Building a Sailing Catamaran in France

After years of research I decided to build a sailing catamaran in France to use as I circumnavigated the globe. I had been racing monohulls and  multihulls for years and really enjoyed the speed, stability and responsiveness of multihulls. After seeing monohulls rock from side to side in anchorages, it was clear a cruising multihull would be ideal.

One of my major considerations was storm response – would the boat withstand huge waves in mid-ocean, 50+ knot winds. I wanted a well-built boat, and would have preferred a “tested” boat that had done major ocean crossings or a circumnavigation already.

I could not find an existing boat, and many of the cruising multihull designs were biased for the charter industry – “Winnebago’s on the water”. With a racing background, I wanted a high-performance boat and following the Dashew’s recommendation, I wanted something fast enough to outrun rather than survive storms. I also wanted a boat that would point upwind – crawling off a lee-shore with a current running can be a terrifying experience. A performance boat that sails upwind would be excellent.

I went to the boat show at Annapolis as they have a large offering of multihulls. I would have preferred a trimaran but there were few choices, and the narrow hulls make life afloat challenging – hard to store and extract gear, get past crew members on the way to the head, limited cockpit and salon space, etc. I had spent a lot of time on my head, hanging down into the hull of my racing trimaran, trying to fetch something that had slid into a recess to know that would not be effective for my circumnavigation.

Harrison Jones recommended I look at Catana, a boat-builder in Canet, France. Catana’s have daggerboards in each hull and were reputed to be high-performance boats. They were at the Annapolis boat show with a 471 and 431. The 431 was a new model and it seemed a little better for a short handed crew – I expected to be sailing with family and friends – with a crew ranging from 2-4. Another advantage of multihulls – you do not need 8-12 people to sail at speed offshore.

I got a ride on both the 471 and 431, and while I really liked the 471, it felt like a battleship – enormously wide and long. It just felt “too big” [tip: read my blog entry about crossing the Atlantic for my opinion about the 471 from the deck of my 431]. Also, the 471 was 20% more expensive. I was already at or beyond my budget so the 431 was it. I ordered the boat and expected delivery the following August.

During the build-cycle I made five trips from Seattle to France to check on the status of the boat. I design computer software and write specification documents that call out every feature and function at sufficient detail that developers can code my designs accurately and effectively. I applied the same standard to my design document for my new boat – I called out every feature and capability, and specified the vendors I wanted for each sub-system. I also specified a tall rig – many cruising multihulls are underpowered as their owners are new to sailing and concerned about flipping the boat. I wanted the boat fast and light so I would have fun sailing, and could outrun storms developing in the region I was traversing. This paid off in one passage from Guadeloupe to Trinidad, where we sailed in front of 21 thunderstorms in one day.

Due to work commitments I was not able to relocate to France during the build cycle. One couple that was building their boat at the same time actually rented an apartment across the street from the Catana factory, and that paid off big time. During each of my trips, I found issues that lead to rework, modifications and additional cost. The manufacturer ignored my design document, did not contact me and made critical decisions that compromised the boat. This was terribly frustrating and I considered walking away from the project. Another couple building a 471 experienced the same problem, and did walk away, returning when Catana caved and agreed to move forward with their design.

I doubt I will every build another boat, but if I do, I will follow the example of the couple that moved across the street and visited their boat every day.

One of the design goals was a light, responsive boat. I took out the second head, which reduced complexity, maintenance costs, but negatively impacted the boat’s resale. I used the space as an office with a pilot berth, and it was actually the most comfortable place to sleep on the boat as you could leave the escape hatch open and get a phenomenal cooling breeze into the boat. Excellent during steamy Caribbean evenings.

I specified a forward settee in the salon, with an aft facing fridge and sink/stove. This proved excellent as you could look out the large glass door and window through the cockpit as you were preparing meals or cleaning up. The nav station was facing forward and I added a back to the standard seat so I was less likely to pitch out when rolling over waves. This worked great, although it was a little challenging when we sailed west, into the sunsets. The glare through the forward windows made it challenging to see the instruments and read the charts, plus I was always concerned about leaving the forward hatch open for fear a bow wave would come in and soak the electronics. I have been on other boats with a “side-facing” nav station and the sideways motion pitching over waves is exhausting. And aft-facing nav stations, for me, are a prescription for seasickness.

The starboard hull was the “owner’s” configuration – a large double with storage underneath, a small nav area where I placed my Inmarsat system, and an enormous head in the forward section of the hull. The head was very comfortable and an excellent design. When you were sitting down, you could look out the escape hatch as the boat rode through the waves, and see fish! Very entertaining…

The port hull has a large berth with storage aft, and the office I mentioned above, in the forward section. Storage lined both the inside and outside of the hull, which was outstanding. Catana uses a Twaron-reinforced cored liner in its joinery, for strength and lightness. I specified a maple interior, with a teak trim. The interior was phenomenal – really spectacular.

The boat was scheduled for completion in August, and I was checking each week to see if the boat was complete and ready for pickup. My plan was to sail to Barcelona where I would keep the boat for six months as a base for trips through the Mediterranean.

I arranged for my crew to meet me in France to take delivery, test the boat, and go through a week of training with Catana’s delivery team. We arrived and found the boat on the hard, dirty and incomplete. I met with a surveyor and identified 106 defects in the boat. We were able to launch the boat and practice docking, but a mistake between the boat manufacturer and sailmaker kept us from rigging the main and sailing. We air-freighted the correct mainsail cars from the manufacturer, reworked the main and got it rigged, so we could sail the boat down the coast to Banyuls – a spectacular coastal village. The wind was gusting to 40 in the harbor at Canet, which was excellent for learning how to dock the boat “Med-style”. With two 40HP Volvos, the boat has tremendous maneuverability. Initially terrified, after a week I was able to back the boat in between two other moored catamarans without touching either. That part of the delivery process was outstanding – the delivery skipper and his assistants knew the boat perfectly and helped me learn how to sail the boat effectively.

Because of the tall rig, I specified running backstays for the carbon mast. The mast would pump without them, and I found they really helped the boat point upwind. I rigged a retainer at the base of each stay so I could unrig the runners and park them out of the way. They were easy to rig and unrig and worked perfectly.

The one thing I missed was having a rotating wing mast – Catana did not offer that option.

I did specify a “Park Avenue” boom. Catana had never done one before and they made a mistake when they rigged my boat. They put a standard 431 boom on, which proved to be two feet too short! When we went to hoist the main, it stuck two feet off the back of the boom. No outhaul! No way to rig the reefing lines or lazy bag!

It became clear they had ignored the boom I had specified and needed to get it custom-made. Catana committed to having the boat ready in November, as we needed to be in Barcelona for an event.

After many excellent meals, some fun at the beach volleyball, compiling a long list of repairs and a little sailing, we headed home and made arrangements to take the boat to Barcelona in November.

Some of my crew was not available, so I made arrangements with my sailmaker to accompany me on the delivery to Barcelona. This would be a great opportunity to tune the boat, rig and sails, and it worked perfectly. Our first night we pulled into an anchorage and tied up to a large dock, where we experienced 50 knot winds. We pulled the dodger off the cockpit to keep it from getting shredded. The boat was surprisingly comfortable.

We spent several days daysailing down the coast, experiencing life on a boat in France and Spain. The Med is excellent, and once offshore, really fun to swim in. Due to the lack of sewage control, we will not swim in the marinas or anywhere along shore. But out in the middle on calm days is enormous fun – I would tie a fender to a line, secure the line to a stern cleat, and toss the fender overboard. We always left one person on board in case the wind came up and the boat started to sail away. The fender and line would give us something to hang onto in case there was a current or the boat started moving. We repeated that practice in the Caribbean and Pacific.

Draft article – stop back for the final version 😉

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