A Veteran Racer Tells of the Evolution and Performance of Beach Cats

The author and teammate Sarah Newberry (at the helm) put an Olympic class Nacra 17 through its paces. Photo courtesy of Mick Anderson/US Sailing

My first multihull experience came one summer day as some friends and I were enjoying the sun on a pontoon boat in the middle of a lake near landlocked Orlando, Florida, where I used to hang out as a kid. 

On the north side of the lake there was a public park where locals liked to beach their cats on sand trucked in from the coast. As the wind built, we noticed a Hobie 16 with rainbow-colored sails launch off the beach—with no one on it! Immediately, we turned our engine on and took off in pursuit of the runaway boat. As we approached it, my buddies told me to jump on. “I don’t know how to sail that thing,” I said. Nonetheless, after a quick unanimous vote I was elected skipper. As I hopped onto the port side of the tramp, the boat bobbed a little but maintained speed. I hurriedly figured out how to put the rudders down, and then how to trim the jib and mainsail. The boat quickly flew a hull with my small 12-year-old frame sitting on the high side. The boat sped up. That’s when my sailing life took a different direction. I was hooked. 

A vintage shot of the boat that started it all, the Hobie 16

After pestering the marina’s owner every day for years to let me sail his Prindle 16, my Dad bought me a Prindle 19 to sail on. At the time, in the early ‘90s, this was a true leading-edge design that featured centerboards instead of the asymmetric hulls found on the Prindle 16 and Hobie 16. It was also around this time that beach cats began flying spinnakers. These were huge by today’s standards- some of them measured up to 500 square feet- with a really deep draft, more like a J/24 spinnaker, and didn’t utilize apparent wind the way flatter-cut A-sails do today. Not surprisingly, the cats flying these things took quite a few trips down the mine. 

At the cutting edge, efforts like the Flying Phantom Project are taking cat sailing to whole new heights

After that I took  some time off from sailing at the end of high school and during college before getting involved in cats again in 2000 when I set my sights on the Worrell 1000, a thousand-mile race up the U.S. East Coast in which the boat of choice happened to be the Nacra 20. This 20-foot cat employed a number of the cutting-edge innovations, many borrowed from windsurfing, including the use of square-top mainsails. It also had a carbon mast, high-aspect daggerboards, which had less drag than centerboards, and a flatter-cut asymmetric spinnaker that allowed for faster downwind speeds. With its high-volume bows, the boat was designed around the spinnaker and sails like a dream. I still call it the “Cadillac of Catamarans.” 

The Nacra 20 remains a favorite in endurance events like the Great Texas 300. Photo courtesy of Surf City Racing

After competing in a couple Worrell 1000s and a host of other races on the Nacra 20, the new Formula 18 class caught my eye. (Although the Nacra 20 remains competitive in such races as the Great Texas 300, a modern version of the Worrell.) Each F18 is built according to a box rule, wherein the design must fall within a strict set of parameters governing things like maximum and minimum length, weight, sail area and beam. The class also has a number of rules to keep costs down and make racing as even as possible. (For example, hulls must be polyester and spars aluminum.) As a result, even though this isn’t a one-design class, it’s the most pure form of spinnaker beach cat racing today, with a number of different builders offering competing designs, including Hobie, Nacra and Boulogne Conception Marine, maker of the Cirrus R. This year’s F18 world championship had 184 teams competing. 

The Marstrom 20 represents an all-out effort to maximize beach cat performance. Photos courtesy of Gregor Stimpfl

Beyond that, for real cutting-edge innovations unlimited by material restrictions and cost concerns, we have to look to boats like the Marstrom 20, which I began sailing a few years ago. At 20ft long and 9.5ft wide, with a 34ft mast, the M20 weighs just 250lb, and is a modern masterpiece, with carbon Nomex hulls, and almost every other part of the boat (including the rigging) made out of carbon as well. After sailing the boat for a while with normal daggerboards, Marstrom also came out with asymmetric daggerboard foils to take its performance to the next level. What a feeling! It was Christmas in summer when they arrived. 

Called “banana” foils because of their curved profile, these daggerboards provide a vertical force as well as lateral lift, so that as speeds increase, the entire boat lifts out of the water. Unfortunately, when this happens you also start to have problems, because the more the boat lifts out of the water the less surface area you have providing lateral lift, until the entire boat is left balancing on a single point. In practice, we would sometimes come off a wave in a stiff breeze, and the boat would literally fly out of the water and do a wheelie. It would then crash back down because of loss of speed and the whole process would start over. As a result, the M20 is what we call a “semi-foiling” boat, because it’s not really supposed to go airborne. It’s the same thing with the Nacra 17, the new Olympic multihull. My teammate, Sarah Newberry, and I now try to take the boat right to the edge of foiling, but not beyond, because it becomes too unstable to control. This is one of the new skills needed in Olympic multihull sailing. 

With its wave-piercing bows and carbon daggerboards, the Hobie Wild Cat is a typical F18 racer

Because the Nacra 17 is a one-design boat, the changes needed to make it more stable will be a long time in coming. However, other foiling designs, like those in the singlehanded A-Cat development class, have already become more stable through the use of horizontal foils on the rudders, which provide two more contact surfaces to control pitch. This has led to full foiling beach cats, just like the AC72s, with designers searching for ways to create foils that are stable enough both vertically and laterally to make multihull flying a production possibility. The best example of this kind of boat is the Flying Phantom Project

Note that while the AC72s have active foil controls to help control ride height (how far the boat sails above the water) and fore and aft pitch, the weight of the sailors aboard a beach cats accounts for a larger percentage of the total weight of the boat, so crew placement is key to provide stability. Foiling beach cat designs are still in their early stages, so there is still a long way to go before we see boats as stable as the AC72—and even they can be scary at times!

Another interesting offshoot of the technology is that as foils become more efficient, spinnakers will become less necessary, and sail area and the size of hulls will decrease. Twenty years ago we thought bigger was better. Now our idea of fast is completely opposite. Beyond that, only time will tell what the next big step will be for beach cat development.  

Veteran multihull racer John Casey has his
sights set on representing the U.S. in the Nacra 17
class at the 2016 Olympic Games.
To learn more, visit usamultihull2016.com


Two BIG Cats

Great Cup 32

With their 32-foot LOAs, the Marstrom 32 and Great Cup (CG) 32 catamarans would hardly be classified as beach cats in the conventional sense of the word. Nonetheless, their beach cat DNA is clearly evident in their hull shapes, tramps and towering high-aspect rigs. Both boats are built in carbon and feature exotically curved daggerboards in the interest of all-out speed. They have also both been designed with grand-prix one-design racing in mind, along the lines of the Exreme 40 class

In an interesting twist, the Marstrom includes hiking racks to get crew weight outboard without having to resort to dramatic hiking or a wire, all in the interest of “fun leisure speed cruising.” Marstrom CompositeAB also provided the boat with some additional hull volume forward in the interest of stability and safety: no small concern about a “cruising” boat capable of doing 30-plus knots!

Marstrom 32

Alas, crews aboard the CG32 will have to hike out the old-fashioned way, but it’s safe to say, that’s fine with them. A handfull of regattas have already taken place in Europe, featuring such multihull luminaries as World Match Racing Champion Adam Miniprio of New Zealand. A formalized Great Cup circuit is set to kick off in 2014. How cool would it be to see these two speedsters go head-to-head?—Adam Cort

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