Reality Check on Cruising Catamarans - SailNet Community

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  • 3 Post By John Kretschmer
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Old 10-07-1999
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Reality Check on Cruising Catamarans

I was on the dawn watch thinking I had a read on the apparent wind. So I was surprised to find out in scanning the instruments that the true wind had actually increased to a steady 25 knots. When did that happen?

My cup of coffee on the fiddle-free cockpit table was just where I had placed it minutes ago, and my three crew members remained sound asleep in their separate staterooms. The Autohelm 7000 plugged along in automaton-helmsman style. And in general, this Fountaine-Pajot Venezia 42 maintained poise as she tracked over the Atlantic, easily coping with the six to eight-foot seas rushing between her hulls. It was easy to get lulled into a contentment.

The Venezia's speed was a consistent seven to eight knots with an occasional low, double-digit spurt when surfing down a wave. My 20-year-old, 44-foot steel ketch could keep pace in these conditions, so I thought I'd be clutching my cup of Starbucks as we rolled through 30 degrees. Having sailed Next Wave nearly 5,000 offshore miles, I knew any dreams of screaming along at 20 knots, or even 15, were just that, dreams.

So, I'd like to deliver a dose of reality on cruising catamarans. I've made five offshore passages between Martha's Vineyard and Ft. Lauderdale in the Venezia, during which I encountered a variety of conditions. I have also delivered a St. Francis 43 from Palm Beach, FL, to Belize and ferried a Norseman 400 down island. In all, I've logged about 8,000 blue-water catamaran miles. In addition as a boat-test writer, I have sailed several big cats on weeklong charter tests—though in truth, you really can't learn much about a boat even during a perfect week in the Virgin Islands.

Naturally there are advantages and disadvantages of cruising catamarans. There are also more than a few misconceptions about cats offshore. Obviously, these catamarans offer spacious accommodations. It is not uncommon for a 40-foot cat to house four double staterooms with a proportionate number of heads. Their cockpits are invariably huge and normally quite dry. The foredeck space is terrific for spreading out on while underway-there is no better place to watch dolphins cavort than from the trampoline or from the forward bridgedeck. The saloon is usually bright and airy with large forward-facing portlights. And cats do sail flat. The lack of rolling downwind is refreshing, especially on a long trade-wind passage. Most of today's cruising cats are well-designed, engineered, and constructed.

But I have discovered compromises. It takes awhile to adjust to the lack of heel, a result of high initial stability, and the ensuing fast, jerky motion. These cats in general have a lot more motion than a monohull. Also, as designers create more interior volume in the saloon, they lose wing clearance, or bridgedeck freeboard, between the hulls. This can result in a great deal of pounding and slamming underneath, especially when sailing upwind in big seas. During a Force-9 gale in the Venezia two years ago, the water action between the hulls was at times so violent it created a 10-foot-high geyser through the bridgedeck scuppers. Beating across the Yucatan Straits in the St. Francis was slow going and in the aft cabins you felt like you were inside a kettledrum. Indeed, as cats tend to slap at every passing wave, the noise requires some acclimation.

The two top misconceptions about cruising cats are: (1) they are significantly faster than a comparable-length monohull, and (2) they are prone to capsizing and are dangerous offshore. A multihull has to be light to take advantage of its speed potential. But, let's face it, light and cruising generally don't mix. Furthermore, most cruising cats are under-rigged as a safety feature. As a result, the nearly seven-ton displacing Venezia has just a bit more than 1,000 square feet of working sail area on a fractional rig. I recall that our early passages on the Venezia were the fastest, and then the boat seemed to get slower and slower. In fact, it followed the addition of more and more cruising gear and dockside amenities by the owner. This extra weight caused the boat to become dramatically slower. Cruising cats, as well as many of today's performance monohulls, simply cannot be overloaded. This will not only cause them to lose speed but also to become sluggish and difficult to handle. (One distinct advantage of a heavy-displacement cruising boat is that you can pile on gear and provisions without significantly altering performance.)

The earlier mentioned gale developed out of the southeast shortly after we cleared Cape Hatteras. It was late September and we were southbound. Trying to stay out of the Gulf Stream, we tacked toward the coast, which was about 100 miles away. I figured I'd have the opportunity to handle a cat in severe weather and find out if the skeptics were right: Are these bulbous boats seaworthy? Like most cruising cats, the Venezia carries a large, roachy, full-battened main and smaller headsails. As the wind increased, we dropped the genoa and hoisted the working jib on the furling headstay system. Gradually throughout the day we reduced sail. As with any fractionally rigged boat, it's important to reduce sail proportionately to keep the rig balanced. To maintain our heading, we sailed close to the wind, but the GPS revealed that we were making appalling leeway. Although we were sailing nearly 50 degrees off the apparent wind, our track over the bottom was closer to 80 degrees.

Although the hulls rarely pounded in the rising seas, the water action between the hulls was significant. I didn't question the structural integrity of the boat, but I was surprised at the amount of slamming and slapping that the after-hull sections took. We had a scare when the latch supports of the emergency hatches in both heads broke. Suddenly we had open hatches four inches above the water with no way to secure them. We sacrificed handles from a mop and boathook and lashed them across each hatch. The hatches still leaked but at least the sea was kept out.

The storm reached its peak that night, climbing to a steady 50 knots, as reported to us by a passing ship. With the boost of the nearby Gulf Stream, the seas built rapidly to nearly 15 feet. Visibility was eliminated with torrents of rain. I considered running off as a way to reduce the terrible slamming between the hulls. But I dreaded the thought of losing ground and wanted to avoid another encounter with the Gulf Stream. We plugged southward through the night, tacking every four hours to maintain our position between the coast and the current. I warned the crew before each watch to be ready to release the mainsheet if the boat heeled excessively or fell off a wave. The only time the boat felt at all vulnerable was while tacking when we were momentarily broadside to the seas. Even then, we were occasionally pooped by the sizable waves, only to skid sideways down the wave face before coming through the wind. It was going to take a lot more than 15-foot seas to capsize Next Wave.

Ironically, my initial anxiety about being caught out in a cat gave way to frustration. We were unable to make much progress during the blow. I decided to accept Neptune's fate and shortened sail further, reducing our forward speed to around three knots. This reduced the slamming beneath the bridgedeck and along the inside of each hull. After being drenched for a few hours, we concluded that visibility from the saloon was just as good as from the cockpit and watches became a lot drier. Twenty-four hours later we were under full sail again and making our way south through sloppy seas.

Key Points on Handling a Cruising Cat in Heavy Weather

1. Reduce sail early, earlier than on a monohull because without a fixed keel there is no ultimate stability except in the upside down mode.

2. Reduce sail proportionately, most of today's cats rely on a powerful mainsail and small, non-lapping headsails. These boats don't respond well under headsail alone and can be overpowered by the main in a gale. A cat mainsail should have three deep reefs and the spar should have a track for a storm trysail.

3. As on any boat, but especially in cat, be prepared to release sheets, especially the mainsheet, in an instant. During gales sheets tend to become entangled, so make a point of clearing and coiling them on every watch. Also carefully monitor chafe on all furling lines.

4. Consider your searoom very carefully. Cats make leeway, particularly in big seas and are not close-winded. Avoid trying to make a windward destination that might endanger the boat if you don't quite lay the mark because of excessive leeway.

5. Don't forget the engines. Most large cats have twin diesels, well separated and they motor effectively. The engines help keep the stern in the water and can provide a boost for keeping the boat into the wind.

6. In really wild conditions you may have no choice but to run off. In this case, I would want the option of deploying a sea anchor or parachute style anchor. I don't think there is any situation where you would want to lie ahull in a cat.

7. If you are new to multihull sailing, don't abandon your monohull instincts. A gale is still a gale, and it is almost always the water that does the damage, not the wind. Ultimately, seamanship is a matter of positioning your boat so that it rides best in the water.

8. Don't be afraid to change tactics if what you're trying doesn't work. However, pay close attention to tacking and jibing in heavy weather, these are times the boat is most vulnerable.

9. Try to avoid overloading the boat. Once a cat is overloaded it loses its advantage of floating on top of the water and becomes sluggish and more of a target for angry seas.

10. In the end, just as a monohull always needs to carry a liferaft and go-bag when sailing offshore, you should have a capsize plan and make sure that emergency supplies will be reachable.

The Following 2 Users Say Thank You to John Kretschmer For This Useful Post:
DeeB (09-02-2013), Night_Sailor (3 Weeks Ago)
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