How To Sail a Large Catamaran (Complete Guide)


Over the years, catamarans have evolved from small boats to large cruisers capable of carrying thousands of people and tons of cargo. They have become increasingly popular because of their large carrying capacity, high speeds, and increased stability. If you are interested in learning how to sail a large catamaran, you are in the right place.

To sail a large catamaran like a professional, you first need to familiarize yourself with its different parts and commonly used sailing terms. Prepare for sailing by rigging and maneuver the waters by carefully tacking and jibing where necessary. Additionally, you will need to know about docking.

For mastery of catamaran sailing skills, you can enroll in sailing classes, watch as an expert sail, or watch YouTube tutorials. Additionally, you can use this piece, which offers a complete guide on sailing a catamaran. Read on to learn more about:

  • What is a catamaran
  • Parts of a catamaran
  • Important sailing terms
  • Catamaran sailing guide

Read this for some surprising and cheap ways of learning to sail a catamaran!

Know the Essential Parts of a Catamaran and Important Sailing Terms

Before you learn how to sail, you need to understand what a catamaran is and its structure. Knowing the key parts of a catamaran is crucial if you are interested in sailing a cat because, other than expounding your knowledge, it helps with communication when sailing.

What Is a Catamaran?

A catamaran, also known as a cat, is a multi-hulled large sailboat. It features two engines and two equally sized parallel hulls connected by crossbeams from which it derives its stability. It boasts of a vast space that contributes to its large carrying capacity.

Essential Parts of a Catamaran

Below are some of the vital parts of a catamaran:

  • Hull: The body of the catamaran that carries cargo and passengers and also supports rigging.
  • Keel: usually mini keels that are attached below the hull to prevent the cat from sliding sideways. It provides stability and reduces the chances of capsizing.
  • Rudder: A movable underwater steering part of the cat that is turned by a tiller or steering wheel.
  • Mast: A robust vertical pole whose primary role is supporting sails.
  • Mainsail: The principal triangular sail on the mast, which is also the most important sail.
  • Headsail: Also known as the jib. It is the foresail that fits the foretriangle in the mast.
  • Boom: A pole that is horizontally attached to the mast mainly used for extending the foot of the mainsail.
  • Sheets: Strong ropes used to control the sail’s angle in relation to the wind.
  • Halyard: They are ropes used to raise or lower the sails on the mast.
  • Winch: A cylindrical or drum-shaped metallic device on which lines are wrapped for easier trimming.
  • Rigging: is everything that makes the sail function in the correct way. There are two types of rigging:
  • The running rigging: Refers to rigging used to operate the sails. For example, the halyard lowers and heaves the mainsail.
  • The standing rigging: The rigging that supports the mast and the sail to keep it upright.

Complete interactive guide to catamaran parts!

Now that you are familiar with some parts of a catamaran let’s look at the important sailing terminologies.

Important Sailing Terms

These important sailing terms will come in handy when sailing:

  • Port: When facing forward, port refers to anything to the left of the catamaran. You can use this term when referring to the left side.
  • Starboard: It is the opposite of ‘port.’ It refers to anything to the right of the cat.
  • Point of sail: This refers to the cat’s direction relative to the wind. For example, if the wind blows straight over the sides of your cat, you are on a ‘beam reach’ point of sail. Additionally, if you are heading straight to the wind (which is not advisable), you are on the ‘in irons’ point of sail.
  • Bow/stern: Refers to the front and back parts of the catamaran, respectively. Anything to the front is said to be in the ‘forward’ / ‘Abaft’ while the back is in the ‘aft.’
  • Heeling: A situation in which the catamaran leans over in the water while being pushed by the wind.
  • Windward: It is the side of the cat that is closest to the wind. When heeling, the windward side is often the highest.
  • Leeward: The side of your cat furthest from the wind. It is often the lowest side when heeling.
  • Tack: Tack has two distinct meanings as a verb and as a noun. As a verb, it means changing direction by turning the catamaran’s bow through the wind. On the other hand, it means your cat’s course relative to the wind as a noun. For example, if the wind is blowing on the port side, you will say you are on the port tack.
  • Jibe (Gybe): It is another way of changing direction, in which case you bring the stern through the wind.

Complete parts guide if you want to know more!

With the above terms in mind, you are now better positioned to understand how to sail a catamaran.

Understand How a Catamaran Works

A catamaran works similarly to any other monohull sailboat. However, many people, and especially newbies, do not clearly understand the concept behind the forward motion. Here is how it works:

Once in the water, the wind blows over the sails creating high pressure on one side and low pressure on the opposite side. These two opposite pressures create a forward force. As the wind continues to blow, it forms a pulling force that works on your cat, making it move. And because your cat has keels under the hull, they help it to move forward and not slide to the side as much.

Your control of the steering wheel, plus the pressure of the wind, keep your cat moving in your desired direction. This means you do not just sit back and wait for the wind to heel your cat. You, too, have control over it.

Prepare Your Catamaran for Sailing

The state of your catamaran and the weather conditions affect sailing. Therefore, it’s important to prepare and assess the weather conditions before you set out.   

To prepare your catamaran for sailing:

Perform a Detailed Check

Visually check your cat to ensure all parts are intact and in perfect working condition. Here are a few things to do: 

  • Check your standing and running rigging for cracks or excessive wear.
  • Ensure that the lines are free; that is, they are not wrapped around each other or folded on to anything else within the cat. Pull the lines off the cleats (on-deck hooks) and off the winches to ensure they are free of any obstacles.
  • Additionally, check if the tiller is properly attached to the rudder. Also, ensure that it efficiently controls the rudder.
  • Check the condition of your sails. They should be straight with no frayed edges or wrinkles. At this point, your cat is ready for you to hoist the sails.

Determine the Wind’s Direction

Use the wind instruments on your cat to check the direction of the wind. Most cats have a wind indicator on their mast or a digital gauge.

Additionally, you can determine the wind’s direction using the flags attached to the sides of your cat.

Point the Catamaran to the Wind

Having known the direction of the wind, now point your cat in the right direction using your engines to move you into place. The idea here is to have minimum wind resistance when raising the sails.

Hoist the Sails

After preparing your cat, the next step is to hoist the sails. To do this:

Attach the Sails

To hoist the sails, start with the mainsail.

  1. Prepare your mainsail for hoisting; open the easy-bag (a zip bag that stores the mainsail). Before releasing the mainsail, ensure that everything is clear to allow it to pass between the lazy jacks (riggings along each side of the mainsail that extends from the boom o a point on the mast) with ease.
  2. Locate the main halyard (rope used to raise or lower the mainsail) in your cat and begin raising the mainsail. If you have enough manpower, you can begin pulling it by hand (wear a pair of hand gloves or use a winch for this). Pull it until it is perfectly positioned on the mast. Your mainsail is now hoisted. Allow it to fill with air.
  3. Next, correctly coil the main halyard so that the mainsail can be lowered quickly and with much ease if need be.
  4. Now we move on to the headsail/jib/genoa. Hoisting the jib is much easier compared to hoisting the mainsail. Identify the jib halyard (rope used to raise or lower the jib) in your cat. Just like the mainsail, ensure the jib is free, and the reefing lines are clear.
  5. Start pulling the jib halyard until the jib is correctly positioned. You can pull it by hand or using the winch. Coil your jib halyard correctly.
  6. Your sails are now positioned, and you are ready to sail. Be sure to trim them according to changes in the wind’s direction.

Adjust Your Direction and Sail Trim

Always remember it is not possible to sail your cat directly into the wind. You can change your direction through tacking or jibing.

When heeling, a heel greater than 10° is an indication that the wind is overpowering you, and your windward hull will be close to lifting. In this case, consider releasing the main sheets briefly to reduce the heel. A comfortable heeling position is between 6-7°.

Trim the Jib Sheets

Despite the mainsail being hoisted first, the jib comes first when trimming. Of the two jib sheets on the catamaran’s sides, start by pulling the one on the leeward. The leeward sheet is known as the active sheet, and the lazy sheet is the one opposite.

The jib sheet forms a curve as you trim, and it’s up to you to trim it until its front edge stops luffing.

Trim the Mainsail

Trimming the mainsail is easy. Pull out the main sheet. Once the mainsail’s front edge starts luffing, draw it back until the luffing stops.

If the direction remains constant, this position is ideal to set your sails. If the wind direction changes, adjust the sheet appropriately. At this point, you are more than ready to sail.

Sail Your Catamaran

Watch Your Sails

Keep an eye on the sail edge’s front on the jib and the mainsail. If you notice any luffing on your sails, you have a couple of options. To either tighten the main sheets to stop the luffing or direct the cat away from the wind (bearing off). At this point, luffing indicates that you are going much deeper into the wind’s direction.

Watch Out for Your Telltale

Telltales are the wind indicators that notify you of any changes in the wind direction on your sails. Your telltales will help you know whether your sail trim is correct. They help you determine how you should adjust your sails to get the maximum forward momentum.

Different Points of Sail

Broad Reach

A broad reach is when you have the wind blowing at your back and side.

It’s the most efficient sailing position when going downwind because both sails will be filled with wind, thus moving you at maximum force.

Running

Running is when the wind is blowing at your back. This is not a good sailing position. It is risky because the plenty of air moving over the sail generates more force than the wind pushing the cat. To avoid this, pull the jib sheet over to the opposite side to create a wing-on-wing position. This helps in reducing the force on the sail.

Note: When your cat is running, it’s possible that the force of the wind behind it can cause a sudden jibe (gybe). This sudden change of direction can throw the boom to the cockpit with a huge force that can knock you down. Be careful when on a running course.

Therefore, it is advisable to use a rig preventer (a line from the boom to any available cleat) when running the wind. The rig preventer helps in preventing accidents in case of a sudden jibe.

Close Reach

For a close reach point of sail, turn your cat slightly so that your heading is approximately 60-75° off the wind. Here you need to trim the sheets further to ensure that the sheets are more aligned with the body of your cat.

Beam Reach

This is considered the most precise point of sail. To achieve this, you will turn your cat to about 90° of the wind. The sails are let out halfway, and at this point, your cat can offer you some really good speeds.

Close Haul

Close haul offers you a position in which you can sail as close as possible to the wind. It is about 45-60° off the wind. On a catamaran, especially a heavily loaded cruising catamaran this number is higher(not able to sail close to the wind), and on a performance cat, you can go a little closer to the wind.

Sail Upwind

When shifting to a close haul tack, sheet in the sails as you fully lower the centerboards or daggerboards. Continue steering as you observe the telltales and other wind indicators, being cautious not to pinch (sail too close to the wind).

Sailing Downwind

Under light or moderate winds, catamarans sail fast downwind. 

Changing direction

If you want to sail in another direction, you can change your bearing through tacking or jibing. However, tacking is more popular among sailors than jibing. 

For you to tack under moderate conditions, you must be sailing as close-hauled as possible. Additionally, you should center the traveler (a great sail-control used in fine-tuning the mainsail).

Based on the prevailing sea state, it might be necessary to briefly backwind the jibsail before sheeting in on the new direction. This will help the bow in making a successful turn through the wind.

For a successful tack, you should be quick in sheeting in the jibsail in the new direction. If you feel like your cat is going to stall, quickly release the traveler and the mainsheet as they will force the bow through the wind.

During this time, you should continue with the helm (tiller and other parts associated with the steering wheel) and steer all the way through the wind.

The rudder angle and the wind indicators will help you know when the tack has been completed, which prompts you to straighten the rudders. Your cat is now on a new tack.

Tacking vs Jibing explained

Jibing

By jibing, you turn the cat away (bear away) from the wind by bringing the stern across the wind.

To begin with, centralize the traveler to allow for the mainsail to be centered. Before you start turning, sheet in the mainsheet hard so that when you bear away, your mainsail wont be swinging around and risk injury to equipment or crew.

Once the mainsail has back winded and changed direction so that you are on the opposite tack, quickly release the mainsheet to ensure that the power remains on as you prepare for the second part of the jibe.

Now back wind the jibsail and quickly release the windward jib sheet. Do this as you tighten the leeward jib sheet until the jibsail passes through the fore triangle and you can easily trim it using this same jib sheet. Release the windward jib sheet completely. 

Sailing Safety

When learning how to sail a catamaran, it is also important to gain some tips on reefing, which is one of the most important sailing safety tips. Additionally, you should learn when your catamaran is in danger of capsizing.

Docking Your Catamaran

The way you dock in your catamaran depends on the side with which you are approaching the dock. For example, when docking to portside, your first part ashore will be the spring line leading forward from your port quarter (left rear part of your boat).

Once you arrive at the dock, put the port engine in slow reverse and the starboard one in forward mode. The different engine modes will help you place your catamaran close to the dock while allowing your spring line to be securely held and tightened. The spring line is the rope you tie to the dock from your catamaran to prevent the boat’s forward and backward movement. 

Tightening the spring line helps hold you close and steady as you secure the bow and stern lines.

Conclusion

Consistency and practice will help you grasp large catamaran sailing concepts much faster.

Here’s a summary of the tips to help you in this course:

  • Familiarize yourself with parts of a catamaran before getting into the water.
  • Learn common sailing terms. 
  • Learn how to prepare your catamaran through visual checks of rigging sails.
  • Practice hoisting and trimming the mainsail and the headsail.
  • Conquer your fears and face the actual challenge of sailing a catamaran. Be confident, practice consistently, and you will sail like a professional sooner than you expect.

Sources

Gabo

Owner of CatamaranFreedom.com. A minimalist that has lived in a caravan in Sweden, 35ft Monohull in the Bahamas, and right now in his self-built Van. He just started the next adventure, to circumnavigate the world on a Catamaran!

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