SAILING ON THE EDGE.
When it comes to sailing fast, two hulls are better than one.
And, of course, three hulls are better than two.
Just ask the captains and crew members of any of the three dozen multihulled sailboats that danced a colorful tango across the surface of Fern Ridge Lake during the Eugene Yacht Club's third annual Living on The Edge regatta.
"They are a lot quicker boat," said Mike Hensel of Shoreline, Wash., one of several Seattle-area sailors who competed in the event over the weekend. "The multihulls don't have the heavy keel for inherent balance, so it's kind of human-ballasted - the trapezing off the wire is what it's all about with this boat."
Trapeze is the term "cat" sailors use to describe the wire and harness they use for support while they stand on the windward hull and lean out over the water. Their leveraged weight helps stabilize the boat.
Given a stiff wind, the hull on which their feet are braced will actually come completely out of the water, a maneuver called "flying a hull."
But such "living on the edge," is not as scary as it looks, said Travis Thompson, the crewman on a Nacra 5.8 catamaran from Reno, Nev.
"The first couple times you do it when you've never sailed before, it seems odd and weird and you're a little excited," Thompson said. "But until you get close to vertical - that means something bad's going to happen, usually - you're not that excited."
With winds blowing only 5 to 8 miles per hour during most of the afternoon Saturday, there wasn't as much opportunity for hull-flying as sailors would have liked. Still, some of the bigger boats were able to make speeds that challenged motorboats carrying photographers to keep pace.
"My analogy is these boats have the performance of a motorcycle - you're in the elements, you're fast and you've got a high power-to-weight ratio," said Don Atchley of Seattle, vice-chairman of the U.S. Sailing Multihull Council.
With catamarans, Atchley said, "you've got lightweight boats and lots of sail, whereas monohulls have a huge lead keel."
The lack of a keel, however, has its disadvantages. Most multihull boats - which use retractable "dagger boards" in lieu of a keel - cannot sail into the wind at as steep an angle as a monohull can. Catamarans and trimarans have to do more tacking back and forth to travel upwind.
As a result, some boats Saturday sailed so far from the course markers - sets of large inflatable yellow buoys anchored about a mile and a quarter apart - that a casual observer might not have realize racing was under way. With as many as five different races going at one time, multicolored sails were scattered widely around the lake for most of the afternoon.
Different classes of boats started at five-minute intervals, and different captains took different courses to get around the markers first. The result resembled a merry-go-round more than a horse race.
Getting there first doesn't necessarily mean victory. In sailboat racing, as in golf, there a handicap system serves as a great equalizer.
And racing is only a small part of the attraction of multihull sailing, which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, said Larry Cox, a Eugene Yacht Club member. Cox has owned 11 catamarans since 1986 and has taught a catamaran sailing class for many years. A section on catamaran sailing will be included in the club's 2009 Sailing School, June 21-26. The school is open to non-members (details: www.eugeneyachtclub.org).
"The fleet is growing here," said Cox, and the popularity of catamarans nationally is evidenced by the fact that "people are actually buying these $20,000 exotic (extremely lightweight) boats."
But one need not spend so much money to get involved. "That guy just bought that boat for a thousand dollars," Cox said, pointing to an older 18-foot Pringle brand catamaran. "And that's a very good boat."
With no need for fuel, batteries or moorage fees, catamarans are also comparatively inexpensive to own and operate.
"An awful lot of catamaran owners don't moor 'em at clubs like this," Cox said. "They keep them in their yard on a trailer and they can go anywhere. That's one of the reasons why catamaran people are a little independent of the rest of the sailing world."
Most multihull sailboats are used primarily for recreation, not racing.
Among the catamarans on Fern Ridge Lake just for fun Saturday was an 18-foot Hobie Cat owned by yacht club members Steven and Elisa Strahon,
"Of the three boats we own, this is our favorite," Steven Strahon said. "We bought it in 1996 for only $1,500 - including a trailer and two complete sets of sails."
What's the appeal of catamarans if you're not racing?
"It's easy to deal with," he said. "As you get older, a Catalina 25 (one of the couple's other sailboats) is a lot to take care of. This is light and easy to deal with."
Most catamarans are simply a trampoline-like platform stretched over the two hulls, plus a mast and two or three sails. As for trimarans, they look ungainly - like a sailboat with training wheels - but they can be astonishingly fast, even in the light to moderate winds Saturday.
That speed is not the only reason three hulls are better than two.
"With three hulls you get a bathroom, a kitchen and shower," Atchley said, noting trimarans generally have cabins and the comforts of a large sailboat.