Maximize Your Performance on a Cruising Catamaran

Perhaps you’re looking at a cat as an option for an extended cruise, or you’ve chartered a catamaran for a week in the British Virgin Islands. You’re expecting some thrilling multihull speed, but once on the water you find you are disappointed.
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Perhaps you’re looking at a cat as an option for an extended cruise, or you’ve chartered a catamaran for a week in the British Virgin Islands. You’re expecting some thrilling multihull speed, but once on the water you find you are disappointed.

It doesn’t have to be that way. True, charter cats and many cruising cats are under powered compared to their high-performance brethren, but you can still get decent performance out of even the most basic charter cat by applying some simple sail-trim techniques. Some of these are unique to cats and some carry over from monohulls. As always, when trying to get the most out of any boat, some racing experience is helpful.

Let’s take a sail counter-clockwise around one of my favorite islands, Tortola, in the BVI, and look at how we can sail our cruising cat to maximize speed and fun.

 1. Crack off to optimize your cat's performance to weather; 2. Tack downwind on a series of fast broad reaches; & 3. Scrub power to save reefing in an acceleration zone

1. Crack off to optimize your cat's performance to weather; 2. Tack downwind on a series of fast broad reaches; & 3. Scrub power to save reefing in an acceleration zone

A NICE BEAT

 Full-batten main on a cat. You can control the amount of twist in the sail with the mainsheet and traveler

Full-batten main on a cat. You can control the amount of twist in the sail with the mainsheet and traveler

Leaving Road Harbour, you’ll first harden up to sail to weather. The genoa most likely is sheeted to a track on the cabintop, which gives you a narrow sheeting angle that should allow you to point as high as on a monohull. You sheet the main in tight so it’s not getting too much backwind and head up to get the telltales on the jib flowing nicely. Looking around, however, you see other boats are whizzing by.

The problem is you are asking the boat to do something it isn’t meant to. You’ll fare better if you bear off a few degrees and ease the sails slightly. As you ease the jib, look up at the top of it. If it’s twisting off too much—that is, if it’s tight down low, but the top is luffing—you need to move your sheet lead forward to tension the leech and the upper portion of the sail. Keep moving the lead until the upper and lower telltales flow parallel to each other.

The main is a little more difficult. Here you want to ease the sheet just a little at a time, until all the telltales are streaming aft. Mains on catamarans generally carry huge roaches, thanks to their full battens. Because of this, the top of the main will twist off to leeward with only a little ease on the sheet. Some twist is good and helps to power up the sail, but too much will leave the top half of your sail doing nothing to propel you forward. That’s why you’ll find a nice long mainsheet traveler on just about every cat you go sailing on. Once you have the sail twisted perfectly so the telltales are streaming nicely, adjust the traveler—rather than the mainsheet—to make sure the sail isn’t luffing at all.

 A delivery skipper's trick: pole out the jib if there's enough breeze blowing to run straight downwind

A delivery skipper's trick: pole out the jib if there's enough breeze blowing to run straight downwind

After a long board out toward Cooper Island, it looks like you can lay Beef Island on the other tack. Remember, you’ll be tacking through 100 degrees or more, because you’ve cracked off and are sailing fast, rather than pointing as high as possible. Hopefully your net speed upwind, or velocity made good (VMG), is about the same, or maybe even faster, than that of the monohulls you left port with.

Now it’s time to tack. This will be a balancing act. Turn too slowly and you may end up in irons. Turn too quickly and you may not get through the wind before the rudders stop the boat. It takes a little practice to get it right, but don’t worry. If you stall, just wait until the boat stops completely, then reverse your helm and back down until the boat is on the other tack. Sheet in, and you’ll quickly be accelerating.

A FAST REACH

After a couple of tacks you’ll be clear of Scrub Island, where you can ease your sails out for a reach toward Great Camanoe. The main will immediately take on a lot of twist, so sheet it in and ease the traveler. This will take the twist out of the sail while also changing its angle of attack.

 If there's a spinnaker aboard, tack it to the windward bow. Here the clew has been stabilized with an extra snubber line to the leeward bow

If there's a spinnaker aboard, tack it to the windward bow. Here the clew has been stabilized with an extra snubber line to the leeward bow

As the boat now scoots off on its favorite point of sail, you’ll notice that the apparent wind has moved forward and you may need to trim in the sail again. This is why racing multihulls carry reaching sails instead of spinnakers; they rarely sail with the breeze aft of the beam.

The boat is now eating up distance quickly, and soon it’s time to ease the traveler and jibsheet again as you bear off toward the north point of Guana Island on a nice broad reach. As the wind goes aft of the beam you slow down a little, but still you’re moving along pretty well. Now the telltales on the mainsail battens won’t be flying, so you have to play with the sail a bit to get it setting at its best. Don’t be afraid to let it lie against the swept-back spreaders and shrouds if necessary. If you have a boom vang, now’s the time to apply a little tension so there’s not too much twist in the sail.

 Lacking a pole, you can take a line from a jib's clew to the leeward bow to help hold it open to the wind while running off

Lacking a pole, you can take a line from a jib's clew to the leeward bow to help hold it open to the wind while running off

As soon as the north end of Guana is abeam, you can, if you like, bear off to a run. But as you do this the boat suddenly feels stuck in the water, and the jib droops in the lee of the main. Dead downwind is a weak point of sail for just about any multihull. You’ll do much better if you head up until the jib fills again—maybe even a little higher—until the apparent wind angle is around 140 to 120 degrees. All of a sudden you and the boat will be having fun again, and you’ll be making better time to leeward. A double win!

“Always sail on a reach,” says North Sails multihull expert Paul van Dyke. “Try to avoid picking a destination straight down- or upwind.”

If you have one, now’s the time to set a spinnaker tacked to the windward bow and sheeted to the leeward quarter. If you don’t have a spinnaker, try sheeting the jib to the outside of the leeward hull, perhaps to a midship cleat.

BLEED OFF THE POWER

After gybing back and forth between Tortola and Jost van Dyke, you’ll eventually harden up again to reach across the West End into Francis Drake Channel. Now it’s time to trim the sheets, pull up the traveler, and head to weather again. The wind accelerates between St. John and Tortola, but will ease again in the wide part of the channel. You don’t want to reef, but you’re a little overpowered. So ease the mainsheet and purposely let the top twist off to depower your sail for a while. A few tacks later you’re back in Road Harbour.

And the lessons learned are…

To sail a multihull successfully, the most important thing is to keep it moving. Don’t try to point too high or sail straight downwind.

Let me qualify that last statement a bit: I recently delivered a Leopard 46 from San Diego to Hawaii with only a mainsail and jib aboard. Sure enough, we found we spent a lot of time running directly downwind. We could have headed up and gybed downwind on a series of broad reaches, but that would have meant taking the large seas on our quarter. This would have made our ride much less comfortable and would have strained the autopilot as it fought against the waves pushing the stern around. Instead we lashed a spinnaker pole to the mast and ran wing-and-wing in comfort straight down the waves. The wind was strong enough that we made good speed dead downwind.

After many weeks sailing catamarans, this monohull sailor is now a convert. There’s no reason not to enjoy sailing a cat, whether it’s on an ocean passage or a seven-day charter. You just have to get used to a different style of sailing—and the fact that your drink isn’t going to spill.

Illustration by Steve Stankiewicz; top photos by Charles J. Doane; bottom photo by Andrew Burton

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