Wow! What a difference! I had heard the praises of catamarans sung by any number of people. They had elaborated on how fast and roomy they are, how stable under sail. But no one had said anything about catamarans at anchor. Who knew our new home would also be such a joy on the hook?
Our multihull conversion started when I took my wife, Cindy, on a daysail aboard Great American II, a 50-foot racing trimaran. We had sailed a number of monohulls while searching for a boat to live aboard in the Caribbean, but she had never said, “I want one of these” until that day. A short time later we bought Dragonfly, a 1995 41-foot Catana. That was in 2005, and we set off immediately on our dream trip: four years cruising the Eastern and Western Caribbean. We laid the boat up during hurricane season due to insurance requirements. The rest of the time we lived aboard, laying at anchor every night except when on passage.
The anchoring gear on Dragonfly includes 200 feet of 3/8in chain stored next to the mast step along with a powerful Lofrans Cayman 88 windlass. The chain travels across the trampoline on a cloth runner that protects the tramp and is shackled to an aluminum model A-100 Spade anchor held in chocks on the crossbeam. Our Y-shaped bridle is set up with one leg cleated to the bow deck on each hull. It is fabricated from 1in three-strand nylon rope and has a stainless steel chain hook at its apex. Each bridle leg is about 13 feet long. The chain hook lies about a foot underwater when the bridle hangs straight down.
The anchoring technique we developed doesn’t differ much from that used on a monohull. We choose a spot with good protection and adequate swinging room, and then deploy the anchor as Dragonfly is moving slowly in reverse. Usually, Cindy is on the bow, and I am at the helm. I call out the depths so she will know how much rode to run out. The chain is marked with colored wire-ties that run through the gypsy easily. Like all sailors we’ve found communication is important, but we have settled on a system, and it works well—most of the time.
So what makes the catamaran so good at anchor? Before we get to that, let’s explore the disadvantages. First, as we quickly discovered with Dragonfly, boats naturally want to turn sideways when backing down in a strong wind, and while this generally isn’t a problem on a monohull, it sure can be with a cat. In fact, it only took one such occurrence, in which the two hulls seemed to vie for which could have a closer encounter with the chain to teach us that this was to be avoided. Because I can’t see the chain from the helm, Cindy typically points out its location as I jockey the engines to counter the force of the wind and keep our backward speed under control. Once Dragonfly is settled back against the anchor, I run the engines up to about 2,500 rpm in reverse to set it securely.
Then there’s the bridle. On the plus side, the hook is very easy to attach and detach, so we can set or remove it quickly if needed. In our system, this is a two-person operation, with one of us manning the windlass control while the other places the hook over a link in the chain. Sometimes, however, we fail to maintain tension on the bridle as the chain runs out, and the hook falls off and we have to start over. After that we run out enough chain to leave a loop hanging in the water so that the bridle is never slack. We found the hook to be quite reliable and easy to disengage when we want to get underway.
Depending upon how firmly the anchor sets and how strong the wind is, one of us will often dive on the anchor—at least, we did when we were in the Caribbean. In New England, where we currently sail, this is not so appealing. In some Caribbean anchorages with known difficult bottom conditions, I would dive down with a two-foot-long steel probe, which I would use to determine whether there was sufficient sand above the impenetrable underlying coral for the anchor to get a grip. I picked this technique up from some fellow cruisers who used a large screwdriver.
It was when diving during the anchoring process that I concluded we needed a different anchor. Our old standby CQR had been functional in New England, but it was not working well in the Caribbean, particularly on some hard-packed bottoms. Once it dug in it would work fine, but often it would refuse to set, and it took a lungful of air and all my strength to bury it in enough to get it started.
In the end, I replaced it with the aluminum Spade, which sets fast and grips hard. We also replaced our 150 feet of old rusty chain with 200 feet of new proof coil for greater confidence in high winds and deeper anchorages. The old CQR now has been relegated to the status of second reserve anchor. Our secondary anchor is an aluminum Fortress FX-37 with 200 feet of chain/rope rode.
Another disadvantage of cats becomes obvious whenever we need to pick up a mooring. Dragonfly’s freeboard is so high that unless a mooring has a tall pick-up pennant we cannot easily reach it. One of our fellow cat lovers suggested we pick up these moorings from our transom step, and then pivot the boat after we have a line attached. This technique works marvelously and is facilitated by the extraordinary maneuverability provided by twin engines almost 20 feet apart.
But enough of the downside to anchoring a cat. On to the advantages!
First and foremost, there’s that fact that we can anchor in shallower, more protected water than most comparably size monohulls, so we have less rode to deploy and less to retrieve. We also have more options on where to anchor, as we draw less than most and can maneuver well. More than once we have pirouetted within a boat length and left what turned out to be a dead-end creek, or slipped in front of the anchored fleet for a close-up view of the reef.
Another unanticipated advantage is that Dragonfly is quite comfortable in rough anchorages. The gunwale-to-gunwale rolling experienced by monohulls in many anchorages is not felt on Dragonfly. We found that “sails flat” also applies to the behavior at anchor. Yes, there can be some bobbling back and forth when rollers come around a corner and approach from the side. But if simply observing our neighbors’ anchor lights describing arcs in the sky makes us uncomfortable, I can only imagine how they must feel on board.
It is true that catamarans are generally faster than monohulls. (Although this is dependent upon the model and how heavily they are loaded with gear.) It is also true that we don’t have to stow or latch down our household before we raise the hook. But the real advantages are in the normal day-to-day conditions.
Dragonfly is a spacious living platform when at anchor. The sliding glass door opens up our living space. The galley and saloon transform into a “living room,” and the cockpit quickly becomes a “back porch.” There are numerous places to perch, both inside and out. Protection from sun and wind is naturally provided by the wide bimini over the porch, whether sitting at the large table enjoying a view of the harbor off the stern or reclining against the bulkhead with a good book in hand.
The end result is a boat that is as satisfying and comfortable between passages as it is under sail. What more could you want out of a cruiser?
Photos courtesy Peter Nielsen; illustrations by Dick Everitt