The Art of Being Boring
by Michael Bastin

The author Mike Bastin taking a break while on the water“Make it look boring and you’ll be doing it right!” These were the words of Captain Steve Burns, sailing instructor and guru, to me and two other students at the beginning of our Cruising Catamaran class recently. This was to become our mantra during the following days and proved to be words to take to heart as I was to find out

How did this all start? Well, like most sailors I have always dreamt of a bigger better boat, and like many I ultimately want to go offshore in that boat and explore far flung exotic locations. Anyway, things were starting to look good, the day was getting closer, and suddenly twin daughters arrived on the scene. This, as you can imagine, tends to change one’s perspective just a little.

Monohulls, while being a lot of fun, aren’t really suited to two precocious 4 year olds! Next step was to look at the alternative, a vessel with more than one hull. Oh, I had heard all the horror stories of catamarans capsizing in open water and not being recoverable, and how they can’t sail to windward, can’t tack, get blown around a lot, and tend to break in half due to the pressures being applied to the bridge decks. But if this was all still true then why were the charter companies getting more and more of them, and why weren’t they all sinking while being delivered to their exotic new homes?

Ed waits for the order to cast off the stern dock line on our first morningI needed to find out and so I did my research. It turns out that they are just as safe for open water as monohulls and all the urban legends about them are based on small hobie style catamarans or larger mostly homebuilt vessels constructed halfway through last century! These issues are not really relevant to the modern breed of cruising catamaran. Of course the newer catamarans do need to be sailed a little differently, reefed earlier, and are harder to find slips for than most monohulls but the benefits more than balance up for the disadvantages.

So what was the next step? Simple, book a charter in the BVI and take the kids and another family down there to see what it was like sailing a catamaran with small children.

First thing to do was get a feel for how Calico handled under power. Ed tests how Calico handles.The only problem was that I had never sailed a large catamaran before and knew from reading that they required some different skills to sail and handle. Since my wife was the only other person going on the trip with sailing experience it made sense to increase our knowledge and skill level and that meant taking a class.

Being in Minnesota the obvious choice was Northern Breezes Sailing School, an ASA certified school that offers a large selection of sailing classes in both Minnesota and the BVI. I contacted Thom Burns, the schools owner, and secured a place in the July class. The class ran from Monday to Wednesday out of Bayfield, WI on Lake Superior and we were able to pre-board on Sunday night.

Since the point of the class was to learn how to handle a large cruising catamaran we were to spend each night in the marina with easy access to restaurants, and shore facilities. On the Sunday evening I arrived at Steve Burn’s Fountaine Pajot Athena 38 “Calico” to find him just finishing up washing it and after a quick and friendly hello he directed me to pick a cabin and stow my gear. Calico’s slip is the first one on the dock and is only a bit wider than she is, with a finger pier on the seaward side and a long steel wall on the landward side. It is one of those slips that cause problems for even the most skilled helmsman and there were many gouges and marks on the steel wall from previous boats that had tried to use it. My first thought was that I hoped he wouldn’t want us to try to bring her in and out of it! Not much later Dave Bryant, a retired airline pilot, turned up. It quickly turned out that he too had a charter in the BVI booked for later in the year and wanted to gain some insights into handling a catamaran before heading down there with his family. Ed Nelson, a St. Paul fire fighter, was to be the third student and he arrived late Sunday night after the rest of us had turned in. I was impressed that I had not felt or heard anything when he arrived and brought his gear on board. I doubt whether the same would have been said if we had all been on a 38 foot monohull.

Dave drives Calico backwards using the engines to steer while Ed assists by holding the wheel centeredDock time, or start of class, was at 0900. Before then we had already made Ed’s acquaintance and determined that he had been chartering in the BVI and seen the space on the catamarans and wanted to charter down there again but on a catamaran this time. Thus the theme was set. For the next three days conversation both during class and outside of it focused on cruising catamarans and the BVI. Since Steve was very well versed in both subjects, having been going to the BVI for some twenty odd years, his opinions and insider information were greatly appreciated by all.

Luckily for us Steve was not only very knowledgeable and highly skilled; he was also a very calm and patient instructor. His credo, “It has to look boring!” was obviously taken to heart by him in his teaching style as well as being passed on to us. For our part, as his students, we weren’t to run or look hurried, and definitely no panicking, but to slow everything down. I realized early on that this wasn’t just a look cool gimmick to impress the locals even if that was the obvious result; it actually made learning easier and stopped us from overreacting to what was happening with the boat.

Dave maneuvers under the watchful eye of SteveSteve started out the class with a walkthrough of the boat and then it was time to disconnect shore power and remove the lazy dock lines in preparation to get under way. The twin diesels had been quietly gurgling and warming up the whole time and after a quick check on the wind direction and strength he had us cast off the remaining two dock lines and he eased Calico out in reverse, paralleling the evil steel wall with ease, spun her on the spot and headed out towards open water. He made it look exceedingly easy and I have to admit quite boring.

That was the last time that Steve took the wheel and signaled the commencement of our on the water training. The actual part that we had all been looking forward to and dreading, taking turns as the nominated skipper and helmsman. Handling dock lines and running rigging held no real fear for any of us as we were all well acquainted with sailboats in general but being on the helm we could really screw up. But then again, that’s what we were there for, to learn now so we wouldn’t screw up when we were on our own with family members at stake.

Ed plans his next departure as Dave readies the stern docklineWe quickly fell into an order that remained pretty much constant for the 3 days with Ed going first, Dave second and me bringing up the tail. First off we all had to learn how Calico handled under power. Holding the wheel centered and using various combinations of forward and reverse on the port and starboard engines we did wide turns, close turns, spun on the spot, drove forward in a straight line and finally backed the boat up a couple of hundred yards in a straight line. I though we all did a great job and I was particularly proud of my reversing abilities until I managed to forget to hold the wheel centered and the rudders flipped full to one side resulting in a loud bang and red face. To make things worse, it was at this point that Steve very diplomatically pointed out that I was not in fact reversing to where I thought I was. In fact we were all suffering from a perception error to some degree or other while going in forward and reverse; it was just more obvious in reverse. With all of us being used to the centralized helm position of most monohulls the offset helm of the big cat resulted in us pointing the boat 5 to 10 degrees off from where we wanted to go. Once we were made aware of this we adjusted our sight lines and it became much easier to go straight.

Ed and Steve go over the planned departureOnce we had the feel for how to drive Calico it was time to head back into the marina and put it into practice. Fenders were deployed and bow and sterns lines attached to the starboard side and a single line handler was nominated. Initially Steve was going to have both off-helm students act as line handlers but then decided it was in our best interests to learn how to arrive and depart from a dock with a single line handler. His very valid reasoning was that this was the way we would be doing it most often in real life. This worked out well for us as it not only proved that we could do it easily with a single handler but also allowed the third student to learn through observing the other students at work. We all had the opportunity to do a couple of nose-in dockings and the time just flew by, before we knew it, it was time for a late lunch.

Dave is given his line handling instructionsDuring the morning the wind had been almost non existent but after eating it had started to pick up a bit and so we headed back out of the marina and hoisted the mainsail. I think we were all a little surprised at just how much effort was required to get the large sail raised. Once it was up it was back into the cavernous cockpit to unfurl the genoa and away we went. The cat made easy work of it even in light air and the feeling of non-heeling was delightful. Steve ran us all through tacking and jibing drills, especially re-enforcing the differences in sail handling between monohulls and catamarans. These included such tactics as delaying the release of the genoa until the nose was through the wind, and easing the boom across using the helm while jibing. The one thing I did miss was the feedback through the wheel that I was used to on a monohull.

Approaching the vacant slip that was to become very familiar over the 3 daysAfter a fun afternoon of sailing it was time to head back in and since Dave was on the helm, Ed and I lowered and secured the sails before setting the boat up for docking. As we came past the fuel dock I could almost hear Dave’s heart miss a beat as Steve nonchalantly told him that he could take Calico into its difficult slip. To give Dave credit though, even with a shifting crosswind he did a perfect job. Steve later commented that he normally doesn’t let students do that on the first day but he was impressed by how well we were all doing.

With Calico secured snugly back into her slip it was time for dinner, refreshments, and recaps of the day’s events as well as more talk of the BVI. Since we had the written exam next morning we all took the opportunity to retire fairly early and hit the books.

Dave casts off the bow dockline as Ed and Steve watchTuesday dawned bright and clear with no wind again so at 9 AM as planned we all trudged up the hill to beautiful Pike’s Bay Marina clubhouse and sat for the exam. As it turned out it wasn’t as hard as we had all feared it would be and we all passed easily. It was nice to have it out of the way so we could get back to the serious business of learning how to handle the boat.

The wind was finally picking up, still light but at least we could get the sails up. This time we went through the figure 8 and quick turn man overboard drills under sail and never missed our man. Well almost never! I managed to throw the type IV PFD we were using as our “man overboard” in with the straps down and was unable to hook the straps easily to complete the recovery. Steve decided to make the most of it and had Dave (who was on the helm) initiate a new man overboard drill twice more before I finally retrieved the cushion. Dave took it very well and still talked to me after I promised to buy first round that night.

With the bow sprung out against the wind the stern line is cast offThe wind was dying, it was time to practice anchoring drills so we secured the sails and motored to nearby Long Island. Since it was my turn on the helm I brought her into the wind and held her in one spot in 12 feet of water. Meanwhile Steve had Dave and Ed up on the foredeck deploying the anchor and signaling instructions back to me. With twin diesels it was fairly easy to hold her steady and gently back her down. Calico’s has an all chain rode and her anchor set easily on the first go and after shutting down the engines we all got together on the foredeck to recap. When the flies started swarming us from the island it was time to go. After weighing anchor the wind had finally decided to play the game and we once again hoisted sails and checked out a couple of the lighthouses on the island before going onto a broad reach for the run home. This was to be the best sailing we saw over the three days.

“Calico”Maneuvering under power was the order of the day again. This time it was a backwards day with plenty of practice reversing into slips. To make it more interesting Steve would have us drive out of the slip and down the fairway. Bringing the boat to a full stop we would then pivot her around 360 degrees before backing all the way back to the slip and docking her in reverse.

Once we had all had plenty of practice at this and felt like capable old hands we headed back out onto the lake to practice the Power Squadron man overboard procedure. None of us had ever seen this before and it relied on the crew calling out the side over which the crewmember had fallen while calling man overboard. The helmsman would then respond by turning hard to that side to get the props away from the person in the water before circling back around to pick up the crew member. We all agreed that this was a very valuable addition to our skill sets.

Ed spins Calico on the spot before bringing her back in againSince we had covered all the material in the class and still had some time left Steve asked us what we would like to finish up with and we voted for a visit to the Madeline Island marina. I was fortunate enough to be on the helm again and as we arrived Steve had me bring Calico in through the channel and spin her in front of the fuel dock. One of the staff came out and offered to help us but we politely thanked her and said that we were fine. I then brought the boat up to the visitors’ docks and with a fair crosswind reversed her in. Once the stern was secured a bit of forward power and the bow was tied off. We had arrived without any trauma and hardly any words spoken. The staff member from the marina came up and said “You guys sure make it look easy!” This was the highlight of my week! Of course, I was sweating profusely and still had copious amounts of adrenaline coursing through my system but I wasn’t about to tell her that, a simple thanks would suffice. To me, this meant that the class had done what it was supposed to and had been worth it. We had looked boring to her and that’s what it was all about.

So all I have to say now is “Bring on the BVI, and let’s make it boring!”

Michael Bastin is from Australia. Initially coming to the USA to be a sailing instructor and sailing director at YMCA Camp St. Croix in Hudson, WI. He is now an ASA Instructor for Northern Breezes Sailing School, and a freelance writer living in Minneapolis, MN.


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