Last summer I was offered a job skippering a catamaran for Broadreach/Academic Treks, a teen adventure travel outfit based for the summer in St. Martin. Sailing on a cat? Heresy! I’m a purist! We shall heel when sailing to windward, my stove shall be gimbaled and my drink shall spill in the cockpit! This is how sailing was meant to be and shall be forever! I thought I’d never be caught dead at the helm of a multihull. I had no interest in sailing these modern anomalies.
I quietly relented with clenched teeth. I didn’t expect the learning curve that a stubborn monohull sailor (me) would encounter upon entering the modern world of catamaran sailing.
Off the wind, catamarans are rocket ships, which I quickly learned when Beluga, our 46’ F.P. Bahia, surfed down the long swell at 10-12 knots en route from St. Barth to Nevis. In a straight line, downwind sailing is certainly exhilarating, and almost converted me into a multihuller. Just don’t try to jibe.
What I learned is that when jibing, timing is everything. In addition to the unbalanced sail plan (a fractional rig with a huge, fully battened mainsail and a tiny jib,) most cats have tiny rudders, which do absolutely no good unless you have your sails trimmed properly. By prematurely centering the mainsail for the jibe, I’d inadvertently added tremendous weather helm, so much so that the tiny rudders simply couldn’t overcome it and the boat refused to jibe. The key to a successful jibe is to turn the boat and jibe the main almost simultaneously.
Downwind sail-trim on a cruising cat without a big reaching sail can be challenging. The trouble when broad-reaching comes from the sheeting arrangement on the small jib. The Genoa tracks are often positioned far inboard on the coachroof, and are woefully short. Even with the car positioned far forward on the track, the sheet lead remains way too far aft and way too far inboard. The sail ends up with an enormous belly at the foot and a flapping leech at the top of the sail, thereby reducing its effective area even more.
What is a cruiser to do when trying to sail fast downwind? After all, gentlemen never sail to windward… The answer lies with the leeward midships cleat. On the downwind starboard tack, lead the unused lazy sheet outboard and put one turn round the port midships cleat. Better yet, run it through a snatch block attached to the cleat with a strop. Now, crank down on the starboard (lazy) sheet winch until the sail sets properly. You’ve effectively barber-hauled the sail and now have two sheets actively trimming the sail using only the standard sheeting arrangement.
Cruising cats aren’t billed as witches to windward, though they’re not dogs. My teenage crew sailed Beluga from Grand Case out the notoriously rough Anguilla Channel, round Tintemarre and onwards to St. Barth without once cranking the engine, a testament to their perseverance, but also proof that cats can sail to windward.
Again, the trick when tacking is timing. Get it right, and you’ll be rocketing off on the new tack doing nine knots in no time. Mess it up, and you’ll be stuck in irons, head to wind and the boat will actually start to sail backwards. I’ve experienced it.
When the helmsman puts the wheel down, the crew on the working sheet should be ready to let fly, but must hesitate and back the jib for a count of three to successfully push the bow around. If the crew on the lazy sheet is ready for it, they can successfully sheet the sail in on the new tack without ever cranking a winch.
By the end of the three-week programs, my teenage crew and I were well versed in catamaran sailing. The thirteen kids learned to handle the big cat under sail in all conditions and in all scenarios. We entered and exited most harbors under sail alone, savoring the tranquility of an engineless existence. We even won some fun Broadreach races in Nevis, before sailing back onto the hook. The kids learned, as did I, that with a little practice and imagination, sailing a cat could be pretty rewarding indeed. Call me converted.