For a cool $800,000, here's one catamaran that's tough to sink

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jim Murray, a Wall Street stock trader, was in Annapolis the other day to look at a boat. He is not an experienced sailor.

What attracts him to the water is the notion of replacing tension with tranquility, of substituting island-hopping for the daily commute.

He has mulled over the choice facing all sailors: mono-hull or multi-hull. His wife, Mary, helped him with the decision. She doesn't like heeling over, and she wants space.

Jim was in town a look at a catamaran.

As a visit to any local marina will quickly prove, this puts him in a distinct minority.

The vast majority of American boat-owners prefer the classic single hull. They follow in the long, seafaring tradition of galleons, clippers and racers that for centuries have carried sailors over oceans, into bays, and across lakes.

In the marina I use on the Rhode River, there are more than 120 mono-hulls and a single trimaran.

The trimaran, berthed at the side of the dock end, sticks uncomfortably out into the approach channel to one of the piers.

In Europe, there are special multi-hull marinas that charge only by length.

Here, no such special treatment is afforded to catamarans and trimarans. Beam and length are usually factored into the mooring costs. Wide and long usually translates into higher marina fees.

But this is perhaps the least of the problems visited on multi-hulls.

The most serious is their reputation for flipping over - and staying over - in heavy weather. The weight of the keel on a mono-hull is meant to stop it rolling over or bring it back upright if it is knocked down.

But the twin hulls that give a large catamaran its stability when sailing all but doom it to staying upside down if it is flipped.

The multi-hulls also have more difficulty sailing into the wind. They are speed machines when the breeze comes from the side or stern, but they struggle upwind.

Against all this, the multi-hull offers a level ride in conditions that would have a mono-hull angled over to a white-knuckles degree.

Its saloon space between the decks can be little short of awesome to a sailor used to the cramped cabin of a mono-hull.

All this was going through my mind as I boarded the Catana 472, a French-built catamaran that has attracted Jim Murray's attention. The 47-foot cat was being used as a host boat during the Eastport Yacht Club's running of the Boat U.S. Santa Maria Cup last weekend.

The boat's makers recently opened a subsidiary in Annapolis, Catana US Inc., confident that American misgivings about multi-hulls are waning.

Production at its boatyard in Canet, near the border with Spain, is doubling from 35 boats this year to 70 next. Half the boats are earmarked for the American market. Another 20 percent will be sold in France, and the remaining 30 percent in the rest of the world.

In anticipation of growing sales to buyers such as Murray, Catana also has entered a joint venture with a catamaran maker in Jamaica.

"More and more people are turning to cats," said Laura Adams, Catana representative in Annapolis who had a second potential client on the 427 during out outing.

According to Adams, the cruising catamaran's image as a dangerous boat prone to flipping stems from the days of the early racing cats.

"Nowadays, they are so high-tech. The way they are constructed, with the hull design and the centering of weights, there is very little chance of a capsize," she said.

At the wheel as we leave the dock is Boyd Tomkies, an Annapolis resident and professional sailor from New Zealand who has delivered and raced yachts around the globe.

"I'm only driving the boat around. I'm not trying to sell it," he said. "It looks like a cruising boat with all the [racing talk for amenities] on it, but it sails really well."

He points to the way the Catana's hull shape makes the bow lift rather than "bury" itself the faster the boat goes. This minimizes the likelihood of a pitch-pole.

Almost everything on the boat can be controlled from the cockpit, from reefing the mainsail by power winch to furling the foresails. All ropes are run through the hull, keeping the decks strikingly clear.

By any standards - and not least, the $800,000 price tag - the Catana 472 is an exceptional craft.

One hull is dedicated to the owner's comfort. It offers a master bedroom with king-size mattress, a "head" with separate shower, a desk and library space, plus a laundry.

In the other hull are two more double cabins that would put rooms in many a big-city hotel to shame.

Between the hulls is what in modern homes would be called "a great room" that combines kitchen, dining and lounge space, complete with multi-media center and navigation station. Double sliding doors lead to the shaded patio with its cushioned rim and casual dining table.

Standard equipment includes a refrigerator, freezer, water-maker, and battery-charging solar panels.

Anyone who sails in her should be about as self-sufficient as an individual sailor can be.

The necessity for paying high marina fees would be minimized by the ability to anchor-off for long periods.

But the interesting thing is the stress now placed on safety. The Catana's hull is so buoyant that if it were cut in pieces, each part would float. It is, according to the builders, unsinkable.

In heavy seas, the manufacturers suggest simply dousing the sails and riding out the storm.

Unlike many catamarans, the Catana does not have fixed keels. Instead, it has dagger boards. These can be dropped through the hulls when pointing into the wind or raised when running in front of it.

In heavy weather, they should be raised, allowing the boat to simply slip down the waves without the risk of a hull being flipped up and over.

Jim Murray takes all this in, as he rides the cat out into Chesapeake Bay. His wife sits on the pulpit seat, above the trampoline.

"I think this cat has everything - comfort, safety, speed," he says. "I think they have covered it all."

He looks at his wife perched at forward and says: "Most of my harebrainedschemes, she doesn't want to get involved in. This one is different. There has been no conflict."

It's an assertion that Mary confirms.

"I'm totally enthusiastic," she says.

For those of you with $800,000 or so to spare, the Catana 472 will be on show at the Annapolis Boat Show in the fall.

For Murray, the next step is to visit the Catana boatyard in France to look at the smaller 43-foot and 41-foot catamarans.

As Catana's public relations manager Sebastian Barphez said: "We have prospects, but it takes time to sell a boat like this. There have been hundreds of years of mono-hulls, so it takes time.

"People have seen racing catamarans, and they flip. So they are afraid. So it takes time."

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