Are Cats Dogs?

It's all about aesthetics.

This piece will no doubt upset some power catamaran people (and maybe my editor), so it must be interpreted as one man's opinion. This piece will not address the dynamics of a catamaran versus a monohull. I have ridden on catamarans and had some experience in the test tank with them, but cats are like women: Unless you have lived with one for a while, you shouldn't critique her moves. This piece will address only the appearance and function of larger cruising power cats.

Good God! My Dyer dinghy and I are about to be devoured alive by a gigantic manta ray! I feverishly start rowing away from the gaping mouth. I knew there were such things as giant mantas, but I have never heard of anything this big and this far north. I row harder and finally pull away from the wicked-looking mouth. Boy, that was a close shave! A bad dream? No, in fact, I was only bearing down on the bow of a large cruising power catamaran anchored in the bay.

For all the wonderful things I could say about power catamarans, I simply cannot get past the way the damned things look. I am a traditionalist at heart, and I suspect that a good many of you out there are the same and object to these boxy,wide sleds. Tell me catamarans are ten times more efficient than a monohull. Tell me that you can balance a penny on the edge of the saloon table in 20-foot beam seas. Tell me that the saloon is as expansive as a Fifth Avenue penthouse. I don't really care because I simply cannot get past their appearance.

The forward ends of monohulls can be lovely sculptures. The confluence of shapes--the rake of the stem, the sheerline, and the flair and flam of the topsides--can, if done right, produce a shape that can make you weep for the beauty of it all. The bow of a Trumpy is a classic example. If God meant for boats to have two hulls, He would have designed ducks with two bodies.

Viewing them in profile and not knowing whether they are catamarans or monohulls, you'd think catamarans were styled by some kid using Crayolas or by people whose full-time job is designing cheese graters. I will say that some catamarans are better than others. Catamarans seem to work better in smaller sizes--open sport boats and fishing boats, for example. First of all, people are not as concerned about how these small boats look, and they offer a great amount of deck space compared to monohulls. Generally the cats with the hulls closest together are the best-looking of the bunch. Of course, this is because they closely resemble a proper monohull. But with hulls spread wide apart, they became ungainly floating kitchen appliances. If designers would not be so greedy trying to incorporate maximum beam, cats might become powerboat community members in good standing.

Living Wide

Cats are regularly touted as providing considerably more interior (floor space) than monohulls, but do they really? Yes, a 24-foot-wide 50-footer will provide a huge amount of space on the main deck. But the two slender tunnels down below provide minimal space--much less than your typical rag boat. That's because hulls on a 50-footer might be only three or four feet wide. Accommodations stuffed in these long, narrow tubes are minimal at best.

And there are other problems with a 24-foot-wide 50-footer. Slips designed for 24-foot beams are usually built to accommodate 70-foot or 80-foot vessels. Thus, you will be paying for a 70-foot slip unless you are lucky enough to be berthed on one of the few outside spaces available at some marinas.

There are alternatives. A few years ago we spent three or four days at the test tank of Stevens Institute, testing an 80-foot craft we dubbed "monocat." The idea was to overcome the looks and other disadvantages of twin hulls with a rather conventional monohull bow that forms twin hulls aft. It's a work in progress. Trimarans that incorporate a long, slender center hull with two shorter hulls (called pontoons or outriggers) well aft are much better from an aesthetic standpoint. This configuration produces a very rakish arrow shape and works well. As a matter of fact, the around-the-world speed record is held by just such a hull.

Actually, I applaud designers and builders who are constantly "pushing the envelope" for something new, different, and, most important, better. But let's not forget aesthetics. If looking at your boat makes you want to barf, this is not a good thing. If you are approaching your boat from the bow and are digging in your pockets for toll money because you feel like you are entering the Lincoln Tunnel, this is not a good thing.

A Double Life

I have this vision of a catamaran enthusiast's life. On land he lives in two double-wides set side by side. He has wives in two different cities. His kids, of course, are twins, and his vehicle of choice is a twin-track tank. His favorite drink is a double martini, and his favorite meal is franks and beans with the franks placed side by side on the plate and the beans between. If he was a recreational flyer, his favorite plane would be a twin-boom P38 Fighter.

Do catamarans have their place in the powerboat world? Sure they do, and I am certain that as times goes by and we dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists, well...die in the wool, a new generation of boaters (who don't know any damn better) might accept the way these things look. But for now, let's make catamarans better-looking, because venturing out in one now is akin to going out for a night on the town in a polyester leisure suit and white boots. You are telling the world you just don't give a damn anymore. Hey! I suddenly have a hankering for Doublemint gum. Bring on those Doublemint twins!

Tom Fexas is a marine engineer and designer of powerboats. His Web site is www.tomfexas.com.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.