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Sail And Power Catamarans: Developing A 'Catitude'

Once you get the hang of it, multihulls are a blast to drive. Here's how to handle these versatile, comfortable boats — sail or power — for those considering chartering a cat.

A 43-foot catamaran with a man standing on the bow holding onto the mainsail as the catamaran cruises through the blue water

This 43-foot cat is trimmed well for upwind sailing. But once main and boom are eased out to accommodate wind direction, the jib may create a pinched slot as jib tracks are located on cabin tops. (Photo: Privilège Catamarans/Nico Krauss)

As a freelance marine journalist with a U.S. Coast Guard 100-Ton Master license, I get to captain dozens of boats of various designs and sizes. I'm also a cat convert from monohull boating with plenty of firsthand knowledge to share. If you're thinking of chartering or buying a cat, you'll benefit from their inherent advantages. Cats offer more room than the same-lengthmonohulls, they usually have better system access, and sailing cats may be faster in light wind because they're not dragging a heavy keel through the water.

Cats operate upright so you won't be on your ear in a blow. You can cook and sleep on a passage without "walking on the hull" like in a monohull that's heeling. You also spend more time above the waterline on a cat rather than the dreaded "down below" on a monohull.

Of course, for all the pluses, there are minuses: Finding a marina berth for a cat is difficult and expensive. Unlike monohulls that get into the groove and slice through waves when sailing upwind, cats can slap the water if the bridge deck clearance is low, or when the seas meet the underside of the bridge deck.

People who usually sail monohulls may be accustomed to being alerted to the wind rising too much by the increasing heel of the boat. If you get this amount of heeling in a cat, you may be beyond the point of no return; though this isn't as likely with many of today's heavier, wider models. Cats are not self-righting; you have to stay alert to worsening weather.

Also, unless it's a performance model with daggerboards, a cat only has mini-keels, so it won't point high and can be a bit like maneuvering a shoebox. They don't track well, tending to slip to leeward, and they tack slowly because they have to push two hulls rather than one through the eye of the wind. Finally, cats have fairly shallow rudders, so close-quarters maneuvering comes more from dual engine thrust, rather than the water flowing over the rudders — effective, but something to get used to.

Adjustment to the position of the jib to improve wind slot performance illustration

An easy adjustment to position the jib out farther and improve performance is shown in this illustration.

When it comes to the emerging power-catamaran trend, driving cats under power is a straight-up joy. Their two props are set wide apart resulting in much better control and precise maneuvering in close quarters. Cats don't coast like monohulls because they don't have a keel to keep them tracking, so gliding into a dock at a shallow angle doesn't work, and neither does using propwalk to tuck in the stern. You use the engines to spin a cat in its own length or walk it sideways, both of which are easier to master than the nuances of driving a monohull.

Regardless of whether you're docking, picking up a mooring, or anchoring, always keep the boat powered up and ready to drive until you're done because you can't just push a 45-foot cat around by hand. Here are some handling tips that apply to handling both sail and power catamarans.

Don't Ding The Dock

When there's no wind, bigger sailcats also have an engine, which is needed in each hull. They aren't powered to drive as fast, but the principles are the same. Keep in mind, boats and conditions are varied, so we can only give examples here.

  • Forget about the wheel when docking side-to or forward. Lock it on the centerline with the wheel lock or by leaning your body against it and maneuver using the throttles (see illustrations below). Power forward with the starboard engine, and aft with the port, and the cat moves to port and vice versa. Turn this around in your head when in reverse. Fine tune adjustments by using one engine at a time. Pause the propeller in neutral when changing directions from forward to reverse and vice-versa to give transmissions time to engage.
Walking a catamaran sideways to dock port and stern illustration

  • Backing into a slip: Cats dock stern-to because the bows are high and it's easier to step on and off the dock via the swim platforms aft. When backing straight into a slip, come abeam, pivot 90 degrees with the engines until centered, and back in. If Med-mooring, drop anchor and pay out the rode slowly as you back with both engines. Set the anchor part way back, then keep backing and letting out rode until you're close enough to the dock to tie up the stern lines. Have fenders already tied aft to cushion the transoms. Tighten up on the anchor rode with the windlass.

Wind And Current

As with any boat, it's best to work against the current for better control.

  • When departing a starboard tie-up with the current coming at the bow, put a fender and line on the starboard aft corner, power aft with the port engine, pivot, then drive out forward with both engines against the current. If the current is coming from behind, back out, putting a line and fender on the starboard bow. Power in reverse with the starboard engine, pivot, and then back out with both engines.
  • Cats have high cabin tops, producing lots of windage. In tight quarters, you may need to turn more sharply when approaching a dock or line up to windward before backing in.

Picking Up A Mooring

Cats have high hulls and it's easy for the skipper to lose sight of a mooring ball before the boat is close enough for the crew to pick it up. Keep the mooring on the side where you can best see forward so you can keep an eye on the ball at all times. (Some cat helm stations are offset to one side or the other.)

  • Hand signals or a headset for you and the crew make communications easier to send and receive rather than yelling.
  • Have your crew pick up the mooring with a boat hook while you maneuver with the engines to keep station — easier on a cat than a monohulls, even in wind and current.
  • Have lines ready by stringing one off a cleat on each hull. To do this, thread each line through the eye or loop, then back onto its cleat. Do this with both sides and adjust until the mooring sits on the centerline. This will minimize swinging and chafe, and noise in the forward cabins.


Anchoring is generally easier on a cat than a monohull. There's more room forward for crew to work, and you can keep the boat steady with the engines.

  • A bridle should be preset with a line from each hull (under the trampoline) and hook or shackle in the middle. Once the anchor and chain is down, attach the bridle to the chain (usually done near the windlass) and set the hook putting the pressure on the bridle. Once set, let out enough chain to create a catenary.
  • When raising anchor, take care to keep the chain in between the bows or you risk damaging the fiberglass by shaving the bottom of one or the other if you overrun the chain or lose track of where it is. Crew communication is critical.

Sail-Specific Cats

Here's how to coax the best out of a sailing catamaran:

  • Big cats carry huge mainsails, so raising one typically requires an electric winch. It also may be challenging to keep full battens out of the lazyjacks that hold up the sail bag, so it can take a few people to raise a large sail. Also, there are usually multiple angles to the way halyards are run on cats with flybridges, resulting in friction. So "dropping" the mainsail can be more like "pulling" it down. Attach a messenger-type line to the mainsail head so it comes down easier.
  • Reefing can be a guessing game because you don't feel a cat being overpowered like you do a monohull. Depending on the direction of sail and the sea state, you may be able to reef a little later with the wind a few knots higher — an individual call.
  • Cat headsail tracks are typically on the cabin top making the sail curve back on itself, creating a wind break when it's sheeted in. A trick is to bring a spare line from the jib clue out to a cleat on the side deck to open up the slot to let air flow through. Check for chafe on the cabin and don't forget to release it before tacking.
  • The majority of multihulls are built to sail on a beam or broad reach, and that's where they're the happiest. Dead downwind, cats shimmy a little making wing-on-wing sailing tricky, not all that different from monohulls. For more comfort, choose one broad reach or the other, then jibe when necessary.
  • Cats with daggerboards can point higher and track better because, like monohulls, they have an appendage (or two) down low in the water for a better center of lateral resistance. Daggerboards are mostly used when sailing upwind, and it helps to keep the leeward board lower than the windward one. Sailing downwind with the boards lowered could create a tripping hazard, especially in rough seas where it's possible to stuff the bows into the wave ahead. When motorsailing, a trick to saving fuel and pointing higher is to run only the leeward engine for a little pointing assist.

Cats Rock!

Next time you have an opportunity to test drive a power or sailing cat, or to charter one on your next holiday, try it! The learning curve is so quick, it's really fun, and before you know it, you, too, may convert to being a cat person!

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Zuzana Prochazka

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Zuzana Prochazka is a freelance journalist specializing in writing, editing, and photography in boating and travel publications. She writes for a dozen boating magazines and websites and a growing list of travel publications. She enjoys combining her passions, which include seeing the world, sailing the oceans, and sharing her experiences through the written word. She holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100 Master license.