Building a catamaran in Trinidad

This article first appeared in Caribbean Compass in 2002



Don Stollmeyer's Cat "Dream Lover"

It has long been an ambition of mine to own a cruising Catamaran. It seemed to me the price of second hand cats was very high, and that in the Caribbean it should be possible to build for around the price of a good second hand boat. (Since then prices of second-hand cats have come down a bit.)

As I kept looking for a suitable boat, the Sampson 42 built in Trinidad kept coming back to me again and again as the one I liked by far the best. This class had long slender hulls, a relatively small sail area, and by all accounts performed well. Compared to my boat they felt light and insubstantial, but after driving a tank, a sports car takes getting used to.

I liked the look of the engineering on the boat - it was held together by several large box frames and a giant main bulkhead in the front of the main saloon that took the mast compression. As Brian, one of the owners said, "If you lift the bow of one hull up 6 inches, the other hull also comes up 6 inches. It is very rigid."

Compared to most 42 foot cats these boats feel quite small and manageable, yet they have a wonderfully spacious main saloon and cockpit. The space inside the hulls, while ample for me, is considerably less than most modern designed cruising cats. The reason for this is they are actually stretched 36 footers.

It had all started about a dozen years ago when a group of enthusiasts got together and decided to build a mold and then each build a boat from the mold. They bought an Australian design and then completely changed it. They lengthened the hulls from 36 to 40 feet without increasing their beam, and designed a new bridgedeck and superstructure. Later they added a two foot scoop at the back. They choose a symmetrical hull so they could get away with just one mold, which was just as well as it took the four of them two years to complete it.

The first boat to be completed was built by a Dutchman called Hans. I never saw this boat, which is now off sailing round the world.

The other boats were all built by Trinidadians, and I had watched them metamorphosing from projects to yachts. Brian of Marc One, a company that imports resins and construction materials, built Incognito. Don Stollmeyer, manager of Power Boats built Dream Lover, and the last, still nearing completion, is owned by Jim Wilson, owner of Sampson boatbuilders in San Fernando.

As each owner had his own ideas, none of the boats look quite the same on completion

I started asking Don about the possibilities of building in Trinidad and he, remembering all his trials and tribulations, did his best to dissuade me. But I became more persistent as the idea of building in Trinidad was becoming more and more attractive. I went out sailing on Dream Lover one day and that finally convinced me, this was the boat. Luckily, Don, seeing I was being serious, decided to help. This was just as well because without him I knew I did not stand a chance.

The project began for real in November 1999, when Don Stollmeyer invited Jeff Fisher and me to lunch at Imperial Gardens, a Chinese restaurant down by the yacht club. Jeff was to be in Trinidad for a longer time than I was and he agreed to look in on the project when he could. Don had built his own cat, Dream Lover, of the same class and it had taken him 12 years. He knew not only how to build one of these cats, but, more importantly, what not to do. Jeff knew a lot about building boats, but little about cats. Don drew diagrams on napkins, lots of them. We had moved to the back of fortune cookie read-outs by the end of the meal. I bundled all the sketches up and put them in my briefcase. Since this boat had evolved in Trinidad, there were no plans, and these notes, along with measurements I later took from Dream Lover, would form the basis of the simple diagrams I eventually drew on my computer. One thing Don impressed on us was the importance of getting the hulls perfectly lined up, level, and in place before putting them together.

Since Jim Wilson of Samson Boatyard in San Fernando had the mold, I had him build the hulls. He did a fine job vacuum bagging them and they seem excellent. We did have a small problem getting them to the same shape, as one arrived with supports and the other without. However, this was minor.

With hulls and a shed we are ready to start

We didn’t find a place to build till after the hulls were being built. Don knew that a friend of his called Errol had a good spot out on the airport road. We drove out and took a look. The site for building it was okay, but what about launching? We would have to get a low-loader down the lane at about 0100, load up, and then try to get a 42-foot-long, 22-foot-wide boat down the highway in the middle of the night to a launching spot. Could we accomplish this before the traffic cops found us and asked what the hell we thought we were doing? As we drove back and looked at the narrower parts of the road, I started to have nightmarish thoughts about owning a magnificent cat in the middle of Trinidad and being unable to get it to the sea. At that point there would not be much to do but to grow a beard, change my name to Noah, and pray for rain.

In the end I was delighted when the Skinner’s offered a corner of their yard next to Power Boats. It was conveniently close to Dream Lover when more measurements were needed. Shack, one of Power Boats’ builders, built us a fine open shed. With the addition of a container, we had a workplace.

Don introduced me to Steve Ramsahai, otherwise known as Son, who was to be the chief builder. Son is for me the ideal builder. He had a variable work force, but for much of the time it was four workers: Son, his brother Rolly, a friend called Moses, and Anthony. Watching them work and being around them was a real pleasure. They work quietly, efficiently, cleanly, and at a steady pace.

Boat building has proceeded very smoothly. We had one short spell when we ran out of core and all the guys left for other jobs. But Brian de Montbrun, our supplier (and owner of another of these cats), quickly found a different material, Nomex, that he could get for us immediately. I was relieved, and within a week we were back up and running and had no more shortages.

Since there are so many contractors in Trinidad, we were able to save time by having some of the work farmed out. There is not a lot of wood in this boat, but one of our early requirements was for a series of laminated beams to help support the bridge deck. We got a few quotes and Rod Gibbon from San Fernando came up with the best deal, so he would drop by the boat from time to time, drop off bits of wood, and take orders for the next lot. He recommended a wood called balata cedar. This is an attractive, light-weight, rot resistant wood with a fair amount of structural strength, though it is quite soft. It seems ideal for a cat..

Rod Gibbon’s laminated beams

For mast and crossbeam we recycled old masts from various wrecks. Since that was a big saving, I handed the mast rebuild job over to Neils Lund at Budget Marine Rigging. I would have been absolutely confident with any of the Trinidad riggers, but he had the advantage of being next door. Both Mark de Gannes and Unity Metal shop helped us with welding up the forward crossarm.

Son and Rolly laying up the bridgedeck

I managed to get a few weeks watching the project in May and June of this year. I soon became a frequent visitor to Budget Marine. Since they were next door, it was easy, but I suspect that had they been a bit further away, I still would be there. Having a bunch of great looking women is a great asset, especially when they are, in addition, always most welcoming and efficient. One time I searched all over Port of Spain for a small stainless sink. No luck, so I went to Budget, found it in the catalogue, and we had it a couple of days later.

Getting there!

We are not launched yet, but with luck I will be sailing this winter, and so far I am delighted with the way things are going. We planned on the building taking 18 months, and it looks like we will be pretty much on time. I have also realized a big advantage in building locally that I had never thought of. You can buy a new boat, or a second hand one, and it can serve you well. But there is something impersonal about a factory built boat. When my new boat is launched and I am out on the ocean, I will carry with me many memories of the people who have worked so hard to make it happen. In my mind, Son and his team will be with me, as will Jeff and Don. The boat already has a lot of soul before it even hits the water.

Bow detail

January 2002

We Launch at last

Perched high on the boat as she is pulled down the road we get our first glimpse of the sea. Jeff is on the road checking things out. My main building team, Steve Ramsahai, Rolly and Mose are down there watching closely. Don Stollmeyer is driving the tractor and chatting on the phone at the same time. I cannot believe we will soon be afloat. Niels Lund is still aboard finishing up the rigging. Heather McIntosh, a close frind of Jeff's is cleaning up in the main salon ready for the launch and the party.

 Son, Rolly, Mose and family at the launching

The last few months have been tough. Up to then, everything had gone so smoothly - it seemed like it was going to be a completely easy building process - on time, on budget and smooth as silk. However, the last few months put a wobble in the smoothness, raised the budget, and we are a little later than planned, but not my much.

I originally hoped to launch by the end of November, which would have meant the building took about 18 months. When I arrived in Trinidad I adjusted to reality and set a new target of Christmas. But the process of painting put paid to that. It started with interior paint we had specially mixed to a fancy color scheme. This emulsion paint, which works fine in houses just would not set up hard enough to work on the boat. Almost a week was wasted messing around before we switched to regular Berger emulsion colors and a great result. The exterior was worse. I had noticed Son and his team trying to fair out bits of the hull with difficulty. I called in Errol Ramdhan and he started with a team of 6 men. I could not believe that it could take 6 men a month to fair out the hull. The air was full of dust and both Jeff and I got chest infections. Before the end we also had some problems with the paint, problems with the taping of the stripes, and long before we were finished I wished we were on a contract basis and not a daily rate!  However, on launching day the boat looks fantastic and I have no regrets.

Over the last weeks a couple of contractors had things for us and it seemed like I spent way too much energy bugging people hoping for action. Then there is Christmas. I have never seen a country take the Christmas break as seriously at Trinidadians. Many big businesses close before Christmas and don't open till after the New Year.

In early December a German came by, "When are you launching?" he asked. "Around Christmas" I said. "Not this year" he said. "I am a boat builder and the work is just beginning - you will launch more likely next Christmas". This is just the kind of thing one doesn't want to hear from a know-it-all passer by. I felt like being rude but held my tongue.  As it is, we launch January the 11th. No one could believe the speed the boat came together after the painting, but Jeff and I knew it would. Everything had been pre-fitted and was ready to go as soon as the paint was dry.



Ready to go sailing at last

The name of the boat is painted boldly on the sides and stern and is no secret. I had to get her registered as a foreign flag vessel to pick a few of the heavy tab items duty-free before leaving. She is called Ti Kanot (pronounced Tea Kanou). I found the name in a book of plants. In some islands it is the patois name for a rain forest plant more commonly called Zel Mouche. This plant has a curious leaf - two long slender sides joined in the middle just like a catamaran. The shape of leaf no doubt gave rise to its patois name, which means little canoe.

  As we roll down the road the most amazing thing to me, is how far my new boat exceeds my expectations. I envisaged having almost no interior - just a roughed out galley. I envisaged having to rig a temporary sun awning and to build a hard top down the road. I did not imagine I would sail with a completed ice box let alone refrigeration. And I never thought she would look - well so fancy and pretty, certainly a match to any factory-produced cat. She is indeed very finished, with a very spacious main salon and fine galley including a super-efficient refrigeration system.  She has a wonderful all fiberglass hardtop with lighting, wiring and speakers built in and as we launch we are ready for the sea. Except, instead of the 35 h.p. diesel outboard which has not yet arrived there is a little 15 h.p two stroke Yamaha.  We are expecting the real engine "just now".


Jeff at the galley in the  spacious light interor

We pause at the waterfront to wet ourselves before the boat. Power Boats has kindly loaned us a small marquee under which we have beer, rum and a stash of Grace and Gary's wonderful rotis. Alan and Shirley Hooper have flown in from Grenada with a very fine bottle of champagne, which we sprinkle lightly on the boat before guzzling down the rest. Nearly everyone who contributed in one way or another is there. Don readies the tractor for the launch and as he starts to let her down, Ti Kanot takes over, pulling the tractor unwilling towards the sea. However, Don is an old hand at this and she slides in smoothly without drowning the tractor. We then go adrift as the outboard doesn't start. However a quick tow to the dock and the party continues until long after dark.


 Son watches his family enjoy the bow net

We went for a trial sail the day after the launch. The winds were light. We took as crew our building team, Rod Gibbon our carpenter, along with Don Stollmeyer and Brian de Montbrun. I was immediately delighted with her performance. She is very light and lively. Compared with other boats the wheel is very light and so responsive it takes getting used to. She has a tiny rig - we cut 5 feet of a mast built for a Fontaine Pajot Antigua 37, yet she seems to have enough sail even in light winds. She accelerates very fast and ghosts well. It was the first time Son and his team had been sailing so a week later, while we were still waiting for the engine we took them again. This time we did have one small session with the wind over 20 knots. In these conditions we were beating to windward at 10-11 knots and feeling grand. The engine arrived the day before the deadline Jeff and I had to sail to Grenada. We had some electrical problems so Trintrac sent out a rep and sorted them out. By the time we got through it was dark and we all went for engine trials finishing about 2030. The engine was quieter than I expected and we cruised happily at 7.5 knots with a top speed about a knot more. The next morning Jeff and I set out for Grenada. For the first half it blew very hard with short lumpy seas. Later the seas and wind eased to a comfortable state. We were hard on the wind all the way. We made the trip in 10.5 hours with an average speed of 7.7 knots (it had been 8 knots for most of the way), at least an hour and half faster than my best time on my old boat. Cats have a lot of motion in rough conditions, but staying upright and being drier still get you there more relaxed and rested. I am delighted. The cost for building the cat inclusive of hard top, engine, sails, solar panels, electronics, refrigeration and all cruising gear including a small RIB was less than $180,000 - more than some second hand boats but way less the prices asked for a bare production boat.


Grenada comes into view

How Ti Kanot sails