Cool For Cats
- August 31st, 2008
- in Yachting
The Rising Cult of Multis – The way things are going, in a few more years the docks and marinas of the BVI will be chock-a-block with catamarans, with just a few monohulls sprinkled about for effect. That is, if the trends over the past few years continue apace. Even now, the major charter companies have placed their bets and their money seems to be on the cats. Once upon a time, the Catamaran Company and Voyage Charters were the dominant players in the multihull charter business—in CatCo's case, since 1989 and in Voyage's, since 1993. But their business model was simply all catamarans all the time. Other smaller niche players, such as Barecat, offer older catamarans for charter.
Now even the biggest player in the BVI bareboat charter industry, The Moorings, is running about 40% catamarans, up from just a few five years ago. Their Tui Marine sibling, Sunsail, shows a smaller percentage but is rapidly heading in the same direction. Of the charter companies offering new vessels, TMM's fleet is predominantly catamarans now, at about 60% and BVI Yacht Charters is close to 50%. Horizon Yacht Charters has around 25% of its fleet in cats. Conch Charters has about 25% also.
What is driving this change, of course, is customer demand. As the boating population ages and rising levels of wealth have made one-time luxuries into necessities, the demand for air conditioning, entertainment centres and personal space has turned the charter market upside down. Sailors who previously wouldn't be seen dead on a catamaran are embracing them as never before. In response, the designers and manufacturers are producing sprightly, well-performing and attractive boats that perform well both under sail and at the mooring. It's a common saying on the docks these days: “Once you go cat, you never go back.”
Catamarans have become such an important part of the charter fleets and are now such a mainstream choice of vessel that training facilities such as Offshore Sailing School now offer a Catamaran Liveaboard course, comprising the Basic Cruising and Bareboat Cruising certifications adapted for the catamaran. Michael Domican, Branch Director in the BVI for Offshore, which has a close relationship with the Moorings, told BVIYG, “They have been an increasing part of our business as The Moorings have increased the proportion of cats in their fleet.” As for the reasons for this demand, he said, “Aside from the obvious benefits of space and on-board privacy, many of our catamaran students choose this type of boat because they have a profound aversion to heeling.”
One of the biggest successes in recent years has been The Moorings' association with South African boat builders, Robertson and Caine. Lex Raas, Moorings' president, has brilliantly melded the talents of ace catamaran designers Morelli and Melvin with the production expertise of his fellow South Africans, resulting in the current fleet of speedy, comfortable cruising cats. R+C are now the official catamaran supplier to fellow Tui Marine brand, Sunsail, giving their Leopard boats unprecedented exposure on the world market. And exposure is what the game is all about, since the first-tier charter companies are to a large extent in the business of selling yachts, not chartering them. The charter is often a break-even or loss-leading exercise in marketing the brand. Private-owner Leopards, for example, are sold exclusively through Tui Marine's Florida brokerage.
Catamarans are taking over the charter industry because they offer much more comfort and privacy than similar-sized monohulls. Often it is the unmentioned (and sometimes unmentionable) psychological aspects that make the difference. Who among us has endured a charter on a four-cabin mono, listening to our neighbour's every scratch, cough and sniffle, without vowing “never again”? The paper-thin “partition” that separates the forward cabins in most monohulls and the confining coffin-like bunk space are at such a far remove from most contemporary expectations—king-sized beds, individual bathrooms, acres of personal space—that the transition to a catamaran is an easy sell.
For the private owner, however, purchasing a catamaran is still a complex decision. Prices are generally 25% or so higher than a comparable monohull; bear in mind, of course, that comparable size in a catamaran means you need to add about 10 feet to a monohull to reach parity. One factor is that the economies of scale haven't trickled down to the catamaran market as they have to monohulls. The Catamaran Company, for instance, claims on its website to be the world's largest retailer of used cats, averaging annually about 100 boats worldwide. How many used Beneteau monohulls, to name one popular brand, sell worldwide each year?
Add to the scarcity the fact that a catamaran is a very complicated vessel, and you have a lot of questions to be answered on the way to a purchase. Captain Tim Schaaf and partner Marsha McCoskrie operate their Leopard 45 Jet Stream as a private charter yacht in the BVI. Tim recently had a guest who had specifically wanted to charter Jet Stream so as to get a first-hand glimpse of how such a vessel handles, since he was thinking of buying one himself. “We got to talking,” Tim told the BVIYG recently, “and I was laying out the systems on the boat. We have two engines, one generator, four toilets, seven showers, three refrigerators and a watermaker. That's a lot of maintenance.” Tim said his guest thought it over for a while and commented “That's just like owning two boats!”
Another factor is the limited amount of cat-sized dock space to be found here in the BVI and elsewhere. Many marinas charge a higher fee, if not double, for docking a catamaran. This limitation has had a hampering effect on some of the smaller charter companies who have to lease dock space from a marina operator and don't have their own dedicated slips.
As for the sailors who wouldn't be seen dead on a catamaran or other multihull, don't include the serious round-the-world record breakers such as Francis Joyon or Ellen MacArthur who wouldn't be seen dead in a monohull when it comes to smashing records. Joyon recently single-handed his way around the world in a 100' trimaran in 57 days. Dame Ellen is said to be gearing up to try her hand at reclaiming the record.
And the grandaddy of all yacht races, the Americas Cup, while currently in legal limbo, looks like it will be raced in very big (90 feet?)catamarans. It won't be the first time, since in 1988 Dennis Conner whipped the pants off New Zealand's 123-foot monohull. Conner's boat of choice? A 60-foot catamaran designed in part by Gino Morelli.