Ready to Rumble
Cleverly designed and easy to sail, this cruising cat is set for adventure
The Miami Boat Show is a catamaran sailor’s fantasy venue. Leading multihull manufacturers from around the world display not just their latest models, but in many cases their full range of boats. There’s no denying that spacious cruising cats with their mix of outdoor and indoor living spaces are ideal for tropical waters and the palm-tree-lined Miami setting is apropos. Every year we review at least one cat after the show and this year we chose the popular Leopard 44.
Designed by the American team of Gino Morrelli and Pete Melvin, the Leopard 44 is built in South Africa by Robertson and Caine. The combination of innovative design, excellent performance and robust construction has come to define the Leopard series. It is renown for introducing the forward cockpit to the cruising catamaran market. The charter boat version of the Leopard 44 is called the Sunsail 444.
We had uncharacteristic light air as we pulled away from the dock at Miami Marina and made our way into Biscayne Bay. We hauled up the full-batten, square-topped main, unfurled the 120% genoa and eased south on a close reach. The 44’s efficient hulls are narrow at the waterline creating less wetted surface area for better performance before flaring for increased volume. A radius chine also adds interior volume and deflects water to keep a dry boat even dryer. The lower forward section of each hull includes a watertight bulkhead in case of collision, hinting at the serious bluewater capabilities of the Leopard 44. Many of the Leopards in this part of the world were delivered on their own bottoms, a 5,000-mile sail from Cape Town, South Africa, to the Caribbean.
Naturally I hastily made my way to the forward cockpit as we drifted south. Although performance multihulls have long featured forward steering stations, this nook of a cockpit/rumble seat was a big step for cruising cats. And like many design breakthroughs, it seems so obvious after the fact. Accessed through a door in the saloon or from the foredeck, the forward cockpit has a full overhead cover with a sliding cutout hatch, a fiberglass visor of sorts, and can comfortably seat four on a molded L-shaped settee that frames a small table. A canvas spray curtain can be rigged if the weather turns nasty, but that’s not the intent. This is a wonderful spot to sneak way to at anchor, to enjoy the afternoon breeze, a book and a bit of privacy—a very nice design touch.
The aft cockpit is very comfortable with ample seating aft and to port. A large table accommodates a crowd and the aft seat tops cleverly rotate for sitting in two directions. The electric dinghy davits are push-button controlled and I like that when the dinghy is fully hoisted there is good visibility aft. The extended stern steps flow naturally into each hull and offer easy access to the water and for boarding the dinghy.
The upstairs helm station is accessed from starboard via a couple of steps. All sail controls are led to the helm station and are controlled with a nest of Spinlock clutches and three Lewmar winches. It’s a bit tight for more than one person, which illustrates the ease of handling. The boat is essentially set up for one or two people to set and trim the sails from the out-of-the-way helm station while the rest of crew relaxes below. I appreciate the uncluttered view from the wheel, which is not always the case on a cat. The small bimini, essential for shade, does put the boom up high, a tradeoff your dermatologist will welcome.
The forward deck area features a large structural bridgedeck. There are two good-sized lazarettes that house the water tank and optional generator. The anchor locker is sandwiched between and the anchor is hoisted on the bridgedeck instead of from the forward crossbar. The full-width trampoline is a perfect spot for lounging. I like the molded rises along the side deck, a subtle but helpful reminder that you are at the deck edge as you make your way forward. There are well-placed stainless handrails along the coachroof and the molded nonskid is excellent.
The interior is flooded with natural light and includes a large L-shaped galley to port. An important design feature was to avoid isolating the chef and Morrelli and Melvin succeeded as the galley faces aft and the large opening window keeps the chef in ear and eyeshot of the cockpit as well as the saloon. Two sinks, a three-burner stove and oven and drawer-style pull-out fridge and freezer are standard. There’s a lot of counter space and plenty of storage in cabinets above and lockers below. There’s a clever dedicated trash bin and in-floor bins for large items.
The electrical panel and compact stand up navigation station are aft to starboard. An L-shaped settee is forward to starboard and wraps around a huge table. It is not obvious that any interior space was sacrificed with the addition of the forward cockpit. Indeed, I like the full-sized door that allows access to deck cockpit and deck forward and also offers a natural air flow. The door is serious and can be secured in heavy going.
Our test boat was the three-cabin, three-head owner’s version with starboard hull dedicated as the owner’s cabin. It’s nice living on the starboard side. Starting aft, there’s a generous queen berth and large hanging locker. In-hull portlights keep the natural light flowing. Continuing forward there’s an amidships lounge, with a settee and a small desk. The head and separate shower are all forward. There’s a locker that houses a washer and dryer and a linen closet as well.
Two guest cabins occupy the port hull. Each includes a double berth and en suite head. There is a single berth all the way forward, and unless the bunk is needed it makes an excellent storage bin. The Sunsail 444 charter version features four cabins and four heads.
Two 29-horsepower Yanmar diesels with saildrives are standard but many owners upgrade to the optional 39-horsepower models. Access is excellent through a watertight hatch, not just a fiberglass cover. Leopard does a good job of soundproofing the engine rooms. Two fuel tanks combine to hold 185 gallons.
Back on the bay the wind finally filled in and the Leopard 44 came to life. We cracked the sheets and with 10 knots of true of wind we eased up to 5, then 6 and finally to 6.5 knots. The helm was well-balanced and the visibility was excellent. We tacked and sheeted tight, bringing the boat up to 50 degrees apparent and maintaining 6 knots of boat speed. As the wind eased again we fell off and managed to keep moving all the way back to the marina. For a relatively heavy, offshore capable cat, I was impressed with how the 44 is easily driven and nimble.
It is easy to understand the popularity of the Leopard 44, especially as a family cruising boat. It’s solidly built, cleverly designed with an emphasis on privacy and comfort. It’s proven to be at home at sea or at anchor.
Displacement 27,880 lbs.
Sail area 1,323 sq. ft.
Sunsail Yacht Ownership