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I have been sailing all my life, from windsurfers to keel boats. The vast majority of my experience was in monohulls until we bought a cruising catamaran. My catamaran experience up until then was on an old Hobie 16, still my favorite boat. We bought a 2003 Leopard 47 and my observations and testing for this article have all been done on it. After sailing on our cruising catamaran for almost two years I have picked up a couple of sailing techniques that I feel are unique to a cat.
This article is separated into three sections: tacking, upwind, and downwind. These are the areas that I have found to have the most difference between the monohull and the cat. The Leopard 47 that we have is typical of cruising cats. It has a fractional rig where the main sail significantly outsizes the jib. The jib stay only goes about 80% up the mast and the main is fully battened with a fairly broad head. The vast majority of catamarans have the same sail layout.
The tack. This seems to give most sailers new to catamarans the greatest trouble. As with most cruising cats, a tack is going to take a 100 degrees or more. There are two schools of thought on the tack: backwind the jib, and/or release the main. I’m a ‘backwind the jib’ sailor. I have been able to tack going 3 knots and above, I don’t know about less than 3 knots. We use the engines at that point.
The key to a good tack is speed and control. The tack starts before the turn in. If you are hard to wind, then the traveler should be near the center, if not, play out enough traveler line so that during the tack the traveler travels to, or through, the center line. Next prep the jib sheets. The windward sheet should be around the winch and ready to pull in. The leeward sheet should be unbound and ready to be released. Once the sails are prepped, start the tack with a directed turn into the wind.
The turn in needs to be smooth to maintain speed, so turn in swiftly but not so swift as to stall the rudders. Keep the rudders over through the wind and let the jib backwind. The main sail will tack over to the new side and start to fill at about 30 degrees apparent on the new tack. Once on the new tack, and about 45 degrees off the wind, release the jib and quickly haul in on the new tack. Once the jib is over, start to bring the rudder amidships. Sail off the tack at about 60 degrees off the wind to build speed. Once you’ve built up speed, start to head back up to wind and trim the sails.
On occasion we’ve sailed without the jib. In this case you can’t use the jib to help you through the tack. Tacking without a jib on a cat is tricky. Before you tack, flake out the traveler line so that when the main tacks over, it can bring the traveler all the way to the new downwind side. Start the tack with plenty of speed, you may have to fall off a little to build speed. Turn in smartly the same way as any tack. Keep the rudder over through the tack and let the main luff across. Continue the tack and let the main luff until you are nearly on a beam reach. Slowly start to bring in the main balancing with the rudder so that you don’t head to wind. You will slowly build up speed on the new tack. Once you’ve got speed, you can start heading back upwind.
Upwind sailing in a cruising cat is all about conserving speed. One can sail at 45 degrees apparent at 4 knots, or at 5 and better. It’s all about getting and keeping the speed. After a tack, bear off to 60 degrees apparent, then let the cat build up speed. Pull in the sails tight and with good speed, start to creep upwind. Note: when sailing close hauled or close reach, the mainsheet is used to get the desired shape in the main, and the track is used to adjust the boom location. We have managed to keep our speed heading 45 degrees apparent, however, keep an eye on the knot meter, wind gauge, luff, and tell tails. As soon as you start to loose speed, say 1/2 a knot, then fall to 50 or 55 degrees off the wind. Let your boat build up speed again and then head back up to the wind without pinching. You will be doing a continual series of ups and backs. This technique will provide hours of entertainment.
Downwind (no spinnaker)
Downwind is best done with a spinnaker/gennaker; however, if you don’t have one, or for any reason you don’t want to set it up, this is what I’ve found. Wing on wing is your friend. Many sailors will not agree with me on this, but hear me out. Most people will tell you to jibe downwind and there are a lot of advantages to it; however, in my testing, it has not been the fastest way downwind in all cases. On my Leopard 47 I have found that about 4 knots is the cut off for jibing downwind.
If I can maintain 4 knots or better wing on wing, then it is better to be wing on wing then jibe downwind. With my sails, the main blankets the jib until I am less than 140 degrees off the wind and then it’s weak. The best angle downwind for me is 135 degrees off the wind. Now for the math: If I sail 135 degrees off the wind then my VMG downwind is about 0.7 of my speed. So if I could do 4 knots downwind, I would have to go 5.6 knots at 135 degrees off the wind. If I can do 6 knots wing on wing I’d need to go 8.5 knots to make the same VMG. I have found that I do not constantly attain those speeds; however, if I sail less then 4 knots wing on wing then I can get better VMG downwind reaching.
When sailing wing on wing, always tie a preventer. A preventer is a line that is tied around the boom and then to a solid mount, like a cleat, that will prevent the main from performing an accidental jibe. This is essential on a cat because the shrouds do not let the main out as much as a monohull. When sailing wing on wing, I don’t let the main all the way out so the boom hits the shroud, but most of the way to get a decent shape in the sail with the shrouds making some contact. I also like to tie a line from the clue of the jib to an outside cleat to keep the jib shape.
With the preventers in place I find the best point of sail is about 5-10 degrees off the opposite side of the boom. When sailing wing on wing, the sailing envelope is fairly narrow from about 185-170 degrees off the wind. Soon after that, one of the sails is not happy and speed suffers. When jibing downwind, always remove the preventers, center the track if it isn’t already, haul in the main all the way, then make your turn. Let the main switch over, then let it out. Now move your jib over. If you have enough crew, you can do both sails at once.
One fairly valuable tool to help sail downwind is a whisker pole. (This is the one we have.) It brings the joy back into sailing wing on wing. Not only does it prevent the jib from collapsing, but also opens up the available angle you can sail wing on wing. With the pole, I can open that angle to about 185-155 and the sweet spot is about 170-165 degrees off the wind. It is amazing to see what kind of speed changes you can get with a 5 degree course change.
Don’t be ‘that guy’ on the beach telling people that ‘their cat doesn’t tack’. (insert eye roll here) Get out there and find the speed in your cruising cat!
If you found this Cruising Dad’s article helpful, check out
‘You Need A Good Boat Systems Maintenance Routine’.
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More Sailing A Cruising Cat Resources:
- https://amzn.to/2Vj8bwJ Beyond the scope of this article, but looks like a great resource for those making the transition from monohull to cat or anyone new to catamarans.
- https://www.forespar.com/whisker-poles.shtml Great whisker pole info but be sure to compare prices with Defender. Defender usually saves you a few bucks.