Cats on Holiday
If you want to know what’s happening in cruising catamaran design, just take a stroll down the docks of a charter company. Especially in those warm, shallow-water areas that appeal to big groups—and where catamarans abound—you’ll be sure to find a fleet that’s constantly evolving as it adapts to trends in customer preferences, whether it be boats that are bigger, faster, prettier, cooler or all of the above. Here are some of the current trends driving the market.
1) The 45-foot Sweet Spot
Big enough so you won’t feel cramped, but not so big that it’s intimidating to handle, the sweet spot of today’s charter cat is right around 45 feet. “These boats can comfortably fit 10 people, but can be sailed by just two or three,” says Mai Voisard of Nautitech Catamarans, where the 441 and 442 have taken off as the company’s most popular charter cats. The folks at The Moorings agree, as The Moorings 4600/Leopard 46 (LOA 46ft 4in) has been their most popular charter cat for a couple of years, with 115 in service. The four-cabin, four-head layout can fit a big family or four couples, but the boat is still compact enough to be comfortably managed from the raised helm station. The 45-foot trend continues across the charter fleets of the BVI with boats like Horizon Yacht Charter’s Lagoon 440, Dream Yacht Charter’s Catana 471, Sunsail’s Leopard 444 and TMM’s Hélia 44, all of which can fit up to eight guests, some with two additional crew cabins, but can be sailed with just a couple of hands.
2) Increase the Comforts
Regardless of size, one trend is sure across all charter catamarans: sailors want more comfort and more luxury. And who can blame them? When you’re paying that much to vacation-sail for a week, do you really want to survive without the A/C and icemaker you’ve become accustomed to at home? “Ten years ago, gensets were unheard of. Now, they’re mandatory,” says Gino Morrelli, designer of the Leopard line of charter catamarans. He notes that generators themselves have improved, becoming more reliable, more efficient and easier to install and operate. “Best of all, they’re quieter, so it’s more of a no-brainer to turn them on.”
Refrigerators, too, have improved, allowing designers to more seamlessly install them into boats, replacing the top-down refrigerators of old with affordable, reliable drawer-type refrigerators and freezers. These, in turn, have opened the door to a more home-like galley, which increased the demand for appliances like icemakers, watermakers, blenders and microwaves.
Of course, it takes energy to power all of these things, so in addition to generators, many charter cats now come with solar panels and windvanes to increase eco-friendly power flow. They also have more places to plug in. “We used to install just one electrical plug at the nav station,” says Morrelli. “Now, we joke about installing entire power strips to accommodate all of the phones, iPads and cameras that people bring on board.”
In terms of accommodations, charter sailors expect space, light and ventilation in the cabins, but they also like layouts in which all cabins are equal in size and comfort, to avoid the awkwardness of divvying up unequal berths. Heads and showers compartments are increasingly separate, and many heads are electric. “Clients are not necessarily traditional sailors, so they aren’t as concerned with performance as they are with having a home away from home,” says Becky Mann, a vacation planner at Sunsail.
3) Simpler to Sail
The trend toward increased comfort continues above decks, where catamaran designers are finding ways to make these cats easy to handle. Many charter cats now have electric winches that make raising the main a breeze, while lazyjacks and furling jibs make dousing the sails (nearly) idiot-proof. Increasingly, lines are being led aft to a single point at the helm station, making it easier for one sailor to safely captain an entire boat of non-sailors.
Designers are paying more attention to the ability to move around the boat, too, focusing especially on how easily the helmsperson can get forward to mess with a snagged line or down into the cockpit to interact with the crew.
Even dinghies are becoming easier to use—they’re larger, with simpler davit systems and more reliable outboards. According to Morrelli, this trend started with the elimination of a prominent aft beam. “A decade ago, you’d walk up the transom steps, across the aft beam, then down into the cockpit after you hit your head on the bimini. In the Leopard 40 we did away with that beam and created the first one-level bridgedeck, eliminating the ups and downs and head-bangers.”
This Catana 55 features tulip-shaped bows, carbon rigging and adjustable daggerboards
Making charter cats easier to get around and handle has multiple benefits: first and foremost, as chartering becomes more approachable it will hopefully convince that many more people to take up vacation-sailing. Second, and equally important, cats that are easier to handle will also be safer to sail. “Our guests want spaciousness, stability and a sense of safety,” says Guy Phoenix of Horizon Yacht Charters.
4) Pump up the Performance
Of course, for every non-sailing charter guest, there are just as many serious sailors interested in pushing the envelop, and for these sailors, builders have responded by making boats lighter and faster, through a combination of engineering and design. By transitioning to advanced, resin-infused laminates, for example, today’s cats are now both lighter and move more comfortably when riding through big seas. They also require less material—2,000-3,000 pounds less in a 40-footer—and are therefore cheaper to produce. According to Robertson and Caine, the company that has built over 1,000 Leopard catamarans for The Moorings, performance is also improving above the hull, with generous sail plans, a lower boom that allows for a larger main sail for the same mast height, and a hull chine, which allows for more interior space above the waterline and a narrower hull beam below.
Catana Catamarans’ website features a cool “Speed in 20 Terms” animation, which is worth checking out, and which describes the boats’ carbon-fiber rigging and construction, adjustable daggerboards and aerodynamic coach roofs. Dream Yacht Charters recently placed two new Catana 55s into its Polynesian fleet. The big sister to the Catana 50, these cats sleep up to 12 in six cabins, and should sail fast, with their unique “tulip-shaped” bows, daggerboards and infused carbon construction. (It was a Catana 431 that won the 2012 ARC in the Multihull division, finishing in 11 days, 1 hour, 45 minutes and 45 seconds.)
At TMM’s Tortola base, the Nautitech 47 Shawna Raye embodies what Nautitech values in its performance-focused charter cats: a big rig, a lightweight hull and dual helm stations located outboard on both hulls, allowing for increased aerodynamics and improved sailability. These features are echoed on the Marc Lombard-designed Nautitech 542.
5) Spotlight on Socializing
A lot of these trends were somewhat predictable. Who doesn’t want a charter cat that is faster, better laid out and easier to sail? But one trend that has surprised and delighted many industry observers is the way charter cats are becoming more social by design—an approach that was pioneered by Gunboats and then adopted by Morrelli and Melvin when the firm put a forward cockpit on the Leopard 44/Sunsail 444.
“There were a lot of different opinions about whether or not you should run a boat from the bow,” says Morrelli, “but everyone agreed on one thing: it was a great place to hang out.” Morrelli adds that forward cockpits also increase ventilation and provide another traffic route forward and aft, which may be one reason why The Moorings is currently phasing out all of its 4600s for 4800s, with forward cockpit.
Along these same lines, many charter cat builders are making it easier for the helmsperson to interact with the rest of the boat, so that they no longer have to feel like some kind of servant toiling away on an isolated flybridge.
For example, Grand Cru, the Leopard 44 in Horizon Yacht Charter’s St. Martin base, features a lower helmstation with a cut-out in the targa for visibility, while the 2013 Fountaine Pajot Hélia 44s in CYOA’s St. Thomas fleet and TMM’s BVI fleet have a raised helm station adjacent to a large, cushioned lounge area, a place that the crew wants to spend time. “Design is moving toward boats that are more open, with bigger and more convivial social areas and more interaction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ spaces,” says Bauguil at The Moorings, summing up this aspect of today’s multihull layouts.
SO WHAT’S NEXT in charter cat design?
The way Morrelli sees it, we can expect the focus on technology to persist. In one study done on charter boats in the BVIs, The Moorings found that, in an average year, jibs were used 60 percent more than mains, because people were simply not interested in going through the trouble of raising a heavy mainsail. “At some point, I think we’ll drop sails altogether and transition to power cats,” Morrelli predicts.
More immediately, we could start seeing joystick steering on charter boats in the next three to four years, as the non-compete clause expires on the patent. “Not only does it make you look like a superstar,” says Morrelli, “It’s safer! And it solves what I call the ten-foot problem: those ten feet near the docks in which, whether coming or going, everything goes wrong, boats collide and spouses go overboard.”
Finally, boats will continue to become more push-button, with easier-to-raise sails and more complex technology, where your galley appliances can talk to your GPS, which can converse your windlass and so on. Of course, this electronic-reliant sailing has an Achilles’ heel: when things go wrong (and they will go wrong) charter “sailors” won’t know how to sail their way out of it.
Morrelli recognizes that as a danger and cautions against an over-reliance on technology, but he’s also confident that these trends will have one very important result: it will expand the average sailing lifespan by a decade. Where we once stopped sailing when the sails got too heavy to raise and the docklines too heavy to throw, we’ll now be able to call for extra muscles at the push of a button. And that’s a trend we can get behind.
Buying a Bareboat for Charter For sailors who wish to charter more often without the added stress of storage and maintenance, there are options Picture this: you’ve just returned to the docks after a fabulous week of chartering in a paradisiacal location. You have no desire to leave the cat, pack up or go home. You’d much rather keep sailing! You’ve caught the charter bug, and you’re wondering: how can I do this all the time? Some good news: charter companies can’t afford to own their large fleets and many sailors can’t afford to maintain a boat in the Caribbean. Thus, there exists the mutual relationship of buying a boat for charter. This alternative to traditional ownership and mortgaging takes different forms, depending on the charter company. Typically a charter company will arrange financing and insurance for the initial purchase, then will provide regular maintenance and cleaning for the duration of the ownership, which usually lasts around five years. Many companies offer charters on similar-sized boats in their other locations, and all companies outline a plan for how many weeks you can sail the boat you buy. The system is similar to a timeshare but some companies, like TMM Yacht Charters, don’t restrict the number of weeks an owner can use their boat. When the contract ends, owners have an array of options. They can keep the boat and begin paying the mortgage out of pocket; they can sell it, possibly using the charter company’s own brokerage; or they can trade it in for a newer boat and start with a fresh contract. There are two main models for owners to gain profit: fixed revenue and variable revenue. With fixed revenue, owners receive a monthly check for a predetermined amount, regardless of how many weeks the boat is booked for charter. The amount is calculated based on the number of predicted charters for the boat, depending on its location. The Moorings uses this method and also allows its owners to terminate a contract before the typical five to six seasons of ownership are through. Variable revenue is based on a split percentage of net charter revenue between an owner and the charter company, after broker and agent fees. Horizon Yacht Charters, for instance, gives its owners 80 percent of revenue and keeps 20 percent. However, costs from dockage, insurance, maintenance, turnaround fees, annual haul-out, launch and license fees are deducted directly from the owner’s 80 percent. The actual percentage isn’t affected by how many weeks the boat is in charter but the net profit is determined by how often the boat is booked. Some companies, such as Sunsail, offer both revenue plans. Buying a bareboat for charter management can be a rewarding investment. In the end, you won’t earn much of a cash return but you’ll still come out on top. You’ll still sail a gorgeous charter boat without worrying about storage or maintenance; you’ll still explore other charter locations and, when you’re ready to charter, you’ll still get a boat that’s been professionally cleaned and serviced, insuring a hassle-free vacation. —Christine Hayes