Catamarans: History, Handling and Buying Them

Did you know that the word catamaran comes from Tamil term kattumarum, which means “logs tied together”?

Within the sailing community, they’re also simply called “cats”.

These double-hulled beauties are my favorite type of sailing vessel.

There aren’t many of us cat lovers.

But we like to think that our camaraderie and enthusiasm make up for that, at least to a large degree 😉


The cats of today were inspired by the cats of Polynesia and Maritime Southeast Asia that have been around since as early as 1500 BCE!

Such a very long time ago.

They are thought to have consisted of two canoes tied to a wooden frame. Usually, with a sail.

The Polynesians were able to voyage for thousands of miles on these things, across the open Pacific Ocean, using just a few navigational instruments and observation of the sea. That’s Ballzy! (gutsy)

The people that made it made up songs about their journey so their apprentices could then follow in their tracks.

In South India a lot later, the Tamil people were using cats in a big way. Around the 5th century.

And then around 1697, an English adventurer spotted them during his first circumnavigation and wrote:

“On the coast of Malabar they call them Catamarans. These are but one Log, or two, sometimes of a sort of light Wood … so small, that they carry but one Man, whose legs and breech are always in the Water.”

Haha! Their butts were always in the water. I bet the water was pretty warm, though—luckily.

Well, things have changed, but what we now recognize as a cat has actually been around since around that time.

The first double-hulled craft ogled and written about in Europe was designed by William Petty in 1662.

He created it to sail quicker, in shallower waters, and in lighter winds with fewer crew.

Sadly, no one really got it.

Fast forward almost 160 years, and another English dude—Mr. Mayflower Crisp—built another one in Burma, of all places.

They called her Original. Ironic.

Next, the American Nathaneal Herreshoff built a cat of his own design: Amaryllis.

He raced her at her maiden regatta in June, 1876 at New York Yacht Club and she flew across the water like a rat up a drainpipe.

Herreshoff did so well, he got cats banned until the 1970s. Oops.

The following fella to have a go was the Frenchman Eric de Bisschop, who build a Polynesian double canoe in Hawaii and sailed it back to France in 1936. What a guy.

But it wasn’t until 1967 that someone built a very fast cat. Three British guys designed the Tornado cat and it was selected for the multihull discipline in the Olympic Games between 1976 and 2008.

The Australians have also made some mighty transport cat ferries and naval vessels, like Incat in 1977 and Austal in 1988.

I’ve always thought that military cats look particularly impressive. Much meaner than any monohull boat I’ve ever seen.


If you’ve never sailed a cat before, you’re in for a treat.

But it’s very different to sailing a mono.

You should definitely give it a go as soon as you can.

But here’s what you need to be aware of the first few times.


Hm, now this is definitely one of the huge differences between those skinny monohulls and a big fat, wide cat.

All that accommodation room can pose a problem if your cat doesn’t have separate port and starboard helm stations. If you’re handling a boat with a flybridge, you’ll be fine, too.

If not, just remember that you can’t see everything and base all your maneuvers on that. Ask for help where needed.

Coping With Windage

That generous accommodation means a huge amount of windage. But most cats have fixed centerboards, which act like unballasted keels.

Though they’re not the best devices for fast upwind sailing, they do stop the boat being blown about like a crazy thing.

This is another one to watch, but is really not a big problem if you’re aware of the vessel’s limits.

Managing Those Twin Engines

Maneuvering with two engines means you can forget about the rudders and leave them amidships when travelling at slow speeds.

If your boat is fitted with a bow thruster, which is not massively common, you can push the bow away from the dock until you’re clear to move forward.

But don’t forget that the bow thruster will rotate the boat, so the stern will be pushing towards the dock as it becomes the pivot point, so it will need to be well fendered.

Springing Off The Dock

If you’re not lucky enough to have a bow thruster, don’t worry. You’ll need to spring the boat off the dock by setting a spring line between the bow and a dock cleat somewhere close to the stern …

… which will then be led back to the bow, so the line can be released from on board by hauling in the running end!

Moving the engine control furthest from the dock into slow-ahead while the spring line is still intact should cause the stern to swing away from the dock.

Next, make a stern-first exit as the boat swings out to around 45 degrees from the dock and you release the running spring line and haul it aboard.

Magic! It takes a bit of practice, but when you have it down, you’ll do it with true style.


The ten commandments of buying a catamaran go something like this:

  • #1 Thou shalt buy a multihull suited to thy present needs and not future dreams
  • #2 Thou shalt remember that comfort at anchor must be balanced with speed and comfort underway
  • #3 Thou shalt avoid buying a cat until thou hast been at sea, behind the wheel without assistance and in heavy air
  • #4 If thou willst be oft sailing upwind or willst be doing some serious cruising, thou shalt buy a catamaran with daggerboards
  • #5 Thou shalt carefully consider load capacity when buying a cat
  • #6 Thou shalt charter a cat if thou hast only 4-5 weeks per year to sail in any real way
  • #7 If thou must build a custom cat, thou must anticipate custom issues and custom expenses
  • #8 If thou cannot afford a brand new cat, thou shalt be cautious of the fixer-upper
  • #9 Thou shalt purchase a cat that is easy to sail
  • #10 Thou shalt choose a cat that is able to sail fast enough to escape danger

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Should You Buy a Catamaran or a Monohull? Part 2

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