Learn to tame a cat's big main in calm con­di­tions so you'll be ready when the wind dogs howl.

Cruising World - - Contents - By Don Mar­graf

Learn how to tame a cata­ma­ran’s big main­sail when it’s calm at the dock, and then go sail­ing and give it a try in some breeze.

In mono­hull sail­ing, when you leave too much sail up in a build­ing breeze the signs are clear: The rail is un­der­wa­ter, the dishes are on the floor, Grandma is terri-fied. The boat is deal­ing with ex­cess en­ergy by try­ing to lever a 5-ton lead weight out of the wa­ter; in other words, it's heel­ing, spilling breeze, slow-ing down and round­ing up. Mul­ti­hulls don't be­have that way. When you over­pow-er a cat, it can only ac­cel­er­ate, dig a hole in the wa­ter or bust gear. No-heel sail­ing has a lot of ad­van­tages, but one draw-back is the temp­ta­tion to sail badly. You might eas­ily go sail-ing with break­fast dishes on the ta­ble and post­pone reefing un­til you've cleaned things up. In the mean­time, the breeze is on, the boat's im­pos­si­ble to steer The best place to and learn how to tuck you in a reef is at shred the dock. Pick a morn­ing a with zero sail. wind, and hoist. Prac­tice One reefing and un-reel­ing key till you to can do it safe in less than three min­utes, cata­ma­ran blind-folded. If some­thing jams or sail­ing snags, stop. Find the source, fig­ure is out the to cause and fuc learn it. Look for in­her­ent weak when spots, chafe ar­eas — and jammed and lines or sail how slides. Study the —to whole sys­tem in re­duce slow mo­tion and imag­ine how sail. it will be­have in howl­ing wind, thrash­ing seas or on pitch-dark nights. With the main down and flaked on the boom, go to the mast and haul up the main hal-yard, hoist­ing the sail as far as you can with two hands and no winch. Let it drop. Re­peat and get a feel for the amount of fric-

Cruis­ing cata­ma­rans don't heel, so sails can be­come over­pow­ered, mak­ing steer-ing dif­fi­cult. The an­ti­dote: Prac­tice reefing main and jib be­fore the wind builds.

tion built in to this most sim­ple sys­tem. Then, if your lines lead to the cock­pit, go back and re­peat the pro­ce­dure from where you would nor­mally hoist the sail. Note how ev­ery bend and turn adds fric­tion.

It’s im­por­tant to have a solid un­der­stand­ing of your boat’s base-line re­sis­tance. When some­thing jams in the dark, at sea, and you’re alone in the cock­pit, you have to know na­ture’s lit­tle warn­ing signs. Your evil in­ner voice will say, “You’re just tired. Put that thing on the elec­tric winch!” You have to be able to ar­gue back, “No, this is not the nor­mal amount of fric­tion. Some­thing’s wrong.” Re­mem­ber: There are no snag prob­lems an elec­tric winch can’t make worse.

While you’re at the mast, study the goose­neck. With the first reef in, look at the way the reef line is led to the deck and back to the cock­pit. Look for fric­tion and chafe. Push the boom out and back, mak­ing sure the reef line doesn’t change ten­sion. Look back at the tail end of the boom, where the reef line passes through the leech. The reef line should pull both reef points in two di­rec­tions: down and for­ward at the luff, and down and back at the leech. It should run through all its turns, from boom to cock­pit, with min­i­mal re­sis­tance. It might ap­pear to be all clean and peace­ful at the dock, but on big seas, ev­ery­thing is in mo­tion. The slight­est chafe whit­tles line down to bird-nest fod­der in no time.

Next, work out your own check­list for reefing. It should be a sim­ple list of the ba­sic steps, in an or­der that goes some­thing like this: 1) Ease main­sheet. 2) Set top­ping lift. 3) Ease hal­yard. 4) Tighten and se­cure reef line. 5) Re-ten­sion hal­yard. 6) Trim sheet.


Once you’ve got it down pat at the dock and you’re ready for a test run, pack a lunch and look for a steady 15-knot breeze with plenty of sea room. Set a head­ing on a close reach, check sea room again and punch in the au­topi­lot. Watch the au­topi­lot drive for five min­utes while you re­view your check­list.

When you’re ready, ease the main­sheet and let the trav­eler down un­til the main is com­pletely de-pow­ered. Ad­just jib trim and au­topi­lot head­ing un­til the boat stays on course, pow­ered only by the jib; don’t fall off and let the luff­ing main fill again. The speed will go down sail­ing only on the jib, but the boat should bal­ance, still on a close reach. Now go through your check­list and prac­tice it step by step for both the first and sec­ond reef, haul­ing the sail up and down un­til you have it down cold or run out of sea room.

Reefing on a close reach has its own tricks and hassles, but I find it far eas­ier than start­ing en­gines, push­ing the bow into the wind, leap­ing off wave crests, pound­ing in troughs, watch­ing for stray lines in the props and mind­ing the flog­ging boom.

In the dis­tant past, when main­sails had short (or no) bat­tens, the sail flogged when luff­ing. This was con­sid­ered hard on the sail­cloth. The full-length bat­tens on mod­ern cata­ma­ran main­sails take the flog out of the sail but put it in the boom. This is con­sid­ered hard on skulls, should they be in the way. An out-of-con­trol boom also flails slack lines, which snag, bend, re­move hard­ware and tie them­selves in weird knots. It’s a deadly men­ace to life and prop­erty. I try to avoid it at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. Still, it’s good to prac­tice reefing nose-to-wind, and also heav­ing to. It’s dif­fi­cult, it tests boathandling skills and it helps pre­pare you for the tough­est chal­lenge: reefing while sail­ing on a run.

Be­fore we head off down­wind, let’s heave to for a minute and re­view. We like to prac­tice at the dock, in dead calm, be­cause, well, it’s calm. Ev­ery­thing’s easy.

So how to know when to reef? The first ob­vi­ous an­swer is the wind-speed in­di­ca­tor. If your boat has an owner’s man­ual, it prob­a­bly rec­om­mends reefing at 18, 28 and 35 knots or

so. Ev­ery boat is dif­fer­ent, and no rule fits ev­ery si­t­u­a­tion, but take it on faith that these are ball­park fig­ures. Pick your own num­bers, but be con­ser­va­tive, watch the wind speedo (hope­fully it’s been cal­i­brated) and stick to your rules till you know your boat well.

Do you put in the first reef at 18 knots true or ap­par­ent? Great ques­tion. Most cats pick up a lot of speed when they head down­wind. This ex­ag­ger­ates the dif­fer­ence be­tween true-and ap­par­ent-wind speed. You’ll es­pe­cially no­tice this if you have set a gen­naker or spin­naker and the wind is build­ing. If you head up even a few de­grees on these sails, the ap­par­ent-wind speed builds so fast you might have a shred­ded sail quicker than you can say “snap fill.”

Write your reefing-guide check­list with true-wind speed in mind, and make a note to clearly un­der­stand how your boat’s speed and head­ing af­fect ap­par­ent-wind speed and an­gle. Then make a note on the dash­board for down­wind driv­ers: “Steer down in a puff.” The deeper down­wind an­gle you sail, the less the ap­par­ent wind. And vice versa.

Most cata­ma­rans have shrouds placed far aft, and no back­stay. That means the boom can­not swing out as far as on typ­i­cal mono­hulls, and there­fore the jibe an­gle is smaller. The boat has a nar­rower range of down­wind sail­ing an­gles. For this rea­son, and a few other ar­chi­tec­tural ones, cat sailors don’t of­ten sail dead down­wind, at least not with the main up. It’s a big sail, with lots of roach in the leech; long, heavy bat­tens; and, on many boats, a trav­eler that’s 10 or more feet long. When you jibe one of these ac­ci­den­tally in 25 knots, it’s like lift­ing a cat by the tail: You dis­cover new things that can’t be learned any other way.

A lot of good sailors will say you can’t reef that big sail when it’s loaded on a run. But some­thing about turn­ing into a huge fol­low­ing sea is a mo­ti­va­tor to try. When you turn into the wind to reef, and start tak­ing big waves on the beam, even though you know that in the­ory your boat was de­signed not to cap­size, all your senses will scream, “We’re go­ing over!”

So be­fore you get caught out in 20-foot seas with too much can­vas up, it’s best to learn how to reef the big main while sail­ing hard, down­wind.


You can work out the ba­sic moves and hard­ware at the dock. But to feel the pres­sure, the fric­tion you’re up against when sail­ing on a run, it’s good to have a long stretch of wide, flat wa­ter and at least 15 knots of steady breeze.

If you have the lux­ury of crew, this is the time to put your best down­wind driver at the wheel. If you are cruis­ing alone, or with a mate, your au­topi­lot is your best friend and the most im­por­tant piece of gear on the boat. Most au­topi­lots have a wind func­tion; in­stead of a mag­netic head­ing, they will steer to an ap­par­ent-wind di­rec­tion. This is where you learn to use it, ad­just it and trust it. The boat has to main­tain a rock-solid wind an­gle, and you need to be able to tweak it a few de­grees, up or down, and trust it won’t lurch into a round-down wild jibe.

Be­fore you punch the au­topi­lot into duty, set your head­ing and sail trim on a deep down­wind an­gle that’s bal­anced and easy to steer. If you’re strug­gling, zig­ging off and zag­ging back, fight­ing a heavy wheel, the pilot will strug­gle too. Even­tu­ally some­thing will break. If your head­ing swings too far, the au­topi­lot may give up try­ing to hold course and even­tu­ally switch it­self off. (There’s a Catch-22 to all this: If you’re over­pow­ered and out of bal­ance, it’s hard to safely reef be­cause it’s hard to hold course. But this is when you need that reef the most. Prac­tice in lighter breeze and work up to the big stuff. And learn to reef sooner rather than later.)

Even in lighter wind, with the main sheeted out and trav­eler down, there’s plenty of fric­tion on the main­sail’s luff cars. The sail likely won’t come

down on its own, and even the reef line on a winch won’t feel ef­fec­tive. The sim­plest so­lu­tion is for some­one to stand at the mast and pull down on the luff of the sail. If you can safely get there in the dark and reach the sail, this method, be­ing the sim­plest, has beauty.

But re­gard­less, you al­ready thought about this back at the dock, and you have rigged some kind of down­haul that lets you pull down on the sail from a po­si­tion where you feel safe. It can be as sim­ple as a sep­a­rate line, tied to the top luff car, that is led to the base of the mast, or bet­ter yet to a man­ual winch ei­ther on the mast, cabin top or at the helm (to be used as a last re­sort!).

There are times when even an ath­lete at the mast, us­ing a well-rigged down­haul, won’t budge the sail. Try bring­ing the main­sheet in 2 feet and try again. No? Al­ter head­ing slightly and try again. Bring in a cou­ple more feet of sheet. Dou­ble-check the main hal­yard. No snags? Keep tin­ker­ing with sheet an­gle and head­ing, down­haul and reef-line pres­sure in tiny in­cre­ments — but don’t jibe! Try even mov­ing the trav­eler up a foot or two. Re­mem­ber, the reef line has to pull the boom up a bit to meet the low­er­ing leech cringle, so chang­ing the sheet ge­om­e­try can help.

If all else fails, you might have to put your down­haul on the (man­ual!) winch. Here, again, all your dock prac­tice pays off be­cause you need a good feel for how much fric­tion is too much. You need to know if some­thing is about to break.

If you keep tweak­ing the sheet and head­ing in small bites, and you don’t break some­thing, the sail will fi­nally move down an inch or two, and that’s all you need, a start. From there you can keep inch­ing it down.

When you have the reef point locked down, give the au­topi­lot a break. Steer the boat to see if it’s eas­ier and bet­ter bal­anced with less sail. If you still have sea room in your prac­tice space, take a break, open the lunch bag, re­view your check­list and then prac­tice reefing the jib. You’ll find chal­lenges there too in big wind, even though it rolls up.


Ev­ery boat and ev­ery sea con­di­tion is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. Ex­per­i­ment­ing in all kinds of set­tings is the only way to learn the per­son­al­ity of your boat. There are dev­il­ish de­tails: lazy jacks that snag bat­tens, sail cov­ers and Bi­mi­nis that block the view. Be­sides their sails, cata­ma­rans have lots of sail area in fiber­glass and gel­coat. When you’re sail­ing down­wind, all that ver­ti­cal sur­face you see from be­hind equates to sail area, and most of it is aft of the mast. I’ve sailed cats at more than 17 knots with no sails at all! So the dy­namic bal­ance of a cat is dif­fer­ent from a mono­hull.

When you start tin­ker­ing, you’ll find most cats sail well, even tack­ing up­wind, on jib alone. But they hardly sail at all on just the main. As big as the main is, that seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive. But when I’m alone on the boat and both en­gines die at the worst mo­ment, the first thing I reach for is the jib sheet and furl­ing line. Be­fore the an­chor, be­fore the ra­dio, be­fore the life jacket, I roll out the jib. Try it.

Learn your boat! When you un­der­stand how it re­acts in var­i­ous con­di­tions, you’ll pick up other lit­tle clues that tell you if it’s over­pow­ered. I can tell a lot just from the sound of the wa­ter tum­bling off the tran­som. There are lots of cat sailors out there now. Go to school on the stuff they broke. Like electrics, ev­ery me­chan­i­cal sys­tem should have a fuse. If you break some­thing, be­fore you beef it up, ask your­self if that was the best place for an over­load fail­ure. A race­boat owner summed that up best for me years ago, and I never for­got: “Guys, we sailed hard enough to break some stuff, but it wasn’t ex­pen­sive. Great job!”

The goose­neck is a busy place. When reefed, the reef block shouldn’t in­ter­fere with the boom (top). Set prop­erly, the reef line pulls for­ward and down on the sail (cen­ter). Overly tight­ened, the lead of the reef line through the bracket on the mast...

The reef line ten­sions the foot of the sail by pulling the leech down and aft (top). The reef line shouldn’t be tied to the boom but should wrap around it and be passed though a loop at its end, made with a bow­line (cen­ter). Mark the main hal­yard with...

Reefing while sail­ing down­wind re­quires a new bag of tricks since there’s a lot of fric­tion on the sail. Be­fore raising the main, tie a down­haul line to the top sail slide (above). To reef, find a se­cure place to stand and use the down­haul to get the...

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