Around the course

Courtesy Glen Ashby

Table of Contents

    Sailing the A Class

    They’re fun to sail. I’ve sailed lots of boats and to jump back on the A Class in 15 knots of wind, you can’t beat it. They go high and fast – they’re super efficient. Downwind is hard to get used to when you’re used to having a jib. I think of the jib on a cat as being like a supercharger in a car. It force feeds air around the engine – the mainsail. With the A-Class, you can’t steer off the jib, and it’s easy to stall the mainsail. I guess it’s like the long, narrow wing of a sail-plane compared with the stubby wing of a hang glider. You go fast but if you stall you drop out of the sky. On the A-Class, if you don’t keep the airflow up, the boat just stops.

    Because the A-Class is so light, it will tell you straight away, it will stop. But it will also accelerate quickly, and it’s easy to know when you’re in the groove. Because the chord length of the sail is so short, you can attach flow very quickly, and lose it very quickly. They’re very good fun to sail like that. You can snap them around a lot downwind, you can turn and surf waves. You’ve got a 30ft carbon mast, and the boat only weighs 75kg all up. Being smooth on the cat is the key to being fast while still being aggressive.


    Firstly, you need good kit to be able to compete at the front of the A-Class fleet. I’ve just got a new boat, a German Flyer, in preparation for the next Worlds in February. They’re taking place at New Plymouth, on the north island of New Zealand. I’ve also got my two best masts to take, and I’m making my own sails, so my speed should be fine. My biggest issue is getting enough sailing time before then, and making sure I’m fit enough to push the boat hard. Weight is not too much of an issue because you can find a rig to suit your size. The boats can carry a weight range from 65 kg to 90 kg. I weigh 80 kg.

    You need to spend some time making sure your boat is not going to break. Boat maintenance is not my forte, but I’ve been lucky to have a minimum of boat breakage. I got back from one world championships, and the first three times I went sailing when I got back home, things broke, so I was closer to disaster than I realised at the time. Make sure your boat is in perfect racing order. You can’t blame anyone else. If you have a big capsize you might break the mast, but all in all the boats are really strong and can take a big pounding.

    The A-Class is actually a very simple boat. You’ve got mainsheet, traveller, cunningham – that’s pretty much it – not too different to a Laser really. They’re really easy to sail but like many boats, hard to sail fast.

    The upwind leg

    Sailing upwind

    For upwind trim, keep the boat as flat as possible, with the windward hull only just in the air. A lot of people in all forms of catamaran sail with their windward hull too far out of the water. On the A-Class you’re on the trapeze in 6 knots of breeze. We’re trapezing and pulling on cunningham before the Tornado is even flying a hull. I sail depowered rather than too powered up. I pull a lot of cunningham on quite early. I prefer to go for speed rather than having any chance of staggering. I’ll try to sail the boat high in the groove, but still maintaining as much pace as I can.

    I trapeze very low compared with most people. In a wavy venue, my body will hit the water occasionally. But by keeping my body really low and hovering just above the water, I’m getting the most advantage out of being on trapeze. Keeping my body just out of the water is a good sign that I’m sailing at the right angle. I might hit the odd wave, but I figure I make up for that for the rest of the time. If you’re high on the trapeze you’re not having to concentrate as much on good steering.

    Tactically, it’s worth noting that on the A-Class you can afford to tack quite a lot. It will slow down quickly but accelerate just as quickly too. If you go in fast and get through the tack cleanly you’ll be fine. You can sometimes do five or six tacks up the middle and make it pay. So if you practise your tacking it’ll give you more options in the racing.

    To sail a high line or a fast line that is the question?
    Depends on the conditions and those around. The A seems to go a lot faster for only a small loss of height.


    There are three types of tacks. The main issue is not to knock the power out of the rig in all three.

    Best to start off letting out 700-800 mm (around 30 inch) of sheet and slowly but surely reducing it as you get used to the boat. The windier it is, increase the amount you let out and increase the speed with which you pull it back on when on the new tack (saves blowing a tack). I use more like 400-500 mm (16-20 inch) of sheet through the blocks.

    Light winds
    Turn the rudder slowly, let the main sheet out about 400-500 mm as you go through. Don’t cross under the boom until the weather hull starts to rise/the sail flicks across to the new tack. Bear away on the new tack and pull your 400-500 mm in as you move forward again.

    Medium winds
    Turn the rudder a little more quickly, come off trapeze as the hull drops and let the main out about 400-500 mm again as you come in, concentrate hard on ensuring that you’re going to make the other side when the main flicks. Get across the other side and jump out on trap while you’re bearing away slightly to regain speed. Pull the 400-500 mm back on after you’re back out there and come back up to your normal height.

    Heavy winds
    Say a prayer and hope you’re going to make it! Pick a smooth patch of water, if possible, or whilst climbing a wave. Concentrate on smoothly gliding the boat through. Let out 500-600 mm (about 22 inches) a little earlier and cleat the main if you have a cleat. Come in off of trap as the hull lowers to the water. Don’t go across until the sail flicks. Be sure to let the main off a bit more if you happen to bear away too quickly. Jump out on trap as soon as you can and pull the main back into position as you come back up to position.

    If you happen to blow the tack, let your traveller and main out and backwind the main by pushing the boom aggressively and flicking your rudders the other way. Then pull the traveller back in and main on as soon as possible. This will happen when you’re sailing cat.

    It really pays to train yourself to look at the water behind your boat and see if you are starting to drift back. In heavy air with a sharp chop the boat is easily pushed back in a tack and you need to see this and reverse your rudders ASAP. In all conditions, after completing the tack after hiking out get as far forward as possible till your speed is OK – the boat won’t accelerate too well with the stern dragging.

    Sail on one hull at all times going to weather, just skimming is sweet and fast.

    Handling gusts

    Steer first, mainsheet second and if it’s still there apply more downhaul and then pull the main back on a tad. That’s the lazy way.

    Handling lulls

    Crouch in initially, let the downhaul off, then the rotation if it’s a long lull and then let the main out. Depends on the size and length of the lull. From the crouch to the main would have to be 7 knots over approx. 50-60 metres.

    Rounding the windward mark

    When the next leg is a reach

    Ease the downhaul prior to the mark, (be careful as the boat will heel over with the extra power) crack the main 100-200 mm, ease the rotation to 60-75 deg. Ease the traveller depending on angle. Ensure that the top telltales in the main flow as much as possible and try to dry the underside of the windward hull to the wing mark!

    When the next leg is a downwind leg

    Same as above except that the rotation goes out to 80-90deg. Come in off trap, ease the traveller, ease outhaul and lift boards.

    Ease the traveller before coming off wire and rounding. Plenty of boats dig in at the mark as easing the main combined with a change of angle can twist the sail and give it MORE power thus digging in the leeward bow, you lose steering and over you go.

    Keep looking at the sail and keep your telltales flowing, especially the leeward ones. THERE IS NOTHING you can do with masts, outhauls, centreboards, whatever that increases your speed by 10% BUT if your sail stalls you’ll loose 20% speed without even thinking about it.

    Approaching the Mark

    Generally overlay the windward mark (refer comments above on A being faster for only a small height loss) by 20 metres or so, concentrating on maintaining boatspeed, bearing away and reducing this amount when it’s clear you’re going to make it.

    • Come in wide and exit close
    • Attempt to stay on one hull during the mark rounding
    • Practice and know your boat.

    To start off, the main and steering are the most effective tools. Concentrate on this and you’ll be able to reduce the amount between your boat and the mark over time.

    The reaching leg

    Set the boat up for a reach

    Depending on conditions. Raise the weather board if it’s a long leg and I’m going to stay out on the wire. Ensure that the twist in the main and the traveller setting are producing a powerful yet low drag rig through concentrating on flowing telltales on both sides of the sail for the whole leg. Play between rotation, downhaul and sheet tension until the combo feels right. Refer to main settings for a rough guide with cracked main. It’s largely feel in the end, and you will get the feel if you stick at it.

    Sailing the reach

    Don’t worry about keeping the bow down (make sure a part of it’s in the water), stand on the rear beam in a blow and sheet out to save your skin. Keep the hull out when it’s light where possible. Always try to aim slightly lower at the mark when I have power so I can come up when I don’t.

    Consider sailing low in clear air or up high to prevent someone sailing over the top of you. If one of these bigger boats takes you to weather (which they may if they have a kite) you get dumped on big time and spat out 100 meters or so.

    Handling gusts

    Always bear away, never bear up, unless you like to swim. Sheet out if bearing away still has you looking down the barrel. If you are in the light stuff you’ll have to pull the main on a touch as your leech will be starting to hang.

    Handling lulls

    The opposite to gusts. Sheet out a tad as your sail will start to flatten/leech will tighten up.

    Rounding the reaching mark


    Fast as you can, usually from a lower point. Try to round as closely as possible be careful not to pick up the marker ropes.


    Let the main out as you start the turn. If the traveller is not already at the inside of the beam let it off as the sail passes through the centreline. Grab the main rope cluster and help it through to soften the blow. Make sure you pass the tiller from one hand to the other without letting it hit the water and make sure it doesn’t hit the mark. Turn up and apply the 300mm or so of main to accelerate and then work on the right point of sail. If it’s really windy you may stay low on the new tack and come up at a slower rate to regain speed. Ease main if it’s windy, leave the outhaul and lift boards. If it’s real windy, lift the weather board and the leeward only when possible. If it’s light the priority will be to get to full speed with full power, ensuring your transoms are out of the water.

    The downwind leg

    Set the boat up for the downwind leg

    Daggerboards half up, tighten downhaul to ensure no wrinkles in the sail and then just a tad. Outhaul off about 50 mm, rotation about 80 degrees, both rudders down.

    Sailing downwind

    The transition from two hulls in the water to going wild is around 8 to 9 knots, so it is this mid-range windspeed that is a real grey area of downwind technique in the A-Class. In these marginal conditions, you’ll often find you can make it work on one gybe and not the other. If the waves are coming more across the boat, that’s when it pays to go wild in lighter conditions, because you can work the waves more effectively. When you’re going with the waves, just go two hulls and soak as low as you can, and make use of the waves coming from behind to help you surf as deep as possible.

    Going from flat very quickly to going wild is particularly important in gusty conditions, because going wild is so much faster when it’s the right time to do it. For this reason, I generally try to go wild earlier than later. You’ll come out pretty much the same if it doesn’t work, but if it does work you’ll make a massive gain. I’ll try it even when most people won’t. But this is an area you have to practise a lot. Sometimes, you can go straight around someone downwind by flying the hull when he’s not. You can get your boat facing almost dead downwind, with the traveller in the middle, by riding the waves and the apparent wind you’ve created. You can sail from 100m behind to 100m in front of somebody, in the space of just 300m.

    Crew weight positioning is vital. A lot of people sit too far back a lot of the time, with the transom dragging. The trouble is, when you move forwards in the middle of the trampoline, it becomes really difficult to steer. I’ve adopted the Laser sailor’s style of steering, with the tiller extension jammed under my armpit between my body and my elbow. It allows me to sit that bit further forward in flat water, which makes a really big difference to speed.

    Gybing without a spinnaker, the boat reacts a lot differently to most cats. Getting through the gybe and getting reattached flow is crucial. Coming out of the gybe some people will have the rig stalled for too long. They try to get back into wild mode too soon without reattaching flow first. On marginal days without too much wave action, I’ll uncleat the traveller and allow it to go all the way out to the end of the track after the gybe, and then gradually pull it back again to the centre. Doing a big mainsheet ease as the boat goes through the gybe and not sheeting on too soon can give you a big gain too. Remember than when you’re singlehanded you have the whole horsepower of the boat in your hand. There’s no spinnaker to haul you along, so think about the effect you’re having on the mainsail, and how you can maximise flow across the sail.

    Doing the wildthing

    Run the traveller between the inside of the leeward hull in a blow to about 300mm up from that in moderate breezes. If you have to go further to raise the hull you’ll be beaten by dudes falling asleep sailing conventionally.

    Sit to the middle of the boat. When a gust hits lean out flat, steer smoothly downwind (never up unless you like swimming), ease traveller, finally ease main. Work in that sequence to get a smooth response to the gust without dropping the hull

    If you have to sit too far forward to stop the stern dragging, forget it. Similarily if you have to sit way back on the back beam to keep the bows out, forget it.

    In a blow, Consider rotating the mast to 45 degrees. This flattens the top and stops the boat driving the bows in. Seems to work OK. Only do it when its honking.

    Get the wildthing happening
    Get the hull up by bearing up a little aggressively to raise it. The angle of the apparent wind while doing the wildthing is about 75o it’s a matter of feel


    See above on mark rounding, except when in a big sea, and you have a choice, pick a smooth patch. Generally go for speed by bearing up slightly, ease the main as you turn, help the main cluster across, bear up on the new tack, pulling the main back in and then finding the groove by sailing back down until you notice a small loss of speed. Constantly utilise main and sail just above this point. Look back to see the foam trail(sea water) occasionally to monitor which angles your taking.

    Jibe wildthing to wildthing

    Try to fly a hull from tack to tack, staying on whichever is the leeward side for as long as possible. Always make sure the main is ready to be uncleated, you’re in a position to jump to weather and you’re able to bear up. Make sure that you analyse where the other boats are before you gybe ’cause your head spins while you’re attempting this impressive manoeuvre that will see you go from hero to sharkbait in a flash.

    Rounding the leeward mark

    Pull the outhaul back and lower the boards, pull rotation in slightly and downhaul on reasonably. Ensure a fast line, if not then go lower when/where possible. Look past the mark to where you’ll be upwind in a few seconds (funny that, visualising it assists the process). If your gibing and then rounding always leave 6 or so boatlengths to ensure a smooth rounding. enter wide and exit close. hook up, pull main in a tad more, traveller in as you turn and jump out with traveller in one hand and tiller in the other. Cleat traveller, pull main on. Apply more downhaul and rotation if necessary, adjust main and traveller again if required. Find the fast line and stick to it, adjusting traveller and main to ensure a fast, low drag rig.

    Righting after a capsize

    Should be easy particularly with the carbon masts.

    A’s are easy to right provided you keep the bow head to wind, or get it back to that spot by standing up the bows. If it is not bow to wind, it can be worthwhile spending a couple of minutes in the water swimming the bow into the wind. If you get it into the wind, you can sometimes pull the boat up without the righting rope.

    If you are having trouble getting the sail to free from the drink, there are 2 schools of thought.

    1. Release downhaul – stops boat trying to sail itself away from the bows pointing into the wind. When the boat comes up it will not try to sail away.
    2. Crank on the downhaul, flick the rotation lever up and lean back. It’s like water starting a sailboard. But when righted the boat will want to sail away so be quick.