Multihulls are making their mark on tradewinds sailing. Elaine Bunting reports from the 2019 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers
When a cruising catamaran sailed by four people in their sixties can beat a larger one-design round-the-world racer with a crew of 15, and many even bigger, you realise something has changed – maybe for good.
Just after midnight on 7 December 2019, Régis Guillemot, his partner Véronique, and two friends fizzed across the finish line in St Lucia in Guillemot’s 55ft cruising catamaran, Hallucine. It had taken them just 11 days and 16 hours.
“Our boat is very quick, very simple and fast, and we are optimised for light weight,” explains the quietly spoken French sailor. His other half just laughs. “For him, there is full speed ahead, or nothing!”
Hallucine had sailed from Gran Canaria at an average of 12.5 knots, while the crew did Pilates on the aft deck each day, baked bread and shot GoPro videos.
Around 10 hours later came Sisi, a VO65 from the Austrian Ocean Race Project crewed by 12 Slovenian charter sailors and three professionals.
What a different experience: faster sailing but a course of long gybes, on a diet of freeze-dried food, no showers and hot-bunking in the round-the-world racer’s dark carbon recesses.
Astern of them both was top French solo sailor Jean-Pierre Dick’s The Kid, a 54ft carbon composite canting keel yacht designed as a performance cruising interpretation of IMOCA 60 principles.
Article continues below…
A transatlantic tradewind crossing from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean is on many a sailor’s bucket list. Endless sunny…
On the afternoon before we left the Canary Islands for the Caribbean for a transatlantic with the ARC, I struck…
Hallucine would also have beaten Ulisse, Patrizio Bertelli’s 105ft Frers superyacht, had it not diverted to another island on the final approach following a crew injury.
In the ARC+ rally, too, the route that goes via a pitstop in the Cape Verde Islands, the first to arrive in St Lucia was also a multihull, the Neel 47 trimaran Minimole.
Cruising multihulls numbers have been growing quickly. Of the 280-strong fleet in 2019, 60 were multis. But the most telling statistic is that they make up 50% of all the new boats.
The crossing times are incontrovertible evidence that performance cruising multihulls and cruising catamarans designed foremost for spacious living can, if sailed well, be faster downwind than a monohull with a longer LOA.
Of course, what makes the ideal yacht for an upwind passage (for example, the return crossing to Europe) is quite a different matter, but more and more cruisers are planning only a one-way voyage and intend to ship their boats back, or are planning to sail onwards into the Pacific along the tradewinds route. This is a trend that is only going to continue.
Fast, light, simple
In one way, the line honours winner’s story is exceptional. For many years skipper Régis Guillemot ran a charter business in Martinique.
He is also an experienced racer, cousin of the French round the world sailor Marc Guillemot, and a three-times Route du Rhum competitor.
His Marsaudon TS5 is a lightweight cruiser with a carbon mast and deck, It displaces just 8.6 tonnes, and Guillemot keeps it light.
“It’s not too complicated,” he says. “We have a small 27lt per hour watermaker, solar panels, no generator and we don’t carry too much fuel or water. We set off with only 30lt of water per side, plus emergency water in bottles, and made water every day.
“I want to go fast. We can be sailing at 17 knots and sitting there comfortably having our coffee. And in the Caribbean the size [of the boat] is no problem: there’s more space, it’s cooler and less rolly in anchorages.”
And although the boat is light, it does carry scuba gear and a kitesurfer that they plan to use in the Caribbean and as they make their way across the South Pacific next year.
Guillemot ran single watches and sailed almost all the way with a full main and heavy A2 spinnaker. “We took it down at Pigeon Island after 11 days just to tack to the finish,” he says. They were able to gybe through 145-150° and were making 17-20 knots – “usually 17-18 knots steady”– as soon as they reached the tradewinds.
In the few squalls they encountered, the wind never topped 17 knots apparent and they felt comfortable enough to keep the full main up and soak down by 10° until a squall passed. To help make sure they never pressed the boat so hard they risked capsize, Guillemot has an automatic sheet release system similar to those used on the huge Ultime trimarans.
Made by ACR, this monitors pitch and heel angle and is set to release the main and spinnaker sheet from a panel of cam cleats once certain settings are reached, and also set off an audible alarm. There is also a kill cord in the saloon. It’s a very simple system.
The yacht’s autopilot can, he says, handle speeds up to 24 knots, but for the last five days the crew hand steered all day. The boat is steered from the aft quarters with tillers, and the video above shows some of the speeds they were enjoying.
But although Hallucine’s crossing was super-fast, another Marsaudon catamaran provided a second benchmark. Fifth over the line was a TS42, Elektra, a 42ft smaller sister from the same French builders, which made the crossing in just under 13 days. They, too, left bigger boats astern – 10 hours behind her was a Swan 80.
Elektra’s crew had sometimes reefed during the night and may represent a more typical example of sensible catamaran cruising because, as even Régis Guillemot admits: “They are like sportscars – when they go, they go,” he says. “There’s a limit and if you don’t know what you are doing, you can quickly go into the red zone.”
The crossing times of these big multis is a clear sign of an evolution in performance and speed. “I think you can’t necessarily judge all boats by Hallucine’s performance, but what is interesting is how they are holding pace with larger monohulls,” says World Cruising Club (WCC) communications director Jeremy Wyatt.
“A 55ft Bali was holding up with an X-61, which is a fast monohull, and if you pick out comparable elapsed times and distances sailed you can see that a Lagoon 42 is going the same speed as a 46ft Bavaria and significantly faster than a Discovery 55, if you’re sailing them well and getting the best out of them.
“Multihulls are more expensive to buy, more expensive to run and you have to remember that if the beam is over 8m you could be restricting yourself as to where in the world you can be lifted out.
“But for tradewinds sailing there’s a strong argument that they are the right choice and the ability to live your life without any sense of camping is the biggest win-win
“But,” he adds, “go on a performance sailing course first, would be my advice.”
South til the butter melts
Kevin Horne and his partner, Diane, are steadfast monohull sailors. The Australian skipper has a distinguished background in offshore racing with the well-known Aussie yacht Wild Thing, and was sailing in a crew with several professionals including round the world Clipper Race winner Wendy Tuck.
He bought his Jeanneau 51 Wild Spirit in 2018 and had been cruising in the Mediterranean, but is now sailing his way back home.
Horne was taking part in the ARC+ rally – he liked the idea of a stop on the way across and was hugely enthusiastic about the visit to Cape Verde.
He too had an uncomplicated sailplan in action for the crossing: full main and asymmetric, and between Mindelo and St Lucia made “one gybe to the north and one down” to go as deep downwind as possible. They had daily runs of 160-180 miles, with one day over 200, hand-steered “80-85% of the time”.
“The boat was outstanding,” he says. “Our water tanks and fuel tanks were full at the start and we had two weeks of food, so a lot of weight, but the boat helmed beautifully and tracked along. We took the tender and outboard off, and the anchor and chain were stowed over the keel to centralise weight. The boat was stunning and it really was brochure sailing.”
This was a year for heading south until the butter melts, avoiding light winds along the rhumb line by following the classic route south towards Cape Verde where early tradewinds begin and turning right for St Lucia.
This is typical a VMG running course, and those yachts such as the VO65 that were running down hot angles had to sail many hundreds more miles that cost them dearly.
Sisi, the VO65, for example, logged 3,950 miles (one of the highest I’ve heard of in years of ARC coverage). For added context, Bouwe Bekking was also sailing a VO65 in the RORC Transatlantic Race between Lanzarote to Grenada, and he too reported sailing around 4,000 miles.
Yachts able to sail deeper downwind at angles up to 170° are much better set up for this route. The old racing adage that ‘the shortest distance is invariably the fastest’ holds true on the transatlantic.
The southerly route adds around 300 miles compared to the rhumb line distance of 2,700 miles. That can be made back if avoiding light winds on the direct route, but reaching machines with no angles to play are not going to break any records.
This year the trades began gently and built steadily until yachts were seeing 20-25 knots and positively barrelling down westwards.
A common complaint was that life on board was very rolly. Many crews found the motion of building seas and fast sailing an unpleasant surprise, making daily tasks and sleeping quite hard work.
These conditions put boats under strain, and cause breakages. “But it’s really what we would expect, given the strength of the wind,” comments WCC’s Wyatt. “Wear and tear on steering cables, broken goosenecks… That is par for the course.”
Two crews reported bone fractures on board: one person broke an arm during a gybe that went wrong. This was likely because of the strong tradewinds, which made boats roll more.
Szabi Mohai, sailing on a Dutch entry, a Bavaria 49 named Wilson, entered the finish at Rodney Bay steering gingerly with an emergency tiller. The boat’s rudder blade had broken four days earlier.
“It was the middle of the night and very dark when we had a crash and heard a loud bang, and when we looked back we could see [the remains of] the blade in the water.”
The boat momentarily came to a halt; Mohai realised they had hit something. The collision left only a little of the foam filling around the web structure from the stock and they were unable to steer with it.
Happily, Mohai has a Hydrovane, which operates with its own rudder blade and is equipped with a stub handle for a tiller, so the crew was able to use this to control the boat. “That really was our best friend,” he says.
The crew had also broken the bowsprit in rough weather at the start of the rally, when the bow buried in a wave and a fitting holding the anchor failed.
The anchor shot up and sheared off the aluminium prodder. The crew lashed the remaining part back in place with a cat’s cradle of lines, as shown below.
A few boats had encounters with so-called ‘ghost’ fishing nets. One yacht had part of a net entangled on the keel. Another reported passing a very large ghost net that they estimated to be around 50m x 20m in size.
Some of the crews we spoke to were disappointed they had seen very little marine life. Yet others photographed pods of dolphins, reported catching mahi mahi or seeing longtails, so perhaps these sightings were more common on boats where people were handsteering or on yachts without large biminis and sprayhoods?
At least three crews from the ARC+ reported nighttime encounters with other yachts that were unlit. These were not rally boats and did not appear on AIS.
With lower energy LED nav lights available and modern solar panels able to provide a steady supply of energy, it is hard to understand or excuse.
While the inexorable rise of the cruising catamaran is a very visible trend in bluewater sailing, it is not the only sea change. Another fast-growing movement is the business of vlogging.
Dozens of ARC crews, at least, are dabbling in video diaries and mini documentaries for a wider audience and a handful have followings large enough to monetise through YouTube and provide useful income.
Canadian sailor Lisa McKerracher, who is living on board their new Outremer 5X Biotrek with her partner Pierre Caouette and their labradoodle dog Tiller, is new to the game and began making video diaries for family to follow.
She is seeing an increasing following for her insights into the boat and life on board (the channel is called Biotrek-sailing). Access to fast 4G/LTE wifi in Europe and through most of the Caribbean islands, and Wi-Fi in most cafes and restaurants has changed how people share their experiences and is giving a huge new audience with less or no sailing experience an enticing glimpse into what life on board entails.
In reality, life on passage is testing. Says skipper Szabi Mohai, “there is something happening every day” – by which he means something to fix or add to the jobs list.
But it is a very different pace than on land, and with an Atlantic crossing comes the satisfaction of knowing that, with every mile covered, the hard part is receding.
First published in the February 2020 edition of Yachting World.