Buying A Cruising Catamaran | Become A Cruiser
Buying a Cruising Catamaran

Buying a Cruising Catamaran

Is Bigger Best?

Barely a week goes by that I don’t receive an email from someone just starting their planning journey to become a cruiser, wanting to know my thoughts on buying a catamaran for cruising. The question always goes along the lines of “I like the new Leopard 45 and 50 however, I am concerned the 45 will be too small for my wife and I to liveaboard and cruise full time.”

It’s a classic question from anyone who has never owned a boat, let alone a catamaran before. We were the same. Ten years ago when we started planning to go cruising, we were dead set on buying a brand new factory delivered Lagoon 450. What we ended up with was a ten-year-old ex-charter Lagoon 380.

Your Needs and Wants Will Change

As you learn more and more about sailing, cruising, and various catamarans your needs and wants change. What you initially thought you absolutely had to have no longer seems important when you learn of another must-have feature or negative of a particular boat.

Do I regret our boat choice? No not for a moment. I still love the 450. The space is incredible and she certainly looks impressive at anchor. I love that our 380 is perfectly manageable by one person. Especially when things go wrong at 2 am on a passage. I love our 380 more when it comes to paying for big-ticket items. A new set of sails or rigging for the 450 comes in at about 3-4x the cost of the same for a 380.

For us, the ease of handling and low cost of operation exceeds the big boat need. Right up until we throw a crazy boat party with dozens of cruisers, then I wish we’d gone for the 450. 98% of the time we’re over the moon with our decision, and I think that’s how it goes for most people once you have found the perfect boat that works for you and your cruising style.

Buying a Cruising Catamaran
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Shedding a Bit of Light on the Confusion

When I ask the wanna-be cruisers who sent me the 50 vs 45ft question “Why not a new Leopard 42?” Which at 42 ft I coincidentally think to be the sweet spot for cruising catamaran size. “Or an older 40.” The reply always comes back along the lines of “Shouldn’t I buy the biggest boat I can afford?” or “Isn’t it best to buy a new boat vs. used?”

I would like to clear up why the newest biggest boat you can afford, might not be the best strategy for choosing a cruising catamaran.

Buying a Cruising Catamaran
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The 40ft Myth

There is an urban legend circulating in sailing circles that smaller catamarans are at great risk of capsizing. As a result, anyone unfamiliar with sailing catamaran first looking into buying a cruising catamaran is under the impression that bigger must be safer.

Thirty years ago this was true. When most catamarans were home built. Before the introduction of the EU Regional Craft Directive, which has specific stability requirements for catamarans.

Risk of Capsize

At the risk of oversimplifying the explanation for the reasoning why catamarans capsize:

The majority of catamarans that capsize end up inverted by Pitch-Polling. Tripping over their bows and going ass over teakettle. The bows dig in (normally after surfing far too fast down a wave and driving bow into the wave ahead) and immediately slow down. And the aft end of the boat goes over. This is pitch-polling.

Sounds like a truly horrible experience. Fortunately for us on modern cruising catamarans, the risk of pitch polling has all but been eliminated by virtue of design and education.

Reefing Speeds Based on Design Stability

The first line of defense to prevent modern catamarans from pitch polling is conservative specific reefing speeds for various points of wind and sail configurations. The reefing speeds are based on design stability requirements.

A further safety measure designed into modern cruising catamarans is reserve buoyancy designed into the bows. Either by having large forward crash lockers, high freeboard, and/or flared hulls. This reserve buoyancy and design of the bows help prevent the bows from being driven too far into the trough of the wave ahead. This is the reason most catamaran owners’ manuals specify that only lightweight items be stored in these massive lockers.

The next line of defense is education. Catamaran manufacturers are getting better at explaining, along with reefing speeds, that it is important to keep the boat speed down at around 20kts maximum for most cruising cats. If you’re surfing down waves it’s best to try to drop this to 8-10kts to keep the forces on the boat down. This is accomplished by deep reefing, sailing bare poles, or towing a drogue.

Should the ham-fisted sailor neglect to reef by the speed laid out in the owner’s manual and continue sailing well past the specified reefing speed, on some designs, a final line of defense will kick in, intentional or not. The rigging will fail before the point where the catamaran will become unstable (Every time I meet a rigger I ask this question, and the consensus seems to be yes, the rig will fail before capsize should the reefing speeds be grossly exceeded).

Very Low Risk of Capsize

The bottom line is in wind speeds less than hurricane force at normal cruising latitudes the risk of pitch-polling a modern cruising catamaran is very low. There is no need to confine your catamaran shopping to boats over 40ft.

Coincidentally for those who feel they must have at minimum a 40 ft catamaran. Many boats on the market in recent years have branded themselves as 40 ft boats when they are in-fact 38 ft or smaller models.

Many 40 ft Catamarans Are Not 40 ft Boats

If the 40 ft myth were to hold true it would relate to length on the water line LWL. As you can see from the table below, most catamaran manufacturers are guilty of pushing the 40ft myth by ensuring they have a 40ft model to market.

Catamaran ModelLOALWL
Lagoon 4038.5″38.5″
Lagoon 40039.25″39.25″
Fountaine Pajot – Lavezzi 4139.1″39″
Leopard 40 – Previous Model39.25″37.5″
Leopard 4039.4″38.1″
Nautitech 4039.33″37.75″
Nautitech open 4039.4″39.2″
Privilege 39536.51″34.02″
Data – Multihull Dynamics
Buying a Cruising Catamaran
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What Cruisers End Up Buying

When sitting having sundowners with new friends, the topic of planning to go cruising always seems to come up. After all, that is how the concept of this website came about. An honest source of information clear of any marketing BS, dealing with the nitty-gritty of planning to go cruising. Calling out the misconceptions and avoiding the PC crap of pussyfooting around the difficult discussions. The content of this article is one such topic.

Future catamaran owners, when they first start exploring the idea of buying a cruising catamaran, seem to need new boats, discounting older used models. This isn’t seen as often with monohull cruisers, who, for the most part, seem to prefer the idea of older, more ‘classic’ boats vs. new production boats.

What seems to be true for the vast majority of catamaran owners that we’ve met, is that we were all convinced at the outset of our planning that we all ‘needed’ factory-new catamarans. Most of us, interestingly, ended up going with a used boat. We also ended up with a boat 4-6 ft smaller than we thought we needed initially.

I’m not saying by any means that buying a large new catamaran is the wrong decision. Not at all! For many cruisers, a large catamaran suits them perfectly. But, for the majority of cruisers, a large new catamaran just does not make sense. Be it from a financial point of view or comfort at sea with a large boat.

Fear of The Big Boat

We have met a handful of cruisers with big catamarans who ended up giving up cruising after a few hundred miles and a year or two living on board. One or both partners didn’t feel they could manage the large catamaran in big seas should something go wrong.

I’ve often been pulled aside by the wife; while getting a boat tour; and been told that she wished her husband hadn’t talked her into such a large catamaran. She’s not as comfortable sailing as she used to be on their previous monohull and hates every passage. I’ve also often heard “If something happens to him (or her) I’m screwed. I can’t sail this boat alone.”

As a result, these couples never end up crossing the oceans they dreamed they would. Instead, the boat gets sold, and they give up the whole idea of cruising.

Cost of Outfitting a Boat For Cruising

Another reason why we see people cruising on smaller boats than they first started looking at is the cost of getting the boat ready to go cruising. Don’t discount that even after buying what looks like a well-equipped catamaran from the factory, you’ll still be looking at having to spend anywhere from twenty to eighty thousand dollars to turn the boat into a cruise ready liveaboard vessel.

This extra expenditure is often not discovered until later in the cruising planning cycle. It’s the catalyst to downgrade one or two boat sizes or go for used vs new.

Buying a Cruising Catamaran
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Financing a New Boat To Go Cruising On

I can’t stress this enough. If you are planning on going cruising on a heavily financed boat, Don’t! Unless you’ll only be going on a one or two-year sailing sabbatical and/ or are retired with a guaranteed fixed income.

It’s often said that cruising plans are written in the sand at low tide. This applies to the overall cruising plan as much as it does to the day to day cruising. Unless you have a rock-solid income stream to service the loan, financing a cruising boat is a recipe for heartbreak. I can’t count the number of cruisers we have met who have had to abandon their cruising plans and new boats, at great financial expense, after a small hiccup in cruising plans occurs.

Tennants stop paying the rents. A business partner falls ill. A fire at a factory. You name it. Shit happens! Of the friends, we know who had financed their boats and been forced to give up cruising, the story was always the same. ‘If only we had bought a five-year-old boat one or two feet smaller, we could have paid cash and had a cruising kitty to fall back on’.

Plans Change Having to Sell

This year is a prime example. We dinghied in to the Marina in Papeete, Tahiti two days ago. The first two boats we recognized were owned by cruiser friends who had to abandon their cruising plans due to income streams drying up. These cruisers had to return to land to find work, to service the boat loan on their new catamarans.

Now their boats sit in a marina thousands of miles away from home. Up for sale in a crowded market with dozens of competing boats whose owners have found themselves in similar predicaments. Boats aren’t selling as fast as expected. Yet the finance payments continue.

It is depressing to walk the docks and see all the new boats with ‘For Sale’ signs on them. One or two-year-old boats with moldy stack packs, growing an artificial reef under their hulls. Now travel to French Polynesia has all but come to a grinding halt as a result of home countries quarantine requirements. These boats will sit here for years or will be sold at massive discounts or both.

Insurance

Finance companies require proof of insurance on an annual basis. Often requiring specific coverage. Items such as an unrestricted cyclone or hurricane cover may make getting coverage in certain parts of the world all but impossible. Many finance companies also impose restrictions on visiting certain countries. We know of boats that were forced to sail past Colombia on the way to Panama as their finance contract prohibited them from visiting Colombia.

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SV Maple in Huahine, French Polynesia

Cruising Catamaran Realities

An interesting and not very scientific survey of cruising catamarans in general, based purely on me running through my book of cruisers names. I add names to the book after we have met and had sundowners/dinner gone for a hike together, etc. Something more than just a casual encounter. My list sits at 197 boat names as of this morning. Of the 197 cruiser friends we have, 59 are cruising or cruised on catamarans.

Of the 59 catamarans, 39 are ex-charter boats. Of which I can only recall one boat saying they would never purchase an ex-charter catamaran again. The consensus has been, purchasing an ex-charter catamaran has enabled them to either cruise on a much bigger boat than they could have normally afforded, or that by buying an ex-charter boat they were able to buy a newer catamaran vs. an older monohull.

Out of the group of 59 cruisers on catamarans, 5 cruisers bought their boats new from the factory.

Length of CatamaranNumber of Friends Who Own/ed These
45ft and over9
42ft to 44ft22
36ft to 42ft28
Sizes of Cruising Catamarans purchased by our cruising friends

In the group of 36ft to 42ft catamarans, 12 cruisers are on boats 40ft and under. With 5 in the 36-38ft group.

Of the 14 ‘Kid boats’ in the group, 9 are or were on catamarans less than 40ft in length. In the ‘Kid Boat’ group, the catamaran with the second-highest accrued amount of accrued sea miles is an ex-charter 38ft Leopard 38, SV Maple. Take a look at their blog for more of their adventures.

For more info on buying an ex-charter catamaran check out my article ‘Is Buying an Ex-Charter Catamaran a Good Idea

Conclusion

I hope some of these thoughts and perspectives give you something to think about when fretting about buying a cruising catamaran. The newest, biggest isn’t always the solution. Especially if the alternative is cruising on a slightly smaller boat, mortgage-free.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to share your questions and opinions in the comments section below.

Buying a Cruising Catamaran
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Nic

Hi, I’m Nic! Our Family of four have been out cruising since 2016. We have sailed about 15,000nm, almost halfway around the world. We sold everything, took the leap of faith, and bought a 10-year-old Lagoon 380 ex-charter catamaran. We’ve fixed every system on the boat, often more than once. Cruising has been such a wonderful, positive experience for our family that I want to share my tips to help you Become a Cruiser.


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15 thoughts on “Buying a Cruising Catamaran”

  1. This was a great article! Thank you for writing it. We are in the beginning stages of figuring out how we can get on the water. We’re about 2-3 years away. In my mind, we needed a big boat, but after looking at a few different models and sizes, a 42’ will be the boat for us. Financing an older boat will be our plan where we finance half of the cost so we don’t deplete our 401K. But I really appreciate your comments about NOT financing it. We’re in a “wait and see” where our finances are at when the time comes!! But, again, thank you for writing this!!

    1. Hi Yvonne,

      Thanks for your great feedback. Really appreciated. As I said in the Article I think 42 Ft for a catamaran hits the sweet spot for not too big not too small. You didn’t mention how many of you will be on board or where you will be cruising. So hard to give much more advice. Don’t rule out smaller cats until you’ve taken the time to climb on them.

      Good luck planning and shopping for your perfect catamaran. If you want to bounce specific boat ideas off of me I along with a few other cruisers run a Future Cruisers group on Facebook aimed at helping wanna be future cruisers get out cruising. I reply to most specific question posts on Future Cruisers.

  2. Hi Nic
    interesting thoughts and for ma as owner of a 38 cat for bluewater cruising. I can only second your opinion on financing, get a boat you can afford if you are looking for freedom. Financial obligations will be a big downside when cruising.

    One point I have also heard but never found any detailed information on is the statement about the rig breaking before the boat will capsize. I do hope this is the case, but so far no evidence has been found this is actually a design criteria. On what is your statement based?
    regards
    Jan

    1. Hi Jan,

      As a catamaran owner, I’d always heard this ‘fact’. I always make the point of asking every rigger I met in a nice relaxed social setting what their opinions of the rig failing before a modern cruising catamaran will capsize. The answer I’ve got back has always been unanimous that there are various components in the rig way under spec’d to to stand up the extreme wind forces required to cause a catamaran. Remembering the rule of thumbs that as the wind speed doubles the force on the sails goes up four times. It makes sense to me that some parts will let go (normally the wire itself) before the catamaran flips. Counting on my fingers I must have asked seven or eight all in different parts of the world.

      I’ve had others go as far as saying that they talk to their catamaran customers who want to up the wire size or general strength of their rig that it may not be the smartest strategy as the rig has been designed to be a specific strength for a reason (we’re talking catamaran owners).

      I’ve reached out to a few catamaran naval architects to get their thoughts and will update the site once I get some responses. Maybe if there are any riggers or naval architects reading this they could add their thoughts.

      1. I have a some experience with this that slightly more than anecdotal. My L450 lost her rig to hurricane Irma, and thus I was forced to order a completely new rig, which I did through the OEM (to the exact OEM spec) save a canoe boom I added. At the time, I spoke to the engineer who designed the 450 rig. He informed me that the rig on my 2017 450 was designed to fail at 85% of the righting moment – and that this was done for safety reasons. He also noted that on larger cats, the rig will fail at even lower fractions of the righting moment. FWIW.

        1. Thanks, Dave, that’s great to have verified. As I said in the post I got this info off of a few well-known riggers over beers. Not exactly a go-to reference. Thanks for sharing what the engineer told you.

  3. Good article. My purchase went a bit the other way. I got excited and signed up for a brand new FP Helia 44. I was going to have to charter it for a few years to offset some of the cost. But after a year and a half of my two year wait for delivery, the dealer started pushing my delivery date back. The third time they did it really irked me, and I still didn’t have a hull number. Without a hull number there is no boat. So I went shopping. I found a virtually unused 9 year old FP Salina 48 and paid 225k less than a new Helia. It was the proverbial dock queen with extremely low engine and generator hours. It was so unused, the instruments were still in french, the gas system has never been converted to propane, and there was still half a bottle of butane! I got an owners version instead of the 4 cabin I would have got, and it didn’t have to be chartered to pay for it. Three years later we’re now full time on the boat, and we love both the cruising life and our boat.

    1. Thanks, John, other than the irritation of waiting for the boat. What a great story! It does happen and that is an angle I missed in the article, thanks for bringing it up. When it comes to new vs. used it is so often the case that you can end up with a better boat by buying used. Buying a used catamaran that has been privately owned for two or three years means that you end up with a practically new boat without having to deal with all of the awful factory warranty issues. Better yet the first owner eats the most of the depreciation. As you’ve shown you can end up with a much better boat for the same or less money than a new catamaran.

      As you learned it pays to take your time and shop for the perfect boat. There are fantastic buys out there, one just needs to break the must buy new mindset.

      As for the cruising life, it can’t be beaten! Happy cruising!

  4. What a great article thank you. When I see so many large boats (45ft +) for sale i always imagined everyone was cruising on big boats, but your figures would suggest the opposite. We’re UK based and planning for a few years time. I’d really like to unstep the mast and meander down to the Med via the French canal network. This necessitates a 5m max beam so limits the boat to around 10ish metres (35ft) so we were wondering how practical that would be? They’ll only be 2 of us so maybe its more practical than I thought. As we’re not planning to cross oceans I think a smaller boat might work in the Med. Great group and I will keep following thanks. Mike

    1. Hi Mike, thanks so much for the great feedback. We would love to do the French Canal system. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s an option on all but a few catamarans. Certainly not on our 35 ft cat.

      I must be honest I really don’t know too much about catamarans in the 35ft size. The smallest catamaran that I know that I’ve also heard good things about from owners is the Fountaine Pajot Mahe 36. I know a few owners who have happily crossed oceans and as a couple have been living on them for years. But the FP Mahe is well just under 6m in beam. As for living on small boats, it’s doable. we are a family of four on a 380-foot Lagoon 380. I’m sorry I cannot be of more help suggesting catamarans with less than 5m beam, Multihull Dynamics is a great site to research various catamarans specifications and stability numbers. Good luck in your research. I’d love to hear back on what kind of boat you find that meets your criteria.

  5. Great article and website. I’m so glad I found this as I’m starting to plan a cruising life with my wife hopefully aboard a Lagoon 38. They are my number 1st choice and I’m leaning heavily on going purchasing a 38′ cat. It’s great to see you as a successful cruiser and ownder of a ex-charter Lagoon 38.
    In your article, you mention that a lot of the boats whose owners are facing financial issues due to Covid in remote places like French Polynesia will be looking to sell their boats. While this is regretful for these owners, do you think it may be a good time to buy in the near future as the prices may be low? Do you have any recommendation on resources to find used Lagoon 38’s for a deal? It would not mind an ex-charter at all..
    thanks for all your content

    1. Hi Pedro,

      Thanks for the great feedback. I honestly believe that you can’t go wrong with a Lagoon 380, especially if it’s just the two of you. There is a reason this was the longest ever running catamaran in production 23 years and almost 1,000 models. The design works.

      As far as do I believe it’s a great time to buy? I think in places like French Polynesia and possibly Panama where there is a cruiser’s bottleneck yes an awesome place to buy. Right now there are 3 380s for sale at crazy low prices. There may be a few spots in Europe with good deals, Croatia being the number 1 spot for buying ex-charter boats.

      In the US and Caribbean, I think it’s the opposite it’s totally a seller’s market, and inventories are low. My thoughts are that with the lack of cruisers having crossed the South Pacific this year and way fewer numbers crossing last year than normal. Plus the French Polynesia bottleneck of boats. Prices of boats in New Zealand and Australia are going to climb quite rapidly as traditionally the vast majority have crossed the South Pacific with the intention of selling their boats in either NZ or Oz. Less cruisers reaching these countries means inventories will reduce and boats will be in demand.

      Good luck shopping.

  6. I have a some experience with this that slightly more than anecdotal. My L450 lost her rig to hurricane Irma, and thus I was forced to order a completely new rig, which I did through the OEM (to the exact OEM spec) save a canoe boom I added. At the time, I spoke to the engineer who designed the 450 rig. He informed me that the rig on my 2017 450 was designed to fail at 85% of the righting moment – and that this was done for safety reasons. He also noted that on larger cats, the rig will fail at even lower fractions of the righting moment. FWIW.

    1. Thanks, Dave, that’s great to have verified. As I said in the post I got this info off of a few well-known riggers over beers. Not exactly a go-to reference. Thanks for sharing what the engineer told you.

  7. Nic thank you so much for this excellent article. It’s what we’ve been waiting to read as we are planning on buying a catamaran in the next year. Your article helps clear up a few things about buying a catamaran for cruising on. We can’t really afford a catamaran 45ft long which everyone tells us we need so it is such a breath of fresh air and to be honest a total relief to find out that we can buy a catamaran in the 38-40ft range and it will be ok to live aboard and cruise on full time. This means like $100,000 in savings which I think will make a huge difference to our cruising lifestyle.

    Thank you again for being real in your posts. Did I mention how nice it is finally to find a ‘how to’ go cruising blog that is written by catamaran people?

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