Small Catamaran Sailing Basics Techniques and Tips

Sections: Rigs Handle on Land Hull Design Catamaran Sailing Tacking Gybing Upwind Downwind Capsize Recovery

How to sail a catamaran sailing basics techniques and racing tips how to sail tacking a catamaran rigging diagram and hull design. Lessons on spinnaker tacking terminology trapeze harness and rigging racing high speed sailing catamarans how to rig instructions learn to sail as well as capsize recovery and spinnaker.

Small catamaran sailing is exciting and high-speed sailing. Catamaran sailboats have a pair of hulls joined by two aluminium beams firmly bolted to each hull. A length of close-weave netting forms a 'trampoline' between the two beams and inside edges of the hull allowing the crew to move from side to side. Included here are instructions on how to sail a catamaran.

A small catamaran sailboat's advantage is that they derive their stability from the span of their slim hulls. On a 2-metre wide craft, the weight of trapezing crew can be 2.5 metres to windward of the immersed leeward hull, exerting a righting movement to counteracting the capsizing pull of the sails and hence transferring the power from the sails into forward motion.

Sailing Catamaran Rigging and Mast Rotation Terminology

Small catamaran sailboat rigging is different to dinghies catering for different sailing techniques and sailing conditions. Hulls are usually made of GRP, but some exceptions include the Catapult, being an inflatable, and the French F1 Hurricane made of moulded polyethylene, being a robust craft ideal for training and family sailing.

A sailing catamaran's rigging masts and sails have been developed to withstand the heavy shock-loadings associated with the high speeds attained by catamarans. The catamaran mast is mounted on a pivot for easy rotation, and fitted with a set of diamond shrouds ensuring a rigid structure. Mast rotation allows the sailing catamaran to take up an efficient [ angle to the wind ] on all points of sailing.

The catamaran sail is fully battened at approximately 1 metre intervals giving an almost rigid, preshaped aerofoil. At the rearward base of the mast is the [ mast spanner ] which controls the amount of over-rotation of the mast. Some sailing catamaran classes have a loose footed mainsail that is set without a boom where the multi-part mainsheet tackle attaches directly to the clew. Single-handed catamaran sailboats are sailed without a jib and are termed as being [ una rigged ].

The 8:1 to 16:1 mainsheet is, in effect performs the function of the boom vang, attaching to a [ traveller ] running on a track attached to the rear beam. The traveller position is controlled by ropes so that it can be 'played' in gusts as well as adjusted to each point of sailing.

A masthead lock comprising of a protruding clip on the mast or a ring or hook attached to the head the sail, keeps the mainsail aloft. Once locked in position the luff can be tensioned by an 8:1 16:1 tack downhaul. Jibs are normally small and controlled by a 2:1 jib sheet system.

Rudders are [ assemblies ] designed to lock down when sailing but are able to spring up if it makes contact with an obstruction. A tiller bar joins the two rudder tillers, making each both move when the bar is steered. The tiller extension is connected to the middle of the tiller bar and allows the rudders to be controlled from midships on either hull.

Some small sailing catamarans come with one or two trapezes, along with asymmetric spinnakers that increase speed downwind. The sailing techniques that apply to sailing dinghies can be used in catamaran sailing, but are different in some aspects.

Catamaran Sailboat Hull Design

The individual design of catamaran sailboats has an influence in the catamaran hull shapes. Some small catamaran designs have hulls that are identical and symmetrical about the centreline. These symmetrical hulls are fitted with a centreboard or a daggerboard to resist leeway.

Alternatively a [ skeg hull ], characterized by a moulded-in keel, about two thirds aft on both hulls which resists leeway without the need for a centreboard or daggerboard. Other designs have asymmetrical hulls where the two hulls are mirror-images of each other using hydrofoil technology to compensate for leeway and consequently have no need for centreboards or daggerboards.

Handling Small Catamarans Sailboats on Land

Catamaran sailboats can be unwieldy on land because of their width; however, they are very light so moving them is quite easy, even with only two people. Catamarans are assembled and rigged on a padded [ two-wheeled axle ] and then trundled into the water. The trolley is placed under the hulls at the point of balance and the bows are used as the handle.

When leaving a sailing catamaran with the mast stepped, fasten it to the ground to prevent it blowing over in strong winds. Once afloat, the boat is walked into deeper water before fixing the rudders in their locked-down position and dagger boards, if fitted, are put in place.

Catamaran Sailing Techniques

If deciding to go small catamaran sailing, there is a need to learn a few catamaran sailing techniques on how to sail a small catamaran. Heading upwind is more demanding in a catamaran sailboat than it is in a dinghy and requires practice. When sailing on a downwind course, sailing catamarans really perform at speed being more stable than dinghies and easier to gybe, but still can be capsized.

Wind and Speed

Catarmaran sailing basics is an understanding that with the speed of catamaran sailboats, there is a bigger variance in the direction of true and apparent wind than in dinghies. Wind indicators are fitted on the forestay bridle and shrouds so that the helmsman is able to check the direction of the apparent wind and trim sails effectively. With the high speed of a sailing catamarans, allow more space for manoeuvres, especially passing other boats and check for gusts, as the catamaran accelerates rapidly when they hit.

The Basics on How to Sail a Small Catamaran

When learning the basics on how to sail a small catamaran, start on a beam reach, just as sailing on a single-hulled dinghy. Put the boat beam-on to the wind and slowly sheet in both sails. With the catamaran sail trim, the faster acceleration along with the forward shift of the apparent wind means that the sails are sheeted in closer than on a dinghy. The sail load will also be greater, requiring jib sheets to have a tackle making trimming easier, and the mainsheet requires at least a seven-to-one tackle.

Acceleration and deceleration forces are greater when catamaran sailing, causing crews to be thrown backward and forward. It is important that trapezing crews lock their feet into toe straps, where fitted. The fastest points of sailing for the catamaran are the reach and broad reach. When sailing these points, the crew weight is kept well aft to prevent the leeward bow nose-diving and initiating a barrel roll to leeward.

The mainsheet controls leech tension, and the angle of the sail is adjusted with the traveller. Set mainsail twist using the leech tell-tales as a guide. The rudders are small but are efficient at high speeds requiring only small movements of the tiller extension to adjust the course. When tacking or gybing, the boat speed slows down requiring considerable force to turn the boat.

Daggerboards or centreboards where fitted, are lowered about halfway on a reach. The leeward board being lowered first, is kept at a lower position than the windward board. When turning onto a close reach, lower the boards further and sheet in the sails and use the traveller to bring the mainsail closer to the centreline.

Heeling the Sailing Catamaran for Speed

The fastest speed a catamaran sails is when the windward hull is kept skimming the water's surface but this slight heel is difficult to maintain and requires practice. In medium winds, the helmsman and crew need to sit out or trapeze to keep the boat balanced.

When the body is fully extended, heel is controlled by trimming the mainsail with the traveller and adjusting the course with luffing to maintain heel or bearing away to reduce it. Sailing in strong winds and big waves, the speed of a catamaran makes it possible to take off on the top of a wave.

How to Tack a Catamaran

Catamaran sailboats stop quickly when the power is lost from the sails making tacking relatively difficult. Tacking a catamaran [ from a reach to a reach ] is not easy, so [ catamaran tacking procedure] starts with sheeting in to a close-hauled course building speed prior to a tack.

  • To learn how to tack a catamaran, start from a close-hauled position to build speed, chose the right time to tack into the waves then the tiller bar is pushed gently away, tightening up the turn as the boat heads up into the wind.
  • If fitted, the crew uncleats the jib sheet but keeps it hard in. The helmsman calls "lee-oh" then pushes the tiller extension away to a position where the rudders are at an angle of 45° to the transoms and sheets in the mainsail helping the boat turn into the wind.
  • As the boat turns, move to the centre and rotate the tiller extension aft. As the mainsheet traveller moves into the centre the tiller extension is flicked into the water behind the mainsheet
  • Move across the boat, picking up the extension on the other side ensuring the rudders are kept turned to their fullest extent and ease the mainsheet turning onto the new tack.
  • The crew moves across while watching the jib. When the boat has passed head-to-wind, the jib fills on the opposite side and helps the boat turn. The old jib sheet is released while pulling in the new one.
  • The crew members sit out or trapeze on the windward side while sheeting in the mainsail and jib and the tillers are centre steered to regain speed on the new tack.

Head to Wind or In-Irons

Catamaran sailboats stop rapidly when they reach head-to-wind and it is common for them to end up in-irons.

The technique is to push the tiller to the direction in which the boat is to go while the jib is pulled to the opposite side. The boat moves backward and the rudder acts in reverse to point the boat in the desired direction. When pointing in the right direction, centre the tiller and sheet the jib to the correct side ready to sail away.

How to Gybe a Catamaran

Easier to gybe than a dinghy, the catamaran’s stability is created by the two hulls, along with its speed, thus reducing the strength of the apparent wind. The [ catamaran in a gybe ] moves quickly, so allow plenty of room for the manoeuvre ensuring the boat is under full control prior to the gybe.

Gybing requires the centreboards or daggerboards to be fully raised. Catamarans rarely sail effectively dead downwind, so gybe through a wide angle, from one broad reach to the other.

  • Bear away from a broad reach to a run making ensuring that the area that the boat will turn into is clear. When ready call "stand by to gybe and after checking for clearance, the crew replies "ready".
  • With the boat turning, swing the tiller extension behind the mainsheet to the new windward side. Change hands on the mainsheet and tiller placing the forward hand on the mainsheet tackle between clew and traveller.
  • When the sail swings across, briefly stop the mainsheet swinging to leeward allowing the mainsail battens to flick to their new shape.
  • Release the tackle and move to the windward hull while steering onto the new course as the crew trims the jib.

Catamaran Sailing Upwind

When turning to a close-hauled course, sheet the sails in, with both centreboards fully lowered. Steer by using the tell-tales on the jib and the wind indicator being careful not to pinch i.e. sail too close to the wind, as speed decreases rapidly.

Catamaran sailboats are sensitive to fore and aft trim requiring the helmsman and crew to sit close together approximately near the middle of the boat keeping the hulls level.

  • When sailing in light winds, move your body weight forward to lift the transoms clear of the water with the crew lying on the trampoline in the middle.
  • When in stronger winds, move body weight further back preventing the bows nose diving when the boat accelerates.

Catamaran Sailing Downwind

In light or moderate winds, catamarans sail faster downwind than the true wind speed, and this factor can be fully exploited. It is efficient to sail downwind using a series of broad reaches, the opposite of tacking upwind.

Sailing dead downwind is relatively slow, but on a broad reach, the catamaran’s speed pulls the apparent wind forward until it is on the beam, thereby increasing its strength. Fast downwind speed is achieved by steering to keep the apparent wind, displayed by the wind indicator, blowing at right angles to the boat. Follow these downwind sailing techniques:

Moderate Winds

  • In moderate winds downwind, set the mainsail by allowing the traveller to go right out and use the mainsheet to adjust mainsail twist.
  • Trim the sail by keeping the top leech tell-tale just streaming and steer to keep the apparent wind at 90° to the boat.
  • The crew eases the jib out while keeping all the tell-tales streaming. It may require the helmsman and crew to sit on opposite sides of the boat to maintain the weight balance between the hulls but if the boat starts to heel, the crew moves to windward.
  • When the wind has some strength, sail with the windward hull just touching the water to achieve maximum speed.
  • Where centreboards or daggerboards are fitted, raise them fully but if steering becomes difficult lower them slightly.
  • Be prepared to move around the boat keeping it level fore and aft so if the wind strength decreases, move forward lifting the transoms and if it increases, move aft to prevent the bows nose diving under.

Light Winds

  • Downwind in light winds total body weight should be well forward lifting the transoms and depressing the bows, with the crew sitting on the leeward hull balancing the helmsman on the windward side.
  • Prevent the jib sagging by the crew holding the clew keeping it trimmed, rather than using the sheet.
  • Steer with gentle movements, concentrating on building and maintaining boat speed. With these conditions the sails may stall, making the sailing catamaran slow dramatically. When this happens, luff until the apparent wind moves forwards making the boat speed increase.
  • When speed is regained, bear away gently and make progress downwind while maintaining speed.

Strong Winds

  • In strong winds, catamaran sailing downwind is at its best. When reaching the maximum speed and accelerating every time a gust hits, the power in the sails depresses the bows, so body weight is moved to sit out, or trapeze at the stern of the windward hull. This prevents the bows from diving under water causing the boat to capsize.
  • With the high boat speed increasing the apparent wind speed, steer the boat further downwind maintaining the apparent wind at right angles to the boat.
  • When gusts hit, the boat accelerates and the apparent wind moves further ahead, so bear off to retain the constant apparent wind angle and wind lulls, head-up to maintain the angle. Be ready to ease the jib in serious gusts to prevent the bows nose diving.

Catamaran Capsize Recovery

Although catamarans are very stable, capsize can occur if a sailing mistake is made and especially in strong winds, where capsizes can be spectacular. Initiate catamaran capsize recovery procedures quickly to prevent inversion, as an inverted boat is difficult to right without outside assistance.

Small Catamaran Capsize Recovery

Some smaller catamarans are able to be righted by pushing the stern or bow under water thus rotating the boat upright.

  • To right the catamaran, bring the bows or sterns down until the boat is vertical, one crew member swims around to one end of the lower hull, then pushes down bringing the end of the uppermost hull down toward the water.
  • As the end of the uppermost hull drops, it is grasped and pulled down by the other crew member, while the other crew pushes up midway along the lower hull.
  • This brings the boat to a vertical position in the water. Now both swim to the mast side of the boat, pushing it over into its normal sailing position then climb aboard before it sails off.

Large Catamaran Capsize Recovery

  • To right a capsized catamaran, face the hulls into the wind to prevent it sailing away.
  • Righting procedure in larger catamarans requires one crew member to stand on the lower centreboard and pull on the jib sheet.
  • He then leans back so that his weight pivots the uppermost hull around the lower one and down to the water.
  • The other crew member depresses the bow or stern of the lower hull sinking it and assisting in the righting.

Small catamarans sail and mast learn to sail a catamaran and catamaran rigging catamaran sailing techniques and catamaran terminology.

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sailing catamaran tack
points of sail
catamaran trolley
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catamaran rudder assembly
mainsheet traveller
una rig catamaran sailboat
mast spanner
catamaran mast rotation