How to Dock and Swing a Catamaran
Boathandling: Thanks to their dual engines and twin props, maneuvering catamarans in close quarters can be a simple and rewarding experience.
Bows First: With strong current sweeping from ahead and boats fore and aft, use a fender on the stern quarter to swing the bows clear. Apply just enough thrust with the port engine to keep the boat from going backward into the dock; a spring line may be helpful. Power in reverse on the starboard engine until the bows are clear, then shift to forward to get under way.
If you’re considering purchasing or chartering a catamaran, fret not about maneuvering. While a lack of keel(s), high freeboard, and the vessel’s light weight might seem daunting, the dual engines and twin-propeller configuration are powerful tools, even when space gets tight and wind and current present extra challenges. With judicious use of the throttles and a crew well trained in handling spring lines and fenders, maneuvering a cat in close quarters can be easy and efficient.
For beginners, the first trick is learning to forget the wheel and leave the rudders in a neutral position, at least initially. There’ll come a time when the rudders will be helpful, but save that until you’ve gathered enough experience. Because a cat’s twin propellers are so far apart, it’s simply not all that necessary to use the rudders; in fact, for skippers learning to drive cats, rudders may introduce an unnecessary dynamic.
Stern Measures: With the current coming from the opposite direction, the same basic technique is used to swing the stern off the pier. One of the great benefits in handling twin-screw catamarans is that they’re equally maneuverable in either direction.
The main principle one must grasp is that a cat can pivot, without moving forward or aft, in its own length. By advancing one throttle and reversing the other in equal measure, a cat will simply rotate on its centerline axis. When you apply greater and lesser power to the respective throttles, you will pivot from the side to which you’ve applied less power. For example, to pivot to port, use slightly less reverse power to your port engine, and slightly more forward power to your starboard engine. To pivot to starboard, do the opposite. Also, a cat can be operated at very slow speeds because you don’t need to create a flow over the rudders in order to turn. When it comes to cats, “Slow is pro.”
Remember that it’s usually best to reverse into a slip rather than come in bow first. This keeps the skipper nearer to the action and provides the opportunity, if things start going sideways, to simply power forward out of trouble.
Start slowly. Have an experienced cat driver take you off the dock for your first few departures, then pick a wide-open area in which to practice basic maneuvering. Use mooring balls (they’re softer than pilings or navigational marks) as aiming points, and start practicing. Learn to back onto the mooring, come alongside it, and pick it up; soon you’ll see how easy it is to accomplish these basic tasks. The more you practice, the higher your confidence level will soar. Once you’ve got the basics down, start performing those same exercises in wind and current to see how windage and sideslip affect your particular boat.
Next, try some basic docking maneuvers, starting with coming alongside or departing from a fuel dock. You’ll discover how a properly placed spring line and fenders, combined with careful use of the throttles, can bring you neatly alongside, even on a crowded dock. Now practice backing into a slip. While most cat drivers prefer, and some narrow dock spaces demand, that cats occupy the “face dock” at the end of a pier, there will be many marinas that have enough room to allow your beamy vessel to fit neatly into a slip.
Once these skills are mastered, try picking up a mooring and dropping the anchor. These maneuvers depend more on the crew than the driver. That’s because mooring and anchoring can be different on cats; the crew doesn’t stand at a pulpit but perches on a crossbeam, and from there may have to reach a long way for a mooring ball or deal with an anchor that’s mounted well aft of the bow. Here are some additional cat-handling tips for specific situations.