While much of the focus on extreme sailing in the US is currently directed at the racers making their way north in the annual Worrell 1000 off the southeastern coast, another group of multihullers is engaged in some extreme racing of its own 3,000 miles to the west. The A-Class Catamaran North American Championshipsgoing on this week at the Alamitos Bay Yacht Clubhave attracted 17 of the country's top multihull racers to this southern California venue. Though racing around the buoys in the normally placid waters off Los Angeles might not seem extreme, it's not the dynamics of the venue but the boats themselves that defy ordinary description.
"I think the A-Class is the only boat I know with an all-up weight that's lighter than most of the people who sail it," says sparmaker Ben Hall, an admitted A-Class addict. Due to business commitments, Hallthe defending North American Champisn't participating in the Alamitos Bay event, but that hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for this rare breed of sailing craft. In his mid 50s, Hall has sailed almost everything on the water from maxis to planing dinghies, but he says he gets the most pure sailing pleasure from being out on his A-Class cat. "The allure of this boat is that it's a very simple boatone person, one sail. And they're really graceful. These boats sail effortlessly because they're easily driven by their uni-rigs. I mean it's a really fun boat in five knots of wind, which you can't say about many boats, and it becomes a true handful in 20 knots, but still fun. I guess it's pretty much like Pete Melvin [multihull designer and 1997 A-Class Cat World Champ] says, these boats are the Ferraris of the sea.'"
Unlike the sailors who are crashing their way northward in the Worrell 1000, the A-Class competitors in Long Beach are operating in an arena that tests not only skill on the water but design ingenuity as well. The A-Class boats exist in what's known as a development class where loosely structured parameters encourage innovative design solutions. The rules for the A-Class cats are refreshingly simple: the maximum allowable length is 18 feet, the maximum beam is seven feet six inches, and the maximum sail area (including the mast) is 150 square feet. The minimum weight for all components combined is 165 poundsbut other than that, anything goes. The class imposes no restrictions on construction materials or methods, no limitations on the design of the hulls or appendages, nor on the sail-handling systemsit's pretty much a border-free arena.
Hall cites another example, pointing out that in the last five years aluminum masts among A-Class cats have all but disappeared. Among the 100 boats attending the 2000 Worlds in Censenatico, Italy, says Hall, 99 had carbon masts. "There are a number of spar manufacturers making them these days, so they're really not that expensive, and the performance advantages are substantial."
Also an iceboating fanatic, Hall likens the performance of A-Class cats to sailing DN Iceboats. "These boats are so refined and efficient, I mean they're really like a sailing machine
.You can do the wild thing and fly a hull downwind, which is a lot like sailing iceboats." But perhaps the best thing about these craft, says Hall, is that they accommodate a broad range of sailors. He likes to point out that at the world championships in Italywhere the conditions ranged from six to 20 knotsthe age span among the top 20 finishers ran from 21 to 57 and their weights ranged from 145 to 205 pounds. "I don't think there's any other class whereat the world levelyou could come close to saying that."
As an A-Class cat ambassador, Hall also likes to emphasize the boat's relative accessibility. "The boats are very affordable for what you get. There are two good production builders (Boyer in Australia and Bimare in Italy), and then you can go to the custom levels like the Mastrom from Sweden or the Waterat from Larry Tuttle in California." Hall says he bought his first boat for $2,000. He admits that he wasn't going to win any silver with that boat, but it did get him hooked. "You won't be competitive at the North Americans [with a $2,000 boat], but you'll have a ball."
But are these boats easy to sail? "I suppose if you have reasonable coordination," explains Hall, "they're really not that hard to learn. And, if you have trapeze experience, that helps. The great thing is that the boats aren't overpoweringthey don't take brute force, it's more of a finesse situation," he says. "I sail against guys that are less than half my age and I compete pretty well against them."
Hall was once quoted in an international sailing magazine saying that the A-Class Cat is "the best-kept secret in the sailing world." But it appears that the cat is now, figuratively, out of the bag as A-Class activity is in the US has tripled since the 1997 Worlds in Long Beach. There are currently small fleets of the boats actively racing in southern California, Miami, Virginia Beach, New Orleans, Houston, Michigan, and in Hall's hometown, Bristol, RI. Though the lion's share of the competition in this class remains in Europe and Australia, the world championships are scheduled to grace US waters once again in 2002 when the regatta will be staged on Martha's Vineyard.
Hall sums up A-Class sailing in a single word: "Whether you're racing or just going out for a one-hour sail," he says, "it's exhilarating. I sail on a lot of different keelboats for our customers, but if I had my druthers I'd sneak out and sail my A Class." Along with several of his cat-sailing brethren, Hall routinely makes the trip from Bristol to Newport, roughly 18 miles on the water, just for sport. "I think my record for sailing in one day is 64 miles. It's just a lot of fun
.The other thing cool about the boat," he says, "is that you can be on the water in 20 minutes and in one hour you have all the therapy you need." Don't tell your psychiatrist, but here's a boat worth looking into.
The A TeamThough Ben Hall didn't make the trip to California to defend his North American Championship title, there's nonetheless plenty of competition on hand at the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club where the 2001 NAs are taking place this week. Among the rock stars Pete Melvin ('97 world champ), and Olympic medalists Pease Glaser, Jay Glaser, and Goram Marstrom. Hall says that his money is one either Melvin or Italian Champion Egidio Babbi.
For updates and additional information on the 2001 A-Class North American Championships, log on to the host's website at www.abyc.org. And, if you'd like to get in touch with the US A-Class Association, log on to their website at www.geocities.com/naaca/usaca.html.
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