On a short delivery from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale, the new Balance 451 puts the pedal down (Published Spring 2015)
Jeffrey Phillips, an experienced cat owner and sailor, joined The Multihull Company’s Phil Berman on a short, brisk sail along the Florida coast last winter following the Strictly Sail Miami boat show. Multihulls Quarterly caught up with Phillips by phone to hear about the new boat and how she sailed.
MQ: What is your experience with cruising cats?
Jeffrey Phillips: I owned power cats initially and cruised them around Florida and the Bahamas. Eight years ago I decided to switch to a sailing cat. I hated pouring all that money into the fuel tanks of the power cats. It’s funny because most people make the transition in the other direction, from sail to power.
MQ: What did you choose for your first sailing cat?
JP: I had been working with Phil Berman and he basically educated me on the world of cruising cats. He has the knack of helping you figure out what you need instead of trying to get you to buy what he is selling. It was an interesting process. I basically learned the difference between boats built for the charter trade and those built for performance cruising. And I figured out the extremes, too, like the Gunboats at the ultra performance end and some of the heavier cats at the slower end.
MQ: Where did you land along the spectrum of designs?
JP: I had read a review—in your magazine, I think—of the Dolphin 460, which Phil was representing and which was being built in Brazil. The boat has nice fine hulls at the waterline, a tall rig and dagger boards. It is a boat that is designed to sail fast and is also fun to sail. I flew to the Annapolis show and spent a lot of time looking at cruising cats. The Dolphin just stood out as a great compromise between the desire for speed and performance and the need to carry all of the stuff that you put on a cruising boat. I am talking about a water-maker, generator, fuel, food, drinks, batteries, people and so forth. It is really a balancing act and I thought the Dolphin got it right for what I wanted to do—sail!
MQ: How did the Dolphin work out for you?
JP: We owned it for several years and spent a lot of time aboard cruising the Bahamas and Florida. We are based in the Midwest so we had to commute to the boat whenever possible. It was a lot of fun to sail and cruise that boat. But I was busy at work and not retired and the boat spent too much time just sitting in the marina. Boats like to be used and are better when you are aboard to keep everything running. So we made the decision to divest ourselves of the Dolphin about five years ago and decided not to get another boat until we were ready to retire so we would have the time to live aboard and use it.
MQ: It sounds like that time has come. What boats are you looking at now?
JP: I flew down to the Miami Show in February to have a good look at all the cats that were displayed there. It was a real eye opener. It gave me an opportunity to also spend a lot of time walking the docks and climbing on boats. I already knew the type of boat I was looking for. I wanted the same type of performance I had in the Dolphin, if not better. That meant higher end build materials so the boat could carry fine, fast hulls. Moderate to light weight so it would be easily driven. And daggerboards for efficient upwind sailing and faster off-wind sailing too. You know, I was surprised at how few boats at the show actually met all three of these criteria. The more time I spent aboard the 451, which has all of these qualities, the more it impressed me. I think Phil was wise to call his new line of cruising cats “Balance” because that’s what I was looking for and what he believes in so passionately. Because in reality it is unfair to the buyer to give the performance specs of a boat unburdened and then when you actually use it (burdened) it isn’t at all the same boat.
Phil explained to me that he started the design process by first adding up all of the weight he knew a serious live-aboard would carry. He is clearly advantaged over other designers and builders because he manages the sale of over 75 used catamarans a year. He sees how people really use their boats.
MQ: Tell us what it was like to sail the 451.
JP: All sailors and cruisers have to become meteorologists to a certain degree since our lives on the water depend so much on the weather. I had been watching the weather in Miami and knew that a cold front with strong, 30 knot plus northerly winds was forecast to blow through on the Wednesday after the show, when Phil was planning to take people out on test sails. He really needed to get the boat to Ft. Lauderdale before that front came through. Since I was there and eager to sail the new boat, I offered to crew on the delivery. It turned out to be a great sail.
MQ: What were the conditions?
JP: The wind was from the west southwest and blowing around 15 to 20 knots. The seas were fairly flat along the beach in close where we sailed, with two foot waves. And it was a lovely sunny afternoon. We had the full mainsail and the working genoa flying and the boat was sailing like there were powerful engines driving her. We were making steady speeds in the low to mid teens and a couple of times as we surfed down the waves we saw the speed climb to 15 to 16 knots. It was exhilarating. There were several other cruising cats out with us for the delivery north and the 451 zipped by all of them, some as if they were dragging an anchor.
MQ: She’s fast, obviously, but how did she handle?
JP: The boat is a fine sailing machine. Phil says it is best to keep the daggerboards down a little bit, even when sailing deep of the wind, but the freedom of steerage on a daggerboarded cat off the wind is amazing, especially when surfing a wave. You turn the helm and the boat turns immediately and surely. On a keel cat, as you know, the large fixed keels make them sail very stiff, as if they were on a train track. Sailing a boarded cat off-wind is just so much more fun.
You need to keep the sails well trimmed so the apparent wind doesn’t drop much below 90 degrees apparent. On the Balance 451, this means the true wind is about 120 to 140 to the boat. Each time you get a nice gust you just drive down and whenever the speed stalls you heat her back up. When you are sailing at 12 to 15 knots the apparent wind moves well forward on such a cat so you are essentially beam reaching even though the true wind is coming from well aft of the beam.
Phil was the Hobie Cat world champion years ago and has been sailing ever since, so he knows how to trim sails really well and was able to get the best out of the boat. It’s funny, I was taking pictures and videos and then I looked up and saw how fast we were sailing and I knew this was the kind of boat I needed. We had a couple with us who were the new owners of a 451 and this was their first sail aboard her. You should have seen the smiles on their faces as the speed hit 15 plus knots. The boat felt very stable and dry and the steering was perfectly balanced. Even up forward on the tramps, we didn’t have water coming aboard and because the bridgedeck is nice and high there was no slamming as we sailed over the waves.
MQ: What boat did you decide to build?
JP: For my family and myself, we decided to go with a larger design. I am an avid fisherman and I need to carry a large, power hungry ice maker, and I also sail a lot in the Bahamas and Belize where it can get very, very hot, so I need a good sized generator to run enough air conditioning for those sweltering days. When I am cruising I want to carry all the toys, and have all of the comforts, and I hope to do a lot of sailing with children and family. I just needed a bigger boat than the 451.
I got to talking with Phil and learned that he was building the first 526 for himself. Phil said that nobody ever believes in anything until they see it, so he just figured why waste money on advertising and glossy drawings —just go and build it. Well, it worked out pretty well for me, because Phil was very far along on the build. I decided to buy the boat because there was just enough time left for me to customize it to my taste, both in terms of gear and equipment, but also cosmetically. This big sister to the 451 has a lot more room and has cabins for a captain and crew. We decided that we wanted pros aboard for the first year anyway, so we could enjoy the boat and cruising more without having to spend days in the engine compartments or pickling the watermaker.
The 526 is a very high performance boat, as the light ship weight is just a bit over 10 tons. Anton Du Toit, who designed the boat with Phil, wanted her to sail easily at 10 to 12 knots in moderate breezes with full cruising payloads. But most of those who have seen her at the factory suspect she will be even faster than that as she has an all epoxy, e-glass, carbon reinforced hull and deck. In the right conditions she will be a 20 knots plus catamaran. Many people do not seem to know this in America, but her builder, Jonathan Paarman, is a legendary surfer and boat builder in South Africa. He takes enormous pride in his work and garners deep respect from everyone in the South African yachting community. One of his recent builds, the Balance 60 called Nexus, more or less led every leg of the most recent World Arc Rally. I really look forward to meeting him soon.
MQ: Will you travel to South Africa to see the boat as it is being built?
JP: Yes, we will do that. I think it will be a lot of fun and probably very useful to be in the factory at crucial moments in the build process so we can be part of the decision making. Jonathan, Anton and Phil email everyday about every thing and I prefer it that way—we are doing some special things to this boat nicknamed The Balance-Bullet. They have already sold three of the 526 design but our boat will be hull number one and will become the model for the others to follow. I’ve decided to paint her in a teal blue color and she will carry a white carbon mast, carbon forebeam and carbon bowsprit. We’ll launch her in St. Francis Bay and then take her to Cape Town to be rigged by Southern Spars and fitted with Ullman sails. Then we’ll head across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and home to Florida. This is going to be a great adventure.