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Little Catamarans Vs. Little Trimarans for Beachcamping

Why are there so few open catamaran microcruisers?

Slider anchored off the beach

This was one of the questions that eventually drove me to design and build Slider. I wanted to know if there was actually a good reason why multihull microcruisers were mostly trimarans. I couldn’t see what that reason might be, but the marketplace seemed to be insisting that little simple open multihulls aimed at beachcruising or carefree daysailing had to have three hulls. At the 18 foot and under length, there were beach cats with sealed hulls– like the Hobie 16, the various Prindles and Nacras– and a few trimarans, like the Windriders, the Hobie Adventure Island, the Weta, and so on. There are also some small cruising cats, like the Jarcat 5, but these boats have cabins and big rigs to move the extra weight and windage. They seem to capsize more than perhaps they should, and maybe that’s one reason why the more stable tiny trimarans dominate the non-beach cat microcruiser multihull market. They generally aren’t as fast as beach cats, but they are a lot easier on the nerves.

Because of the greater beam of these little tris and more modest sailplans, plus the more comfortable in-hull seating they offer, they seemed an attractive alternative to going cruising on a beach cat.

Unfortunately, they had no multihull competition, other than beach cats, and there seemed to be a huge hole in the sailing community’s perception of the advantages and disadvantages of cats and tris, at least at the microcruiser level. Even the great trimaran designer Jim Brown suffered from this blind spot, and in a piece written for Cruising World said that: “Speaking subjectively again, it is your reporter’s personal opinion that small catamarans don’t quite qualify as cruisers, because squatting on a trampoline does not provide the sailor any protection from the elements while under way.”

I agreed. I just couldn’t understand why there were no cruising-oriented simple little cats that didn’t suffer from this drawback.

Jim Brown was talking primarily about little rotomolded plastic boats like the Windriders he’d designed. But in fact, there were very few tiny cruising boats with two hulls– about the only ones I knew about were the ethnic designs promoted by James Wharram, the English designer who’s been building cats for 60 years. These, unfortunately were also equipped with sealed hulls, like beach cats, though they had footwells for greater comfort while under sail.

So why was I so mystified by this gap in the micro-multi market?

Although these little tris are faster than any little cruising-oriented cat is likely to be, that is their only advantage, as far as I can tell. For example, the Weta tri, which is less than 15 feet in length, has broken 16 knots– pretty fast. On the other hand, it’s easy to find video of Wetas cartwheeling across the water on heavy air days. The Hobie Adventure Island is a kayak with floats and a sailing rig, and has all the disadvantages of a kayak as a cruising boat. The Windriders are less powerful than the Wetas, and by all reports are hard to capsize, but although they are faster than most monohulls in that size range, they suffer from the other drawbacks of trimarans used for beachcamping.

Those trimaran drawbacks are significant, particularly since they are almost exactly counterbalanced by the strengths of small cats.

Since the only 16 foot open cruising cat I know about is Slider, I’ll compare her to a good little tri in a number of areas.

Speed: Slider loses here. For example, she has 140 sq. ft of sail, as compared to the Weta at 175, and weighs twice as much empty. Our best speed so far has been 8.4 knots, though I suspect she could go a little faster reaching in heavy air on flat water. But she feels lively enough to be interesting, and she’ll run away from most 16 foot beachcamping monohulls.

Comfort: Slider wins big here. She has comfortable seats for two inside the hulls, and these seats can be moved from one end of the cockpit to the other– or even reversed so that one sailor can turn around and put his feet up while watching the fishing lines. The seats are ergonomically designed, and your feet rest on duckboards a comfortable distance beneath the seats. Steering is done not via a tiller, but with a steering line that encircles the cockpits and center deck, so that Slider can be steered from any place on the boat. When seated, the line comes to hand, as if the sailor is sitting in an armchair– no twisting to see and steer at the same time. Slider is a lot drier than most small tris, as well. Her flared hulls, decent freeboard, and rub rails seems to knock down most of the spray, even in big chop, as long as she isn’t overloaded. Little tris are quite wet while under way, which is fine in warm water and air, but not as much fun when conditions are chillier.

At anchor, Slider wins the comfort competition by an even bigger margin. The center deck of a cat is a lot more stable and level than the side decks of a tri, and doesn’t heel over sharply when someone moves to the side. With a tiny cat, you can pitch a tent and have a fairly luxurious amount of room. Slider has enough space on her center deck to set up a double air mattress, and the tent can still cover one of the cockpits. You can put both seats in the tent-covered cockpit, and have a place to sit comfortably while at anchor, facing each other over a small table. You just don’t have that much room in a tri. In addition, if you figure out a way to stretch out comfortably on the side deck of a tri, the boat will likely heel over a lot, which may result in a wet surprise if you roll off the side deck in the night. A cat anchored from a bridle is a lot less restless than a tri anchored from its main hull– tris tend to spend the night hunting back and forth across the anchorage, tipping from one float to the other. When tied up at docks, tris have a bad habit of hiking one float up on the dock, which can lead to unpleasant circumstances.

Slider with a tent and rain fly

Capacity: In general, a cat can carry more weight for its length than a tri, particularly if the tri’s main hull is the low-resistance kind. That’s because the weight must be carried by one slim hull rather than divided between two slim hulls. An extreme example is the Hobie Adventure Island, which can carry even less weight than the kayak on which the rig is based, because of the extra weight of floats, beams, and other elements. But even a tri like the Weta, which seems to rely on a planing main hull to achieve its speed, doesn’t carry much weight. It can carry only 440 pounds in addition to the weight of the boat and rig. Slider’s empty weight is 500 lbs., but her maximum displacement is 1100 lbs. so she can carry an extra 160 lbs. of camping gear and food. This is a significant difference, as any backpacker would agree.

camping on the spoil island

Trailering: Here Slider wins decisively. Little tris, because of their great beam, must be unfolded or otherwise extended at the ramp before the mast can be raised and the boat sailed away. Because cats can get away with less overall beam, and because Slider is so small, the highway-legal width of eight and a half feet is adequate, if not ideal. The Weta builders are proud that their little tri can be launched with only 20 minutes of assembly. With her fixed beams, and her mast secured by a Dyneema lanyard, Slider can be readied for launch in under a minute, if you’re in a hurry.

Cost: Slider wins big again. By sewing my own main from a white polytarp, and buying a good used jib, and building with good underlayment instead of marine ply, I was able to put Slider into the water for about two thousand dollars. Compare that to the Hobie Adventure Island at $3000, the Weta at $11,500 and the Windrider 17 at $9000… and these prices don”t include trailers. Slider is a much bigger boat with more capacity for gear and sailors, is built from sturdy plywood and epoxy/glass, and can use a cheap Harbor Freight trailer with a few simple mods.

Of course, there are some small tris that can be built at home, at a savings over buying a manufactured tri. The beautiful kayak tris from Chesapeake Light Craft are good examples. They look like great fun– fast and wet.

But in the end, for serious beachcruising, I believe that, as long as blinding speed is not at the top of your priority list, you’ll do better with a tiny cat than you will with a tiny tri.

I’d like to know where I’m wrong about this stuff, so don’t hesitate to leave me a comment.

10 Comments on “Little Catamarans Vs. Little Trimarans for Beachcamping”

  1. #1 Proafile
    on Aug 17th, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Hi Ray, this is an interesting dialogue you are starting, I hope you get some feedback. I agree with all your points, especially the one about the quick launch advantage of the 8′ beam cat, which really can’t be overstated. A half hour set up and take down time for the tri would take all the fun out of it for me. I had a Windrider, and after a while I longed for my old Sunfish.

    The speed issue IS a big one for multihull sailors, since that is the reason most of us are attracted to the type in the first place. I think Slider is comfortable and dry because of its limited speed potential. If it was doing 12-16 knots, it would be sailing through the waves, not over them, and those cockpits might not stay so dry, and then you’d be tempted to build a hiking rack to get up and out of the spray – back to a beach cat!

    The thing is, you are exploring and exploiting all the other catamaran advantages for micro-cruising, and there is a parallel in the big charter cats, because they aren’t chartered for their blinding speed, but for their comfort.

    Cheers, Michael

  2. #2 Ray
    on Aug 17th, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Michael– very insightful post!

    It’s definitely true that Slider’s dryness is partly a function of her slower speed. You’re right that if she had a bigger rig, she certainly would be wetter. I think I’d just put up the dodgers I plan to add to each cockpit, in that case, rather than trying to elevate myself above the spray. That seems to be the approach that fast little tris take when cruising in colder waters, and to me it makes more sense than racks, for several reasons. Less windage, and more protection in the event of rain.

    Your analogy regarding the big charter cats is thought-provoking. I’d suppose they were designed to compete against the big sturdy monohulls that were once the mainstay of the charter fleets, and the cats seem to have done that pretty well. I like to say that Slider was designed to compete against the open monohull cruisers that have been so popular in late years– an attempt to bring the comfort advantages of multihulls to that market niche.

    Slider is quite a bit faster than most 16 foot cruising monohulls, but, as you say, not fast enough to interest someone to whom speed is the top priority. I guess I’ll have to keep my eye out for a cheap used beach cat with soft hulls and a good rig. Put a H16 rig on Slider and it’ll be interesting.


  3. #3 James
    on Aug 19th, 2008 at 8:07 am

    what criteria do you have in mind when comparing cats with tris? Is it just length or would surface area (thinking of cost and maybe time, here) also be in your thinking?

    Cheers, James

  4. #4 Ray
    on Aug 19th, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    James– I’m primarily comparing them on size, but I see your point. A tiny cat or tri with a cabin and a lot of freeboard, like a Jarcat, wouldn’t be a fair comparison, because it would have a lot more skin and structure to support that skin. I’m thinking about open boats under 20 feet with reasonably comfortable seating inside the hulls. There are plenty of tris in that category– I cited a few. But Slider is about the only cat that fits the description, so that’s what I compared the Windriders, Wetas, and Ospreys to.


  5. #5 James
    on Aug 19th, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks, Ray. Would you consider Michael’s proa Samwise a contender at 20′x12′ with it’s sliding beams or perhaps with a fixed beam at 10′(with permit) or 8′?

    I should add i like Slider and congrats on it’s design and construction.

  6. #6 Ray
    on Aug 19th, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks, James.

    Samwise is a fascinating concept– like a lot of multihull guys, I’m intrigued with proas, but cautious. I have this impression (and I might be completely wrong) that shunting proas require a more athletic kind of participation than other multis– that the driver has to be a good deal more alert than the driver of a cat or tri to stave off disaster. To me, proas are the bleeding edge of small boat development. I admire those who are doing it, but I’m personally not that brave.

    I’d really like to see Samwise be built. It seems as though it would have many of the same pleasant qualities for beachcruising as a little open cat, but would be a lot faster, and maybe simpler.

    I’m also a great admirer of Gary Dierking’s work. In fact, once when I first started talking about a little open cat, Gary responded on some forum that he was also trying to develop open hulled micromultis, and seeing what he was able to do gave me a lot of encouragement. Also, there was a guy who designed an outrigger canoe called Flaquita (who I can’t find on the net any more) who influenced me a lot.


  7. #7 le_skipper
    on Aug 21st, 2008 at 10:42 am

    There is a new cat-vs-tri FAQ section in the WOODS catamaran web site.

  8. #8 le_skipper
    on Aug 21st, 2008 at 11:03 am

    Ray, have a look at this image!! I made it last year from the Alien trimaran…


  9. #9 Ray
    on Aug 21st, 2008 at 1:40 pm

    Very interesting, Olivier!

    Do you have any theories as to why there are so few real tiny cats with in-hull seating?


  10. #10 peteyak
    on Oct 20th, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    My problem is that I live on a surf coast (south-west coast of Victoria, Australia, a few miles from the Bells Beach famous to surfers worldwide). I need to be able to go in and out through 1 – 2 m surf on a regular basis, cope with large swells and breaking waves in the very changeable weather of this coast exposed to the Southern Ocean and Bass Straight, two bodies of water that know how to be mean.

    My impression is that Slider (quite rightly) was never designed for such conditions. The 8-foot beam and the inability to recover from capsize would be worrying to me in extreme conditions (although it can be very difficult to recover a small tri from capsize, I suspect it is “less impossible” than recovering a cat – in my current kayak-based tri you can remove an ama in an emergency by loosening two clamps). The lighter length/weight ratio of a tri (obviously length is an important factor in surf) and the ability to more easily use one or more simpler unstayed masts is also a factor. A tri may also be easier to paddle for long distances due to lower wetted area and effort closer to the axis of travel.

    It all comes down to horses for courses. My impression is that Slider wins hands-down as a protected-waters camp cruiser, with the ability to deal with a fair bit of rough stuff due to reasonable freeboard, low aspect cruising-style sailplan and a sea-friendly hull design.

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