You Too Can Be a Cruising Catamaran Sailor – Preparing for Your Cruise on a Cat
January 23, 2017
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What to Expect – The ASA 114: Cruising Catamaran Sailing Classes from Sailing Florida Charters & Sailing School

You’ve chartered monohulls in many exotic destinations, yet the allure of being able to bring along friends who aren’t sailors is tempting you to charter a cruising catamaran. The spacious cabins, the ability to always stand upright, the open galley, and no heeling – one big floating condo! Time to hone your skills on maneuvering twin-screw catamaran engines. No need to spend huge dollars on airfare to the Caribbean, all your training can be done at our base location including practice with picking up a mooring ball at our marina.

The American Sailing Association (ASA) 114 Cruising Catamaran Class is a tremendous way to live on a cat for two days – learning how to dock, anchor, navigate, and efficiently sail a cruising catamaran. At Sailing Florida, the ASA 114 Class Teaching Standards are taught by all our Instructor/Captains, yet the order of the elements may change based on the instructor’s preference and the need & desires of the class members.

With that said, a typical ASA 114 Class will begin with your Instructor/Captain calling you ahead of time to answer any questions, discuss the weather forecast, outline the class, and suggest any particular items to bring for your overnight 2-day cruise.

Reading the excellent ASA Catamaran Cruising Made Easy is a vital way to be prepared for and receive the best learning experience. Additionally, a review of the basics from the first three ASA classes – Basic Keelboat, Coastal Cruising, and Bareboat Chartering – will allow you to free up your mind for new material on the catamaran. A review of points-of-sail, names of the parts of the sail, navigation rules, knots & proper winch use, for example, will ensure that the class focuses on learning how to safely navigate a cruising catamaran.

Many instructors will have you shop for your grocery items prior to the class, yet often, with different arrival schedules, it’s easier just to meet early on the first day and shop together.

After storing your provisioning and luggage, you’ll introduce yourselves, discuss the 2-day itinerary, and discuss when you and your class members will take the written test. A quick review of the basics from the first ASA classes – to ensure that everyone has the same level of understanding – is next on the agenda. I often move through this material at a breakneck pace, as most clients have reviewed, studied, and practiced this material prior to the class. Yet, if at any time, you need a more detailed explanation, clarify this with your instructor, as we want everyone to feel comfortable and have fun while learning and practicing on the boat.

A review of the Teaching Standards for the class, including new catamaran vocabulary, is next on the agenda. Then it’s time for a systems & preparation checklist, including a description of every switch on the electrical panel, testing of the bilge pump activation switches, a generator test, location of the Coast Guard-required equipment, and activating the VHF Radio. You’ll also inspect the dual diesel engines on the boat, turn on the Chart Plotter/GPS and other navigation instruments, and prepare the mainsail for hoist.

Next is to plot your course for the day, including compass headings and distances in nautical miles for each leg of your trip. This data is then backed up with information from the chart plotter, or an iPad with chart plotting software.

Around now it’s usually time for lunch, which may be on the water or a short break on dock. You should have plenty of lunch supplies since you just went to the grocery that morning!

Prior to leaving the dock, you’ll discuss the direction of the wind as well as the tidal current, and how that will affect your preparations for departure. After your Instructor/Captain navigates the boat out of the slip, it’s your turn to learn how control a catamaran through use of the dual diesel engine throttles, with the wheel tightened down and the rudders straight.

Your first exercise will be to keep the boat going straight by moving the throttle to idle forward – the slowest forward gear – on each engine, slowing applying more pressure to one of the throttles as needed. You’ll then put both engines in neutral and take note of how a catamaran does not glide nearly as far as a monohull.

Many sailors find it helpful to think of the throttles like bicycle handles – to turn to the right, your left hand goes forward, and your right hand goes back. A little extra information that propellers work more efficiently in forward than reverse and you’ll soon be applying increased reverse throttle both to the right and to the left, to pivot the boat without moving it forward or backward.

After some more exercises, including backing the boat straight and turning to both sides in reverse, you’re ready for your first docking. Each class member will take turns at bringing the boat bow first to the dock and spinning the boat so it comes alongside. A couple touch-n-go’s and then you’ll practice having a crew member put the bow line around a dock post and secure it back to the cleat. With constant reverse from the farthest engine from the dock, you’ll soon realize that this simple method of springing with a bow line will always allow you to dock the boat safely. You’ll also learn how to use a spring line from the bow or the stern to angle the boat and easily depart the dock.

With increased confidence gained from learning to dock safely, it’s now time for you to embark on your journey. You’ll raise the main with the power winch and discover the beauty of sailing the boat on a beam reach. You’ll also learn how to sail the boat efficiently upwind, with an emphasis on even air flow across both sails, the telltales on each side of the jib flowing straight back. If you’re a regular pincher, you’re going to have to change your ways to get your boat moving nicely – catamarans stall out when pushed too close into the eye of the wind.

Tacking on a catamaran also requires a different technique than that used on most modern monohulls – if your crew member loves to release the working jib sheet before the last syllable of “tacking” leaves your lips, once again, a cruising catamaran will stall out. It’s necessary to hold the working sheet much longer than you’re used to, backwinding the jib to swing the bow through the wind and onto the other close-hauled tack.

As well, jibing a cat also requires a different technique, albeit most sailors agree that jibing is easier on a cat. You’ll soon realize that catamarans are true sailboats – the sails steer the boat. As the wind picks up, there is no way to get the boat to head downwind without letting the mainsail out. Also, with a luffing jib, a tight mainsheet will cause the sail to act as a wind vane and pull the boat into the eye of the wind.

Therefore, to get the boat downwind in order to jibe, it’s necessary to have a full main and jib, with the boat moving efficiently, and then let out both sails as you steer with the wheel, to get the boat onto a run. Once the boat is on a run, “Prepare to tack!” is announced, followed by your crew’s call of “Ready!”, and you returning with “Center the main.” It’s the helmsman’s duty to keep the boat straight downwind while the mainsheet is brought to middle. A crewmember who sheets in too quickly, before you’re actually on a run, will cause the boat to head up – the helmsman will easily feel at the mercy of a cruising catamaran’s huge, fully-battened main.

Because of the stability of a boat whose beam is longer than 20 feet, the main can remain sheeted tight and allowed to flop to the other side with a “Jibe ho!” The main is then let out as the boat is brought onto a beam reach, another fun tack on a cat as you run with the waves on your quarter.

After a great afternoon of learning the particulars of sailing a catamaran, it’s now time to bring down the sails and set anchor. There are several anchorages within a 2- to 5-hour sail from St. Petersburg, and your Instructor/Captain will decide upon the best location for your class.

With the sails down and both diesels engaged, you’ll point the boat into the wind and pick where to drop anchor, paying attention to the factors of a good anchorage – protection, condition of the sea bottom, depth, and knowledge of the forecasted current and wind changes. Most cruising catamarans have heavy, all-chain anchor rodes, and thus can be set with a 5:1 scope. After putting out 3:1, you’ll attach the anchor bridle and let out the rode another 20 feet. Now the anchor will pull evenly off both hulls to resist twisting of the boat as well as eliminating the potential of ‘sailing at anchor’ with the boat swinging back and forth.

It’s now time to relax and prepare dinner for the evening. Although a catamaran’s galley and salon area are larger than most monohulls, I prefer cooking as much of the meal as possible on the grill off the stern of the boat. That way, one person in the galley can easily do preparation and cooking of any side dishes, without the sunset party getting in the way!

The next day will begin with a review and discussion of the ASA 114 Cruising Catamaran’s class material, followed by everyone taking the written test.

After passing the test, you’ll prepare the boat for departure: turning on the instruments, unzipping the mainsail cover, and attaching the head of the sail to the top car on the mast. You’ll also discuss and practice how to put in a 1st reef prior to raising the sail. Reefing is a necessary skill to learn on a cruising catamaran, as it can be easy to over-power their huge, fully-battened mainsail as the winds approach 18 knots and beyond.

Now it’s time to complete your on-the-water instruction and evaluation, by practicing several methods of Man Overboard drills, including under sail with the broad reach/close reach return maneuver, under sail & power combined, and under power only. You’ll discover the importance of getting the boat on a close reach or close-hauled point-of-sail in order to stop the boat next to your MOB – a yellow horseshoe Type IV personal flotation device thrown into the water. While under power, remember that the propellers are located just under the waterline so extra care must be observed with a crew member in the water.

Before returning to the Vinoy Marina, you have one more thing to do. One of the class members will practice docking the boat at the St. Petersburg City Marina in order to top off the diesel tank, another easy – yet necessary – skill to learn on a catamaran. After fueling, you will practice picking up a mooring ball outside the Vinoy Marina. Now you and crew are ready for all catamaran adventures.

Returning to dock, you’ll certainly feel confident in your new skills aboard a cruising catamaran. A cruising catamaran charter from Sailing Florida Charters & Sailing School is your next step!