Balance Catamarans
Balance Catamarans

South Africa Team Interview, Part Two

Multihull Quarterly Publisher George Day discusses the launch of a new Balance 486 and 526 with industry veteran and co-desinger Phillip Berman, co-designer Anton du Toit, and chief builder Jonathan Paarman and Phil Harvey, formerly with Gunboat, who consults with the Balance Catamarans build team.

George Day: Seems there is a growing trend and market for higher performance sailing cats. First you had Catana, creating something of a performance cruiser. Outremer focused on being a bit faster yet, and then you have Gunboat and Tag, focusing on an even faster type of cat. What are you trying to do at Balance that is different?

Phil Berman: The brand name reflects what we are trying to do. We are first and foremost focused on blue water cruisers, not racers. We are not going for that market of owners who want and need a professional captain to sail their boat. We want our boats to be easily singlehanded, so we make a few performance sacrifices to do that. We are also focused very hard on comfort inside and out, making our designs live and feel like a home. I think builders like Lagoon and Sunreef have made enormous advances in this sphere. Too many performance cats are just not very comfortable, or, in my view, not well designed for living on, moving about on, or reefing and piloting.

Left to Right: Jonathan Paarman, Phillip Berman, and Anton Du Toit.
Left to Right: Jonathan Paarman, Phillip Berman, and Anton Du Toit.

GD: At less than 10 tons, however, your 526 is pretty light.

Anton du Toit: Make no mistake about it, we are focused on building high performance catamarans. We want our boats to average 240- mile days often. So of course that is why we are building with E-glass, foam cores, carbon reinforcements, etc. Our boats are very light, stiff and strong.

GD: Do you think there are any dangers in having first time buyers purchase a high performance catamaran?

Phil Harvey: Most certainly. Higher performance, a sailor needs to be more qualified. The faster they are the more they become “windspeed boats” and the more they act and behave like beach cats— they really pull the apparent wind forward. And, like beach cats, guess what—you don’t reef properly, you do not watch yourself and you can go over. It is very hard to turn over a Lagoon 52 that weighs fifty six thousand pounds, but you can certainly do it on an Outremer, a Tag, a Gunboat, etc. You had better be trained well before taking the helm of a boat where the builders market her flying a hull!

PB: That’s funny. I often think of that advertising they do for the Tag, showing this monster cat flying a hull. To be honest it scares me. I’ve often wondered about the wisdom of that as a marketing shot! To my mind the most critical thing is having superb reefing systems, excellent and easy reefing, so that owners never hesitate to reef often and early. The great beauty of a performance cat is that you can sail her “throttled down” and still pull very good speeds.

ADT: The virtue of the Gunboats is that, yes, sure, you can go over 20 knots in a good wind, but you can always put a few reefs in her and do 12 and the boat is just lollygagging at that speed. She is so easily driven that even without a full tilt of sail she is still going fast. What you have with the charter cats is the opposite. You have to push the holly heck out of them just to do eight or nine knots. So they are on the edge sailing at nine, under a lot of engineering stress, while a Gunboat, a Tag, a Sig, our Balance designs, these sorts of performance cats are not even breaking a sweat at 12. That is a huge advantage when you really want to go places, and if you sail them conservatively you should not get into trouble.

PH: I think Peter Johnstone at Gunboat is right to stress, too, that speed, if well managed, is a big safety factor. Not only are your passages shorter, reducing your exposure to bad weather, but with good weather routing over satellite communication you can easily “sail away” from the worst of it and position yourself properly to take the least beating possible.

PB: I have this dear friend who sailed across the Atlantic in a 38 foot monohull, and I tell you he got the snot beat of him on that passage. It took him forever, and he was just a sitting duck on that boat, averaging like five knots. He could not get away from anything and remained at sea so long he took storm after storm.

PH: But stick a cowboy at the helm of a super performance catamaran and safety is at stake quite often.

JP: I find that for myself I am committed to balance in all things, so it is great to be building a boat called Balance! When Anton and Phil Berman brought me into the design discussions, the first thing we all agreed on was what speeds we were seeking to achieve. Then we decided upon the features we wanted for a liveaboard catamaran and designed for that. We all came to agree that we wanted a catamaran that could sail happily, without being hard pressed, in the nine to 12 knot range carrying significant cruising payloads. The 486 was meant to sail at nine to 11, the 526, 10 to 12. Meaning both boats can be pressed hard to go a lot faster and certainly surf over 20 knots, but over 24 hour periods log those 200 to 240 mile days often.

ADT:I do think a lot of former beach cat guys, or tri racers, really want to get the same sort of rush or buzz out of these larger cats. But I see a lot of them coming to the larger cats without real experience as voyagers, as seaman. PH: Yeah, lifting a hull, ok fine, that is great and impressive that your boat can do that structurally and physically. On the other h a n d , when cruising with your family the last thing you want to see is a hull lifting out of the water. Personally I would never want that to happen. I always sail conservatively. Safety is the main priority when cruising. Get from A to B in the safest and least fatiguing way you can. Lives are at risk.

JP: Down here on the Eastern Cape, where I’ve been sailing and surfing these waters since I was a kid, it can be so windy with waves so large that it sobers you up real fast. I am troubled by many of the designs and build qualities I see coming from charter cat builders. They are fine, certainly, for the Caribbean and warm water charter locations where they belong. But some of the builds I’ve seen, pressing against the Agulhas current near where I live in a serious blow, 20 foot plus swells, no way I’d risk my life in such boats. My brother, Mark, runs a big calamari fishing fleet and let me tell you, these new forward porch designs on some of these cats would scare the daylights out of our guys in these waters.

ADT: Safety is a combination of design and build integrity, build engineering, as well as prudent seamanship. No boat is safe in the hands of a foolish sailor. I certainly agree with Phil Berman and Phil Harvey that fatigue is a real enemy when sailing shorthanded. We spent a ton of time trying to figure out how to design a helm that one could enjoy in good weather, but that would function well in bad weather—getting the skipper down from the top, into the cockpit, under protection, and able to sit watch in a warm and safe place, piloting by looking through the boat if that were to be necessary. We wanted the helmsman in bad weather to be in close proximity to everyone inside as well, to facilitate communication if necessary.

PH: It is safer to sail like that, either from the inside like a Gunboat or Chris White interior helms, or down behind the saloon window, as Anton and Phil Berman have done on the Balance 486 and 526. The Aussies championed a lot of designs where you piloted looking through the saloon, Tony Grainger, etc., but appeared not to think anyone would care to sit up and enjoy piloting from the top or out on the hulls in fair weather. The charter companies recognized that charter sailors enjoy sitting up out in the sun on their short passages, hence the popularity of the fly bridge design. So the Aussies focused on cold weather, the charter companies on warm weather. If I had to pick between the two, I’d opt for cold weather protection on a true voyager. I sure do not want to throw on a whole lot of clothing to remain comfortable. I want good vision from inside the boat. It is far safer to do your watches, especially if you are sailing shorthanded. Fatigue is a big thing. When you spend long hours getting cold, you tend to get tired.

ADT: We were really focusing on making sure that we could pilot our boat nicely in the interior nav station with great visibility forward so you could pilot on autopilot from there. But we also wanted to have a down helm where you could steer, get to the reefing systems fast, sail trim fast and where you could dock the boat with four corners visibility. We wanted to be sure a sailor from Maine or Seattle or South Africa could pilot the boat easily in very cold and rainy weather in comfort. At the same time we did not want to deprive warm weather sailors from a lovely up station helm where you can feel the wind, play with the sails and really have a blast in good weather. It is also very handy to pilot up top, looking over the bows, when navigating up a river or around crab pots, that sort of thing.

PH: I myself have a real issue with fly bridge designs on the smaller cats for serious blue water voyagers, the ones being operated without professional captains and crews. I appreciate the wonderful visibility on the way Lagoon and Sunreef do these fly bridges. What they are doing feels great, feels like you are on top of the world. From a visibility standpoint it is great.
However, when on watch down below if you need to get up there, you lose a certain amount of time, and response time is critical. I worry about that on those types of boats. And the skipper is a long way from the rest of the crew, who are far below.

ADT: It is the performance loss of these designs that bothers me the most, the boom ends up so high in the air that it really reduces the efficiency of the sail plan.

JP: The fly bridge is fine on the really large cats I guess, those that have a crew. But you do lose a lot of performance on such designs. Certainly you want a young stud to climb out on the sail bag to zip up the sail because it is often seven to 10 feet above the top of the coach roof. And you have to climb up several steps on the mast to attach or detach the halyard. I know that Anton worked very hard to keep our boom as low as possible for three primary reasons: more efficient sailplane, easier to zip up the sail cover, and easier to attach and detach the main halyard when necessary.

ADT: You forgot something. Low rigs are a hell of a lot prettier! I really want my designs to look beautiful whenever possible, to approach art. That said, I have done several fly bridge designs for clients on much larger cats where this works well for the aesthetic and sail handling aspects due to larger vessel size.

PB: Yes, but we all agree you would appreciate it on making first landfall in Moorea, sitting up their having a celebratory drink! That’s why I think fly bridges are so fantastic for charter sailing. I quite enjoy sitting up in them when I am day sailing or going from one island to the next in the B.V.I. Just not a feature best suited to a performance cat or voyagers, or to the short-handed sailors we are catering to at Balance.

ADT: Agreed.

Multihulls Quarterly

“I came to learn that Jonathan Paarman was truly a master catamaran builder with a solid reputation and that ordering a new Balance 526 was not like ordering a boat from some upstart operation.”

Multihulls Magazine

“The Balance 526 is certainly no condomaran.  She is clearly a racehorse coming in light ship at just over 10 tons.  To place that into perspective, two Balance 526 cats weigh less than one Lagoon 52.”

Multihulls Quarterly

“It was clear that Berman and Dutoit had spent hundreds of hours to design what they felt was the ultimate blue-water performance cat.”