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Monohull vs. Catamaran – A short, slightly opinionated round up of pros and cons

Posted by on February 24, 2012

At Boatshows, through emails to this website, we are have often been asked if we’d consider a Cat for offshore cruising. Any answer we give based only on our own experience is bound to be highly prejudiced by our love of the aesthetics of classic sailing vessels, preference for small size and affordability. To try for a less biased answer we contacted two experienced sailors who have actually made ocean passages on both, Tom Linskey and Richard Johnson.

Richard Johnson (www.elcieexpeditions.com) summed up his impressions in a short article which appeared the October 2011 edition of Blue Water Sailing. It is reprinted here with Richards permission: “Prior to heading across the Pacific on Elcie (custom built in New Zealand, 62 foot aluminum), most of my time offshore had been aboard monohulls. I have heard converted multihull sailors claim they would never go back. Now, with some miles under our keels, here is my short take on the subject:

Some Benefits of a Catamaran:

Stability – Elcie provides a stable platform in conditions when you would tiypically develop a considerable roll on a mono, as in light air with large swells or in an exposed anchorage.

Life at Sea – Living above sea level in a well-lit area keeps us from feeling like cave dwellers when conditions warrant keeping the boat sealed up tight.

Shallow draft

Speed potential
– In certain conditions we fly. However, comfort is very dependent on sea state and point of sail. In reaching conditions with the speedo at 12 plus knots, the ride is fantastic.

Some unfavorable aspects of a catamaran:

Unpredictable rhythm - In moderate to heavy conditions, any boat beating to weather can be un-fun. However, a cat with two hulls locked together, each responding to different parts of a wave or waves, often feels like a study in chaos. As the seas increase, waves passing through the tunnel occasionally pound the underside of the bridge deck. A reduction in sail area will resolve this, but you pay with a sacrifice in speed.

Stability –In a previous paragraph, stability is touted as a benefit, but the downside is the loss of the pressure release that the heeling of a monohull provides. A cat will lose stability once it starts to heel until it is upside down. For me this possibility creates the need for a higher level of vigilance, especially at night and in squally conditions.

Size – Once you arrive, the beam of a cat limits the available dock space and haulout options.

For me (Richard Johnson) a catamaran’s extra room, initial stability and living above the waterline makes it the clear winner in the livability category. However, when it comes down to the sheer joy of moving a boat under sail, a well-designed monohull is still hard to beat.”

Tom Linskey and his wife Harriett both were champion dinghy racers. Tom then completed a 28 foot BCC from a bare hull and together they voyaged around the Pacific for several years including racing from Melbourne Australia to Japan. They then raced a J class 34 footer together on the US east coast before purchasing their first catamaran, a Dolphin 46 to use as their base of operations for a great project. They began collecting books and school supplies then carried them on board down to the smaller Caribbean islands to help the school children. Tom and Harriet even worked building the book cases and library rooms alongside the islanders. Their work grew into a successful charitable organization – Hands Across the Sea which involves cruising sailors and many others in providing books and support for schools throughout the Caribbean (www.handsacrossthesea.net) Tom and Harriet still use their catamaran to sail from New England to the Caribbean each year to visit and work with the schools they know. When we discussed this issue Tom agreed with Richard in general and added:
“Engine use is the same as a monohull – if it’s light air and bumpy from well ahead or well aft we’ll motorsail to make miles. We enjoy sailing — meaning the two of us making ocean passages — much more on the cat. Heel is 4 degrees max (same in 10 knots of wind and 30 knots), it does not roll, and we do not get thrown violently in heavy weather (our coffeemaker stays in place sitting on the galley countertop, no bungees or canvas covers needed to keep books and spice bottles in place on the shelves)…things stay quite civilized below. A cat does not have the feedback on the wheel that a monohull does, but the cat’s two relatively narrow hulls mean the boat wants to go straight, not yaw continually about its center as with the more pumpkin-seed shape of a monohull – cats are far easier to steer for an autopilot. Our 46-foot cat knocks off the miles – in trades, we average 8 to 9 knots under working sails – without beating up the crew, which is always a nice way to get from A to B.”

Tom also commented that it is very important to choose an appropriate catamaran, “if the boat is built strong enough for ocean sailing and it is designed for offshore work, it should be fine, if rigged and sailed with proper seamanship. If the boat is meant for weekend or coastal cruising, it’s not the right boat to take offshore.”

Some of the available cats Tom mentioned as meeting this criteria include, “those built by Catana, Outremer, Dolphin or custom built ones designed by Chris White.”

A few facts that have not been addressed by either of these sailors probably pertain to the majority of you who read our newsletters. The ocean going catamarans they enjoy sailing are expensive machines compared to monohulls of similar length, even on the second hand market. Furthermore it appears that 40 feet is the lower end of the scale for an offshore cruising cat. Thus you are talking about $250,000 to $400,000 to get out there in a Cat. In contrast, we know many folks who have had wonderful offshore experiences on second hand monohulls ranging from 24 feet to 40 feet, purchased and outfitted for well under $100,000, some for as little as $40,000. Just before we posted this cruising tip, Tom Linskey commented, “One potential trap to try to avoid (which I’ve had not much success avoiding!) is not to compare monohull vs. cat by length. They are such totally different animals, the LOA comparison doesn’t work in a number of ways. It’s like comparing people by height. Maybe for cruising, comparison by load-carrying ability, liveaboard comfort or lack of, motion at sea, or average passagemaking speed by a couple is more relevant.”

Secondly, though both enjoy the ocean passage sailing qualities of a cat, neither mention short tacking into an anchorage though Richard alluded to this in his comment about preferring the mono for the sheer joy of moving a boat under sail. This is one of our very favorite past-times and a wonderful aspect of monohull sailing I know we’d miss with a Cat. This close quarter maneuverability also makes the mono less vulnerable should there be an engine failure. But I can hear the other side of the debate chiming in – but most cats have two engines…

6 Responses to Monohull vs. Catamaran – A short, slightly opinionated round up of pros and cons

  1. tomperanteau

    The wife and I have thought about buying a cat from time to time, but because of how hard-hit we were during the downturn in 2008, they are a bit out of our price range.

    Great review, though. For now we’ll stick to our mono. I do think you can get into a good boat in this market for under $40k though. There are some great buys out there if you can inspect the boat yourself and know what you’re getting into.

  2. buslog

    I’ve wondered how a cat handles a round up and the difference in weather helm, cat vs. monohull. Any comments?

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