Sailing a catamaran for the first time can be daunting. There is so much small catamaran technology to familiarize yourself with. And all the studying in the world won't fully prepare you for your first time actually getting on the water and sailing. Experience is the best teacher.
That's why in this in-depth guide, we'll cover the most important terminology to know for your first time small catamaran sailing. And then, we'll actually teach you all the technical information you need to know when it comes to how to sail a small catamaran. You'll gain invaluable tips to help set you up for a fun, successful first outing.
Even if you've got an instructor or experienced friend taking you out on the water for your first expedition, this guide is a great starting point to your sailing journey. So, without any further ado, let's start by easing your stress a bit: is sailing a catamaran for the first time hard?
Is Sailing a Catamaran for the First Time Hard?
The quick answer is no. But of course, like anything worth doing, it takes some time, patience, and practice to get good at sailing a catamaran. It's entirely possible to pick up the catamaran sailing basics and enjoy yourself on your first very try. And as we mentioned before, experience is the best teacher. You'll get better with each and every adventure. And thus, you'll enjoy the activity more and more over time as you get the hang of things.
But having said that, there are a few key things to know before you actually get to the water that will make learning how to sail a small catamaran much easier. In this guide, we'll touch on those topics so that you can be as prepared as possible for your first time out. The first step in learning how to sail a small catamaran is brushing up on your catamaran terminology.
Small Catamaran Terminology You Need to Know
Before we get into actually teaching you how to sail a small catamaran, it's important that you understand some key sailing terminology. This way, when your instructor or more experienced friend is teaching you how to sail, the jargon will make a lot more sense. We'll break this section up into sailing terminology and boat component terminology.
- Tacking: this is how you change directions when sailing. You do this by turning the bow (front) of the boat through the wind.
- Jibing: this is how you turn around when sailing. You do this by turning the stern (back) of the boat through the wind.
- Head to Wind: this means that your sails are trimmed in such a way that the wind hits them dead-on, or head-on. This can be used to slow down the boat or stop it completely.
- Beam Reach: this is when the wind is blowing directly across the beam, or widest part, of your catamaran sailboat. This results in fast speeds and is considered one of the most efficient points of sail.
- Close Hauled: this is when the wind is blowing on the front (but still a bit on the side) of your catamaran sailboat. This allows you to sail as close to the wind as possible and is how you tack upwind.
- Running Downwind: this happens when the wind is blowing from behind your catamaran, or downwind. This can be considered one of the most dangerous points of sail because it's easy to lose control of your boat. If your sailboat has a boom, this point of sail is how it got its name.
- Trimming: this is how you control your sails. Trimming the sails is done by adjusting the tension on a line - also referred to as a sheet - that is attached to the sails. We’ll touch on this more later on.
Sailboat Component Terminology
- Boom: this is a horizontal pole that extends from the mast. The mainsail attaches to the boom and the boom controls the angle of the mainsail.
- Bow: this is the front part of your catamaran sailboat. Clew: this is the back corner of your mainsail.
- Deck: this is the flat, horizontal surface that you stand on when sailing. It's also where all of the sails, lines, and other gear are stored when not in use.
- Foredeck: this is the part of the deck that's located at or near the bow (front) of your catamaran sailboat.
- Hull: this is the main body of your catamaran sailboat. It's what keeps the boat afloat and gives it its shape.
- Keel: this is a long, thin fin that extends from the bottom of your catamaran hull. Its purpose is to provide stability and prevent the boat from capsizing (turning over).
- Lines: these are ropes that are used to control the sails and other parts of your catamaran sailboat. There are many different types of lines, each with its own specific purpose.
- Mainsail: this is the largest sail on your catamaran sailboat. It's attached to the mast and boom and is how you propel yourself forward when sailing downwind.
- Mast: this is a tall, vertical pole that sticks up from the deck of your catamaran. The sails are attached to the mast and it's what gives your catamaran sailboat its height.
- Port: this is the left side of your catamaran when you're facing forward. It's also how you identify the left-hand side of things when sailing (e.g., port tack).
- Starboard: this is the right side of your catamaran when you're facing forward. It's also how you identify the right-hand side of things when sailing (e.g., starboard tack).
- Stern: this is the back part of your catamaran sailboat.
- Tiller: this is a handle that's used to steer your catamaran sailboat. It's attached to the rudder and you move it from side to side to turn the boat.
How to Sail an Inflatable Catamaran: Tips For Your First time Sailing a Catamaran
Now that you know some of the basic sailing terminologies, it's time to learn how to sail a small catamaran!
Remember - experience is the best teacher. That's why we encourage you to invest in paid education in person. Or, leverage the help of an experienced friend. But to help you gain a sense of confidence before hitting the water, here are a few tips to help you out:
Log a Float Plan
Whenever you plan to embark on a water adventure, whether on a paddleboard, sailboat, jet ski or anything else, tell someone where you will be, where you are going and when you should be expected to return. This is the number 1 rule of safe boating and may likely save your life, one day!
Wear Proper Clothing and Footwear
When sailing, you'll be exposed to the elements - sun, wind, and water. Make sure you're wearing clothes that will protect you from all of them. We also recommend closed-toe shoes with non-slip soles to prevent any accidents on board. The sailor's recommendation is to dress and prepare for conditions to be 20 degrees cooler than forecasted and raining.
Check the Weather Conditions
Before setting sail, always check the weather conditions for your planned route. This will help you prepare for any potential hazards and make sure you're not caught off-guard by sudden changes in weather.
Inspect Your Catamaran
If your first time sailing a catamaran is on a friend's boat, this tip may not apply to you. But before heading out, it's important to do a quick inspection of your catamaran. Make sure all lines and sails are properly secured and that there's nothing loose on deck. This will help you avoid any accidents or damage while sailing. We have a complete guide on inflatable boat maintenance and care that is worth a read. Not only do we talk about maintaining and caring for your boat, but we also talk about cleaning your boat after sailing - which is just as important as pre-sail inspection.
Be Light on the Rudder
If we could only provide you with one tip for your first time sailing a small catamaran sailboat, it would be this. When sailing, you want to be gentle with the rudder. This is the hard and steadfast golden rule on inflatable catamarans.
This is because small catamarans are very light and sensitive. As such, they don't carry much momentum. As soon as you let the wind out of the sails, you will come to an abrupt stop. It may be difficult to recover at that point. The sweet spot for steering is about 15 degrees in either direction. Any more and you end up slowing the boat down. Remember - if you give it a little bit of steerage and tack lightly, you'll be able to maintain speed.
Sailing by the Tell Tails
We could write an entire article on trimming sails. This is the act of adjusting the tension on the sheet attached to the sail. However, we'll just leave it at this: There are usually two ribbons or strings on sails. One on the inside and one on the outside. Unless you are going down wind, these tell tales should fly parallel to eachother. If the outside tell-tale is flat or lazy, you need to ease (let out) the sheet. If the inside one is getting nervous or the front edge of the sail is starting to cave in on itself, you need to haul (pull in) the sheet to provide the inside of the sail more air.
We typically sail with our main sails fairly close hauled. This eliminates the risk of hitting someone in the head. While this may not be the most powerful way to sail a small inflatable catamaran, it is better for novice sailor and for when kids are aboard.
Be Prepared to Heave-To
Heaving-to is a maneuver in which you stop your catamaran and let it drift. It's used in situations where you need to take a break or make repairs. To do this, let the mainsheet all the way out, so the mainsail is free to go as it pleases, and then backwind the jib sail (sheet it in so it is filled with air, but on the wrong side of the boat). This will allow the main to have no wind in it, and the jib will act as a stabilizer and keep the boat about stationary on the water. You can then eat lunch or make repairs without too much worry of being off course.
Get Familiar With Capsizing & Right Procedures in Safe, Calm Water
Capsizing (turning over) is a very real possibility when sailing, and frankly, it's not something you have to stress over. As long as you are familiar with the right procedures you can right your sailboat quickly and get back to sailing. The best way to ensure you're ready when the time comes, though, is to practice in low-stress situations. Take your boat in safe, calm water that you can stand in and purposefully capsize. Then, practice righting it.
First, release the main cleat and jib cleat. Then, simply point the mast into the wind as you right the boat by pushing down on one hull to bring the mainsail to the surface of the water. When done correctly, the wind breaks the surface tension between the boat in the water. This is yet another reason to invest in an inflatable catamaran - especially if this is your first boat. They're very easy to right - even with just a single person in the water!
Choose the Right Boat When Learning to Sail a Catamaran
When you're first learning to sail a catamaran, it's important to choose the right boat.
You want something that's stable and easy to handle. Once you get more experience, you can move up to a bigger catamaran. And in our opinion, there is no better way to start learning how to sail than on an inflatable sailboat. Why? Simple - they're incredibly stable, durable, and easy to handle. These are great investments that will stand the test of time and provide years of reliable, consistent fun.
Which should you go with, though? We wrote a complete sailboat buying guide to help you make the right decision. But, there are a few options we have at Red Beard Sailing. MiniCat Catamarans are among the most portable sailboats in the world - they can be stored under your bed or on a shelf. And, no trailer is needed. Make no mistake though - this lineup still allows you to experience the joy and thrill of sailing. XCat Boats are another great option for those who want a bit more versatility. These multi-sport catamarans can be rowed or sailed - either way, they assemble in less than 10 minutes. A third option worth exploring are the HappyCat Boats. Simply put, this lineup offers the greatest sailing performance of the bunch. They're faster than any other portable sailboat on the market - capable of surpassing 20 knots!
You can easily compare boats side by side to help make the right decision. Whichever manufacturer and model you go with, be sure to shop for the best selection of small catamaran sailboats for sale at Red Beard Sailing!
Parting Thoughts on How to Sail an Inflatable Catamaran: Terminology & Tips for Your First Time
Learning to sail a catamaran for the first time is daunting - even if you are going with an instructor or experienced friend. But, now that you know some of the most important small catamaran terminology, you'll be able to talk the talk at the very least! And, with our breakdown of the catamaran sailing basics, you can head out to the water in confidence ready to learn how to sail a small catamaran.
Most importantly, have fun. Learning to sail a catamaran is an experience unlike any other. Whether you're sailing in Chesapeake bay, Lake Tahoe, or anywhere else in the world - take it all in and enjoy the experience to the fullest. Best of luck!