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A Veteran Skipper's Guide to Catamaran Cruising

A couple cruising the Great Loop on their 34-foot power catamaran has learned, once again, why they prefer the cat to a monohull.

Photos courtesy of Jim Leshaw

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Far & Wide 

For most long-distance cruisers, the choice would have been less worrisome. But as we approached the North Carolina-Virginia border and had to decide whether to go through the Dismal Swamp as we continued northbound, we knew the waterway would rarely be more than 23 or 24 feet wide.

Our 34-foot PDQ power catamaran Thing 1 Thing 2 has a 17-foot beam. And the Dismal Swamp is a two-way run with oncoming boats.

This is, of course, the type of scenario that many longtime trawler owners fear when they think about power catamarans. Sure, the cats offer tons more onboard space for people and stowage that is a boon when you’re on the boat for weeks or months at a time, but the way cats are designed also poses challenges, particularly in narrow spots along the Intracoastal Waterway.

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On that spring day, we thought about all that we’d heard about the Dismal Swamp’s beauty: The place is like a mangrove forest, but instead of mangroves, it’s cypress and old-growth pine trees. The turtles, frogs and birds create a symphony orchestra of natural sounds at night. If you can make it through, we’d always heard, it’s well worth going.

And so, we did—and we got lucky. During our six hours of cruising the Dismal Swamp over two days, we saw only two other boats. And we were overnighting at the time.

What we did encounter underway, though, was submerged logs and fallen trees. There was no way to go around them, and a couple of times, it was a little hairy. The controlling depth in the Dismal Swamp is about 5 feet. In some parts, the water is even lower.

Thing 1 Thing 2 has a draft of just 2 feet, 4 inches. And so, as we made our way through one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, I once again remembered why we continue to be so happy with the choice we made in 2005 to buy this power catamaran. She always helps us to achieve our long-distance cruising goals, first as we were raising two young boys, and now that we are empty-nesters making our way around the Great Loop.

The Dismal Swamp Canal along the ICW is a rare beauty, though not without its challenges, including depth, debris and, for catamarans, width.

The Dismal Swamp Canal along the ICW is a rare beauty, though not without its challenges, including depth, debris and, for catamarans, width.

Space and Comfort

We started our Great Loop itinerary in Key Biscayne, Florida, cruised up the East Coast and then left the Loop to spend about a month and a half cruising New England. After that, we backtracked to New York City and went up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal. That’s where we are as I write this, preparing to leave Thing 1 Thing 2 in heated storage for the winter before we resume our cruise in the spring.

With the kids now in college and their junk off the boat, our two-stateroom powercat (each with queen berths) feels like it has doubled in size.

Everyone knows that space is a clear advantage of a catamaran, with the wide beam and rectangular shape allowing for features like a dining area that can comfortably seat six adults. That space has proved its value yet again during this cruise—I still work as an attorney. On days when I have conference calls or hearings conducted on Zoom, I can take over the dining area and make sure the camera is turned in such a way that my wife can still walk to the galley and the head without being in the frame. A boat with less onboard space would make that impossible.

We also enjoy more headroom than on most similarly sized monohulls, and we have a full galley, a head with a fully enclosed shower, upper and lower helm stations, and a secondary seating area. In the machinery space, we have room for a 6-kW genset and two air conditioning units. And, we have a great deal of inside and belowdecks stowage. We easily carry two bicycles, two kayaks and an 11-foot dinghy with plenty of room left to walk around—on a 34-foot boat!
All of this makes cruising long distances so much more pleasant. My wife and I have a lot of space to be in separate areas. If the boat’s moving, I’m almost always up on the flybridge. My wife can sit up there with me, or if she gets tired of the sun—or tired of me—she can go below and send emails or talk to friends, or cook or sleep or whatever she prefers.

Two Hulls, Two Engines

Systems redundancy is another benefit of catamarans. We were leaving Bald Head Island in North Carolina when we lost one of the engines. It was my own fault: I had been doing some engine work, and forgot to replace a gasket. The water muffler literally melted. There was smoke all over. We had to shut down the engine.

If we’d only had the one engine, we would have had to call for a tow. It would have been an uncomfortable few hours of waiting. We were in a 3- to 5-foot chop.

But with our second engine, we were able to make it back to the marina on Bald Head Island, and from there we were able to get to Southport, North Carolina, about 10 miles away. We were only making 7 or 8 knots—we usually cruise at 12 to 14—but we were happy to be able to go where we needed to go. The good people at Zimmerman Marine have a yard in Southport, and they sent over a mechanic who figured out which parts to order for overnight delivery. We were on our way in a matter of days.

Yes, outfitting a boat with two engines is more expensive than having a single engine, and maintenance costs will be higher, too. But when something goes wrong, having redundancy makes it a lot easier to get back on course.

Thing 1 Thing 2 owner and first mate, Jim and Cuqui Leshaw, tied up along the Erie Canal.

Thing 1 Thing 2 owner and first mate, Jim and Cuqui Leshaw, tied up along the Erie Canal.

Speed, Fuel Efficiency and Handling

One of the drawbacks with a catamaran is that beam seas and big wakes are magnified, making for an extremely uncomfortable ride. What we experience aboard Thing 1 Thing 2 in those conditions is multiplied several times compared to what you would face in a monohull. If you’re in a busy area with a lot of large boats passing you at high speed, it can be incredibly uncomfortable.

Cruising the ICW’s sheltered waters where boaters tend to be respectful, this is rarely a problem. One significant exception was on Barnegat Bay in New Jersey. I’ve never seen so many boats going so fast in so many different directions in such close quarters.

The advantages of a power catamaran easily outweigh some occasional discomfort. They’re faster than full displacement boats (we have a top speed of about 17 knots), and our minimal drag means we have better fuel consumption. Cruising at 12 knots, Thing 1 Thing 2 burns less than 4 gallons per hour (total), resulting in a fuel efficient 3 nautical miles per gallon. This is a fraction of the consumption attainable by a comparable planing boat, and is similar to the fuel efficiency of a trawler, though at a significantly higher speed.

In settled conditions, a catamaran is as stable as any monohull, and catamarans also tend to handle well in head and following seas. We find a quartering sea to be our favored point of sail. Because of the lightweight design, catamarans tend to “get up” and ride on top of waves.

Cuqui manages the lines as Thing 1 Thing 2 rises 40.5 feet at Lock 17, the largest single lift in the entire Erie Canal System.

Cuqui manages the lines as Thing 1 Thing 2 rises 40.5 feet at Lock 17, the largest single lift in the entire Erie Canal System.

Docking

Another fear that people often express about catamarans is being able to find a marina slip with such a wide beam. We’ve found that along the ICW, a lot of the marinas have put in a single, long transient dock so that they can fit boats too large to fit in a typical slip. We’re a 34-foot boat, but oftentimes we are on the megayacht docks. It is not uncommon for us to be surrounded by boats that are significantly larger than ours.

This marina location comes with an audience. We are often nestled in a small spot between two large yachts. Inevitably, their professional crew watch with concern as we expertly maneuver into this small spot. Our catamaran is so much more maneuverable than a typical monohull because the two propellers are so far apart. A catamaran will generally turn in its own length. That means we can make an elegant entrance even in difficult conditions such as heavy winds and strong currents.

And, the marinas all charge by the linear foot, not by the square foot. So even if we’re going into a slip that’s appropriate for a 50-footer, we’re only paying for our 34-footer. It’s a big cost savings.

We do sometimes find it challenging to board or disembark at these docks because of the height of Thing 1 Thing 2’s deck. This is remedied through use of the stairs built into the transoms of most catamarans.

Most catamarans are shoal draft, which permits anchoring closer to shore, away from many other boats and closer to beaches or other  attractions. Pictured here, Jim enjoys a kayak excursion in front of an anchored Thing 1 Thing 2 at Easton, Maryland, in the Chesapeake Bay.

Most catamarans are shoal draft, which permits anchoring closer to shore, away from many other boats and closer to beaches or other attractions. Pictured here, Jim enjoys a kayak excursion in front of an anchored Thing 1 Thing 2 at Easton, Maryland, in the Chesapeake Bay.

Anchoring and Mooring

Catamarans swing differently than keel boats do at anchor. We experienced this reality off Beaufort, South Carolina, where on a Thursday, we found a gorgeous anchorage—beautiful beach, no other boats at all. What we didn’t know was that on Fridays, it was the spot where all the local boats came out to play. By Friday afternoon we were surrounded by a bevy of small day cruisers anchored around us.

It wasn’t a problem until the wind and tide changed. We swung one way, and they all swung the other way. The end result was that we were swinging into three or four boats at a time. We all had to fend off. No damage was done, but there were so many of them, we ended up having to move Thing 1 Thing 2.

We find such incidents a small price to pay in exchange for all the other benefits that our catamaran provides. After so many years of owning one, we didn’t have any trepidations about doing the Great Loop aboard Thing 1 Thing 2. We chose this boat so many years ago when a powercat really was an anomaly, but nowadays, there are a lot of power catamaran options to suit all kinds of cruising needs.

We’re excited to return to our Great Loop cruise and head north through Canada then south through the heart of the United States come springtime. We may head down the Mississippi River, or maybe we’ll choose the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

Our only question is which route to take—not which boat to do it on.

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Passagemaker magazine.


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