Catamaran sailing

See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2016

Crossing the ocean, using only the power of the wind. Having the sun on the sea, the water splashing in your face and, if you’re really lucky, some dolphins frolicking alongside the boat; sailing is one of those activities that has a universal appeal. (Plus, those captain hats look really cool.) All aboard, as this month we head to Lagos where Enjoy the Algarve tries to learn catamaran sailing.

Most people, including sailing champion and five-time America’s Cup winner Russell Coutts, start in an optimist. They’re those boats that look like bath tubs. Suitable for beginners due to their small size. Others take to the water for the first time in a dinghy, which is basically the same, but bigger. I start in a catamaran. A Hobiecat 16 to be precise, which is lying in front of the Sailcompany’s wooden shack on the middle of Meia Praia near Lagos.

Why start in a catamaran? Well, why not? It’s the fastest way of sailing, with speeds up to 22 knots (40 km/h). Plus the Hobiecat has rainbow coloured sails which look pretty on the photos. The sand is so hot it burns your feet, but we gear up in a wetsuit and sailing shoes as the water is ice cold. Instead of worrying about learning which ropes to pull, how to handle the sail or even how to figure out which direction the wind is coming from, we go straight in. Not having a clue how to sail apart from some windsurfing (which was mostly me trying to pull the 7.5m² sail out of the water, but also involved some drifting off and having to paddle back to shore for hours), I hop on and sit where I’m told to. Instructor Rainer Klemm (45) has us gliding through the water in no time. With the wind in my hair (and in the sails), the sun on the sea and the water spraying up to my face, I’m feeling very close to nature.

It’s this playing with the elements what the German Rainer loves most about sailing. “I’ve always been a free mind,” says the sailor who grew up in Eastern Germany at the time it was closed off by the Berlin Wall. “As soon as the wall came down, I went on a trading ship and travelled enough miles to go around the world four times. Already in school I knew I wanted to cross the ocean in a boat, being surrounded by wind and water.” Rainer actually gets goosebumps when talking about his passion and as we pick up speed, it’s easy to understand what got him hooked.

The boat sails through the water, not unlike an aircraft through the sky. I sit on the front of the trampoline, taking care to have one foot on top and one below the hitting strap. This way, you can stay on the catamaran even if one hull gets out of the water. And yes, that happens. Semi-worried I remember a scene from Thomas Crown Affair where Pierce Brosnan caused his catamaran to capsize and pull my lifejacket a bit tighter. According to Rainer capsizing can happen as well, but getting the boat straight again takes less than a minute (and how to do that is covered in the course). “The best way to sail the fastest is to have about one hand of air between the water and the windward hull,” he explains.

While Rainer expertly steers the boat towards the southeast, I’m entrusted with taking care of the jib-sheet, aka the small sail in the front of the boat. We cross the bay diagonally, heading towards, well the open sea. I wonder how Rainer knows where to go. Must be over 20 years of sailing experience, combined with having GPS on his watch. More important though, he looks at the tell-tales, a red rope which is visible through the sail, to see if we have the right streaming. It’s waving horizontally, which is good. He shows me by turning the rudder slightly. Almost immediately the red line drops. A slight turn the other way and it’s flaring up high.

The most exciting part of the lesson is when I click into the harness and try trapezing. Being held by the ropes, I place my feet on the edge of the hull, lean backwards and stretch my legs. It feels like flying. Previous capsizing worries forgotten, I encourage Rainer to go faster. Way too soon, it’s time for some actual instruction. I’m promoted to steer the boat, using rudder and main sail. This sounds pretty impressive, but basically it’s me trying to concentrate on not falling off and following Rainer’s instructions. Turns out I’m not a natural at this. Completely engrossed in pulling and pushing the rudder on my first tack turn (crossing the wind with the front of the boat), I forget to loosen the sail. Luckily Rainer notices immediately. Without him, I’d end up in Morocco. Or as fish food, capsized somewhere halfway on the Atlantic Ocean. Probably the latter.

Within a short time, I handle the rudder correctly. A bit too enthusiastically perhaps, as Rainer has to step in to prevent the whole thing going pear-shaped. (Note to self: in sailor lingo ‘slowly’ means ‘very slowly’). It’s great fun. Rainer explains something about the wind direction having turned, pointing towards a struggling windsurfer to make his point. I nod and think I get it. But as he says “A bit more downwind,” I pull the rudder instead of pushing it. From then on, we communicate by pointing, which works fine for me.

In the end I manage to keep the catamaran in a straight line, keep the wind in the sail and the boat aimed at photographer Kyle who has rowed a little Optimist towards a buoy in order to get good shots. Just as I think I could drop Rainer at the beach and continue alone without crashing the boat, he does something with a small thing that moves. It seems like quite an important thing. It turns out to be the traveller, which has to be moved on every turn. Bugger, I didn’t even notice it. Neither have I been looking at the tell-tales…

No need to feel disheartened according to Rainer. Learning to sail a catamaran can’t be done in an hour. You’ll need five days of about 1.5 hours training in order to get a certificate, which allows you to sail one by yourself. “Can everyone do that after taking the course?” I ask while losing the rudder stick when trying to crawl under the boom to the other side, ending up beached-whale style on my belly on the trampoline as I’ve forgotten to take my feet out the strap. “Almost everyone,” he replies with a smile, before making the whole turning process look all too easy.

Back on the beach Rainer explains what he was telling me on the water, something about windward and leeward and upwind and onshore and direction, with a certain amount of degrees thrown in. All made even clearer by drawing diagrams into the sand. Photographer Kyle, who wasn’t even on the boat, understands immediately and asks intelligent questions. I look at the diagrams, try to add this new info to the stuff I learned while steering the catamaran, and fail miserably. It looks like a mathematic problem with parabola, axis, vertex and all the other equation stuff I didn’t understand back at school. Rigging down the catamaran, I don’t think there’s any chance of me becoming a captain any time soon. Still, I’m not giving up on sailing – in fact, I might just leave the whole steering the boat to Kyle and instead focus on hanging from the harness; wind in my hair, water in my face, playing with the elements.


When to go?

All year round, but obviously it depends on the wind conditions. Best is to give Rainer a call a couple of days before to see if there’s availability and when’s the ideal time to go.

Usually the wind isn’t so strong in the morning (better conditions for beginners), and gets stronger in the afternoon (better for experienced sailors). July and August are the busiest months.

Take swimwear and a towel. Wetsuit, sailing shoes and lifejacket are provided (but do feel free to take your own if you have them).

Want to go? Book a lesson via their website


For whom?

Watermen & -women who don’t mind getting wet and are looking for a thrill or an ecological way to travel on the water.

There’s no age limit: if you can swim, you can start learning to sail, although children will start in an Optimist instead of a catamaran. (Rainer’s daughter started when she was 4.5 years old and the oldest person he has taught up to now was 75.)

People who already have a VWDS licence can just rent a sailing boat. Novice sailors can follow a five days course in order to get this licence which allows you to rent Optimists, dinghies and catamarans in 500 schools in 35 countries.

Lessons in windsurfing, kitesurfing and wave surfing are also offered.


See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2016

Posted in This month we try.