The Evolution of Power Catamarans

A veteran marine journalist reflects on how fast power cats have evolved over the last few decades.

When I first cranked up my marine-magazine career eons ago, most of the big magazines dispatched editors every year to the Chicago International Boat Show. And toward the end of the festivities in 1989, in a crowded aisle of the McCormick Convention Center, a wild-haired guy approached me, got within ear-whispering distance and said, “Hey Bill, you wanna see something unusual?”

What ensued was an event that had nothing to do with the show itself. I was soon shown a newly hatched power cat—an outboard-energized 30-something with a cabin—that was stashed at a ramshackle dock, a lengthy cab ride away. A trio of true believers wanted me to drive the boat, look her over, and tell them if she was marketable.

At the time, a vessel like the Prout Panther 64 was unimaginable. And Ray Leger’s twin-hulled sea chompers, while popular in the Wild West, were neither well-known nor pervasive east of the Mississippi. So, when I took a gander at my first power cat bobbing alongside—she was too wide to fit into a slip—I had no prior experience with such a thing. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever actually seen a power cat before.

The Aquila 70 is a testament to how evolved power cats have become.

The sea trial results were gloomy. For starters, the boat’s lofty foredeck produced an ungainly profile, and her Porta-Potti-equipped interior was more camper than cruiser. Then, once we were underway, an inordinate amount of spray blew back onto the windshield, making it hard to see. The phenomenon was called “sneezing,” I soon learned, which was a troublesome issue caused when the “tunnel” created by the boat’s sponsons and their interconnecting web was “a little too small” to accommodate all the water trying to pass through—the excess got sneezed forward and blown back onto the foredeck and cabin. Furthermore, the boat leaned alarmingly outboard in turns—not conventionally inboard—a disconcerting attribute my hosts blamed on the “symmetrical” (having the same shape in cross section) design of her sponsons. And finally, because of these dispiriting findings, plus the appearance of snap rolls in side-seas and a top hop that was slow-mo at best, I was constrained to predict (and correctly, I might add) that, despite her smooth ride in the rough stuff and pleasingly shallow draft, the little power cat was not, nor ever would be, ready for “prime time.”

Wicked, Wicked Speed

Some three years later, around 1992, I was having lots of fun driving and writing about the stepped-monohull speed demons of the era, from builders like Cigarette, Apache, Scarab and Fountain. And in the midst of the madness, I got a call from a well-known race boat personality, Joey Impresia. After he’d complimented me on my work as well as my obvious zest for nasal-inflating speed, he hit me with a zinger: “But how ‘bout you drive our Skater Cat, Bill—she’s really fast.”

Outboard speeds, multihull seakeeping and overnight accommodations all add up to a new breed of cat with mass appeal.

The offer was legit. Within days, I was standing next to a resplendent, Michigan-built power cat, a radically different animal from the one I’d driven out in Chicago. She was Porsche-like—low, sleek, and souped-up—a genuine firebreather with literally thousands of horsepower, a top speed of 120 miles per hour, and a set of knife-like sponsons that were asymmetrical, meaning curvaceous outside, slab-sided inside. Normally, Impresia throttled the boat for the famous driver, Stuart Hayim. “But you’re driving today, my friend,” Impresia said with a grin.

A short course in Skater Cat technology ensued. The point of getting behind the wheel, after all, was to safely “air the boat out,” generate as much adrenaline-infused excitement as possible, and survive the experience. And we subsequently did all that, popping a 116-mph judder on the speedo for one, horizon-blinking moment that still lives on in my memory. But we also did something else: we proved, to me at least, that a power cat, if seriously conceived, made absolute sense. She could corner pancake-flat, lunge over waves with feline grace, go wickedly fast, and emit nary a sneeze.

Foils and Cooking Oil

The celebration of the Millennium brought with it a broad assortment of modifications to the basics of power cat design and the application of hydrofoils, I’d say, was more significant than most. I gave my first foiling power cat a whirl in 2004 on a beautiful opalescent stretch of Road Harbor, Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands. Robertson & Caine, a South African catamaran builder in partnership with The Moorings, a charter outfit with a base in Tortola, had invited me to test drive their brand-new, “very interesting” vessel—the NauticBlue 464, equipped with two, displacement-type, symmetrical sponsons and two foils stretched transversely between them, one forward and fixed and the other aft and adjustable.

I did my scientific best. In identical sea conditions and with equivalent loads, I ran one NauticBlue with foils and another without, a scenario that produced very decisive results. The foiler burned significantly less fuel, especially at higher speeds—in fact at full throttle, she doubled the non-foiler’s range and then some. And then, the foiler was faster, much faster. Indeed, she topped out at 27.4 knots, then upped the ante to 29 knots with the after foil tuned. By comparison, the best I could get out of the non-foiler was 19.7 knots.

Not long after the BVI expedition, my growing enthusiasm for power cats received an additional boost from another popular vessel—the Glacier Bay power cat. At the time, Glacier Bay, a Pacific Northwestern company founded by gifted inventor and boatbuilder Larry Graff, happened to be marketing a mini-array of mid-range power cats with high-speed, displacement-type sponsons and a reputation for record-breaking passages. Indeed, one of Graff’s 26-footers had cruised some 2,700 nautical miles up the Pacific coast of the United States to Alaska and then crossed the Bering Strait from Nome to Siberia. Another had gone from Norfolk, Virginia to Bermuda, almost 800 nautical miles, non-stop.

To this day, Graff remains an open-minded adventurer at heart. And I found it easy to talk him into loaning me one of his 3470s for a couple of weeks so I could run a bladder full of “Bio-Blend” through her inboard diesel engines as well as a full tank of diesel fuel and compare the results. Ultimately, I gave the Bio a thumbs-up—the stuff worked, at least in the short-term. But another surprise bobbed to the surface. While conducting the necessary sea trials, I discovered I genuinely liked and admired Graff’s boat—she was transversely stable, reasonably quick and comfy in the rough stuff, economical when stacked up against monohulls of her size, dockable in an ordinary slip and, except for some snap-roll action in beam seas and a very faint tendency to lean outboard in tight corners, seriously and practically cruise-worthy.

The story doesn’t end there, however. After selling his shares in Glacier Bay in 2007, Graff launched a new company the next year specializing in catamaran-esque vessels with a propulsion system called, with obeisance to its Polynesian antecedents, “Proa Power.” I sea-trialed one of Graff’s new boats in Seattle—she was a veritable envelope-pusher with a single diesel and, like ancient Polynesian proas, two asymmetrical sponsons, one approximately 35 percent narrower than the other. For starters, I figured the darn thing would try to turn circles endlessly due to unbalanced thrust, given that only one sponson was powered. But nope. Graff’s radical but careful engineering generated reasonable, impressive, true-tracking performance. Fuel economy was excellent, handling a joy and, at least in profile, the boat looked more like a crisp, perfectly proportioned monohull than a power cat, even close up.

The Brand New Modernity

To understand where power-cat design and technology stands today—and there are literally hundreds of power cats on the market, of varying size and type—requires yet one final voyage down memory lane. Back in the spring of 2013, I ran a delivery trip with two other guys aboard a MarineMax Vacations ingenue, the Aquila 484. The boat had symmetrical, displacement-type sponsons, a V-shaped “pod” hull extension between them and a layout that, it seemed to me at the time, put the seaboots to just about any monohull motoryacht of her length and displacement on the market.

We took departure from Ft. Lauderdale and, due to time constraints, I had to bail in Georgetown, Exuma, about halfway to Tortola, the vessel’s final destination. Still and all, I got to run the 484 for many hours, night and day, snooze comfortably in one of her four staterooms, cook a meal or two in her aft galley, and spend a fair amount of time kicked back in her immense salon/dinette area. My conclusion after all was said and done? Besides being economical, relatively fast (top speed: 18.5 knots), and as seaworthy as a dolphin, the boat was a paragon of cruising practicality. Not long after I’d jumped off the 484 at the Government Dock in Georgetown, I remember sitting on my balcony at the Peace & Plenty Hotel, with the stars tumbling out, watching her purr off into the hazy distance with her new crew aboard, bound for “the islands,” as they say. “Wow,” I remember thinking, “power cats, after 33 years, have finally arrived!” The LOAs are mainstreamy, performance parameters are generally solid, and the pestiferous issues that havee dogged the breed for years have pretty much faded from the scene.

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This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.