Only For Nutters?!

Building your own cruising boat is not for the faint of heart. It is a major investment of time and money, likely to be one of the biggest things anybody constructs in their lifetime. Unlike finishing a hull or two, where at least you have the professional builders (and other owners of the same type) to turn to for advice and help, building from scratch demands that you alone take total responsibility for each and every decision. An unfinished project may be worth less than the cost of materials, never mind the thousands of hours of labour. I have seen people broken-hearted over a project that has dragged on for years, making imperceptible progress, unwilling to face up to the stark reality of a dream-turned-nightmare.

There are some who just take far longer than they ever anticipated, losing valuable years of their life building rather than cruising. I knew one chap who even had a telephone extension in his boat-on-the-lawn. Over 10 years it became such a well-known landmark for local residents that when he finally launched people were driving round Camberley lost for days!

But there is another group of builders who do get the job done, and who generally turn out superb boats. These people have gone into the process with a clear and realistic vision of how they will get through. They maximise use of their own skills, share knowledge and information, and are not too proud to employ people with the skills they don’t possess themselves.

I must be mad! Whatever makes me think I could be one of the last category? Am I not just another dreamer who will be woken to cold reality by a vicious kick in the wallet, or (worse) ground down into cynicism by the unending struggle to build something way beyond my abilities?

In this series of articles I hope to share some of the ups and downs of my project. As I write this introduction I am full of enthusiasm and determination and do not know the outcome. I’m not a professional. I have never built a boat bigger than an Optimist before.

The Background

So why build a catamaran? Surely they have two hulls, so double the work?

I owned a cruising cat for 10 years, a Wharram Pahi 31, bought as an unrigged half-finished project, someone’s broken dream, in 1988. Although the boat had many faults, it made me a firm convert to catamarans for cruising. With a little more space, modern design and better performance, something about the same size would be perfect for the next boat. OK, so just try and find one!

Multihulls have always been a niche market. Very few yards build them, and increasingly these yards are building huge (40ft +) boats for the charter market. But I don’t want a vast palatial tennis court of a boat; where could I park it in overcrowded England? Besides, I don’t have £200,000+ to spare. Knock a nought off and that’s a bit more realistic. Even the secondhand market is not cheap, with 32-footers at £60-£100,000. Anyway I wouldn’t want some of the boats available, at any price.

I enjoy the individuality and diversity of cats, and of course their speed and comfort. I like the notion that there are many ways to design a good cruising cat, and that these are hotly debated. Just look at the rapid evolution of design over the last 30 years. Some of the most drop-dead gorgeous boats around are multihulls, but sadly some of the ugliest are too. So my new boat will have to fit the following parameters:

  • About 32 foot (10m). This is a good size for Channel waters, allowing access to most marinas etc.
  • Good underwater shape – not vee-hulled (too much wetted surface).
  • Bridgedeck clearance 90cm if possible, to avoid slamming.
  • Modest bridgedeck height, i.e. sitting headroom. Capable of rigging a cockpit tent for use in harbour. So we don’t look like a block of flats.
  • This also means fun. And it means light, so no teak decks etc.
  • Safe, stable, modern design, i.e. more recent than 1990.
  • Good windward pointing and speed, therefore must have daggerboards.
  • Outboard engine rather than twin inboards. More expensive to run, but a lot easier to get serviced and repaired.
  • 4 to 6 good sized berths.
  • Capable of taking the ground. A bumper keel.
  • That’s in the eye of the beholder.
  • A Proper Toilet!
  • £35,000 approx.(?!)

So there’s the challenge, to find a boat that looks beautiful and sails well rather than a bungalow that sails like a brick. Or build it. Perhaps I could save up just about enough to buy something acceptable, but I didn’t really want to buy something already 15 years old this time. Besides, the thrill of the purchase soon wears off, and I had already experienced the much deeper satisfaction of rebuilding Nellie and quite literally pitching my craft (in both senses of the word) against the elements. Nothing makes you fix a joint or attach a fitting more conscientiously than the thought of your life perhaps being one day dependent on it. I knew my previous boat intimately, had great confidence in all her systems and my ability to repair them. And I still couldn’t find anything I liked or could afford in the brokers’ ads. The choice was clear.

Finding a design

Fortunately many designers recognise that the majority of multihulls will be home-built, and produce highly detailed plans that the less-than-professional can follow. James Wharram’s designs have always been aimed at this market, and are beautifully drawn to illustrate every step of construction. But the dilemma is often that ease of construction limits the hull shapes available. I needed a design that produced a rounded underwater shape (the most efficient) without too much fairing and sanding. Woodworking is where my skills lie, so a wooden construction it would have to be.

Incidentally, the problem with moulds for the one-off boatbuilder is that the time and cost of constructing a mould can usually only be justified by producing several items from the same mould.

I considered strip-planking, where thin strips of wood are built up over a series of bulkheads. This can produce some very lovely strong hulls, but seemed a lot of work. (More recently strip-planking using foam seems to be very popular, and I might have considered this if I had known about it before; see the Farrier website for a detailed description.) I also looked at something called Constant Camber, developed in the States by John Marples and others. This produces ply panels with compound curvature on a small mould and then joins them together into the hull shape. This was more like it! Laminated plywood seemed the obvious material for hull skin construction. Constant Camber also involves vacuum-bagging, a technique I had been curious about for some time, but never tried. Basically, the idea is to encase the work in a plastic bag while the glue sets. Sucking the air out of the bag with a pump means that atmospheric pressure squeezes the panels evenly together using no clamps.

Then a friend of mine found Kurt Hughes’ Cylinder Moulding construction method on the internet. I could understand at once what it was about – it is a development from Constant Camber and makes the whole hull side in one go on a simple mould. It looked like an enormous stitch-and-glue project, similar to a dinghy. And it was advertised as being fast. We bought the design book of plans, I found a design that I liked – it fitted most of the parameters above – and eventually £800 was paid for the plans for a 32ft Fast Cruising Cat, a slightly stretched 30-footer. Better still, I received a construction manual of over 100 pages and a video showing similar projects under construction.

I made a 1:20th scale balsa model of the boat, something that was to prove very useful as time went on. The beauty of a model is that you can see all the problems that might arise in 3D. It also helps with explaining details to others, and you can chop it about to experiment without wasting a lot of money.

Some criteria for selecting plans:

  • Ease and familiarity of construction methods.
  • Good theoretical basis for design decisions. (Does the designer know what he is talking about?)
  • Layout of accommodation
  • Adaptability of design
  • Performance
  • Economical and fast construction
  • Individuality
  • Aesthetics
  • Attention to construction details
  • Technical support

I was nearly ready to go. The timescale for building would be about 2 years full-time, based on the 1 year taken by a chap in Australia to build his 30 footer. Unfortunately his pride and joy was crushed by a barge only a month after launching – not a good omen! My workshop needed extending, and plywood and epoxy, glass and balsa needed to be sourced. I chose SP Systems because they seemed well-organised and have a brilliant chap giving technical advice over the phone. Marineware are the distributors. Robbins of Bristol offered a good price on the plywood, and Balsa Sales Ltd. could do the ½” contour balsa I needed.

In April 2005 the farmhouse next to the workshop was struck by lightning, wrecking the whole interior, although fortunately the tenant was away. This happened only 50 feet from my wooden workshop! Never have I felt so pleased to part with money for insurance. Significantly the insurers only cover the cost of the materials until the boat is launched. That’s all it’s worth. Food for thought….

In May I took my 13 year-old daughter on a Competent Crew course run by Top Cat Cruising School from Millbrook. She loves sailing and really enjoyed the challenges of a big boat. We even saw Ellen MacArthur on B&Q in Plymouth Sound, setting off to race the ferry to France, and she gave us a wave, which put the icing on the cake.

During the week I spent some time measuring Blue Moon (a 36’ Beneteau Blue) and looking at the arrangements. It is amazing how little space things like heads can take up if they are well-designed! We took a quick tour round the boats at Foss Quay on the way home; I particularly wanted to show my daughter a 32’ Maldives. She loved it! The kind owners let us look over the boat and take pictures.

Until this time I had been quite happy with the layout for my boat, which placed two big double bunks in the bridgedeck. But now, with the Maldives and the Beneteau fresh in our minds, we decided that a bridgedeck cabin just had to be included. I have always thought that small cats with full standing headroom in the bridgedeck tend to look too boxy, which was why I had resisted until now. It is something to do with the proportions of length to height. But sitting headroom might be possible. And there was no doubting the convenience. So I did a last-minute redesign, putting the doubles in the hulls aft and bringing the heads into the central area in the starboard hull. The hulls acquired a flare under the cockpit area to make the bunks 48” wide. The nav station would go up top, but the galley remained in the port hull. The balsa model had a little rebuild, and I stole 150mm of underwing clearance to give 1500mm headroom in the new cabin. The cockpit sole would be raised up a little from the cabin level, so winches could be placed on the cabin roof at a reachable height. I tried to keep all the structural elements as per the original plans, and it seemed to work!

Now I was ready to begin. Summer was already here, and there was no time to be lost if I was to have 2 hulls done this year. Eighty sheets of 3mm plywood were just waiting to be scarfed and laminated into my pride and joy!


Kurt Hughes Sailing Designs –

Farrier Designs –

SP Systems –

Marineware –

Robbins Timber –

Balsa Sales Ltd. –

Insurance – Bishop Skinner do reasonable insurance for boats in construction.