Catamarans are the Best for Cruising

Story by TMC Editor / March 15, 2018

We have just arrived in George Town, Great Exuma Island.  The Bahamas are famous for turquoise, shallow or “skinny” waters, so we’re grateful for our catamaran with it’s 4 ft draft. Amazingly, we have been buddy boating with another sailing family from Steamboat – Sarah, Chris, Spencer and Will.  Their boat, is a traditional monohull with a keel that extends 6 feet below the waters surface. They are much more cautious about their routes than we need to be.

Twenty years ago when we bought our first catamaran, people thought that we were crazy for not buying a traditional sailboat.  Now we are seeing as many catamarans as we are monohulls. Dean’s description below explains our reasons for choosing a catamaran…twice.

Are you really going to take your family across the Atlantic on this?

In October, 2002, the Snowcat crew (ie- Dean, Karen and the kids) were sitting at the dock in Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, making our final preparations to cross the Atlantic Ocean as a part of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (“ARC” 2002”).  Our boat, Snowcat, was a Catana 431, a cruising catamaran designed for blue water cruising.  While we’d completed several multi-day voyages, including a 6-day passage from Gibraltar to the Canaries, the Atlantic crossing was going to be a huge step for us, and we’d spent several weeks getting the boat, our provisions and honestly, ourselves, ready.

A few nights before the scheduled departure we invited several families with kids over for a bit of a departure party and inevitably (unfortunately) the age old “cat vs monohull” debate broke out in a rather unfortunate way.  Upon arriving aboard with his family,  a British “gentleman” who owned a beautiful Oyster forty-something yacht, derisively said “Are you really going to take your family across the Atlantic on this?”.  The cockpit went silent waiting for the argument to break out, but I simply defused it by saying “Yeah, and we’ll probably beat you across”.  The party revved back up and moved on to more pleasant topics, including a concert from all of the kids and their various instruments who’d packed aboard our boat that evening.

No Nautical Heritage to Overcome

I love catamarans as a cruising platform for a million reasons.  Having been born in Wyoming and raised all around the US, always at least a thousand miles form the nearest ocean, I had no deeply ingrained nautical heritage.  I learned to sail on a wind surfer, finally graduating to a Catalina 22 monohull which I could trailer around lakes in Colorado and once to the Nebraska ocean (lake McConaughy).  Karen and I were engaged aboard a chartered monohull in the San Juan islands, and honed our ocean sailing skills aboard various monohull charters in the Caribbean and Society Islands.  But, when we decided to cut loose and cruise with our family for what turned out to be 4 years and 15,000 miles, our analysis quickly turned to catamarans, and we’ve never regretted it.  We chose the Catana 431 at that time because of its proven bluewater capabilities, and, perhaps more importantly, a temporary currency revaluation which allowed us to afford it.

From a live-aboard perspective, the benefits of a catamaran are somewhat obvious.

  • The cockpit and salon have an enormous amount of room for hanging out, entertaining, holding homeschool sessions and Karen could write an entire additional blog post about the galley design and accessibility.
  • At anchor, a catamaran is considerably more comfortable in any kind of wave motion from ocean surge to the wakes of passing motor boats.
  • Cats have two engines, one in each hull, which makes them easier to maneuver, despite their size, in the close quarters of a marina, sometimes with a significant tide running.  The two engines also offer a significant degree of redundancy, that is, if one goes out, you’ve got another option before a tow!
  • The deck layout provides lots of room to work on whatever needs attention in the bow- its big, flat and not heeling.
  • The enormous flat space on the bimini above the cockpit provides enough square footage to install solar panels which are more than adequate to handle our needs both underway and at anchor.
  • Because catamarans typically draw 4 ft or so, the range of potential anchorages, available to us while cruising, substantially increases wherever we go.  Interestingly, during hurricane Irma in S Florida, we were able to moor Snowcat II in a 5 ft deep canal far away from the fray, and suffered no damage.
  • Underway, they do not heel so you are not constantly wedging yourself somewhere hanging on to the boat with one hand and your coffee cup with the other.  Seasoned mono-hullers often believe that the motion of cats in significant waves is “more jerky”, but we’ve never noticed it and after so many years aboard a cat, the motion just seems normal, and way more comfortable to us. So, what’s the problem??

The infuriating British Captain’s question was probably related to his (mis)perception of a catamaran’s safety at sea.  I’ve never been able to get a completely rational discussion of this “issue” which is not confused with nautical heritage.  That said, the most common argument is that cats flip over, and don’t “right” themselves like a monohull.  While some early cat designs did have a propensity to flip, those days are long gone and modern cruising cat designs have evolved to a very high level of safety.

Extreme conditions such as hurricane force winds and microbursts do pose risk of capsize, as they would in any boat.  I’m one who believes all boats should be sailed conservatively – monohulls as well as catamarans – and that’s what we do, period.  In a cat, you do not reef your sails based on the degree of heel or “feel”, rather, we have very specific apparent wind speed when we reef (18 kts for the 1st reef, 22 kts for the 2nd) sooner than that if seas are rough, and we always put the first reef in at sunset on the overnight portion of any passage.  Reefing conservatively may lead to a slight reduction in speed over ground, but it’s more that worth it in terms of overall comfort.  We also carry a Para-tech sea anchor set up which would allow us to simply shut down and take a rest if the conditions get too crazy.  (We’ve never had to use it in either boat, after what’s now approaching 20,000 miles at sea)

Just Plain Faster!

And finally, cats are just faster.  Upwind on a tack, with our dagger boards down we’ll hold our own with most comparable monohulls, and as soon as the wind goes anywhere near the beam, we’re gone from sight pretty quickly.  Speeds in excess of 10 knots, in moderate winds are pretty common and we comfortably hit 15kts with sails double reefed when we crossed the Atlantic.

16 Days to Cross the Atlantic…Where’s Captain Oyster?

So, Karen and I both love the traditional look of a beautiful old Hinkley monohull, but give us a cat any day. And, by the way, what happened with Captain Oyster?  Well, we ended up crossing the Atlantic in 16 days making landfall in Tobago.  We spent a couple of days there, sailed to Trinidad to haul the boat and fly home to Colorado for Christmas.  Captain Oyster was still sloggin’ his way across the Atlantic. Finally after 24 days he arrived on the other side, having lost his dinghy and davits in the process.  For us, monohulls are “half a boat”- catamarans are the best for cruising.

This article was published with permissions by Dean and Karen. Their original blog post can be found here.


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