Catamarans: What the Experts are Saying

Fountaine-PajotLearning Center

Imagine you’re a fly on the wall, hearing experienced catamaran aficionados discussing some of the issues brought up with the new designs displayed at recent shows. What are the differences and how should they impact your choices?

One thing pretty much agreed on, there is a considerable difference between a boat designed primarily for charter companies, and one designed for private owners (Even though the latter may be privately managed.)  Link to a simpler, shorter article (especially useful if you’re new to all of this): Catamarans 101

Here are some of the hot topics people were talking about at recent boat shows:

Catamarans cost more per foot but less based on volume

Per foot, catamarans cost more, (right) but based on volume (left graphic), they can actually cost less (than per foot-right graphic).

GoodCatBadCat-volume - Overhead on the Catamaran
GoodCatBadCat-perfoot - Overhead on the Catamaran

In addition, catamarans offer increased security, safety, and efficiency. Catamarans often have considerable redundancy, including 2 engines with their support system. The relatively narrower hulls are more efficient, especially at moderate and higher speeds. But you don’t get something for nothing. The total surface area of a catamaran is considerably greater than for a monohull. This means more fiberglass and more expense. Weight is important–higher-tech construction helps keep weight down but costs more.

Certainly, one way to make them even more affordable (and perhaps the reason our Business Yacht Ownership® program is so popular), is to set your catamaran up as a business. This is a great stepping stone to your retirement program and a way to let tax advantages and income cover 100% of the costs or more. Join us for an upcoming webinar to find out more.

What are the downsides of a performance Catamaran?

Everything is a trade-off. A narrow hull with performance-oriented keels/daggerboards should yield better performance, right? Not necessarily. Those narrow hulls offer much less load-carrying ability. To today’s cruiser, this is important. If you want air conditioning, generators, appliances, water-makers, washer-dryers (not to mention extra water, fuel and provisions for longer trips), you need load-carrying ability.

That performance cat, may actually not have the performance of its cruising brethren when fully loaded. In fact, its performance may be awful as you submerge the hulls more and more into the water. ( As an aside, have you ever sailed a 16′ Hobie and tried to tack it–especially in lighter air? Those narrow hulls as they sink deeper and deeper with more people on board, resist turning and you often have to backwind the jib to get them to tack!)

Finally, performance Cats are in much less demand and suffer at resale. They also aren’t suitable for Business Yacht Ownership® programs like we offer and in every way, end up costing more.

Do dagger-boards and performance keels offer better performance?

They do, when the boat is kept light and the helmsman is paying absolute attention. Is that you?

When you’re in normal cruise mode, with a glass of wine or beer in your hand, operating on auto-pilot as the boat wanders around a bit on course, those narrow chord (keel) foils will actually stall and the boat will slide downwind, making more leeway than a more cruising-oriented, forgiving cruising keel. Going to windward, daggerboards can offer slightly better performance in the lighter wind ranges, but as we approach moderate wind speeds (where we typically turn off the motor and start sailing) the differences are negligible. Typically, when beached or on the hard, the boat will sit on its keels. In addition, the keels offer protection to the rudders as they’re typically deeper than the rudders. (See very short video.)

In addition, dagger-boards simply don’t have the lateral surface and really suffer when maneuvering slowly under power. I remember a charter boat with dagger-boards trying to pull up next to us when we were anchored in the Grenadines so he could hand us some brochures. As he got closer and slowed down, the wind blew him sideways away from our boat. After three passes, he came steaming by at 6K and threw the brochures at our outstretched hands. We caught one, but most went in the drink.

Dagger-boards are only efficient when the helmsman is paying rapt attention. They don’t do the job at slow speeds, especially under power. Cruisers often leave them in a partially deployed position because they’re a pain. Barnacles lodge in the slot and jam them up. They often hit something and break off when in their deep draft mode. They reduce space inside the hulls with the trunks. They cost more and offer cruisers less, not more.

In the case of Fountaine Pajot, the keels are glued into a socket in the hull which is totally sealed from the interior. If you run over a reef or debris that might damage or break a keel off, and allow water entry into the interior, on most boats–on the Fountaine Pajot the keel simply breaks away (It’s like a fuse, sacrificial) and the boat can sail perfectly fine with the other keel, or motor or sail downwind with no keel.

In summary:

Generally speaking cruising cats with fixed keels are probably easier to resell than cats with daggerboards (Reflecting the popularity and acceptance of the fixed keel solution). If you’re finding it difficult to make the decision and you’re not interested in racing then it’s likely that fixed keels are right for you.

A front porch sounds nice. What are the drawbacks?

How many areas do you need? Here are three considerations:

1. Safety offshore. That bathtub (footwell) can fill up with water when you’re offshore in serious seas. No matter what size the drains, if the well fills, you only have seconds until you hit the next wave, now with thousands of pounds of water presenting a bow down, a seriously compromised trim situation going into the next wave. Frankly, I wouldn’t want my family on a compromised boat offshore. Even if you don’t plan on sailing offshore, the next owner might, and this jeopardizes your resale value. This may be an okay idea when chartering and sailing in a 50-mile circle, but not for serious cruisers.

When accompanied by a forward-facing door, you introduce one more opening facing the oncoming seas and take room away from the main saloon living area. Why? You can only use it in the nicest weather as there is spray and solid water breaking in. It’s difficult to shade and there are many better choices which generally include an aft cockpit protected from spray and sun.

2. On Fountaine Pajot, there is a social area sitting on the net with covers (left). From 40′ and up, you have a sundeck next to the steering station but the steering station is at deck level. You have the cockpit. The stern entry steps (trail your feet in the water, or hang off the ladder with a spotter in light air). You have the forward deck with lounge seats but no serious bathtub footwell if you like, and then the nets with covers.

Bathtub footwells forward is just a bad idea, on so many levels for a serious, offshore cruiser. They offer no sun or spray protection and are a serious safety concern. How many sun areas do you need? Personally, I’m looking to get out of the sun!

3. A swimming pool forward and solid decks forward — talk about a bad combination! The few that have tried this in the past, are moving away from this dangerous, offshore sailing combination. Of all the things to avoid in catamaran design, weight forward and solid decking ranks at the top. In serious offshore conditions, when surfing down waves where the bow may stick into the wave in front, you want the water to flow through an open weave pattern net. That’s the way most offshore capable catamarans are designed — for good reason. Combine this with the thousands of pounds of water (over 5,000 pounds in one design calculated) and you enter a dangerous zone for offshore sailing!

The forward area is almost always wet when sailing. It’s also hard to have major sun protection. The idea of an aft cockpit, that is more protected from spray, and the sun makes far more sense, and then, for the forward area, just add deck cushions, net covers and the rest for at anchor or more moderate conditions.

Also, solid decking weighs more than nets. The absolute nemeses for a catamaran design is weight forward which increases pitching motion and submerges the relatively less buoyant forward bow sections. This is bad for comfort, balance, and safety.

Did you know that if you measure these forward wells there can be up to 100 cubic feet of water-catching, enclosed footwell? A cubic foot of water is 7.48 gallons, a gallon weighs  8.5 pounds for  62.4 pounds per cubic foot. So 100 cubic feet of water combined with additional structure means you could easily add 7,000 pounds of water forward when your nose dips into a large ocean wave. That’s like carrying a pickup truck on your bow when you’re sailing offshore.

img class=”alignleft” src=”,h_240,al_c,q_80,usm_0.66_1.00_0.01/40c894_2fed451ba0f947f89921d4182fff4cac.jpg” alt=”Overhead on the Catamaran 2″ width=”320″ height=”240″ />Net covers are one good answer. Pillows can zip on and Textelene is weatherproof and comfortable. They snap on and off and store easily for offshore sailing.

By the way, the solid deck works for an inshore, powerboat. At higher speeds, the solid deck knocks down the spray coming back and without the mast, pitching isn’t as much a problem (if they keep it light!). The problem is, this style of powerboat is just a sailboat with a sailboat optimized hull without the buoyancy aft needed for a planing powerboat, and a deck forward. This is not proper for a true, offshore sailboat and, in the end, the design is neither here nor there.

How does a flybridge helm compare to a deck-level helm?

Good question. there are several bad compromises that happen with a flybridge helm. (This concept can work on larger boats over about 50′ where you will likely have a professional crew–but not on boats meant for a couple to handle by themselves, or singlehandedly):

1. The boom has to be higher to give the headroom. Much higher. Out of reach for tucking in the sail or handling tangled lines. It greatly raises the center of effort of the sail plan, introducing increased jiggling motion and compromising safety in heavier air.

2. The helmsperson is out of touch with the cockpit. Beverages, food, and conversation all require participants to negotiate steps.

3. The helmsperson is not at deck level and not in a position to help with docking maneuvers. This is incompatible with shorthanded or couples sailing — a charter boat affectation.

A deck level helm station (left) is the answer to all of the above, offering a low boom and center of effort. The helmsperson is in touch with the cockpit, and just a step away at the same level as the deck. This deck level help promotes shorthanded sailing, where the helmsman can step on deck to help with lines without stumbling up and down steps. As a bonus, the crew from the galley or cockpit can pass up a drink!

Why would you separate the helm from the control station at the winches?

A wheel, against the bulkhead, works on a smaller boat, generally 40′ and smaller. The lines are smaller and don’t tend to overwhelm the smaller available area, and there just isn’t enough room to accommodate a split arrangement. But, once you get over 40′ or so: The idea is to provide access to the deck and forward for guests coming up from the cockpit without disturbing the helmsman. This arrangement also gives more space for control line tails without tangling up in the wheel, and the winch handler can get up close and over the winches.

For tacking and jibing: What I do is put the autopilot remote control device on Velcro dots on the cabin top next to the winches. Hit the tack buttons and the boat turns, perfectly, through about 100 degrees (Tacking or jibing) leaving my hands free to handle both sheet winches to manage the maneuver.

The other advantage is the deck level control station with outboard engine controls. When coming into an alongside docking situation, like a fuel dock, you maneuver with the throttles (On catamarans, you use the shifter/throttles, not the wheel for slow speed maneuvering!) standing on the deck outside the helm area. As you maneuver to the dock, you can throw or catch a line, put it on the center cleat (right at your feet) and single-handedly control the boat the entire way in.

This entire set up is exceptional for live-aboard, short-handed sailing, but also works when entertaining a group of friends—you just don’t need to count on them to help.

On the Bimini–Hardtop or soft top?

Here’s what I hear all of the time: “I really like the look of the helm hardtop, rather than a “soft” top. Why shouldn’t I get this option?? You can, on most boats, including the Fountaine Pajot. But why? Aside from the increased cost, about $5,000 or so more, which some are willing to accept, what’s the reason you see this option on so many charter boats?

The chief reason is those charter boats have compromised everything to give beginning sailors the feeling that they have this huge, stand up lounge space on the upper decks. The results? The booms have been moving higher and higher to accommodate this so now, you can’t reach the sail cover to tuck the sail in… That is without a hardtop with a ladder to get up there. So in addition to the awkwardness of this arrangement, and safety considerations, you have a much higher center of effort for the sail plan, which means a less efficient plan and a sail plan that will result in more motion to the boat because the wind is acting on a higher center of effort. (Draw bisecting lines from the 3 corners the CE is where they intersect in the middle–higher on a charter boat. The wind simply has more leverage to heel the boat.)

So, on the left, above, we can’t even reach the sail cover standing on the deck on a typical charter boat, on the right (A typical Fountaine Pajot, and other well-designed boats), the boom is at waist height standing on the deck–however, if you tack, you have to warn guests to sit down if they haven’t figured that out yet. What, we’re supposed to compromise are design to the lowest common denominator of dumb sailors? (Only on a charter boat.)

So, now we have some real considerations for not needing a hardtop and we can look at the real reason that a soft top is preferred… That is, that in storm or hurricane conditions (left), our Waypoint charter managers, want a soft top because their approved hurricane plan is to remove all canvas, sails AND bimini tops during a storm.

We all saw the results before and after of not removing all of the canvas (left)! (By the way, either a soft or hard top can have all of the advantages of installing, side curtains, LED lighting, fans and the like.)

I’m just learning about Catamarans. Why are they so popular? What do I need to know?

More and more people are experiencing Cats in charter fleets in the Caribbean. Once your partner and inexperienced guests experience the comfort, easy handling and (on a well-designed cruising cat)  increased performance, they never want to go back to a monohull.

Performance can be significantly improved over a comparably-sized monohull because they are semi-planing and the narrower hulls offer better performance at moderate and higher wind speeds when cruising. Putting that in perspective, when we have monohulls and catamarans delivered from the East Coast to our bases in the Caribbean and look at the logs, they average about 15-20% better passage speeds, size for size, under a variety of conditions.

I could talk about all kinds of safety issues, but perhaps the most telling fact is simply this: We deliver both monohulls and catamarans transatlantic. The insurance on catamarans for ocean passages is generally less.

Remember when you’re considering the price, a given catamaran has the volume and social spaces of a 10′ longer monohull. As a bonus, you have redundancy–especially two engines. When considered from this perspective, the prices are competitive. So, if you’re comparing a 50′ monohull, you only need to look at a 40-42- catamaran to get similar (though more private) accommodations, and even more comfortable deck lounge areas.

More points brought to our attention on specific models

1. Balance 451

  • This is the old Montebello 1250 from Australia. It has narrow hulls and, less load carrying and volume. The small, sloped windows are not shaded in the main saloon.
  • Chinese built. The Chinese and Taiwanese are well known for recycling older designs and cutting corners to build to a price standard rather than a quality standard.
  • Daggerboards intrude into hulls, are prone to damage and have all of the shortfalls of daggerboards. (See above)
  • Comments:
    “The hulls very narrow feel very tender walking around on deck.” (See issues of load carrying.)
    “Saloon feels very cramped.” (The design is from 10-15 years ago. This is like getting a 55 Chevy — nostalgic, but not safe or up to date.)
    “Poking around spaces… Looked pretty rough”
    “Poorly assembled, poorly designed… and very poor build quality–I couldn’t have been more disappointed.” (I heard the promoter say over and over, “We did this because it was cheaper.” That says it all.

2. Lagoon

  • Many comments on their squared window (boxy) look
  • Heavy. “Chartered one and it was ungainly–had poor performance.” The extra weight reduces your load carrying for long-range cruising. Not so important for a charter boat, but very important on a serious long-range cruiser.
  • High boom height makes it difficult to manage mainsail. Needs more sail area for its weight–and doesn’t have it.

3.  Leopard

  • Bathtub issue. Concerns about the forward-facing door. The door takes up valuable real estate in the saloon. Minimum protection from wind sea and sun up forward.
  • Lack of storage. Shallow lockers.
  • It seems designed primarily as a charter boat.

4. Bavaria Nautitech

  • Aft helms. Difficult to see forward across the horizon. Difficult to have all of the controls centralized. Difficult to provide sun and rain protection.
  • No real social area forward. No upper flybridge social area. (The deck level helm, with adjacent bridge lounge, is a natural gathering spot on boats that have it.)
  • Open design. Difficult to heat and cool. Poor natural ventilation. Poor division of space. Cockpit not really open. Interior really too small to get buttoned up in adverse weather.
  • Interior cabins. Narrow hulls. Crawl in beds. Minimum storage.

5. Bali 4.1

So, considerations for this boat:

  • Forward solid decking and cockpit—dangerous for offshore sailing and deliveries. A social area with no simple sun protection—the opposite of what most charterers and owners are looking for.
  • Control cockpit out of touch with cockpit and deck—a poor design for single-handing and couple sailing. Forced by layout below. Most all manufacturers now following the FP approach with deck level control station, accessible to the cockpit—see Overheard at docks article. This is more like a bridge deck arrangement—long out of favor, except for larger boats where there is a professional crew.
  • Mast set aft—out of step with most later design philosophy with larger working sails, big powerful main, and good-sized, all-purpose Genoa. Again, largely dictated by interior arrangement with the need for door forward. This arrangement is going to require extensive use of multiple headsails, rather than the more popular all-purpose, larger Genoa that covers a wider range of conditions without needing to be changed for the range of typical sailing conditions.
  • Solar panels under the shade of boom and less efficient than our dedicated aft platform.
  • Combined main saloon/cockpit the worst of all worlds. People prefer dedicated spaces. Our hi-low, convertible table makes our inside seating area serve as a couch with cocktail table, or full dining area well protected with the sliding doors closed.  Too much dependency on sliding/closing windows doors, with inherent leaking potential (water and wind) to gain weather integrity.

Many compromises were made to accommodate the questionable concept of the combined main saloon cockpit. This may work ok in some southern areas, but what about the rest of the world? If it were a valid concept, why aren’t more manufacturers following this model? I can tell you one thing, the Naval architects are horrified at the idea of a solid front deck—this is a definite design non sequitur.

So, consider whether you really want to sail, offshore with a Ford 150 parked on your foredeck?

6. Fountaine Pajot

  • Nice balance of social areas. Large cockpit with aft seating as well — more seating than any boat in her class. Deck level control station with a social lounge on the cabin top. Forward choice of seating or net covers.
  • Now, all models offer the famous, FP, dinghy swim platform aft–available on models from 40-67′.
  • Easy, the no-step transition from the cockpit to the interior. Either can be closed off for inclement weather.
  • Highest sail area/displacement area for her class. A low boom for easy access, less pitching, and a low center of gravity and low center of effort.
  • Comfortable, light interior with tall windows so you can see out, sitting or standing. Great with Bluetooth instruments. Sitting inside or out with an iPad, you always have exceptional 360-degree visibility.
  • Very good main saloon storage and comfort. Underfloor dry lockers a bonus. Exceptional galley and countertop space. Low maintenance materials throughout.
  • Sleeping cabins. Best volume in class. Queen size island beds aft. Exceptional storage and ventilation
  • Unique owner cabin with separate, private toilet compartment. Vanity separated with a large linen locker. Large shower with floor-to-ceiling door to keep the rest of the head dry. Dedicated laundry room forward to accommodate washer/dryer and more.

Eric Smith

Senior Sales Consultant, Partner
More from Eric >> Boat Business Webinars, Videos, Blogs, Learning center and more.

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