In this article, I list many of the things that I have found significant about sailing a catamaran. The list is mainly aimed towards sailors transitioning from monohulls, but new sailors without prior experience will benefit from reading this before leaving harbor!
So what do you need to know before setting off in a Catamaran?
Catamarans Don’t Heel
Since catamarans have two hulls, the boat won’t heel over to its side while sailing; this means a ton of things! In part, it means that your ride will be faster, safer, more comfortable, etc.
Read this to understand the difference between monohulls (aka regular sailboats) and catamarans.
You will be faster on a Catamaran.
Since a catamaran has two hulls, it has less volume of the boat below the surface; this means less drag and higher speeds.
Maneuverability inside the Marina will be much more pleasant.
Although a catamaran will be more affected by winds due to its immense size, you can maneuver it as you would with a battle tank since it has two engines. That is doing a 360 turn without any movement forward or backward. This is an excellent way to enter and exit a marina.
Fuel costs will decrease.
Low drag means less energy needed to propel the boat; this is also true when running the engines. Compared to a monohull, the catamaran will draw less fuel.
Check out this article to understand why and how you can save fuel and instead spend your money on fun things!
If you get knocked over, you won’t get back up again (but at least you won’t sink!)
Catamarans have a terrible reputation for flipping over or capsizing as it is known to the people of the water. There is not much data to support that claim, and if you look at the available data, you would actually see that catamarans, in many ways, are safer than boats with only one hull.
Catamarans are wider and, therefore, safer.
Is it easier to push something to its side if it has a wide or a small base? Yepp exactly, the cat has a broad base and is, therefore, more stable (the short and easy explanation). There are numerous other factors to consider but a wider base means better stability!
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Catamarans will get you the ladies(or men, or cats, or whatever)
There is nothing more accurate on this list than the fact that a catamaran will get you more company, of the sort you prefer, than a monohull. The sailing is smoother; the space is plentiful, it’s basically made for having friends hanging out on the trampolines.
Speaking of trampolines, some myths say that they are made to reduce water onboard and enhance safety, but everybody really knows it’s a place for beautiful times with great friends ;)!
Because of the shallow draft, you can go places where monohulls can’t
If you are going to the Bahamas (or any other place where the water isn’t very deep), and believe me, you definitely want, then a shallow draft is almost as good of a friend as a cold beer on a sunny day.
A shallow draft means that your boat won’t be sticking very deep into the water, which significantly enhances the number of places you can explore, and it also makes it possible to get very close to the beach.
Be prepared to spend your dollars.
“A boat is a hole in the water where you throw your money” is what a wise friend of mine once told me in a marina in the Miami River. Little did I know at the time how true that statement was to become.
And if you’re on a catamaran… you will have two engines, larger sails, more surface area, more everything, and more everything means that more things will break and more items will have to be paid for
BUT! it also means more fun!
Finding a place to lift your cat out of the water might be trickier than you thought.
Unless you are on a smaller cat, such as the Gemini Legacy 35, you won’t be able to fit in a standard slip, and getting hauled up out of the water might not be possible everywhere.
Be prepared to pay a little extra, and make sure you ask before you!
In contrary to many beliefs, cats can be sailed single-handed.
Another myth is that catamarans are harder to sail than their monohull counterpart; this is simply not true in a general sense. If the boat is set up for shorthanded sailing, it will most certainly be easier to sail than its heeling and leaning sister ship, the monohull.
If you are interested in the skills needed to handle a large cruising catamaran I think you should check out my recommended books here.
No more sailing close to the wind
Since a cat doesn’t have a colossal keel, it tends to move sideways when sailing close to the point of wind. This means more drag, less transfer of movement in the direction of travel, and a less comfortable trip.
Usually, a cat needs to sail more of the wind than a monohull,
Downwind is your new best friend.
But on the other hand, going downwind or running downwind is, together with humans, your dog and red wine, your new best friend. This is where the catamaran will show its true potential.
It’s fast, smooth, and can take you around the world!
Sailing around the world.
Unless you are setting a world record, you will probably take the westward route around the globe. Sailing west means traveling with the prevailing winds and, you guessed it, perfect for a catamaran.
You have friends? Bring all of them!
Maybe not all, but many catamarans can fit many people; 6-10 people is not uncommon. Most of the space is on deck, but since there are two hulls, there are usually 2-4 berths fitting 4-8 people sleeping!
That’s a lot of friends, family, cats, or whomever you would want to bring.
Are you used to monohulls? Then you need to update your storm tactics!
Often, the boat will survive more hardship than the crew; it has happened more than once that a ship will be found only to have lost its team somewhere in the middle of the ocean.
A boat is only as good as its captain allows it to become; with poor sailing skills comes danger, and handling a catamaran IS different than handling another type of boat. Ensure you update your skillset, especially those considering rough weather, so that they are relevant when transitioning to a different kind of vessel!
Full speed with double engines
Exactly how fast you will be able to travel is, of course, dependent upon many factors. But something you can rely on is that more power equals higher speeds; in most catamarans, they employ two engines!
If you want to see a table of examples comparing sailing with one engine and two engines, check this out.
Hate swinging around on anchor? You better up your bridle-game
A well-balanced bridle will make the cat stay stable towards the wind; a poorly balanced bridle will tend to do a pendulum motion where the waves might push it one way only for the wind to push it back.
Want to better understand how a bridle work and how to make one?
Don’t stop before the beach; go all the way upon it.
Sailing in the Caribbean, we could often find ourselves wanting to explore a deserted island. We could either throw in the dingy or swim to shore; with a catamaran, you have a third option: “beach” it.
Beaching a catamaran means taking it all the way up to the shoreline so you can step off onto a beautiful beach without even getting your toes wet!
Check this out to understand what beaching a catamaran is like.
The cat is enormous; why not live on it!
A monohull’s size is usually what takes the fun and comfort out of the vacation, but with more space and your own berth/room, the ability to stay comfortably for more extended periods increases.
You might even have a hard time to get people of your boat 😉
How to sail faster upwind than a longer monohull
Yes, it is usually true that a mono can go closer to the wind than your average cat; this means a shorter distance from point A to point B if traveling directly towards the wind.
But, and its a big but (one T) catamarans on average are faster, that means even though they might have to travel a longer distance, they will usually show up at the destination faster than its mono counterpart.
Especially if we are talking longer distances, let’s say around the world or Atlantic crossings, then there is no discussion over which is the fastest.
No more merry-go-round while at anchor
One of the things I hated the most when living and sailing on a monohull was getting seasick when not even sailing. The wind pushing you one way and the waves the other makes for an incredibly potent mix of sea-sickness.
On a cat, that’s not really an issue; yes, it will swing around a little, it might even swing a little extra since it catches a lot of wind, but it is not going to roll! Which is a huge deal!
How to become a better sailor
Everybody says that to become a good sailor, you must get out there earn your experience, but without the correct feedback and conclusions, you might be at risk of sub optimizing your skillset.
This means that unless you bring someone very experienced, you might create habits that only work under the circumstances you have practiced, that is, calm weather close to shore.
What you need is someone to tell you, “that works today, but it will get you into trouble in X and Y situations,” those tips are vital! Get the opinion of someone you trust, whether it’s online or an actual person tagging along!
The American sailing association has a pretty cool book about handling large catamarans, check it out here.
Catamarans, when set up correctly, can be sailed single-handed or shorthanded. Some of the changes you’ll have to make include;
- Get an autopilot
- Make sure your lines go all the way to the cockpit, so you don’t have to leave your GPS, radar, etc.
- Remove things that are obstructing your view; there are only two eyes on board!
- Ensure you have enough physical power to handle the winches, sail, etc., if you don’t? Hit the gym; if that doesn’t work, buy electric winches.
- Practice sailing single-handed(but have a passive crew tag along for safety) and figure out what else you need.
Anchoring your cat at sea
One way to do this is to use a sea anchor, basically a parachute in the water that breaks your movements. more on sea anchors here
The sea depth in the middle of an ocean can be thousands of meters, so bringing that much anchor chain doesn’t really work. What you would do is drift under control, that is, situating the boat in a comfortable position, and that doesn’t make you drift too much in the wrong direction.
Picking up a mooring ball
This is a common question, but I’m not sure why it intimidates people as much as it does. It is probably the easiest way to anchor of them all.
Basically, what you want to do is;
- Prepare your bridle
- Head into the wind slowly, approach the ball on the same side of the centerline as your friend, who will later pick it up.
- Take into consideration the drift occurring by the wind and current.
- Use a boathook, stick, or whatever to pick up the line from the mooring ball and attach it to the center of your bridle.
- Put the boat in reverse, give it a little throttle, and tension the lines so that you can trust your anchoring
- Voila, you’ve picked up your first mooring ball!
- How to make your useless friend useful onboard
Turn that useless friend into and a vital asset!
The best way to prepare for troublesome situations is to think through what problems may happen and what you want to do when it happens. What you do is you bring that diamond in the rough that is your friend onboard, you discuss a few situations, you tell her what you want her to do and when.
Then you practice, not full-on, but you will show your friend how things are done; let’s say you want help with anchoring. Do a walkthrough of the process where you let your, now a little bit shinier diamond, handle the ropes and respond to commands. Offer honest and concrete feedback and let them succeed in the task.
Once you feel comfortable with your friend’s actions, you have accomplished two things, you have taught your friend a new skill, and you have acquired a crewmember! Glorious!
Bring your real best friend, the dog (or cat, for you weirdos 😉 )
Heeling is not only tough on us humans! On a cat (the boat), a cat(the animal) can move around more safely, and there is a smaller chance of it falling off. Many chose to keep the pet inside the boat, but I really do believe that your pets should also be able to enjoy the beautiful sailing and weather!
Prepare to see nothing.
I don’t mean beautiful islands and tropical beaches; you’ll see plenty of that! I mean, seeing where you are going, a cat has a lot of stuff in front of you(such as that glorious interior space), so if you’re used to your good old monohull, you might find it difficult at first to get at a good view of where you’re going. Especially when docking or in a marina.
The wind will give you a hard time.
A catamaran is basically a big box with floating sleds; boxes are not famous for aerodynamics. This box-shaped floater will catch a lot of wind and will make slow speed movements, such as docking, a little bit trickier.
To the rescue comes double engines with separate controls making it possible to do 360 turns on the spot and super small unballasted keels called centerboards.
Spring of the dock will be your new way of life.
Higher on the list, we looked at the box-shaped floating thing that is a catamaran and how much the wind affects it. This is also true when exiting a dock; all that force will make it impossible to head out if the wind blows towards the dock.
Spring off the dock to the rescue! This method uses simple physics of leverage to make your stern move away from the dock even though the wind and waves are pushing you back in.
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Stop turning the wheel and start using your throttles.
The downside of a shallow draft is that it won’t have much that stops you from moving sideways with the wind; the upside of having a catamaran is that you have two engines!
When moving at slow speeds, let’s say docking, you dont have much “grip” on the water and not much water passing around the rudders. This makes handling a catamaran in the same way as a monohull very difficult.
Instead, the preferred method is to put the rudder at center position and turn by offsetting the throttle; higher throttle on your right engine will make you go left and vice versa. This allows for 360 spins and precis handling in tight spaces! Pretty neat, I would say.
Get used to that hellish banging noise!
Bridge deck clearance is a real thing on a catamaran, and if you’re on a smaller sized or just poorly built, you’ll get more banging than your teenaged self ever wished for(pun intended)!
So bridge deck clearance is the distance between the water and the lowest part of the boat between the hulls.
This is the part where the water will pass between the hulls, and under some circumstances, let’s say big enough waves, water will crash and hit the underside—making not only a lot of noise but also vibrations throughout the boat.
Bring all that crap that you thought you would have to leave on land.
“sailing is living the simple life and bringing only what you need,” someone said to me once; screw that! 🙂 On a cat, there is so much space that you’ll be able to bring almost anything that you want and need.
People bring everything from scuba gear(including a system to fill up the oxygen tanks) to washing machines!
Even though I consider myself to be a simple man when it comes to stuff (i live in a van, as some of you know 😉 ) I can totally understand the beauty of bringing a lot of creature comfort on board.
Shallow draft, yes, but how deep is the water, visual checks.
Before sailing the Bahamas, I would hear of stories almost every day of boats that went aground and either got stuck or wrecked their ships. I was terrified but once underway and a couple of months in, I couldn’t really understand how it could happen.
So I started looking into the information about different accidents that I could find, and something struck me, common sense isn’t that common…
I realized that many sailors trusted their GPS or maps more than they trust their own eyes. I could easily understand that the people who went aground were the ones that did not do visual checks when entering or moving through a shallow section.
When storms roll in, the seafloor, especially if made of sand, shifts, and depths, is rarely accurate on a map, and if your sailing with only a few feet to spare, you better keep an eye out!
If monohulls give you feedback like your mom at family dinner, then a catamaran is your dead budgie.
Maybe that title is a bit of a stretch and only applies to my family; if so, sorry about that, let’s carry on!
So when the wind hits the sails on a monohull, it leans to the side, everybody gets seasick, and you want to go home, that is not all bad! That same feeling also gives the captain a sensation of how much force is acted upon the sails, something vital if you want to stay afloat.
The issue with a catamaran is that it does not offer feedback to the helm in the same manner; there is nothing dangerous about it; it is just different. The problem occurs when you expect feedback in the shape of leaning before you start reefing.
If you wait for that, you’ll soon find yourself in trouble! The easiest and safest way is to use a “wind speed rule of thumb,” basically a standard operating procedure for putting the reefs in based on apparent wind. Once the wind speed hits X m/s, you put your first reef in; when the speed hits Y m/s, you put the next reef in, and so on.
See a squall coming? Reef early!
A gust of wind? Head down, not up!
I know, I know, I compare monohulls and cats all the time… and yes, here’s one more comparison!
Some of you single-hull-people out there might be tempted to head upwind if there’s a gust hitting the sails, I would rethink that strategy and recommend you train your reactions to do the opposite!
Heading upwind(on a cat) during a gust will increase the risk of capsizing (flipping over is extremely rare, but if you’re ever going to pull it off, here’s your chance!).
Gybe like Barry White would
I’m not sure we see the same things here, but what I’m trying to say is that you want to take it nice and smooth on the transition from one side to the other.
Tighten in the sheet, pull the mainsail to the center and slowly pass from one side to the other; this will decrease the wear and tear and reduce the risk of injuries from the beam swinging like a