Bob Gleason's letter in Mailport this month has prompted one of my favorite boat fantasies (for those who can afford to dream lavishly, but end up happily enough back where they started): deciding whether to get a monohull or a multihull. Many lead-keelers have still never had the pleasure of a ride on a fast multihull. That's a pity.
There are good and bad multihulls, just the same as monohulls. You'll often see a big, fat cruising cat overloaded with generators, motorscooters, sailboards, and various other leisure-time impedimenta, dragging roils of water behind her transoms in a way that recalls the old salt's derision: "Drop a load of gurry overboard on Tuesday and it'll still be wit ye on Saturday." This is not a good sight. Instead, direct your attention to the more graceful, swift forms of both cat and tri, and find yourself a ride on one. Traveling on a Newick tri, or a Corsair or Dragonfly, at high speed in good air, is a true heady pleasure. Once you try it, you won't want to stay down on the farm, at least not all the time. Thus the daydreams.
You can make long lists of advantages and disadvantages between monohulls and multihulls. Involved, among many other issues, are weight, draft, stowage space, living space, auxiliary requirements, towing and trailering, anchoring and docking, engineering complexity, initial cost, maintenance, crew requirements, sail inventories, and seaworthiness.
But the issue that has always made conservative keelboat sailors shy away from multis is one of stability. If you're a big gust of wind or breaking wave, it's relatively easy to push a lead-keel boat all the way over on its side or even a bit farther, but when you ease off, it'll tend to come back upright. When you apply the same force to a multihull, it will resist a lot harder initially, and may not even budge much. But keep pushing, and eventually the multihull will go over on its side, or a bit more, and then it will tend to keep going until it's upside-down. A turtled multihull is a big headache, especially offshore. But at least it's still afloat—and stable again.
The latter scenario, while always possible, applies more to beach cats like Hobies and Prindles than to bigger multihulls. Capsizing a cruising multihull gets less and less likely as you move up in boat size, until you'd need to be caught unawares in a truly violent wind or big breaking waves, and have a shortage of skill on board, for it to happen. The main reason is that as you go up in size, your sail area tends to decrease and your hull weight to increase. There are some other design factors, easy enough to imagine, but the point is, given what most of us would ask a multihull to go through, there's no sense getting too spooked by the stability issue.
However, if you're planning to go out into big wind and waves, skills peculiar to multihulls are important. They have a different motion through the water. Steering is different. Sailtrim is different. You need to know when to head down instead of up; when to depower and repower; how to steer through waves; when to speed up for safety, and when to slow down. It can all be learned quickly, and it's worth it, because any skill learned in one boat will translate to better understanding in any other boat.
I remember the first Corsair Nationals in 1995, in Pensacola. Bob Gleason was there (and won his class), along with Randy Smyth, Rick White, and a bunch of other proficient multihullers. In one race, Smyth was reaching at high speed for the starting line with the chute up, ahead of the pack, and was way early. With about 20 yards to go, he luffed everything, stuffed the bows downwind, and came to almost a complete stop, as if he'd hit a wall. A few seconds later he was at speed again, first over the line, but not early. He wore that F-25C like a glove. That's what we all want to do, whether we're sailing a cruiser or racer, mono or multi.