Catamaran vs. Monohull: Heading to the dark side, or away from it?
Note: The following was written some time ago, and was originally intended for magazine publication. As I never actively pursued that, and as the catamaran vs. monohull question has been asked of us so many times, I decided to post the piece here instead, and then link it to our FAQ page.
It wasn’t all that long ago that my wife and I first conceived of the idea of going sailing. As neither of us had any real sailing experience to speak of, we did what most people do these days when confronted by a problem, we consulted the internet. In doing so, it took only a few short minutes to find a school offering sailing instruction, and with an email, a phone call, and a credit card transaction, we had both signed up for a week-long liveaboard sailing course in Florida. We were on our way.
The instruction we received took place in two parts. We began with a few days of classroom study and sailing on a 26′ keelboat to learn the basics: tacking, gybing, terminology, etc. Following that, we spent several days and nights on a larger 49′ monohull to get the full liveaboard experience. All of that turned out great, and as we had hoped, we were hooked. Just days after returning to our home in Canada, we had our house listed for sale and began making plans in earnest to sell off and head south.
When it came time to purchase a boat, even though we had only ever really sailed on a monohull, we both knew, for whatever reason, that a catamaran was for us. We invested countless hours boat shopping on the web, focused only on cats, and after 6 months of searching, ended up the proud owners of a beautiful little multihull, a PDQ 32. That boat, our pride and joy, would be our home and vehicle from the summer of 2009 until 2013.
What happened in 2013? Presented with a new opportunity, we moved onto a larger catamaran, having taken jobs as the Captain and Chef running charters in the Virgin Islands. Even though the boat wasn’t ours, we treated it as if it was, and we gained even more experience with multihulls. Unlike most people though, we would soon make a very uncommon transition, we chose to purchase a monohull!
While we know dozens of people who have sold their monohulls to move onto a cat, I can’t think of a single person, aside from us, who has done the opposite. I’m sure it happens, but it’s definitely not common.
When our friends found out our plans, most could only scratch their heads and wonder why. Our reasons were sound though, we had set our sites on some higher latitude sailing in Patagonia, and while our beloved PDQ 32 is a wonderful boat for the tropics, in our minds, she wasn’t suited for the colder conditions that we were likely to find ourselves in.
It’s funny how many people would comment that we were “going back to a monohull.” Just about everyone was surprised when we explained that we had never owned a monohull to begin with, and that, with the exception of our initial classes, and some time on OPBs (other people’s boats), we were strictly multihull sailors.
“How are you dealing with the healing, or the rolling,” they would all ask, as if a catamaran’s wider beam allowed us to leave champagne flutes untethered on the table. I’m sorry folks but even on the 46′ cat that we operated in charters, items still need to be stowed properly before getting underway.
But how does sailing on a monohull compare to a cat? Everyone wants to know. Of course, every boat is different, and admittedly, we’ve only been on the monohull for a few short months. In spite of that, I’ll try to give our personal comparison.
How they’re different:
- MotionThis is an obvious one, isn’t it? Of course they’re different. Monohulls heal and multihulls don’t, right? Wrong. Or at least, it’s a matter of degree. While monohulls do sail on a more pronounced angle than cats, a multihull’s wide beam does not magically make the ocean waves disappear. Yes, before getting underway on a single-hulled sailboat, it pays to give some thought as to where things might slide when setting sail, and tacking. As I mentioned above though, whenever we got ready to move one of the cats, we would always go through the procedure of dogging all of the hatches shut, and stowing any of the breakable items that may become dislodged as the boat was underway. Yes, things would still move!To borrow horseback riding terms, based upon the few passages that we have done on our new boat, and previous ones on OPBs, I would describe the monohulls’ motion as a gentle loping. In contrast, the ride of the cats we have been on has been much more like trotting.
What about at anchor? Cats don’t roll, right? Well, again, that’s not entirely accurate. Sit in any anchorage that is open to an ocean swell and you’ll see the masts of the monohulls rocking side to side like a large upside-down pendulum. The wider beam of the cats stops much of that motion but look closely and you’ll still see that they’re moving. On board, I would describe the multihull’s motion in a rolly anchorage as being quicker, or perhaps erratic. The distance the boat rocks side to side is less, but the frequency of the motion is much shorter. Which one get’s the win here? I’m going to call it a draw.
- ManeuverabilitySailing is sailing. Yes, there are some differences in how cats and monohulls need to be treated, but especially when underway, we haven’t found the adjustment to be too large. Where there is a more pronounced difference is when under power, especially in confined areas, docking or anchoring. When running charters, one of the things that we worked very hard on was making the process of picking up a mooring ball, or anchoring, look effortless. And with the cat’s dual engines set so far apart, it was easy to do so. The same could be said about docking. Being able to operate one engine in forward and the other in reverse makes docking a cat a relatively easy maneuver, in spite of the larger beam.Monohulls are a different animal all together under power. The first thing to realize is that as soon as you stop making way, you lose all steerage. When picking up a mooring ball, if we don’t lay the boat right along side it and capture the pennant straight away, if there is any wind or current, the bow will immediately get blown off with little chance of recovery. On a cat, this is easy to fix. Give the engines a little shot, forward and reverse, and we could spin the bow back in line. On the monohull, it’s time to bear off and circle around for a second try.
Docking takes a bit more planning too. Using the prop’s desire to walk the stern one way or the other when in reverse, it’s likely easier to dock on one side of the boat than the other. Also, some monohulls just do not like to back up in a straight line, a condition that can make med mooring a real challenge. It pays to figure all of this out before getting too close to OPBs, and other hard structures. In the category of maneuverability, I’m going to give the nod to multihulls.
- Upstairs vs. downstairsOne of the biggest differences between monohulls and multihulls, and I suspect what drew us to cats in the first place, is the living area. I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare the living space on a cat to being upstairs, while that of a monohull is downstairs. On board our PDQ, and the Leopard that we worked on, we had a virtual 360˚ view of our surroundings from inside the salon. On our new boat, an Amel Maramu, if we hear a noise outside, we need to climb the companionway steps up into the cockpit to see what’s going on.Now is this downstairs comparison true for all monohulls? I would say yes, but with some exceptions. There are certain designs that have a more elevated interior station that offers an improved view of the outside. There are also those boats with wide open cockpits which lend themselves well to outdoor entertaining, weather permitting. In general though, most of the living on a monohull takes place below the waterline, a situation that is not really the case on a cat. In my opinion, this is another win for multihulls.
How they are the same:
- They’re boats, and they breakHere is a fact… boats break. Always. Sometimes in a big way, more often in a small way, but there is always maintenance and repairs to take care of. The benefit of a catamaran, especially one of the larger ones, is that there is often a fair amount of redundancy built in (two engines, two or more heads, etc.). Some might consider this a negative though as there are more things to maintain and fix.Our PDQ 32 has very simple systems and as such, we got to spend a lot more time playing than we did fixing things. The Leopard was much more complex, and used for charter, we had to be extremely vigilant about maintenance. Now that we have a monohull, I can’t say that much has changed. In fact, since we now own a much older boat, we’ve been spending even more time working on the boat instead of playing. Boat owners need to expect this though, regardless of what hull design they opt for.
- They both get you where you want to goOne look outside our boat (I’m on a monohull so that required me to stick my head outside into the cockpit) and I can see that we are surrounded by both multihulls and monohulls. In fact, without counting, my guess is that the boats here in our anchorage are split 50/50, cats to monohulls. In certain regions of the world, I suspect that is not the case. Cats dominate the Virgin Islands, especially the charter market. In the higher latitude, my guess is that monohulls, many of them steel or aluminum, are more numerous. The fact is though that a seaworthy boat will get you where you want to go, regardless of how many hulls it rides on. This has been proven over and over, all around the world.
- You’re still a part of the same great communityMuch like sailors like to poke fun at power boaters, and vice versa, multihull sailors and monohull sailors love to play up the rivalry between them. The truth is though, they have infinitely more in common with one another than they do differences. We have yet to come across anyone in the cruising community who would snub another boater because of the number of hulls that he or she sails on. On the contrary, at least where we are considered, we love to meet new people and find out about the boats that they are traveling on.
What if you’re just now looking to get in to boating, and are undecided about what type of sailboat you should purchase? What should you do? If you’re like us, you may find that your budget determines what route you go as, all things being equal, for a certain length of boat, multihulls tend to be considerably more expensive. The smart thing to do would be to try to sail on as many different boats as you can. You’ll likely find, as we have, that there is more in common between the form factors than there are differences. Each type of boat will get you where you want to go. We all enjoy the same beautiful sunsets, so get a boat and go sailing.
We all enjoy the same sunsets!