Back to the future

If you’ve been following this blog, you are no doubt getting the picture that I’m passionate about combining the feelings of sailing fast in a boat that responds well, with the comfort and safety of exploring remote anchorages and long distance cruising. As I’ve come to find out, this is not at all easy to achieve, and finding a boat that can serve both purposes is in fact a tall order.

I’ve met a lot of sailors, racers and cruisers over the years, and we all seem to fall in different places on the < speed – sensation – safety – comfort > spectrum.

There are those that are perfectly happy tooling around in a catamaran loaded up with all the comforts of home. For them, the need to sail fast, or even spend a lot of time worrying about sail trim, is not that important. They realize that cruising boats spend 95% of their time at anchor, so worrying too much about features that optimize the other 5%, doesn’t make much sense.

Built for comfort

Built for comfort

There are the racing folks that focus on performance, with cruising a secondary consideration. They are looking for light weight, lots of sail area and narrow hulls. This leads to a great sailing boat, that is cramped to live in and has to be watched closely so the high powered rig doesn’t break or flip the boat over.

Built for speed

Built for speed

There are others that consider cruising catamarans as a charter holiday contrivance, that at best, don’t sail very well, and at worst, don’t behave anything like a real sailboat should! These folks are committed to the traditional sailing sensations and classic beauty of a cruising monohull. They find the claims made by catamaran owners that they can sail all day without spilling wine from a glass left on the salon table, to be irrelevant, especially if that comes at the expense of needing to start the engines in order to push the bows through a tack!


Classic beauty!

Over the years, the range of boat models available on the commercial market have organized themselves more or less into one of these three camps, with the vast majority of catamarans falling into the 95% at anchor / charter market segment. For a long time, I just accepted this segmentation of boats and boaters as being a logical manifestation of the physical realities of boat design and function. It made sense, and most of the people out sailing, myself included, seemed to be happy with the available options, and willing to live with the associated compromises. That’s life right?

But what if we could enjoy the sensations of really sailing, and even sailing fast, in a boat that is also comfortable and safe to live in? During our voyage from Australia to Singapore, I was introduced to a boat that I have come to view as the game changer, that for the first time was able to successfully marry the two seemingly incompatible aspects of boat design (performance and comfort). That boat is the Aikane 56, and it has been fascinating to learn how much an influence this boat, that was designed and built in the early 2000s, has had on the latest generation of performance cruising catamarans.

Aikane 56 - ahead of it's time!

Aikane 56 – November 2000, and well ahead of it’s time!

The Aikane 56, is a beautiful boat. She is light and fast, yet very comfortable, with plenty of room for full time cruising. She can sail faster than the true wind speed and is perfect for entertaining at anchor. We spent 3 months buddy boating (cruising together) with Eric and Tamara aboard their Aikane 56, Sea Child and I came to firmly appreciate what an exceptional boat she is.

When it came time to sell our Catana 471, and look toward our next boat, I was sure I wanted an Aikane 56, but the problem is there were only 3 of them ever made back in the early 2000s, and finding a used one that was fitted out the way we wanted was pretty much impossible, so we continued the search for a boat that was similar to the Aikane.

The interesting intersection of fate here, is that while Xavier Desmarest, the now owner and President of Outremer Yachting was pursuing his long time career as a monohull builder, he was introduced to the Aikane 56 by a colleague and friend, and for the first time he realized the possibility of building catamarans that could be comfortable, safe and also sail really well!


Xavier Desmarest – President of Outremer Yachting and “catamaran renaissance man”

Like many in the classic boat-building industry, Xavier was witnessing the increasing trend towards catamarans, but was also lamenting the fact that the current crop of catamarans were not the kind of boats he wanted to sail, much less build and sell. When he found the Aikane, he began to develop a vision for a catamaran of the future. His move over to run Outremer began with the concept of updating the existing range of boats that were well proven, safe, and high performance, but tended to be a bit cramped and sparse in terms of comfort, and bring them closer to the configuration of the Aikane 56.

Since purchasing the molds for the Aikane proved to be too complicated, he did the next best thing, and went to VPLP, the architects that designed the Aikane to see if they would be willing to design him a new boat, that would fulfill his vision. Marc Van Peteghem agreed and the result is the Outremer 5X!

Take a look at these two pictures, the Aikane 56 above, and the Outremer 5X below. See if you can spot the signature VPLP lines of the two boats.

Aikane 56 from the mast top

Aikane 56 from the mast top


5X from the mast top

Xavier had a lot of doubters when he started down this path. Because there are no other series production builders making catamarans like the 5X, the trade media all wondered if it would be a success. Were there enough sailors that wanted to buy a catamaran that deviated so markedly from the industry standard? After releasing the 5X, the boat has won the European boat of the year and US Boat of the year awards and they have had a steady stream of orders. He is also using the design concepts from the 5X to renew the other models in the Outremer line, the Outremer 51 and the new Outremer 45.

I love it when people with a vision have the courage and fortitude to go against the trends and show us new possibilities, and sometimes even, remind us of possibilities we had forgotten. It seems that with the new model lineup from Outremer and Xavier’s guidance, it’s a case of “if you build, it they will come!”

Outremer offers 3 mast options on the 5X. Fixed aluminum, fixed carbon fiber and rotating carbon fiber. Having no experience with rotating masts, my initial reaction was that it seemed unwise to add the complexity of a rotating mast to a boat being used for long distance cruising. As with all boat decisions there are pros and cons, and so I needed to find out if the benefits of the 5X rotating rig are worth the extra cost and complexity.

Outremer 5X under sail with carbon fiber mast rotated

Outremer 5X under sail with the carbon fiber mast rotated. Note the radar dome installed on the spreader.

The first two fixed mast options are pretty easy to understand, as it’s a simple question of weight. The carbon fiber mast weighs 280 kg (616 lbs) less than the aluminum mast. Taking weight out of the boat is important, and it’s especially important to save weight up high, as this has the biggest impact on the pitching motion of the boat. Less weight aloft = less pitching = more comfort and more speed.

So, we know we want a carbon fiber mast, so the next question is fixed or rotating? To figure that out, we need to look at why Outremer has gone to all the trouble of designing a rotating mast for a cruising boat in the first place!

It turns out the benefits of a rotating mast are not just theoretical, and I discovered that for myself when I did the test sail on the 5X Addiction. We were going upwind in a light breeze of about 7 knots just after completing a tack, with the rotating mast set straight on the center line of the boat. Once we had settled onto the new tack, we rotated the mast into the wind and I could literally feel the boat surge forward! Tests at different wind speeds and angles confirm that there is a 10-15% increase in performance with the mast rotated. This is great, but how does it work?

When a boat is traveling with the wind coming from in front of the beam (<90 degrees) the sails operate as airfoils in much the same way as an airplane wing.


Rigid wing airfoil

When the wind strikes the front edge of this rigid wing, the air is separated and must travel a longer distance in the case of particle A vs particle B. This creates a higher velocity on the top surface and a corresponding area of low pressure. So the wing is pulled upwards due to the lift force developed. This force is called aerodynamic lift.


Flexible sail airfoil

In the case of a sail, there is no rigid bottom surface, so it is less efficient than a rigid wing, but it still forms an airfoil because the two air particles A and B must travel different distances, and so a low pressure region of lift is created in the same fashion as a rigid wing. Around 2/3 of the driving force of the sail comes from aerodynamic lift, with the remaining 1/3 generated by the force of the wind striking the inside (bottom) surface of the sail.

This is the case for an ideal airfoil, but on a sailboat there is a mast in front of the leading edge of the sail. The bigger the boat, the larger the mast cross section has to be to handle the force of the sails, and this becomes a factor influencing the shape of the airfoil we are able to present to the wind.


Fixed mast airfoil

This diagram shows the effect that a fixed mast has on the airfoil. Since the wind must make a tight turn around the mast, a turbulence zone is created which reduces the amount of lift being generated by the forward section of the sail. It also drives the lift force direction slightly aft, reducing the ability of the boat to sail upwind.

Rotating mast airfoil

Rotating mast airfoil

By rotating the mast into the wind, we can clean up the leading edge of the airfoil and eliminate the turbulence. This increases the lift force and moves the lift angle  forward, giving us more speed and better pointing ability (how close we can sail, or point, into the wind direction).

There are other benefits to a rotating mast, regarding reefing the mainsail. Normally when reefing, you turn the boat into the wind to take pressure off the front edge of the sail in order to lower it. This puts the headsail into a luffing mode which is uncomfortable and potentially damaging to the sail. With a rotating mast, you can turn the mast into the wind and lower the mainsail. This allows the headsail to keep drawing during the reefing process and is easier and places less stress on the rig and the crew.

Because the rotating mast is in fact a rigid airfoil, it acts as an additional 12m2 sail, so by rotating the mast to the centerline position as the wind increases, you have the ability to depower the sail, which in effect, becomes an additional reef point.

And for the mathematically inclined:

12m2 mast / (12m2 mast + 125m2 mainsail) + 6% lift improvement  = 15% performance increase from a rotating mast vs a fixed mast of the same size. And conversely, straightening the mast when the wind increases will de-power the mainsail by 15%.

So what’s the catch?

As always, all this goodness comes with a price, and in this case there are three issues that have to be considered:

  1. The additional mechanical complexity needed to operate the mast rotation system
  2. Compensating for the error in the wind angle reading when the mast is off centerline
  3. Dealing with the error in the radar signal when the mast is rotated

For us to be able make the decision to choose the rotating mast option, we needed to find a solution to each of these. Here’s what we came up with:

Mechanical compexity

This one was actually pretty easy. Outremer has done a nice job of designing a simple and robust system for securing the mast, and operating the rotation controls from the cockpit. It does add a little more complexity when sailing, but to me it’s negligible, and since I am a committed sail tweaker anyway, I am looking forward to having another power control on the boat. Our conclusion: Outremer’s system is fine for our needs and has been proven over time on a large number of their other boats. We are happy to install it as designed.

5X Rotating mast

5X Rotating mast

Rotation control lines led back to cockpit

Rotation control lines led back to cockpit


Wind angle error

When the mast is rotated, the wind angle measured by the sensor at the top of the mast will be incorrect. This is because the wind angle instrument measures angle with respect to the mast center-line. So if the mast is rotated 20 degrees, the wind angle will read 20 degrees less than than actual apparent wind. This is a problem, but it can be corrected in software by the instrument system as long as we can provide an accurate reading of the actual angle of the mast.

To read the angle of the mast, we need another sensor:

NKE mast rotation sensor

NKE mast rotation sensor

This rotation sensor from NKE has been used by many offshore racing boats and has proven very reliable. The only concern I had was the cable that connects the mast sheave to the sensor body. If it breaks, there is no way to fix it without taking the mast off. NKE claims a 10 year life for the cable, and Outremer has never had a failure, but they add a second spare cable at the mast base that can be fitted if there is a failure of the original cable. Our conclusion: The benefits outweigh our concerns over the reliability of the sensor. If the sensor did fail, it will only affect the wind angle reading, which is a non critical data point, so we’re OK with this.

Radar image error

Most sailboats install the radar dome on a spreader located at the top section of the mast (see the first photo in this post). A high elevation for the dome provides greater radar range and minimum interference. On a rotating mast, the radar will provide significant errors when the mast is rotated. For example, if you have the mast rotated and a ship is approaching in the dark and headed straight for you, it will appear as through the ship is actually approaching from the side. This is not good.

As I write this, in September 2014, there is no reliable solution to this problem. The radar image angle should be able to be corrected in software in the same way as the wind direction, but in practice, other owners have experienced system failures where the correction angle is lost, so the radar reverts back to a non-corrected image. Although this can be resolved by rebooting the radar software, there is no way to tell if and when the system has stopped processing the angle correction input. I expect this will be resolved in a future version of the software, but it still leaves us vulnerable if there is a fault in the mast angle correction sensor.

We feel that a reliable and accurate radar, is an essential safety element when voyaging offshore, so installing the radar dome on a rotating mast is not acceptable to us. Our solution is to install the radar dome on a carbon fiber pole at the back of the boat, keeping it fixed with the vessel centerline. We will lose some range due to the lower mounting location, but it won’t be enough to compromise our safety at sea.

So all in all, the rotating mast option is a good one. It does add some complexity, but we found ways to deal with that and we are happy to be able to take advantage of the significant benefits that a rotating rig provides.

Lots of options

One of the objectives of visiting the Outremer factory and test sailing a 5X, was to get the information we needed to select the options we will be installing on Wildling during construction. Although the 5X is a series production boat, and not a custom build, there are still many options that each owner can select that will affect the way the finished boat will perform, and how well it will fit with the intended usage. For example, a boat that is used by a large group of people for short durations in a limited cruising area, would be configured differently than a boat sailed long distances by a small family of full time cruisers. Knowing which option to select for what purpose, takes a mixture of experience, research, and advice from people you trust, that understand your requirements. I relied on all three to make our option decisions. After sailing a 5X and talking with other owners about their experiences and meeting with numerous people at the Outremer factory, I was able to answer the remaining questions that I couldn’t resolve at a distance. Again, I found the Outremer folks to be really helpful during this process. In this post, I’ll provide a list of the various types of options available, and in future posts, I’ll go into more detail on some of the choices and tradeoffs that we made. The options offered by Outremer on the 5X, generally fit into the following categories:

  1. Performance and handling
  2. Long distance voyaging
  3. Comfort and convenience

Let’s take a look at what Outremer offers in each of these areas: Performance and handling options This is where the bulk of the attention is focused. For a given hull design, performance of a catamaran is the result of the weight of the boat and the amount of sail area deployed. Too heavy and the boat slows down and the motion increases, which slows the boat down further. Weight is the number one enemy of performance on a catamaran, and Outremer provides a lot of assistance when fitting out each boat, as every item that is available for the 5X is listed with the price and the weight. In some cases the weight is negative, which allows a weight savings over the standard specifications. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any cases where the price was negative! Some of the choices available to build a light boat are:

  • Using carbon fiber instead of conventional fiberglass and epoxy laminate for some of the structural bulkheads and the salon roof can save over 250 kg
  • Swapping the standard aluminum mast for a carbon mast and using kevlar shrouds (cables that hold up the mast) instead of stainless steel saves another 280 kg
  • Using Lithium batteries instead of the standard lead acid batteries saves around 140 kg

Of course it makes no sense to save all that weight, and then fill the boat up with systems and gear that weigh it down again. Some of the things we had on our last boat that we won’t be adding:

  • No clothes washer & dryer – These are heavy, use a lot of energy and water, and we found we hardly ever used ours on the last boat. Whenever we were at an anchorage we were always able to find a laundromat or local laundry service.
  • No scuba compressor or scuba tanks – Instead we will have a surface air (hookah) system, which is small, light and uses very little energy. We found that during our last cruise, we mostly went snorkeling, and in 90% of cases when we went diving with tanks on our own, a surface air system would have been just as good. We also found we preferred diving with the shore based dive operations whenever we were in a location with good diving, as we were able to use their tanks and air, their boat, and their knowledge of the best dive sites.
  • No generator – No Scuba tanks, dive compressor or clothes washer means we don’t need a generator, so that’s another 250 kg saved, along with all of the fuel, spare parts and work needed to keep it running.

Long distance voyaging options These options cover things that make it easier and safer to sail long distances with minimal crew. Things like:

  • Reverse osmosis watermaker
  • Sail inventory and reefing systems to handle a full range of conditions, from a light breeze to a full gale, and everything in between
  • Electric winches to make it easier to raise and trim the sails. Particularly for younger crew
  • Seats at the wheel helms
  • Dodgers over the wheel helms to protect from sun and rain
  • The size of the engines, their fuel economy and range and the propeller design
  • Electronic instruments and navigation systems
  • Satellite and radio communications
  • The type of dinghy and motor and the system for raising and lowering it and securing it rough seas
  • The anchoring system
  • The type and size of the refrigeration equipment
  • Electrical generation systems: solar, hydro and engine driven
  • Safety equipment

Comfort and convenience options Although these add some weight, there’s a minimum set of comforts that we aren’t willing to live without. Our list includes:

  • Air conditioning. We usually don’t need this at sea or at anchor, because there is nearly always a breeze. But at a dock or marina this is a must!
  • Microwave. Robin and I have gone back and forth on this for years. Robin won! 🙂
  • Media system – TV, Stereo and speakers
  • Convertible dining table that can be made into a queen size bed for guests
  • Electric toilets
  • Full set of blinds for the salon windows
  • Awning system for the cockpit

In addition to all of this, there are the choices for cushions, fabrics and internal surfaces, and also logo artwork on the hulls and sails. Some of the choices we had to make were really complicated and took a lot of discussions to weigh up all the pros and cons. I’ll go into more detail on these in future posts.

Test sailing

I just got back home to Brisbane after a busy few days in France with the folks at Outremer. I had an excellent visit, and was able to spend a day on board the 5X, Addiction to really get a feel for how the boat sails and to help us make some decisions about the feature options that we are considering for Wildling.

Here’s some video I took of the test sail. I apologize for my lack of skill with the video camera, I promise to do better next time! 🙂

All in all, I was very impressed, not only with the 5X, she is a beautifully designed and constructed boat, but also with the Outremer team and their construction operations. The care and detail they put into building their boats is very impressive, and it really shows in the finished product.

I also really appreciate their collaborative design process. They were very happy to discuss all my ideas, and were comfortable telling me when things made sense, and when their experience has proven that something wouldn’t work. This is exactly what I am looking for in a builder, and I left feeling confident that they will deliver us a boat that fits perfectly with our needs.

So we finalized the purchase contract and locked everything in, and now we’re on our way! There are some design issues that I will need to work out with them before we start construction, and I’ll write more about those in another post.

Getting ready for a test sail

Well, we’ve signed the contract and paid the deposit, but there’s still one condition that we have to satisfy before we are 100% committed, and that’s a test sail. Because the performance and sailing abilities of our boat are so important to me, I need to sail a 5X before we give the final go ahead to start construction.

I’ve been in Stockhom, Sweden for the past week for work, but on Tuesday I’m headed to Marseille for a few days to visit the Outremer factory and sail a 5X. I’ll be taking plenty of video and photos to share when I’m done.

The Outremer guys have arranged for me to sail Addiction which is the closest configuration they have built to what Wildling will be, in that Addiction is equipped with many of the performance and weight saving options that I am choosing for Wildling. I’m really looking forward to it!

Here’s a video of Addiction sailing at 18 to 20 knots of speed so you can get an idea of what’s in store! In fact, this is the video that convinced me I had to own a 5X. I still get goosebumps every time I watch it. Going 20 knots in a cruising sailboat!?! OMG, I have to have one!!!  (yes, I realize I have a problem).

More about Wildling

I added some details and pictures of our new boat, and the decisions Robin and I had to make in order to choose which one to buy. You can find them here.

Welcome aboard

Welcome to our blog, where we will be sharing our adventures building, launching and sailing our new catamaran, which we have named Wildling.

We recently sold our former sailing catamaran, Zangezi, after an incredible 4 years and 4,000 nautical miles of sailing around Australia and South East Asia. When we arrived in Singapore at the end of our voyage through Indonesia, our intention was to take a month off to visit family back in Australia, and then continue on to the Philippines. Unfortunately, typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines and created so much devastation that we had to delay our plans until things settled down.

During this time, the kids went back to school and I went back to work, and the plans for our continued voyage seemed to be moving out of reach. We considered exploring SE Asia during our vacation time, but increasing reports of piracy around the Philippines and the areas we most wanted to visit made that unsafe and out of the question.

Since our long term objective has always been to cruise the South Pacific from the Galapogos to Australia via Tahiti and Fiji, we decided to explore the options for making that voyage a reality at some point in the future. There was no way for us to sail Zangezi eastwards, and we didn’t want to continue west beyond Asia, which involves running the pirate gauntlet to reach the Med, so we decided that rather than have Zangezi sit in Singapore, not being used, which was really heartbreaking, we would sell her and buy a boat in a more suitable starting location for our intended voyage.

And so we came to the decision to purchase a boat in France, and to spend our vacation time exploring the Mediterranean until we’re ready personally and professionally to set off westwards, across the Atlantic and into the Pacific. We don’t know when that will be, but right now the important thing is that we are on the path towards it.

After a lot of research and discussions we decided to purchase a new boat, rather than used, which means that it will take a while before we will be sailing again, but the project of building new really appeals to us both as we can get closer to what we really want. For many reasons which I won’t go into here, but will describe in detail in other areas of the site, we decided on an Outremer 5X catamaran. Since we’re not in a rush, we decided to schedule construction to begin next March, with a planned launch date in December 2015.

Between now and then, we will be posting updates on the construction during our visits to the factory in France. I’ll focus more on the technical details of the design and the options available when building this class of offshore sailboat, and Robin will give her perspective on how crazy I am to want to buy a 59 foot boat that can sail almost as fast as the true windspeed, but more importantly, how she is fitting out Wildling so we will be safe and comfortable during our long ocean passages.

We’ve learned a lot during the last 4 years, so we really know what works for us, and what doesn’t. We hope to share all of that with you during this project, and give you a sense of what cruising and crossing oceans together as a family is really like.

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