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One Hull or Two?

A cruiser's take on the great debate
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Cats vs. monos. This subject has never been addressed before, right? No? Good, then I’ll be the first to cover it.

My wife, Ali, and I sailed around the world on Bumfuzzle, a 35-foot catamaran. We returned, sold the boat, drove around for a couple of years in a ‘58 VW bus, and then had a baby. Then the question arose: how to raise this baby? In suburbia? Yeah, right. In the VW? Yeah, right. In a boat? Yeah, right...wait, that sounded pretty good. Now the real question arose: would we sail with our newborn on a catamaran or on a monohull?

Cost

For us, price was a major consideration. At the time we’d been traveling around the world for seven years or so, and that big stack of money we’d left with had dwindled considerably. We could have bought another catamaran, but that would have limited the time we could afford to cruise. So instead we bought a monohull for a third of the price—thankfully, as another baby came along a year later.

We’d paid $157,000 for our original Wildcat 35 catamaran, and our 30-year-old, 43-foot monohull was $48,000. Extensive refits brought the costs up to $177,000 for the cat and $88,000 for the monohull, so we saved almost $100,000 by not buying a catamaran the second time around. That’s a sizable difference that translates to many years of cruising in the bank.

Sailing

For most of us, money is the No. 1 issue, but it isn’t the only consideration. How about the sailing itself?

Aboard our Wildcat 35, all lines were led to the cockpit, two winches ran the entire boat, and reefing was simple. It was an easy boat to handle, and Ali and I could both single-hand her without the other’s help. The cat didn’t sail to windward well, but this was rarely a problem on our tradewind route. It excelled at downwind sailing in any conditions, even with the wind coming from directly astern. Sailing wing-and-wing was a cause for celebration.

The mono? Not to much. Our lines are all over the place, and it would take some expensive gear to re-run them all to the cockpit. And there are eight winches! I’m still confused by it all, to be perfectly honest.

The boat points pretty well, though sailing downwind has been a challenge, and without a whisker pole it’s difficult to keep wind in the headsail. I have a feeling that even if I had a pole, I wouldn’t be especially motivated to set it up. Cruising isn’t meant to be hard work, after all.

Heeling

Cat sailors like to argue that their boats don’t heel. That’s a big one, and there’s no denying it. Even in the roughest of weather we could keep a drink sitting on the cat’s saloon table. Seasickness? What’s that?

With the monohull, just 15 knots is enough to cause her to heel. Pass the Dramamine, please.

We are all capable of dealing with heeling while sailing. The real issue is at anchor when you encounter the curse of the rolly anchorage. It’s amazing how little swell it can take to turn an otherwise idyllic harbor into a roller-coaster. There isn’t a monohull sailor out there who isn’t familiar with this situation.

Engines and Maintenance

One engine versus two? There are plenty of pluses and minuses here. On the cat there were a couple of instances where having only one engine would have put us in a tough spot: like the time we were cruising along the coast of Sudan and our prop fell off in 200 feet of water. For four days we motored north to Egypt in calm seas using the other engine. That would have been a bummer of a time on the monohull. Redundancy is nice.

On the other hand, of course, there is challenge of having to maintain two engines. The engines on the cat were Volvo 20 saildrives, and to change the oil I had to suck it out with a hand pump through the dipstick hole. That job sucked. Twice. The fact that I can now throw a 5-gallon pail under the oil pan of my Ford Lehman 80 on the mono makes me smile every time.

What about maintenance costs? Mono sailors like to say “double the hulls, double the maintenance,” but that’s not exactly true. Both boats have one set of sails, running rigging and standing rigging. Two small engine oil changes require the same amount of oil as one big engine. I also find that I use about the same amount of duct tape, super glue and bailing wire on the monohull as I did on our cat. Maybe even a bit more. Bottom paint? Surely two hulls are more expensive. Wrong again. Two 3ft 6in fin-keel hulls versus a 6ft 6in full-keel hull? Call it a wash.

Under power, our cat was either underpowered or overloaded. Running the cat on one engine got us 3.9 to 4.3 knots. It took forever to get anywhere. With both engines running we made 5.2 knots. Throw some waves on the nose, and you can forget those numbers. Twenty horsepower just wasn’t enough to push that boat through the water. Nor was 40. On the mono we motor 7 knots at the same rpm. Fuel consumption is a bit higher, but the difference between motoring 96 miles a day versus 168 is life-changing.

The maneuverability of a cat is extraordinary. I could dock our old boat in any current and any wind, slowly and under control. The mono? Well, things can get a little dicey on occasion. Who among us hasn’t seen a monohull hit another boat while docking? Dockside restaurants all over the world arrange their seating so that their customers can enjoy these spectacles.

Tankage

Catamaran? Two 35-gallon fuel tanks. Monohull? Two 125-gallon tanks. That’s a hell of a lot of motoring. And as any cruiser knows, you can never have too much diesel. Don’t think that’s true? Take a look at cruising boats that have been out for a few thousand miles and count how many yellow five-gallon jugs of fuel are strapped to their lifelines.

How about water tankage? Our cat had two 70-gallon tanks. Our mono has two tanks with a total capacity of 250 gallons. Monos can take the weight.

Indoors

What about living accommodations? Surprise! The monohull wins, hands down. Our mono is 43 feet long with a 13-foot beam. Our cat was 35 feet with a 22-foot beam. Yet to us the monohull feels roomier, more comfortable and more homey. Our cat was a poor example of a home. It had four bedrooms, two baths and an eat-in kitchen, but no living room.

The cat had two-foot-wide cabin soles running the length of each hull and across the saloon. Our monohull has an actual living room floor; a whopping 30 square feet of cabin sole for my family to lounge around in, spread toys out on, and generally act as if we live in a home instead of a hotel room.

The galley is similar: our catamaran galley was a mini-kitchen built for dolls to play in. Our mono galley is expansive, with real people-sized appliances and counter space. While I’ve never actually cooked anything in either of them, I can still appreciate how this may be beneficial to those that do.

Our mono also has tons of storage. To this day we’re still discovering large compartments. I half expect to find the bones of a stowaway in one of them: there’s that much space. Although the cat had a lot of storage as well, it was in plastic containers that had to sit on the beds in the cabins we weren’t using. On the plus side, we didn’t have to bother with securing those plastic bins on the beds. Because they were aboard a stable cat, they never once fell off.

There really is no substitute for the beauty of a varnished teak interior. Our monohull feels like a home, whereas the catamaran’s all-white plastic-looking interior felt as if it was designed so that blood spatter could be wiped off any surface with nothing more than a wet paper towel. Just bleach away the crime scene.

On Deck

Deck space for lounging and platforms from which to take a swim are things sailors rarely give enough thought to. Going swimming off our mono, though, is a giant pain in the butt. Climbing up a sketchy swim ladders, in particular, can be a challenge, especially with a 2-year-old. The cat’s transoms, on the other hand, were pretty amazing. They were also great places to clean the dishes and fishes—something to think about next time you’re in the market for a new boat.

What about safety?

Falling off a catamaran would be akin to falling off your living room floor and landing in your front yard. Falling off a monohull is more like falling off a unicycle. It almost feels inevitable.

Sinking?

Who really sinks? I’ve never met a cruiser who has sunk his boat. I know it happens, because whenever it does the sailing press goes on high alert. But seriously, consider the odds, then decide if it is worth choosing a boat over. Spoiler alert: It’s not.

“Yeah, but I can sail into places a monohull could never get to,” says Joe Catamaran. Joe read this somewhere. He’s never actually put it into practice. In 99 percent of anchorages worldwide, drawing 3ft 5in is not going to get you any special privileges over a boat drawing 6ft 5in. Silly argument. It ranks right up there with the one about how you can beach a cat to clean the bottom. Uh-huh.

The Verdict

So, multi or mono? If you take all of these things into consideration, the catamaran rules the high seas, while the monohull comes in a respectable second place. Out of two. Catamarans are more stable by a factor of roughly 10,000 to 1, and they’re more comfortable on deck and at anchor. When it comes to selecting a cruising boat, nothing ranks higher than comfort and stability. Those factors alone were the most important contributors to the enjoyment and success of my own circumnavigation.

That doesn’t mean monohulls don’t have a lot going for them. They are a great value. They’re graceful and beautiful—probably more beautiful than cats­­—and they’re as strong as bulldozers (the old ones at least). They’re nostaligic, too, and we’re still about a generation away from having sailors with catamaran nostalgia.

There is one caveat: if going cruising now means buying a monohull, and buying a catamaran would require three more years of working and saving, then buy the monohull. And go. The whole debate is quicky irrelevant when you are at anchor on a Sunday night with no job to go to the next morning.

At the end of the day, cruising any boat is preferable to not cruising at all. Despite all of the advantages we came to love on our catamaran, we love our monohull, too. We don’t love rolling around at sea or at anchor. In fact, we hate it. We don’t love our tiny cockpit or our flimsy swim ladder. But we do love being out here in Mexico cruising with our two kids, while they’re the perfect age to enjoy it. In the end, in the great number-of-hulls debate, simply doing it, whether aboard a multi or a mono, is what matters most. 

Where do you stand on the cat vs. mono debate? Tell us your opinions by emailing sailmail@sailmagazine.com


Since quitting their day jobs, Pat and Ali Schulte have "cruised" in everything from their boats to a '53 VW bus; you can follow their adventures at bumfuzzle.com

Photos by Pat Schulte

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