To cat or not to cat? My experience crossing an ocean on a catamaran.

While I have been sailing yachts for over 20 years, I always sailed on monohulls and never sailed on a cat, a catamaran. Came last winter, I finally had the opportunity to crew on a catamaran from South Portugal via the Canaries and Cape Verde to Grenada in the Caribbean. And that gave me an equal opportunity to compare sailing on a cat versus monohulls.

Just as no two types of monohulls are the same, neither are two types of cats the same. Some cats are geared towards cruising and comfort, while others are more performance oriented, or even racing cats. So my reflections are limited to that single type of cat I sailed on, and are - I realize - highly subjective.

The cat I sailed on, was a cruising cat: SV Sturdeee (yep that's with 3 e's - like "echo-echo-echoooo") is a 45 foot Lagoon 450F. The "F" stands for "Fly bridge", which is an option for this type of Lagoon: The fly bridge is a superstructure on top of the main saloon, acting as the main helming position. It features a solid roof and a large bench - and of course the helm, all navigation instruments plus all winches and clutches to handle the running rigging.

Sturdeee was about five years old, purchased two years earlier by its current owners Ian and Dee, a pilot and flight attendant couple. - And it was interesting to experience how their professional experience also translated in how Ian and Dee sailed, maintained and managed the boat. By itself, this is a golden tip if you want to crew on a boat and with a crew or owners you never sailed before: their past professional background DOES profoundly affect the way the boat is set up, and run. Which, on Sturdeee, was a good thing! :-)

When I stepped on Sturdeee for the first time, in Faro (South Portugal) mid September last year, I was immediately impressed: A 45ft catamaran is big! Sturdeee features a large saloon and galley (with three fridges/freezers - what a luxury!), generator, two engines, a large "cockpit" (aft deck sheltered seating area), a large foredeck seating area, a sundeck, 3 double cabins (each with their own bathroom or "head"), plus an extra cabin used as work/storage area.

This immediate highlighted the first (and obvious) difference between a 45 ft cat versus a monohull of the same size: A cat has MUCH more space (seating, cooking, sleeping, stowage). Pretty obvious, knowing that instead of one hull, you have two - and that, by itself, already +- doubles your space compared to a monohull. And on top of that, you have a large platform connecting the two hulls. That platform holds the space for the galley/saloon, aft cockpit, and, on Sturdeee, also the flybridge.

We were kinda joking that Sturdeee felt like an apartment with 5 floors: "Deeper down", slightly below sea-level, you had (floor 1) the 3 cabins and bathrooms. You take one set of stairs up, and you come into the saloon/galley and aft seating area - the cockpit (floor 2). From there, you take a set of stairs to come to the main deck (floor 3). And from there, some more stairs to get onto the flight deck (floor 4). From there, there were more steps to climb onto the roof of the fly bridge where one could reach the boom and the mainsail running rigging (floor 5), about 4-5 meters above the water level...

I had never sailed on a yacht with that many different "floors"... And it might sound funny, but in our passage, we sometimes "lost track", of where our crew was: "Where did Ian go? Last seen in the galley, but have not seen him for 30 minutes - maybe he is on the aft deck? or maybe he is in one of the cabins? or maybe on top of the fly bridge?"... Oh, look, he is sitting on the sunbeds on the foredeck!

Apart from the space on a cat, another more obvious observation: a cat always has two engines, one in each hull. So you basically have "a spare" if one engine dies.. But that also means double engine maintenance, and maintenance costs...

For two years Ian and Dee had prepared the boat for this ocean passage, and their planned upcoming cruising years in the Caribbean and Pacific: She was VERY well equipped for her upcoming adventure: redundant satellite comms (Starlink and an Iridium Go), plenty of solar panels (flexible panels atop of the fly bridge and solid panels aft above the davits holding the dinghy), water maker, large house battery bank, generator,...

This showed another (obvious) difference between a cat versus a monohull: As you have more top-deck surface, it is easier to fix plenty of solar panels to charge your batteries. Important, as "electricity management" is quite crucial while cruising: the more "systems" (fridges, freezers, satcoms, autopilot) you have, the more you depend on a reliable electricity supply (and charging systems).

Beyond that, what impressed me the most, was that Sturdeee looked as if she was brand new. When I first stepped onto her, she looked "spic-and-span". Everything looked like she came out of the factory a month ago: the standing and running rigging, the deck, the interior, the engines,...: I could not see a single scratch, sign of rust, or even a bit dirt.

Sure, when I boarded her, Sturdeee had not sailed a lot up to that point - leave alone sailing long distances... But still, a vessel of five years old would typically already show "some of her age". Kudos to Ian and Dee, who clearly took pride in maintaining "their home" in a more than perfect shape.
I translated that observation to the owners' previous professional lives: Ian being a pilot and Dee being a flight attendant. Pilots tend to care for technical systems and details, while flight attendants take pride in a tidy and well run cabin with happy passengers :-)

Another short sidestep here: immediate impressions when stepping on a yacht for the first time, are important: In two minutes, looking around, you can see 95% of how a boat is maintained and up-kept. While those are more "superficial" observations, most of the time, this also reflects on how the boat's "inner guts", which you can't see at first glance, are maintained and serviced.

And that, by itself, contributes to (the feeling of) "safety" aboard a vessel. Important for me, as I came on board the evening of Sept 11, and we set off on the first leg of our ocean passage from Portugal to the Canaries, the next morning. So I would be sailing in an open ocean on a vessel I did not know, and with a crew I did not know neither. But I felt totally comfortable in slipping the mooring lines on Sturdeee, based on those positive first impressions...

As we left Faro to Lanzarote in the Canaries, the morning of September 12th, motoring in initial light winds, and gradually hoisting more sails, some of the main "on passage" differences between a monohull and a cat came up.

Sturdeee's "out of the box" sails consisted of a genoa (a 120% genoa if I remember well), originally sheeted through cars on the foredeck close to the mast, and a heavily baton-ed stiff mainsail with a broad top. In addition (not part of the standard sail-package), she had a Code-0 sail (which we never used as we never had upwind conditions during our passage) and a Parasailor wing/spinnaker, which would become our downwind powerhouse.

As the genoa was originally rigged, with the sheets running via the cars on the foredeck, in front of the fly bridge, there was no way to trim the genoa for a good broad reach or down-wind sail: The genoa sheeting was running too close to midships, which inhibited us from keeping the sail "open" in a broad reach or sailing downwind.
Luckily, Ian had planned for that, and we ran the genoa sheet via a home-made barber hauler through an aft block, onto a winch on the flight deck. That by itself, was a winner for our mostly down-wind transatlantic sailing, allowing the genoa to open up more. But it also meant a bit more work when tacking: each time we tacked or gybed, we had to move the barber hauler to the other side of the boat. A little extra effort for a lot of gain...

That, was not our main challenge. Our main challenge was more related to the mainsail: As we sailed further south towards the Canaries, with Sturdeee's stiff, battoned and large mainsail, it became clear that raising, dropping or reefing the mainsail while sailing mostly down wind, as we did, was a challenge. A challenge even more so, as the reefing lines on Sturdeee were very stiff and just a bit too thick and stiff, making it difficult to feed them through a number of bends (at the mast, the goose neck and at the end of the boom). This meant that the reefing lines had to be manually fed at the mast and at the end of the boom... So for any mainsail changes, Ian had climb onto the roof of the fly bridge, about 4-5 meters above the water line, to work on the main sail. A manoeuvre I did not feel happy about: Seeing Ian standing that high up, working at the end of the boom, with no secure place to hook his tether line onto, always gave me an uneasy feeling in my tummy. The more so as, to hoist, drop or reef the main sail, we had to motor into the wind, straight into the open ocean waves, which made Sturdeee buck heavily.

Later on, we refined any manoeuvre involving working on the main sail, by blocking the boom with two preventers, but still having anyone work on a sail 4-5 meters above the water line, does not make me happy... And any main sail changes, something which on any other boat I sailed on before, could be done single-handed, on Sturdeee, involved a "all hands on deck" call for our 5 crew: Ian on top of the fly bridge, Dee at the helm, and Lana, Michele and me, alternating on the main sheet and reefing lines in the cockpit and at the mast, and managing the preventers...
That is why, as we sailed along in our ocean passage, we were hesitant to do any mainsail changes during night time...

I have mentioned before that the mainsail reefing lines, as typically installed on a Lagoon were too stiff and too thick to be able to feed through the goose neck on the mast and on the aft of the boom. A similar challenge with the running rigging was faced with the furling line of the foresail. This line went through - if I remember well 6 - tackles angled at almost 90°. This caused quite a bit of inherent friction in furling or unfurling the genea. On other boats I sailed, a genoa could be furled easily "by hand", pulling straight on the line, or with 1 or 2 twists over the winch. On Sturdeee, this was not the case: when we wanted to furl the genoa, we had to fully winch the furling line and winch it. And winch it at full force. We overcame that challenge with one crew sitting on the foredeck and manually pulling the furling line, and the one at the helm station, just taking in the slack. An unconvenience, nevertheless.

Another observation was that the manufacturer of Lagoons, advised NOT to sail with only a genoa (without a mainsail up). A feat which still mesmerises me, especially as they did not object to fly the Parasailor without the mainsail - knowing the Parasailor is much more powerful and pulls the mast much more forward....
In past years, sailing on monohulls, we often sailed downwind only on foresails, which makes -in my book- a comfortable and easy passage, and a sail configuration which was easy to "manage" (it is easy to take in or shake out a reef on furling foresails). That by itself, limited our sailing abilities - according to me - on Sturdeee: We had several instances where we were sailing the Parasailor wing without mainsail, but the wind got too strong, and we had to dose the Parasail. What do you do then? My obvious choice would be to unfurl the genoa, but Lagoon advised against it, without raising the mainsail. A thing we hesitated to do at night. So, as a compromise, when, in the middle of the night, we dosed the Parasail, we were sailing on a tripled reefed genoa, crawling along - as we did not want to raise the mainsail in the middle of the night...

Moving on from sails and wind angles to wave angles...: As we were sailing on, from Portugal to the Caribbean, roughly 4,000 Nmiles, mainly down wind or in a broad reach, in the open ocean, we had the waves mostly from a starboard quarter. Even though ocean waves are less steep and short than what we experience in the Med, still each wave made the cat swing left and right.

That "swing" or "roll" was less than on a monohull, but it was just enough, to make the mainsail "swing" left and right. Even with two preventers on the boom, the boom was not moving, but the mainsail was flapping left to right. And a heavy battoned stiff main sail, as we had, deflating and re-inflating 2-3 times per minute, for days on end, causes a lot of strain, wear-and-tear- on the sail, the mast, the rigging, and the cars which fix the mainsail onto the mast. Each swing could be felt as a shiver throughout the boat. And each swing of the mainsail deflating and re-inflating, went with a loud bang, which did not make the skipper happy at all. Loud curses were usually uttered by Ian, at each "bang". Understandably...
The only solution we found, was to triple-reef the mainsail, so it had less power, and would have the mainsail "swing" less, or at least less violently. So in most of our passage, we were underpowered on the mainsail. Even while doing so, after our passage, Ian found some damage, and wear on the sail and the cars connecting the mainsail to the mast.

In addition - something I had not previously experienced on monohull yachts: Sturdeee could not sail with a mainsail only: she needed a genoa to balance the mainsail. With only a mainsail, even when triple-reefed, the boat would turn into the wind, no matter how much you counter-helmed her.

That became a bit of an issue when sailing downwind in squalls: As we came closer towards the Caribbean, we had more frequent squalls, with the winds jumping from an easy 10 or 15 knots to 30 knots. When we hit a squall, we had to heavily reef the genoa on its furler. But that also meant we could not use the barber hauler anymore, and had to rig the genoa sheet through the cars on the foredeck, which were close to the mast. With just a "handkerchief" of a genoa out, rigged that tight to the mast, and the squall hitting us with a downwind of 30-40 knots, the genoa was difficult to control as it would not stay "open", and start to flap. A violently flapping genoa does not make me happy.
On top of that, with a heavily reefed genoa, and even with a triple reefed mainsail, both sails were not in balance, so in those conditions, the boat tended to turn into the wind.

I clearly remember one morning, about three days sailing from Grenada. I had just finished a double shift with Michele and Lana, during which we had dodged several squalls, and Ian came on watch. On the radar and visually, we saw a massive squall building up behind us, one we could not dodge. The main was already triple reefed, and I took off the barber hauler from the genoa, running the sheet of the reefed genoa through the car on the foredeck, trying to avoid it from flapping too violently.
When the squall hit us, it was clear the reefed genoa could not balance the power of the triple-reefed mainsail, and the boat tended to turn into the wind. Ian had to start the windward engine and throttle it quite a bit, to keep the boat holding its course.
It was tense. Even with a downwind squall of "only" 30 knots, which, on a monohull, with tightly reefed sails, would not be a problem, was.. eh.. uncomfortably tense on Sturdeee. I remember that instance very well: Lana and Michele were off shift and sleeping. Ian and me were on the fly bridge trying to keep the boat under control, and as the wall of rain in the squall hit us, Dee tried to close the sides of cockpit, but too late: all stuff in the cockpit got thoroughly soaked. As we were hit by a torrential downpour, poor Ian only had a T-shirt and shorts on, and was totally soaked. I just came out of a night watch, so I still had my rain coat on. After an intense hour, navigating through the squall, all three of us were shaking on our legs. No need to tell you we all hi-fived, once we came through the squall, but once again this reminded me, that on a monohull, that would have been less of an issue.

On the upside: We had a Parasailor spinnaker. On a cat, this massive and powerful sail can be run with tack lines on both front hulls, and its sheets, run aft on both sides. A Parasailor wing on a cat, is a marriage made in heaven: This was a configuration much easier to sail with, on a cat, than on a monohull. Jybing the Parasailor was a breeze: you just ease one side and tension the other side. We had great runs on the Parasailor. I loved that sail!

Another observation when running downwind: In the passage from the Canaries to Cape Verdes, our ARC+ fleet was hit by a 20-30 kts wind from a North-Atlantic depression. We had planned our course well, and kept a more westerly course than the rest of the fleet, so we had less violent wind, but still: Sailing straight downwind in 20+ knots on a monohull makes it "a very rolly day". Sturdeee, on the contrary, hardly moved, surfing happily on the 3-4 meter waves. First on the Parasailor kite, and when taken down, on genoa and mainsail, she sailed very happily and very stable on a true downwind track. At that point, I realized that monohulls, in the same conditions, would roll a lot. Like A LOT! That was one of the times where I felt lucky to be on a cat. Beyond that, we had several stretches where we could sail 100% down wind (with the apparent wind coming from 180°, straight aft), an angle which would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to hold on a monohull.

On the downside of it - and this now goes into one of the main differences between a monohull and a cat: A cat does not like waves coming from the side, and certainly not from a broad side. On a monohull, you basically sail according to the wind, but on a cat like Sturdeee, you also have to sail according to wave angles. She does NOT like waves from a broad side or an angled aft.

Aft-angled or broad-side waves would hit Sturdeee's windward hull first, with a bang. And do keep in mind Sturdeee's hulls are about 2 meter tall and vertical - So it looks like side waves are hitting a vertical wall. So first the wave hits the windward hull, then goes under the boat and would hit the horizontal platform upwards with another bang (at times almost lifting the boat up vertically). And then hit the leeward hull with yet another bang.
At times, each bang, each hit, was so violent, in the open ocean, that it made the boat shiver. I remember laying on my bunk, touching the hull with my hand, and feeling how my bunk moved differently from the hull. You can imagine the strain that puts on the structure of the boat. No wonder some Lagoon owners had complained that their bulkheads (part of the main structure of the boat) would delaminate due to the pressure...

Below deck that also translates into a lot of cracking and creaking of the floorboards and upholdestry (the doors and cabinets). That by itself was quite a difference with sailing on Nerio, our 72ft aluminium monohull we crossed the Atlantic with the year before - where at times we were sailing at 10 knots and I woke up in my bunk as I heard no noise - thinking the boat had actually stopped. A cat surely generates much more noise: bangs and creaks.... :-)

Beyond that, I observed more differences in sailing a cat versus a monohull, particularly a cat with a flybridge with a solid roof. And I would not qualify those as observations of a cat versus a monohull, but rather "a cat with a solid roofed flybridge" versus a monohull:
On Sturdeee, the flybridge is about 3 meter above the water line. So, at the helm, one has a good view of the surroundings. Which is a plus: in the tropics, sitting that high up above the water, one catches the breeze more, making it less hot, but one also feels the wind much more fierce than her actual speed. I remember that one time when we sailed downwind in 20 knots the sleeves of my jacket would vibrate in the wind, even though we only had like 14 knots of apparent wind...
But beyond that, as sailors, we always want to keep a good eye on our sails. With a solid roof above the flybridge, that was a challenge: We could not see the sails easily. To trim the genoa, Parasailor, or mainsail, one had to step out of the flybridge, or lean outwards, to look at the sails. Unlike a monohull, where, from the helming position, one could see the sails at a glance, making it much easier to trim the sails.

And of course a cat does not lean, as both hulls are always in the water. So on a cat, this contributed to the feeling that one gets far less "feedback" from the boat if you are over or under trimmed.

And yet another observation which I saw as we approached the Mindolo harbour in Cape Verdes, sailing close to the wind. Something I had not realize before: A cat has no keel to speak of, so she "drifts" off downwind by A LOT.. As we approached Mindelo, visually, it looked like we were pointing to the rocky outcrop of the island, but when we looked at the plotter, showing our actual course-over-ground, it indicated that while the boat pointed to land, our actual course was 30° off: lacking a keel (or dagger boards), had the boat drift quite a bit leeward. Again, a difference between a monohull and a cat I had not experienced before...

And all of that, would make me come to my conclusion while sailing on Sturdeee: On any boat I sailed on before, from a slow 35 ft Sunsail charter "caravan" to a 72ft racing cruiser, on each of those monohulls, after a couple of days, I felt like I got in sync with the boat. After a couple of days sailing on any of those monohulls, I felt a synergy between the boat and me, and a love affair building between me and the boat.

I never felt that on Sturdeee. In the 4,000 miles I sailed on her, I never felt that synergy, the moment where I felt truly what the boat wanted, and where I had the feeling the boat felt I could give her what she wanted. She continued to feel like a cat, a creature needing attention, and hicking up the moment I did not pay attention.

But maybe that is just me. And the way I am used to sail on monohulls.
Or maybe that was just me, sailing on a cruising cat, versus sailing on a performance cat.

In conclusion: Yep, sailing a cruising catamaran on an ocean passage was the experience I was looking for. I enjoyed the passage, and the company of Ian, Dee, Michele and Lana. And surely, we achieved our goal of a safe passage with no damage to the boat... But I would prefer sailing on a monohull any time above sailing on a cruising catamaran...

But that is just me...


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