The Winged World of C Cats

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You would be forgiven for mistaking a room full of C Class catamaran sailors for aeronautical engineers. In some cases they are. The native C Cat speaker talks about Reynolds numbers, induced drag, camber, and angle of attack. They spew numbers and theories and formulas for speed.

The fraternity of international C Cat sailors spent much of September at Bristol Marine in Rhode Island. They were on a quest to remove the International C Class Catamaran Championship trophy from the grip of its defender, Cogito, which is sailed by Duncan McLane and Steve Clark. Present were a British challenge (Team Invictus), Team Australia, and Patient Lady 6, a relic of the C Class past. Each team had a posse of engineers, designers, friends, and fellow speed aficionados. They went sailing, broke things, and spent a lot of time in the parking lot repairing hulls, foils, and their radical 40-foot-high wing masts. Oh, and there was racing.

Without much of a challenge (or fanfare), Clark and McLane held on to the trophy, losing only one race in a weeklong series. The result is a subplot, really. Always has been. The story is about a small community of cat sailors and designers in pursuit of speed. And considering recent setbacks in the class, just having a challenge was a step in the right direction.

The last challenge was in 1996, when Cogito went down to Australia and won. Back then the contest was still known as the Little America's Cup, a sobriquet created by journalists in the 1960s. Last year Long Island's Sea Cliff Yacht Club, a longtime sponsor of the event, decided to go in a new direction. They took with them the name Little America's Cup, and the new product lacks the development angle (it's held in F-18 HT production catamarans) that purists argue was the whole point of the event. Meanwhile, as Sea Cliff was deciding to steer a new course, C Cats were being designed and built in Australia and England, and the show had to go on.

Steve Clark, whose father, Van Allan, sailed the C Beverly in 1963, changed the championship format to encourage competition. The new event starts with fleet racing. In the past one challenger would show up and match race the defender; as a measure of how things have changed in the C Cat game, in 1977 there were 13 challengers vying to race against the cup holders in Australia. After the fleet series in Bristol, when performance levels were clearly known, the racing went to matches; the 1 seed versus 2, 3 versus 4. In a little over two years, the racing will be held in Perth.

The 385-pound (including rig, hulls, and foils) Cogito remains the benchmark. In 8 knots of wind off Bristol, she was powered up more than the other cats, even with the heaviest crew on the wire; crew weight is nearly the same as a boat's all-up weight. Her carbon-fiber wing is clean and simple; the boat can double the windspeed in moderate winds and has a top-end speed of 24 knots. A better measure of the wing's performance is lift coefficient. The C Cat has an LC of 2.1, compared to a soft-sail boat's LC of 1. Working within three basic dimensions (25 feet long, 14 feet wide, and 300 feet of sail area), McLane and Clark have created a cat that is not only the fastest of its kind, but one that doesn't self-destruct. Keeping a C together, the Brits and Aussies have learned, is the hard part.

The Aussies need more time to develop a lightweight wing mast and foils. Team Invictus needs to go back to the drawing board; a soft-sail rig would have been faster than their "split-flap" wing, designed after the Spitfire wing. Patient Lady 6 still has it. Despite sailing with a wing mast that was built in 1982, PL 6 finished second with Lars Guck and Stan Schreyer on board.

But if 20-year-old Patient Lady can still compete, is C Class cat racing getting any better? They're no longer the top performance multihulls. That has to be the domain of the maxicats now circling the globe at 20-plus knots, occasionally hitting 30 knots, or the speedsters like Sailrocket going for the all-out straight-line speed record. But this doesn't seem to faze the players who were in Bristol, all of whom plan to develop faster wing masts for the next event in Australia. Norman Wijker of Team Invictus, for one, is hooked despite getting creamed on the water. He compares his campaign in financial terms to a 30-foot racing keelboat. "Certainly I'm biased, but these boats are a lot more interesting than 30-footers," he said. No argument here. Josh Adams

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