For 29 years the U.S. Sailboat Show has showcased the newest and best the industry has to offer -- from 70- and 80-foot gold-platers to high-tech racing dinghies -- each October along the City Dock in Annapolis. This year, a large contingent of multihulls could steal the spotlight.
The dozens of new catamarans and trimarans booked for Annapolis are the largest fleet of multihulls ever assembled for a boat show anywhere in the world, according to show organizers.
The queen of the five-day show, which runs through Monday, is Nemo Sualigua, a Nautitech 82 Pro built by Dufour Yachts.
"The Nemo Sualigua presents boat show visitors with a rare opportunity for first-hand viewing of this exceptional class of boat," said boat show manager Dee Newman. "Even with the hundreds of sail vessels on display at the show, I think she will prove to be a true show-stopper."
The massive catamaran has eight double cabins with a head in each, an innovative salon, extremely large cockpit, distinctive appearance and a multi-million-dollar price tag that might be within the reach of an oil sheik or two.
The Nautitech 82 Pro, the flagship of the Dufour line, is atypical among most of the multihulls that will be on display through Monday, a vessel of pomp and pretentiousness to be shared with a dozen and a half of your closest friends.
According to show organizers, vendors and builders, the fastest-growing segment of the sailing multihull market is a new generation of cruising catamaran, a twin-hulled sailboat that is easily handled even in congested harbors, well outfitted for living aboard and perfectly safe for cruising Chesapeake Bay and the Caribbean or making a circumnavigation.
"It is true nationwide that catamarans are gaining popularity," said Michael Stevens, co-owner of Chesapeake Catamaran Center in Annapolis. "Five years ago, eight percent of the market was multihulls. Last year, it was up to 14 percent, and the farther south you go the percentage increases. In Florida, it is 50 percent, and in the Virgin Islands, it is 60 percent."
Sue Smith of Performance Cruising in Annapolis, who with her husband Tony has been building cruising catamarans in Maryland since 1980, said baby boomers are numerous among multihull buyers.
"We, as an age group, are getting older and now we have the money, knowledge and our health and we can go sailing," said Smith, whose company will introduce the newest version of the popular Gemini 105 at the show. "And what many of the boomers who grew up sailing want now is something simpler to sail, something they can live aboard and sail relatively fast without everything they own falling over."
John Farrow, co-owner of Chesapeake Catamaran Center, said the multihulls of today are not your father's vessel -- no matter whether the old man sailed a monohull or multihull.
"In the last 15 years, the aerospace technology applied to these two-hulled boats has created a new breed of boat that answers a myriad of questions about why people weren't sailing them before," said Farrow, a boomer who has sold catamarans for years. Where once catamarans, with their inordinately wide beams and cumbersome superstructure, were overbuilt of wood fiberglass, new multihulls make wide use of carbon fiber, Kevlar and lightweight, sealed foam sandwich construction. And where once the majority were ponderous and hard to sail, many now are fleet and relatively close-winded.
"Some people won't like the aesthetics [of a multihull]; it just won't look like a boat to them," said Stevens, adding that he still owns a monohull because it is paid for and he has kids in college. "But if I had a lot of money and a lot of freedom, I'd look very seriously at these boats."
Stevens and Farrow said the average age of their customers is between 50 and 60. They are retired doctors, airline pilots and small business operators able to spend $110,000 to $160,000 or more for a PDQ 32 or 36 with plans to live aboard and go south to the Virgin Islands or the Bahamas.
When compared to conventional monohulls, the multihulls have many advantages.
"Catamarans are more stable, drier, brighter and airier inside, and they can be a good bit quicker than monohulls," said Stevens, noting that only two of his 70 catamaran customers went back to monohulls, one to a sportsfisherman and the other to a trawler. "They are an upscale boat, and the buyer will get a boat that will do 10 to 12 knots regularly and is a very dry boat to sail and to live aboard."
Catamarans also generally are lighter than monohulls of similar lengths, said Smith, and her company's 33-footer has the room and performance of a 37- to 40-foot monohull.
Catamarans, many of which draw less than two feet of water, also can explore backwaters where deep-draft monohulls have no access.
A commonly held perception is that the unusually wide beam, or width, of multihulls can be a problem when dock space is considered.