The last time I visited the Miami boat show, I heard a prominent sailing
magazine editor say that catamarans are only seaworthy if they are more than
forty feet in length. That came as a big surprise to me, because I had
already sailed Exit Only half way around the world, and we were only
thirty-nine and a half feet long. According to his gospel, we were
circumnavigating the world in a barely seaworthy vessel.
I have more than 33,000 miles of offshore sailing under my belt, and I can
unequivocally say that size has little to do with seaworthiness. A
sturdy small yacht that's sailed well is far more seaworthy than a large
vessel sailed poorly by an inexperienced crew.
I know of a 32 foot catamaran that rounded Cape Horn, and I met sailors in
Thailand who were completing a circumnavigation on a 35 foot catamaran with
a crew of three.
So what's the difference between maxi cats and small cats like Exit Only?
It doesn't have much to do with seaworthiness; it's more about speed and the
ability to carry weight. Big cats go faster, sometimes a lot faster,
and they can carry more weight. Fast is good, but usually not that
important. If you're really into speed, you should be flying in a
747, after all, nothing goes to windward like a 747.
High speed is a mixed blessing. Sailing at fifteen to twenty knots is
exciting and may give you the ability to get out of harms way when you're
running from a storm. But the speed that can save you can also be your
undoing. What do I mean by that?
When I sail Exit Only at six knots, my margin for error is infinitely
large, but when I am sailing at twenty knots the margin for error is razor
thin. I once saw our speedometer max out at eighteen knots during an
Atlantic storm as we sailed from Gibraltar to the Canary Islands, and I was
more than a little concerned. If the autopilot failed or any
significant problem happened at that speed, my catamaran could capsize or
suffer structural damage. There was no margin for error, and it was
mandatory that I decrease our speed to safe levels. I trailed two
warps behind Exit Only bringing our speed down to four and a half knots, and
immediately smiles broke out among the crew. In spite of the twenty
foot seas, Exit Only was sailing at a safe speed with a comfortable motion,
and we knew that we would be ok. We spent the next two days
running off in thirty five to forty knots of wind without a problem.
We were out of the danger zone and into the "No Worries Mate" zone.
No matter what the size of your cat, you can't maintain high speeds for long
periods without incurring structural damage. It's simply a matter of
physics. The hull structure simply can't safely dissipate all the
kinetic energy associated with high speeds for an unlimited period of time.
If you push a large high tech cat too fast for too long in large seas, a demolition derby
begins. I've seen fast cats sitting high and dry in boatyards around
the world awaiting repairs. If you want to discover the structural
weakness in your cat, just sail it fast in big seas, and it won't be long
before you find the weakest link in your speed machine.
Seaworthiness isn't about size; its about seamanship. You must know
the sea, and know your vessel, and sail it in a manner that it makes it
possible to survive.
I sail my catamaran at five to six knots around the clock when I am
offshore. I move at those speeds so that my crew is comfortable, and
the boat has a reasonable motion. At six knots my autopilot
effortlessly handles the wind and seas, and everyone knows they are safe.
When boat speed goes above ten knots, everyone becomes uneasy, because we are
sailing closer to the edge.
Our perfect boat speed is 6.25 knots. At that speed Exit Only is able
to click off one-hundred fifty miles per day and do it in comfort without risk.
Equally important, the autopilot is happy, and a happy autopilot means a
When you're sailing fast in big seas, the load on the autopilot increases
substantially. That's not a problem until you strip the gears on the
autopilot or burn out its motor. Then you have a real problem, because
suddenly you must hand steer in bad weather, and if you are crossing an
ocean, you might be hand steering for several weeks. When the wind and
sea state increase, I sail in damage control mode to protect my autopilot,
because I want my autopilot to live long and prosper.
Yacht designers and salesman worship at the altar of speed, while most
cruisers worship at the altar of safety and comfort. If you are a
mariner versed in the ways of the sea, you know the truth about
seaworthiness. It's not the size of the vessel that matters; it's how
you sail it that really counts. So don't let anyone tell you that your vessel
is unseaworthy because of it's size. Just look them in the eye, and wave good-bye as you start your voyage around the world.
Although the sea is big, and my ship is small, life is still good.