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Performance Cruising Cats Set New Standards in Sailing Speed

Nathanael G. Herreshoff didn’t (necessarily) mean to spark a yacht-design revolution when he launched the catamaran Amaryllis in 1875, but that’s exactly what happened…eventually.

Nathanael G. Herreshoff didn’t (necessarily) mean to spark a yacht-design revolution when he launched the catamaran Amaryllis in 1875, but that’s exactly what happened…eventually. Students of history will remember that Amaryllis was promptly banned from organized racing, mostly because she whipped the monohulls. Still, word spread: catamarans were lightning fast and sailed flat. They also offered other advantages compared to monohulls, like a lot of deck space. Unfortunately, popular opinion exerted its usual pressure on owners, designers and builders, and high-performance cruising catamarans were back-burnered until the 1960s.

“The first [modern] catamarans to emerge came from racing,” says Marc Van Peteghem, of the famed French design firm VPLP, which has designed some of the world’s fastest multihulls. “The provenance of high-performance multihull cruising goes a long way back. It was the American designer Dick Newick who started this evolution. His concept was about simplicity and lightness. The forms were very organic, and the profiles were very low. In many ways, they were highly revolutionary given the limitations in materials and knowledge at the time.”

Newick’s now-iconic designs attracted cruisers who embraced the ethos of simplicity, lightweight design and construction and craved high daily mileage runs. These forward-thinking cruisers weren’t interested in conforming to sailing’s monohull-centric status quo, for Newick’s chosen hull form was the trimaran, and his go-to construction methods involved cold-molded wooden laminate hulls (although his designs were typically sold as lines plans). Few Newick designs graced the mooring field in front of the New York Yacht Club’s outpost facility at Harbor Court, in blueblood Newport, Rhode Island, but plenty of his boats reeled off impressively quick offshore passages, delighting their owners and forging a legend amongst serious bluewater sailors.

Other performance-oriented cruising multihulls emerged during the 1980s and 1990s and found their way Stateside, most notably boats from the French builders Catana and Outremer. The brilliant South Dartmouth, Massachusetts-based designer Chris White also began turning heads with his innovative line of Atlantic catamarans, whose layout configurations featured a forward working cockpit paired with an aft pilothouse. What set these cats apart from more sedate cruising designs were features like high bridgedeck clearance, low superstructures, narrow hulls and lightweight composite construction. Spurred on by advances in racing multihull design and build, concepts like composite construction, wing masts, and eventually carbon-fiber spars began to find their way onto cruising multihulls.

Also around this time, designer Ian Farrier started making international sailing headlines with his Corsair line of folding-ama trimarans, including the F-22 and the now-iconic F-27 (a 2004 inductee into the Sailboat Hall of Fame). These boats made fast sailing accessible to huge numbers of sailors, many of whom grew up sailing Hobie 16s off of their local beach and now wanted a cruising multihull that could offer comfortable (enough) accommodations while also delivering high-speed thrills and the convenience of a trailer. Still, most mainstream sailors remained reluctant to accept this new fast-cruising paradigm and multihulls largely remained the province of tubby charter boats or all-out racers. Then, in late 1999, Peter Johnstone—of the Johnstone sailing family—set out to find an alternative to his 70-foot cruising monohull. Johnstone wanted something fast and comfortable that also provided the sort of performance he had grown accustomed to on high-performance maxi catamarans such as Playstation and Team Adventure. Johnstone ultimately hired West Coast multihull veterans Morrelli & Melvin to draw plans for a 62-foot high-performance cruising catamaran that would ultimately serve as the prototype for his now famous Gunboat line, and that he would have custom-built at Harvey Yachts. The family then set off for their cruise aboard TRIBE in 2001 and Johnstone quickly realized he was on to something big: a boat with chisel-like bows, daggerboards and a performance-minded design capable of 300- to 400-mile days in cruising mode with a seakindly ride.

In January of 2010 I found myself sitting on the comfortable settee of the Gunboat 66, Sugar Daddy, contemplating owner Bruce Slayden’s choice of a Sauvignon Blanc paired with freshly cooked Ahi fish tacos when someone noticed the speed: 21.7 knots, sails sheeted, autopilot driving. I pinched myself: rare is the day when one gets to savor a five-star lunch while sailing north of 20 knots, not a single hair disrupted. But sailing aboard the Slayden’s nicely equipped Gunboat in Hawaii’s Molokai Channel isn’t exactly “everyday” sailing.

Looking out Sugar Daddy’s many cabin windows with almost a 360 degree view I saw the much-feared Molokai Channel was maintaining its reputation, with 25-30 knots of air and eight-foot seas. Yet it was obvious that Sugar Daddy was perfectly balanced, with her big, powerful bows riding the swells as her carbon-fiber daggerboards provided plenty of lift. Having sailed aboard a great deal of fast monohulls—including Volvo Open 70s and 100-foot super-maxis—I was gob-smacked that 20-plus knots could feel so smooth and so civilized, but a quick look at Bruce revealed that we were only now beginning to see Sugar Daddy’s true magic. Bruce would know: he and his wife, Nora, and their crew managed to rack up a 70,000-plus miles aboard three different Gunboats. “I used to really miss our house when we were sailing,” says Nora. “Now it’s the other way around.”

Sailing through the Molokai Channel, Johnstone’s vision of a high-performance cruising catamaran suddenly made sense. If we’d been out in similar conditions aboard my dad’s J/44, PFDs and safety tethers—not freshly caught Ahi—would have been the program, along with salty faces and mandatory foul-weather gear. 

“The performance category of larger cruising multihulls didn’t exist when we started Gunboat,” says Johnstone. “No one thought a cruising multihull could go upwind, yet we paced the Volvo 70s with a Gunboat 66 at a recent Cape Town Volvo Ocean Race stopover. We traded tacks for 10 miles—we were a little quicker and slightly lower.” Impressive work, considering that Volvo Open 70s are the fastest (and most uncomfortable) monohulls afloat and are crewed by full crews of grizzled professionals—a far cry from Sugar Daddy.

These days, yacht manufacturers are building more high-performance cruising catamarans, each offering a different blend of performance and cruising characteristics achieved through the use of new materials, creative weight allocation and improved daggerboard design coupled with a focus on onboard amenities. The goal is speed, performance and offshore comfort, both in the strong stuff and, more importantly, in whispering airs that park-up monohulls. “A good performance catamaran can sail 1.2 to 1.5 times faster than windspeed in some conditions, meaning less time motoring and more time sailing,” says Greg Young, designer of the TAG 60.

“It’s been suggested that boat owners can choose two of the following three: speed, comfort or low cost,” says Hugo Le Breton, the founder of Le Breton Yachts, builders of the SIG line of high-performance cruising cats. “You can’t have a fast, comfortable, inexpensive boat.” While cost is obviously important, Van Peteghem stresses that weight is the true key to performance. “The lighter a boat is, the greater the performance,” he says. “Another way of expressing this is that the high-performance catamaran finds the optimal path between comfort, performance and cost—while stressing performance.” Because of this, today’s performance-oriented cruising catamarans have embraced composite construction (hulls, daggerboards, spars and standing rigging), sophisticated designs, highly adaptable sail plans and an ethos that “light is right.”

While everyone agrees that carbon fiber is far superior to traditional fiberglass, cost can’t be ignored. “You get a lot more performance for the dollar by building longer, leaner hulls with less costly materials,” says Phil Berman, president of Balance Catamarans. “I prefer using foam cores, pre-preg epoxy bulkheads, vinylester or epoxy resins and E-glass with a gelcoat finish if the effort is to hold down costs.” Berman isn’t alone in his use of fiberglass. “You don’t need to go full-carbon to get a lightweight boat,” says Raphael Blot, who has teamed up with Australian builder McConaghy to build the MC²60 (Blot owns the first MC²60). “Proof being, we’re slightly above nine tons, while some 60-foot carbon cats are over 15 tons.” The critical bit, says Blot, is to use carbon where it yields the biggest returns, while also focusing on asymmetrical-shaped daggerboards that are situated midships in each hull so as to achieve the right balance and hull trim.

Though all multihulls have the potential to get scary when sailing deep true-wind angles, sailing to weather isn’t easy for a boat with two hulls and no keel. Plenty of charterers have grown frustrated while trying to point high on their “condomarans,” but performance-minded catamarans employ either daggerboards or centerboards to combat this. “Daggerboards are necessary for pointing at good angles on any performance cat,” says Young, who uses asymmetrically shaped boards on his Young 65. “By angling the boards 10 degrees, we also introduce an extra lift component as well as minimizing any negative impact with the interior.” Young has minimized the threat of a capsize by using an interesting blend of technology. TAG yachts has developed an incredible safety system that uses rig load-cells and a heel-angle function that automatically eases the sheets before the vessel gets to any critical or unsafe point.

Daggerboards also help the vessel on other points of sail and in rough weather. “What’s often lost on consumers is that a daggerboarded cat is way faster off the wind than a non-daggerboard catamaran because you reduce drag enormously when the boards are lifted,” says Berman. According to Johnstone, the ability to lift and lower boards improves offshore safety. “When it gets really nasty over 60 knots, and seas are confused and violent, the safest strategy is to run downwind fast with your centerboards or daggerboards fully up,” Johnstone says. “When you get pasted from the side by a breaking wave, the cat will simply surf sideways and dissipate the wave’s impact energy.”

Onboard comfort is the final major design consideration. While ocean-racing fanatics might gravitate toward minimal accommodation plans, most sane minds prefer some comfort. “There’s no longer an obligation to have a Spartan boat to have a performance boat,” says Xavier Desmarest of Outremer Catamarans. “All our boats are designed and built to offer the same comfort that you have at home.” Given that most performance-minded catamarans are built on a custom or semi-custom basis, new-build owners get the pleasure of deciding what comforts are of priority on the high seas.

As adventurous as a sub-four-day transatlantic passage sounds, anyone could get used to night watches spent at warm, dry helm stations. Yet modern technology helps reduce weight here, too. “If ‘sacrifice’ means bringing an iPod rather than a CD library, a Kindle rather than books, and simply leaving a few non-essential things at home, our clients feel it is worth it,” says Le Breton.

The America’s Cup has long served as an important idea laboratory for performance-sailing design, with applicable technology trickling down to the custom and production markets. Historically, little of this has crossed over to the multihull crowd, but the 34th America’s Cup, with its 72-foot wing-sailed catamarans and hydrofoils, may prove to be the exception. “The main trickle-down we will see from the America’s Cup is in advanced construction materials and technologies, a better understanding of apparent-wind sailing dynamics and hopefully better velocity prediction programs,” says Young. Others agree. “There’s a lot to be learned about the trade-offs between low-drag hull shapes and volume forward, and about rudder shapes,” says Le Breton. 

When queried if wing-sail technology could ever enter the high-performance cruising catamaran market, Le Breton’s advice is to “never say never,” while Young talks about a solid reefable wing-sail he’s been developing. Though there’s little danger of a cruising couple breaking Banque Populaire V’s transatlantic record on a cruising multihull anytime soon, there’s an excellent chance that the next generation of performance-minded multihulls will benefit from refined shapes (hulls, foils and sails), advanced composite materials and better design-related programs. 

It only took a “quick” 138 years, but high-performance catamarans have now reached sailing’s mainstream—from the America’s Cup to your local yacht club. Today, Herreshoff’s Amaryllis commands a lofty perch in the canon of multihull designs, Newick designs are iconic, and serious cruisers of all stripes understand that a second hull can make life pretty sweet.

Based in Seattle, Washington,
David Schmidt is a former
SAIL senior editor 



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