THIS was my #1 takeaway from the ASA 114 Catamaran Cruising Course, and it was as unexpected as it was reassuring. Maneuvering a catamaran is equivalent to steering your shopping cart through the aisles of Kroger.

What a relief.

Here’s a confession: I actually asked Modern Sailing School if I could “audit” the class instead of actually taking it for this simple reason: I did not think I would be able to successfully steer and manage such a large, wide, heavy boat. I got the hang of the whole monohull steering a while back, but a catamaran is an entirely different animal. A whale, really.

My husband drives fire engines for a living so he struggles to relate to my paranoia in this arena. The only thing that makes him realize I am not kidding about this fear is that he has experienced my on-land driving. Needless to say, I was nervous. So when, after talking through the operation of the boat, our instructor asked me “Lea, do you want to give it a try?” I briefly panicked (on the inside) then agreed to be the first student at the helm.

Fortunately, in addition to the information just shared by our instructor I also remembered a call-out I had read in the instruction book before class that really spoke to me (see inserted picture from ASA 114 Instruction Book).

I really bonded with that information, so when it came time for me to actually manage the independent throttles forward and in reverse using differential power to turn and steer the boat, I (in my head) was just driving a shopping cart.

  • I need to turn right at the Metamucil display to go back to the soup aisle. Push the left throttle forward and pull the right throttle in reverse.
  • Oh wait, I need to do a u-turn and head back toward the milk cooler. Push the right throttle all the way forward and pull the left throttle all the way back to pivot on a dime and reverse direction.
  • I need to keep moving forward, but steer a little more toward the cereal on the right side of the aisle. Push both throttles forward, but the give the left throttle more rpms than the right.

I crushed it! That is, I crushed it until I had to drive backward because, I mean, who goes backward with a shopping cart? But I eventually sorted it out and I have to say, the differential propeller steering option of a catamaran has me smitten.

So how exactly does this work? With a monohull you have a rudder which is controlled by a steering wheel (or tiller on a smaller boat). Pretty straight forward and more like just driving a car from a turning perspective. At the same time, with just a rudder it is a bit difficult to be precise in your movements. With a catamaran you still have the wheel and rudder, which you’ll use for sailing just like with the monohull. But, you also have independent engines and propellers that will have you as nimble as a water ballerina when you are trying to dock, or catch a mooring ball, or spin in circles.

These propellers, one beneath each hull, can be operated independently and with differential power. Meaning, for example, you can advance the starboard propeller with more rpms than the port side propeller to move yourself to the left. You can shift one propeller in forward gear and one in reverse to pivot and change your direction. In essence, you can place your boat where you want it, stop on a dime, and move around at will. And the maneuvering mimics how you would move your shopping cart around a store.

Now, if our fabulous instructor Dave is reading this I want him to be assured that this is not all I learned in class. In truth, I don’t think he really loves the shopping cart example quite as much as I do and I am certain he is unaware that while I was steering the boat I was literally visualizing pushing a shopping cart.

Here are a few other things of note about husky cruising catamarans. Many systems on a catamaran are duplicated so be mindful of your boat’s setup, including the position of the propellers as they vary by boat model. The sail construction and sail management is a bit different than a monohull, a bridle is necessary for anchoring, your dinghy gets to ride easy via davits that hoist it out of the water versus surfing behind the boat, and the vast amount of space in the cabins is as luxurious as I had imagined.  Catamarans are also like shopping carts in that they are large enough to carry a boatload (literally) of snacks, drinks, and assorted items that may or may not represent healthy choices.

We spontaneously took our catamaran sailing course in January 2019. A class was available at Modern Sailing School out of Sausalito on a weekend we were free and we jumped on it. We assumed that we’d get to try our new skills on a future excursion back to San Francisco or on a planned trip next year with friends. And yet, here we are just one month later, and a turn of events has us six days away from our first catamaran charter in the Bahamas!

Let’s back up. My husband and I were supposed to be sailing with a good friend who was going to take his boat from Florida to the Bahamas, but the weather and work demands changed those plans, so just a week out from our departure we needed to shift gears. Boat inventory, as you might imagine, was slim so close to our departure date, so we were starting to think that we would have to abort our journey. Just when it seemed hopeless, our new charter company bestie, Navtours, made it happen for us! A little creativity with our dates, an option to bring the boat back in the morning of departure, and kind patience on the part of our lovely charter specialist Elizabeth in answering all of our questions has us more excited than ever to sail in this beautiful spot. I can practically see the sand on the ocean floor through meters of clear blue water now.

So, if you happen to be near Nassau President’s Day Weekend and see a happy catamaran practicing donuts on the ocean, you’ll know it is me and my big shopping cart just having a little fun.

Lea Maxwell

Lea Maxwell is the sailor and scribe behind Escape Under Sail, a web|blog project that connects new and future charter sailors with the resources, information, and motivation they need to competently and confidently sail beautiful destinations around the world.

Web: escapeundersail  |   Instagram: @escape_under_sail   |   Facebook:

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