Keeping Upright!

Ugly (thanks Joe from MarineMotion for photo)

I have been a cruising cat fanatic for quite a while now, since the early 1990s. In my years as a yacht broker, one question that has often been raised, then easily dismissed, has to do with the offshore safety of cats–particularly the discussion of capsizing.

There was a time when the first words out of my mouth when confronted with safety at sea were “no cruising cat over 45’ has ever flipped.” Whether or not that was more hyperbole than fact, most early cruising cats were really heavy, slow condomarans. There is still a huge amount of these types of boats out there, and there is a great likelihood that none of them will ever flip. So digest that…if your aim is to safely cruise, you love the comfort and footprint of a cruising cat and you might make a passage every few years (and even then, you are fine with slow, methodical and lots of motoring), stop right there! There is nothing wrong with boats like that–in fact, 80% of the cruising cat industry is based on that thinking, and you don’t need to concern yourself with what it will take to stay upright. Just watch weather and carry plenty of fuel, and you’ll have nothing to worry about. The reality is, most big comfortable cruising cats will break their rig a whole lot sooner than they will capsize.

Ever since guys like me got into this game, though, there has been a clamoring for performance cats–faster, lighter and more powerful. And a funny thing happened. They appeared. More and more, better and better, and pretty soon, there were a lot of fast cats out there. Enough that old Murphy’s Law had to intervene somewhere. And frankly, there are so many catamarans cruising the oceans now that sooner or later, bad stuff was going to happen–even to big heavy boats. It’s a numbers game.

So, to sell some magazines later, I am telling you now that I will write an in-depth article about this topic in an upcoming Multihulls Quarterly. I will examine what has happened, hypothesize on user error and talk about what could be done to stay safe at sea in a performance multihull. I will discuss pitch poling, evasive maneuvers, using sea anchors and drogues, weather and routing, as well as design issues that contribute to disaster. But for now, let me ask your opinion: Of recent cruising cat problems, are there any that simply could not have been avoided? Conventional wisdom says that when it gets really bad, go downwind. But what is your boat like going 22 knots unbridled down a 30 foot wave? And what happens when you reach the bottom? Sounds like time to drag something, right? Have you practiced that? Thought not!  What about heaving to? When a 25’ wave goes vertical, what then?

Then there is the discussion of apparent wind. All those Orma 60 trimarans that capsized are a result of coming down a big wave going absurdly fast, getting to the bottom, having the leeward ama stuff and the apparent wind swing back to true–which is aft of the beam–and wa-bam! Over they go.

Last two thoughts…not every catastrophe can be prevented, but a great percentage of recent disasters could have been avoided. User error? You be the judge. The other thought: If you go out and buy a Ferrari, then drive around at 180mph, your odds of survival certainly are worse than if you drive around in your Suburban at the speed limit. Just sayin…

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4 Responses to Keeping Upright!

  1. Bob says:

    This looks like an interesting topic. But, I would like to see the discussion cover more than the extremes. To use your analogy of cars, you compare a Ferrari to a Suburban. There are a lot of cars in between. Similarly, there are a lot of multis that are neither all-out racers nor heavy sleds. It would be interesting to include some of these boat types in your discussion. If you do not want to mention specific manufacturers, then how about several hypothetical boats in which you specify length, beam, sail area, displacement, etc.

  2. derek says:

    Good comments, and will do
    My article will also largely focus on what you, the skipper and crew needs to know to avoid catastrophe, and what various sizes and types of boats will do in bad weather



  3. Mike Van Der Wal says:

    Interesting topic.
    We have recently bought a St Francis 50 “Sirius”. We sailed her back to NZ from Brisbane, Australia in January (cyclone season). The gods smiled and allowed us a weather window – although 25 to 35 knots on the nose for 10 days isn’t much of a smile. The Tasman can be a particularly nasty and unpridictable bit of water but its our backyard and we will be traversing it often from NZ to the Pacific Islands. So we need to be prepared for all eventualities – therefore we are making sure that well setup dropgues and sea anchors are part of that preparation. The sea anchor and its fixing points on the bow are at present being designed to take the enormous shock loads that the sea anchor transfers onto the bow. The two options were stainless steel or kevlar – we have chosen the kevlar (slightly more expensive but less prone to stress) fitted through the bow below the topside and hull junction and then reinforced inside the crash/watertight bulk head.
    We want to have the option of “time out” when making crossings – a good nights sleep when its blowing and then continue on – or when it really gets messy and running before it is not an option we have a last card up our sleave. We hope it never happens – but if you’re not prepared for it its bound to come looking for you – Murphy’s Law


  4. Derek says:

    Thanks Mike,

    My contention always has been with both Drogues and Sea Anchors that the time to learn how to deploy them is not the same as the time you have to! So, get that thing out in reasonable conditions, and get used to it. That way, when you really need it, you won’ have your head in the manual trying to figure it all out.

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