Building your catamaran yourself: why not you?
Although 'total' amateur construction, popular in the 1970s, has declined, the market for kit catamarans and bare hulls is doing quite well, thank you… The new cutting-out tools allow made-to-measure parts to be delivered. Savings in time and above all money guaranteed! A detailed review of these catamarans which can be personalised as you wish.
Multihulls available in kit form and as bare hulls
The amateur construction and kit market
It's no use burying our heads in the sand, it's in Australia and to a lesser extent in the Anglo-Saxon countries that things are happening. Fusion is selling 24 boats a year – the famous Fusion 40 and some motor catamarans – three quarters of which are delivered as a kit or to be finished. Down there in the southern hemisphere building your own cat or trimaran is a common project. Another well-known builder: Spirited Design, which is offering its attractive Spirited 380, again in ply-epoxy. The well-known Australian architect, Ian Farrier is launching his F-22 and F-32 in kit form, completed by a 44-footer available in all stages of finishing. In Latvia, a brand-new structure, O Yachting, is offering a 46-footer, which can be delivered in all stages of finishing. Dan Lévy hopes to deliver four of them per year. Ksenia is offering no less than twenty Lerouge designs, of from 6.4 to 19.5m. These cats are being offered as bare hulls in modular elements, to facilitate transport. We couldn't leave James Wharram out of this inventory: the architect guru has sold no less than 10,000 sets of plans in fifty years! And hundreds of his Polynesian-inspired catamarans are sailing. Today, Icaraï, his distributor in France, sells two sets of Wharram's plans per month – 10 times less than 20 years ago – and one kit per year. The Tiki 21, the 30 and the Mélanesia pirogue are available 'ready to build', and certain of the bigger models, such as the Tiki 38 are being studied for delivery as a kit. In Europe, the market remains weak: Gilles Montaubin, one of the rare architect/builders, hasn't had a catamaran in his catalogue for three years now, but some trimarans, including a little 7-metre boat, the Tricky, are being studied, as is the 9-metre Trimar. These boats will be offered in all stages of finishing. Although total amateur construction has become very rare, the market for bare hulls and kits is bearing up well, in the 35 to 50-foot sector. "There is a demand," Bernard Lelièvre assures us. The architect has been working flat out for 18 months on his design intended for amateur construction – total or in kit form. "I have 30 dossiers which are interested and two which are already sold!" Bernard is offering five cats of from 32 to 45 feet, from the set of plans to the finished boat…
The changes that occurred in the French legislation ten years ago concerning the navigation categories and the EC approval have made the milieu a bit more professional: "Amateur builders in France were a bit of a special case," Bernard explains. "Between the Affaires Maritimes who were going backwards and the amateurs entangled in their incomplete plans and requests for calculations from the maritime safety centre, things weren't easy …" Today, it's much simpler: self-certification in Category C – coastal sailing – and less than 12 m, and homologation of the plans and the construction for boats of over 12 metres wanting to open the door to Category A – ocean sailing. A measure which remains relatively costly – 5,000 to 7,000 euros – but which leads the amateurs to a closer collaboration with the architects and builders. A very important point, because you must bear in mind that the plans have to be certified by an architect who has up to date insurance. Similarly, you must insist on a certified hull. Finally check carefully that the work respects the architect's specifications to the letter, otherwise you risk some serious disappointments.
Why build or finish your multihull yourself?
What motivates passionate sailors to launch into an amateur construction? Isabelle Véron and her husband have an aluminium catamaran, designed by Jean-Claude Michaud, to be finished in their garden, in Alsace: "we studied lots of solutions, visited lots of second-hand boats which were already in poor condition after five years' sailing, and some dodgy wood-epoxy boats... And we didn't have the means to buy a new 14-metre boat. In any case, a catamaran appealed to us. In the end, we opted for bare hulls, to be fitted out. The boat arrived in December 2009, in the snow. The 'Nautic' lorries did the job during the Boat Show. Finishing our cat ourselves allows us to spread out the expense. The manpower is us! We are saving money, not time."
"It is definitely the lower cost that motivates my customers," Bernard Lelièvre confirms. "A new boat is too expensive, so they hesitate, with the second-hand boats." The second-hand boat market has been particularly mistreated for the last two years. But it is proving to be very attractive for models of up to 36/37 feet. In these sizes, a home-built catamaran will cost around 120,000 euros, not to mention the elbow grease and the thousands of hours' work needed for its construction and/or finishing. To be compared with 190,000 euros for a new Lagoon 380, one of the best value for money boats on the market. "One of my customers only had 80,000 euros," barely enough to build a Galileo, designed by Lelièvre, "he finally found a second-hand 380 in Greece at that price." For the bigger boats, the purchasers are more motivated and more mature: they know that their project will cost them 180,000 to 200,000 euros – for an equivalent finished boat, they would spend nearly 400,000 euros – and are less attracted by the second-hand sirens...
So, how much do you save with a kit cat, to be finished yourself? "All the hours of work, which represents a considerable sum in our western countries," Jim Gard, from Fusion, sums up. Meaning in concrete terms a saving of 30% on a boat of under 35 feet, up to 50% beyond this. Seen like this, it is food for thought… Saving money is certainly a strong motivation for amateur builders, however it is not the only one: building or finishing all or part of your boat allows you to personalize it and above all, to master it technically. And on a voyage, being familiar with your boat from top to bottom is obviously a guarantee in terms of independence and maintenance.
The materials, kit or bare hull?
Although strip planking remains well suited to total amateur construction, the other materials require a minimum amount of preparation and technical knowledge – unless you are a metal worker or a professional carpenter. Aluminium catamarans, well suited to an extreme voyaging programme, are more often than not delivered as bare hulls. Bernard Lelièvre's aluminium Oya 43 can be delivered as a kit; it is an exception. These aluminium boats can be personalized in the extreme. For multihulls in composite materials, we are prisoners of a mould, which inevitably limits the possibilities for personalization. Even though the main principle of the kit cat is of course to be able to have the boat of your dreams. The builders therefore often offer the possibility of modifying the plans (in agreement with the architects) to meet the needs and wishes of each customer... From the cockpit to the bimini, via the helm (wheel or tillers), the engines (diesel or hybrid) and of course the deck plan or the accommodation, each owner can thus make up his own inevitably unique boat for his own programme. Similarly, we find boats in different stages of construction: from the kit to the bare hull to a seaworthy hull, to the ready to sail boat, everything is possible. All that remains is to know what you are capable of doing and how much time you are ready to put into the construction of your boat.
A bare hull is inevitably more expensive than a kit, but it is a guarantee of being able to sail quite quickly: there is nothing to stop you going for a sail with empty hulls!
As for the kit, ply-epoxy lends itself best to amateur construction. Thanks to digital cutting machines, all the parts of your boat can be delivered and put together like a puzzle. This represents "an enormous amount of prior engineering work," Gilles Montaubin points out. "15 days' work," Bernard Lelièvre specifies. "You save a huge amount of time; it's like a child's model. Everything can be prepared: keyways, a surface plate with all the marks, passages for pipes, etc..." At Fusion, they have thought about the handling difficulties: the heaviest part of the kit weighs 165kg: four people can move it into position.
Of course the kit and the bare hull are much more accessible than total amateur construction. But most builders, more lucid than 20 or 30 years ago, order the most advanced stage possible, according to their budget.
Time, skills…and hassles
All the builders have told us: the job is within the scope of a handyman. Kits and manuals have been developed to simplify the work as far as possible. On the internet a plethora of advice – free of charge – and videos are both precious aids. But there are a few precautions to be taken: although the tools remain basic, they must be of high quality. The work is also a question of organisation. It is best to base the construction close to home – to limit the journeys – and opt for a rigid structure (why not rent a shed or buy a second hand one?) rather than an approximate tarpaulin. The time? Beware of "three weeks are sufficient for three people to assemble the Fusion 40's hull": it's true, but at a rate of 10 hours a day...the counter is already at 630 hours! For a kit, reckon on roughly 2,500 hours for a Galileo 32, 4,000 hours for a Spirited 380 and 5,500 hours for a big 45-foot catamaran. As for the time to finish a bare hull, it all depends on what is put in it, the work equipment and the handyman-sailor's expertise. But reasonably, you can reckon on between 6 months and a year. "But for those who only work at the weekend," Bernard Lelièvre fills in, "it will take absolutely ages. Three or four hours, just time to get back into it, stupid mistakes... If the builders are available four or five months of the year, things are very different." Yet you can choose to carry on working or doing a course, like Isabelle: "we decided not to sacrifice our holidays. The construction has to remain a pleasure. However we spend all our weekends on it." In that case, count on three to five years' work!
The final pitfall - the transport! 10, 15 or even 20,000 euros can be dissuasive if the finishing has to be carried out a long way from the place where the hulls are built. Sometimes, the 'keels' can only be fitted on the hard, because of road transport limits...not to mention the problems of launching, or workshops which have to be demolished to let the precious boat out...
So, are you going to sign up?
Launching into an amateur construction, a kit or even simply finishing a multihull is not a decision to be taken lightly: between one and six years of your life will be absorbed by this project... It is obviously an adventure to be shared with your family – otherwise be ready for a clash – because building is not only a lot of time, it's also a real vocation, not to mention the move which is sometimes also necessary to be closer to the sea or the boatyard... It is also advisable to anticipate the consequences for your professional life, as you will inevitably be less available. In short, building yourself is reserved for those who really want to do it and have the skills. If you have doubts, delay your project to consolidate your kitty, and in a few years' time, treat yourself to the brand new catamaran of your dreams. And if you are in a hurry, wander round the boatyards and multihull spots – from Miami to Canet en Roussillon, La Grande Motte to Scandinavia, Lorient to Annapolis, Thailand to New Caledonia, via England, consult the internet and find a good second-hand boat hidden in Turkey, Venezuela or Martinique... Then, go sailing!