For the Dreamers

This one is for the dreamers.

Those who dare to consider building their own catamaran. The reasons to do so are varied. Often it’s a fulfilment of a dream, a love of creating, or the desire to build the exact boat of your dreams. But for most, budgetary constraints are a major consideration. The idea, that if you do it yourself, you can fulfil an otherwise unattainable dream. 

But, is that a reality?

Over four years, Deb & I built our 12M sailing catamaran together. It was a rich and rewarding experience, and we are proud of what we have been able to achieve. But, as with any large project, there were highs and lows, and some surprises along the way. One build does not an expert make, but for those interested, here are some things we learnt along the way.

The four big questions most begin with are: 

What design? 

Can we afford it? 

How long will it take? 

Do we have the skills? 

These considerations are a logical place to start. 

They are, broadly speaking, quantifiable. 

There is, however, an un-quantifiable consideration that is harder to define, and leads us, inexorably to what is possibly the most important question: 

What am I willing to sacrifice? 

I’ll get back to this later, but for now, let’s focus on the more definable considerations.

What Design?

This is a big question that deserves a post of its own, so in the interests of brevity, won’t go into detail here. When it comes to catamarans, the general rule of thumb is that 40′ in length is the maximum practicable length for non-professionals. Many designers are reluctant to sell plans to a first time builder for cats over that length.

Can we afford it?

Your designer will have included a material list to lock-up stage. Armed with that information, and with a bit of time, you can start to make estimates to complete the shell. If you are lucky, they may include some suggested rig, deck gear and sail costs. 

The first thing to do is to check that the material list is accurate in the real world. If you can, talk to other builders, and ask if they needed additional materials. Our materials list was short 14 sheets of ply, 5m of fibreglass and 10L of resin. 

After coming up with an estimated cost to complete the basic shell with rig, & engines, the actual final on water may be an additional 20% to 50%. 

No, I’m not joking. There are many costs that are difficult for the inexperienced to foresee.

You may find it surprisingly difficult to get a final build cost from previous builders. The reasons vary, but given that fit-out accounts for more than a third of the final cost, it is hardly surprising. Choices you make about toys, gold plated taps and extras, make a big difference. When I talked to other Easy builders I was told some figures that I now know to be unrealistically low. I don’t believe they were being deliberately deceptive. Some only included the actual build costs, not all the extras needed to get a boat onto the water. Very few non-professional builders keep an accurate list of every expense. We did, and I can tell you, that even after making what I thought was generous allowances for contingencies in our initial costings, we went over budget by 15%.

All of that, however, is accounted for in the list of additional expenses, not directly related to stuff that we glued, screwed, or bolted onto the vessel, but necessary to transition from a project to a seaworthy ship.

They include expenses needed to get the boat into the water, and costs incurred immediately thereafter, such as insurance and mooring fees. For your information, I have included the costs specific to our build.

  • Build space and or a shelter. ($5000 -we built outside under a tarp shelter and purchased a shipping container for storage)
  • Crane & Transport costs. ($5500)
  • Mandated safety equipment, EPIRB(s), PFD’s, flares and MOB systems. ($1500)
  • Ground tackle and mooring equipment, fenders and mooring lines. ($2000 not including the anchor winch)
  • Tender and outboard, plus associated safety equipment as required by law ($1600 – including a second-hand inflatable dingy $450)
  • Survey – required for insurance. ($650)
  • Insurance. ($2300-12 months)
  • Mooring hire or marina fees. ($240 mooring hire for first three months)
  • Yacht Club Fees ($260 – the only place in our location to store the dingy when ashore and park our car when aboard) 

In summary:

For a ply-on-frame or strip planked sailing cat of around 38′ length, it is possible to launch for anywhere between $130 to $200k (Australian Dollars). A foam panel cat will be more. This will give you a sea-ready cat, with the basic fit-out, rig and equipment. This may not include toys and non-essential items like air conditioning, spinnaker, code 0, watermakers, diving gear & SUP’s, depending upon the choices you make, along the way. For example, I spent $8000 on a Victron lithium battery system. A builder more knowledgable in electronics could halve that.

How Long Will it Take?

The designer will include a suggest build time with the plans-set. This is usually quantified in build hours. This where it gets tricky. Most of us just want to know how many years from start to splash? 

In reality, there are many variables the designer cannot account for including: your pace, your health, your family or other commitments, your experience, your build space (indoors, or outdoors: it makes a difference) your available equipment, interruptions/visitors, noise curfews and your capacity to hire additional labour. Also, suggested build times may not include additional fabrications like building scaffolding and hoists, additional lighting and access steps. 

The single biggest reason, however, is that they don’t include the time it takes to research, and order materials and hardware. Not to mention follow up on faulty items, incorrect or missing deliveries, plus rectifying the inevitable mistakes you will make along the way. This will account for as much as 50% of the additional time. The rest is building jigs, tidying and reorganising the site, and many, many cups of tea with visitors!

Our experience was this: 

The designers suggested build time was 4500hrs. Technically that equates to one person, 2.46 years under normal Australian awards, (38hrs per week, 4 weeks annual leave). Professional builders quote 3000 hrs to build the shell, ready for painting. In reality, we took 3 years 8 months to launch, with another two months to get her to her current state. We worked full time and took weekends and annual holidays off. So you can see, in reality, Deb & I took more than three times the “technically feasible” build time. Life happens, our story is not uncommon. We did not keep a log of our actual hours.

Within our build community, most projects are part-time, taking between four to seven years to complete.

Additional note:

We provided all our own labour, however, there were five times we employed professionals;

  1. Gas (Propane) installation – required by law.
  2. Commissioning the Victron 12volt system. Its expensive stuff. I installed the hardware and paid the suppliers to check & test, set up the software parameters, hook up the solar panels and take the system “live”.
  3. 240V AC system. As above, I traced the cables and employed an electrician to check, connect outlets and certify, as required by law.
  4. Metalwork. I outsourced CNC cutting and welding but did my own CAD work.
  5. Rigger. We assembled the mast, rigging and deck gear, but employed a professional rigger to stand the mast.

Do we have the skills?

I sincerely hope I haven’t been too hard on the dreamers, flush with excitement and anticipation. I’d hate to think I have crushed fledgling dreams with my reality-check, but there is good news ahead.

Modern catamarans, built by non-professionals are usually fabricated in either the ply-on-frame method, strip planked on moulds, foam-core panels or a combination of the above. The actual techniques are largely the same, with some differences. They lend themselves to non-professional builders and even a person with basic handyman skills will master the techniques relatively quickly. Honestly, a few weeks in, and any concerns about your abilities you may harbour at the outset, will have passed. Mistakes will be made, and apart from some tears of frustration, quickly rectified. The hero is epoxy resin, and the various fillers used to modify its working properties. Once you are confident with their use you will find fabrication is just a series of steps. There are many books around, but we just started with some non-essential components and went from there. With our build, the natural order of things meant that we acquired the skills needed for the next step, as we went. The most technical fabrication was the turret, but by the time we got to that point, we had acquired the necessary skills to complete the job with confidence. The only point of caution I would throw in here is if you purchase one of the kit boats available on the market. These may require laying up critical components from the get-go without any lead-up. In that case, for absolute beginners, it may pay to employ a professional to get you started. Hopefully, the suppliers would have taken this circumstance into account, and have guidelines for new builders.

What am I willing to sacrifice?

This is the question that I believe is the most important, but also difficult to quantify, as much depends upon personal circumstances. One thing is certain though, building a large catamaran (or any major project for that matter) will cost you more than money. The following list is why there are fields of broken dreams, scattered throughout the country.

So here’s the brutal list;

  1. Relationships. This is the biggie. If building part-time, and if you want to get the thing in the water in less than a decade, you are going to have to devote most of your free time to the build for at least 4 years or longer. Other than employing labour, there are no short cuts. Family time will suffer. Marriages may be put under pressure. Childless couples and singles do not get a free pass either, as you will be foregoing many of your usual social activities and connections. 
  2. Luxuries. On the assumption you, like us, are working within a budget, the build will absorb your every disposable dollar. For four years, Deb & I bought no new clothes. We cut back our living expenses. We leased our property and boarded in a room at Deb’s parent’s house. We ate out infrequently, and shamelessly accepted my in-laws offer to pay when we did.
  3. Your brain will change- you may change.  If you are not a detail-oriented person, you soon will be. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if like us, you are entering your retirement years. A bunch of nurological pathways you didn’t know you have will will start to flourish. You will be surprised how much specific information and detail you will store away. There is a chance, however, that you may become somewhat more obsessive and driven than you were, before the build. 
  4. Fatigue. Unless, as we did, you can work full time, you will be tired. This may be a mental health issue if you are prone to depression or mood swings triggered by fatigue. Everyone has different coping skills, but for most of us, there is a limit to how long you can burn the candle at both ends. 

In conclusion: This information is offered without qualification, and is based upon our personal experiences. Building our boat was a fulfilment of a lifelong dream for me. As a boy, I would doodle boat designs in class, much to the chagrin of my teachers. Throughout our child-raising years, the dream was suppressed, as responsibilities took over. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get the chance to build my own 40′ catamaran. The experience has gifted us a sense of satisfaction and pride. Boatbuilding is multi-disciplined and both Deb and I have acquired skills and confidence we never envisioned when commencing the build. All those things have made the sacrifice worth it. If you have the passion and enjoy the gift of creation with your hands,  “then, believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats”.

Keep dreaming,

Pete & Deb.