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Donkin on Sailing

September 2008 – Topaz catamaran sailing

There’s a beautiful symmetry in sailing a catamaran close to the edge, a combination of speed, balance and risk, riding the trapeze, legs outstretched, straining to maintain some leverage against strengthening gusts as the lower hull skates the waves.

When it’s working well, there can be few better ways to find your thrills on water; and when the hull digs in, cart-wheeling forward, there can be few more dramatic ways to crash and splash.

I have the weight to ensure that I don’t capsize a light boat easily but instructor Brian Phipps was determined we should taste the salt in Cornwall while testing the new Topaz 14 and 16 catamarans, the latest additions to the Topper range of boats.

Skating over the waves in Mylor harbour, heading at break-neck speed towards the rocky shoreline of the Roseland Peninsula, Phipps was pumping the mainsail, upping the power just enough to tip us over.

You’re going to capsize one of these boats sooner or later, so it’s best to do so in a controlled fashioned early to learn the recovery routine. One important lesson on small catamarans is to hold on when they turn over. Unlike a mono-hull, without a helping hand on the tiller the sails don’t come round naturally in to the wind to stop the boat. Let go, and the boat could right itself and be blown out of reach.

“They’re relatively stable but the reality is that they are different from single hulled boats. Sailing a cat instead of a dinghy is a bit like riding a motor bike instead of a car,” says Phipps. “If you’re moving over from dinghies it’s best to do a cat conversion course.”

Hanging out on the trapeze, it’s easy to assume this kind of thing is for the young, fit and agile, and it probably is. While it’s possible to sail at a more leisurely pace, the whole point of these boats is to get them moving and it doesn’t take much to get up speed.

I thought we were travelling fast enough until we handed over to Brian’s son, Tom, a three-times youth world champion in catamarans, who with his sailing partner, Richard Glover, had hoped to represent Great Britain in a Tornado class catamaran at the 2012 Olympics until sailing’s governing body, voted last November to remove the class after the Beijing Olympics.

The move was a serious blow to the ambitions of two of the UK’s most promising young sailors in the British Olympic development squad who must now switch to the single-hulled 49er class if they are to have any chance of making the 2012 squad.

Neither did it make much sense at a time that multihull sailing is becoming increasingly popular in competitions. The Extreme 40 multihulls that first appeared in 2005, racing at the stopover ports during the Volvo Ocean Race, have attracted a big following in their own racing series, the iShares Cup.

With the possibility that multihulls could be contesting future America’s Cups it seems absurd that the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) should have voted them out after more than 30 years in Olympic competition.

“I had my heart set on sailing in a catamaran at the Olympics,” says Tom, 19, “It’s what I do best so it’s a real disappointment. Hopefully they will be reinstated for 2016 and we can carry on where we left off. Now I have to look at what I can sail in the next three years before selection begins for the London Olympics.”

Just now, however, he is helping to manage his father’s Windsport centre at Mylor, just outside Falmouth, that runs catamaran training courses. If you’re going to switch disciplines to something like a catamaran it pays to factor in to the package some tuition such as two-day cat-conversion course.

The last thing you want to do is to launch your boat without understanding the way you need to change sitting positions on a tack or just how the rudders work. My creaking joints are not quite as supple as those of a teenager so I found myself shuffling rather than springing over the netting during tacks and jibes.

Some sailors argue that catamarans are more difficult to tack than single-hulled boats but as long as you have some momentum they seem to come around just fine. The Topaz has an advantage of having no boom on the mainsail which means fewer sore heads.

The boat is remarkably light and its plastic hulls mean that it can be pulled over shingle and pebbles without much risk of serious damage, unlike a glass-fibre hull that can easily chip. Having compared plastic with glass-fibre, I would choose the former for the kind of recreational yachting you might want to do on holiday.

“The technology for making plastic-hulled boats has moved on quite a way,” says Phipps. “If you are looking for ultra-performance there is a limit to how light you can make a plastic boat but there is no doubt that the use of plastic has brought the price of boats down, making them more affordable and user-friendly. Designs have improved, ergonomics have improved and the flexibility of these boats means that the whole family can use them. They’re a lot of fun.”

Transporting the boats can take a little longer than loading the average dinghy on to a trailer so they are less versatile for people who may want to take their boat to the beach for a day’s sailing. A friend of mine who is buying a second-hand Dart catamaran is planning to keep one in a boat park a short drive from his apartment on the Isle of Wight.

Catamaran may not be for everyone. I wouldn’t call this gentle sailing so if your idea of a good time is a peaceful cruise up the Hamble you might not want to don your wet suit for a high-speed thrill ride. On the other hand, if you like to sail on the wild side now and then why not try it? I didn’t know what I’d been missing.

See also: Sail race training, The America’s Cup connection

Richard Donkin was testing the Topper Topaz 14 and 16 catamarans at Windsport of Falmouth where Brian Phipps has been running “cat clinics” for more than 20 years.
tel: +44 (0)1326 376 191

Information about the Topper Topaz 14 and 16 catamarans can be found at:
tel: + 44 (0) 1233 629186

Prices range from £4,495 to £5,995

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved