Why Catamaran Bow Shape is Important: Woods Interview # 3

Richard Woods, catamaran designer and sailor, talks to us about bow shapes on cruising catamarans, and why bow shape should be an important consideration to buyers of catamarans. You might not have thought about bow shape yet while looking for a catamaran. Richard clues us into how designers think about bow shape while they are designing a catamaran.

Specifically he addresses the drawbacks of reverse bows in regards to seamanship while docking or hitting flotsam offshore.

Please visit his website SailingCatamarans.com for more information from Richard and build plans for his designs. This is Episode 3 in a series of interviews with Richard Woods covering topics to educate those looking to purchase a catamaran. Please see Episode 1 which is an introduction video and then Episode 2 covers galley location considerations. Stay tuned for additional videos in the coming weeks.

Can you define what a vertical bow is?

Vertical bow is fairly evident. It is where the water line and the bow at the deck line up at the same position. So the front of the boat is up and down.

Vertical bows

Then you would have a conventional bow which would be a raked bow.

Raked bows

And in the last few years there’s been a trend towards reverse bow. I think of ice breakers when I think of a reverse bow. It’s where the boat at the waterline is further forward than it is at deck level.

Reverse bows

If you’ve got a racing boat with a length limit, which is at the moment 60 feet, you build to that length because it’s going to be a faster boat.

But it’s a racing boat and what we’re talking about are cruising boats. The cruising boat has got to sail well, but it’s not the only thing that a cruising boat has to do.

It’s got to be a live aboard boat, and it’s got to be sailed by people who aren’t professional sailors. It’s got to be sailed in all weathers. It’s got to come into port in all weathers.

There’s 30 people sailing 60 foot foiling monohulls around the world at the moment (Editor’s Note: Richard is talking about the 2020-2021 Vendée Globe race), and they can do it single-handed until they get into port. Then that’s when they’ll need a big shore crew.

Vendée Globe single handed sailboat

But you as a cruising boat, you don’t have a big shore crew.

I remember years ago trying to beat a gale and coming into North Spain, and we just managed it. But we came in with driving rain and 40 knots of wind into a strange harbour at two o’clock in the morning and tying up to a sea wall. That’s something that you’ve got to expect to do.

I’m sure you’ve done the same sort of thing. Everyone who’s done any sailing at all has these experiences.

Another one was when we actually launched a brand new boat from the travel hoist and motored it across 20 yards to the dock. I hit the dock quite hard because I had no idea how long the boat was because I just launched it. I didn’t know how it would react or anything like that. Our boat had a nicely raked bow as did the one going into that harbor in Spain.

Bows see a lot of damage especially when narrow on deck and plumb or reverse

And what we were able to do in both cases was stand right at the bow and fend off.

We had a nice wide deck that we could safely stand on. In fact what I usually do on my designs is make the deck is nice and wide. I put the pulpit back a couple of feet so that you can actually stand.

You’re not having to climb over the lifelines; you’re still safe. You can stand. You’ve got a little area.

Woods 35 Banshee bow

Then you’ve got to do it twice remember because you’re on a catamaran so you’ve got two bows. But you might be on say the starboard side, and you’re coming in and can’t really see the port side at all. You can’t see the port bow from the helm often, so the chances of hitting something with the bows is quite high.

So this is boats with an overhanging bow. Now imagine you have a vertical bow coming in. There’s two factors.

One is that you’re more likely to hit anywhere down the length of the bow rather than just at the top which is maybe four feet above the water line. You could hit damage anywhere down.

Lagoon 450 with a slightly raked bow shape

The other factor is that the boat is much narrower. It’s a three-dimensional shape.

As a designer, you can’t just say, “Let me make the bow.” Because if you make the bow vertical from a raked bow that means either you’ve shortened the boat and you have basically a transom on the bow or you have to pull the deck right in.

If you pull the deck right in, you’re not going to be able to stand in front of the pulpit like I just said we would do and even the back near the the mooring cleats is going to be very narrow. So that makes it all quite a bit dangerous especially if you’re older and less agile. And it makes it very stressful coming alongside.

We all know the time when you get divorced is because of this. Because you feel unsafe on the boat. The safer you can feel the less stress you get. That’s another fact.

Then imagine the reverse bow where you’re coming into a wall or a dock and you cannot reach because the first thing that hits is the boat right? You can’t fend off, but not only that but what you’re hitting is below the waterline.

Reverse bow damaged below waterline

So you hit it bad enough, you have a hole in your boat below the waterline instead of a bang on the top which you could have fended off.

You actually have a hole, so that’s a major deal which would you rather have a boat that was potentially slightly faster or a boat that could potentially have a hole?

Going back to the Vendee race around the world. They’ve had about 15 people retire, but half of them have retired because they’ve hit things that were floating in the water.

And that unfortunately is a very common thing to do. You know particularly in the Pacific Northwest with all the deadheads and flotsam and all the logs.

It is scary sailing at night and most people don’t do it because of what they might hit.

What else should we be looking for in that part of the hull?

The other thing actually is the netting beam itself because embarrassingly I have dented one netting beam by hitting a piling coming into a marina in the dark.

Woods 40 Meander netting

I had another one where someone actually put a hole in in the netting beam and very dramatically. It was obviously the skipper’s fault.

I’m going down the ICW, and he hit a navigation buoy and broke the beam. He was very lucky that the mast didn’t come down because obviously when you break the beam you’re probably going to lose the forestay. I think because it had an inner forestay he kept the mast.

One of the things to think about is what happens if I do damage that beam. Can I change it? Will the mass fall down if it breaks?

I try and design boats where the bridal and the forestay sort are one unit, and the beam stops the sagging rather than taking the whole weight.

The bows get the most damage. The other thing is that when you’ve got damage what’s going to happen? I always design boats with a watertight bulkhead inside. If the bow has got a hole in it, the water doesn’t come into the boat.

Bows take the most damage on catamarans

I also like to have watertight compartments under the sail lockers, so it’s unsinkable. You’ve got to have a very big hole to have a problem.

In fact just thinking of it just now, about 30 years ago one of my 30-foot designs dragged ashore and went on the rocks. One keel was completely ripped off, but it had interior trays and watertight compartments. They got the boat home without assistance 20 miles motoring with one hull. Got the boat home even though it was missing the keel.

That seems like a really good place to stop this discussion. I hadn’t realized how much there is going on there in the bow shape that I hadn’t ever thought about without really understanding the design thought behind them.

So another good conversation Richard.

Next time I’ll start my coffee a little earlier.

Bow that needs to propped up while on the hard, so the catamaran does not tip forward
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.

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