For any number of reasons, few high-performance powerboat enthusiasts choose a catamaran as their first ride. Most go with a single-engine V-bottom in the 20- to 30-foot range and stick with it until they gain enough confidence to move into a larger twin-engine V-bottom. But if the speed bug bites hard enough to make top-end speed the No. 1 priority, they’ll eventually consider a catamaran.
There are plenty of myths out there among first-time catamaran owners and veterans. Chief among them are the notions that cats are more difficult to turn than V-bottoms—and don’t turn as well—and that they are prone to blow-overs, meaning susceptible to taking flight when all the wrong factors are present. And neither could be further from the truth.
To explore some of the basics of catamaran handling, we caught up with Tres Martin, a retired offshore racing world champion, hull designer, and engine compartment rigger who started the Tres Martin Performance Boat School in late 2003. Martin leads 35 to 40 classes a year, with up to 10 or more students per class. Each class incorporates a day of classroom training and a day of on-water training. In addition to schooling performance-boat owners around the country, Martin has provided training to Navy Seals and the engineering staffs at Mercury Marine and Mercury Racing.
“Catamarans can actually turn on smaller radii than V-bottoms, but rely solely on the tunnel wall to hold in a turn, whereas a V-bottom is balancing itself on an axis in a turn.”
If it all sounds a little Greek to you, you’re in good company. Even veteran performance boat owners such as Rick Bowling of Alamo, Calif., have gained a wealth of knowledge. Like Martin, Bowling is a retired offshore racer with world champion credentials. In addition to a 31-foot Formula cruiser, he owns a 37-foot canopied Talon catamaran called Gone Again. Converted from a two-man bare-bones raceboat to a comfortable four-person pleasure boat, the 37-footer is powered by twin 1,350-hp turbocharged Mercury Racing Engines and is capable of running more than 160 mph.
“I had no idea my boat could turn like this,” said Bowling after sharing the cockpit with Martin during a course on Lake Tahoe in California last year. “It really was incredible. I’m so glad I did it.”
“I find that even catamaran veterans don’t understand how to turn their boats until they get through the class,” said Martin. “The don’t understand the hydrodynamics of how it turns. But once they learn how to balance the boat, they can navigate their way through a turn very nicely.
“A lot of guys coming from V-bottoms understand that they don’t turn quite the same way as their V-bottoms, so in their quest for safety they turn a lower speeds, say 45 mph and below. But those speeds don’t create the proper balance, so the cat leans 'wrong.’ When they make a left turn, it leans out to the right. When they first learn to turn a little faster, they can get the boat to turn flat. But you really need the catamaran to break 50 mph to get the vertical edge of the tunnel to load with right amount of water-drag to pull down the inside sponson and in lean in through a turn.”
Martin breaks proper catamaran-turning technique into five elements, two throttle-based and three steering-based. While his turning technique is proprietary to his course—meaning he won’t hand it out in detail to the media—he said that anyone from a novice catamaran driver to one with decades of experience can learn it.
“In the classroom, we go back to the fundamentals,” said Martin. “We begin the course giving our students an understanding of how a catamaran—an air entrapment/compression hull—actually works. But to understand that, you have to first understand how a V-bottom works, and we include that, too. A V-bottom is still the ‘parent hull’ of a catamaran, which is like a V-bottom split it in half to create air entrapment in the tunnel between the two hulls. Most people don’t understand how a boat gets on plane—they don’t understand how it goes from in the water to on top of the water. We go through all of that from how the lifting strakes works, to how the steps function, and what we mean by ‘angles of attack.’”
One of the benefits for drivers who go from a V-bottom to a catamaran, Martin said, is that with rare exceptions cats don’t have trim tabs. That translates to one less variable for operators to control. Drive trim, however, is another matter, and he works diligently to help new novice and veteran operators understand and apply it correctly.
“A lot of guys coming to from V-bottoms to cats want to trim and trim and trim and get the nose up, and that’s not really what catamarans like,” Martin explained. “They really like to be laid down and run flat, like they’re on train tracks.”
As for catamarans “blowing over,” Martin said it’s not only rare, but downright difficult to do for most drivers.
“That’s the biggest concern of most new cat owners,” said Martin. “They’ve seen videos of those types of accidents. But the air entrapment in most catamaran tunnels is not enough to overcome the boat’s actual weight. It’s very hard for the average consumer to blow over a cat; they’d have to drive up another boat’s wake. And that’s something else we teach -- situational awareness—where and when to turn, not just for your cat but for the other boats in your area.
“There are a couple of things you need to check off before you turn your boat, cat or V-bottom,” he continued. “They are things you can see in your peripheral vision.”
Of course, there’s much, much more in Tres Martin’s course—so much, in fact, that several companies that insure high-performance catamarans and V-bottoms offer discounts to the owners of those boats who complete it. But to take the course you need to sign up, and Martin teaches all over the country by appointment. The information provided here is just the beginning.
Read more: How to Learn Fast-Boat Driving Skills, Fast