Starting my sailing career something that struck me was the wast number of weird words and strange terminology, no longer was a rope just a rope, it’s a halyard or a sheet. In this article, I will explain one concept that is important to understand for anyone trying to buy a boat or for someone who wants to better understand the limitations of the vessel they already have.
Catamaran beam-to-length ratios are mathematical representations of the difference between the length of a sailing vessel and its width. There are multiple beam to length ratios, some impacts stability (Bcl/Lwl), and the amount of sail the vessel is able to carry. Others are used to calculate exterior space (B/L). In general, a narrow boat will be less stable but weigh less and cheaper to build.
Most modern catamarans have a beam to length ratio of >50%. You can easily calculate this on your own by following the steps below. But first, let’s check out some more terminology to make sure we really understand this ratio.
No matter how much you love the ocean, you will have limited success if you are unfamiliar with the words that go with adventuring out on it. I need to clarify some nomenclature before we delve into the ins and outs of ratios and catamarans (and monohulls).
- Beam overall (Boa): is the width of a boat at its widest point. The wider a ship’s beam, the more interior and exterior space. this allows for more gear and and better living accomodations.
- Draft: sometimes spelled “draught,” is the measure of how deep your vessel “sits” in the water. Catamarans have shallower drafts than monohulls, meaning they can sail in shallower waters and some can even be sail all the way up onto the beach, called beaching a cat.
- Catamaran: is a boat with twin hulls positioned parallel to each other. This design lends stability to the craft, and since there are two hulls, each can be narrower than a monohull without giving up stability.
- Monohulls: boats with one hull. They derive their stability from a heavy keel and a wide hull, in comparison to a catamaran with two thin hulls separated far apart.
- Length over all (Loa): is measured from the aft to the bows including all gear such as bowsprits etc. To be compared with Length on waterline LWL.
- Length on waterline (Lwl) is the boats length measured on the surface of the water.
Different Beam to Length Ratios
Hull Centerline Beam to Waterline Length (Bcl/Lwl):
The distance between the centerlines of the hulls divided by the waterline length on one hull is a good indicator of performance. It measures the points of the boat that interacts with the water. A higher ratio will give a higher resistance to capsizing and a lower ratio will increase drag due to wave interactions under the bridge deck.
Compared to the beam overall to length overall (Boa/Loa) that more or less only gives you an understanding of whether or not the boat will fit in a certain slip or what you will pay for a canal passage.
Hull Fineness Ratio (HFR)
Hull Fineness Ratio (HFR) is another name for Hull length-to-beam ratio. This is basically the same as the ratio mentioned above but only measures one of the hulls instead of the entire boat. And “fineness,” essentially, means “thinness.” Most cats have a ratio between 8:8 and 10:1.
Boat Overall Beam (Boa) to Length Overall (Loa)
These are the exterior measurements of the boat. This ratio will not offer much other information than estimating marina fees and general boat size. To understand catamaran stability the two above ratios are much better since they show how the boat interacts with the water. It is in theory possible to have a very high Boa/Loa ratio but still have a boat that is very unstable due to having a low Bcl/Lwl ratio.
General Rules When Calculating Ratios
Ratios are exercises in long division. Since you remember your rules from math in school, you know that the order of the numbers in the equation makes a difference.
If you mix them up you will get the wrong result and you might assess the stability of the boat incorrectly. And remember to stick to either meter or feet.
The formula looks like this:
B/L = Beam (in ft or meter) to length (in ft or meter) ratio
But how do you measure and from where to where? With those questions in mind, we add even more terminology to all this ciphering.
If, for instance, you have a bowsprit (the railing at the bow that extends past the deck), including this in your length measurement will skew your ratio. The extra length added by the largely cosmetic feature will not contribute to the stability or lack thereof of the craft, mainly because it does not touch the water.
So we look, then, at the measurements at the waterline.
Why Ratios Matters
If your Bcl/Lwl is too low, you will have an unstable craft. Adding a sail to the mix makes it even more so – if you have a ridiculous ratio of something like 1:18, wind in the sails at the correct angle will very likely capsize it. A wave of moderate size could do it, too.
But a 1:1 Bcl/Lwl will make for a floating square with the maneuvering ability of a brick. A floating brick, sure, but it’s still a brick. This ratio is something you only see on really fast racing trimarans, since trimarans lift the windward hull the actual ratio when turning is half of that.
The fineness of a hull determines its speed and stability, which means that with every increase to one of those factors comes a decrease in the other. 3:1 seems to be the Goldilocks Zone for most monohulls. But since catamarans have two hulls separated wide apart the cat will be able to have thinner hulls while still maintaining high stability, a ratio around 8-12:1 is common on catamaran cruisers.
Casual sailors may never calculate Bcl/Lwl, B/L, or hull fineness ratio. But if you’re looking to buy a boat and want to better understand its sailing capabilities then these numbers will give you the ability to objectively compare different boats.
Speed and stability are the main factors governed by these ratios, and a change in one of them changes the other in the opposite direction. Generally speaking, the wider the beam, the more stable a ship is.