Is a Catamaran Right for You?

What if you could combine the speed of a downeast power boat, the flat stability of your home's back deck, and the entertainment space of your living room into an easy-to-handle sailboat? Are you interested? Such is the lure of the sailing catamaran, which is making significant gains on monohull sailboats and power boats around the country, and is now coming to a marina near you. But a catamaran may not be for everyone, and there are pros and cons to consider.

There is no denying the incredible growth in sailing catamarans found in charter fleets, growing from 14% in 2006 to over 20% in 2011. We hear from many of our customers that they truly enjoyed chartering a catamaran for their vacation, and now many of these sailors are seriously considering a catamaran for their next boat. But while a sailing cat, with her incredible space and easy stability, may be an excellent choice for a charter vacation, can it also be the right choice for your own sailing vessel?

We sell both cats and monohulls, so we don't have an agenda to steer you one way or the other. Finding the right boat for yourself is a serious task, and we want to help you through the process by sharing a bit of our knowledge so you end at the right decision for you, your family, and your goals.

We focus here on cruising catamarans and monohulls from 30-50 feet, costing generally from about $200k to over $600k.

Fountaine Pajot Lipari sailingHunter 50 AC Sailing

Catamaran Advantages

Even those of us who have never sailed aboard a catamaran understand their greatest contribution to sailing ¿ no heeling! While this and other benefits of a sailing catamaran may be clear, it is the potential drawbacks that leave many unsure of whether a catamaran is right for them. Let's first review the many benefits of catamaran sailboats.

Catamarans excel at the 3 S's -- stability, space, and speed.

Stability

First, the wide, twin-hull nature of the catamaran gives it exceptional form stability. Whether at the dock or under sail, the boat stays almost completely flat, with virtually no heeling. Stability offers a sense of surety and calm and predictability. For those sailors that are not fans of heeling, this benefit alone may make a catamaran the perfect solution. Maybe you the captain don't mind the heeling at all, but consider how your spouse, family, and guests feel about the sailboat "tilt". This can often mean the difference between enjoying boating as a family together or the solo captain getting a lot of alone time onboard.

But even for those sailors that don't mind and even enjoy the sensation of a happy sailboat cruising to windward at a bit of a lean, there are many other benefits to this flat existence that make catamarans worth a look.  With a stable and flat boat, you can put your cup down on the table and trust that it will be there still full of your drink when you return. You don't have to brace yourself whenever you stand still or hold onto something whenever you move about. And your guests prone to sea sickness have much less to fear aboard a catamaran.

Space

Catamarans also excel when it comes to space onboard. The common space available and the layout as well offer huge advantages over monohulls. Starting above deck, the cockpit of a catamaran is many times larger that of a cruising monohull. The large open space, plenty of seating, large table, and still room to comfortably move about are typical of even modestly-sized cats. Forward of the mast, catamarans offer even more outdoor space for sunbathing, playing, and relaxing, whether under sail or at the dock. Continuing inside the boat, catamarans also offer a very large salon. Notice that we didn't say "down below", because a catamaran salon is typically at the same level as the cockpit, offering a large entertainment space that spans inside and out. The salon includes both sitting and standing room, a sizeable dining table, and often a full galley. While the staterooms in a catamaran are similar in size and layout to those found aboard monohulls, cats do offer some additional benefits. With two hulls, cars often have an extra stateroom over their single-hulled cousins and the arrangement in separate hulls offers increased privacy along with the potential for larger closets, a seating area, and storage in the "hallway".

Speed

If you have any doubts as to the speed potential of multihulls, you need look no further than the current America's Cup. These incredible machines can hit 30kts, even with wind that is only half that speed. Now while a cruising catamaran is far from these racing rockets, the catamaran design does offer clear speed advantages. With the stability of the boat coming from the twin hulls, there is no need for heavy ballast that a monohull keel provides. This decreased weight, along with the ability to comfortably carry more sail at higher wind speeds and the efficiency of a sail always perpendicular to the wind propels a catamaran to speeds higher than those of a similar-sized cruising monohull. A cruising catamaran can certainly hit speeds in the teens, which may be twice as fast as a monohull.

With speed certainly comes the ability to reach a destination faster, or the ability to reach destinations further away. But speed also provides safety, whether it be in beating the dark home, or staying ahead of an approaching storm, or quickly getting to help. And let's not forget the ability to beat a few monohulls to that last available mooring!

Easy to Handle

Catamarans can also be easier to handle than many monohulls. Cats are typically significantly lighter than similar-sized monohulls as cats don't need the extra ballast of a keel for stability. For example, a Fountaine Pajot Lipari 41 weighs in at about 16,000 pounds while a Hunter 40 tops almost 20,000 pounds. And the Lipari really has a volume closer to that of a Hunter 50, which has a displacement of 32,000 pounds. This decreased weight requires less sail area to move the boat, which means a smaller and easier to handle sail plan, smaller winches required, and less effort to raise and trim sails. The Fountaine Pajot 41 carries 962 square feet of sail while the Hunter 50 carries about 1200 square feet.

The twin engines found on catamarans also offers easier maneuvering under power. Much like with twin engine power boats, catamarans can be carefully turned and spun, which is especially helpful at the docks. Also note that while the Hunter 50 carries a 110HP engine, the Lipari 41 needs only two 30HP engines. And those two engines offer redundancy, should one engine fail to perform.

Nearly Unsinkable

While many of the above advantages may seem obvious, I bet you didn't know that most catamarans are nearly unsinkable! Most production cruising cats feature water-tight bulkheads in the bows along with positive flotation at both the bow and stern. These features combined with the inherent flotation in construction materials and the lack of a heavy ballast allow most cats to remain afloat even if holed. In many cases, a holed catamaran can continue on to port. In even the worst cases, cats will remain partially afloat. While exceedingly rare that this fact would ever matter, it's still nice to know.

Technological Advancement

The boating segment that is experiencing the fastest technological advancement is definitely multihull sailboats. Sailing's premier global event, the America's Cup, is an obvious example of such advancement. These large sleek racing machines are now using fixed wings instead of sails, composite materials, and are experimenting with hydrofoils. While it may be some time before this technology filters down to consumer multihulls, cruising cats are enjoying their own technology improvements.

Catamaran builders are using advanced construction processes to build strong and light hulls. For example, Fountaine Pajot's infusion manufacturing process produces strong hulls while minimizing weight under strict quality control, and also minimizing manufacturing's effect on the environment by dramatically reducing vapors. Cat builders are also embracing sustainability while onboard. LED lighting, solar panels, wind and hydro generators, and computer systems to monitor power are quickly becoming common on cats at a much faster rate than on monohulls.

On top of that, throw in dual navigation displays, onboard wifi, iPad remote controls, and touch screens, and you might find your catamaran more technologically advanced than your home.

Catamaran Disadvantages

With the strong advantages of a sailing catamaran come a few disadvantages as well.

Slips and Storage

The most common fear of those in the northeast with regards to catamarans is the difficulty in finding a place to keep it! Yes, the large beam that is such a benefit to catamarans in so many ways also makes it difficult to find a slip in which to keep her or a yard that can haul her out. Most marinas have a max slip width of 15ft while even midsize cats have a beam of over 20ft. While this fact certainly decreases the choices you may have, it doesn't mean that keeping a cat is out of the question. First, most marinas have T-heads, or end docks that can accommodate larger vessels. Second, many marinas have double-wide slips without fingers in-between. In such an arrangement, they can easily fit your cat alongside a small powerboat that may only have a 8ft beam, leaving plenty of room between. And moorings are always a great and less expensive option; and with your hard-bottom dinghy that you can easily carry on your davits, you can get ashore easily.  As catamaran popularity grows, you can count on marinas to adjust to accommodate this lucrative market.

Another fantastic option for those challenged by beam is the Gemini catamaran. This 35 foot cat sports a beam of only 14ft, meaning it can fit within a standard marina slip and easily be hauled over the road. As a catamaran, it still offers the stability and speed you desire, and also more space than a similar monohull.

Sailing to Windward

Another common negative stereotype of cruising catamarans is that they don't point to windward very well and are difficult to tack. While this was certainly true of older cats, modern catamarans with well-designed hulls and even small keels will point as high as cruising monohulls. However, cats lose their speed advantage over monohulls when sailing close hauled.

By bearing off just a bit, the cat will accelerate much faster than a monohull. While we certainly hate to be pointing further away from our destination, the fact is that the speed of the catamaran will actually more than make up for her decreased ability to point. Racers are familiar with the term "velocity made good" (VMG) which is a measure of how quickly you are heading toward your destination, regardless of where your bow is pointed. If your bow is pointing at the destination, VMG is equal to your speed. When your bow is at a 90 degree angle to your destination, you aren't making any headway at all. For example, let's say my catamaran is doing 5 knots at 45 degrees to the wind; this would give me a VMG of 3.5 knots. If I bear away to 55 degrees and accelerate to 6.5 knots, my VMG would improve to 3.7 knots. (For those mathematically inclined or curious, this is a cosine function of the angle toward our destination.)

Tacking a catamaran isn't quite as easy as with a monohull. The cat decelerates quickly as it heads to wind and there isn't a heavy keel point to pivot around. But it will indeed tack just fine, if a little more slowly.

Comfort at Sea

Although catamarans do offer incredible onboard comfort, there are a couple issues common in catamarans that you must consider. First, as catamarans ride on top of the water, and without the heavy ballast to resist the waves, catamarans will pitch and bob much more than monohulls. While a monohull will cut through light waves, catamarans tend to ride up and over them, with the bow going up and then down. So while a monohull will heel side to side, the catamaran will pitch up and down. This motion is a bit more typical of a power boat than a traditional sailboat. The key to minimizing this effect is to keep the weight of the boat in the center of the hulls, rather than on the ends.

Second, in a choppy sea, the bridge deck of a catamaran is likely to pound on the waves. This isn't typical in normal waves, or even in large seas, but rather in seas with a 2-4 foot steep chop. In these conditions, the hulls aren't riding up over the waves, but rather the short and steep nature of the waves causes them to hit the underside of the bridge deck. This "slapping" isn't dangerous to the boat, but certainly can be annoying to passengers. As the waves hit the deck, the boat can shudder and it gives off a troubling noise. The way to combat this problem is to maximize bridge deck clearance above the water. The higher above the water the bridge deck is, the less often we will experience this inconvenience. As an example, Lagoon catamarans tend to have clearance of 20-24 inches; Leopard has about 24 inches of clearance; and Fountaine Pajot has 28-31 inches of clearance. With as much as 33% more clearance, the Fountaine Pajot will undoubtedly offer the smoothest ride in a choppy sea.

What is important to realize here, is that every boat will have its comfort limits, and you will simply work around them. In a monohull, if you prefer not to be heeling on your ear, you may shy away from wind conditions above 20 knots. Those conditions may be a breeze for a catamaran, but you might skip your day on the water when the harbor shows a stiff 3ft chop. It's not so much that boats have these limits, but while the boats might fair just fine, we may find other activities on these days.

Fountaine Pajot with higher bridge deck clearance (left) and Lagoon with lower clearance (right).

Sailing Sensation

Many traditional sailors truly appreciate the grace with which a monohull sailboat moves through the water, heeled over, carving the perfect hull wave. These sailors fear that they will miss that heeling sensation that is so much a part of sailing itself. Experienced sailors even steer the boat and trim the sails based on the feedback they feel beneath their feet, as the boat heels and rights under changing conditions. Without question, the most exciting part of sailing is flying along to windward at hull speed, bracing your feet against the sloping cockpit floor.

While a catamaran cannot provide this romantic sensation, it offers an equally exciting rush as you feel the boat accelerate into double-digit speeds unreachable by cruising monohulls. Skimming along at 14 knots with a drink in your hand and watching your boat leave twin scars in the wake behind is plenty to get your heart to beat that little bit faster.

Cost

A final disadvantage of cruising catamarans is that they are more expensive than their monohull counterparts. This too is true, though only partly so. The engineering and manufacture of a catamaran is a more sophisticated process. The loads on a catamaran are more numerous than a monohull and require a stronger build. Note that the rig on a catamaran is trying to pull the hulls apart, with only the bridge deck holding the two hulls together. Cats require significant strength in the shape of an upside-down "U" between the bridge deck and interior hull walls. This adds to the cost of the build and therefore retail pricing. In addition, a great majority of cruising catamarans are built overseas, in Europe or South Africa mainly. This fact along with their size requires that they be delivered on their own bottoms, sailed to the US by delivery crews. Delivery, provisioning, insurance, and safety equipment add many thousands of dollars to the cost of a catamaran. So a 40 foot monohull may cost over $100k less than a 40 foot catamaran. However, a more apples-to-apples comparison reveals the difference to be much less. If we attempt to compare the cost of a similar volume, and pit a 50 foot monohull against our 40 foot catamaran, we see the pricing to be about on par.

Monohull Advantages

Certainly many of the catamaran disadvantages are converse advantages for sailing monohulls, so we won't belabor these points.

Sailing Sensation and Pointing

The monohull design allows it to point quite well to windward, and this tight angle along with momentum afforded by her heavy ballast makes the monohull rather easy to tack. Indeed sailing to windward is some of the most exciting sailing on a monohull. Many sailors truly love the feeling of the boat heeling at that perfect angle, and the combination of the lean with the wind in your face is exhilarating and satisfying.

Cost and Slips

Cruising monohulls have no problem finding slips, and can easily be hauled at most yards and transported over the road. This larger variety of options also allows for less expensive options. With a number of domestic builders offering quality boats, it isn't hard to find a good value boat in North America. Expensive oversea shipping is avoided, meaning the dollars you spend all end up in the boat.

Rugged Ability

Another fabulous quality of a well-built sailing monohull is that it can handle almost any sea that Poseidon can conjure. The heavy keel will keep her upright, the rounded sides allow her to give under the force of the wind, and the underwater shape allows her to cut through rough seas. There is much confidence in the monohull design.

Beautiful Traditional Design

These advantages are significant and well-known, and have kept the monohull as the undisputed leader since the catamaran's modern-day introduction in the 17th century. But probably the advantage (if we can call it that) that most sailors site when comparing monohulls to catamarans is the striking traditional good looks of a cruising monohull sailboat. Their curves are beautiful, profile is sleek, and their form perfectly follows function. I'm not sure a multihull will ever be able to reproduce the beauty of a traditional sailboat.

Monohull Disadvantages

For completeness, we must touch on the major disadvantages of the monohull sailboat.

Heeling

By far the biggest complaint from non-sailors and novice sailors is the uneasiness caused by the heeling of a monohull. For those unfamiliar with the tendencies of sailboats, this heeling seems uncomfortable, uneasy, and even unsafe. This feeling alone has kept a great uncountable number of boaters from experiencing the joys of sailing.

Draft

The requirement for a deep appendage to both prevent side-slipping and hold ballast for stability prevents the monohull sailboat from venturing too far outside the channel markers. Fear of running aground is probably the most worrisome issue for sailors. Bumping your keel against the mud or rocks can not only slow your forward progress, it can really ruin your whole day.

Space

While modern monohull designs, with plumb bows and beam carried well aft, have greatly increased the usable space onboard, they are still relatively light on space for entertaining and storage. Cockpit space is limited, and space forward of the mast isn't particularly usable on boats under 45 feet. Salon space is for sitting only, and there isn't much standing room anywhere down below.

Conclusion

Certainly there is no single perfect boat that will satisfy every sailor, but indeed every sailor can find their perfect boat. Monohull sailboats will remain in the majority for some time to come. But multihulls are quickly gaining in popularity across the country, and that momentum is now starting to reach even the traditionalists in the northeast. In 2011, sailing catamarans accounted for a full 48% of all imported sailboats longer than 20 feet, after reaching only 23% in 2006. The best news here is that now sailors have a whole new world of options for their next sailboat.

About Advantage Yacht Sales

Advantage Yacht Sales is the New England dealer for Hunter sailboats, Fountaine Pajot catamarans, Gemini catamarans, LaserPerformance daysailers, and Hobie Cats. We are a Boating Industry Top 100 Dealer and a Marine Industry 5-star Certified Dealer. We also broker a large variety of used sailboats, both monohull and catamaran, throughout New England. We are located in Newburyport and Boston, MA.