"The PlayCat is the next logical step for us," explains Escape General Manager Scott Forristall. "It's light, simple to sail, fast and incredibly durable. It's designed to be dragged up and down the beach." After a recent test sail on Biscayne Bay, I suspect the PlayCat will spend more time on the water than the sand. It's a real sailboat and will offer some serious competition to the well-known players in the beach cat world.
Like the other Escape models, the PlayCat is designed to be simple enough for nonsailors to handle, yet offer enough performance to entice seasoned sailors craving a basic sailing fix. Simplicity, however, can be deceiving. Creating a functional product that performs well is probably the most challenging assignment for any designer, which is why Escape Sailboats is the brainchild of some of the industry's most talented people, including Tom Whidden, Gary Jobson, Gary Hoyt and company founder, Peter Johnstone. The company's first model was launched in 1996 and featured a super-stable hull form, a single furling sail and a self-teaching, trim-by-color sail control system. It was a huge success and quickly became the best selling sailboat in the country. Soon new models were added, including the very popular Rumba and now, this spring, the PlayCat, Escape's first multihull.
The PlayCat's 16-foot, 7-inch canted hulls are rotomolded polyethylene, which is durable and more or less maintenance free. Rotomolded boats have come of age: from sea kayaks to bass tenders, the advantages of seamless, one-piece, oven-baked construction have been well proven. The rudders are built-in with aluminum stocks, eliminating the need to fasten them on the stern. The hull shape includes just enough draft to allow clearance for the rudders when running up on the beach and still maintain shallow enough draft to sail almost anywhere that's wet. The cross bars are aluminum, spanned by a one-piece, snag-free trampoline. The assembled beam is 7 feet.
The 26-foot mast is comprised of two sleeved aluminum sections, allowing for practical transportability. In fact, although the PlayCat has a payload of 750 pounds, the all-up weight is just over 200 pounds, and it can be carried on a roof rack or in the back of a pickup with the hulls lashed down. The boat is quick to assemble and break down, although most users will leave it set up on the beach whenever possible.
The rig features a loose-footed, full-batten mainsail, so there is no boom to worry about during an accidental jibe. There is an internal halyard and a mainsheet on a four-part purchase, and that's it: two control lines on the boat. The standard sail is Dacron, although a Mylar sail is optional and the possibility of adding a jib is being considered. Like any good cat, the mast rotates on a nylon bearing.
We had a perfect day to see just how the PlayCat would stand up in a stiff breeze. The southwest wind was steady at 20 knots, and there was a sizable chop running on the bay. Forrestal had hauled the PlayCat to the beach in his pickup truck and had the boat assembled before I arrived. We pushed the light hulls into the water, jumped aboard and skidded off toward the Miami Seaquarium on a tight reach.
My first thought was that we needed to pinch up to avoid being set in toward shore; however, as we worked our way offshore I was impressed with how well the PlayCat tracked.
We overtook a reefed J/24 without much trouble and then came through the wind. My tack was less than picture perfect, but I eventually got the boat moving again, and we blasted toward the far shore on a reach. The bay was full of boats, most laboring along with deep reefs. The PlayCat, on the other hand, felt lively and very stable. With our combined weight (which we'll list as considerable but still well under the 750-pound limit) keeping the boat on its feet was no problem. Because the boat was brand new, the mainsheet was a bit slick, as was the trampoline. The aluminum steering bar provided positive steering even when the wind gusted well over 20 knots.
Coming through the wind again, we charged back toward the beach on a broad reach. Zipping along before the waves, the memory of pitch-poling a small cat years before flashed before my eyes. However, the canted, buoyant hulls had no problem handling the 3- and even 4-foot waves. By the time we ran the boat up on the beach, I was mentally calculating if I could manage the PlayCat's hulls on Fortuna, my 44-foot ketch. I am planning a family cruise in the Bahamas this summer and the idea of having a PlayCat to play with is very appealing.