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Donkin on Sailing

May 2010 - Boat in a bag

Imagine driving your car down a quiet rutted road, somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland, perhaps, one warm summer day, heading for your favourite hill loch. There's a lively, but not too lively breeze, one or two notches up from a zephyr but nothing that would bend a tree.

The loch looks perfect for sailing but there would be no way of dragging a trailer over those ruts. Not to worry because laid out in the back of the car is everything you need in a collapsible catamaran, strong enough to take a stiff breeze and compact enough to fit in to a couple of bags.

I could imagine little other than this idyllic picture when I came across the Smartkat at a small stand at London's Boat Show in January where yacht manufacturers trade on the images we create for ourselves. Yachts and trailers are fiddly: they have to be stored somewhere or kept at a club. Yet here was my boat-in-a-bag that the leaflet said could be put together in just 20 minutes. It was the missing piece of the jig-saw. I just had to try it.

Scotland is a long way from London, which explains why I found myself driving up the ramp to the banking of Queen Mother Reservoir, Datchet, just off the M25 on a chilly morning in April. The plan had been to build and sail the cat two weeks earlier but common sense prevailed when we were faced with a gale ripping across the water.

This time the wind was fresh but manageable. The curved concrete sides of the reservoir give one the impression of sailing in a giant saucer, overlooked at one end by the towers of Windsor Castle and close enough to the runway of Heathrow Airport to wave at passing passengers. But there is plenty of water and the Datchet Water Sailing Club offers a wide range of sail racing and training to its members and local schools.

I was keen to test the Austrian maker's claim that the boat could be assembled from "cupboard to water in less than 20 minutes". The two big orange bags containing the bulk of the yacht together weigh 42 kilos so it's best to park close to the water. We drove up to the rim and carried the bags down a gentle slope in to the lee of the banking wall. I checked my watch: 10:15 am.

Once unzipped, the first bits out of the bag were four aluminium tubes that make the frame of the trampoline. Lacing the trampoline to the frame is a bit of an effort not unlike the challenge of fitting the fuller figure in to an hourglass, but it pays to get the deck drum-tight.

The frame slots in to two inflatable tubes made from a triple layer of bonded PVC. For this job you have a choice: a hand pump, price around 15, or an electric pump at close to 200. Buy the electric pump. We had a bit of a hold up with one of the slots but a few minutes later it was in place and the trampoline and tubes were ready for the bowsprit, mast and rigging. I checked my watch: 10.50 am.

The bowsprit, mast and sails went on fairly smoothly, but for another hitch with the self-furling foresail. It took a good hour for two of us to put the catamaran together and I wouldn't have wanted to try it alone. I don't doubt that the boat's inventor, Harald Esterl, can achieve the time claimed in the promotional leaflet; a new owner, however, would be pushed to get anywhere near that time and two pairs of hands is much easier than one.

Still, an hour isn't too bad and beating your assembly time could become part of the sport. The kit fits together without any need for screws, washers or spanners. Carrying the boat down to the jetty was simple enough too and sailing it away was easy. But it was a day for fleeces off the water and I really didn't want to test my wet suit.

A few runs up and down the reservoir went smoothly. The cat's lightness and tubular hulls mean that it is less likely than conventional hulls to dig in and pitch pole forward. Neither does it take much wind to get it moving. I would have liked to have experimented with a trapeze that wasn't fitted on this model. Trying to hang out without a trapeze just didn't work and I soon built up the speed to turn it over in a gust when trying to go that little bit faster.

Righting the boat wasn't too difficult but getting back on was an effort and the water was cold enough to take the breath away. Still, the test had gone reasonably well until, bringing the boat in, I tried to tack round smartly by the jetty, tipping it once more. The cat needed to drift away from other boats to come upright again and when it did, a gust took it away from me. Suddenly this cleverly engineered catamaran looked like one of those unfortunate air beds you see scudding out to sea when its hapless owner has been foolish enough to use it in an offshore breeze.

The reality of this off-the-shelf sailing experience, therefore, did not quite match the image. But with the caveat that it takes practice to achieve a quick assembly, I would say that the boat can do everything that its makers claim, including speeds of up to 16 kts in the hands of an experienced light cat sailor.

"We're getting interest from people who have bigger boats and want something to play with when they get where they're going. This is something they can take with them and it can also double as a tender boat without the masts. It can take a small outboard motor." says Seema Patel, the Smartkat's UK distributor.

The Smartkat is fun but strictly fair weather sailing. The manufacturers do not recommend sailing in anything more than 15 kts of wind. In warm water, tipping the boat is all part of building your experience and knowledge of its limits. A series of ice cold baths in Datchet reservoir were enough to ensure I will stick to fishing that highland loch in future. But I still like the idea of a boat in my boot. 

Smartkat website:

Weight: 42 kg.

Height: 6.05 m

Length 4.3m

Price: 3,650


Datchet Water Sailing Club website:


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