As multihull sailboats, particularly catamarans, have become increasingly popular, multihull designs have grown richer and more varied. Once it wasn’t too hard for an aspiring catamaran buyer to sort through the options presented by the marketplace. But these days there is such a profusion of intriguing and attractive boats available, it can be difficult for buyers—particularly first-time multihull buyers—to establish priorities and make sense of what’s on offer.
But there’s no need to get out a Ouija board to figure out what you need. By asking yourself a fairly simple series of focused questions, you can determine what sort of cat will work best for you.
1. Hulls and Bridgedeck
Here is where you confront basic issues of multihull performance. If you want a cat with oodles of accommodation space, look for wider hulls joined by a low bridgedeck with lots of horizontal area forward of the mast. If performance is what you crave, look for skinny hulls joined by a high bridgedeck with little or no area forward of the mast.
In between the most extreme examples of these two basic types there are lots of different compromises, and it is possible to strike a reasonable balance of comfort and performance. One common trick on performance cruising cats is to keep the hulls narrow at the waterline and flare the topsides inward to increase interior volume. This decreases wetted surface area, but will lead to some increased resistance above the waterline as the boat charges through large waves.
As a general rule, the more open space you see between its hulls, the faster a cat will be, with a cleaner ride. The less space you see, the slower the cat will be, with a clunkier ride as waves beneath the bridgedeck will tend to slap up against it. The leanest, fastest boats sometimes have open bridgedecks with no enclosed accommodation space between the hulls. Typically only hardcore go-fast sailors will enjoy this sort of configuration.
2. Boards or Keels?
It’s always tempting to start searching for a boat by looking at accommodation plans, but when shopping for a catamaran it usually makes the most sense to think first about underwater foils. Almost all cats these days will have either fixed low-aspect keels under their hulls or high-aspect daggerboards that can be moved up and down. Many other characteristics of a boat will relate in one way or another to this one feature.
In a nutshell, if you value sailing performance, particularly to windward, you should only be interested in cats with boards. Though daggerboards do have some critical disadvantages—they take up valuable accommodation space within the hulls, they are more vulnerable in a grounding, they require additional controls and are generally more maintenance-intensive—there’s really no way you can sail a catamaran to its full potential without them. A nice set of boards not only allows you to greatly decrease wetted surface area when sailing off the wind, they also create a lot more lift when you’re sailing on the wind.
A well-designed cruising cat with keels is fun to sail on any sort of reach, but most can’t point very high without sacrificing gobs of speed. In many cases—especially if you’re beating into a stiff chop—you’ll have to crack off, perhaps to an apparent wind angle as wide as 50 degrees, in order to keep the boat moving well. As a result, many owners of keel-hulled cats tend to lapse into the habit of motorsailing to windward. With a pair of boards under you, though, you can leave the engine off and still sail the tighter angles you’re used to seeing on monohulls.
3. Masts and Rigs
Most cats these days—including some very fast ones—carry fixed aluminum masts, but carbon-fiber masts, particularly on high-end performance cruisers, are increasingly popular. A few performance-oriented boats will carry rotating masts, the leading edges of which can be canted into the wind to increase a rig’s aerodynamic efficiency. Pricey rigs like this will, of course, help your boat sail faster, but not as much as a lean hull and bridgedeck arrangement.
Bowsprits are not as ubiquitous as they should be, but do appear on most modern cats. Even if you’re a die-hard cruiser, there’s little point in having a boat without one. A longer sprit means you can fly a bigger screecher or some other species of reaching sail and can thus generate more speed, although it also means it will be harder to reach the end of the sprit safely if you need to change sails. Look to strike a balance here that you are comfortable with.
With very few exceptions, modern cats do not carry in-mast furling mainsails. Cats have shroud bases that are easily wide enough to support a mast without a backstay, so most have conventional slab-reefing mains with very large roaches supported by full-length battens. This maximizes sailing efficiency, but sails like this can be a handful even on small cats. In most cases you won’t mind having an electric halyard winch to help with the heavy lifting.
4. Helm Stations
This was once a simple question: do you want twin helms outboard aft on the hulls, or do you want a single bulkhead helm offset to one side behind the cabinhouse? If you favored performance, liked to maximize helm feel, and didn’t mind standing out in the weather, you usually opted for the former. If you wanted to steer from under some shelter and liked having several controls within reach from the wheel, you opted for the latter.
Now, however, things are more complicated. These days larger cats often have a central forward steering station on a flybridge atop the cabin coachroof. These afford fantastic visibility in all directions—except possibly to leeward under the headsail—and lines from the mast can be brought straight to the helm. The mainsheet and traveler controls can also normally be led to a spot nearby at the back of the coachroof. The downside to this arrangement is that the main boom must be raised quite a bit to make room for the helmsman.
On some smaller open-bridgedeck boats, central helms are also planted right in the middle of the deck, or slightly aft. Helm feel is typically good with such arrangements, and there is usually easy access to several important control lines. On some larger performance cats with cabinhouses, you’ll also see central helms forward of the house in dedicated working cockpits directly abaft the mast. These have excellent visibility forward, and there is great access to headsail sheets and lines coming off the mast. Such steering stations are, however, exposed to spray from the bows, and in most cases there is also an inside station right behind the cockpit.
As a general rule, most dedicated cruising sailors prefer either bulkhead or flybridge helms, as these normally afford the most shelter and allow the helmsman to easily socialize with guests while driving. Performance sailors tend to prefer outboard or central helms (whether forward or aft), as these positions make it easier to feel the boat while sailing.
Many years ago some cruising cats with enclosed bridgedeck saloons had galleys placed inside one of their hulls. Such arrangements are now usually seen only on open-bridgedeck cats that have no enclosed space outside their hulls. “Galley down” layouts, as they are known, are generally not very popular with cooks, as such galleys tend to be cramped and poorly ventilated.
On any modern cat with a bridgedeck saloon, the galley almost invariably is part of the saloon, where a cook will enjoy great ventilation and wondrous views in all directions. Really the only question is whether the galley should be forward, where the views and ventilation are slightly superior, or aft, where food and drink can be handed out more easily to the cockpit. Most cruisers these days opt for the latter.
6. Owner or charter layout?
On all cruising cats (and most performance cruising cats) buyers are confronted with a choice between an “owner’s” layout, wherein the owner’s stateroom occupies all of one hull, or a “charter” layout, where berth space is maximized by putting two staterooms in each hull. Preferences here obviously depend on how many guests you expect (or hope) to entertain and whether or not your boat will ever be in charter service.
Owners with children would do well to look for layouts where single berths are an option. A couple with four children, for example, can cruise extremely comfortably on a cat with a full owner’s stateroom in one hull and two staterooms with twin singles in the other.
I put this last only because it is perhaps the least variable. Almost all cats these days are fiberglass, with generous amounts of coring in the hull and deck to reduce weight. Some cruising cats have hulls that are solid below the waterline, while many performance cats have honeycomb-cored furniture in their interiors, with or without fancy veneers. In most cases, the variables are limited to the materials in the laminate. The fastest, fanciest boats are likely to have lots of carbon fiber and/or Kevlar in their hulls. Many mid-range boats will employ materials like this solely in high-load areas.
In Europe, you’ll also find a handful of aluminum cats on the market, and these slowly seem to be gaining in popularity. Aluminum, in fact, is a good material for a cat, as it is light and very strong. You’ll also see a few wood-epoxy boats, but these are increasingly rare.