Build Your Own Catamaran

Building your own catamaran is another option to getting into your own boat. In this page we will go over the advantages, considerations, and a detailed history and journal of our boat-building adventure with Light Wave. We hope this will give you a clear picture of what lies ahead if you go this route, including:

Because of the huge dollars needed to buy a new or even a used catamaran, we would never have gotten a catamaran if we hadn't built it ourselves.

Let's start by saying that building any type of larger boat, especially a catamaran, can be one of the most intellectually and physically challenging things you will ever do.

It has been said that building a large boat is the closest a man can come to giving birth to a baby. In other words there is going to some discomfort and pain along the way; you will question yourself on whether this was such a good idea; it's very difficult to reverse the decision; and though friends will support you, you will be on your own most of the time with your significant other if he/she is game.

There are several big pluses to building your own boat.

Know your boat

You will intimately know every part of your boat. You will know where every wire, hose, bolt, bulkhead, rib, and support is because you installed them!

Pride of ownership

We have often thought what it would be like to just buy a boat from a manufacturer, and know that while owners who have spent a lot of cash (or future life to pay off the lien) their often possessive and competing-with-the Joneses could not begin to compare to our quiet glow of happiness and akinship we feel with Light Wave.

Our boat is like part of the family. So much time was spent on her that we have a major emotional investment. Every time we see our vessel - from a distance at anchor or approaching her in our marina, we say, "What a pretty boat! I can't believe we built it!" Then that sense of accomplishment settles back in and we feel we have indeed earned the privilege of all of the beautiful experiences we have had sailing, cruising, exploring the beautiful BC Coast and much further a field (or should we say "an ocean"?).

Save money

You will be able to pay for the materials as you go and “donate” your time to the cause.

Get a newer design

Many of the production boats that are out there are designs of many years ago because the manufactures have to recoup their capital investment on the mold and production setup. When you build your own you have much newer designs to draw from.

Details on Our Boat Building Adventure

Where do we start? First of all, Carllie has her own version of events and the process and her story, called the in "The Boat Builder's Wife", appeared in Multihulls Magazine in Oct 2000. So here is my version of it:

We had sailed our first boat Wave Dancer for five years and had many adventures on the British Columbia coast. In May 1996, I had just returned from a little one-week solo trip in the Gulf Islands of BC when I bought the book, The Cruising Multihull by Chris White (Future link to book review on our web site).

This is the book that got me going (Carllie was not yet convinced). I must have read it a half dozen times over the next 6 months, each time becoming more convinced that this was the way to go for our next boat. It was really still pre-internet web site days so I wrote to all the designers that were listed in the back of the book. Over the next several weeks packages of information started appearing in the mailbox (there is just something about getting packages in the mail – I guess it's the anticipation). I would pour over these preliminary printed pages with pictures and accommodation layouts. Next, I put a few dollars down to buy the information packages and study plans from the top prospects.

I should digress to explain that we had never sailed a cruising catamaran. Our only experience with multihulls consisted of some summer sailing on a 12-foot AquaCat beach cat, definitely first generation. It went about 6 knots and that was it. My only other experience was when I was in my early teens back in Montreal: my father had bought this little bathtub-like trimaran about 10 feet long. I don’t remember the make. It didn’t go very fast. The most fun we had with it was trying to get the bows to plow under while sailing so the cockpit would fill with water (I must see if I can get a picture of it out of the family archives…..).

I waited patiently for the study plans. It was like the night before Christmas when I was kid. Oooh the wait! Finally they came, and again I carefully scrutinized the next level of detail. Things were getting a little more serious. The top contenders were:

  • Richard Woods
  • Chris White
  • James Wharram

Click here to read my comments and reviews on their catamaran designs as well as those of Jeff Schionning.

I remember initially drooling over the Atlantic 42 by Chris White, still one of my favorite designs. It seemed to be so seaworthy (by the way if I run into about $800,000 USD any time soon, I am going to buy an Atlantic 55). The most important piece of advice that came out of the material was from Richard Woods:

“Build the smallest boat you‘d be happy with it.”

What does that mean? Each page in these plan books covers one design. Though there are differences in the accommodation plans, they are all scaled to fit a single page. You look at this 35 footer and you go “Wow! Doesn’t this look nice?” The little 30 footer doesn’t seem to be as good and so forth. Since they are each one page the one thing that doesn’t really come across is how much more work is that 35 footer over the 30 footer! This brings me to Garett’s #1 axiom of catamaran boat building:

Axiom #1: The hours to build a catamaran is in almost in direct proportion to its weight.

Which brings us to Axiom #2:

Axiom #2: It takes about 1 hour to create 1 pound of finished boat.

In our case we spent 3,500 hours (click here for full details on the construction hours) to build a 4,000 lb. boat (just a little less than 0.9 hours per pound). If a boat’s empty weight is 8,000 lbs., it will probably take about 6,000 hours to build.

When you think about it, you can only mix and handle so much material per hour. More boat weight, more material, more hours. Sure there are some economies of scale on a bigger boat, but usually the systems become more complex and these take longer to install.

Anyway, back to the decision process: Richard Woods out of England included a video in his design package. I guess this is what sold Carllie and I on his designs. Using Richard’s axiom of “Build the smallest boat you'd be happiest with,” we compared his 30 foot Sagitta with his 28.5 foot Gypsy. In the end the fact that Gypsy could be built in components swayed us to pick that one. Many of the initial parts and components could be built in a garage.

This decision process took 8 months and I figured we'd launch in 6 months. It was now January of 1997. Little did we know it would be 26 months and 3,500 hours between the two of us until we launched on June 5, 1999. We ordered the full plans and we were off and running.

We were ready to build, but where would we start the process? First of all, we live in a tiny 480 sq. ft. apartment in Vancouver. Back-yard building wasn’t exactly an option so I found a small garage nearby that we rented for 5 months.

I had some wood delivered and lots of epoxy and on Sunday, February 23, 1997, the day before my 40th birthday, I cut and glued the first pieces of wood which would eventually make up the mast beam. Over the first few months, it didn’t really seem like I was building a boat. Most of the stuff at the beginning were small things. It was like I was building a model.

After about 4 months in the garage, I had made all the small parts and it was time to build the hulls. This meant that we had to go larger facilities. We found space at Shelter Island Marina and Boatyard in Richmond. This is the biggest boat yard in the Vancouver area with dozens of commercial and private projects, big and small, under way.

I went out and bought one of these big hoop greenhouse buildings. Since the boat was 29' by 18', I thought that a building 36' by 24' would give enough room around the boat. I took a week off work to erect our shed. I had a couple friends help me for a day and then we covered it with some heavy plastic. When the building was completed and we walked inside it really hit me, “Wow! this is big! It’s like a covered football stadium! We are going to build a boat that is going to fill this?” By the way we discovered it's better to use white opaque tarps rather than the clear plastic we used - which definitely creates a greenhouse effect in summer!

We were out of money by then, so we sold our first boat so we could buy resin and fiberglass. It was a traumatic time as we said goodbye to our beloved Wave Dancer. We were now committed. We than had all the foam for the hull cores, barrels of resin, and huge rolls of matting and roving needed for the fiberglass skins delivered to our “domed stadium”. We kicked ourselves many times that we didn't take a picture of this raw material stacked in one corner of the empty shed, so we could later show "before" and "after" photos. It was time to build the hulls.

Up to that time I had done most of the work in the garage on my own. It was at this time, July 1997, that Carllie and I really started to work as a team as we learned to laminate the hull sides on our big flat mold. We worked every night after work and every weekend. Over the next 6 weeks we made all the hull panels and bonded them all together over the bulkheads. We had friends come out to help turn the hulls. By the end of August, we had two open hulls sitting in our boat shed.

Over the next several months we proceed to join the hulls with the beams I had built in the garage, and then to install the cuddy cabin, cockpit, and decks. By the spring of 1998, it was staring to look like a catamaran. Through the spring and summer of 1998, we continued with the major structural components: mini-keels, hatches, stairs, and interior. Then we went on to the very laborious work of fairing the boat before painting. Don’t under estimate that job!

All through our boat building, Carllie kept reminding me (nagging?) that she didn’t want our boat to look “homemade”. With that motivation, I kept fairing and sanding and fairing and sanding…..

By October 1998 we were ready to prime the boat and start painting. I really thought this would go quickly. I forgot that I would have to do two more complete sandings to sand off and finish the two layers of primer application. In addition we had to fill countless pinholes - a laborious process somewhat like hiking up a mountain - each time you get to what you think is the top, you see another summit!

The boat seemed to get bigger and bigger. Believe me, there is a lot of surface area on a catamaran. I clearly remember that last sanding: I had reached the end of my physical and mental endurance - I was exhausted. I was ready to move on to the next phase - any phase but more sanding!

We now started spray-painting the hulls bright yellow. It was around this time we decided on our boat name of Light Wave. The painting took over a month: the hulls being the easy part, it was the topsides, the nonskid, and all the masking and prep that seemed to take forever. Happily, the worst of the dust was gone.

By March 1999 we were in the home stretch. The center bridge deck cabin was completed so we took a week off from our paid jobs and lived on the boat in the shed so we could work all day and not waste time commuting. March, April and May were frantic months as we finished all the final touches: engine installation, rudders, windows, deck fittings, electrical, plumbing, mast, and rigging. See our outfitting page (for more details on what we picked and why, and things we would do differently now.

Initially, our electronic systems were relatively basic but included GPS and autopilot see the following link for all our electronic outfitting choices and reasoning for more details.

It was May 22, 1999 and we decided that Saturday, June 5th would be “Launch Day” so we could send invitations to all of our friends. On the Friday night before Launch Day, we still had a number of final things to do, many of them outside. Unfortunately it was pouring rain. We were tired and very wet but the boat had to go into the water next day so we persevered on till everything was ready.

Launch Day finally arrived! We have been to several boat launches over the last 10 years and they are very special times. Just recently we were even at one where there was a full marching! We didn't have a band but we did have many friends! It became a truly grand day as the skies cleared with a blustery wind and 40 friends joining in the festivities. A couple of short speeches and then we were ready to launch.

The moment of truth came as Light Wave was lowered into the water. While still in the slings of the Travelift, I jumped aboard to check for leaks. Of course there weren’t any! More food and laughs and tours of the boat for all attending. It was a great day.

Emotionally drained that night, we slept in Light Wave in the water for the first time. It was another week before we actually went out for our first trip as we had to sell the shed, setup sails, and install some final deck hardware.

There is more to write tell, about so check back over the next few weeks as I add to this page.

To sum it up, building a catamaran was a great experience. We learned a lot. Carllie and I grew closer together through it all. We had a great time doing it. We had a beautiful catamaran to show for it. Now it was time for a catamaran adventure!