How old of a catamaran should I buy? – Woods Interview # 5

We talked with Richard Woods, well known catamaran designer and seasoned catamaran sailor, about catamaran ages. Is there an age where the fiberglass wears out or the structure of a catamaran breaks down? Also we talk about what to keep in mind when you’re looking at buying an older boat.

For more information or to purchase build plans from Richard Woods, please go to his website at

Please see Episode 1 for an introduction of Richard, Episode 2 to learn about galley locations, Episode 3 for a primer on why cruising catamaran bows are an important purchase design decision, and Episode 4 about bridgedeck clearance.

What kind of ages do cats come in? I always think of them as sort of a newer type of boat. How old are the production catamarans? How far do they go back?

Oh much. We actually own a catamaran that was built in 1977 as a production boat. It’s not one of my designs, but they do go back to the mid-1950s.

I’ve always said that a wooden boat lasts a lifetime, and a fiberglass boat will last forever.

So I guess there’s something to be said for looking at older boats and maintaining them.

What advice do you give to someone that is thinking about older boats? Are there things that you should be really aware of?

This is one of the places where it doesn’t matter whether you’re looking at a monohull or a catamaran by and large because the fiberglass is fiberglass. One of the things I would be very careful about doing is buying a boat with a balsa cored deck that was more than 20 years old unless you actually do a very careful survey of the deck.

Balsa is so prone to rot through deck fittings, chain plates, anchor cleats. I would avoid a balsa boat. I would much prefer foam sandwich, but having said that of course, there’s our 50 year old boat. She’s 45 years old and is balsa cored. But I did go over it very carefully and there was no delamination. Partly because it’s very heavily built.

That’s one of the factors like with the monohulls is that a lot of the early boats were over built because people didn’t realize quite how strong fiberglass was. A lot of the earlier sprays were built in chop strand mat, solid glass and that’s much weaker than the more modern material.

So one of the advantages of a more modern boat, say from maybe the mid 1980s to 1990 onwards, were pretty much all were built with what they call non-crimp glass, biaxial and quadrature glass. It all sounds very fancy, but it basically means that there’s two flat layers of glass blade one on top of the other instead of a woven one. So that’s a big advantage as far as the whole structure is concerned.

But then the fiberglass is going to essentially last forever, so what you have to look at is the rig, the engines, and the general interior fit out and sails.

People do sail around with sails 20 years old, but you’ve got to assume that you’re going to get new sails when you buy a used boat.

Romany 34 in the Bahamas

The boat in the picture behind me there is our 34 foot Romany catamaran. We bought that from the third owner, but the first thing we did was to buy new sails. We had Dave Calvert make fantastic sails – the best sails I’ve ever had, and I strongly recommend having sails made by him. They just looked so good.

When you’re buying a secondhand boat assume you’re going to spend good money on sails. Cheap sails they’re not worth it right, so they’re just not worth it. They’re usually badly cut, and then cheaply made. We’ve gone through that with cheap Hong Kong, Southeast Asian sails last year. So that’s actually something when you’re buying even a new boat to find out who’s making the sails and pay the extra for better sails.

Then it’s the same with the engines. If you’ve got an outboard, it’s easy to take the engine ashore to the mechanic instead of the other way around, but you need to check the engine hours.

Then find out whether the engine is being used to charge the batteries because that’s not good for because the engines and diesel engines need to be run and load. You run them fast, and they’re lightly loaded – it’s not good for the engine. You need to check whether it’s got a separate generator or these days whether you’ve got enough solar panels to keep the boat running.

Then the rig if it’s over about 10 years you probably may want to change the three main shrouds assuming you’ve got a fractional rig. The diamonds are usually okay because they don’t flex around, but the fore stay and the main shrouds wobble to and fro. So they tend to fatigue.

Then the general sparse checking for corrosion same as you would with any other boat and that gear the same. See if the mainsheet traveler goes easily.

One of the other things that is important to find out with a multi-hull as opposed to a monohull. You’ve generally have a much bigger mainsail arm with batons fully battened sail. The loads on the baton push forwards into the mask which is why it’s much harder to hoist a mainsail with a fully baton sail than that with a big roach which is another factor that we may well be talking about another time.

But to see you want to try getting the main sail up and down because you want to check that it’s got easy running slides or ball-bearing cars.

Then when you get into the inside if you’re buying an old charter boat it’s going to be really hammered inside because it’s going to have been used so much. It may not have sailed much, and the engines may not have been used much, but the water pump and the upholstery and all those and the toilets heads are all going to be very badly worn.

It’s like when you rent a car, you go over a bump you don’t care that’s not my car so you rent a boat. I’d leave the pump running. Oh it’s sucking air. It’s not my pump that’s wearing out.

Even a five-year-old charter boat which seems to be about the time that they come out of charter may have the equivalent of ten years use.

And one of the things I would never ever ever do as a customer is buy a boat show boat for two reasons.

One is the delivery. A boat show boat can never be late. It’s like these home improvement TV shows where they got to do it in the week or the weekend. The boat show boat is going to be rushed.

The other is you’re going to have a thousand people walking all over, and it’s going to be wrecked before you even got it.

One of the things that I’m thinking about as you’re speaking is with monohulls there were definitely different ages in when they were built. There was an era where a lot of build boats were built in Taiwan, and some of the more modern builds are much much lighter weight.

Did catamarans go through that same kind of evolution where there’s different styles and different types of build?

The bulk of the production boats were built in England until about 1975, Catalac, Solaris, Sailcraft. They built hundreds of boats long before any boat was built in the USA for example and before the French started building catamarans either.

Solaris 42

Now they’re mainly built in France, South Africa, and Southeast Asia. Even the big ones yards that were building in Australia moved to where labour’s cheaper.

Does it matter that much? You’re an Englishman. Are English catamarans better built?

That’s another factor actually for Americans looking at European boats is that the shore power is 240 volts / 50 hertz, and you’re 110 volts / 60 hertz. Even when you get an inverter, you might be going from 50 to 60 hertz, and your washing machine doesn’t work for example because it’s a synchronous motor which works on cycles. So that’s one factor to think about whether your boat equipment is going to match.

And the wiring is different colors and the general electrical systems propane systems might be different so if you’re buying a new boat from a yard in France or South Africa they already know they presume and they’ll have a USA spec in the European space. But buying an older boat again, you need to be careful about that.

Then the other thing, it’s the design. The IOR (Editor’s Note: IOR for those unaware stands for International Offshore Rule which set racing design rules in the 1970’s) had a huge influence on monohull design right through the 70s up to say the mid-80s.

At the same time multi-hulls were developing very quickly, and the early multi-hulls were experimental. I started multi-hull sailing and designing in mid 70s and in 1976 there was a multi-hull symposium. They had a lot of people and all the designers met up in Annapolis. I always think that was a watershed changeover before 1976 the multi-hull sailors were sort of the lunatic fringe, and then they became conventional.

Now more and more everyone’s buying them, but there’s less real information. The best books that people have written are all even the newest are something like maybe 15 years old. Maybe books are no longer what people use for information, and they go to little interviews with people instead to learn about boats.

Would you say design has not really made a lot of great leaps since those initial ones in the early 70s or mid to late 70s? Obviously catamarans are getting bigger and bulkier, and that is a kind of design change. But what about other aspects?

I’ve talked about this with other designers in other other disciplines. Why do people design something new, and what is it that they’re actually doing?

One of the things seems to be that with boats people want something bigger every time. When you buy a car initially you buy a cheap little car and then as you get older and wealthier and whatever and more experience, you end up buying a Mercedes. You don’t buy a stretch limo. You don’t buy a car that’s longer and bigger. You buy a better car.

When you have a house and you remodel it, you put a new kitchen in a better quality kitchen. You don’t put a bigger kitchen and yet with boats people seem to say I want a bigger one rather than saying I want a better one. So one of the things that you also should look out for is the quality because there is a big difference in quality and a big boat they’re cutting corners somewhere they have to.

So having a smaller boat that’s built better is often a good thing to do. The other factor with buying a a boat, a new boat in particular, is that the agents make a huge markup and the advertising and the potted plants and the receptionists and the fingernail polishing and all that stuff all got to be paid for. You’re paying for it all. Then you’re buying a boat that is not necessarily what you want. It’s what the boat builder thinks he can sell a thousand of which again isn’t necessarily a good thing to do.

So I always say people should seriously consider having a quality one-off boat built, and that’s very common in Australia. There’s a lot of people building essentially one-offs as professional builds.

In the past everyone needed to build their own boats, but now that’s changed. I know a lot of people think about resale value and worry about that when they’re looking at the boat. Am I going to be able to sell this when I’m done and that’s why people go for boat names that are familiar and that kind of thing. We should be looking for boats that really suit who we are and if that’s a one-off then there’s going to be somebody who’ll be looking for that same boat down the road.

Finding a good quality boat that fits the needs that you have makes an awful lot of sense to me. Thank you Richard for that talk on boat age.

Diane Selkirk

By Diane Selkirk

I love to travel and have spent the past seven years sailing with my family aboard our 40 Woods Meander catamaran - traveling from B.C.'s north coast, to the west coast of the US, Mexico, the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia, across the Indian Ocean to South Africa and on to St Helena, South America, the Caribbean and Central America.

1 reply on “How old of a catamaran should I buy? – Woods Interview # 5”

After we did the interview, I asked Richard Woods why balsa core seems to be less durable for catamarans than monohulls. His answer is below. My experiences are that for older than 15 year to 20 year old catamarans, wet coring is often a survey finding. When purchasing many production catamaran models from the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, buyers have to expect wet balsa coring much the same way in the old days buyers had to accept blister problems when purchasing many monohull models of certain eras (1980’s).

“I think its in part because the scantlings on multihulls are lighter, so more chance of flexing and breaking bonds. also maybe the decks are flatter (no heeling or rolling) so water stays round deck fittings more. For as you know, its the deck leaks that cause the rot. And I guess the big windows don’t help, nor the general twisting of the whole boat. Foam makes so much more sense!” – Richard Woods

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