Yacht designer Chris White, from South Dartmouth, MA, has been building and designing cruising multihulls since he was a teenager. With more than 50 of his well known Atlantic cats built over the last 30 years on a custom and semi-custom basis and dozens of other unique designs out sailing around the world, he has become one of the most influential designers of cruising boats of his generation.
With a passion for good sailing performance and a keen eye for innovation, White has pioneered new deck and cabin layouts, new construction techniques and new cruising rigs that make life simpler for cruising couples. His designs have sailed more than a million miles and continue to carry their owners to the world’s best and most exotic cruising grounds.
MQ caught up with Chris by phone in mid-October. (Published Fall 2015)
Multihulls Quarterly: What new designs are you currently working on and what excites you about the projects?
Chris White: The major thing that I have been working on lately is a 70 foot cruising cat that is long and reasonably skinny and fairly light for a couple that has a lot of cruising experience. They sailed around the world in the early ‘80s in a monohull and sailed farther north than any cruising boat and then sailed south around Cape Horn. They have been sailing one of my cats more recently to get a feel for cat cruising and decided, yes, this is the way to go. We’re just about to start building.
The boat is pretty unusual as it has free standing masts in each hull which are basically big mainsails mounted on fully rotating carbon sticks. The idea being that the rig will be really easy for a small crew to handle and very safe because you can always dump the sheets and the sail will swing off the wind and depower. The rig has a lot of unique features that put strains on the boat so the engineering has been complicated. We want to get it right the first time so we have been working closely with the spar builders and hardware guys to make sure the rig works well and is easy to handle.
Right now I am also working on the preliminary design of another big boat for another Atlantic cat owner who is looking for a bigger boat. This will be a bit more mainstream than the other 70 footer with a more conventional rig and more accommodations that will be good for the occasional charter. One of the interesting challenges is to design a rig on a 70 footer that is easy to handle for a small crew.
MQ: The Atlantic cats are your most durable and popular design. What about the concept works so well for so many people?
CW: Basically, the boat is so practical. It just works really well. Call me old fashioned, I think it is really important to see where you are going and you have perfect visibility from the forward cockpit and you have really good visibility from the inside steering station. Typically when cruising you are inside with the autopilot steering while you keep watch, it just works to have great visibility in a sheltered position and only a couple of steps away from all your sail controls. Also, having the cockpit right behind the mast makes sail handling, reefing and deploying sails really easy. You don’t have to get out of the cockpit to do anything on this boat. So at 3 o’clock in the morning when you are doublehanding and you need to put a reef in or roll up some jib alone, it is not a big deal. And you are completely safe in the cockpit.
MQ: How many Atlantic cats have you built and what is their cruising history?
CW: The Atlantic design has been built in a number of different sizes and flavors. But, I think we have about 50 out there sailing now. In combination of all boats we have more than a million miles and with the A55 alone I know we have more than half a million miles. There have been a few circumnavigations but there are now several boats in the western Pacific on their way around. For the most part, the boats have been crossing oceans and cruising the best areas. They are great boats for living aboard with great ventilation and good use of space. Good functional galleys, work rooms, private cabins and all the things you need.
MQ: You built your first trimaran when you were 19 and cruised it to South America and back and then you built the bigger tri Juniper that was your cruising boat for a long time. Still, you are better known for your cats. What’s the difference?
CW: People often lump tris and cats into one category because they are both multihulls but there is an enormous difference between them. Trimarans are just great sailing boats. I love them. I have a lot of time in tris and one day I will have another one. But for cruising, to have really comfortable accommodations, the kind of accommodations that people expect if they are going to spend heaps of time aboard, trimarans start to get really big. Big tris take up a lot of real estate. The beam get larger so it becomes harder to find places to haul them out and because of their size they become more unwieldy. Under power with one engine, big tris are hard to maneuver in tight places where cats with twin engines can do practically anything under power.
So, in a practical sense, cats have just a lot more to offer. If you take a 50 foot trimaran and a 50 foot catamaran that are intended to be good sailing all-around boats, the cat will be a much bigger boat. The tri will take up more space and be harder to moor while the cat has way more interior volume, more weight, more engines, probably a bigger rig. In many cases a cat will have three to four times the living space of a similar length tri. That’s why you see the extensive market for cruising cats and not so extensive market for cruising tris.
One of the real advantages of a cruising cat is the ease of dealing with a dinghy. If you are cruising and moving from place to place you may need to hoist and relaunch a dinghy several times a day. On most cruising boats the dinghies are usually RIBs with outboards that are quite heavy. On cats, you can hoist them on simple davits behind the cockpit. On tris, it is a much more difficult problem.
MQ: You have designed a few power cats that have proven quite successful. How do you see the future of power cats in your portfolio?
CW: I hope it is good. We just launched this new 45 footer in Chile which is a really interesing boat with fantastic performance. It has a luxurious interior and looks sweet. Compared to the boats being built by Hinckley, MJM and Hunt, the 45 stands up well and is much faster and more comfortable. All these guys are building fast cruising power boats for the ex-sailor and potentially this is a pretty interesting market. These companies have been pretty successful with their designs but cats can do everything better. Cats can run faster with the same amount of power. They are more comfortable and have more accomodation for the same length. What we ended up doing on the 45 footer is putting a foil between the hulls that really adds to speed and performance by lifting the hulls slightly out of the water at higher speeds. At 15 knots the foil starts to work and by the time you are going 30 knots it is carrying almost 40 percent of the boat’s displacement and dramatically adding to speed.
We call the new boat the Spindrift and at 35 knots it leaves less wake than my dinghy. The boat has waterjet drives and the working depth at speed is only 15 inches so at 30 knots you could run over a sandbar that’s two feet deep and never notice it. And with the jet drives, you can stop the boat from full speed to zero in about three boat lengths. That’s pretty impressive. I think people are gong to find the new boat interesting and I am sure we will sell more of them even though there is some resistance in the powerboat world to cat designs.
MQ: When are we gong to see the new Spindrift in America?
CW: The boat is in Chile now but the owner intends to eventually bring it home to the Chesapeake Bay. It is just coming into summer in the Southern Hemisphere so the owner will cruise south to the Chilean Channels before bringing the boat back north. I expect we’ll see it in the Chesapeake next summer.
MQ: Looking back to the start of your career, you built a boat when you were in your teens and went cruising. How did that affect you appreciation for the essentials of cruising boat design?
CW: My first boat was a 31 Searunner tri that I launched when I was 19 and that’s the boat that I really learned a great deal from. Several times I got my ass whooped. It was a 4,000 pound boat that I took to South America and it taught me that out in the big rough ocean you need to have a boat of substance. It’s got to be tough and long enough to be comfortable. You have got to be able to carry all your cruising gear and supplies without excessively compromising the performance. So, I came back from that cruise and designed my tri Juniper. It was an effort to remedy all of the things that didn’t work very well on the 31. The primary thing was to simply make the boat longer and stronger.
Juniper was and still is a great boat. I sold her to a Dutchman who sailed her around the world in high and low latitudes all the way from Patagonia to the Aleutian Islands. So, she is still going strong after 35 years. I learned a lot from my years sailing Juniper, too. Like most tris and some cruising cats, you have a lot of speed potential designed into the hull but at sea you can’t always use it.
That’s one of the critical things about multihulls, it’s not hard to build a boat that goes a lot faster than you can use in a practical sense because you can only go as fast as you can remain comfortable. Top end speed is nice but comfort is vital for the long haul. In the end, even if you can go 16 knots, you will most likely slow down to 12 just to keep things sane and to avoid breaking anything. You’ll still know a 275 mile day or better but in comfort.
Where mulithulls really excel for cruising is the ease with which you can maintain the eight to 12 knot range. That’s kind of the sweet spot where you can lope along at decent speed on an average basis day after day with very little wear on the crew or the boat. However, the reality is that to get the easy, comfortable 12 knots you need a boat that can safely do 20 when pushed.
MQ: Last year you introduced the MastFoil rig to the crowd at the Annapolis Sailboat Show and now you are designing a 70 footer with a twin mainsail system. Can you describe the rigs and what you are trying to achieve with them?
CW: The MastFoil came into my consciousness when we were sailing in the Caribben a couple of years ago. There are a lot of big sailboats in the Caribbean these days—it’s not unusual to see 100 foot or 130 foot sloops that are rigged with a sloop rig that you would see on a J/24, just on steroids. And you seldom see these boats sailing. The crews motor them from place to place and when you talk to the crews you learn that they are mostly terrified of sailing the boats. When the owners fly down for a week or two, the crews take them out sailing a few times but that it is. Practically, these big rigs are not great on larger boats.
I was looking for a solution for some of the bigger boats that I had customers for. Bascally, what it comes down to is getting rid of the mainsail. The main is not the most efficient sail anyway; a sail gets most of its power from the leading edge and on a mainsail with a large non-rotating mast at the leading edge you lose about 40 percent of the sail’s power. Also, mainsails are hard to handle, heavy and difficult to reef off the wind. So, let’s just get rid of it.
Jibs are easy to handle with roller furling. They are simple to reef and can be quickly adjusted in area for optimal speed. This goes back to the performance issue. In the squally conditions you often find at sea, you can roll in reefs by yourself without the hassle of reefing a main and rapidly increase sail after the squall has passed. This allows you to sail at a higher performance level and sail more easily.
We got rid of the mainsail and ended up with two jibs and two masts. The masts were just standing looking stupid and creating drag, so we thought, why not put some fairings on them to reduce drag. Then, it occurred to me that once you have a faired mast, you should be able to control the angle to the wind so you can turn the mast into a driving force instead of a dragging force. So that’s how the MastFoil system came into being. We’ve now launched five of the Atlantic 47s with the rig and the owners have put more than 30,000 miles on the boats. Of course, we had our share of teething problems but it all seems to be sorted out now.
MQ: The MastFoils sails are fore and aft sails. What do you do in down wind, running conditions?
CW: You can fly a conventional spinnaker or a large asymmetrical chute rigged from the weather bow. Most of the boats have bow sprits and Code Zero or screecher type headsails that can be rolled in and out easily from the cockpit. Dead downwind you can run wing and wing with one jib to leeward and the screecher on the weather hull.
MQ: Foils are the flavor of the era in modern racing catamarans and made popular by the last America’s Cup. You are already putting foils on your power cats, what do you see as to the future of foils in sailing and cruising multihulls
CW: I’m not optimistic about foils in cruising cats. We looked at the option in the 70 footer that we are just starting to build but concluded after a lot of data crunching and computer modeling that foils just don’t add much to a cruising cat. What it comes down to is that crusing boats that have engines, dinghies, water and fuel tanks, built-in accommodations and normal cruising gear are relatively heavy. Foils just can’t generate enough lift from foils to lift the hulls out of the water like an America’s Cup boat. The cruising cat is simply too heavy and slow. For foils to work you need speed that you can’t achieve.
Where we thought there might be a real benefit from foils would be in seakeeping, wave-dampening and pitching reduction. We actually contracted some high end computer work and the results just did not show a net gain. We couldn’t measure enough difference in pitch amplitudes to justify the extra complication and vulnerability. So we skipped lifting foils.
MQ: You are not putting curves in the shapes of the daggerboards?
CW: Right. Instead we angle the boards so they fit neatly into the interiors of the hulls. Curved boards just don’t add any real perfomance advantages. Maybe, as time goes by, we will learn that there are real advantages to curved daggerboards and rudder T-foils on cruising boats but they simply weren’t showing up in the computer analysis.
MQ: You have been a pioneer in multihull design for our generation. How did you get the multihull bug in what was a very monohull world?
CW: Well, I started sailing small monohulls when I was 10 or 12. Dinghies, Lightnings and boats like that. And for reasons I hardly remember, I started at age 18 to build a Searunner trimaran—that was 43 years ago. And, basically I never looked back.