Catamaran Upwind Performance – Woods Interview # 7

We spoke with Richard Woods, a catamaran designer and sailor based in the UK and famous worldwide. Today, we are talking about pointing and whether or not catamarans can point because there’s a myth about catamarans and their inability to point. Having sailed around the world on one of Richard’s designs, I can let you know that we pointed, probably better than a lot of the monohulls we were with.

We’ve been having a series of conversations about elements of catamarans that you might not think about. We’ve had quite a few great conversations, so feel free to look through our Woods Design Advice page. You can read more about Richard Woods on his website and purchase build plans for many different designs.

Can you explain why some catamarans point and some don’t?

You’re not really interested in pointing ability, per se. What you’re actually trying to do is get to windward as fast as you can, into the eye of the wind. You can do that in two ways. You can either sail faster, or you can point higher. The problem with the monohull, is that you can’t go any faster and effectively, the waterline length is going to determine your speed, so the only way you can get to windward faster is to point higher.

If you compare the America’s Cup, at the moment, is being sailed in 75-foot foiling monohulls. If you look at their tacking when the two boats cross, you’ll see that their wake is at about 90 degrees, so they’re actually only tacking through 90 degree angle. The fact that they’re doing 38-knots is why they go to windward so fast.

America’s Cup Class

Whereas going back, because people know this, but your husband worked for Bruce Farr on America Cup boats in the 90s, didn’t he? Farr designs would tack through 65 degrees at nine knots. The pointing argument is, “Well it must be better, because it did a tack through 65 degrees.” But it only was doing nine knots rather than 35 knots.

The thing with the multihulls, is that you can go faster so you don’t actually need to point so high to get to windward quickly. As you say, it’s a bit of a myth, and you’ve got to say, “can I go to windward quickly,” is essentially what you’re trying to do.

32 Eclipse off Cuba

But there are lots and lots of examples of multihulls that do sail well to windward and will point higher than the monohull. One being, for example, my 32 Eclipse catamaran that talked I about before, with daggerboards and racing in that. Before we went off cruising around the island race with Mumm 30 foot monohulls. We went round the lee mark with a group of Mumm 30 monohulls in 20 knots of wind, and we overtook them to windward and they’ve got carbon sails. We had a solid fuel stove, we had dinghy and davits. They were racing boats, we were a Liverpool cruising boat. We have essentially the same length, we could point higher and sail faster. There’s lots of examples like that.

Mumm 30

Another one I did was on the Schionning 38, sailing straight past a Beneteau 38 when we were racing. It happens all the time, but a lot of people don’t sail their catamarans properly. One of the main things that they don’t do is have enough sheet tension, particularly the main sheet, and particularly if they’ve got a square-top mainsail. You’ve really really got to pull that on. We used to have, on a 35-foot catamaran, we used to have an eight-to-one main sheet that we then took to a 40-to-1 winch, and we would winch it on as hard as we could. That’s the sort of load that you are probably looking at, to get a nice tight leech, and be able to point. That doesn’t really matter what the designer boat is. However, you can make a boat sail very badly to windward by having not very good sails, even though with the better sails, it would sail well.


That’s an interesting point, more about sail trim but also sail quality. I know sail trim is really taught for monohulld, so when people go out and learn how to sail, and learn about sail trim, and learn about how they’re supposed to set the sail, that’s really a monohull-specific skill set. I don’t know how many people are actually taught that catamarans are are sailed differently, and most of us learn that through trial and error. But there are some very specific guidelines that probably would be useful for the catamaran owners to learn as they go.

Well fortunately these days, there are a lot more catamaran specific sailing schools. There’s a very good one here near me. Jim Durden with Top Cat Cruising, and he’s got a Privilege now. He used to have a Beneteau 35-foot boat, and he had one of my 35-footers. He’s been doing that for a long time, and he will go and sail with you on your own boat and teach you how to sail it. Because yes, there are lots of differences between sailing on a monohull and sailing on a multihull. In that sense, if you’re new to sailing and you start on the multi or you haven’t got the old monohull habits to forget first or unlearn. I started sailing on dinghys and the sailing between the dinghy and multihull has more in common than sailing a monohull.

That makes sense. Is there anything else we should cover as far as pointing and going to windward?

Yeah. As we said earlier, the daggerboard effects make a huge difference sheeting angle, quality of sails. One of the other things is that with a multihull, people think, “I’m going really fast.” But what you’re actually doing, is close-reaching rather than sailing to the windward. You’ve always got to try edging up a bit, pitching up a bit. You’ve got the telltales and the jib that you’re always going to keep keep an eye on, and ideally have the windward one just lifting slightly. Then you know your sailing was optimum to windward.

Compared to a monohull, is what we were saying earlier, that if you’ve got a keeled multihull, you’ve got to consider it like as different as a long keel monohull and a daggerboard catamaran. You can’t really compare the two.

Then there’s another thing I would say. If I want to guarantee to beat a monohull the same size, I would want to do it when it was windy and rough. You might think, “Well the catamaran would go much better in flat water and light winds,” but in fact the the multihull will keep going and powering off, long after the monohull reached the top speed. Then all the monohull can do, because the waves is going to stop it from pointing too high, is it’s going to heel over and it’s not going to go any faster. Whereas the multihull will carry along faster and faster. You can basically sail the boat till you break it.

Yes, for sure. You start to hear the difference when you’re overpowered and we always found we reduced sail and we’d actually go faster, because we weren’t stressing everything as much.

One of the things on the monohull, is that you would sail and say, “well the gunnel’s just tipping under, so it’s time to reef.” You don’t have that sort of thing on a multihull because it’s just basically upright. You do need to be much more aware of how windy it is, and what those sea state is. There’s always a good idea when you’ve got a new boat, is just try pushing it to see what your limit is. Again, going back to the Eclipse, when we were racing David’s team with a very experienced crew, we had full sail up in 34 knots of wind. When we were cruising, we would reach in 25 miles. But the 34, 35 knots of wind with full sail, that’s really pushing, doing 10 knots to windward.

Well that’s fascinating to talk about pointing, it definitely brought up a few things that I hadn’t thought about, so thank you for that. This will be part of a long series of different topics that we’re covering with Richard, and I want to thank him for spending time with us today.

Diane Selkirk

By Diane Selkirk

I love to travel and have spent the past seven years sailing with my family aboard our 40 Woods Meander catamaran - traveling from B.C.'s north coast, to the west coast of the US, Mexico, the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia, across the Indian Ocean to South Africa and on to St Helena, South America, the Caribbean and Central America.

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