Multihull sailing for monohull sailors
Sailing a cat can require forgetting some things and learning a few new tips
Sailing a catamaran upwind, you have another frame of reference to discard. Most good monohull sailors tend to go slow upwind in a cat, and often blame the boat, because they pinch. I think they pinch because their visual reference is primarily other boats in view. A good modern cat will go upwind quite nicely, on its own terms. But if you try to sail too high too soon, you will choke off the speed you need, and you will never get there.
Don’t look at the other boats. Put your boat on a close reach and look only at the knotmeter, with an occasional glance at a wind-angle gauge if you have one. Trim sails for maximum speed. When you have it, head up three degrees and repeat. Keep trimming for speed, waiting to stabilize, and then creeping up higher. Before long you’ll surprise a lot of monohull sailors, getting to an upwind destination ahead of them.
The same rule applies to tacking: don’t mess around, just keep your speed up and then toss the helm over, hard. I’ve seen monohull sailors reach to start the engine in the middle of a tack because some prankster told them cats tack into irons and stay there. It should be clear that you can’t roll tack a cat, it won’t just flop and go like a dinghy. You start your tack from a higher wind angle, and you end at a higher angle on the other side, and you are bringing a very wide boat through the wind. It only makes sense that the whole process should take a little longer. Practice. Learn to tack well and smoothly, because some day you will really need to. Surprises happen in sailing, like everywhere, and sometimes you have to tack and go the other way, pronto. But don’t expect it to be quite as pronto as you’re used to.
Catamarans have a lot of deck hardware in places you may not be used to. Hatches, cleats, winches, mast steps and all sorts of snags are waiting for jib sheets to wander by. I’ve seen a flogging jib sheet grab an open hatch and fling it 50 yards out to sea like a frisbee. Before you tack, pay special attention to the lazy sheet. Being slack, it may already be partially looped around something. Take out the slack and try to foresee the path it will take when you release, and the jib pulls it over.
OK, stuff happens and you snagged the lazy sheet so completely that there’s no answer but to sit there in irons and deal with it. If you take your time to fix it safely, no one gets clobbered by the flogging jib, then how to get out of irons? There is no one answer, with the design, sail plan and balance of each boat being different. Release the main sheet and backwind the jib. Release the jib and power up the main. Try various ways to get the sail plan out of balance in either direction. If you have daggerboards, pull them up. If you get the boat moving forward, trim gently for speed. As soon as you get just a little speed up, nurture it and you’ll soon be able to bear away for more. With a little speed, be shy of bringing the main on too soon, remember that moving center of effort aft tends to increase weather helm and you don’t want to head up, and back into irons.
Jibing a big cat is different for a number of reasons: They usually have a big, full-batten main, they have a long traveler, they reach at great speed but are slower in deep downwind angles.
With all that traveler length and yards of mainsheet out, you have a lot of winch grinding to get the boom close to center for jibing. Start early. Experiment with steering to find a wind angle that makes this easier. When the big boom comes across in the jibe, you will be glad to have maximum boat speed (for minimum apparent wind speed) and minimum distance for the traveler car to race across before it bangs to a stop. Keep taking the slack out of the traveler lines, keep your winch area well organized, make sure all lines can run free without grabbing your crew by the foot.
Reef early and often
You’re smart to practice reefing at the dock, in zero wind. Many modern cats have all reefing controls in the cockpit, but if you try to reef when sailing downwind you might have to go to the mast anyway. This is an important skill to learn. There will be times when it is too uncomfortable, or even dangerous, to head upwind to reef. But there is a lot of pressure on the main, and it won’t want to come down. Grab it by the luff, or anything attached to the luff (like the reef line) and pull hard, while bringing the main sheet in. You will find a combination of sheet angle and steering angle that relaxes the pressure just enough to let the sail start down. Hold those angles, make sure the halyard is running free, and inch it down while taking slack out of the reef line.
A last word about heeling
There is so much talk about catamarans staying inverted when they flip, that you may be terrified when it heels the least bit. Like monohulls, each cat design has a heel angle that is optimal for sailing balance and efficiency. That angle is seldom zero, so don’t panic when the boat starts to roll.
The cat has a heel angle that is far smaller than you are used to, and very kind to your body. It has upwind and downwind sailing angles that are greater than you are use to, but produce greater speed. It has uncanny docking and maneuvering powers. When you understand these boundaries, you find you can apply all your good sailing skills and have a blast with these amazing machines.
Don Margraf is an experienced sailor who has focused on multihulls for the last 15 years. A catamaran specialist at West Coast Multihulls, he has also been a surveyor, builder consultant and dealer for major catamaran builders.