Blue water catamaran trip

by Pete McGonagle, Founding Partner

We should be seeing Diamond Shoals light by now. Has its fate followed Benton Reef and Cape Fear? Removed, scrapped, and deemed obsolete by GPS? Hatteras light is clearly visible on the port beam. I’ve rounded this cape perhaps a hundred times before. Always offshore and with at least 600 feet of steel under my feet. It’s 00:30 on October 5th and I’ve just assumed the watch aboard Blue Water Cat. We’re on port tack, close-reaching in 12 knots of true wind. The apparent wind is averaging about 18. Boat speed is consistently nine to 10 knots. I’ve joined Kent Marrow, importer of the Soubise and other Lerouge-designed catamarans, for this delivery trip from Charleston to Annapolis. Why Annapolis? The U.S. Sailboat show starting in a few days. Why am I making this trip? Like most sailors, I’m curious about large multihulls and where they might fit into the offshore cruising picture. And, that short sail on a Hobie 14 twenty years ago doesn’t really count.

Kent and I are joined on this trip by the Swensons. Steven and Roma Swenson owned a 2002 Hallberg-Rassy 46. With plans to begin cruising the following summer, they have a nagging question to be answered: Would a multihull be a better for their cruising plans? When Steven called and asked me this question, I pleaded ignorance. But said, “Let’s find out. Why don’t you sail with Kent and me up to Annapolis?” Knowing he wasn’t the only voting member of the clan, wife Roma, and sons Leif and Gage, also packed their duffles and flew to Charleston.

The Blue Water Cat, a Soubise catamaran.

The Blue Water Cat, a Soubise catamaran.

Departing mid-day, we immediately set sail after motoring out of the Charleston Marina in Mount Pleasant. With winds from the north we reached out of the harbor. My immediate impressions were that steering is very subtle. Small rudders, good directional stability, and very little feedback from the helm found me oversteering. This took some getting used to. Gone was the heeling normally found with puffy conditions. This was replaced by quick acceleration with an increase in apparent wind. Exiting the breakwater and setting a course for Cape Fear, reality set in. Mid-Atlantic high pressure meant northeasterly winds. Right on the nose. So, the opportunity to see what sailing to windward is like.
This particular Soubise is equipped with fixed keels (daggerboards are optional), a rotating mast, a large, full-battened main, and 110% jib. In relatively smooth water and 12knots of true wind, eight to nine knots of boat speed are normal. Tacking through 80 degrees of apparent wind seemed to keep good VMG. That’s all nice, but what’s it mean over the sand’s 60 feet below. Our track indicated a true tacking angle of 100 degrees in smooth water. As night approached the wind built, reaching a maximum of 35 knots. With two reefs in the main, we punched through steep eight-foot seas. As expected, our VMG to windward suffered. What’s the motion like, beating to windward? Unlike the predictable heel/roll/pitch experience on a monohull, there’s a more rapid pitching/lurching/surging sensation. Lightweight due to lack of ballast surely speeds up these motions. Is it more or less comfortable than a monohull? That would depend on the boat. It would be similar to lightweight, flat-bottomed boats and less comfortable to heavy displacement boats. Naturally. Other observations: Steering was easy and handled by the autopilot. Tacking into heavy seas takes some technique. As a novice, I was able to complete about fifty percent of my tacks.

After a day of beating into rough seas, we couldn’t help but think, “Should we head to the Bahamas?” About a day’s run with the strong winds on our quarter. “Boy, this boat would be great boat in the Bahamas,” was heard more than once. With the reality of boat show fees paid, Annapolis remained our upwind destination. Late Friday evening, winds eased to the point where motoring made sense. Cranking up the twin Yanmars, we headed for the Frying Pan Shoals and then set a course for Beaufort, N.C. to top off on diesel and water. Morning brought winds backing to the north and we again set sail. Record high temps as we piloted into Beaufort brought the masses out in their open fishing boats. Handling the cat under power proved very easy. More like a twin screw power yacht than a monohull, I was easily able to parallel park at the fuel dock. Forget the rudders, grab the throttles, twist and shout.

Departing Beaufort at about 14:00, we headed southeast for Cape Lookout. Sailing in westerly winds and warm temperatures, we were finally able to enjoy some reaching conditions. With a four-foot draft, and keels designed to take a grounding, we cut the sand shoals of Cape Lookout watching the fathomer decrease to three feet below our keel. Standing off these shoals in a fixed-keel monohull, would have added another 15 miles to our voyage. Once past Cape Lookout, we turned northeast and put the southwesterly wind astern. With a yearning for speed, we pulled the 0.75 oz cruising spinnaker out of the starboard bow locker. Hoisted on a 2:1 masthead halyard and tacked on the starboard bow, this sail allowed us to maintain nine knots, dead downwind, in 14 knots true with the ability to tack this sail on the windward bow, no pole is needed to sail deep angles. Convenient. Kent spread a wonderful Mexican dinner on the cockpit table which we were all able to enjoy. As I watched the unattended wine glasses on the table I couldn’t help but remark, “You wouldn’t see this on a monohull.” With rising winds and a setting sun, we doused the chute and pressed on under main and winged jib.
As the winds veered to west during the night, Steven gybed over to port. Anxious to be awake while rounding Cape Hatteras, I came on watch at midnight. Reaching along at a steady nine to ten knots, we approached Diamond Shoals. With good visibility and no traffic, we rounded inshore of Diamond Shoals light tower. Operating at reduced intensity this beacon finally showed herself when only a few miles off. Shaping up to a northerly course, I trimmed main and jib until we were close hauled. With winds gusting to 23 knots apparent, I was seeing ten to 11 knots of boat speed. At about 04:00 Kent tacked to starboard as a weak cold front passed and continued to follow the coastline north towards Virginia. Again, the knotmeter maintained a steady seven to eight knots.

With winds easing to calm, we fired up the engines and headed towards Cape Henry. At 18:24 we passed over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Warm temperatures, flood current, and clear skies. Perfect conditions for a nighttime transit of Chesapeake Bay. At 00:30 I was awakened by wind rushing through the hatch overhead. Joining Kent in the cockpit, we were happy to see easterly winds and both concluded that it was time to sail. Kent went to the mast and quickly had the main up while I unfurled the jib. Blue Water Cat was soon up to eight knots in 12 knots of true wind. What a great way to conclude a trip to Annapolis. As I dealt with shipping traffic, the autopilot easily maintained our course. One ship’s pilot was amazed to see a sailboat doing 10 knots in such light winds. The bulk cargo vessel he was aboard took a very long time to overtake us doing 12 knots. By sunrise we were able to make out the Bay Bridge ahead. By this time, winds had eased to six knots — still enough wind to sail all the way into Annapolis and anchor Blue Water Cat among the fleet of multi- and monohulls waiting to participate in the upcoming boat show.

We never experienced strong winds from aft of the beam. Scott Fuller, my partner at Swiftsure Yachts, was aboard this boat in such conditions and witnessed a top speed of 22 knots and consistent speeds of 15 knots. I can easily see how this boat can do 250 to 300 nautical mile days in tradewind conditions.

What are my conclusions after this trip? I personally would consider a quality, well-designed cruising cat for long-distance cruising in warm climates, mid-latitudes and the tropics. For higher latitudes and cold weather, I would stick with a heavier displacement monohull. Upwind, in a seaway, the motion of the catamaran is no more or less comfortable than a light displacement monohull. With reaching and running conditions, the stability and comfort of a catamaran really starts to shine. The speed potential is addicting and could make for fast passages. The ability to explore shallow waters and beach in tidal areas is also attractive. Living space is superior with vast amounts of cockpit and deck space. Perhaps I was spoiled to experience a boat with very high bridge deck clearance, relatively narrow hulls (for a cruising cat), and excellent sailing performance. I really wouldn’t be interested in sacrificing these attributes for a little more interior space. The stern’s swim steps, trampoline, dinghy davit/radar/solar panel arch, and bimini covered cockpit make an awesome water sports platform. With no heeling and little feedback from the rudder, one must use the anemometer and show good judgment when deciding to reef. Cruising catamarans definitely deserve consideration for blue water cruising.