THE new go-anywhere Garcia Explocat 52 offers an enticing combination of space, pace and rugged construction. Rupert Holmes tested the new boat for Yachting World and felt it’s clear she has the potential to make easy 250 mile days in the right conditions.
In recent years there have been two clear trends in serious long-term cruising yachts. Firstly catamarans have become mainstream, to the extent that professional racing sailors talk of ‘buying a catamaran’ for cruising with their families – a monohull doesn’t even enter the equation.
This trend can also be seen in ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) entries, where multihulls are increasingly common. In 2020 they accounted for 28% of the total fleet and a much higher proportion of new boats and more recent designs.
The second trend is the rapidly growing popularity of rugged metal expedition yachts. Aluminium is favoured for this as it offers good strength and stiffness without a weight penalty, especially for yachts over a critical size. That’s why many top-end racing yachts were built of aluminium before composites dominated that scene.
It was, therefore, surely only a matter of time before someone married these two concepts to create an aluminium expedition catamaran. Cherbourg-based Garcia Yachts has been building metal boats for almost 50 years, including Jean Luc Van Den Heede’s 36.15 MET, in which he scored a podium finish in the inaugural Vendée Globe Race in 1989.
Equally Garcia needs no introduction as a front-runner in the development of expedition yachts, thanks to the success of the Exploration 45 that was developed with ARC founder Jimmy Cornell eight years ago. What’s less well known is that the Explocat 52 is by no means Garcia’s first aluminium catamaran.
A pair of 43-footers 15 years ago were followed by the SC48, one of which consistently posted some of the fastest passage times in the 2017/18 World ARC.
As part of the Grand Large Yachting group Garcia was also able to draw on considerable expertise from Outremer and Gunboat for its latest model, while naval architecture is by Pierre Delion, who also drew the SC48.
The Explocat 52 is therefore the product of a highly knowledgeable development team and has already attracted plenty of attention, including nomination for the 2021 European Yacht of the Year awards.
The core concept for the Explocat 52 is a robust, safe long-range yacht that offers good passagemaking speeds. A high level of comfort, both at sea – even in inclement weather – and in harbour was also a key requirement, and the boat had to be capable of being handled by a couple.
While a key marketing message for Garcia’s monohulls is ‘Nowhere you can’t go’, the company accepts this won’t apply as literally to the Explocat 52, even though the boat’s impressive speed potential will enable routing around a lot of bad weather.
The problem is, unlike being knocked down in a monohull, capsizing a multihull is always catastrophic. There are parts of the world, especially at high latitudes in the southern hemisphere, or out of season in the north, where it could be impossible to route around potentially dangerous weather. Nevertheless, the boat is intended to stretch the boundaries that are sensible for exploring the globe with a catamaran, allowing owners to sail a lot further north and south than might be prudent with existing designs.
Rugged construction is also a benefit when venturing off the beaten track in tropical waters. If anything goes wrong while exploring a poorly-charted lagoon, for instance, a fibreglass boat may be in grave danger. Many foam sandwich hulls have surprisingly thin outer skins, which can make the structure vulnerable to abrasion, whether from coral or a concrete quay.
By contrast, the thinnest plating of the Explocat 52 is 5mm, which increases through 8, 10 and 12mm thicknesses, before reaching an enormously reassuring 14mm at the bottom of the hulls. The boat has framing of up to 14mm and is structurally engineered to eliminate flexing between the hulls.
A substantial keel with a long chord length is welded to the bottom of the hulls. They are marginally deeper than the rudders, which offers some protection, as well as providing a firm base on which to dry out on a beach. At the same time the key elements that have made Garcia’s Exploration monohulls so successful are incorporated.
These include fore and aft watertight bulkheads and upstands for through-hull fittings that enable all seacocks to be above the waterline. A skeg ahead of the saildrives and rudders provides good protection, while the rudders are large enough to offer redundancy in the event of one being lost. In addition, the top aft corner of the rudders have a sacrificial zone designed to eliminate risk of the blade puncturing the hull, or becoming jammed, if it hits an obstruction with enough force to bend the stock.
What about weight? Are metal multihulls uncommon because they’re simply too heavy? As with aluminium monohulls, where the material offers better strength/weight ratios for larger boats, around 14m/46ft overall length seems to be a transition point for catamarans.
Below that composite boats will always be lighter, but above that length aluminium is lighter for equivalent rigidity than a composite structure that doesn’t use exotic materials. At 18.9 tonnes lightship displacement the Explocat is therefore in the same league as other cruising catamarans of a similar size and indeed lighter than some.
Substantial built-in attachment points for shorelines are found at the waterline of each bow for use in extreme conditions, plus attachment points aft for a drogue
Interestingly, it’s also a similar figure to that of the Exploration 52 monohull, yet the Explocat offers a large amount of extra space and 35% more sail area. Maximum payload is a useful five tonnes. But how does that translate on the water?
Our test took place from Cherbourg on a gloriously sunny late November day, with a gusty and shifty southerly breeze varying from 7-19 knots.
It’s immediately clear the Explocat 52 picks up and sails at speeds that belie its displacement, putting it in a different league to other expedition yachts of similar length, especially when reaching.
Broad reaching at 120° TWA with full main and Code 0 in 16 knots of true wind we cruised comfortably at 10 knots, reaching an unfussed maximum of 11.8 knots, with the boat still feeling rock steady.
When the breeze picked up to 19 knots, at the design limit for the Code 0, we furled it and continued with the Solent jib instead, losing only a couple of knots of boat speed. By the time we turned upwind the wind had eased significantly, which gave a good test in conditions that can challenge cruising yachts.
In just seven knots of true wind we made 5.3 close-hauled, rising to 6.2 in 9 knots of breeze. Maximum upwind speed was 9 knots in 15 knots of true wind. However, these numbers can’t be achieved if pinching – the boat likes to be sailed fast and free, with tacking angles of at least 105°. This is hardly a surprise for a boat of this style that’s sufficiently fast to have a big impact on apparent wind angles.
Even in light airs the Explocat is surprisingly nimble in tacks, showing no hint it might miss stays, or slow enough for steering to be difficult until speed is regained on the new tack. Obviously the steering has less feel than a lightweight monohull, but there’s enough feedback for it to feel reasonably responsive and enjoyable to helm.