Most boats are nouns; the Maine Cat 38 is a verb — a boat that can be understood only in motion, and preferably under sail with a good breeze blowing.
Last March, I sailed the Maine Cat 38 Tamarack, hull number four, in the Sea of Abaco, Bahamas, with my parents, my college-age daughter and her friend. Meanwhile, one of 2018’s several historic winter storms was blowing through New England and the Canadian Maritimes, sending massive swells down our way and contributing to a squash zone of isobars on our local weather map. In the Abacos, that meant 20-foot seas offshore, rages in the cuts between cays and sustained winds edging toward 30 knots all week. Already on the Monday we flew in, Marsh Harbour’s supermarket shelves were empty of milk and fresh produce; for the next five days, the Bahamian mail boats were forbidden to leave the safety of their docks in Nassau. For us aboard Tamarack, the weather forced us to do all of our sailing inside the Sea of Abaco. But even in this usually protected sound, we encountered seas of 8 to 10 feet, sometimes breaking.
In those conditions, the Maine Cat 38 behaved like no other boat, monohull or multihull, that I’ve ever sailed. “This boat just gets up and frolics,” is how Sue Murphy, my mom, described sailing it.
Dick Vermeulen founded Maine Cat in 1993. Since then, his team of a dozen craftsmen in Midcoast Maine has launched some 140 sail- and powerboats, including 63 30-foot and 24 41-foot sailboats. Recently, Vermeulen created the Maine Cat 38 to return to simpler roots — a boat with no genset, no air conditioning, no microwave oven and just one head; a boat that a single person would be willing to take out sailing, with or without crew. And Vermeulen set himself one other goal: “This boat has to be the fastest cruising cat out there, or I’ve failed at everything I’ve done.” (For details about the genesis of the 38’s design, see “Birth of a Cat,” CW, July 2017.)
For our gang, mere speed wasn’t the priority. Yet the qualitative experience of sailing a boat whose creator took such care to keep the weight out was a revelation to all of us. Tom Murphy, my dad, has worked as a yacht broker for more than 30 years and has made hundreds of coastal and offshore yacht deliveries, often harrowing ones. “The way this boat lifted in 8-foot seas,” he said, “I mean, you’d see a roller coming in, and you’d tense up and steer into it and wait to take the sleigh ride down the back side and bury the bows — and that just never happened. Instead, you’d get up on top of a wave, and it would feel like the wave was flat, and you would just sort of come down with it. No pitch, no roll, no burying the bows or the stern.” Like me, he’d never experienced a boat that felt like this.
Vermeulen is a mechanical engineer by training. The effect he created in this boat is the result of a single-minded commitment to keeping weight out of it, both in the initial build and in the systems that go aboard. He determined that in order to achieve the speeds he was after, he needed 12-to-1 length-to-beam ratios in the hulls. A consequence of that choice is that you can’t then add all the weight of the luxury items you’d find on a typical production catamaran. Narrow hulls lack the buoyancy to carry heavy equipment or big tankage. Unlike similar-size models from high-production builders, the MC 38 isn’t intended to sleep more than five people; there’s just one marine head fitted in one of the hulls; and propulsion is not from twin diesels but from a pair of 9.9hp outboard motors. The galley stove has three burners but no oven. Cabin spaces are separated by drapes, not doors.
The construction of the hull and deck is different from that of the high-production cat builders too. Typically, builders achieve complex curves in sandwich construction by using core that’s scored in slices called kerfs. When you bend a panel of scored foam, the kerfs open up; in the final composite part, the kerfs fill with resin. In a technique Vermeulen saw at Maine builders Hodgdon Yachts and Lyman-Morse, then developed with Gurit Composites, his team “thermoforms” Core-Cell foam in the shape of the final hull; this is unsliced foam, with no kerfs. His team heats the Core-Cell to 165 degrees Fahrenheit in an infrared oven, then infuses the fiberglass and core with vinylester resin. The result is a uniform part, with uniform physical properties. And the weight? “It’s ridiculous,” Vermeulen said. “When we built the first 38 hull, with three bulkheads in it, but 38 feet long, 6 feet wide and 6 feet of depth, it weighed 426 pounds. I could lift the hull out of the cradles.”
“It takes us a little longer to build hulls,” Vermeulen said, “but it’s just bomber.”
The boat we sailed was in charter service, managed by Abaco Multihull Charters based in Hope Town. It was fitted with good-quality cruising sails, but no screacher or full-on performance sails. Our reaching speeds were typically in the 9- and 10-knot range. We put the first reef in at 20 knots; second reef at 25. It tacked easily with both main and roller-furling headsail and both daggerboards down, but struggled to tack under main alone, as most cats will.
Motoring out of Hope Town Harbor into 25 knots and a steep 3-foot chop at 80 percent throttle with the twin 9.9 horsepower outboards, we made just over 3 knots of boat speed and heard the motors cavitate on every third wave or so. In those conditions, the boat felt underpowered. By contrast, in flat water we easily achieved motoring speeds of 6 and 7 knots.
“You probably know the little auxiliary engines on the MC 38 are by design,” Vermeulen said when I described our experience. “When I hear that sailors on other boats are under power 50 percent of the time, I cringe. If I make the engines small enough, MC 38 owners are going to sail all the time. With a screacher or code zero, the MC 38 will sail at 5 knots in 5 knots of true wind. Who needs motors except to dock or drop the hook? The way sailing should be!”
The experience I most enjoyed on the MC 38 was going forward under sail onto the trampolines as we reached past Tahiti Beach under double-reefed main. I lay face-down and watched the hulls move through uncommonly disturbed water. The 38’s leeward hull didn’t dig in; the windward hull didn’t lift out. No wave ever slammed the bridgedeck. The steep chop seldom even reached the longitudinal chine 12 inches above the waterline on each hull.
The Maine Cat 38 is a boat that positively dances through the waves.
CW editor-at-large Tim Murphy is a longtime Boat of the Year judge.