TomCat 9.7. - Practical Sailor New Boat Review: Quality Construction, Unique Engineering and Stability Characterize the Father-and-Son Built TomCat 9.7.
This 32-foot coastal cruising cat, with above-average performance and spacious accommodations, delivers a responsive and rewarding ride.
Being one of the smallest cruising catamarans on the market brands the TomCat 9.7 http://www.tomcatboats.com/“entry level,” but we find that term misleading and unfair. There’s much more to the joy of a sailing catamaran than speedo numbers. The 9.7 might not out-drag most of its rivals, but it can, we think, deliver more of what sailors are after when they turn off the auxiliary. And, in many respects, it makes shoal-water sailing safer and more relaxing. If you’re looking at a Maine Cat 30 or a Gemini 105Mc from Performance Cruising, the TomCat also deserves a look.
After a career in engineering physics, Ted Strain retired in 1995. Before long, he and his son, Tom, were building catamarans. They started with a trailerable 20-footer (the TomCat 6.2). Designed around a single, foil-shaped centerboard and hulls with rocker enough to make the boat exceptionally maneuverable, she was a bit different.
In 2002, work began on developing the 9.7, a 32-foot cruiser. Ted Strain, kayaker, canoeist, and long-time owner of a McAlpine-Downie Iroquois, once again did the design. Tom, "with experience sailing everything from dinghies to 50-footers and university training in chemistry and physics," is the builder/outfitter. Boats are built to order in the company’s 10,000-square-foot facility near Newmarket, Ontario. Owners have a great deal of input "from the type of resin through to layout, décor, and outfitting," says Ted. They have delivered 12 of the new 9.7s since 2004.
It’s hard to design a cruising catamaran much smaller than 32 feet. People don’t get smaller as boats do.
"I began work on the 9.7 with ergonomics in mind," says Ted. "It was important to have headroom throughout, but just as critical, I wanted people, be they 5-foot-2 or 6-foot-3, to be able to see out from everywhere."
Anywhere you stand in either hull, you have a clear view through the side windows. Seated spots in the saloon offer water views, and there are 360-degree and cross-hull views from everywhere. With dual-companionway access, the 9.7’s interior is not only bright and open, but offers the vistas Ted was seeking.
He wanted maximum beam for stability. The TomCat’s beam is 16 feet; any more and trucking
expenses start to skyrocket.
"I began with a shorter boat," says Ted, "but I worried about pitching. By adding length, I was able to increase displacement and buoyancy in the bows and smooth out the ride."
Owners report that their 9.7s have surfed down big waves and often deliver better than 10 knots through the water. Apparently, Ted struck the right proportions.
The 9.7 has a fineness ratio of 12:1 (length to waterline beam), which makes her quite slippery as cruising cats go. Even the hulls of performance-oriented cruisers like the Maine-Cat and Gunboat are beamier for their length. Strain placed a high priority on light-air sailing. The 9.7’s midsections are semi-circular (for maximum displacement with minimum drag). "I kept the entry relatively full," Ted says, "to counteract pitching, but the majority of volume forward is above the waterline." The hulls show slight-to-moderate rocker with centerlines that sweep up slightly as they trend aft to produce U-shaped aftersections. These reduce wetted area and enhance dynamic lift. "They also let us reduce the draft of the rudders," the designer adds.
High-speed performance is governed by both waterline length and prismatic coefficient (used to quantify the fullness of the underbody). The 9.7 is lengthy (31.5 feet on the water) and comes in at about 0.58, or "smack in the middle" of the ideal prismatic range for hulls like hers.
A pivoting centerboard is the key to the boat’s behavior under sail. Pairs of foils (such as mini-keels, daggerboards, or twin centerboards) create a variable center of lateral resistance. The 9.7 has a thin (7-percent section) NACA-foil-shaped board housed beneath its bridgedeck. By pivoting the boat around this single, central point, its designer allows the boat to behave much more like a monohull. The optimal relationship between the centers of effort (of pressure in the sails and resistance beneath the water) provides her with a crisp, responsive feel on virtually all points of sail.
Perhaps best of all, the board will kick up rather than fracture, tear a hole in the hull, or fix in the mud. Multihulls have long been sold on the basis of their shallow-water capabilities; a kick-up centerboard has proven an effective means of safely exploring thin water. Also, when the board is raised, it still presents a fin that is eight feet long and draws 16 inches beneath the hulls. Says builder Tom Strain, "you can’t go to weather like you could with a full board, but you can sail effectively on all points in 30 inches of water. Her rudders draw 3 feet (down), but you can kick them up to less than 2 feet and retain steering."
Generally, for cruising cats, the more clearance beneath the bridgedeck, the better. The 9.7’s 2 feet seem just on the edge of adequate. In addition, the centerboard box takes some space between the hulls, and we noted that even in a mild chop, the forward trampoline took a few splashes. None of the owners we spoke with, however, found pounding to be an issue or bemoaned the boat’s motion when powering into head seas. Tom, who has more time in the boat than anyone, says that when conditions are bad, he’s been able to cure the problem with a slight change of course. "The key thing is that all the water that ‘goes under the bridge’ has a place to go because clearance is consistent all the way aft to the transoms; the underdeck isn’t filled with a cockpit well like it is on some other cats," says Tom.
"I didn’t want to have a compression post in the middle of the saloon table, so that meant that the base of the mast had to be well forward," says Ted. To keep the center of effort low in the rig, he raked the mast aft two feet. The full-roach main is cut to raise the boom 8.5 degrees above horizontal to provide clearance above the cockpit.
"By having a boat on the wide side with a rig on the small side, we maximize stability," said Ted. "For a cruising cat, we think that is essential." Although the TomCat rates better than its closest competitors in terms of performance measures (see "In Context," page 18), these numbers are still pretty far from the "top of the fleet" when it comes to cruising cats. However, given the ability to add bonus sail area (by means of cruising spinnakers, code zeroes, screechers, etc.), the priority of stability over horsepower seems an intelligent way to promote comfort and sea-keeping.
There is much more to a multihull above the water than below, so windage is an issue. Strain minimized tophamper and integrated the coachroof with the cabin house in an aerodynamic whole. The large yet attractive windows resonate well with her flat sheer, tilted stem, and curved transom.
There is no wasted space in the cockpit. From the end of the bridgedeck forward to the wheel is less than eight feet. The helm station is unique; there are wide companionways to either side of the central module, and the space above and beyond it is open into the saloon. Sociability, airflow, freedom of movement, and an "open feel" all seem well served. A unique two-part closure can be used to button up the interior, but an opening hatch just forward of the helm helps this provide "wind in your face" sailing most of the time. Controls for raising and lowering the centerboard and rudders, plus a manual bilge pump, are at the helmsman’s fingertips.
Clamped to the bow beam, the jib roller tacks the headsail as low as possible. Using an element of the bow pulpit as a "seagull striker" (or spreader) lets the builders support the headstay without using a bridle. Winches are outboard of the house and placed right for handling the aft-led controls. While an autopilot makes singlehanding simple for modern sailors, the sheet winches are a bit far from the helm for short-handed maneuvering under sail.
Sidedecks are perilously skinny. The handrail atop the house is positioned well, but getting from one end of the boat to the other still seems much too challenging. Shrouds led to the quarter do away with the need for a backstay, but they can chafe on the mainsail when the sail is eased. The standard boat comes with a fixed genoa lead. A genoa sheet track should be standard. Based on our test with eight aboard, the stern sections resisted squatting, and the design seems to function well under real-life cruising conditions, when the lazarettes are bound to be laden with gear.
The standard layout succeeds in several ways: It provides three generous, private double berths, all of the necessities are there in spades, and it achieves the open feel that was the Strains’ objective from the outset. Almost half the current owners have taken advantage of the builders’ flexibility, however, to make modifications of their own.
Like most builders, the Strains offer a choice of woods, fabrics, materials, and appliances. Unlike the majority, however, they go considerably further. "We can use carbon to make the boat lighter, but that adds to the cost," Tom explains. "The boat weighs 4,800 pounds, but we have built boats as much as 800 pounds lighter or an equal amount heavier depending upon what the owner wanted." One owner, for instance, did away with one of the cabins and made the port hull an owner’s stateroom, leaving space for a generator behind the stateroom. Some say they’re committed to "a 12-volt boat" and the simplicity and minimal weight of bare-bones cruising. Others put a priority on "the comforts of home," despite the weight they entail. Hull No. 8, for example, was delivered to a Miami owner with custom touches including a faux-teak cabin sole, an upgraded Isotherm refrigerator, Sunbrella fabric, a custom-mounted TV, air conditioning, a 5-kw generator, Imtra lighting, Caframo fans, and a Freedom Atlantis Raritan head. "The builders went out and got everything we wanted. The hardest suppliers to deal with, believe it or not, were our sailmakers," the customer reported.
Livability and practicality are well-served throughout. Ventilation, either via hull ports or overhead hatches (or both) is admirable. Stowage in the living areas is well-organized via cubbies, bins, and lockers that reflect not only ingenuity but thought and experience. Clear-acrylic closers for galley lockers provide an "eyeball inventory" as well as good security. Eye-level cabinet tops maintain the open feel. The head is far from cavernous, but space is organized and allotted well. Fit and finish are surprisingly good for a cat in this price range.
Given the Strains’ small workforce and close supervision, production quality is gratifyingly good. The boat has no interior liner and the brushed-white gelcoat combines with veneers and solid trim to tone down the "ice-box effect." It is also easy to clean and self-evident when it comes to looking for deck leaks.
Powering out the channel from Miamarina into Biscayne Bay, Fla., offered us an opportunity to see what single-engine performance was like—one of the 9.9-horsepower Yamaha outboards wouldn’t start. The boat held well over 6 knots in flat water without straining. Noise and vibration were minimal because the engines are mounted on vertical tracks in their own semi-contained wells. Dedicated davits hoist them out of the water for sailing. It’s a slick and simple formula for auxiliary power, though not without its negatives. Outboards don’t produce hot water. (Many owners have installed propane heaters.) Gasoline is more flammable than diesel, and outboards have shorter lifespans than diesels. Pros include light weight, low price, and easy removal.
We’ve yet to get used to some aspects of catamaran sailing. Being isolated behind a house and/or beneath a hard top can seem claustrophobic. However, the TomCat is better than most at providing intimacy with the elements; hatches in front of and above the helm let air in and the sailor see out. In a building southerly, we set sail, and with minimum effort, settled onto the breeze at roughly half the 8-knot true-wind speed. Acceleration was somewhere between "dinghy-like" and sluggish. The TomCat is light and fine, but her rig is shorter and smaller than average. She developed just enough weather helm to feel alive. Steering response was positive and precise. She was clearly at least as weatherly as the handful of neighboring test-boats, both monohull and multihull, that surrounded us after the 2007 Miami Boat Show. Sailing through a tack can prove challenging to a multihull in less than 10 knots of breeze, but the TomCat passed that test with ease.
At somewhere around 8,000 pounds (in cruising trim) Tom claims, "she can be expected to average over 10 knots on a reach in 15 knots of breeze." One owner experienced double-digit surfing, while another (who has a generator and forward and aft air conditioners) says that he’s never bettered 8 knots. Our test sail, design analysis, and owner survey all suggest that the 9.7 is well-designed, slightly de-tuned, and very capable. It’s at its best short-tacking and in shallow water.
The TomCat 9.7 lacks the sail area to make the most of drifting conditions, and propulsion is not a strong suit. (Cruisers motor more than they like to admit.) While its relatively low-aspect ratio sailplan keeps heeling forces low, more modern configurations (with higher aspect ratios, greater roach, fatter heads, etc.) deliver more power per square foot. The 9.7 is a "performance cat" but not one that we would label "high performance."
Being one of the smallest cruising cats on the market brands the TomCat 9.7 "entry level," but we find that term misleading and unfair. Thanks to her central centerboard, she’s responsive and rewarding under sail. There’s much more to the joy of sailing than speedo numbers. The 9.7 might not out-drag most of its rivals, but it can, we think, deliver more of what sailors are after when they turn off the auxiliary. And, in many respects, it makes shoal-water sailing safer and more relaxing than do most its rivals.
In our assessment, the TomCat 9.7 makes good use of interior volume. Quality construction adds to its value. Clever engineering (like the rudder and centerboard assemblies) increases its capabilities. Being able to work in important ways with designer and builder to make the boat match your needs is an additional plus. Starting at $154,000, the TomCat is indeed a worthy competitor among the growing number of small, coastal cruising cats in this price range.