Saturday, May 14, 2011

Choosing a Boat, Part I - Catamaran or Monohull?

This will be the first of what will surely be many posts of this topic. The question of what boat to live on is a complicated one. Choosing a boat to use as a boat is hard enough--it is far more complicated than picking out a car, or maybe even a house. The available sizes, styles, and construction standards are nearly infinite. To make things even more complicated, our boat need not only be a good boat, but it must also be a good house. And what makes a boat a good house very often makes it a bad boat. The result? Let the compromises begin!

The first decision we needed to make was whether to get a monohull (the word says it all--one hull), or a catamaran (two narrow hulls spaced wide apart and connected by a platform called a bridgedeck). Although there are many types of sailboats, all fall into one of those categories (ignoring trimarans--three hulls--because those are not optimal for living aboard).

Personally, I have never been a fan of catamarans. I am a purist when it comes to sailboats. I like sleek, traditional boats.  I like the feeling when the boat heels (tilts) under the force of wind. Catamarans do not heel, and compared to the traditional boats I admire, look rather bulbous and alien.

That said, catamarans offer some serious advantages. As long as they are kept light, they are faster than monohulls on most points of sail (the direction of the boat relative to the direction of the wind). They also have shallow drafts (depth), so they can be sailed in shallow water, which is ideal in South Florida, the Florida Keys, and the Bahamas, where we will do most of our sailing in the near future. So they have some advantages as boats. Catamarans are also much more house-like than monohulls. They have big, square salons (living/dining rooms) over the bridgedeck. The salons are surrounded by big windows and are as bright and airy as any room you will see in a house. Further, the staterooms (bedrooms) are in opposite hulls in a catamaran. As a matter of privacy, this layout is ideal. The master stateroom and other staterooms are effectively in two different boats. Next, catamarans don't heel. In my view, this is a shortcoming as a matter of being a boat. But as a matter of being a house, it is a clear advantage (picture cooking in a kitchen angled 20 degrees). Finally, catamarans have huge, covered cockpits that serve as a covered porch area and can seat and dine as many guests as are willing to show up. As a result of these factors, we initially planned to get a catamaran, my natural aversion to them aside.

In February, we went to the Miami sailboat show and changed our minds completely. We liked the salons in the catamarans. They were as a bright, airy, and comfortable as we had anticipated. The cockpits were also nice. But three things that we had not expected killed the catamaran dream for us. First, although the salon area was big and open, everything else was narrow and cramped. Because the staterooms have to fit inside the two narrow hulls, they are no wider than than the
 beds.  All of the living quarters inside the hulls felt too much like a tunnel for us. Second, the motion was uncomfortable. Catamarans are light, which helps make them fast, but the result is that they have a quick back-and-forth motion. Although we would surely get used to it, it may be uncomfortable for guests, and it would be difficult for Krissy to work on her artwork when the whole house is quivering. Third, because they have much more surface area and must be kept lighter in weight, the fit and finish of catamarans pales in comparision to that on a similarly priced monohull. Whereas as a monohull uses solid woods, catamarans rely on thin veneers and have expanses of exposed fiberglass, giving many the appearance of giant bathtubs. Although there were a couple very impressive exceptions (some complete with suede ceilings), they were far outside of our price and size ranges.

In comparison, we found a number of monohulls that we were very comfortable on. The quality of the woodwork and general construction inside and out was far superior to that on comparably priced monohulls, and they were so big and heavy that you couldn't feel the boat moving at all, even with several people crawling around. Although most monohulls are dark tunnels inside, many of the newer designs have large windows around the salon, making them nearly as bright and airy inside as the catamarans. In addition, the center-cockpit designs that we liked place the master stateroom and guest staterooms on opposite ends of the boat, creating nearly as much privacy as in the catamarans. As an added bonus, because they are narrower than catamarans, we will have a much easier time finding a marina slip for a monohull. Some of the marinas we looked at had multiyear waiting lists for catamarans because so few of their slips were wide enough to accommodate them!

In the end, the choice was clear for both of us. We are getting a monohull.


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  2. Thanks for sharing this. This will be a good help to the sailors got confused in choosing the perfect boat in their cruising or sailing, catamaran, monohull, etc.

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