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I skippered a cat for the first time

03/02/2009

I skippered a cat for the first time

And the first time… how was it for you? We generally remember it for the rest of our lives; a huge rush of emotions, preceded by several sleepless nights. Michel was kind enough to tell us about his first time as skipper of a charter catamaran in the West Indies.

My nautical experience is quite limited… A bit of sailing in the south of France with friends, always aboard monohulls, and two weeks skippered charter on a catamaran in the West Indies.  But we had decided to go to the West Indies with friends and a catamaran was the obvious choice as there would be four adults and four children. However, our budget meant that we deliberately limited ourselves to a catamaran offering 4 double cabins…and it was not possible to pay for that oh-so-reassuring skipper.

Eight persons - 4 double cabins...

And yet we had dreamt of this holiday for a long time. What should we do? Charter a bigger boat ? Difficult, given the size of our budget. Huddle together in the cockpit to leave a cabin for a skipper ? Not very pleasant. At one point in our discussions, Charly ventured the question: “and you, do you feel up to skippering the boat?” To be honest, I had already thought of this, but hadn’t dared suggest it. I had in fact skippered monohulls (just for day-sailing) and I knew the area where we wanted to sail, as I had cruised there twice already... However, there was a problem… Even though our friends were in agreement, my other half was much more hesitant! To hear her talk you would have thought that I had never set foot on a boat, and even the photos of my course at the Glénans sailing school when I was 14 didn’t impress her. She refused to let her offspring risk their lives with a well-known incompetent like their father! Great!

The decision is taken
Finally, and after much negotiation, we succeeded in convincing my wife… Her desire to go on holiday and the knowledge of the area did it in the end. We would charter a catamaran, then, a Lagoon 380, from Guadeloupe, with the aim of doing the classic tour – Marie Galante, Dominique and the Saints.  
The decision had only just been taken, but I was already spending my nights obsessively reading ‘Patuelli’, the essential guide for a cruise in the West Indies. Plus, of course, the complete collection of Multihulls World and the famous Dr.M’s advice...  During the many pre-departure meals, I explained, as a good captain should, the anchorages I had chosen, how long it would take us to sail between stops and even where we could go for a drink… In short, the atmosphere was good, and complete confidence reigned between the captain and his crew. However... From my side of things, I was starting to wonder if all this was really sensible... Images from my past cruises came to haunt me at night. Especially manoeuvring the boat in the port, which had seemed so easy for the professional skipper, and which I had watched with admiration. How would I do?  

First difficulties
To fit in with everyone’s schedules, we had chartered our catamaran in summer – not the most popular period, but then, the hurricanes generally don’t reach the French West Indies before the beginning of September and at least the anchorages would perhaps be bit less crowded. A plus for me!  
Things became complicated when we received an e-mail asking us about provisioning for the boat. When I had skippered a boat before, we had simply gone sailing for the day, but here there would be eight of us, for a week. How much water would we need, per day per person? How many meals ashore? What food would keep for a week in the Tropics aboard a boat? How long would a lettuce last? There were a lot of questions to be answered, and my crew started to notice that the captain did not seem to be very confident. Somehow or other we managed to agree and sent the list of provisions to the charter company. It was then that the fear started to grip me. What if the charter company suddenly refused to let me take charge of the boat, after seeing such an approximate list? Fortunately, as I received no adverse reaction from them, I concluded that our list had been about right. A good point for me!

Captain at the helm
The advantage of going to the West Indies is that after a ten-hour flight in Economy class, all you want to do is sleep. The first night went well and I was not at all worried before taking command. After a good night’s sleep and a (very) early morning, thanks to the jet-lag, I started to feel a little off colour, to such a point that I couldn’t eat anything at all for breakfast. In a few hours, I would be at the helm of a 12m catamaran and would have to get it out of the port!!! What had I got myself into? Meanwhile, the children made the most of the hotel swimming pool, oblivious to the dangers awaiting them... My wife and our friends were also perfectly calm and were enjoying these first hours of our holiday. It wouldn’t last!
We had arranged to meet the charter rep. at 11 o’clock; the formalities were quickly dealt with and we took possession of our proud vessel. ‘My God, it’s huge!’ exclaimed our friends, who had never sailed aboard a multihull before. ‘My God, it’s wide!’ I said to myself, cursing the fool who had the idea of asking me to skipper the boat...
We busied ourselves stowing the provisions and our personal gear whilst we waited for the company rep. to arrive and explain how everything worked (I hoped he had allowed long enough – everything seemed to be incredibly complicated and enormous). In the end, it was the inventory which took the longest... After a few fairly simple explanations, I thought I had understood everything. The charming young man, who could see that I was not too relaxed, reassured me by saying that everything would be all right, that of course he would help me leave the pontoon and yes, he would also be there on our return. All I had to do was call on the VHF and he would be there when we arrived. All of a sudden, a huge weight lifted from my shoulders and in an instant, I felt happy, free as the air... In a word: reassured!
It was now time to leave the pontoon. The charter rep. was on the pontoon and actively advised me as I manoeuvred. Then suddenly, the miracle happened: the catamaran moved gently away and answered the controls perfectly. It must be said, there was a lot of room and the manoeuvre was easy. And I also found out that it really is much easier to manoeuvre a catamaran than a monohull under engine. The marina slipped by before our eyes; well, not mine, because I was braced at the wheel, watching all the dials as well as ahead and astern, whilst slowing the catamaran down at the same time. All went well…until we got out of the port. Then everything became confused: there were red and green buoys everywhere. Which colour should we leave on which side? It’s the opposite, but I can’t remember which is right… I quashed the rising panic. Suddenly there was a not very reassuring colour dead ahead: I grabbed the engine controls and engaged ‘full astern both’... Just in time! I gathered my senses and finally succeed in escaping from the labyrinth of buoys.  
The day’s objective was quite limited, as we had planned to anchor at Gosier Island, just three miles from Pointe à Pitre marina. I preferred to get used to the boat gently and decided to continue motoring... No point in getting involved with the sails before the first anchorage. For the moment I gave quite precise orders and tried not to show that I was anxious: ‘Charly, could you stow the fenders...in the forward locker…’  The children were behaving themselves in the cockpit, everyone was just enjoying the moment and I began to relax... Until I saw Gosier island heaving into view… ‘Get ready to anchor!’ We had practiced the manoeuvre with the man who, throughout the holiday was more than just a dogsbody sailor - Charly put up with all my anxiety, and always answered my sometimes contradictory and often confused orders... I would like to take this opportunity to thank him...
In any case, in less time than it takes to say it, we had anchored for the first time and everything had gone well. Perfect coordination between the helmsman and the man on the windlass. A perfect manoeuvre. We could at last relax with a ‘Ti-punch’ and dive into the wonderful, tempting sea! Yet the weight of responsibility on my shoulders meant that I didn’t dare swim too far from the boat, and I checked every thirty seconds that the anchor was not dragging.

A first mutiny
The next day, after breakfast, we had planned to leave for Marie Galante. We left the anchorage and hoisted the sails; everything was going well until we had to set a course to our destination. We were hard on the wind and heading into the waves. So that the rodeo wouldn’t last too long, I decided to start the engines and help this brave catamaran to windward. Ten minutes later, I found, to my amazement, that my family had disappeared. They had shut themselves in the starboard aft cabin. The other family were not much better off, as Mariane was throwing up over the side whilst their son tried to stop himself doing the same... The only one who was calm was Charly: rolling his cigarette and enjoying the rodeo, which he seemed to be finding quite fun. I was trying as best I could to pass smoothly through the waves, but it was a waste of time. After half an hour I saw my wife, who is usually quite charming, come out of the saloon with eyes of a colour black that bode no good. Without a word, she took the biscuits for the children and dived back into the saloon. I was making a big mistake! I turned off the engines and tacked immediately. All at once, everything became calm again. We were sailing downwind pushed along by the waves from astern. … pure pleasure! So I gathered the crew together and explained the situation (it was about time...): “either we continue the rodeo, and in about 3 hours we will be at Marie Galante, or we remain on this comfortable heading and set off for the Saints. But that will mean we can no longer visit Marie Galante.” The vote was unanimous: “if you continue towards Marie Galante, we’ll jump overboard...”
The sail to the Saints was idyllic: 20 to 25 knots of breeze and some very pleasant surfing... Proud of himself, the captain..!
The only problem was that I had prepared my navigation for an arrival at Marie Galante, but now the Saints were coming into view… With the automatic pilot engaged, I grabbed my bible, Patuelli. There was no doubt, we had to find “la Baleine” to enter with no worries. I may as well be honest with you, to this day I have still not found the famous ‘passe de la Baleine’! Yet we finally reached the Saints and the extraordinary anchorage there. Here again, we anchored without a hitch…we were starting to become real professionals...
The rest of our week went perfectly: Jackie’s chronic seasickness prevented us from reaching Dominique; she returned to Point à Pitre on the ferry. So we spent the week wandering from anchorage to anchorage in the Saints archipelago – a magnificent, magical place. It also gave me the opportunity to get used to the boat; given the distances we covered, the manœuvres were very frequent (we sometimes anchored as many as four times a day!)
Then there was the sail back to Pointe à Pitre. Much laughter, but also peace and quiet and the enjoyment of sharing the experience with the family. It was after this sail that I said to myself that one day we too could perhaps set sail as a family...

And if we were doing it again?
Nothing ventured, nothing gained! A reasonably-sized catamaran can easily be handled by two people. All that is needed is a little common sense and the ability to not panic (easier said than done). Our holidays went perfectly and our biggest worry was Jackie’s chronic seasickness. The children loved it, and the fact that they were with us brought us closer together than when we had hired a skipper. We certainly missed some beautiful places, that a skipper would have shown us…but we will find them when we return on holiday next year, as we certainly will... aboard a catamaran... and without a skipper!

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