Copyright 2017 - Woods Designs, Foss Quay, Millbrook, Torpoint, Cornwall, PL10 1EN, UK
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  • 36ft Mirage open deck catamaran

Excerpted from Practical Boat Owner, June 1999

PBO New Boat Test

Ocean Going Budget Buster

Can you really build an offshore cruising cat for £5,000? That’s all it cost Richard Woods to get the first of his 28ft Gypsy designs on the water and sailing
as David Harding reports.

Richard Woods is no stranger to boating on a budget. Back in 190 he designed a 30ft catamaran called Cockleshell Hero, built it for £1,500 and spent the next five years living aboard. If you don’t want to wait until retirement - and then spend £50,000 or more on a suitable yacht for blue-water voyaging - the Woods philosophy has a lot going for it.

One of the most interesting features is the central bridgedeck cabin which, since it doesn’t connect with the accommodation in the hulls, creates an entirely separate living area. As Richard explains, "It’s a very efficient use of space because, with a conventional full width bridgedeck cabin, you lose a couple of feet each side for the walkways down into the hulls more useful room and privacy if you split the accommodation up. You also have the bonus of a nice safe passage forward from the cockpit between the cuddy and hull cabins." Another feature I liked was siting in the galley in the central cuddy right by the cockpit you can sit on the companionway step out of the weather, look forward through the cabin windows, keep an eye on the kettle and still be within easy reach of the tiller and mainsheet.

As you’d expect, accommodation in the Gypsy’s hulls is distinctly cosy. There’s room for two, 3ft-wide berths in the starboard hull or one berth and a workshop/tool store - plus a fold-down chart table and plenty of under-bunk stowage. Sacrificial bows and double floors ahead of the forward bulkheads are built into both hulls, to minimise drama in the event of a collision. To port you find the heads and shower, plenty more stowage and a berth which could pass as a double for a honeymoon couple - but the central cuddy is far more civilised. Richard offset the 12in deep nacelle to starboard, creating a bigger under-bunk locker to port and reducing ‘dead’ space behind the cooker. "People always think boats should be symmetrical," he said, "and I’ve never seen this done before, but why shouldn't you?’

Yet another benefit of the separate cabins is economy of building, since the cuddy, cockpit, beam and hulls can be built separately in a relatively small space and joined together at the end.…Minimizing costs and ensuring easy building were priorities from the start hence the use of flat or single-curvature panels throughout, which enable the boat to be built in plywood by a competent amateur. "One advantage of not being a professional boat-builder is that if I can build it, anyone can," said Richard. ‘And this boat was designed to be built on a budget - not designed for professional construction and then built cheaply that can lead to problems.’ Richard launched less than 12 months and 1,000 man-hours after starting work in his spare time during 1994; the next three years were spent finishing her off in the water.

By the time of my test sail last summer, he’d sold 20 sets of plans and the prototype was one of four boats already afloat between the Solent and Australia. Most owners have chosen the flat-bottomed hulls, but a round-bilge alternative is offered for building in cedar strip. "If I were racing, I'd definitely have a round-bilge section," he said. "On the other hand, building is easier with a flat bottom - the hull stays upright by itself and you can put the keels an last, so the boat stays low down while you’re working on it.’..

... her low aspect-ratio keels, moderate hull beam and modest rig mark her out as a cruiser, albeit a fairly nippy one. Her designer chose the size carefully, as he explained: "My smaller central-cuddy designs - the Elf and Wizard - are suitable for coastal or cross-channel sailing. This time I wanted something bigger, but it also had to be the smallest boat that could sensibly be used for ocean cruising, to keep the cost down… 28ft is about the minimum that will carry the weight you need for long-distance cruising. The other factor is motion, or seakindliness. Then of course there's standing headroom it’s not essential, but nice.

For all her cruising pedigree, the Gypsy doesn’t hang around. We were lucky to have a south-westerly breeze gusting to Force 6 in Plymouth on the day of my test, which gave us flat water in Cawsand Bay and some distinctly lumpy patches once clear of Penlee Point.

I soon found that anything under 5 knots feels like walking speed - she’d slip along effortlessly at 7 knots with two reefs and the full jib, and shoot straight up to 10 or 11 when hit by a 25-knot gust on the beam. Dramatic though it may sound if you’re used to 28ft cruising monohull speeds, it was all very relaxing - as was heaving to, when she sat quietly crabbing at around half-a-knot with the jib backed.

... turning corners was surprisingly easy - she gybed round from a hove-to position without hesitation, never needed a backed jib when going about, and proved easy to tack even under main only. What’s more, she’d complete a 360’ circle (starting through the wind) with the sheets pinned in. Given daggerboards rather than long, fixed keels, she’d undoubtedly spin more readily still - and upwind speed would be improved, especially in a seaway.

‘The difference between daggerboards and keels is probably greater than between round-bilge and flat-bottom hulls, " said Richard. "With boards, the boat pitches less and points higher The effect won’t be particularly pronounced upwind in a flat sea but, in a chop, boards give your a big advantage because they’re working in deeper water Since shallow keels only go down about 18in, the boat tends- to slide with the surface drift.

I wasn’t expecting too much in the way of windward performance from our flat-bottomed, shallow-draft cruising cat. So I was pleasantly surprised when we maintained a steady 6 - 7 knots and according to the compass - tacked through around 80’ in the steep seas off Penlee, though she still maintained an average of 5.5 knots, bobbing along with the sort of short, buoyant motion so characteristic of multihulls. Not that it was uncomfortable - she showed no tendency to hobby-horse, and we only provoked the occasional muted thud from under the hulls and central nacelle when driving off a few degrees at around 6.5 knots. If life threatened to become too jerky for an enjoyable sail, hardening up a little proved to be the easy answer.

In Richard’s words, "The difference between a multihull and a monohull is that on a multihull, you go as fast as you like. On a monohull, you go as fast as you can." As fast as we comfortably could in these short, lumpy seas meant tacking through just over 100deg, which gave us a VMG of around 3 knots (disregarding leeway) - not spectacular, but reasonable for a 28ft cruising boat. Thanks to her rapid acceleration, I could pick exactly the right spot to bear away down the face of the waves - we frequently topped 11 knots, once hitting 12.8.

Had we not kept the reefs in for hardening up back in the sound later on, I’ve no doubt we’d have done even better. But in any case, if a similar size monohull had managed to pull away to windward, her crew wouldn’t have seen us for spray once the sheets were cracked.

With such an enormous cockpit, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to helming positions. I favoured perching on the wide-topped coaming and steering with the tiller extension, but for longer stints you can drop down a level and lean back in the shelter of the hull cabin while still retaining good visibility. Either way, you stay remarkably dry - very little spray came abaft the mast all day..

To me, it all makes a lot of sense in theory and in practice. In fact, of all the cats I’ve sailed, the Gypsy presents about the strongest case in favour of cruising on two hulls. Even if you don’t plan to build her yourself.

A complete copy of this article can be obtained from Practical Boat Owner