Choosing a Boat: Find Your Ideal Sailing Catamaran
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Last Updated on December 28, 2021 by Amy
When starting an adventure like this, the hardest decision is what boat to choose. I spent countless hours in the years before we bought Starry Horizons scouring all corners of the internet, looking at manufacturer’s websites, reading boat reviews, lurking on forums and trying to learn as much as possible in order to make sure we chose a boat that would take us safely around the world.
We moved on our boat in 2014 and completed our circumnavigation in 2020. In that time, we’ve learned even more about cruising boats!
Here are our tips for looking for your cruising catamaran.
- Determine your budget for a cruising boat.
- Research manufacturers and models online.
- Think about your sailing skills and what you will do to improve them.
- Identify your cruising grounds.
- Determine the size you want.
- Decide on new or used.
- Go charter a boat to test out size and/or model.
- Visit one of the boat shows and get onboard a variety of models.
- Contact a dealer or browse YachtWorld to FIND YOUR BOAT!
Safety, Price, and Speed
The biggest thing I’ve learned? When choosing a boat, you generally get to pick from 2 of the following 3 categories:
Since this trip will not be our final adventure in life, safety is the absolute highest priority. Thankfully, for years people have been out sailing around the world in cruising catamarans, so the safety of different manufacturers is pretty obvious.
There is no correlation between length, beam, displacement, or any other measurement, and safety. People take to the sea in vessels of all sizes. What matters is that the boat is built to be taken offshore.
When you start to consider what manufacturer you want to go with, start talking to existing owners. Reach out to bloggers/vloggers who are already sailing one of these boats.
Here’s all the Fountaine Pajot sailing channels out there.
Additionally, you can often join Facebook groups for specific brands or for catamarans in general. Make contact with people who post regularly. Finally, looking into sailing forums, but take what you read with a grain of salt. For example, in the catamaran versus monohull debate, people can get pretty heated.
The other two categories are directly proportional. Generally, faster boats cost more money.
The number one limiter of size is your budget. Generally, the bigger the boat, the more expensive it is and the more it costs to maintain.
Beyond that, who is going to be sailing the boat? We’ve met boats up to 62′ (like the Gunboat Tribe) that are regularly double-handed. Now, on a high-performance boat, you would take on additional crew members to sail at your optimum level. But for cruising speeds and boat maneuvering, you can get pretty big with just two people.
On the flip side, we’ve met cruising boats on the smaller side who have successfully circumnavigated. Lin and Larry Pardey circumnavigated on thier 24-foot monohull.
Most cruising boats fall into the 35′-45′ range. We’ve seen more monohulls in the 45-60 foot range out cruising than we have seen catamarans in that range.
Finally, think about your sailing ability. When we started out, Amy wanted to keep us a bit smaller. She felt that a boat above 45′ would be too much to handle. Our experience prior to buying Starry Horizons was on our 30′ Maine Cat, on Amy’s work boats (up to 100′), or on charter up to 48′.
Now we know better. Having seen other people out managing larger catamarans, we know that even from the start of our cruising life, we could have handled a bigger boat.
Buying a boat from a respected boat builder increases your chances of getting a well-built boat, with good builder/community support for any repairs or upgrades, and a name that will help sell the boat when we return.
We’re very pleased with the build of Starry Horizons. Yes, there have been quirks and annoyances, but she’s holding up very well. A boat manufacturer who’s producing on a larger scale will have their manufacturing process down. A manufacturer who is rapidly growing is going to have growing pains and quality control issues.
Customer service is important too, although with the big three catamaran producers, buying deal with the dealer instead of the factory. Fountaine Pajot does not have a great customer service reputation.
What’s a great example of customer service? Outremer Catamarans manages the Facebook group for their owners. Antares is reputed to have excellent customer service (as our Antares-owning friends have told us). The Fountaine Pajot owners group is self-run, and communication with the factory is practically non-existent, even in the buying process.
Well-known brands, like the big three, have a better resale value. Boat shoppers who are familiar with the brand are more likely to buy it. If you bought a catamaran made in Australia and brought it to the states, you might not be able to sell it for as much as you would back in Australia.
Catamarans versus Monohulls
The internet is riddled with debates between the advantages and disadvantages of monohulls and catamarans. We are firmly in the catamaran camp. Cat’s don’t heel, which means even in rough weather, we’ll have a “smooth” ride. Two engines mean we’ll have redundancy in case one breaks down. If the worst were to happen, and the boat started to flood, cats are made of materials that float, so the boat would sink lower in the water but would stay on the surface. A mono would quickly find itself on the bottom of the sea. We also like the living space available including saloons with 360-degree views and owners models with a whole hull devoted to an owner’s suite.
Throughout our time living aboard (since 2014), we are stationary around 85% of our nights. And a good majority of our sailing is done downwind. Catamarans have just the right sailing performance for our circumnavigation.
That’s not to say all is rosy with catamarans. They cost more, and two engines do mean more maintenance, but those are trade-offs we’re willing to make. I certainly recognize that everyone has their own priorities when it comes to their boat. Catamarans aren’t the traditional choice, though they are becoming more and more popular.
Part of the whole reason for this trip is to actually sail. We’ll be spending the majority of our time at anchor, but I don’t want to take forever to get there. A rocket ship like the beautiful Gunboats are out of our price range, but I also don’t want a boat so slow that I will feel the need to jump in and kick to keep her moving. Starry Horizons is a good compromise – as far as catamarans go, she’s a bit on the slower performance side. But, compared to our cruising friends in monohulls, we do pretty well, as we average about 6.75 knots on passage.
A lot of the sailing ability of a boat will depend on where you plan on cruising. For us, we knew that we were going to do a downwind circumnavigation. Catamarans typically perform better and are more comfortable sailing downwind as opposed to upwind.
How do we know this? In Fiji, we sailed the Musket Cove Regatta on board Cheeky Monkey, another Fountaine Pajot Helia 44. We kicked ass going downwind, passing monohulls with our big spinnaker up. But then, we took the turn and were beating hard to upwind. We lost all of our ground and eventually DNFed when we got tired of tacking back and forth.
Also be sure to consider your sailing ability. Are you interested in learning how to use a boom vang? A spinnaker? A rotating mast?
Read about how we learned to sail, and what you can do to get better at it.
New versus Used
We liked the idea of being able to customize our boat for us from the start. However, buying from one of the larger manufacturers is not really as customizable as we thought it would be.
New boats also have a huge issue with depreciation. Just like a car, once you drive it off the lot, you lose quite a bit of value.
Read more about Eleven Things We Learned Buying a New Boat
Used boats are cheaper, but they might also come with damage or signs of neglect.
We did not consider any ex-charter boats. There are two reasons for this. First, charterers and charter boat employees treat a boat like it isn’t theirs. Which of course, it isn’t. A former charter boat would likely require more repairs, as well as additional equipment, to get her ready to sail around the world.
We’ve been in dozens of places with charter bases, and have seen first hand the way these boats get neglected.
Secondly, we are only interested in owner’s versions, where the builder has designed one hull as an owner’s suite. Charter boats typically have a 4 cabin layout.
Features We Required
The number 1 priority when sailing on a boat? Stay on the boat. We will be doing long passages with overnight watches so having a protected helm is vital. Boats like Lagoons have found great success with a flybridge style helm, and Catana’s use dual helms on the transom, but I personally wouldn’t feel safe in either of those spots if the weather was picking up and the seas were rough. Rather, I like the sport-top style helms. We can enclose these helms and the cockpit to protect us from bad weather and keep us in the boat. And it’s good to note that just after we purchased Starry Horizons, Lagoon started offering sport-top helms.
All Lines Lead to the Helm
Lines led aft to the helm mean two things: 1) The boat is easy to sail with all controls in one place and 2) you don’t risk exposure by going forward to manage lines in bad weather. If the main halyard is at the base of the mast and a squall comes out of nowhere, I would be quite exposed going forward to put a reef in the main or take the sail down. I’d rather be back at the protected helm staying nice and dry.
Interior Navigation Station
Having an additional nav station in the saloon makes it that much easier to keep an eye out for other boats. Recently this requirement has been changing somewhat as companies like Raymarine have come out with robust apps for the iPad and other tablets that will actually let you control the chartplotter remotely. Either way, we find our forward-facing navigation table something we use a lot.
Additionally, the view from the main salon looking forward is better than at the helm. At the helm, the headsails actually block the horizons directly in front of us, whereas in the main salon, the line of sight to the horizon is below the sail.
Steering from inside keeps us further out of the sun, protecting our skin and keeping us cool, a very important factor when sailing Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
When on S/V Julia to crew across the Pacific Ocean, they had a remote control for the autopilot so you can adjust course from anywhere. We have a secondary autopilot display at our interior nav station.
There are some benefits to getting a 4-cabin catamaran, such as converting a cabin for a workshop or toy storage. However, we’d much rather have more space in our bedroom instead of a fourth guest room. This is becoming more common, even in charter boats. When we purchased Starry Horizons, Fountaine Pajot was not making an owner’s version of the Saona 47, but then they added that option.
The Big Three Catamaran Manufacturers
- Fountaine Pajot
These three all make a majority of the new sailing catamarans rolling out of the factories every year. There are plenty of smaller companies, such as catamarans built in South Africa or catamarans designed in Australia. But, by choosing one of the big manufacturers, you are more likely to find active cruisers with the same boat as you, common issues and repairs, and contractors who have worked on your brand/model before.
Our Short List for the Perfect Cruising Catamaran
Based on our criteria, we were able to narrow our list of potential boats down to six. Here are the boats that made it to our shortlist when we were shopping at the Annapolis Boat Show in 2013:
Fountaine Pajot Helia 44
More about this boat later!
While no longer in production, the Leopard 46 is, in my humble opinion, a classic. I love her sleek lines, and having chartered one previously, I can say that I was very satisfied with her sailing ability. The galley has lots of space, and the forward-facing Nav Station is great. The only negative is that the main halyard and reef lines are at the base of the mast, but I have found owners who have modified their boats to have all lines led aft, so I know it’s possible.
One of the newest Leopard models, the 48 won Cruising World’s Boat of the Year (2013) in the Best Full-Size Multihull category. She seems to take the best of the previous generation (46) and the new generation (44) and combine it into one boat. She’s got an interior Nav Station, the protected helm with all lines led aft, and the new unique forward seating area that Leopard has introduced with access from inside the saloon. At 48 feet, she still has enough size for a large trampoline, but she’s approaching the higher end of the size of boat we want.
The little sister to the 48 that started Leopard’s current design trend, the 44 is smaller than her name would suggest with a LOA of only 42.58 feet. She seems a bit compacted with a smaller trampoline and with the door up to the front sitting area, she doesn’t have room for an interior Nav Table. However, she does meet all of our other requirements and we both like the quality and general layout of the Leopards, so we’ll be giving her a close look.
While not the best performer of the bunch, the Lagoon is renowned for her interior design and livability. And unlike the larger Lagoon models that have a flybridge, she has a raised helm that could be enclosed. Her interior space likely won’t be beaten, but I’ve heard issues about Lagoon’s finish quality so that is something we’d be taking a close look at. These boats have also been in production for a while, which means there may be good deals out there on used boats, but that also means the market for these boats when one goes up for sale might be fairly saturated.
This boat is a bit of a wild card. On paper she seems to check off most of what we’re looking for, but her raised helm design doesn’t seem as well thought out as the others as there is no way to enter directly from the cockpit. I’ve yet to see one in person, but the reviews I’ve read indicate the finishing quality is supposed to be excellent and she is supposed to perform quite well under sail. She is the boat I probably know the least about, which is perhaps why she intrigues me.
This list is not an exhaustive one, not even close. Names like Schionning, Lightwave, Fusion, and FreeFlow all come to mind when I think about boats, but unfortunately, they are all Aussies. And we are located very far away from Australia, which means it would be quite difficult to get a look at one. Antares is another well-known name, but they are higher priced than the ones on the shortlist. These manufacturers continue to crank out new models every few years, so new options are always rolling onto the market.
We Bought a Boat!
The Annapolis boat show… Boats as far as the eye can see and more vendors than you can shake a stick at.
We went on a mission, and it was a resounding success. We toured almost every catamaran at the show in order to get a feel for the boat that was right for us, and we found her. We bought a Fountaine Pajot Helia 44!
After walking on the boat and getting a true feel for her design, layout, fit and finish, we both knew that she had moved to the top of the list. We were fortunate to be introduced to a great broker who will be helping us throughout the rest of the build process, and he and another of his colleagues helped answer lots of our questions. Once we were done at the Fountaine Pajot booth, we made to sure to visit the other cats on our list so we didn’t miss anything. At the end of the day, we hadn’t found anything that we thought was better so we went back to the Helia to get one more look and make sure she was fresh in our minds.
At this point, the list had been narrowed down to two boats: the Helia and a Leopard 46. As I’ve said previously, I am a big fan of the Leopard, but the Admiral and I both agreed that the Helia offered more features that were important to us. Some of the big ones are: the lounge deck, the open interior design, the amount of light in the boat, both in the salon and in the hulls, and the ability to customize the boat exactly to our specifications. This boat will eventually be our home for several years, so its hard to understate the importance of that factor.
On the second day of the show, we went back to the Fountaine Pajot booth with a list of our concerns and questions. Our broker was very patient and helped address them one by one until we both felt comfortable. We went off to lunch and one of the seminars and when we came back, we were ready to put down our deposit.
Then, the congratulations began. All of the people who worked at Fountaine Pajot in France who were in for the boat show came by to congratulate us, as well as many people from our brokerage. We also got the chance to meet the couple who own the beautiful Lipari 41 Evolution that was at the boat show and exchanged congratulations. There was a party that night for them to celebrate the christening of their new boat, but both the Admiral and I felt like it was a bit for us as well!
So then, the process of building a new boat began, and that meant decisions, lots of decisions!
But first, we celebrated!
What are you looking for?
So there you have it, our entire shopping process for buying a cruising catamaran. What do you think is important in a cruising boat?
Was there an American dealer involved in your purchase? If not was there an advantage to going direct to FP? Thanks.
Seawind 1260 is the obvious choice and you don’t mention it here
Well, I wouldn’t say it’s the obvious choice. You are right, we don’t mention Seawinds but we do mention that we ruled out a lot of the Australian manufacturers because of the location. Our goal was to circumnavigate and end in the Caribbean. Plus, resale value could be an issue trying to sell a Seawind in the US, where they aren’t known as well. They look like great boats, perhaps we will get to try one out someday.
I totally agree when you said that the highest priority when choosing a boat is its safety. Like you said, the two other categories will depend on the purpose of the boat for the buyer. I will keep this in mind when my husband and I start looking for a boat this weekend. We actually bought a waterfront property just to have a boat of our own because we just love relaxing in the sea while fishing. Thanks for the tips!
You didn’t mention anything abut heating systems or AC’s.
When reading Libellule’s experiences of cold 54 degrees F (12 C) inside the boat, and wet interior, while sailing Arctic waters, I’m getting a bit worried. We are planning to buy a catamaran and do some extended sailing. Since we live in Scandinavia we will most probably spend much time in colder weather (and colder water.)
Hi Earl! Sorry for the delayed response. We have six aircons throughout the boat, and they work reverse cycle too. As long as the water is warmer than the air, the system can pull heat out to warm the inside of the boat. We used the reverse cycle in two major places – La Rochelle in late November and Maine in mid-October. We were very pleased with how warm to boat got.
Hi, could you advise me, we are thinkin of buying a cat I was wondering if yours is 110 or 220 volt and why you chose what you did.
We went with 110v. It made sense for us since we’re Americans (ie all electronics are 110v) and in all likelihood we will bring our boat back to the US and sell her, so any future owner will likely want 110v as well. Hope that helps!
Great post, thanks. We have just bought a 40 ft catamaran and are preparing for a blue-water trip in the near future. I’m keen to know more about the extra things you added/installed and what you recommend (like AIS, water-maker, power generation, anything else). Thanks! Amanda
Great post! We have just bought a used 40 ft catamaran – Aussie brand Seawind 1200, which we are really pleased with – but my question is: what additional modifications did you do, and what “gadgets” do you consider essential (AIS, water maker, solar panels, generator, etc)? Thanks, Amanda
Hi Amanda, congrats on your “new” Seawind! We have done quite a bit of work to Starry Horizons and you can check out a lot of those posts in our “Tips” category (https://outchasingstars.com/category/tips/).
As for what I’d consider essential, here’s what I’d say:
A really good anchor
Safety Harness with Personal AIS (we have Spinlock Deck Vests)
Those are really the basics. While we’re happy we have a generator and thus Air Con, I’m not sure I’d consider it essential equipment, especially if you have a lot of solar to help keep the batteries topped up. But like everything else with boats, there are lots of different opinions. Best of luck as you sort everything out!
Hey, I love the website and heading about your projects and adventures. How did you decide on a new boat versus a used one?
We thought long and hard about new vs used. In the end it came down to we liked the Helia the best and at the time we placed our order, there were no used boats available. Buying a new boat is not like a new car, there are still a lot of teething issues to work out. If we had to do it again, we might lean ever so slightly to finding a used model, if we could find one that was relatively set up for our needs and we could finish customizing her to our desires.
The helia is a beautiful boat.
Hi David, I would be very interested in your buying experience. We are also looking at the Helia but not sure I want to go through a broker here and add unnecessary $$ to the buying equation. How did you do it?
Hi Owen, unfortunately the FP model is that you have to buy through a dealer. It is impossible to work with them directly. I would definitely recommend shopping around to the various dealers and see who can offer you the best deal. It’s also a really good idea to try and talk to other customers of that dealer to get some idea of what its like working with them. Hope that helps!
“Recently this requirement has been changing somewhat as companies like Raymarine have come out with robust apps for the iPad and other tablets that will actually let you control the GPS remotely. Either way, we’ll need to have an interior nav station or the ability to control our GPS from our saloon.”
I’m confused. Did you maybe mean to say to control the “autopilot” (not the GPS) from a distance?
Hi Matt, thanks for the comment.
I actually did mean to say controlling/viewing the GPS for two reasons. One: I don’t want to have to have to go outside to the helm all the time to look at the GPS. Two: I want to be able to modify/add a route to the GPS (and have the autopilot follow it) from inside the salon. There are several ways to do this, such as an iPad with the appropriate app or a laptop integrated into the electronics, but being able to do these things from inside are important features to us.
Hope that helps!
Great information — thanks for posting it! My wife and I are planning to order a new Lipari at this coming Annapolis show, and have been trying to find a hard top bimini for the Lipari helm. We’ll contact Dedicated Marine to see if they have an alternative to the standard Lipari bimini and when I’m in FLL the end of September, I plan to visit them in person.
Congratulations on choosing a boat! That is definitely one of the hardest parts of the whole process. Amy and I both liked the Lipari but decided that the Helia was a bit better suited for our cruising plans. If you haven’t been to the Annapolis boat show before, be sure to think about additional vendors you want to visit while you are there. It can be tough to balance everything, but having all the vendors in one place can make life much easier than trying to track them all down later.
I’m not sure that Dedicated Marine has done a bimini for a Lipari but Chris was very helpful as I was evaluating our options. If you would like to chat about our experience purchasing an FP boat (patience is required), I’d be happy to share.
Liked your article! many thanks for posting it. My wife and I hope to follow in your steps. Helia 44 is our thought also.
Regarding enclosed helm/cockpit. Im looking around for a hard dodger solution for a helia 44. The bimini seems a bit weak for a “full on” weather solution? Do you share this thought and did you find anything? Or, are you interested in getting a custom dodger made perhaps?
Peter and Dawn
ps. We intend to go to Annapolis this fall! : )
Thanks for the comment! A hard dodger is definitely something we want on our boat. There is one company I’ve found by the name of Dedicated Marine that has come out with a hard dodger for the Helia. I haven’t seen it in person and I have a few issues with the size of it, but I do think it looks better than the one that’s pictured on Cruisers Forum.
Our current plan is to have a custom one built when we bring the boat to Florida. We’re working with Pat Reischmann who has lots of contacts and can help us design one exactly how we want. We’re even looking at having a glass window with a windshield wiper to help give us better vision in bad conditions. I’m sure we’ll do some additional posts on this as things progress.
By the way, have fun in Annapolis. Amy and I really enjoyed the show and it was great to see a lot of boats in one place!