Following on from our readers question in the December issue about the suitability of catamarans for world cruising, Dick Durham investigates. He talked to three experienced sailors for their opinions and stories.
Fired up by sailing books such as Dove, by Robin Lee Graham, Song of the Sirens, by Ernest K. Gann and the Hornblower stories, schoolboy Charlie taught himself to sail. He learnt the ropes in an 11ft Sea Snark, a cheap styrofoam dayboat with lateen sails, on the coast of Maine.
Since then he has made seven transatlantic crossings and logged nearly 100,000 miles in offshore sailing including several singlehanded passages between the West Indies, Bermuda and the east coast of the US.
He is married to an attorney, Clare O’Brien, from County Kerry, Ireland. ‘She did not take a slave name when we married,’ Charlie jokes.
They have two daughters Lucy, 15 and Una 21.
Charlie now owns a Boreal 47, Lunacy, which he and his wife sailed home from France in the spring of 2017.
His earlier cruising boats have included a Tanton 39, a Golden Hind 31, and a Pearson Alberg 35 yawl.
He is Cruising Editor of America’s Sail magazine and has written for the New York Times on matters maritime, as well as Yachting Monthly and Yachting World.
Charlie Doane’s Story
Cruising Editor of the US Sail magazine, Charlie Doane, who I have had the privilege to sail with, tells Ocean Sailor about the one and only time he abandoned a yacht. He was air-lifted in bad weather from a malfunctioning $400,000 USD catamaran on her maiden voyage. In 50 years of offshore sailing it was the only time Charlie, 63, had even had to radio for help.
Be Good Too, was the first Alpha 42 catamaran, designed by Marc Anassis and Gregor Tarjan. Her launch date was delayed and her new owners, a husband and wife team, wanted to be in the Caribbean by January 2014, so she was rushed into commission during a bitterly cold winter, even the ice had to be broken before she could leave the marina at Jersey City in New York Harbour.
Charlie joined professional skipper, Hank Schmitt, and the owners Gunther and Doris Rodatz for the delivery trip to St John in the US Virgin Islands. It’s not long before they discover the bilge pumps aren’t working, the windows are leaking, the hatches aren’t man enough to take the 45-50 knot winds and high seas they soon encounter and the bridge deck starts delaminating. However, the real problems begin with the steering: the starboard spade rudder sheared off its stock after being hit by a big sea and was flapping uselessly, the port spade rudder was permanently offset to starboard and the bar connecting both rudders was only held on with tiny screws which soon failed. After three days drifting, in which time they make valiant attempts at getting the boat to steer, Be Good Too, would only go round in circles. They were 300 miles east of Cape Hatteras and after discovering no tow was available Gunther decided to abandon ship. A Coastguard helicopter lifted off all four souls (the full story with analysis is recounted in The Sea Is Not Full, see Mariner’s Library).
Charlie tells Ocean Sailor he believes Be Good Too capsized soon afterwards as she was not spotted by any ship.
‘I will say the only time I was really concerned through all the drama was when we lay ahull during the gale. Lying broadside to breaking seas seems a good way to get flipped in any sort of boat. The motion however, was amazingly calm and steady, and at no point did it seem we were anywhere near going over. I estimated wave heights to be less than our beam. My assumption is once wave heights exceed beam that’s when you become vulnerable lying to seas in a multihull.’
Three years later Be Good Too’s upturned and dismasted hull was found washed up on the shores of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The rudders had been ripped off, only one sail drive was left and both hull’s topsides – not the bottom – were covered from bow to stern with long, well-developed gooseneck barnacles. Clearly showing she had been the wrong way up for many months if not years.
‘I can only assume she was dismasted and flipped over rather early in her drift across the ocean, or else she would have been spotted much earlier,’ Charlie said. Bits of her deckhouse lay strewn all around her, torn off as she was driven ashore.
Charlie, who has tested scores of boats for Sail magazine, be they monohull or multihull, looks back at his rescue ordeal in measured terms telling Ocean Sailor:
‘I won’t condemn catamarans as a species, but personally, I prefer monohulls for a variety of reasons. There’s a rhythm with a monohull, you can feel the sea and the waves far more effectively. With two hulls, which can’t heel, the reaction to the sea is unpredictable, producing a jerky sliding motion, which I don’t like.
I prefer using gut feelings to know when you should reef. Following an intellectual exercise carried out by someone sitting at a desk doesn’t inspire me with confidence. Multihull builders provide manuals telling you when to reef according to the wind strength and for decisions related to safety, but having a “feeling” helps with an appreciation of the ocean on an almost spiritual level. Such symbiosis is more difficult to reach at the helm of a catamaran’.
Charlie went on to say most kindly. ‘I have been aware of Ocean Sailor magazine and Kraken Yachts for some time, in many ways Kraken are the perfect concept for crossing oceans. Sadly, the traditional conservative voice has gotten lost in the welter of advertising from mass production builders. By far the majority of cruising catamarans are not built to sail, but to house guests. Many of them have enormous mainsails which are never hoisted, they simply beam reach under jib. I can’t think of any serious recreational cruising sailor who’s taken a multihull around the Five Capes’.
Monohull or Multihull? Either
Charlie said he would sail a monohull or a catamaran, offshore, but given the choice would choose a monohull.
Paul Redman, 69, has sailed since he was six-years-old, starting in the Thames Estuary creeks in a Heron dinghy with his twin brother, Rob. By his teens, he was sailing and racing dayboat catamarans: Swifts, Shearwaters and Tornados, which was when I got to know him.
After serving five years as an Army bomb disposal expert, Paul became General Manager of Prout Catamarans at their yard in Canvey Island, Essex, building catamarans including the Snowgoose 35s and 37s, the Quest 31s, the Event 34s and the Quasar 50s. He also delivered them and he flew all over the world sorting out warranty issues. He raced maverick designer Roland Prout’s Wild Goose 35 in the Crystal Trophy, a multihull competition from Cowes out round the Wolf Rock and back. He built three of his own Snowgoose 35s and currently sails Pelican, a Quasar 50 which he keeps in Faro, Portugal.
Paul Redman’s Story
Paul Redman, 69, has made 10 Atlantic crossings in catamarans, four of them single-handed. He enjoys the fast passage potential the catamaran offers and also the improved accommodation and living space. He recalls how maverick catamaran designer, Roland Prout was ‘way ahead of his time’ with a 40 footer called Phantom Wake, which had vertical sided hulls and which made speeds of 25-30 knots.
On one delivery trip of a brand-new catamaran to Southampton Boat Show, they hit an abandoned container in the English Channel at night. It punched a hole in one hull, leaving Paul and his crew thigh-deep in water. They made Rye Harbour and reversed her up the bank letting the water drain out and effected a repair before continuing to Southampton.
‘After fitting new carpets no-one knew any different,’ Paul told Ocean Sailor, ‘until one visitor pulled open a bottom drawer and found silt in it! The point is there was so much reserve buoyancy we didn’t sink. You don’t keep an aeroplane in the air by filling it with lead,’ he adds, referring to the potential fate faced by a monohull should she be seriously holed by a container or similar object.
Paul agrees that in the back of the mind of the newcomer to catamaran sailing is the thought she could capsize, but recalls his old boss Roland Prout’s assessment: ‘Waves won’t capsize a cat, only sails and skippers will do that’. And his own experience of 60 knots in mid-Atlantic, saw his Quasar 50 catamaran, Pelican under bare poles, sliding down waves ‘like a duck’. The hulls created their own flatwater ‘slick.’
‘Catamaran owners start off wary and nervous,’ Paul told Ocean Sailor, ‘but they soon learn that the boat will slide down seas off the wind. On the wind, however, it must be accepted that you could end up breaking the boat if you push too hard.
Catamaran sailors have to be more aware of wind speeds, they have to watch the gauges more…it’s a different way of sailing. That said you don’t want to overpress a monohull either.’
Paul said.’ The wedding cake type of modern cruising catamarans all come with reefing plans from the manufacturers. They start off with something like… 15 knots, first reef in the main, 18 knots furl part of the genoa, 20 knots furl the genoa completely and 50 knots head towards the nearest land! Or words to that effect. I can’t remember the last time I heard about a production catamaran capsizing though’?
Monohull or Multihull? Multi
Catamarans are safe for ocean crossing as long as you heed the sailing instructions and don’t have to push hard up wind. Paul prefers catamarans to monohulls.
Aged 11, John Passmore was inspired by a lecture given by Francis Chichester about the first single-handed transatlantic race, and before that the books of Eric Hiscock, loaned to him by his father. John went on to complete his own OSTAR aboard Largo, his first Rival 32, in 1988.
He also completed the solo section of an Azores and Back Race in the same boat.
Formerly Chief Correspondent for the London Evening Standard, he covered the First Gulf War in Tel Aviv, where we shared adventures, as I was also there for the Daily Star.
In 1989 for the Daily Mail,John covered the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.
He also wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph and Yachting World.
A well-respected offshore sailor and renowned journalist, John now concentrates on his blog: www.oldmansailing.com
John Passmore’s Story
As John Passmore clung to the starboard keel of his capsized catamaran, breaking waves tried to tear him off the slippery upturned bridge deck. He’d read all the survival books and knew he must not even think he’d not make it. He shouted at the sky: ‘I’m not going to die,’ and he shouted at the waves: ‘I am going to stay here and hold onto this stub of keel. That is all I have to do and I can do that much.’ And he concentrated on seeing his wife Tamsin and their three young children again.
John, an old friend and Fleet Street colleague of mine, had been attempting to become the first solo sailor to circumnavigate the United Kingdom non-stop. It had taken him 10 days from his home in Woodbridge on Suffolk’s River Deben to sail Lottie Warren, his 27ft Heavenly Twins catamaran, before he was enveloped in a north-westerly storm with sustained wind speeds of between 40 and 50 knots, with gusts much higher, off the top end of the Shetland Islands.
When the heavy weather arrived, John was ready for it with Heavenly Twins’ designer Pat Patterson’s ‘storm management manual.’ Stage one was to heave-to – not easy in a cat – stage-two was to drape a 100m (330ft) anchor warp, from the starboard bow to the starboard stern in the bight of which was a car tyre. For the next 24 hours Lottie Warren, bobbed over the waves, beam-to, like a duck.
Gradually the wind speed increased until John reached the third and final stage of the ‘storm manual.’ This was when the impact from waves thumping the beam-to hull became ‘shock-like,’ making banging noises and hurling items across the cabin. John had to make his way on deck and slithering along on his belly, he transferred the bow line to the port stern and the catamaran swung stern to the seas, and suddenly was off: making six knots under bare poles.
The first he knew of the giant sea that would finish Lottie Warren, was an insistent hiss of rushing water as she began to broach. ‘I saw the bulkhead start a cartwheel and small items started cascading from cave lockers…I knew she was going over.’
Now upside down, John grabbed his EPIRB from its cockpit bracket, tied its line to the heads’ pump and thrust it through the window. Next, to his horror, he saw the aft cabin hatch was wide open and the life raft was missing. The boat began to settle and water came up to his chest as he squatted inside the hull. He was breathing fast and realised he was using up the bubble of oxygen in the upturned hull. Which was when he climbed out and onto the upturned bridge deck. John’s ordeal fortunately lasted only three hours before the Coastguard helicopter arrived. The pilot had to switch to manual to con the craft down to 50ft, negotiating between waves up to 100 ft high, John later learned.
John was flown to the nearest oil rig to get immediate treatment for hypothermia before being transferred to hospital ashore. The catamaran sank five days later after a Norwegian oil-rig tender tried to salvage her.
Looking back on the events of 2000, John, 71, tells Ocean Sailor he believes the rudders lost steerageway in the maelstrom of breaking waves and she spun broadside to a giant comber.
‘I wouldn’t have another catamaran,’ he adds, sitting out a winter gale aboard Samsara, his Rival 32, as he prepares her for 2021’s Jester Challenge, a non-sponsored, solo race across the Atlantic.
Monohull or Multihull? Mono
John would never buy another catamaran. He prefers monohulls.
Comments from the web
John, Charlie and Paul have all had very different experiences of catamaran sailing, none of them fatal. Others have not been so fortunate.
In July 2019 three people died when a catamaran capsized off Newcastle, on the coast of New South Wales, Australia. A 16-year-old girl and her 50-year-old father were winched off the upturned catamaran during the rescue, but the girl’s 78-year-old grandparents and another unidentified sailor died in the accident. An emergency beacon was activated from the 11.7-metre catamaran that overturned about seven nautical miles off the coast at Stockton Beach. Three bodies were found in the water and retrieved by Marine Rescue. The father and daughter were taken to John Hunter Hospital, where they were treated for hypothermia. The catamaran was on a voyage from Port Stephens to the Central Coast when it capsized.
Acting Superintendent Wiseman said the Westpac Rescue Helicopter crew battled high seas and 30-knot winds during the operation. ‘What made the rescue quite difficult is being an overturned vessel, there was quite a lot of debris and ropes in the water at the time,’ he said. Acting Superintendent Grant Healey, from the NSW Police marine squad, said sea conditions had been extremely rough. ‘The conditions were difficult. We had 25 to 30-knot westerly winds with a sea of one to two metres on an easterly swell coming the other way, so it was fairly messy out there,’ he said at the time.
In another catamaran capsize in The Solent, four crew were lucky to survive the night. This catamaran capsized while going to windward under reefed mainsail and headsail in 25-knot winds. The boat hit an ‘unusual wave pattern’ and the windward hull lifted so far off the surface that the boat lost stability and capsized. The crew had not had time to use the VHF and spent all night huddled on the bridge deck until they were spotted at dawn the next day. All four were hospitalised suffering from hypothermia.
Can they capsize?
Any trawl through the online blogs, websites, and commercials of catamaran designers, builders and brokers will leave the reader feeling like Alice in Wonderland. Nothing is quite what it seems. All those involved in the multihull world state that it is ‘almost impossible’; ‘highly unlikely’; ‘ almost never happens’ on a catamaran capsizing and yet every builder provides guidance on how to avoid that very catastrophe. There is also a hint of laying the blame on the sailor for any inversion. One broker even went so far as saying ‘any skipper that capsizes a catamaran in winds under 70 knots is a plonker’!
Some, like designer Chris White based in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in the US, offer genuine reflection and advice. Two of his catamarans have capsized. One, an Atlantic 42 on Lake Michigan in 2004, and the other, an Atlantic 57, Anna, 125 nautical miles from Tonga in the South Pacific. She was under single reef when a 62-knot squall hit her.
‘In order to reduce the chances of capsizing as much as possible, it is important to develop a methodology to avoid getting caught,’ Chris stated. Essentially his advice is to reef early, ease the traveller, ease the sheets, consider changing course, and switch to manual helm. Chris was honest enough to agree that a ‘methodology’ was required to avoid a capsize, even it he considered it ‘unlikely’!
Others take a more aggressive approach. Like the Florida-based Catamaran Guru portal, a brokerage team headed up by an experienced offshore catamaran sailor, Stephen Cockcroft, who sells the Lagoon, and Fountaine Pajot brands among others.
Their mission statement advises that catamaran sailing requires more careful seamanship. ‘In serious storms, one does need to be more skilled to handle a catamaran, however, the designs of modern catamarans have evolved to be extremely seaworthy and they do not just “flip.” In fact, the rig or the sails should blow out before the vessel capsizes because the righting moment on a cruising cat is such that it is almost impossible to do, even if you tried it. It really takes an act of incredibly idiotic behaviour to capsize a modern cat in winds under 70 knots.’
This ‘gone by the board’ fail-safe factor is shared by an Australian and New Zealand brokerage, Multihull Central, headed up by Director Brent Vaughan, selling Seawind and Outremer catamarans. Under the heading: Do All Catamarans Capsize? Their site states: ‘Production cruising cats have way too much displacement to make a capsize a real likelihood, unless you are doing everything wrong – all sails up in cyclonic conditions with massive side-on waves… It’s more likely that the sails will blow out or the rig will collapse before a production cat capsizes.’
These kind of dismissive statements can only lead one to question, ‘Is the fall back plan on a modern cat that the mast will come down to save it from capsizing?!
They do all at least concede that production cats are most at risk coming down very large waves and surfing at high speeds over 20 knots with too much sail up, risking having the bows dig into the bottom of the next wave.
The UK’s Nigel Irens, who drew, most famously, Ellen MacArthur’s record-breaking trimaran, and is the designer of other big catamarans, including the Gunboat, Vantage and Allegra variations, wrote an eight-part series on multi-hull sailing for Yachting World magazine.
Although he stated: ‘Capsize is very unlikely in most modern catamarans,’ he nevertheless thought it worthwhile to go into great detail about how to prevent such a catastrophe. ‘The level of risk is much more about the ability of the skipper than about the qualities of the boat.’ Many cruising catamarans are really ‘under-powered floating homes,’ he added that ‘…you’d have to be trying hard to win a bet to bring about a capsize.’
He did however concede that the worst can happen and that during upwind sailing, in heavy weather conditions, steerage way must be maintained. ‘If you stop you might get knocked back by a big breaker and that could dig in the sterns, which in extreme cases could even result in a stern-first capsize.’
He continued: ‘Don’t trust a stumpy catamaran with high-volume bows. Far from piercing waves downwind it might just trip up if pushed too hard.’
If the catamaran sailor is unfortunate enough to experience a capsize, Nigel advises sheltering in one of the hulls, ‘…as she settles down in the water the bridge deck will soon be close to the water making an exit attempt risky. It is important not to rush for the escape hatch…opening it will let some air out of the boat, causing it to float lower in the water.’
In 1995 boffins at the Wolfson Unit of the UK’s Southampton University carried out experiments for the Maritime & Coastguard Agency based on 124 ‘stability incidents’ including 33 catamarans; 67 trimarans; two proas; and 22 multihulls of types unknown. Multihulls under seven metres were not included. Most catamaran casualties occurred, they discovered, in winds between Force 6 and 9. ‘Frequently the capsize was attributed in part to wave action lifting one hull,’ the report states.
Peter Johnstone writing in the US Sail magazine would agree. In an article entitled Heavy Weather Strategies when Sailing a Catamaran, he states: ‘As the boat approaches 10 degrees of heel, the windward hull will be close to lifting. It is safe to say that a cat must not lift its weather hull while on a cruising passage!’
Peter also states: ‘The boat’s manufacturer should give you a sail-selection chart specifying safe sail limits for any conditions. On most offshore passages, advanced communications and weather information should preclude you from ever (my emphasis) experiencing a true gale or survival conditions.’
In my opinion it is just such misguided advice that leads the newcomer into serious danger at sea. No ‘safe sail manual’ or satellite weather station will save you from yourself.
If speed is your thing then a catamaran should be on your list. I have made several long coastal passages in them and I would agree they certainly are exhilarating to sail. Having said that they are not on my list. I can’t ignore the fact that if they do go over, they don’t come back up and to paraphrase Charlie Doane, I prefer to rely on my experience and instinct for survival, rather than a focus group manual on when to shorten sail.
I have considered the issues purely from a cruising point of view and from this perspective, I think, safety should rank higher than speed, so my preference is… it has to be a monohull.