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Switching to Multihulls: When Two Become One

The speed-and-thrill divide between mono and multi has narrowed, making for an easier leap from one to the other.

April 26, 2013
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Marstrom M-32

Marstrom M-32

High performance mono-hulls have been shifting the apparent wind forward and giving casual racers the know-how to hop on multihulls. Ken Read’s next high-speed ride and beer can racer is the Marstrom M-32 catamaran. Marco Oquendo/imagesbymarco.com

Multihulls have always been unique in our sport. Tornados in the Olympics, record-breaking offshore maxi-multihulls, foiling record breakers, and singlehanded 60-foot trimarans show us what high-speed craziness awaits when there’s more than one hull. But until now, multihull sailing was a concept many everyday monohull sailors couldn’t relate to or understand. As monohulls have changed, however, so too have general perceptions of multihull-style sailing.

My experience with multihull sailing comes largely from sailing Formula 40 catamarans in the ProSail Series from 1988 to 1990. These were fantastic Morrelli & Melvin-designed 40-footers that got together and raced for cash. By most accounts it was the first real pro-sailing circuit. NASCAR promoter Sid Morris put on the events, with Salem Cigarettes as the title sponsor.

It was a novel idea, and Morris, being the savvy marketer he was, kept changing the rules, allowing more sail area, in order to encourage crashes. His intention, which he shared with us at one of the early skippers meetings, was to do everything possible to make it a crash-and-burn series. When someone eventually got hurt on live television, he implied, it would vault sailing into the mainstream. Does that sound familiar (NASCAR)? Like every other multihull event of the era, a bunch of us lead-mine sailors, including Tom Blackhaller, Scott Allan, and myself, lined up and inevitably got smoked by Randy Smyth. We pushed these crazy boats hard around extremely tight, made-for-TV racetracks set right off the shoreline.

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As with many other sailing events of this type, the ProSail Series ran out of steam. In hindsight, it was way ahead of its time. The format is now at the heart of the Extreme Sailing Series and the America’s Cup World Series. And even the Volvo Ocean Race and the Olympics have brought the racing into near-shore venues where big audiences can watch make-or-break races on big-screen televisions, from the comfort of their lawn chairs.

The America’s Cup World Series format has legitimized sailing in the eyes of an entirely new generation, showcasing what it’s like to go fast on a multihull in living color, and delivering the carnage that Sid Morris once dreamed of. I believe, however, that the general sailing public is now talking about, and becoming more receptive to, multihulls not just because we’re exposed to them in the America’s Cup, but because of the advancements of our own monohull designs. Our new age high-performance monohulls make sailing a multihull much easier to grasp and try.

Until recently, the multihull sailing experience was completely foreign to most sailors because they spent most of their time in heavy displacement boats. Before we had sportboats and seriously lightweight craft, apparent wind on the runs was always aft of 90 degrees. While we were sailing ProSail 40s, we were also sailing Etchells, J/24s, and IOR boats. All great boats of that era, but boats with spinnaker poles that you pulled aft further and further the windier it got, using the spinnaker as a wind blocker. Look at the landscape now, however. We have mainstreamed foiling Moths, 49ers, Melges 24s, J/70s, Viper 640s, TP52s, and Volvo 70s—all boats that share one important trait with multihulls: They’re fast enough to shift the apparent wind forward, making downwind sailing a far more lively and high-speed experience. In essence, a lot of downwind sailing is now done with bigger and deeper genoas that use the flow of apparent wind the same way a jib does upwind. There’s no more wind blocking, no more spinnaker poles, and no more spinnakers—period. It’s “crank it up and let her rip,” which is how multihulls have been sailed for generations.

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After sailing around the world twice, with the apparent wind always forward of 80 degrees, I was having a hard time imagining myself flying a symmetric spinnaker with the pole pulled back to the shroud. If I was to keep sailing at a high level in the new racing climate, I needed to replicate that high-speed experience, and after playing around on a Marstrom M-32 catamaran in Sweden last year I found my next boat. I got one a few months later and convinced a bunch of friends that they’d be wise to jump on the bandwagon, too. We’ll have a fleet of five in Newport, R.I., this summer, and—with our kids, wives, friends, and everyone else we can accommodate—we’re going to have seriously fun beer can racing. We chose the M-32 over other options because of its simplicity: There’s only one mainsail and one Code Zero for downwind. It’s pretty hard to screw that up.

The M-32 isn’t the only option out there, though. There’s the more technical Great Cup 32 (GC32) and the SL33. At the smaller end there’s no shortage of new and old options, including Formula 18s, A Cats, and Nacra 17s, which the International Sailing Federation recently selected as the mixed-crew multihull for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. All of these boats are more appealing to experienced dinghy and sportboat sailors because they really don’t sail much different from the monohulls they’ve been sailing. They’re just livelier and quicker, to be sure, but that’s all part of the fun.

My crazy multihull friends have been right all along when it comes to having fun on the water. It really is a great time in sailing right now, and it’s time for more of us to give multihull sailing a go. Welcome to the mainstream my multihull brethren. We’re all as one now.

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Click here to read more from Ken Read’s column, Gaining Bearing.

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