Bequia, sailing, cruising, West Indies, Caribbean"> Catamaran Controversy | Caribbean Compass Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass November 2006

Multihulls Viewed
from the Yacht Claims Desk
by Guy Matthews
Some allege that the occupant of the Yacht Claims Desk is unfairly biased against all things catamaran. I plead guilty on the bias count but not guilty on the unfair charge. My work with claims on these awkward contraptions often involves the down side of the nautical world and leads me to believe that if God had intended man to sail on floating tennis courts, he would have found some way to instill a smidgen of common sea sense into those eclectic souls whose nautical misdeeds cross the Yacht Claims Desk any time they venture farther than the Sir Francis Drake Channel or the lee of the Windward Islands. I hasten to add that I am fully aware that a few rugged salts skillfully sail multihulls in formidable conditions ranging from the howling southeasterlies and thin waters of the Laguna Madre to bluewater voyages across oceans; therefore the comments herein are empirically derived from claims crossing the Yacht Claims Desk and do not refer to these competent mariners.
Although the word catamaran derives from the Tamil language of the fifth century Indian Subcontinent and describes crude log vessels found on the Coromandel Coast, the Polynesian connected twin canoes used to settle the islands of Oceania were the first to have the characteristics of a modern catamaran. While the half century after World War II witnessed the advent of the large commercial power catamaran, the mass-produced catamaran sailing yacht is a relatively new development, thanks in part to the charter companies. Today cruising multi-hulls are but an infinitesimal portion of the world's fleet of recreational vessels but nevertheless are reportedly the fastest-growing segment in the boating industry. The Claims Desk's (dead reckoning) estimate is that catamarans compose less than one percent of the insured vessels in the Caribbean yachting fleet, but produce more than five percent of the number of the reported insurance claims and substantially more than ten percent of the total claims payments. Their numbers are growing and it looks like they are here to stay.

I got off on the wrong foot with catamarans a lifetime ago when, posing as a bored old salt, I volunteered to teach one of my daughter's suitors how to sail his newly acquired Hobie Cat. The sailing lesson deteriorated into inglorious failure when I tried to come about in a 20-knot breeze and painfully learned that the Hobie head reached about as far as I could throw a storm anchor. The embarrassing incident is remembered as the onset of early stage humility.

My first professional contact with a real working catamaran occurred in 1964 and involved the first and only catamaran drill ship which was constructed for oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. A derrick and drawworks were mounted on a huge bridge structure which connected two LST hulls to provide a floating drilling platform. The gargantuan vessel, 260 feet long with a beam of 126 feet, was positioned on the drilling location by eight massive anchors. The vessel became a total loss in a blowout and fire off Louisiana which resulted in a tragic loss of life and a sizable insurance claim.

In those idyllic days now past, the few catamaran and trimaran yachts around the Texas waterfront were mostly ugly backyard-built disasters crewed by characters who had a widely different view of society than those of us living in the real world.
When I first arrived in the Caribbean, catamarans were as rare as cell phones and computers on sailboats. Unfortunately the charter companies changed all that and by the time of our second Caribbean cruise in the mid-1990s, the cruising world had changed with a charter catamaran at the end of every marina dock. I, along with many other traditionalists, was astounded that these vessels had achieved the level of popularity that they now enjoy. Their success is in no small way a tribute to the charter companies' ability to market a fair-weather daysailer which doesn't heel and can sleep an infantry platoon. (Once during sundowners at Pussers in Tortola during those early days of the charter catamaran, I overheard a charterer's wife remark that their boat was like a waterfront condominium where the scenery changed every day.) While typical Caribbean cruisers were concerned with heavy weather avoidance and navigation, the catamaran crowd was more focused on the aesthetics of nautical life such as how to survive if the corkscrew was lost overboard. It didn't take long to discover that the typical multihull sailor is far removed from the web-footed mariner long idealized on waterfronts everywhere.

It is noteworthy that the emerging popularity of the catamaran yacht has attracted a professional clientele that is generally well educated, confident, and willing to dig deep into their pockets to support the operation of the vessel. The new catamarans, like all of today's yachts, are not cheap to buy, own, operate, charter, repair or insure. Some of the new members of the emerging catamaran society, having amassed the wherewithal to participate therein, are disdainful of much of traditional nautical lore and in some convoluted way come to believe that esteem from their peers on the waterfront and their professional accomplishments somehow translate into seamanship. This unjustified self-confidence results in more work for the Claims Desk.

My early predisposition against multihulls was greatly reinforced by duty on the Yacht Claims Desk. When I first came on board, I was flabbergasted by the torrent and size of yacht claims and soon became aware that the number of claims involving catamarans was greater than the proportion of insured catamarans to the fleet of insured yachts, and that the size of each catamaran claim was significantly greater than that of the typical yacht claim.

Although the deluge of catamaran claims has now become blurred by time, a few of the early claims remain imprinted in memory. One of the first claims was a total loss on a chartered catamaran which became inverted off of the southwest coast of Saint Lucia during squally winds which were exacerbated by the erratic conditions at the Pitons. When the catamaran was enveloped by the squall, the vessel, sailing close-hauled with the sails sheeted flat, heeled slowly and, without pausing, overturned. Some members of the charter party escaped the topsy-turvy vessel through an escape hatch in the bottom of one of the hulls - my first introduction to an escape hatch in a vessel's bottom. This old sailor had never before thought of an escape hatch in the bottom of the hull as a safety device. There was a lesson here for sailors and insurers alike.
In what was to become a pattern, a catamaran coming out of charter grounded on the Silver Bank east of Grand Turk when the owner attempted to sail across the shoal which had been shown on every chart produced for more than three centuries. Fortunately, everyone on board was rescued by a US Coast Guard helicopter and ferried back to Puerto Rico, preventing what could have been an even greater disaster than the total loss of the vessel.

The losses have continued with a perplexing regularity. January, 2006, became a bad month for catamaran insurers with two total loss claims on catamarans again enroute to the mainland after coming out of charter. A Fountaine Pajot sank south of Grand Turk when the bottom escape hatch inexplicably opened while the vessel sailed merrily down wind. The crew was rescued from their liferaft by a passing freighter, but the vessel became a total loss.

Later in the month another 46-foot catamaran attempting to reach across the Gulf of Mexico on the rhumb line from Isla Contoy to the Texas coast piled up on the fabled, well marked and lighted Alacran Reef which has been charted since the time of Spanish Exploration. The well educated and affluent crew earlier ditched their paid captain, who was a old-time stickler for precise navigation, and steered westward following the GPS "steer to" coordinates of the Texas destination. The crew, apparently secure in the catamaraner's assumed self-confidence in which status and esteem translated into seamanship, was unaware that a catamaran reaching in fresh beam winds would make "leeway". These modern devotees to electronic navigation did not think it necessary to plot the vessel's location on a chart. Unfortunately, the vessel became a total loss while the crew waded ashore escorted by Mexican Authorities.

In the meantime, we continue to see multiple dismastings, the frequency of which for catamarans is greater than on any other type of vessel. The catamaran rig, with the deck-mounted mast step and limited staying, is much more susceptible to a catastrophic dismasting than is the traditional keel-mounted mast. The Claims Desk has witnessed catamaran dismastings originating from every conceivable source including rigging failure, collision, grounding, windblown debris from an adjacent moored vessel and uncontrolled gybe. While the monohull can sometimes withstand the failure of a shroud or connection, such a failure on the catamaran is usually a disaster.
Lightning strike claims are the most frequently occurring yacht claim in the tropics and are an accident category for which the catamaran is a leading victim. There is little doubt that catamarans with a deck-mounted mast absent connections to underwater surfaces are choice targets for the errant lightning bolt. During a heavy thunderstorm in a single June, 2005, afternoon, a charter operator in the western Caribbean sustained lightning strikes to nine charter catamarans and one monohull moored in the same area.

The beam of the catamaran causes problems in obtaining secure dockage in slips or at moorings. The recent hurricanes have resulted in multiple claims on these large ponderous vessels which are often docked alongside or at the end of a dock. During 2004's Hurricane Ivan (in what must have been an eerie sight, had anyone been able to observe), an anchored catamaran became inverted during the height of the storm and another total loss crossed the Claims Desk. The sheer size and mooring complexities inherent in multihulls limit repair site options and often cause the repair cost to be greater than for other vessels.

Mercifully, it seems that the collisions, soft groundings and thefts occurring to catamarans are approximately equivalent in frequency to those occurring to the traditional cruiser. It is noteworthy that many catamarans built for charter service have multiple watertight bulkheads and that some builders, wisely anticipating intentional and unintentional groundings, have fitted their hulls with sacrificial keels.
The multihull losses parading across the Claims Desk are never boring, with their bizarre nature adding a juicy bit of spice to the life of the old unrepentant shoestring cruiser occupying the Desk. Representative of these unusual occurrences are the claim on a small folding trimaran which an adventurous owner attempted to single-handedly sail from Florida to the Virgin Islands in the winter-time, only to experience structural problems while approaching the Bahamas; or a claim on an environmentally friendly electric-powered catamaran which grounded on day one of a voyage from Florida to California. Life at the Claims Desk is never dull.

Another aspect of the quixotic catamaran world is the inclination of some supposedly technically proficient surveyors to attempt to impress the unwashed with their wisdom by using obscure (and incorrect words) in describing the vessel. Specifically, within the past year two surveyors have persisted in calling the catamaran hull an "ama", a word of Polynesian origin describing the sealed hull on trimarans or outrigger canoes. Such incorrect usage earns the pretentious surveyor the same asterisk beside his name as that which identifies those who have difficulty in distinguishing port from starboard.

If one was to distill the Claims Desk experiences dealing with catamaran claims in the tropics, the following are the practical conclusions which would result:
1) The catamaran is more exposed to lightning strikes and dismasting than is the conventional monohull.
2) The downwind voyage to the US mainland of a catamaran coming out of charter service poses an unusually high risk for catastrophic loss.
3) The very nature of catamaran boating attracts those whose interests are more sensory than nautical, hence the seamanship level of many catamaran sailors and owners is far below that of traditional cruising sailors. The vessel's stability and ease of management can cause over-confidence and a false sense of security, factors which are prime causes of marine accidents.
4) The beam of the catamaran sometimes limits dockage options and access to repair facilities, resulting in a greater exposure to loss and adversely affecting repair options and costs.
5) Any vessel equipped with escape hatches in the underside of the hull, and sacrificial keels, displays indications that extraordinary caution is required for safe operation.
6) Insurers, owners and those seeking objective information should avoid the surveyor who calls a catamaran hull an "ama", since such incorrect usage is intended to give the impression of knowledge where none exists.

Although I do not have any special communication with the folks occupying the corner offices at the yacht insurance companies, it is apparent that recent years have been a bad time for yacht insurance, making it possible that the scope of continuing coverage might diminish while the cost thereof increases. While the efforts of some insurers in maintaining a market for yacht insurance in these troubled times borders on heroic, if the future loss experience continues like the last two years, the yacht insurance market will certainly be different than the past. While I am confident that yacht insurance will continue to be available at a price, the direction of the yacht insurance market is uncertain. I am also certain that if in some unlikely circumstance yacht insurance collapses in a chaotic Gotterdammerung, the Caribbean catamaran will be leading the way.

Good sailing.

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