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Go Back   SailNet Community > Contributing Authors > Cruising Articles
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  • 1 Post By James Baldwin
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Old 06-15-2004
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James Baldwin is on a distinguished road
The Multihull Experience


The author cut his teeth as a multihull sailor aboard this 40-foot cruising cat.
Over the years I've been fortunate to have sailed a variety of boats, from cruising the coast of China on a three-masted junk, to spending two circumnavigations aboard Atom, my 28-foot Pearson Triton. Until recently, however, I had not had an opportunity to cruise aboard a multihull. Of course I'd heard of the advantages of multihulls—the fast passages with minimal heeling or rolling, the shallow draft, and the additional living space—but somehow the opportunity had eluded me until just recently.

My chance to enjoy firsthand the benefits of multihulls came just a few weeks ago when my wife, Mei, and I were hired to help sail a 44-foot Dean Catamaran, Dawn Dancer, on a 2,050-mile passage from Cabedelo, Brazil, to Trinidad in the West Indies. We were already in Brazil, having delivered a 28-foot monohull there from Venezuela (see the Back to Brazil series) and we were glad to find paid passage back to the Caribbean.

Mike and Dagmar, the owners of Dawn Dancer, were two English retirees with little prior sailing experience. They had purchased the year-old catamaran in South Africa six months previously, fitted her out in a rush with largely untested equipment, and sailed her to Brazil with the help of two South African crew. The Afrikaner crew and the English owners found they could not get along; so the crew had flown home and we became their replacements.

The first thing that impressed me when coming aboard was the huge cockpit, which made good use of the cat's 24-foot beam. The cockpit provided seating for at least 12 persons under the full dodger and bimini, including dual steering stations with swivel chairs. The center saloon was similarly spacious with a fully outfitted nav station and large dining table. And both hulls contained double staterooms with heads forward and single aft cabins. Mei was thrilled with the appliances in the galley of this floating palace, particularly the four-burner gas stove and oven, microwave, and three refrigerators—a far cry from our own spartan interior on Atom.


The owners enjoy the expanse of their 12-seater cockpit. It's a favorable comment about multihulls that these two were sailing neophytes before jumping in head first with a 40-foot boat.

As the 40-hp twin diesels sped us down the Paraiba River toward the sea, I was surprised to see that Mike had left potted plants, a camera, and even a notebook computer sitting loose on counters that lacked fiddles to keep these items from falling to the floor. "Don't worry," he told me. "The boat doesn't heel." And he was right. Only once during our trip did a cross sea slap us hard enough to knock a table fan to the floor. Still, it was a difficult concept for a monohull sailor to get used to and Mike probably thought I was compulsively neat as I continuously stowed away all unsecured items.

We sailed north along the coast on a beam reach with full mainsail and genoa, making eight to 10 knots in moderate easterlies. Hoisting the fully battened mainsail with its 2:1 halyard tackle took five minutes of grinding on the two-speed winch. Later I ran the halyard through a turning block and hoisted the mainsail effortlessly with my toe on the switch of the electric anchor windlass. This particular cat's mast is raked steeply aft and supported by aft shrouds instead of a backstay, which limits use of the mainsail to winds within 110 degrees of the bow.

As we rounded the eastern cape of Brazil and turned downwind, we dropped the mainsail into its lazy jacks, furled the jib, and hoisted the gennaker—a poleless asymmetrical spinnaker. The gennaker's tack is led to the windward bow. The sail is hoisted within its sock and then unfurled by raising the sock. To douse the sail we release the sheet and pull down the sock, which easily tames the beast so it can be lowered to deck like a giant docile snake.

"The cat tracked amazingly well compared to most monohulls, requiring only slight helm corrections by the autopilot."
The cat tracked amazingly well compared to most monohulls, requiring only slight helm corrections. The Autohelm 6000, steering either by compass heading or wind direction, handled the boat effortlessly. In winds above 15 knots we averaged 200 miles per day. We carried the gennaker three straight days in winds up to 25 knots, getting brief bursts of speed up to 12 knots. However, because the boat was heavily loaded, we rarely sustained speeds over 10 knots. Even so, the marked variation between true and apparent wind speed and direction, as indicated by our wind instruments, took some getting used to when trimming sail.

Despite the thrill of sailing fast and level, we soon became acquainted with the multihull's dirty little secret—the incredible pounding of waves on the bridge deck's flat underside. The slamming was so severe that I could not sleep at all the first two days. Below decks, the shockwaves felt like we were being dropped on concrete. I kept looking through the hatch to see if the mast had fallen. Mike comforted us neophytes by saying: "Yes, she always pounds, sometimes much worse than now. But you'll get used to it." Apparently the pounding didn't bother him much anymore, but I kept waking every few minutes whenever a particularly hard impact nearly lifted me off my bunk. In addition, fountains of seawater occasionally sprayed geyser-like up from the cockpit drains. Later, other cat sailors told me that to reduce pounding it's vital not to overload the boat and best to have at least three feet of clearance under the bridge deck.


Mei revels in the ample expanses and amenities of the galley.
Unlike the predictable roll of a monohull, the catamaran's jerky movements were hard to anticipate, making Mei and myself uncertain of how to brace ourselves as we walked about. Even so, I found the sudden lurches less tiring than a monohull's relentless downwind rolling. Dagmar remained seasick throughout the passage despite, or perhaps because of, trying four different motion sickness medications. Though she did not share in the watch-keeping or sailhandling, our three-person watch system worked well. Each person had four hours on and eight off between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. and two hours on and four off during the night.

On a boat with as many gadgets and interdependent systems as this, it was inevitable that we would experience some breakdowns. Our electricity consumption, tracked by an amp-hour meter, was so high that we had to run one engine for eight hours every second day to recharge the 800-amp hour gel cell battery bank. The four 75-watt solar panels were helpful, but our wind charger was not functioning. When the largest freezer broke down it meant less power consumption, but we were expected to eat large portions of meat three times a day—and I'm a vegetarian!

Having a 25-liter per hour watermaker supplying hot pressurized water to three showers and a bathtub did nothing to encourage our water conservation. Then the watermaker broke down and started filling our tanks with water of slowly increasing salinity. If the voyage had lasted longer we might have had to emulate Alain Bombard who drifted across the Atlantic in a raft to prove his theory that the human body can adjust to a gradual increase in seawater intake.


On deck, the author savors the speed and spaciousness of a cruising multihull.

After six days at sea our skipper decided to make a stop at Iles du Salut, the ex-penal colony of Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana. Because I had been here before, Mike asked me to make the nighttime approach. Using my knowledge of the anchorage, along with radar, GPS, and the island's lighthouse, we made an easy landfall at 4:00 a.m. and I looked forward to catching up on my sleep. Three hours later, Mike got up and announced, "We should be able to see the islands this morning and get underway by afternoon." This seemed like a frantic pace for a couple who claimed to be cruising, but we did end up staying one night. That afternoon Mike and Dagmar enjoyed a $30 lunch at Royal Island's little hotel while Mei and I explored the ruins of the old prison buildings and collected a bagful of mangoes and papayas growing wild around the island.

We entered the ITCZ (Intra-Tropical Convergence Zone) around seven degrees North latitude. For the next two days the winds gradually went from light southeast to moderate northeast with scattered showers. At no time were we completely becalmed, but when our speed dropped from an average of nine knots to five knots it felt as if we were standing still. Around eight degrees North we ran into an unexpected adverse current that dogged us all the way to Trinidad.

When we arrived in Trinidad, just 12 days out from Brazil, Mike moved Dawn Dancer directly into a marina slip, rented an air conditioner, and set about organizing his numerous repair projects. Even at sea he seemed to spend most of his time troubleshooting equipment problems and e-mailing suppliers for parts to be shipped out or hassling with manufacturers regarding warranty claims.

This passage introduced me to the mainly positive aspects of cruising multihulls, along with a few negative ones. It also reinforced my belief that cruising is best done at a leisurely pace with easily maintained equipment. I can envision a future when many of us will be sailing gadget-laden multihulls, but for now I'll continue to enjoy the simple pleasures and minor discomforts of our cramped, slow, rolling, monohull.

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