Can’t decide between a monohull and a catamaran? The surprising truth is that a fast cruising trimaran, like the Neel 43 could be the ideal solution. Rupert Holmes reports.
Neel 43 on test: Is three the magic number?
Until recently it would have been easy to assume the pioneering cruising trimarans of the 1960s and 1970s showed that cruising on three hulls has too many drawbacks to be viable for most, despite the extra space and speed they offered. However, the past decade has seen a resurgence of lightweight fast cruising designs, with spacious accommodation, led by La Rochelle-based yard Neel who recently launched their Neel 43 trimaran.
This latest model, a Marc Lombard-designed 43, is one of those rare boats that defies both expectation and easy classification.
The Neel 43 has the deck space and massive coachroof of the most spacious of cruising catamarans, yet is at least three tonnes lighter than most 42ft cats.
Another surprise is the low wetted surface area once the windward ama lifts out of the water. Each hull has a narrow waterline beam, so wetted surface area is a fraction of that of a catamaran of similar size. Combined with the light displacement this translates into a boat that’s surprisingly quick.
Neel 43 under sail
After hoisting the mainsail we cut the engine and bore away, unfurling the headsail with the wind on the beam. In only 14 knots of true wind we quickly accelerated to a consistent 10 knots of boat speed.
Sheeting in and squeezing up to a true wind angle of 65° – and 40° apparent wind angle – only saw speed drop by one knot.
Direct Dyneema cables, passing through a minimum of turns, connect the wheel to the single rudder. The helm felt beautifully responsive throughout the test, with a much more direct feel than is generally found on multihulls.
Tacking proved to be as easy as with a monohull – the boat reliably turned smartly through the wind, with speed rarely dropping much below five knots.
However, visibility from the single raised helm is restricted by the headsail when on starboard tack and by the asymmetric on both tacks.
That there’s a single shallow keel below the centre hull, instead of the two low-profile keels of most catamarans is an important factor in the boat’s handling. It undoubtedly also helps that all the heavy items in the boat, including engine, tankage and batteries, are concentrated low down in the middle of the central hull.
The result is a very comfortable, soft motion that’s easier than that of a typical catamaran, but without the heel of a monohull. In some ways it’s also reminiscent of the easy gait of a heavy displacement long keeler.
Yet, unlike monohulls, there’s no chance of a broach. Stability builds very quickly after 12-14° of heel is reached, so it takes an enormous force to heel the boat to significantly greater angles. This arguably gives more warning of being overpowered than catamarans, which may generate maximum stability at only 12° of heel.
In addition, the high freeboard means there’s a reassuring amount of reserve buoyancy in the amas, even if the boat is pressed hard in a gust or squall.
On the other hand, a downside of the Neel 43 effectively having a single fin keel is that, unlike most cruising catamarans, it can’t be beached.
Our test boat had standard Dacron sails, so a reasonable set of high-tech sails would undoubtedly see the boat able to squeeze a useful few degrees closer to the breeze without losing too much speed.
However, the reality is that the engine will be used in combination with the mainsail if schedules make a passage to windward essential. Motoring out of the La Rochelle entrance channel head to wind and sea gave a feel for how the easily driven underwater sections behave when motor sailing.
With the single 50hp engine at a comfortable 2,400rpm we made 8 knots, with a gentle motion that didn’t slow the boat.
On turning downwind our speed initially dropped to 6-7 knots at a true wind angle of 150°, until we hoisted the general purpose asymmetric kite. Although it’s not a particularly large sail, this brought the speed back up to 8.5-9 knots, producing our best downwind VMG of 7 knots.
When the breeze picked up a little to 15-16 knots true we sheeted in and luffed up to 115° off the true wind, accelerating to an easy 10.5-11 knots of boat speed. The Neel has so much stability that, even though the sailplan was now generating far more power, there was no perceptible change in heel.
All lines, other than spinnaker sheets, are led to the raised helm station at the front of the starboard side of the cockpit.
Despite its intrinsic speed potential, this is not a boat that’s set up to be constantly tweaked. The deck layout is therefore simple, but efficient. It’s also obviously a cost-effective arrangement, but doesn’t skimp through fitting under-sized winches and other equipment. A powered winch on our test boat took all the effort out of sail handling.
Port and starboard mainsheets – in appropriate colours – give excellent control of the sail shape, without a costly traveller that might endanger the hands of anyone relaxing at the back of the cockpit. The primary sheet is the one on the windward side, while the leeward one gives excellent control of twist.
Headsail sheets are led through a single fixed fairlead. It’s a simple arrangement that minimises coachroof clutter, though twist will increase, spilling wind out of the top of the sail, when it’s partially furled in stronger winds.
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The optional free-flying working jib can be hoisted furled, so there’s no inner forestay to get in the way when tacking the genoa when it’s not set up.
If I was specifying the sailplan I’d also opt for a Code 0 for use when reaching with the apparent wind well forward of the beam, plus a large asymmetric shaped for deeper downwind angles than the test boat’s all-purpose sail. This would maximise downwind VMG in light and moderate airs.
An unusual, but appealing, feature of all Neel trimarans is the technical area below the saloon floor in the central hull – on some of the larger models this has an impressive 7ft (2.1m) of headroom, which makes for easy access and fault-finding. However the Neel 43 is smaller, which means this is reduced to generous sitting headroom and floor space is limited.
The central section houses tanks, plumbing and batteries, while the engine and steering gear are further aft. Further forward the space is dominated by a large number of electrical items and connections for solar charge regulators, shorepower battery chargers, inverters and so on.
It’s great that these are easy to access, which also serves as a reminder of the vast number of systems that are often hidden out of sight and distributed around different parts of today’s increasingly complex yachts.
However, there’s a downside that can’t be overlooked. These systems are low down in the boat, close to where any water will collect. Fitting a couple of bilge alarms, and making regular checks when underway by lifting the access hatch in the saloon floor, would therefore be sensible precautions. Despite this drawback it’s still an arrangement that has advantages over many installations.
What about the interior of the Neel 43? Despite the design’s abilities under sail, in this part of the market it’s the accommodation that sells boats. Yet, once again, this is an aspect that defies comparison with others.
The almost seamless blending of indoor and outdoor areas is appealing, but far from unique among today’s multihull designs.
On the other hand, Neel has gone for the ultimate in a loft-style layout that’s refreshingly different. Masses of windows and large expanses of white fibreglass are balanced by just enough fabric and wood trim to give it some warmth.
Reed-style flooring also adds to a feeling of comfort, in the Neel 43 without increasing weight, and can be taken outside to wash and clean.
There’s excellent near-surround visibility – around 300° – when sitting in the saloon and it’s almost as good when standing.
Forward to port is a watchkeeping station with switch panel, and on our test boat a second MFD, VHF and Fusion audio kit, plus 12V outlets and an analogue steering compass here. However, it stops short of being a full chart table that could also be used as an office, so I’m typing this at the saloon table, which is a great place to work, with brilliant views and lots of natural light.
In common with other Neel models, the owner’s cabin is on the same level as the saloon. A downside is therefore a lack of privacy, even with the curtains drawn and door closed. However, it’s a beautifully lit and airy space that would suit those who primarily cruise as a couple.
There’s almost no built-in stowage, although the deep bins in the ama outboard of the bunk will take several large kit bags.
Neat touches for every bunk include a reading lamp with built-in USB port, a folding coat hook for jackets, plus a fabric bulkhead-mounted pouch with space for a phone, tablet, sunglasses, notebook and so on.
These may sound like small points, but it’s surprising how many boats lack provision for these items and they therefore quickly get scattered everywhere.
Natural ventilation is primarily via an opening forward facing window on each side of the coachroof – one for the saloon and one for the owner’s cabin.
There’s also a small opening hatch in the middle of the coachroof and another for the heads. This is a long, narrow compartment off the starboard side of the saloon.
Overall there’s plenty of space and a shower is included, though it’s not luxurious and there’s no option for a second toilet and shower compartment.
The second cabin is right forward in the central hull, accessed by steps just ahead of the galley. This is a pleasant space with more privacy than the owner’s cabin, though the berth is only 77cm wide at its foot.
A third sleeping area is outboard of the saloon table, aft on the port side of the saloon. This is open plan to the saloon, with curtains for screening, with a generous 140x200cm rectangular bunk with space underneath for kit bags. It would make a great space for kids on passage.
For the charter market there’s also an option to drop the saloon table to create an additional double berth, plus small single cabins forward in the amas that are accessed from the foredeck, making a potential maximum of 10 berths.
Few owners are likely to want to sail with that many for long, but the flexibility of being able to cater for extra short term guests, without dragging the weight and volume of spare bedrooms around the rest of the time has an obvious appeal.
Given the price of the Neel 43 compared to other multihulls of a similar length it should not be a surprise that it has been conceived to be quick and easy to build, aside from the vacuum infused mouldings that are an important element in keeping weight to a minimum.
Those who love traditional joinery with hand crafted solid hardwood trim will be disappointed and the lack of a second heads will rule the boat out for some.
However, in general the relatively Spartan level of fit out Neel has opted for is appropriate for a boat of this style that’s aimed at a mass audience.
It took Neel 10 years to build its first 100 boats. In the current financial year, ending September, the yard has produced more than 30 boats across a four model range of 43-65ft sailing designs, plus semi-custom fuel efficient power trimarans.
The popularity of the Neel 43 means output is set to grow by a large margin in the coming year.
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There’s much to like about this design: it’s a cruising boat in every respect, not an outright speed machine, yet it’s one that will quickly leave the competition behind. While it’s not a model that will suit everyone, founder Eric Bruneel has a good understanding of how a vast proportion of owners use their vessels and has created a yacht that will exceed their expectations in many respects. A decade ago trimarans were a niche part of the cruising world, however, the Neel 43 shows the concept of a cruising tri is ready for the mass market. The design has already proved hugely popular and one boat is leaving the factory every fortnight.