The new go-anywhere Garcia Explocat 52 offers an enticing combination of space, pace and rugged construction. Rupert Holmes tested the new boat for Yachting World and felt it's clear she has the potential to make easy 250 mile days in the right conditions.
In recent years there have been two clear trends in serious long-term cruising yachts. Firstly catamarans have become mainstream, to the extent that professional racing sailors talk of ‘buying a catamaran’ for cruising with their families – a monohull doesn’t even enter the equation.
This trend can also be seen in ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) entries, where multihulls are increasingly common. In 2020 they accounted for 28% of the total fleet and a much higher proportion of new boats and more recent designs.
The second trend is the rapidly growing popularity of rugged metal expedition yachts. Aluminium is favoured for this as it offers good strength and stiffness without a weight penalty, especially for yachts over a critical size. That’s why many top-end racing yachts were built of aluminium before composites dominated that scene.
It was, therefore, surely only a matter of time before someone married these two concepts to create an aluminium expedition catamaran. Cherbourg-based Garcia Yachts has been building metal boats for almost 50 years, including Jean Luc Van Den Heede’s 36.15 MET, in which he scored a podium finish in the inaugural Vendée Globe Race in 1989.
Equally Garcia needs no introduction as a front-runner in the development of expedition yachts, thanks to the success of the Exploration 45 that was developed with ARC founder Jimmy Cornell eight years ago. What’s less well known is that the Explocat 52 is by no means Garcia’s first aluminium catamaran.
A pair of 43-footers 15 years ago were followed by the SC48, one of which consistently posted some of the fastest passage times in the 2017/18 World ARC.
As part of the Grand Large Yachting group Garcia was also able to draw on considerable expertise from Outremer and Gunboat for its latest model, while naval architecture is by Pierre Delion, who also drew the SC48.
The Explocat 52 is therefore the product of a highly knowledgeable development team and has already attracted plenty of attention, including nomination for the 2021 European Yacht of the Year awards.
The core concept for the Explocat 52 is a robust, safe long-range yacht that offers good passagemaking speeds. A high level of comfort, both at sea – even in inclement weather – and in harbour was also a key requirement, and the boat had to be capable of being handled by a couple.
While a key marketing message for Garcia’s monohulls is ‘Nowhere you can’t go’, the company accepts this won’t apply as literally to the Explocat 52, even though the boat’s impressive speed potential will enable routing around a lot of bad weather.
The problem is, unlike being knocked down in a monohull, capsizing a multihull is always catastrophic. There are parts of the world, especially at high latitudes in the southern hemisphere, or out of season in the north, where it could be impossible to route around potentially dangerous weather. Nevertheless, the boat is intended to stretch the boundaries that are sensible for exploring the globe with a catamaran, allowing owners to sail a lot further north and south than might be prudent with existing designs.
Rugged construction is also a benefit when venturing off the beaten track in tropical waters. If anything goes wrong while exploring a poorly-charted lagoon, for instance, a fibreglass boat may be in grave danger. Many foam sandwich hulls have surprisingly thin outer skins, which can make the structure vulnerable to abrasion, whether from coral or a concrete quay.
By contrast, the thinnest plating of the Explocat 52 is 5mm, which increases through 8, 10 and 12mm thicknesses, before reaching an enormously reassuring 14mm at the bottom of the hulls. The boat has framing of up to 14mm and is structurally engineered to eliminate flexing between the hulls.
A substantial keel with a long chord length is welded to the bottom of the hulls. They are marginally deeper than the rudders, which offers some protection, as well as providing a firm base on which to dry out on a beach. At the same time the key elements that have made Garcia’s Exploration monohulls so successful are incorporated.
These include fore and aft watertight bulkheads and upstands for through-hull fittings that enable all seacocks to be above the waterline. A skeg ahead of the saildrives and rudders provides good protection, while the rudders are large enough to offer redundancy in the event of one being lost. In addition, the top aft corner of the rudders have a sacrificial zone designed to eliminate risk of the blade puncturing the hull, or becoming jammed, if it hits an obstruction with enough force to bend the stock.
What about weight? Are metal multihulls uncommon because they’re simply too heavy? As with aluminium monohulls, where the material offers better strength/weight ratios for larger boats, around 14m/46ft overall length seems to be a transition point for catamarans.
Below that composite boats will always be lighter, but above that length aluminium is lighter for equivalent rigidity than a composite structure that doesn’t use exotic materials. At 18.9 tonnes lightship displacement the Explocat is therefore in the same league as other cruising catamarans of a similar size and indeed lighter than some.
Interestingly, it’s also a similar figure to that of the Exploration 52 monohull, yet the Explocat offers a large amount of extra space and 35% more sail area. Maximum payload is a useful five tonnes. But how does that translate on the water?
Our test took place from Cherbourg on a gloriously sunny late November day, with a gusty and shifty southerly breeze varying from 7-19 knots.
It’s immediately clear the Explocat 52 picks up and sails at speeds that belie its displacement, putting it in a different league to other expedition yachts of similar length, especially when reaching.
Broad reaching at 120° TWA with full main and Code 0 in 16 knots of true wind we cruised comfortably at 10 knots, reaching an unfussed maximum of 11.8 knots, with the boat still feeling rock steady.
When the breeze picked up to 19 knots, at the design limit for the Code 0, we furled it and continued with the Solent jib instead, losing only a couple of knots of boat speed. By the time we turned upwind the wind had eased significantly, which gave a good test in conditions that can challenge cruising yachts.
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In just seven knots of true wind we made 5.3 close-hauled, rising to 6.2 in 9 knots of breeze. Maximum upwind speed was 9 knots in 15 knots of true wind. However, these numbers can’t be achieved if pinching – the boat likes to be sailed fast and free, with tacking angles of at least 105°. This is hardly a surprise for a boat of this style that’s sufficiently fast to have a big impact on apparent wind angles.
Even in light airs the Explocat is surprisingly nimble in tacks, showing no hint it might miss stays, or slow enough for steering to be difficult until speed is regained on the new tack. Obviously the steering has less feel than a lightweight monohull, but there’s enough feedback for it to feel reasonably responsive and enjoyable to helm.
The shifty and gusty offshore winds were ideal for figuring out the boat’s capability across a range of wind strengths, but the mostly flat water meant we didn’t see the boat performing in a more agitated sea state.
Pete Goss – another massively experienced high-profile Garcia owner – has sailed the boat in more lively conditions. Even fully powered up he reported the lee shrouds remaining tight and there was no telltale creaking of furniture below decks, indicating no deflection of the structure despite the high loads. “It’s incredible how fast she is,” Goss says. He was also impressed by how nimbly the boat tacks.
Cockpits and steering
Much thought has gone into optimising the deck layout. The core vision is for key operations to take place in the safety and shelter of the aft cockpit. The only exceptions are preparing the main for use and hoisting/dropping spinnakers and reaching sails.
As standard the helm station is offset to starboard at the front of the aft cockpit. It has a two-position swinging wheel, which provides an all-round view over the top of the coachroof in its upper position. When swung inboard and lower, the helmsman gains shelter from the hard top, while being able to see forward through the bridgedeck cabin windows.
However, at the request of the owner the first boat has twin outboard helm stations. Before sailing it I’d expected to prefer this arrangement, but didn’t warm to it. Granted, you can steer from the windward side, with a good view of the jib, but the headsail luff will also be visible from the higher of the standard steering positions.
The key problem with the twin wheels is the coachroof creates a large blind spot on the other side of the boat. This has potential to create issues when manoeuvring in confined quarters such as a marina or when bailing out of an anchorage in an unexpected squall.
Mainsheet and traveller are handled right aft on the crossbeam, while the headsail, staysail and kite sheets, plus furling lines, are handled by electric Lewmar 65 winches on each side of the cockpit. Plenty of large rope bins and bags help keep lines nicely ordered.
The rig has twin headstays, with a marginally overlapping furling Solent jib on the main forestay, plus a self-tacking furling staysail. This runs on a neat Dyneema strop, instead of a more conventional but unnecessarily expensive and heavy track.
Combined with furling spinnakers and reaching sails it’s an excellent configuration that takes the hassle out of changing gear to suit widely different conditions.
The square-top mainsail has a Dyneema strop that pulls the ‘gaff’ forward to the mast track without any need for complex hooks, making it as easy to use as pin-head sails. A fuse attaching one of the mainsheet blocks to the boom is intended as a capsize prevention device if the boat is over pressed.
When the fuse blows the strop joining the block to the boom extends by two metres, immediately depowering the sail. The idea of the forward cockpit is to provide a protected position for a lookout when sailing in ice and for anchor handling. It also doubles as a well ventilated area for relaxation when at anchor in warmer climes.
It’s generally easy to move around on deck and there are decent steps at a gentle gradient between the various different levels. I also liked the cork deck – it looks surprisingly good, has great grip and is a more environmentally friendly option than teak.
There’s plenty of stowage, both in small lockers in the cockpit benches and in cavernous sail lockers at the front of each hull.
Davits are rated to take a 500kg RIB, allowing a substantial, powerful tender to be carried.
Alongside the rugged exterior is supremely comfortable and well thought out accommodation.
This, of course, isn’t a boat where it would be appropriate for the distinction between interior and exterior living spaces to be all but eliminated, as it is for many recent designs intended solely for hot climates. Nevertheless, the standard specification has a drop-down window each side of the door between the saloon and aft cockpit. This will help to open the saloon to the aft cockpit and improve ventilation in warm weather.
For colder parts of the world an air extraction system vents moist and stale interior air without needing to open hatches.
The main forward saloon windows are also equipped with demisters. In the same vein, dedicated lockers for foul weather gear and boots have mechanical ventilation and heating. These features make sailing in cold and damp regions far more civilised, yet are addressed by disappointingly few manufacturers.
The aluminium shell is lined with up to 76mm of high density foam, which provides excellent thermal and acoustic insulation. As a result the boat is impressively quiet inside when under way – in the saloon you can barely hear the engines, even at cruising speed, and the high bridgedeck – it’s 85cm above the water – means we experienced no slapping of waves.
Insulation of this standard is expensive to install and doesn’t show up on photographs. Yet yachts create a cacophony of noise in heavy weather. Effective sound proofing is therefore a critical element in creating a comfortable environment, while the thermal insulation will be a benefit whether in the tropics or the Arctic.
As you’d expect, the saloon is very bright and airy, with a good almost all-round view.
The biggest drawback in this respect is at the navstation, forward on the port side, as the mast support and starboard forward mullion obscure some of the view.
Also to port is a big galley that offers plenty of secure worktop space, with low fiddles, and masses of stowage. The test boat had additional fridge and freezer space in the starboard hull. Garcia says more than half its customers choose electric cooking and this boat has a microwave, electric oven and induction hob.
The company has its roots in custom boatbuilding and offers several choices for fitting out the hulls, with options for 6-10 berth arrangements, including a classic owner’s layout. The aft cabins have natural light through two hull windows, a wide aft window to the cockpit, plus opening ports aft and overhead.
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Garcia’s longstanding knowledge of creating rugged go-anywhere yachts has enabled the yard to produce one with a very enticing combination of space, pace and rugged construction. It also benefits from a high standard of finish, attention to detail and many neat touches. It’s clear the boat has the potential to make easy 250 mile days in the right conditions. At the same time it has sufficient tankage and stowage for supplies, spares and tools to give a high level of autonomy for extended periods. The owner of the first boat intends voyaging to Svalbard and, with another seven boats on order, it’s unlikely to be long before we see Explocats in many more far-flung and interesting parts of the globe.