Finding the Right Cruising Multihull for You

Within the past decade, there has been a momentous shift among cruising sailors from monohulls to multis, for the simple reason that catamarans and trimarans offer a number of very real advantages: speed, space and shallow draft among them. However, it’s important to remember, as with monohulls, that there is a difference between the best boats for coastal cruising and ocean sailing. Of course, nobody stays at sea indefinitely, 
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Within the past decade, there has been a momentous shift among cruising sailors from monohulls to multis, for the simple reason that catamarans and trimarans offer a number of very real advantages: speed, space and shallow draft among them.

However, it’s important to remember, as with monohulls, that there is a difference between the best boats for coastal cruising and ocean sailing. Of course, nobody stays at sea indefinitely,

so every voyager becomes a coastal cruiser eventually. Similarly, most coastal skippers sometimes encounter rugged conditions, so every vessel should have some sea-keeping qualities. As a result, even the best boat represents a compromise between these two extremes.

By coastal sailing, we mean the exploring of continental bays, sounds and rivers with occasional open-water passages within a few miles of land. Most of us are coastwise cruisers, using vacation time to meander from places like the Great Lakes and the New England coast through Long Island Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, the Bahamas and the Gulf Coast. There’s a lifetime of adventure here, and by chartering boats in foreign countries we can extend our range around the world.

Offshore voyagers have a different mindset. Crossing an ocean creates a feeling of self-sufficiency and isolation and requires a desire to contend with elemental forces of nature. When land drops astern, you know you have made a major commitment that is intimidating, awe-inspiring and exhilarating all at once. Making landfall after days or weeks of seeing nothing but water gives rise to a peculiar mix of relief, surprise and sadness that the trip is coming to an end.

Coastal sailors want performance in light air. If a storm blows in, we usually get plenty of warning, so we head for a snug anchorage to ride it out. A coastal cruiser needs to move well when the wind is in the 5-12 knot range.

There are three things you need to sail fast in light air: big sails, an efficient hull and low weight. Unfortunately, all three conflict with our requirements for comfort and luxury—easy sail handling, big cabins and carrying capacity for all our toys.

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Builders have responded by creating coastal cruisers with huge, square-top mainsails, vast overlapping jibs called “screechers,” and race-derived rigging all controlled with electric or hydraulic motors. That lets them fatten the hulls for more living and storage space. It’s a fair tradeoff, but remember that machinery does break and stowing a lot of stuff will still slow you down.

Coastwise, the tradeoff makes sense. Air conditioning, a big genset, a fast tender with a powerful outboard, scuba gear, a couple of kayaks or sailboards and all the rest of the toys we enjoy can make a week’s vacation more fun. That powerful sail plan will push you along well enough, and a good diesel or two will power you through the calms and make docking simple.

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1. Big cats like the Fountaine Pajot Victoria 67 make it very easy to enjoy coastal cruising, with plenty of deck space for soaking up the sun, a large rig and room for everything from kayaks to scuba gear: note the expansive lounging space aft of the helm station

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2. Room for a crowd is all part of the fun aboard a well-apportioned coastal cruiser!

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3. This Gunboat places the helm station at the front of the saloon, making for some very cozy watch standing on passage; a door provides access to the sail handing cockpit forward

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4. Forward lounging cockpits are very popular, but might not see much use offshore

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5. Easy access to engines and other systems is an important factor in a bluewater boat, because you will be on your own if something breaks down while on passage.

Photos by or courtesy of Fountaine Pajot, Adam Cort, Peter Nielsen, Gunboat International, Meredith Laitos 

Indeed, the maneuverability of a cat with twin engines is a strong argument for choosing one as a coastal cruiser. Running one engine forward and the other in reverse produces the “Cat Pirouette,” in which a vessel turns in its own water, permitting docking moves that are impossible in a monohull.

Coastwise navigation is more demanding than ocean navigation. If you sail straight long enough on the open sea, you will eventually sight land on the horizon. If you hold a course very long on the Chesapeake, you will run aground. A GPS chartplotter—the bigger and brighter the better—is invaluable when sailing along the coast.

Which brings up another big advantage of multihulls: shallow draft. Anywhere on the U.S. East Coast south of Long Island Sound, shoals abound, and there’s a huge difference between a five-foot draft and a three-foot draft in these waters. We’re not just talking convenience here, but safety. When a frontal squall or nor’easter blows in, the ability to get far upstream between high banks is often the key to riding out the storm safely.

So centerboards or daggerboards make sense for coastal cruisers. They improve sailing performance, especially to windward, but also permit you to slip into the most interesting anchorages.

When we sail by day and anchor at night, handling ground tackle is a top priority. Cats have some problems with this, as the anchor rode normally leads across a trampoline to the center of the forward crossbeam, where the anchor rides in its roller. Setting an anchor from that point can lead a boat to tack back and forth on the hook. Most skippers rig some sort of bridle from the two bows to stabilize the motion, but this adds a new level of complication.

Trimarans have an advantage when anchoring, because ground tackle can be kept in and deployed from the large main hull. However, they are generally less maneuverable than cats and not as easy to manage in a marina. Cats are also more convenient when it comes to handling dock lines.

The interior of a coastal cat cruiser can be spacious and distributed throughout the vessel. The big bridgedeck becomes a sunning space, the bow seats and trampoline offer a wonderful ride, a multitude can fit in the wide cockpit for cocktails, and cabins in the bows make great accommodations for guests and children. With air conditioning, even small cabins can be comfortable in warm weather.

Some exposure to the elements is fine when coastal cruising. As long as there’s some shade under a bimini, exposed helm stations are acceptable and even desirable. Good visibility from all steering stations is essential in coastal cruising, as traffic and obstructions abound.

VOYAGING

Voyaging calls for somewhat different design features. While we still want good speed when crossing oceans, we will trade some light-air performance for easy sail-handling and the ability to ride out severe weather at sea. Speed also means something different offshore than it does on a bay. The important thing is a high average speed, not bursts of velocity followed by wallowing.

If you want to spark an animated discussion, go to your local sailors’ bar and suggest that centerboards work better than long keels on an offshore multihull. Each has its advantages and drawbacks, and both have transited thousands of miles at sea.

Mention that centerboarders generally go to windward better and lie a-hull more easily in severe conditions, but that boards are also susceptible to damage—then pick up a drink and sit back to listen. After a while, somebody will mention trimarans, which require neither boards nor keels, thus igniting a new discussion. It’s a grand way to spend an evening.

 The Dazcat 1195 is an example of a high-performance offshore cruiser; its powerful, easy-to-handle rig also makes it a fun coastal boat. Photo courtesy of Dazcat

The Dazcat 1195 is an example of a high-performance offshore cruiser; its powerful, easy-to-handle rig also makes it a fun coastal boat. Photo courtesy of Dazcat

Desirable features for voyaging vessel:

Simple repairable systems

• Manageable sailplan

Strength

• Backups

Solar panels

• Autopilot

Single sideband radio

• Liferaftand safety gear

Layout for comfortable living at sea

I’ve included simple repairable systems not for philosophical reasons, but because expensive complex systems almost inevitably require maintenance by experts. (Thus the additional requirement for backups!) Assume that electrical devices will fail, that rigging will break, and that engines will refuse to run. You will not be disappointed. As one seasoned voyager once told me, “World cruising is boat repair in exotic places.”

Since the breezes tend to be somewhat stronger and steadier on the common ocean routes, especially in the tradewind zones, look for optimal speed in the 10-25 knot wind range and a sailplan that can be quickly reefed when necessary. Fortunately, that’s easy on a multihull, where the wide, stable platform offers lots of options.

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1. Despite its smaller size, the Australian-built Seawind 1160 is renowned Down Under as a bluewater voyager as well as a coastal cruiser

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2. Easy livin’ and plenty of galley space aboard a Lagoon 400

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3. An example of a multihull daggerboard on a 43-foot Catana catamaran waiting to transit the Panama Canal

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4. A well-thought-out system for sail handling is essential, especially when sailing shorthanded

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5. A typical catamaran anchoring arrangement as seen aboard a Nautitech 542

Photos by Adam Cort and Peter Nielsen

For shorthanded voyaging, look for a sailplan you can manage without electrical assistance, if possible. Assess your strength realistically. Just because a seasoned racer can singlehand a particular boat does not mean you and your partner can. A reasonable amount of sail area, divided into manageable parts and controlled by strong mechanical systems, is fundamental on a long-distance vessel.

Strength everywhere is essential. If a centerboard cracks or a steering link fails a few miles from port, you can limp to a marina under power or call for a tow. At sea, you are the repair shop, and there’s no Travelift handy for haul-out. As you examine these systems before buying, crawl into the spaces to be sure that everything is sturdy, reinforced and accessible. Sit in the locker or engine room and pretend you are in a washing machine. Now can you tighten that bolt?

When some (or many) of the electrical systems that you have on board fail after a few months or years, what will you do? Carry mechanical backups: bilge pumps, fresh water pumps, a manual desalinator, a hand-cranked portable radio, flashlights and so on.

In 1859, extraordinary plasma ejections from the sun burned out telegraph lines in a massive solar storm known as the Carrington Event. Smaller events occurred in 1921, 1960 and 1989, with significant effects on radio and electrical networks on Earth. Nothing equivalent has happened since, but imagine the impact of one on modern communications satellites and computer systems. Therefore, be sure to carry paper charts and a sextant to back up your GPS.

All that deck and hardtop space is ideal for solar panels, which are more reliable than generators when combined with large battery banks. Most voyagers today have equipped their multihulls with solar panels and report satisfactory results. Several tradewind sailors have said they actually have problems with the panels creating too much electricity, forcing them to take measures to prevent overcharging of their batteries.

After a simple magnetic compass, an autopilot may be the most important piece of gear on a long-distance cruiser. Good cruising designs include provision for an autopilot as a basic specification. Look for accessibility, strength and backup capability. The autopilot should link directly to the rudder posts, not somewhere up at the wheel. It is prudent to carry a second unit as a spare and not unreasonable to have a third. You really do not want to steer by hand for a thousand miles or days on end.

While satellite phones are increasingly popular, the cheapest, most reliable communication device for everyday use continues to be a marine single-sideband high-frequency radio. Have one installed and you can use it to talk to other cruisers around the world. Get a ham radio license and keep in touch that way with the same SSB radio you use on the marine frequencies.

Fortunately, CE rating requirements include liferaft stowage space for vessels that go offshore. This means any modern multihull will be able to carry this essential equipment, although some designs do a better job of this than others. As you shop, look for secure stowage and easy deployment of any last-resort equipment. Multihulls generally have plenty of space to stow a raft near the stern and usually also carry large seaworthy tenders on davits.

Finally, a voyager needs quite a different layout for living aboard while on passage. A big sun deck will not see as much use and an open steering station gets tiring. At sea, you will more often be in the saloon, steering by autopilot and scanning the horizon for traffic through the big windows. Does the boat you are considering have a comfortable place for this kind of watch standing?

An inability to sleep well at sea can break an offshore sailor. You need comfortable berths in a spot with minimum motion. It is nice to be able to snuggle into a cocoon, surrounded by supporting walls or padding. While multihulls do not heel and roll as much as monohulls, they do move vertically and laterally, often quickly. Such motion may not spill a plate of food on the table, but it can make sleep difficult.

The center of the boat or slightly aft is generally where the motion is easiest. Lie on a bunk in those areas and imagine being jolted about in a truck on a rough road. Bunks in the bow may be unusable in a seaway as the boat plunges into waves.

At sea, you may spend quite a bit of time in the cockpit. It should be covered, sheltered from the wind forward and abeam, have minimal motion when underway, and provide a lovely view astern. Remember to get up and look around for ship traffic and floating obstructions.

While most cruising multihulls are catamarans, do consider the trimaran. Increasingly, racing records are falling to Frenchmen in fast tris, attesting to their seaworthiness as well as their speed.

Many multihull builders in Europe, South Africa and Australia deliver their cruisers “on their own bottoms,” by sailing them to North America, since they are prohibitively expensive to ship as cargo. A company that does this regularly probably builds a pretty good offshore boat.

Finally, realize that few truly bad designs survive for long in the sailing market. Once you have an honest view of what you plan to do with your new multihull, look at all the ones from established builders with the traits that suit the type of sailing you expect to do.

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