Tips For Making Catamaran Sailing Safer and More Pleasurable

Articles, Articles by Phil Berman, Cruising Lifestyle

By:  Phillip Berman  

Over the past thirty odd years I’ve been privileged to earn my living as a yacht broker. I’ve visited over 58 countries on these yachting adventures and made friends the world over, most of whom have taught me valuable nuggets of information on the art of catamaran voyaging.

I am asked, often enough, how safe is it to sail on a modern catamaran and I can say with some measure of pleasure that, so far, of the over 750 catamarans we have sold at 5 Oceans Marine Group not a single customer in our family has capsized. This is quite amazing when you consider that we specialize in live-aboard sailors, adventurers, and performance cat enthusiasts. The number of our customers who have circumnavigated is considerable.

The above said, we’ve had a couple dis-mastings in our family, a few boats have gone aground, and three of our owners have had open ocean collisions with other vessels. To date, thank goodness, not a yachting related death in our family.

A few weeks ago, sadly, one of our dear Multihull Company family members ran their Leopard 46, Tanda Malaika, aground on a reef in Huahine, French Polynesia. Fortunately, they were rescued and nobody was hurt. The Govatos’ are a happy go-lucky Mormon family who love the sea and set about with their children to sail around the world offering love and service to others anywhere they could. When I sometimes hear people go on about the ills of religion in human history, I often respond that “religion is not the problem….it is the shortage of truly religious people.” The Govatos family brought tremendous honor to their church by the graciousness of their heartfelt public service.

It has been sad for us to learn of the loss of Tanda Malaika, and to learn as well that they did not carry marine insurance on their catamaran. This has been a truly devastating event in their lives. I’ve been gratified to see the outpouring of love, prayers and donations that have come to them from the sailing community around the world.

The Govatos’ loss has compelled me to think a lot about how it could have been prevented, and on catamaran safety in general, so I’ve decided, here on this flight home from Grenada, to tap out fifteen things I’ve learned over the years that can make your sailing and voyaging safer and more pleasant.

Never Trust The Chart Plotter In Shallow Waters

Especially in countries that have small navy’s and less than accurate charts. I learned this from my friend Russell Eddington who sailed around the world on a Dolphin 460 we built for him in Brazil. I had visited him in Thailand and we anchored in Crabbe bay. Russell said, “Phil, come take a look at the plotter and see where it says we are.” We were anchored safely, well out in the middle of the bay, but the plotter had us 25 yards up on a beach.

Do Not Enter Foreign Ports at Night Unless They Are Wide, Well Lit, and Have a Range Market To Guide You In

What happened to the Govatos family is that they arrived in Huahine a bit too late in the afternoon, had never been there before, and trusted too much in their chart plotter. Lacking the proper visuals they required to enter this narrow, reef lined opening safely, they entered when they should have stood off for the night. This is a mistake made by many. Some get lucky, many do not.

Autopilots Will Not Steer You Around Reefs or Rocks and Do Not Correct For Current

I’ll never forget running into a delivery captain on the ferry from Tortola to St. Thomas a few years back. He had just delivered a brand new 45 foot French catamaran to her new owner a few days earlier. On his first day sailing the new owner set his autopilot and feel asleep on the trampoline and ran into right in a reef. To add insult to injury he left the sails up long enough for the boat to get driven deeper into the rocks as such that his new catamaran was totally destroyed. Another huge mistake that has led to more than a few mishaps is sailors setting their autopilots and failing to account for current and drift, setting them far off course after miles of sailing. Some years ago a man ran a Lagoon 55 onto a reef in French Polynesia for this very reason. It is vital that watch keepers keep a close eyeof where they are and where they are being set so they can compensate appropriately.

Never Push Your Catamaran Beyond Her Sweet Spot

Catamarans really do not “talk to you” like monohulls. You get by a big gust and they do not heel over. Instead, all of the load goes right onto her sails and rigging and is transferred to her mast base, bulkheads, and hulls. Wise voyaging requires that you learn the sailing “sweet spot” of your catamaran on all points of sail and never carry more sail than you need to remain at or below your sweet spot. My own experience from sailing most of the production cats is that this is a range been 7 and 8 knots upwind. To go any faster you really have to push these cats very hard. Off the wind the sweet spot is typically a knot or two higher on most production cats. Anyways, the moment you are sailing in your sweet spot, if the winds picks up, shorten sail. Your speed is not likely to drop much, but you will be taking a lot of pressure off your sails, rig, mast base, bulkheads and hulls. Best of all your cat will ride more smoothly, comfortably, and safely.

If You Get Tired, Hove To

Many accidents at sea come from fatigue. If you ever find yourself terribly tired while sailing in big seas and wind it is usually a good idea to “park your boat” if you have enough sea room. Drop the mainsail, roll in most of the jib, pull it a bit to windward, turn the helm to windward and sit it out. If it is really rough, set a sea anchor. Running with big seas is very tiring and difficult to do at night unless you have a lot of good and experienced crew onboard. You’re not racing, you’re cruising, so hove-to and chill out.

Stay Out of Shipping Lanes Whenever Possible, Especially At Night

If you have ever sailed up the Delaware Bay at Night, with the lights of Wilmington to your West and the shoreline dotted with lights North and South, I can tell you it is very hard to pick out the lights of other vessels. I always set my course these days just to the side of the shipping lane markers whenever I’ve got the water to do so. I certainly do not think it is a good idea to cross the straights of Gibraltar at night. When crossing oceans, know where the shipping lanes are, plot courses to either side of them, and use extra caution when crossing the lanes at night.

Most Accidents Happen Near Shore, Not Offshore

 If you are short-handed you are a lot safer sailing a bit further out than the bulk of the traffic hugging close to the coast. Further, the further out you are, as a rule, the deeper it is, the less danger of running aground, running into a lobster pot, a buoy or some unsighted small craft. If you ever sail in the Malacca Straights, be careful – the vast majority of little fishing boats are sailing without any form of marine lighting you could ever possibly recognize.

Have Your Rigging Inspected Annually By a Competent Rigger

Losing a rig is no fun. It is better than failing from the sky, I grant, but still a very unpleasant experience. At night, it can be rather horrifying when you hear that heavy thud on deck. A good rig survey will reduce your chances of a dismasting significantly and also protect you from your insurance company claiming you did not practice prudent maritime precautions.

Sail Away From Storm Cells

A great radar is your best friend, especially when sailing at night, as it shows where the rain is falling and the storm cells are located. If you stay focused on this you can generally position yourself to avoid the brunt of storm cells, or at least position yourself far from their centers. This will reduce your chances of a lightning strike and often save you from running into violent winds.

Anchor Firm and Plan For Your Exit

 I suppose it goes without saying that you want to be certain your anchor is firmly set when resting at an anchorage. It is also critical to look carefully at where you are positioned in relation to the land, nearby rocks or reefs as well as the other yachts around you. Ask yourself: what if that boat to my right starts to swing into me, or drags her anchor? What if the wind switches direction at night? What if a current changes direction on me? Think carefully through the variables and plan your exit strategy for that 3 AM scramble.

Why Do a Long Passage or Ocean Crossing Without a Sat Phone and Modern Weather Routing to Assist You?

Satellite communications have made cruising safer than ever before because you no longer have to sail blindly into bad weather. If you are competent at reading Grib files, get them and do that. If not, why not hire a great weather routing company to guide you?  There is simply little reason these days to find yourself in the brunt of a major storm if you monitor weather closely and route away from the worst.

Falling Off Your Mast or Bimini Isn’t a Good Idea

 Before you leave a dock, or an anchorage, unzip your sailbag, attach your mainsail halyard, and pull your lazy jacks well forward and tie them off at the mast. On so many cats these days you have to climb up steps to attach a halyard or unzip the lazy bag. Why be climbing up steps or walking down a bimini at sea when you can do these at anchor or a dock? And why zip up a lazy bag until you are anchored and back at a dock? Too many people hurt themselves doing such things in bumpy seas. There’s just no reason to do it, so don’t.

Check Your Propane System Carefully

Since catamarans do not sink unless they burn, the most dangerous thing on a cat at sea is a catastrophic fire. Get your propane system checked for leaks and make sure your solenoid system is working properly.

Never Allow Guests, Crew or Family Members Pressure You Into Setting To Sea When It’s a Bad Idea

If people have to wait for you to arrive at some port, let them wait. There are plenty of hotels in the world. If people are demanding you drop them off at X location to catch a flight, or to return to work, that is their agenda, not yours. And world doesn’t come to an end if the kids miss a few days at school. Anyone who thinks things everything will run on a schedule when yachting should not be a guest on a boat. More boats are damaged, or lost, when someone is pressured into setting to sea when they shouldn’t. Just say no.

Phil Berman is a former Hobie Cat World Champion and the owner of 5 Oceans Marine Group, a global catamaran yacht brokerage firm. He is also the owner of Balance Catamarans, a boutique brand of high-end performance voyaging catamarans. He can be reached at