for your stove will be welcome if you want to enjoy your dinner without eating it off the cabin sole.
To read more about the mono vs. cat debate, check out this blog on SAILfeed
Photos by Mahina Expeditions (top), Dusko Djukic (top inset), Meredith Laitos (middle inset) and Peter Nielsen (bottom inset)