SI Vault
Hugh Whall
May 06, 1968
Nobody denies that a lot of hulls make for more excitement than one. But do they make for safety?
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May 06, 1968

Hey Ho And Up She Rises

Nobody denies that a lot of hulls make for more excitement than one. But do they make for safety?

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Innovation in any form has always been met with distrust at sea. A traditionalist by training and temperament, the blue-water sailor, out of sight of land and dependent utterly on his vessel, has too much at stake to cast aside lightly the proved and the practical. Yet there is always within him the urge to sail faster and farther, with less effort and more comfort.

That urge in recent years has been gratified by a growing fleet of oceangoing sailboats that substitute two or even three hulls for the traditional single hull. Roomy, comfortable, often cheaper to build than ordinary craft, multihulled catamarans and trimarans can swoop down combers in the open sea at speeds of 20, 25 or even 30 knots—speeds unimagined in even the fastest 19th-century clipper ships. And speed is not all this new breed of seagoing cat has to offer, according to the owner of one, the 43-foot cruising catamaran Imi Loa. "Speed is just gravy compared to the cat's real advantages: its pleasantness," says Dr. Victor Stern. "You're drier, for one thing. Chores like cooking and navigating are a breeze since you're always working in a big airy cabin with lots of light and windows—not down below in some sort of dark hold. Then there's the fact that catamarans don't heel much; when you put your drink down it stays where you put it."

With all this going for the multihulls, it is not surprising that they have won over such previously dedicated monohull men as TV's Jim (Marshal Dillon) Arness, a longtime blue-water sailor. Arness' newest boat is a 58-foot catamaran named Seasmoke, designed and built for him by the Sparkman & Stephens of the catamaran fancy: Choy, Seaman and Kumalae, better known as C/S/K.

Rudy Choy, the senior member of the firm, has been an apostle of the double hull ever since he began sailing cats through Waikiki's surf at the end of World War II. A few weeks ago, relaxing as a guest aboard Seasmoke, he was still preaching the cat gospel with enthusiasm. Wearing her biggest genoa and a huge mainsail, and driven by a wispy breeze, Seasmoke was slipping along through the Pacific swells with no more suggestion of speed than a jet plane in flight. When another guest wondered at the knots they might be making, Choy gestured toward the dial of the seagoing speedometer. It read 14 knots—faster than any cup defender could be expected to move except in the briskest blow.

So why doesn't everyone sail the seas on multihulls? Because, say the diehard monohull men, they are just not seaworthy. Their odd construction makes them too flimsy to withstand the strains of rough weather; they are too tricky to handle; and they tend to capsize. Not so, say the multihull men.

Yet in 1964, during the first transpacific ocean race ever held exclusively for multihulls, this gloomy opinion seemed to be shared by the catamaraners themselves. The planned-for fleet of a dozen or more boats was narrowed to three before the race even began. Two of those three dropped out with fractured hulls within the first 48 hours of sailing, leaving Dr. Stern's reliable Imi Loa to finish the race alone.

Following the race, the cats came under heavy attack in boating magazines and newspapers. "We told you so," cried all the traditionalists who had urged the banning of multihulls from regular racing fleets. Catman Choy, who designed all three boats, admitted that his world seemed to have crumbled. "I wept after that race," he says. "I seriously gave thought to quitting and returning to the islands." Choy might have done so had he known that three years later, within the space of only a few months, three big C/S/K cats would capsize, albeit without the loss of any lives.

By that time, however, Designer Choy had learned to roll with adversity. Pointing out that monohulls, although reasonably safe from capsizing, had foundered at sea over the years from many other causes, Rudy insisted: "There's simply too much argument attempting to link capsizing—the Achilles' heel of catamarans—with overall safety at sea."

But if a tendency to tip is all that is wrong with catamarans, what about the other multihulls: the three-hulled trimarans? Most experts agree that a catamaran, which is essentially two separate boats linked by a winglike structure, should never be allowed to heel more than 15° from the horizontal. On the other hand, trimarans—i.e., vessels with a large central hull and two smaller hulls set out on either side—have a positive stability up to 60°. The reason for the difference is clear. The instant one of her hulls becomes completely airborne, the two-hulled catamaran becomes intrinsically unstable, like a man balancing on one leg. As a trimaran lifts one of her outlying hulls off the water, however, she must correspondingly drive the other one below the surface where its buoyancy works to reestablish an even keel.

Are trimarans then the ultimate answer to multihull safety at sea? Not by a long shot. During the last 21 months five ostensibly sturdy oceangoing trimarans have foundered at sea, drowning 12 sailors, and if a search that is now taking place off the coast of California proves fruitless, the grim figure may rise to 13.

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