Copyright 2017 - Woods Designs, Foss Quay, Millbrook, Torpoint, Cornwall, PL10 1EN, UK
  • home built Flica 37

  • plywood Romany 34

  • lightweight 14ft Zeta mainhull

  • Strike 15 trimaran at speed

  • 28ft Skoota in British Columbia

  • 10ft 2 sheet ply Duo dinghy

  • 24ft Strider sailing fast

  • 36ft Mirage open deck catamaran

In this article I'll outline some ideas to make your own catamaran sail better.

The old adage "look after the ounces and seconds and the pounds and minutes will look after themselves" is never truer than on a multihull. Unfortunately chandlers don't sell lightness, so until they do, the most practical way of keeping a boat light is: - don't buy in the first place. It's also the cheapest option! Just because you have room for a washing machine doesn't mean you need one on board. At the end of each cruise be ruthless and take off everything you didn't use. OK, using the spare tyre analogy, leave essential spares on board!

Try to keep weight out of the ends, and definitely keep the bows empty. But having said that, one often goes faster to windward with the crew on the bow (especially in smaller boats when the crew weight is proportionately high.)

It's also really important to keep the hulls clean; as the extra drag from fouling is much more noticeable on a catamaran as it has a high wetted surface area.

It is the steering system that connects you to the boat, so ensure that there is no slop in the tiller bar ends or rudder stock bearings. Above all, have a good comfortable seating position with a clear view of the sails and approaching waves. If you have boards, then adjust them! I strongly recommend lifting the lee one when reaching, as that's when most breakages occur. Lift both when sailing downwind unless it's rough. Then have them half down. Otherwise the rudders are the deepest part of the boat, and it's then hard to steer.

People often have trouble tacking catamarans, but there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to do it in a well designed boat, even without the genoa. Usually the problem is because if a big roached mainsail is sheeted too tightly then it will weathercock and the boat stay head to wind. So you should ease both the traveller and sheet before tacking.

Most production boats are sold with cheap sails, which are usually cross cut in poor quality cloth. So, by implication many sailmakers don't make multihull sails strong enough. Cheap sails are false investments. Since a big roach generates huge leech loads, it is essential to have a tri-radial cut for a long lasting sail.

My Eclipse sails are made in spectra by top UK multihull sailmakers, Dolphin Sails, so are not what you'd normally see on a cruising boat. Thinking that they were far too good to use cruising, I bought some cheap sails for my Atlantic crossing. However, I found that after 3 months they had stretched more than the Dolphin ones did after three years, so I changed back to my good sails. Proof that it's never worth economizing on sails.

Many mainsails have battens that are too soft. On a catamaran over 25ft it is essential to use rod or foam sandwich battens, otherwise the sail will be too baggy. Having said that, I actually keep my (loose footed) sail quite full near the foot (around 10:1). It's only above half height that it is flat.

I have fitted a 6:1 downhaul/cunningham on the mainsail, as you can't rely solely on the main halyard to tension the luff. That's because the batten cars cause drag and so the halyard only tensions the top part of the sail. As an indication of the halyard tension on my 32ft catamaran, Spinlock told me to use a stopper they normally recommend for 40ft monohulls.

I don't call any boat a proper cruising boat unless it is possible for one person to reef or lower sails, even downwind or in a gale at night. Eclipse has a big full battened mainsail and swept back shrouds. Most people consider such rigs a recipe for disaster, but it's not necessarily true. To help tame it, I use Bainbridge Sailman 2000 slides, which are excellent, strong, low friction plastic slides.

But the real key to easy mainsail lowering is to have a mainsail downhaul. This is an 8mm rope tied to the headboard. I lead it through alternate sail slides so that it doesn't catch in the rigging. It's tied off slackly to the gooseneck when the sail is fully hoisted. On releasing the halyard, I pull on the downhaul and the top part of the sail drops. Works every time. And if you have a fully battened sail don't go to sea without the absolutely essential lazy jacks!

I have single line reefing on my first two reefs. By using large ball bearing blocks attached to the clew and tack rings, I have reduced friction and chafe. Once the reef is pulled in, I snapshackle the clew ring directly to the boom. I have Cunningham holes above each tack point so that I can still use my 6:1 purchase to tension the luff. This is MUCH easier than using the tack hooks. When that's set up I release the reefing pendant, so there is no chance of chafe. Incidentally, I use spectra reefing pendants, as they don't chafe.

After beating to windward in a gale across the Bay of Biscay, I decided that I also wanted a big roller furling line on the genoa, so use an 8mm spectra line there as well. After all, it's probably the one line that must never, ever, break. But it's not just ropes that can chafe. Sails wear out fast if they are allowed to rub on the shrouds, so I have 1" webbing sown to the batten pockets as sacrificial strips.

You should make use of the full beam of the boat. I don't use a kicking strap; instead I always use a 4:1 preventer on the boom and a barber hauler on the genoa. That's why leech telltales and jib woollies are the best "go fast" instruments you can have. The preventer also helps stop sail chafe. The boom vang rope is the only one on board in which I don't tie a stopper knot. That way if I have to gybe and release the vang in a hurry, it can run out freely.

A boom vang is also a good safety feature. I have a friend who didn't fit one on his 43ft catamaran. He tried to prevent a gybe all standing and broke his wrist. As he was 300 miles from land at the time and had a young family on board it was a distressing and painful experience for them all.

Many cruising sailors will be surprised to hear that I regularly fly a spinnaker when single-handed. Most spinnaker handling hassles come not from the spinnaker itself but rather from the pole - but a catamaran doesn't use a spinnaker pole! Asymmetric spinnakers are popular but I use a conventional spinnaker, as it's so much easier to gybe. I usually cruise downwind with the spinnaker up, the mainsail lowered and the autopilot on. It's the only way to go! Although I find it's often easier to sail at 130-150 apparent rather than dead downwind.

The two golden rules for fast sailing under spinnaker are to keep the clews level and "if in doubt let it out." I don't use a spinnaker sock to lower the sail as I find it frustratingly slow; instead I trip the guy in the "old fashioned" way and pull the sail down into the cockpit. With a bit of running around I can always do this by myself.