Catamaran or monohull, weather you want it or not

That old argument: monohull or catamaran. Personally, I started on monohulls. I raced monohulls. I chartered monohulls. Then, after seeing cats at Moorings in the BVIs, I took the ASA CAT class. I later chartered cats out of the BVIs, St. Martin, St. Lucia and Sausalito, CA. What I enjoy about cats is the flat sailing, the extra space in the cockpit, in the salon and below. Yup, I can’t sail as fast as an Archambeau 40 or a J-105… but I’d rather spend the night sleeping in a cat than in a monohull (particularly at Marina Cay, BVIs where the Scrub Island ferry goes back and forth from Trellis Bay ALL NIGHT LONG!!! — Ask me how I know).

In December 2019, just before COVID hit, we chartered a Moorings 4000 (aka Leopard 40) out of Tortola. We spent two days in Anegada, hit the Baths, stopped for a massage and a pizza at Scrub Island Marina, headed to Cane Garden Bay by way of Monkey Point and finished up at White Bay/Soggy Dollar Bar, Great Harbor/Foxy’s and Norman Island by way of West End.

What sold me on catamarans and the 2014-2020 Leopard 40 in particular, was that I totally messed up but the boat was able hang tough. I didn’t look closely at the weather in my rush to get to Norman Island to position us for the morning sail into Road Town. (You know about not sailing on a schedule, right?) In any case, a nasty squall rolled down the Sir Francis Drake Channel and we found ourselves smack in the middle of it. After a bit of self-scolding, I asked for my wet weather gear and a PFD and told the crew to be ready for rough weather (I guess they didn’t think that meant to secure the microwave and coffee pot as both later went airborne). I positioned a crew member on watch to port and in we went.

Could we have headed back to Soper’s Hole? We did that once already earlier that day, running from another squall. I thought the weather was clearing. My weather app told me it was clearing and no more rain was expected. That was all good until I saw dark gray clouds coming over Beef Island and the Dogs. We were pretty far out into the channel, about beam on to Haulover Bay on St. John’s, and I didn’t think we could make it back to Soper’s before the squall hit us. The last place I wanted to be was in the channel between Little Thatch and Frenchman’s Cay with a 45kt wind. Could we have made it to Nanny Cay? Nope, too far. Same thing. Maybe we would have made it to Nanny but I’d never entered that marina before nor did I know where we could tie up.

My plan was to ride the storm out motoring into the wind and waves with a knot or so of forward motion, to keep the bows into the wind and to try to not get run over by a ferry. I was very thankful for the twin engines and Plan B was, if we lost both engines from sucking something into the raw water intake, we’d turn and run down wind under bare poles, turning north after Great Thatch Island. Fortunately, we didn’t have any engine problems. What did happen was 40-45kt winds (I stopped looking at the wind instruments after about 45kts indicated) and steep seas, 8-12 feet crest to trough. I kept the boat offshore of both St. John’s and Tortola, making slow way towards the general vicinity of Peter Island using the chart plotter. For some of the time, I couldn’t see much of anything past the bows. Every now and then, the bows would get blown off the wind and I’d have to power the nose back into the wind. I don’t remember being cold, except at first. I wasn’t afraid, once I’d made and executed Plan A, and had Plan B in reserve. Did I mention that I couldn’t see anything? Rain was pelting in and mostly blinding me. Once, I saw a light off our port side and flying out of the haze and spray was the St. Thomas to Tortola ferry. They stayed well clear of us, probably because they could see us on radar. Maybe it was just luck.

After what seemed like several hours but was really more like 15 or 20 minutes, the weather started to “lighten up” to just heavy rain, then the sky cleared (except west of us) and the seas calmed down some. Salt and Cooper Islands were on a line well ahead of us with Peter slightly to starboard and we were about beam on to Flanagan Island. I assessed the boat and everything looked good, including the microwave and coffee pot. The crew was a bit shaken up but was happy to be out of the squall. The “I told you so” comments started shortly after we understood that we were still floating and unharmed. I deserved it. I was a bad skipper. I was more interested in getting somewhere “on time” than I was at taking a close look at the weather.

The boat, however, came through that squall like a rock star. At the crest of every wave, the bows would dip down and I’d hear the engines spinning with the props out of water, then we’d surf down the wave and hit the trough. I tried to steer diagonally down the wave face, which worked some times, but unless I corrected back, the bows would blow off the wind at the top of wave. Surprisingly, the bows didn’t bury into the next wave very often. It did happen. We had a lot of water over the bow but I never felt like a submarine. This Leopard had the forward door that lets you walk from the salon out on the forward deck and trampoline. The sump for the stairs didn’t have a problem dealing with the water coming over the bow and while the crew had to deal with some water coming in that front door, there wasn’t much once the door was dogged down tightly. The largest issue that I had with the boat while in the squall was that the roll-down plastic dodger didn’t really protect me from much spray. The Moorings boat only had the front dodger and did not have the side roll-downs, so I was pelted from the sides with rain… and I figure that if that’s all I had to complain about, then that boat did a rather good job of bringing us through that squall.

We passed the Indians on the east and headed toward Norman Island and the Bight. As serendipity or karma would have it, we saw a dinghy with two guys bobbing between Peter, the Indians and Norman. The dinghy was “slightly deflated” and we later learned that they came through the squall in that dinghy and had been coming from Peter and going to Norman when their outboard had died. We offered to give them a tow into Norman but then realized that their dinghy painter had ended up around our starboard sail drive. The guy who owned the dinghy wanted to jump into the water to “pull the line off the prop” but the seas were still pretty rough with the sugar scoops bouncing up and down in the water. Responding a lot more calmly than I should have been after coming through the squall, I suggested that we just pull the painter through since we hadn’t run the engines with the line in the water. I thought it was better than having someone under the boat when it was pitching up and down by three feet… The painter pulled free without an issue as it was never really wrapped around the prop but more around the sail drive leg. Apparently, the bitter end had floated under the boat and around the sail drive. After sorting out the dinghy painter, we towed them into the Bight and dropped them off at the William Thorton.

If I never see weather like that again, I’ll be very happy.