Catamaran Sailing Experience
Cool for Cats
Cat sailing is sailing on speed. The twin hulls of a catamaran cut through the water and leave other sailing classes idling in their wake. Cat sailing is also the sharper, cooler cousin of dinghy sailing and almost freestyle by nature. It offers a new style of sailing that is fun, exciting and attractive to fans of extreme sports. So when Adventure Cornwall was invited to have a go, we just couldn’t resist.
But my foray into catamaran sailing in Cornwall was not going to be an ordinary affair. I was going right to the top with a one-to-one, intensive training course with one of the world’s best cat sailors. My teacher was none other than Tom Phipps – the 2006 Junior World Champion and Olympic hopeful for 2012.
The 19-year-old met me on the slipway of his dad’s sailing school at Mylor Harbour. For someone who travels the globe competing at the highest level, Tom Phipps, or ‘Fipsy’ as he’s otherwise known, seemed a very down-to-earth teenager. But it soon became apparent that his sailing knowledge and skill is other-worldly as we pulled away from the shore into the watery highway of the Carrick Roads.
As a complete beginner I was not taken out on the Olympic class Tornado, which Tom now sails competitively, but on a slightly smaller, more manageable Dart 18. Even so, the acceleration from the shore was phenomenal as Tom sheeted in the sail to catch the gusty winds. “When people sail on one of these, they generally never look back,” said Tom as we cruised past a couple of dinghy boats which looked almost stationary in comparison.
Often referred to as the Ferrari of the sailing world because of their speed and agility, catamarans have only been around for a relatively short time. Original designs were based on the Polynesian outrigger canoes and it seems fitting that some of the first serious models were created by surfers in Hawaii looking for an alternative adrenalin fix when there were no waves. And it was out of Californian surf culture that the first commercially popular models were borne when surfboard company Hobie turned its skills to sailing.
With its revolutionary design and alternative ‘surfy’ image, it’s little wonder that sailing purists resisted the arrival of the catamarans. In this way it is similar to snowboarding which took decades to find acceptance in ski resorts across the globe. Many sailing clubs still turn their noses up at the ‘new kid on the block’ and don’t allow catamaran sailing on their waters. Luckily in Cornwall we have plenty of water to go around and cats have been a part of the Falmouth sailing scene for years.
Having grown up on the water’s edge at Mylor, Tom knows Carrick Roads like the back of his hand and knows exactly how to exploit every breath of wind for maximum performance of his craft. A tweak here and a tweak there and the hull of the cat would suddenly lift and we’d be flying over the surface of the water like a streamlined bird. As a crew member it was my job to control the Jib and ‘fly’ the trapeze, which involved standing out on the edge of the hull to add weight to the sail to prevent us from capsizing. It was a hair-raising experience in more ways than one.
I was quite content to just crew and enjoy the awesome ride but Tom was keen for me to take the helm, so we swapped seats and I was suddenly skippering a world champion! Although I’d sailed a few times, this was my first time in a cat and I was not quite prepared for the responsive behaviour of the boat. Tom’s smooth control was replaced by erratic movement and yo-yo style lift and fall as I struggled to get used to multi-tasking a technical boat at high speed.
Over the course of the session, I did improve a bit and the thrill of being in the driving seat of such a fast boat was second to none. It was a comfort to have such an experienced co-pilot to back me up and take the controls when things got hairy. But it was obvious that I had a lot to learn before I would be let loose on the water without an experienced guide.
As the session came to an end, Tom steered us safely back to shore. I’d only had a small taste of what catamaran sailing was all about but I was instantly hooked by the speed and sensation of flying over the water. As a surfer I was also intrigued by the sport’s ‘surfy’ beginnings and its radical reputation. If I was to take up sailing, I would almost certainly cast off in a catamaran. Life on the ocean wave, it seems, is so much cooler for cats.
Elliot Walker sailed with Windsport International at Mylor Harbour. The school offers Catamaran training courses, Cat Conversion courses for dinghy sailors and a Cat Clinic for experienced catamaran sailors.