Sunday, October 25, 1998, I joined Bill Shuman, the owner/builder of the new Concept 63 catamaran HERON and crew Joan Welsh for a sail down the east coast of the USA.
The weather was beautiful at departure with a moderate westerly breeze and clear skies. No storms were in view across the country and we were sure to have settled weather for several days at least. We left Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts at about noon and proceeded south/southwest toward the Virginia Capes.
Immediately, I was struck by the way Heron slides along at 10 knots in relatively light conditions. Our speed varied from 9 to 11 knots sailing close hauled in 12 to 14 knots of true wind speed with a rolling swell. During the first night the wind shifted to NE and fell away to near calm so we motorsailed into the next morning. Our first days run was about 230 n.miles.
As we neared Cape Hatteras the wind built from the northeast. For a time on day two we had 25 knots of wind astern with waves of 6' to 8'. These waves were large enough to surf and we had a number of nice rides producing 16 to 18 knots of boat speed under full working sail. The autopilot did a fine job of steering but wasn't quite as good at catching waves as an attentive helmsman. In a ketch rig it pays to sail a very broad reach rather than a dead run since this prevents the mainsail from being blanketed by the mizzen. This we did and the sails were drawing well with only an occasional backwinding of the jib. The jib was snatch-blocked to the rail, giving a nice wide lead while the main and mizzen each had a combination vang/preventer led to the leeward rail.
With a fresh NE wind we intended to round Diamond Shoals light tower (off Cape Hatteras) very close to avoid the strong Gulf Stream current and the lumpy sea that it creates when running against the wind. Earlier in the day we had experienced a dramatic rise of water temperature while at the same time the waves steepened and the wind and weather got squally. The easy solution was to jibe over and head west to get out of the current. We sailed to the continental shelf where in 200' of depth the water temperature was about 65 degrees and conditions much more settled. However, we had to jibe back to fetch Diamond Shoals 30 miles to our south but did so a little too soon. After dark, with dinner in the oven, we strayed back into the Gulf Stream. The water temperature immediately shot up to 83 degrees! Over a period of 15 to 20 minutes the waves grew to 10' or so and steepened such that tops were falling over while the wind built to near gale force. Wow, that was quick! It was fun to let Heron strut her stuff for a little while, and strut she did with prolonged surfing rides generating 20 knots or more of speed. But it was also getting a little raucous belowdecks and with a full mizzen Heron was developing a lot of weather helm. We decided to reduce sail and jibe back to the SW to get out of the worst of the current. Soon after, the beacon on Diamond Shoals tower started to wink at us dead ahead and the water temp gradually fell back into the 70's assuring us of a smoother ride. We rounded the tower at 8 PM on Tuesday, 2 days 8 hrs. out and 435 n. miles from home.
Now that we were around the corner we were able to head more toward the west which brought the apparent wind up closer to the starboard beam. Heron loved this! With the wind direction NNE at 20 knots, gusting to 25 we took off on a beam reach at a steady 14 knots occasionally reaching 17 in the puffs. The moon was bright, the wind now cold since it was coming off the land rather than the warm Gulf Stream and we were streaking along dry and comfortable with Cape Lookout 70 miles ahead and rapidly getting closer. In the wee hours the wind once again fell away. Near Cape Lookout we finally gave up pure sailing for motorsailing at nearly 10 knots by running a single engine at 2300 rpm with light wind on the beam.
Day three was spent in a leisurely fashion motoring along the Carolina coast in sunny and almost warm weather. The wind was gone for now but forecast to go SW and build. The highlight of the day was the fishing. We caught 3 false Albacore on handlines in a period of two hours. One of these fish was cut in half rather dramatically by a large barracuda as I pulled the line in. Late in the day the breeze came around toward the SW and gradually built in strength. This was a great opportunity to see Heron sail upwind. We strapped the sheets in tight put both daggerboards down, set the autopilot and watched in awe as she powered up past 10 knots to 11.5 knots hard on the wind in about 18 knots of breeze. We had a wonderful fresh yellowfin tuna dinner in the main saloon watching the sun set while Bill's beautiful new machine devoured the miles toward Georgia. Under autopilot we were barreling along upwind enjoying our meal and spectacular view at the same time Joan's nearly full wine glass rested peacefully on the smooth table top without a ripple inside. Before dark I had a good chance to look at the masts for movement. With about 25+ knots apparent and full sail the rig was very stable. The masts were very straight and the leeward rigging still reasonably snug. A small amount of movement was seen in the mizzen masthead but this is to be expected with a long cantilever masthead. Most cats suffer from too much headstay sag which making windward sailing less productive unless running backstays are used to remove the sag. Heron has no running backstays but her rig is so efficient and stable due to the wide chainplate spacing and resulting large shroud angles that headstay sag is very minimal.
After a few hours we had 25 knots true wind and 4' to 5' seas right on the nose so we put a single reef in the main and rolled some jib up to quiet the ride to a steady 9 to 10 knots. With the Harken Battcars the mainsail reefs so easily from the cockpit that it is a completely painless event. The forecast was for increasing southwesterly winds then a shift to NW after a frontal passage. We were just 30 miles from a direct entrance into Winyah Bay, S. Carolina so we decided to duck in for the remainder of the night. Our current port tack ran out only a mile or two to leeward of the lead channel buoy so it was only a matter of a quick tack south and then follow the lights into the bay. We picked a shallow area away from the main channel and dropped the hook in 5 feet of water at 10 PM for a good night's sleep. A very convenient stopping place, 3 days 10 hours and 655 miles from home.
Bill is not the type to sleep in, so my next memory is of staggering onto the cold dewy deck as mud dripped off the anchor shortly after sunrise. The electric windlass near my berth was a rude alarm clock. We motored out through the shrimper fleet into a near calm with leftover rolling sea from the night before. The front had passed but there was no wind behind it so we listened to the diesel breeze through the morning. The NOAA forecasters had changed the predicted wind direction 4 times in the last 12 hours so the next wind was anybody's guess. My guess was that because the only wind direction that they had forgotten to predict was southeast, the wind was surely to arrive from that quadrant. Well, by mid afternoon we were having a beautiful sail with 12 knots of SE wind, beam reaching along toward the Sea Islands of Georgia where Bill and Joan planned to cruise for a few days and I planned to depart.
As evening rolled into night we saw some of the nicest sailing that I have ever had the pleasure to experience. The moon was nearly full, the wind a gentle breeze from the port bow and the ocean absolutely flat. By now we were far enough south so that it was warm. I spent hours of my watch sitting in the trampoline near the windward bow watching the slender hulls slice cleanly through the water at a steady 8 to 9 knots. Occasionally a shooting star would streak past and once or twice the dolphins came to play. A small pinkish dome on the horizon to our west indicated the port of Savannah but otherwise it seemed that the whole world was ours. Sailing in the dark always feels faster but this night, with the boat as steady as a house ashore, being able to lie suspended between the hulls above the rushing water was as close to a magic carpet ride as I've ever experienced.
The wind, while very steady in direction became progressively lighter. By 3 am it was 7 knots by my best estimate (no wind speed instruments on board) . It is always hard to evaluate performance of a new design without having a boat of known ability sailing alongside but these were ideal conditions to see how Heron sails to windward in light wind. By recording GPS and knotmeter speeds and headings over several minutes and averaging the readings I was able to get consistent results with little data scatter. We also tried several daggerboard settings and found that in this light wind it seemmed that Heron's best windward performance was obtained by having only one daggerboard fully down. Our best upwind VMG seemed to be at 5.93 knots boatspeed at an angle of about 53 degrees to the true wind. Pretty respectable for a conservative ketch rigged cruising cat in 7 knots of wind.
Dawn Friday found us entering the channel to St. Simons Sound, Georgia in a cold and clammy land breeze with a smell of pine trees and paper mill. I got off at a friendly marina and made my way to the airport while Bill and Joan continued southward to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway around Cumberland Island. Point to point sailed was 855 n. miles in 4 days 10 hours not counting our time anchored in Winyah Bay or the extra distance sailed jibing downwind or tacking upwind.
It was a great sail and very instructive for me. We saw a variety of conditions although the weather was generally light for the trip. Heron, with her long fine hulls, covers ground very well. I really like her rig, which although modest in size, is efficient and easy to handle. Going upwind in stronger conditions I had complete confidence in the spars which are extremely well supported by the long swept spreaders and efficient shroud angles. Light air performance was the big surprise. I knew that she'd be fast in a breeze but I did not fully appreciate how well she would sail in light air. This feature I ascribe to her more slender-than-normal hulls which are just so easy to move through the water.
Heron demonstrated that the catamaran Achilles' heel, underwing clearance and related pounding, could be dealt with successfully. We saw (actually felt) a few kicks to the belly in the sloppy conditions rounding Cape Hatteras but they were less frequent and less severe than most cruising cats that I've sailed. Sailing upwind in waves there would be a rumble of water noise every now and then as a wave top was mashed between the hull and wing intersection but it was easy to ignore. For her weight and overall beam the C-63 design has fairly generous underwing clearance. But it seems that the larger advantage is in her slender hulls which create much smaller (almost non-existent) bow waves. Hull waves are often responsible for a lot of the underwing slamming as they cause existing seas to peak upward at exactly the wrong time as the lowest part of the wing passes over them.
Another sailing condition of importance in a cruising boat is no wind, or very light wind. Racing boats are disqualified if they use the engine. Consequently boats designed to race (and the cruising boats that emulate the racing designs) have sail plans optimized for light air, which are often too large and too fragile for offshore cruising. Cruising boats, on the other hand, use the engine when the wind quits. And the time spent motoring, or motorsailing, is often quite significant. The term motorsailer has had negative connotations for decades. Normally motorsailers neither SAIL nor MOTOR very well. So they've been viewed with some disdain as neither fish nor fowl. But I view the Concept 63 design as a motorsailer that works. Her power performance with twin 50 HP diesels is quite good with 10 knots average speed at an easy 2750 rpm. Fuel consumption is very moderate and she achieves about 5 miles per gallon at 10 knots (typical for catamaran power boats is 3 mpg or less). But the real benefits happen when there is some wind too. Running one engine often is all that is needed to bring the apparent wind forward to make the sails work harder and the combination provides much better results than either motoring or sailing alone. And of course when there is wind you can shut off the noise makers and enjoy superb sailing at faster speeds than any reasonable engine could provide.
In terms of weight and cost Heron is no more boat than the typical 50' cruising cat, nor does she require any more effort to sail. But by drawing out the hulls to 63' in length, substantial benefits are gained in performance and comfort. This combined with her 3' draft, the ability to pass under 65' bridges and excellent performance under power make her an incredibly versatile and pleasing cruising boat.
Copyright 1998 Christopher R. White