catamaran basics

written by Randy Smyth


Your introduction to catamaran sailing will probably be more enjoyable in less than 15-knot winds and in a relatively smooth bay or other protected waters. If the conditions are to your liking, put the boat on the beach, pointing into the wind, and rig up. Check and tighten, if necessary, all shackles and bolts, because they are prone to vibrating loose during trailering. Before launching, make sure you firmly screw in the transom drain plugs-we've all forgotten them at least once. Then it's time to go sailing.


Since you're launching off a beach, your rudders will be kicked up. With the boat floating and your crew aboard but before you push off, aim your cat on a beam or broader reach. After you climb aboard, steer with the sails and crew weight placement until you can lock down the rudders. To turn away from the wind, trim the jib with the mainsheet well eased. To head toward the wind, just trim in some mainsheet. Don't trim the main too much, or you'll be pointing into the wind and going backwards in no time. Also use your weight to help steer-move aft to bear off, forward to head up. Once the water is deep enough--at least 3 feet--lower the rudders and lock them in place (each catamaran has its own system for locking own its rudders). Head away from the beach on a reach. Although beach catamarans are dramatically faster than monohulls, steering is nearly the same in the beginning stages--until the wind picks up. Use the tiller extension as you would a monohull's, and steer according to the telltales.

Straight-line sailing

Beach catamarans are more stable than monohull dinghies in most conditions; however, they are not as easy to recover from a capsize. So as you sail away from the beach on a beam reach, think about what to do if you get a puff. A beam reach is the most capsize-prone angle of sail in a catamaran, and unlike on a monohull, steering isn't a remedy for capsize. If you steer toward the wind in a puff, centrifugal force will promote a capsize. When you're steering away from the wind, the sailplan produces more power that can result in a capsize or a bow-burying pitchpole (when the leeward bow plunges below the surface, causing the boat to trip over it). When you start to feel out of control on a broad reach, the simple answer is, when in doubt, ease it out. Ease the sails to help prevent a capsize on a broad reach.


Like monohull sailing, however, when you're sailing upwind in puffy conditions on a catamaran, you've got two options when a hull begins to fly. Steering a bit closer to the wind in smaller puffs (pinching) is sufficient. Larger puffs require a combination of steering up and easing the mainsheet. Extreme puffs require a quick ease on the jibsheet as well.


When sailing lower than a broad reach and on to downwind, pitchpoling, rather than capsizing conventionally, can be the problem. To keep the bows up, move well aft on the trampoline. Twisting the mainsail also reduces bow-down forces, so ease the mainsheet rather than the traveler if conditions are such that the bows begin to plunge. Steering more downwind in the puffs reduces the apparent wind, which will take pressure off the bows. After enjoying some high-speed reaching, it's time to tack. Your first tack probably won't be something to be proud of it you try to tack your catamaran the same way you tack your monohull. In fact, the chances are good that you'll find yourself firmly parked head-to-wind.

Tacking and Jibing on Two Hulls

In basic terms, sailing a beach catamaran is similar to sailing a small monohull until it comes time to tack or jibe. Most first attempts at tacking leave the neophyte, but excited, beach cat sailor in irons, without enough momentum to complete the tack.

To tack a catamaran, effectively trim in the main and jib and head up from a reaching course to an upwind course while maintaining good speed. No pinching allowed. Catamarans can "panic" and stop if you initiate the tack with aggressive steering. So, from an upwind course, begin your "textbook" tack by applying gentle but constant pressure on the tiller extension to turn the boat. Throughout the first half of the tack, keep the mainsheet fully sheeted while you sit on the windward side.


When the jib backwinds, your rudders should achieve their maximum angle of about 35 degrees. This angle should then be held constant until the tack is completed. As the jib backwinds begin moving toward the center of the trampoline with the mainsheet uncleated and in your hand. Moving toward the center of the boat will automatically ease the mainsheet about 3 feet. Then, facing aft (different from facing forward on a monohull dinghy), plant your knees on each side of the traveler cleat and pass the tiller extension from one hand to the other behind the mainsheet blocks. Don't straighten the rudders, keep them at 35 degrees.

As the boat finishes the tack, move to the new windward side carefully maintaining the constant rudder angle until the boat is pointed slightly lower than the new upwind course. Now, with the mainsheet still eased, you can straighten the rudders. Wit for the crew to trim the jib, then trim the mainsheet to the new upwind course.


If you are the crew out on the trapeze, to start the tack you will uncleat and hold the jibsheet after you have come in from the trapeze. As the helms person steers the boat into the tack, and your weight is needed on the trapeze, bend your knees, and using your free hand to pull you up on the trapeze handle sit on the trampoline. Then unhook the trapeze wire from your harness. The moment the jib snaps into a backwinded position, start counting. If you're sailing a Hobie 16 or other catamaran with no daggerboards, count "one-thousand one, one-thousand two, one-thousand three, one-thousand four," before releasing the jib and starting across the trampoline. Bypass this pause on cats with dagger/centerboards unless you're sailing in choppy waves. If tacking in chop, hold the backwind for about two seconds to allow the wind to help push the bows through the tack. During your scramble to the new windward side, ease the "old" jib sheet and trim in the "new" sheet (jib sheets are continuous). As you spin around on the new windward side, hook into the trapeze and while the wind powers up the sails, move out onto the trapeze while trimming the remaining jibsheet in concert with the helms person trimming the mainsheet. In windy conditions, use your legs to pull in the last bit of jibsheet as you move out into trapezing position.


Jibing a catamaran is a relatively high-speed maneuver. Before starting a jibe, steer so that the apparent wind is at about 90 degrees. Since you'll be traveling at about wind speed, your jibe angle will be close to 90 degrees as well. Compared to mastering the "textbook" tack, jibing is a breeze. From the skipper's perspective, let's assume you're blasting along on a broad reach. Move aft as you start your jibe. This will greatly reduce the possibility of your rudders cavitating which dramatically effects steering control (cavitating is when the rudders are turned so sharp that the boat can't keep up. The angle of the rudder creates a whirlpool of water and air mixed. Rudders don't work well in this mixture). To retain maximum speed through your jibe, try to aim the bows down a wave. Cleat your mainsheet and traveler so they will be in the same relative position after the jibe as they were before. Then start turning downwind in a smooth arc. The higher the wind, the less you'll have to turn the rudders.


Well before the boat turns dead-downwind, position yourself kneeling, facing aft (leeward) of the center of the trampoline. Flip the tiller extension behind the mainsheet blocks for the new jibe so that it rests right on top of and parallel to the tiller cross bar (the crossbar attaches the tiller for each rudder together). Grasp the tiller extension to leeward of the mainsheet with your other hand while maintaining constant rudder angle. Now the traveler is free to zip across the boat during the jibe without the possibility of your arm being in the way to slow it down and you've retained full steering control. Your position near the new windward hull helps to counteract the forces of the mainsail when it snaps full on the new jibe.


Complete the jibe on a broad reach by straightening the rudders when the leeward jib telltales begin to stream aft. To critique your steering technique, check your wake. One smooth continuous arc is optimum. As far as weight placement is concerned, the windier it is, the further aft your body weight must be. In light winds, move forward to the main (forward most) crossbeam to reduce speed-robbing transom drag.


For the crew, jibing a catamaran is similar to jibing a monohull. Consistency is the key. To help the skipper find the proper steering orientation to complete the jibe on a speedy broad-reach angle, keep the jibsheet trim from jibe to jibe the same. Put black marks on your sheets at their broad-reach settings to help keep trim consistent. The crew's position, like that of the helms person, is dependent on wind strength--the stronger the wind, the further aft the crew should be.

Capsize recovery

If your best efforts result in a capsize, don't worry, we've all been there. Assuming the boat is laying on its side and hasn't turned completely over, begin a "wind-assisted" capsize recovery by climbing up on the lower hull and moving your weight toward the bow. With the wind blowing, the trampoline pushes the transoms downwind so the bows point into the wind. Once the boat pivots, release the main and jibsheets.


Using the righting line, both skipper and crew lean out. The righting line is tied to the strut under the mast, and when needed is thrown over the upper hull to be used as leverage to right the boat. Wrapping the righting line around the trapeze harness hook helps you to lean out farther with less arm strain. If necessary, take a few steps toward the bow to keep the bows pointing into the wind. When the masttip comes out of the water, the wind will blow under the mast and mainsail, helping to right the boat. As the boat is coming upright and at about the time you feel you're past the balance point, hold on a bit longer just to be sure.


Finally, as the righting line goes slack, and the airborne hull is just about to hit the water, dive for the bottom hull to prevent a secondary capsize and to keep you safely with the boat in a close-hauled stationary course. Climb aboard, check all the lines and rigging for damage, trim in, and take off. With tacking, jibing, trapezing, and capsize recovery, under your lifejacket, it's time to hit the race course. Sailing competitively will help you to hone your skills.

Using a trapeze

Comfort while trapezing starts on the beach. Most bodies seriously reject being hung from a wire while wearing a harness. With this in mind, slide your harness on, usually by stepping through the leg holes like a pair of shorts. Then adjust your straps or lacing along the sides so that the harness fits very snugly around your hips and torso. Leave the shoulder straps loose, but in place over your shoulders at this point.


Next, with the boat still on the beach, hookup to the trapeze wire and stand out flat extending overboard from the trampoline. Adjust the trapeze wire block-and-tackle until your body is lined up parallel to the beach and is in a line from heel to head. Now adjust the shoulder straps for maximum support in this position.


Before launching, practice going out on the trapeze from sitting on the trampoline. With the trapeze wire clipped into your harness, face the mainsail while sitting just in front of the shroud with your buns partially over the edge of the trampoline bar on a Hobie 16, or the hull on other boats. Bend your back leg until your heel hooks over the rail. Now lower yourself down, over the side, with one hand on the trapeze handle until the wire fully support your weight. At the same time, partially straighten your back leg. Finally, bend your front leg with your heel over the rail and extend with both legs.


In wavy conditions, keep your feet apart for balance. When reaching, bend your back leg and place your front foot behind something firm like the shroud or rear beam just in case the bow buries. A line led from the transom forward for the crew to hold on to (the chicken line) is a good idea when blast reaching. Perfecting performance trapezing includes keeping your feet close together, keeping your body straight, and lowering your height to just clear the wave tops.