A new breed of luxury fast multihulls are seducing wealthy sailors with a need for speed, Sam Fortescue reports on the rise and rise of this latest breed
“People sail for fun, and no one has yet convinced me that it’s more fun to go slow than it is to go fast,” said visionary multihull designer Dick Newick in the last century. “We all want high performance with comfort and low cost. Since the three cannot be combined in one vessel, priorities must be established and compromises made.”
Now, Newick may belong to another generation, but his observation is as true today as it has ever been. This time round, though, buyers have the money to park the cost issue. A new cohort of boatbuilders like Gunboat, HH and Kinetic are mining a rich (if narrow) seam of demand for high-end cats that go like rocketships and offer genuine comfort, if not outright luxury.
Gunboat is the trailblazer here. Launched in 2002, the now iconic brand weathered stormy waters before being taken over and moved to France by the Grand Large Yachting group (which also includes Outremer).
Its range has now stabilised at 68ft, 72ft and 80ft – much larger than it typically built in the past. But it has reached the size limit for this business model, according to managing partner Benoit Lebizay. “Beyond 80ft, you go into full custom,” he says.
HH Catamarans emerged 10 years later, building boats from 44ft to 88ft in Xiamen, China, with the same contractor that once used to build Gunboats. And Kinetic is more recent still, with construction in South Africa and design by the renowned Simonis Voogd.
“When we started, we had to make a real threshold decision,” says Kinetic founder Bob Hayward. “Are we trying to make this a hull-flying lightship that’s a bit of a spartan cruiser, or are we really a fast performance cruiser that you race?”
Research among Gunboat skippers convinced him of the latter, because the market was commissioning boats with lots of bells and whistles. “Once you start putting the creature comforts on board, they come out heavier than the lightship aspiration,” he adds.
Kinetic has launched one 54-footer and a 62, with three more boats in the pipeline for delivery this year. “I definitely think this is a growing market, but not a mass market,” Hayward adds. “The more these boats get out there, and people see how accessible they can be, I think they’ll grow even further.” You only have to be overhauled once by a fast cat to understand the appeal.
Lebizay at Gunboat takes a similar view. “We remain niche players,” he says. “I’m not talking about building 20 boats per year – five or six is about as much as we can do. But the more we splash boats, the more we create momentum in the more experienced part of the fleet.”
Olivier Racoupeau has drawn more than his fair share of two-hulled boats over the years, but he says the market is changing. “We see a significant improvement in the number of requests for performance cats,” he tells me.
“In the past, they were looking for the volume and the lifestyle – more like performance cruisers. Now we see people coming to us to have much more fun sailing. They want to have daggerboards to improve the performance and are happy to keep the volume and the length of the hull reasonable.”
All about the kilos
Like every catamaran in this performance category, Gunboats are built in a high-quality carbon layup to maximise strength and stiffness while minimising weight. That means vacuum infusing prepreg materials for a precise and even distribution of the epoxy resin throughout the structure of the hull.
“We take technology from the racing end of sailing and from aircraft,” says Lebizay. “The furniture on board is in Nomex with veneer on top – the same design as the builder of the Falcon planes. It’s like a 5-star hotel room, but a fraction of the weight.”
The result is boats that will exceed wind speed in light airs and top out at 25 or 30-plus knots. If your yacht can manage 6 knots in a five-knot zephyr, it’s going to keep you sailing some 80% of the time, and long before a production cat has even removed the sail cover.
It’s a principle starkly illustrated by the all-carbon speed machine that is the Ice Cat 67. “In 5 knots of wind you can do 7 knots with the Code 0,” says Ice Yachts founder Marco Malgara with audible satisfaction. “And in 20 knots you can do 15-16 knots. It’s an amazing feeling.”
There are two 67s in the water and a new 72 is in build. Like most of these performance cats, Ice’s boats use lifting daggerboards to provide lateral stability and better windward ability – the 67 can manage 35° true wind angle. It takes the draught from a go-anywhere 95cm down to a hardcore 3m.
“It’s a fully automated system and you have a joystick so you can control it wherever you are,” says Malgara.
Kinetic cats have Antal line drivers to hoist and lower centreplates, which pivot aft into the hulls. There’s also an option for faster daggerboards and even curved C-boards. Just like the furling boom and self-tacking jib, the key to this system is simplicity for short-handed sailing.
It’s true of the HH cats, too, with their captive winches, hydraulics and smart deck planning. “I can be off the mooring, sails up and doing 20 knots within four minutes,” says highly experienced HH commissioning manager Chris Bailet of the HH66.
Although you won’t necessarily find it in the handbook, some of these boats allow you to fly a hull for a real buzz if you feel so inclined. “I love the challenge of keeping the boat with the windward hull flying,” says serial boat-owner Irvine Laidlaw of his Gunboat 68, Highland Fling 17.
It’s a feature that veteran ocean racer Alex Thomson was more reluctant to employ during his recent RORC Transatlantic Race on the Gunboat 68 Tosca. They aimed for a heel angle of 10-13°, no more, and used the UpsideUp warning system to see when they had to ease the sheets.
“Occasionally there was air under the hull, but that wasn’t the objective for us,” says Thomson.
HH catamarans are also equipped with UpsideUp, and it’s one of the first systems that owners are taught to use. “We can have the mainsheets on a release based on the angle of heel, pitch and cap shroud loads,” says Bailet. “Anything on a hydraulic, like the mainsheet, or captive reels like a staysail, can ease. The lines on the winches are not eased on the system, however. You’ve got to have at least a little bit of awareness.”
More than the speed
Of all these brands, Kinetic is probably the closest to the cruising end of the spectrum. Its cats have a coachroof-stepped mast, for instance. “That requires extra infrastructure and with it some weight, but it buys us a bigger salon and a forward cockpit that doubles as a leisure zone,” says Hayward. “We did things like the drop-down swim platform – that costs us 80kg in weight.”
Technology can mitigate to some extent. So, the large 360° windows on the KC62 are glazed with chemically-strengthened glass. This provides better protection than standard glass, but measures 10mm thickness instead of 16mm. “That saves us around 200kg,” adds Hayward.
Comfortable double cabins with plenty of clothes stowage and en-suite shower rooms are standard features on all these boats, as are saloons lined with lavish upholstery and peppered with designer tables and stools for comfy lounging. In terms of the finish, expect lots of bare hull with a smattering of fine veneer cabinetry, plenty of glass and the latest appliances.
Where the boats differ is in the details. The Kinetic 54 has helm stations on each quarter, and another one inside, plus a cosy forward cockpit with access from the saloon. “Once you’ve had a forward cockpit, you’ll never go back,” enthuses KC54 owner Randy Smith. “We’re constantly walking through it for mooring and anchoring, and it lets the wind blow through more than any porthole could.”
The Ice Cat 72 is big enough to have dedicated crew quarters with its own access, and you can decide whether you want a well-specced galley in the saloon, or down in a hull. It can be totally customised, but the feel is everything you’d associate with luxury Italian design.
“We aim to unhinge the traditional concept that associates the boat with a sea lifestyle,” comments design partner Lucio Micheletti.
With its internal helm station, the Gunboat 68 frees up a lot of aft real estate for sophisticated lounging. There’s space for up to six cabins, including a big master, and a forward cockpit. The 80 offers more of everything, while the new 72V is something of a gamble for the brand – a fast boat which has a flybridge. It’s streamlined compared to production cats, but there’s room enough up top for a bank of flexible sofa/sunbeds, a low table and a flybridge helm station.
Meanwhile, HH prefers twin bulkhead helming positions on its standard HH66 layout, although its customisation programme runs to other options. The fifth hull in the series has MOD70-style steering from a bucket seat out on the starboard quarter, with a wheel in the saloon for protected helming. Either way, there’s a forward working cockpit for handling lines.
With low volumes and high prices, serious customisation is the name of the game. Fastidious attention to boat weight means that clients’ choices can be fully costed out in terms of speed. “Each yacht is unique and offers the ability to shift the pendulum toward comfort or performance,” says Seth Hynes, president at HH. “The larger you go, the more you can achieve both.”
To illustrate the point, there is an HH60 currently being built with hydraulic J-boards and a rotating carbon mast. In a neighbouring bay is the first HH88, which will have an enclosed flybridge with a hot-tub that can be drained into a tank positioned low down in the boat.
Meanwhile, Gunboat is embarking on the build of a fully pre-preg 80 for Irvine Laidlaw, pushing performance even further. “The 68 is an excellent boat, but it is not a full-on racer,” says Laidlow. “Cruisers do not understand the massive difference between a racer and cruiser, with tremendous emphasis on weight and performance. I have zero interest in dishwashers, hydraulic bathing platforms and flat screen TVs.”
It’s a tricky balance to walk for Gunboat, which does not see itself as a pure racing brand. But it is proving a useful challenge. “The more sophisticated the client, the more demanding they are, pushing us into exploring new avenues,” says Lebizay.
“On 80-1, the brief is to be able to lift the centreboards at 20 knots boat speed. They have at least 5m in the water, and the side force is in tens of tonnes. It tells you what kind of system we need to develop.”
Who is buying these boats?
If technology is one of the drivers behind the performance cat scene, so is money – lots of it. A Gunboat 80 or an HH88 will set you back north of $10m, so it is not a proposition for your average yachtie looking for a bit more of a thrill.
Buyers are often seasoned racers, according to Lebizay at Gunboat. “Most of these guys have had maxi programmes or other racing programmes. One of our owners was the owner of a SailGP team; another one has a GC32 team and another, a Volvo 70 programme.”
They’re looking for the benefits of the boats’ comfort without sacrificing much speed. Irvine Laidlaw, now 79 years old, sums up his move from monohulls succinctly: “I felt that, getting older, that moving around in a large racing monohull was getting too difficult. I helm but like to take 10 minutes off in every hour to keep me fresh.”
Then there are owners like Randy Smith, who experienced the frustration of production catamarans, while loving the comfort. “In less than 10 knots of wind, or closer than 70°, we couldn’t sail. We had a big, comfortable cruising boat, but it was no good for sailing. That’s what started this search. We wanted centreboards and better sail area, but we didn’t care if it was made out of carbon.”
Buyers of the sub-60ft catamarans generally want the privacy that an owner-operator setup can provide. “These are guys that have the money to do bigger boats, but they don’t want anyone else on board,” says Bailet at HH. They range from sports stars to successful business leaders, but they all have something in common, he says: “There’s no compromise. They’re not going to get a slow boat. Most of those guys [opt for] a forward cockpit, with the wind in your hair like driving a Nacra 18, having a rip.”
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