Everyone is talking about multihulls these days, but how should canny buyers approach the idea of a cat? Nigel Irens has some thoughts
Most of the features in our Catamaran Sailing Techniques series have been aimed at aspiring newcomers to catamaran cruising looking for a bit of help in getting going – even if they are only contemplating a week or so of chartering.
You’ve probably picked up on the fact that you can’t expect miracles from these boats in terms of exciting sailing. There are a couple of good reasons for this: firstly any catamaran that has performance potential will be more expensive to buy and maintain than the boats used in the cost-sensitive charter market.
Secondly, and more important, the more exciting the catamaran is to sail the more skill is needed to keep both boat and crew safe, and certainly in the charter market the constraint of offering chartering only to those who are already experienced multihull sailors would be seriously to limit the viability of the fleet. Presumably for similar reasons all but a few specialised car-hire companies send you off in a Ford Focus rather than a Ferrari F12.
The charter market accounts for a big proportion of annual catamaran sales, and future developments are likely to reflect the ever-growing demand for inexpensive boats with maximum living space.
This simple truth explains why quite a high proportion of charter fleets is now composed of power catamarans. In a way this is an honest response to market demands. If (as is likely) the demand for something ‘roomy and cheap’ among charterers continues, it is clear that there comes a point where so little sailing performance remains that there is not much motivation left for bothering with sails at all.
Travelling on a well-designed power catamaran, on the other hand, can be quite a pleasurable experience and can obviously get the charter party to where they want to go in a rapid and seamanlike way.
More performance please
The private owner market is quite different and, although the ‘roomy and cheap’ boats will attract some private buyers, there will be many more whose priorities are different and whose enthusiasm for sailing puts performance quite high up on their wishlist.
To this end buyers will be studying the long-established (and absolute) rule about how the cost/space/performance equation works. This can best be illustrated by drawing an equilateral triangle and placing the words ‘Fast’, ‘Spacious’ and ‘Inexpensive’ at each apex of the triangle. If a cursor (your pencil?) is placed in the triangle you’ll soon see that as you move closer to any one apex you move further away from the other two.
The degree to which cost increases if both ‘Spacious and ‘Fast’ are dialled up cannot be overstated. The straight line on the triangle between these two qualities assumes that as Living Space increases so Performance drops.
But recent years have seen the beginning of a new breed of catamaran that manages to deliver both these qualities to an impressive degree. The only trouble is that the ‘Inexpensive’ apex is likely to be a very long way away – not least because these kinds of boats are usually only available as custom builds which, by definition, means you need to double the already high amount you first thought of…
Back on Planet Earth there are one or two builders in Europe (such as Multimarine in the UK) who are producing semi-custom catamarans in the 32-50ft range that are both liveaboard-friendly and yet satisfying to cruise or race – at a price that is not as high as you might think.
Most people are aware that a catamaran naturally offers a useful selection of cruising attributes – plenty of room, low heel angle, good visibility from inside, shallow draught, ability to take the ground and unsinkability. To have all that in a boat that can also realistically compete in races such as the Round Britain and Ireland Race – or even a transatlantic race – is quite special, and something that only a catamaran can offer.
A performance catamaran is easy to spot – most obviously because it is less bulky than a basic space-orientated one, but a closer inspection will reveal various ‘go-fast’ devices that define the breed.
You’ll easily spot the fact that the mast is taller than that of a pure cruising boat – and if it’s a wingmast you’re probably looking at a carbon fibre structure. These devices are great for getting the best out of an already fast boat, but putting one on an already slow one would be a complete waste of time and money – comparable to putting an elaborate airfoil on the back of an otherwise bog-standard Mondeo.
You’ll have heard a lot about foils in recent years. Actually rudders and centreboards have always been called foils, but since the 2012 America’s Cup the term has been almost exclusively used to identify the underwater wings that lift those amazing boats out of the water as they accelerate.
This was an intriguing expression of what can be achieved with ingenuity (and very deep pockets), but it is not something that will have even the tiniest bit of trickle-down effect on the lives of the rest of us in our lifetimes.
If you plan to get hold of a catamaran that has at least some claim to performance then it should have deployable centreboards rather than the stub-keels fitted to basic cruising cats. If it’s performance you’re after then these devices are a good cost-effective starting point.
Beyond that the sky is the limit, so it’s important to consider each performance-enhancing gadget in terms of its cost compared with its potential for improving performance. A rotating wingmast, for example, is an iconic way of saying ‘we’re serious about performance’, but maybe the money would have been better deployed in reducing weight in the structure. You can’t see that weightsaving, but it’s possible that it is more effective in cost-benefit terms.
You would think that modern materials and build techniques would always result in lighter, more agile boats, but it is easy to prove that as far as cruising boats (of all sorts – both sail and power) are concerned this is not usually the case. The added weight of a vast range of comfort-enhancing equipment produced to meet a modern buyer’s expectations often results in a net increase in performance-sapping weight.
The best way to ensure that everyone gets what they want out of their boat is through a process of education. There are no miracles out there and a manufacturer that encourages buyers to believe in the impossible does so at its peril. The glossy brochure needs to be backed up by the solid truths that emerge from half an hour spent studying that equilateral triangle – customarily drawn on the back of a serviette over lunch.
Our eight-part Catamaran Sailing Skills series by Nigel Irens, in association with Pantaenius, is essential reading for anyone considering a catamaran after being more familiar with handling a monohull.
Series author: Nigel Irens
One name stands out when you think of multihull design: the British designer Nigel Irens.
His career began when he studied Boatyard Management at what is now Solent University before opening a sailing school in Bristol and later moving to a multihull yard. He and a friend, Mark Pridie, won their class in the 1978 Round Britain race in a salvaged Dick Newick-designed 31-footer. Later, in 1985, he won the Round Britain Race with Tony Bullimore with whom he was jointly awarded Yachtsman of the Year.
His first major design success came in 1984 when his 80ft LOA catamaran Formule Tag set a new 24-hour run, clocking 518 miles. During the 1990s it was his designs that were dominant on the racecourse: Mike Birch’s Fujicolour, Philippe Poupon’s Fleury Michon VIII, Tony Bullimore’s Apricot. Most famous of all was Ellen MacArthur’s 75ft trimaran B&Q, which beat the solo round the world record in 2005.
His designs have included cruising and racing boats, powerboats and monohulls, but it is multis he is best known for.
A special thanks to The Moorings, which supplied a 4800 cat out of their base in Tortola, BVI. www.moorings.com