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What is it like to sail a W17 trimaran for the first time ?

As I have been asked this question quite often, here is what I can say, based both on the reactions of those who write in and the 50 or so whom I have personally taken out on my boat ‘Magic’ for the first time.

But let me first put things in perspective by saying this…

 ‘it definitely depends on what you have sailed before’.  But let's start by assuming it's mostly monos.

I was actually reminded of some of the different things myself of late, when returning to ‘Magic’ after losing access to her for over 2 years during the Covid shutdown of the US border.   Sailing her again did remind me of the many differences with all other boats I have sailed.

First reaction re the appearance.   It looks like a LOT of boat for a 17 footer.  It looks very strong with a large cockpit and its tall eye-catching mast (assuming the race rig like Magic.    First time viewers are typically fascinated by the rotating wingmast, with many having a problem to believe it can be and is, home built.   Most popular feature is its overall look as a mini-ocean racer, with its gull-wing beams, fine hull-lines, wide curved mainsheet track, its underbody blade rudder and again, the unique wingmast. 

Here is Merlin, a sister ship to Magic. finely and proudly built by Jim in Mass, USA though she now often sails on the Eggemoggin Reach in Maine.

Getting into the boat from standing in a few inches of water, typically involves either stepping up on to the ama deck, or if less athletic, sitting on the deck and then swinging your legs around to the trampoline, from where you can stand up to walk to the cockpit after ducking under the shroud bridle which also serves as a handgrip.   The ama drops about 60-70mm when you sit on it, as it starts off barely kissing the water so needs to pick up enough buoyancy to take your weight.

Once in the central cockpit, although it feels (and is) very secure, the boat might feel ‘a little nervous’, (not unlike Santa, a thoroughbred horse I rode when I was 16, just ‘eager to get going’;).   This feeling applies to all small light trimarans under 8m that have their amas just kissing the water when level.   It’s a natural reaction that the boat wants to lay either to port or to starboard, with that perfect balance in the center being very hard to maintain.  For example, if I place my daggerboard on one tramp the boat drops 50 mm that side.  If I move it over, it’s now 50mm down the other side, so that’s where ‘the nervousness’ comes in.  It’s a small movement but it happens immediately and can be initially unsettling as it is very quick  With some trimarans that have their amas relatively very high (like the Buccaneer 24’s etc) this motion is even more severe and exaggerated, with the amas now dropping as much as 150mm or more to each side.  While there is totally no danger to this, it can throw one off balance until you adapt.  Being on a Buccaneer 24 at anchor when a motorboat goes by, you definitely need to hold on or sit down … and quick too !

Many Farrier designs (and larger cruising boats) have reduced this by placing their amas initially further down, but there is a performance price to pay for this as the weather ama will now hit more wave tops at its lower sailing angle.  You just have to accept the geometric choice of the designer.  (Even the Crowther choice for his Buccaneer had reasons and one was that it allowed the boat to heel more – almost like a mono, permitting gusts to escape off the peak of the sail so reducing risk of capsize.  But with that comes a loss of power, aside from the wild 'flip-flop' at anchor.

If you are a heavy person and plonk yourself down aft, expect to see the self draining cockpit take in a little water.  It’s only about 50mm above the loaded waterline so you need to sit farther forward until you are sailing fast downwind, when the stern will pick up dynamic lift and support more weight.

As virtually ALL the weight on a small but efficient trimaran is carried on just ONE slim central hull, it does sink faster than on most other boat types, so trimming the boat to keep the cockpit floor just slightly pitched-down aft is needed to keep the floor dry.   But unless the boat is built much overweight or heavily overloaded, it’s never an issue when sailing.   Just don’t wear those fancy leather moccasins sold as ‘sailing shoes’.  They are best reserved for the bar on the Commodore’s yacht ;-) 

(I have found moulded ‘Crocks’ to be great on a small boat as they protect your feet on rough stones but also drain and dry out fast).

The skipper/owner will drop the rudder, set the downhaul into the auto-release kickup cleat, and then slip in the pivoting daggerboard about ½ way.  If it is shallow, it can just hang from shockcord on a hook at the mast base, so that it does not go lower than needed. 

Here, please accept that I digress off-subject for a moment as its critical in understanding the very different design base that the W17 comes from.

With ‘the sweetly rounded hulls’ that most sailors and many designers still consider the ultimate in form, comes the need for super-efficient foils to give good upwind performance.    You all know how essential these are when going to windward.   Pull it up (or out) and your ‘sweetly rounded form’ becomes a lost dog, with no sense of direction or tracking …. quickly turning off line, side slipping extensively and making the rudder near useless.   We all know the feeling. 

But the W17 is a very different boat, with a very different design root.    After 70 years of designing small boats and testing them to learn more, I am no longer convinced that ‘the sweetly rounded form’ IS primarily the best one.  Sure, in low winds and speeds the low wetted surface will pay off, but in the critical range we mostly sail in (5-15k), low wave making and low leeway can be King.   So think for a moment how the water sees the boat, when sails are trying to push her sideways.  With the traditional sweetly rounded form “it’s pretty easy to do!” as the water is often quite free to flow sideways under the hulls  …. so now, EVERYTHING is hanging on the efficiency of the foils to prevent that from happening.

But on the W17, those straight-as-possible chines treat flow like low resistant fore-and-aft arrows, but they are ‘tigers’ at resisting sideways slip … so when you are sailing a W17 upwind, you can actually whip out the complete daggerboard without the boat going into the chaotic spin that a sweetly rounded hull boat hull with give you.  The W17 will just keep ‘tracking away’ as at least ½ the total leeway resistance is designed into the two hulls and will always be there.   Don’t believe me? … go sail a W17 upwind, choppy or not, and you will learn something about hull design.   Rounded hulls often evolve into Vee’d hulls with the thought that 'wave parting' will be better ... but for aspects like wave resistance, pitching and dryness, this is about the worst shape from my 75 years of sailing experience, so perhaps it’s time to start looking at boat hulls from the perspective of each water particle … which is really how the W17 got its unique shapes.   

OK – enough of this … but as it’s something you WILL notice when you first sail a W17, I think you should understand the ‘WHY’ & ‘HOW’.   There’s more on this in Published Articles on my website.

But back to getting the boat rigged. The skip then hauls up the mainsail.  

Although quite large and with 6 full length battens it’s fairly heavy, it still goes up the mast slot pretty easily and looks quite imposing to the first-time viewer.  Many builders have a small snubbing winch to take up the halyard slack while the halyard is ‘sweated up’ while comfortably sitting on the main beam at the forward starboard corner of the cockpit.  (A solid wood or nylon hook to pass the halyard under can work OK too).   Once up, the Cunningham is hooked-in and tensioned plus the mast tiller is cleated to the boom with the appropriate slack for the wind conditions.   Tighter to the boom for high winds.

The foresail is on a permanent furler, so extremely easy to release the furling line and pull out the sail when ready, via its 2-part sheets.

Typically, depending on the wind, a knowledgeable skipper will assign you a position very far forward in the cockpit, to leeward if light wind, or to windward if 12kts or more (that’s when you start to see a few white crests).

At my place, the first 2 or 3 boat lengths has little or no prevailing (south) wind, but one soon finds it.   This is where I and other owners can have a little fun.  You, the first time guest are taking in all the new feelings, wondering what is next.  Meanwhile the skip has sheeted in the main a little and with very little heel, the silent acceleration from the shore goes unnoticed until less than 50 secs later, the skip says, “see where we just came from ?”    You glance back at the shore and instead of it being the expected 100ft away … you see it’s more like 400 ft ! ..  so it’s then you first think to yourself, ”oh boy, this IS different, and this is going to be fun!”

As you slice out to windward, the quiet and ease of the boat through the waves will surprise you.  Your eyes are directed to the bow of the leeward ama as the skipper watches this a lot to judge his stability reserve.  “Keep 50mm average freeboard at the bow and there’s no risk of capsize” the skip tells you.   He may also point out a small marker that’s 110mm above the keel line at the bow.  “A good trim upwind is to keep that marker at the waterline, so that the bow mostly stays well under”

Here, I must digress once again, as many do not seem to understand this.  When a boat (or ship) hull is pushed through the water, it HAS to push apart the water particles in its way and then allow them to close in again, all with the least disturbance if you want the lowest drag (or best speed).  My 40 years work on ships and even submarine design often gave me access to tank test results and as these are conducted with models in the 12-20ft range, they are a perfect scale for directly relating to small boats.   For ships, large bulbous noses underwater proved to lower resistance so significantly that now well over 50% of all trans-ocean liners, tankers, container ships etc now have one.   By dividing the water well below the surface, they create a negative surface wave that reduces the normal bow wave by a very significant percentage and also, the displacement added there by the deep underwater bulb, gives less resistance than if it were at the waterline. Of course there is more to it than that, but this gives the general idea that the lower you can get that narrow bow into the water, the resistance created is LESS than it would be if you left it at the surface, as all resistance at the surface where energy is wasted creating waves and white water (foam), carries a high penalty.   The boat that passes through or over water and disturbs it the least, will likely have the lowest resistance.   This is why vertical sides make the least wave … and heavily vee’d ones make the most. Once you start making surface waves, they froth at the top and this becomes spray that is light enough to be blown back over your boat and crew.  If your hull is vee’d, this wave is likely to be higher, wasting much energy pushing water out sideways and making the spray worse … with your boat correspondingly wetter.  Vee’d forward bows also encourage cyclic pitching, whereas vertical sides do not.   ALL these factors are taken into account with the design of the W17, so expect a remarkably dry boat with a quiet, slippery ride upwind, despite its small size.  Even large sailboats with $10,000’s being spent to win races sometimes ignore these design basics.  Just look at this 52 footer, with a huge crew ..,. but all WAY too far aft for good efficient bow immersion. Move them all forward even 30% of the boat length and you’ll likely see ½ to 1 knot speed increase upwind that would not cost a dime.


OK- back to your first ride again.   You will likely 'just accept' the low bow position and may be more intrigued by the way the water passes in a clean vertical, near transparent sheet with almost no spray or bow wave formed.   You start to understand why this boat is called ‘Magic’.   You see the waves and water pass at double the normal speed of your mono yet there is no feeling of laboring or effort to do so.  It’s also eerily quiet and when the skip eases off the wind a little, you see a flat, barely disturbed wake, zipping out from beneath the transom while the well immersed bows are slicing the water into two without any definable bow wave … looking closer to a high speed destroyer than your average sailboat that churns up a lot of water at both ends.        Because there is virtually no boat wave, there is also very low surface disturbance and therefore very little spray, even at 12 kts and more.    With the bow trimmed down at least 100mm under water, there is no slamming and very little hobby-horsing either, so these potential irritants are not there to slow you down.


But just look at this mono and the surface water its churning up!   An extreme example I admit, but covers my point re ... visual waste of energy at the water surface interface.
On board the W17, you are free to move from the cockpit seat up onto the cockpit boxes where you might see better.  Either way, you do not need to be hanging over the edge to stay upright … that leeward ama is providing all the stability needed and, “it’s applied automatically as required”.  That’s the magic of a good trimaran … "stability to order”.    When the tall sail tries to lever the boat over, this immerses more of the ama that then opposes the heel ... very different from a mono that can only move its buoyancy out a few inches, with the rest of the stabilizing needing to come either from body weight hanging over the windward rail or a heavily weighted keel that only has leverage when the boat IS significantly heeled.

Rather than reef early when the wind is stronger, both the skip and the crew can slide out on to the windward ama … that’s like both now being on trapezes except you are still sitting comfortably with no risk of falling in the water.   Also, standing up on an ama and flying 500mm above the waves is also a special thrill, like smoothly riding on an airplane wing.    These boats are easily and best-equipped with two long 2m tiller extensions of lightweight PVC, one on each side of the boat, that allow the skipper to sit and steer the boat even from the forward beam when sailing alone.   No need to detail here, but this boat has a multitude of places to sit and be comfortable .. ideal for the aging body that needs to move around every 30 minutes to not feel cramps ;)   Just check out this collection by trimaran enthusiast Norwegian Blog creator Erik Klepsvik, and don't be afraid to try them out if the wind is moderate.  Just remember that a trimaran should always be trimmed to sail on just two hulls .... generally with the windward ama OUT  .. and is most efficient upwind with weight forward.   So place your weight to advantage but explore the options depicted here.  For some reason, ladies just love to lounge on the tramps ;)

When the W17 is sailed in steep one metre high waves, sometimes the bow will pick up the cap of one and throw it back into the cockpit.  It’s rare, but it can happen. But unlike a regular cruising dinghy there is no panic to bail it out due to risk of being swamped, as the cockpit is totally self-draining so it’s gone in seconds.  This is also a great feature for when the boat is left out in the rain …  no need to get to it quickly for fear it might sink as on many monohulls … it just self-drains .... all day, all night, all month.

While sailing upwind, if the scenery so permits, the skip may suggest to keep an eye on an approaching shore with landmarks behind it.  With this, you can see the leeway you are making … or in the case of the W17, very little leeway at all !

Here is when the Skip might pull the little joke mentioned earlier. A W17 skip might say, ‘check our course ahead, and then watch this’, and he may just pull the daggerboard fully out while heading upwind!

On a monohull, this would be a disaster as steering control would just disappear and the boat would start losing ground upwind at a serious pace. But with the W17, the hull forms give more than ½ the total side resistance so you can even make progress upwind in just 60cm of water .. just enough for the small spade rudder that is efficiently tucked away under the hull aft.  Because its location is free of cavitation, it can be shallower than normal, so reducing the required water depth for sailing down to less than 2ft.

At this point, if conditions permit, the skip may say … swap places with me and try the helm.     Another shock is how light the helm feels.   Typically most monos carry weather helm, very strong on some too ..  and this means that steering is a question of mostly pulling, either more or less.   Can be pretty tiring.

The W17 does not need weather helm and I do not want the boat rounding up if I let go the tiller.  There is enough stability to handle whatever puff comes your way, so I want to tack only when I decide.    Also, constant weather helm means there will be added drag from the angled rudder and we don’t need that either. But the lightness will need adjusting-to on your first sail ;-)

Tacking may be a little different too.  If you came from a monohull, tacking may not seem as positive until you adopt a new technique, but if you came from a catamaran, you will probably find she tacks better than your cat.   With at least 2 (if not 3) hulls in the water, all designed to go ‘straight’ as easy as possible. it’s normal that turning will be a little slower.  So it pays to release but still hold on to the leeward jib sheet for 2-3 seconds, until you see the wind on the backside of the jib and then you let go.   You can release very soon in light winds, but hold that sheet a little longer in waves.    Personally, I ease the main, push down the tiller and then facing forward, I totally concentrate on the two jib sheets. Once the new leeward side is tightly sheeted, only then do I go back to the main and pull it in again.    (Learning to tack on just 2 hulls and without jib backing is an art ... but its quicker once learnt, as jib backing does unavoidably act as a slight brake).

You may also notice that gybing is much easier on a stable trimaran.  Easy, especially with the fat head mainsail.   You can bring the boom in near the centerline but the fat head will still keep the main steady on the old gybe, then you put the helm down, change sides and let the mainsheet run a little as the wind takes the head over to the other side while you correct the rudder.  You will not see the huge heel that monos often take.    While you might prefer to avoid a gybe on a mono, it's sometimes actually easier to gybe than to tack in rough water with a trimaran, as you will maintain good steerage way.  It can help when alone to pull in (and cleat) both jib sheets a bit so that they don’t pull fully out with lots of flogging.

If it’s a strong wind day for your first ride .. let’s hope the owner has and uses a storm mainsail.  This will amaze you.  Together with the rotating wingmast, this makes a VERY efficient rig as the mast is now more like 1/5th of the full sail chord, instead of less than 1/10th with the regular full main … and wingmasts do not flog ;)

With this storm mainsail, tests have shown the W17 can achieve up to 90% of the speed of the full main, but in windier and rougher conditions.  Because the W17 hulls can slice through waves, this sail drive is put to good use and can drive the boat upwind in surprising form.  Far more efficient than with a sail that’s too large and is flogging and lifting …  and will have demonstrable less drag from both the rig and the hulls, that will also be surprisingly quiet and dry considering the wave conditions you may then be in.     So if the W17 you are to try out has a storm mainsail in its wardrobe … persuade the owner to hoist it instead of reefing the main.  It's really a fun experience .... and safer too.

Remember, that if you get to sail the boat yourself and it’s a good breeze … the ONE important measure to keep in mind is that the Leeward Ama Bow, should not be depressed lower than gives 50mm ‘average’ freeboard as indicated earlier.  That leaves you with a comfortable 10 % safety sailing margin.   But if you DO screw-up and a gust stuffs the ama lower, the boat is so designed that the overdeck water will flow nicely past the streamlined forward beam but then SLAM into the flat rear one.   This works as a built-in ‘brake’ that slows the boat and lifts the bow … with an impressive spout of water at the aft beam.   Just like this test shows ;)   

I actually found it interesting that after I returned to sail Magic (after 2.5 years with her 'the wrong side of the US border' due to Covid) that I was not very focussed or co-ordinated (and now 2.5 years older).  Sure enough, I got caught with a surprise gust and was just not in the right mindset to react promptly.  But Magic did exactly what she was designed to do, and I saw that 'water geyser' at the rear beam for the first time since we intentionally tested the concept.    She slowed right down and gave me ample time to collect my thoughts.   "Great, this really does work" I mused.

                                  [to be open about this, it works best when going up against the waves.                                          Downwind, the boat-to-wave impact will naturally be much less]

So ...  after you finally DO get to sail a W17, please write in with your experience and tell me how you found things.    I think the most common comment I hear is, 'amazingly smooth', but quiet, fast, efficient and dry are all not far behind.    I am quite ready to add to or edit this article to best reflect the conclusion of all.

Cheers, and have a happy inauguration in a W17, whenever you get the chance.


PS:   Perhaps you think an article by the designer on this subject is surely biased.    That's quite  understandable even if I always try to stay with facts that I can prove.  So perhaps you'd like to read the comments of other sailors who wrote in way before i wrote this article.  If so, check these out here starting in 2011.     Without the same design background, I'd say they were sensing just what this article describes.

PLease also keep in mind, that while most of the above 'first trip' describes the effect of the hull shapes and overall design, there are 70 years of small-boat sailing experience behind the many added details on a W17 that also make this boat so unique.    Here is a quick summary of the first 'lucky 13' .  

From the rear, there is the underhull spade rudder on a very strong mount that still easily kicks up; a large rear locker with a neat, pop out storage for dropping in your GPS, cellphone, duct tape, adustable wrench, maps etc etc .. that is balanced to flip shut with a quick touch; a 2.2m wide-arc'd mainsheet track for improved mainsail trim; instant mainsheet release with a single tug; a 7ft long cockpit to lounge in with 6 storage pockets and multiple sitting and sailing positions; a pivoting daggerboard that never bangs hard if you touch the bottom; a hidden water trap to reduce waves coming up the daggerboard trunk; an adjustable wingmast that firmly controls the most critical forward 10% of your mainsail with highly-efficient results upwind; a roller boom that makes short work of storing the efficient high-aspect mainsail; a large forward deck hatch for access to stored boat/camping gear with a shelf to hold a good size icebox, bow spray nets that absorb & deflect most wave tops; a roller-furled foresail for quick furling and unfurling; and a bowsprit to set the downwind sails with good spacing from the foresail.   

The boat is already widely supported by many articles on this website and a Series on Camping will be added as experience and info becomes available.   This is the ideal boat for happy retirement sailing without giving up the zip and efficiency you once appreciated in a racing dinghy.  With 'stability to order', you can sail this boat into the sunset even if you are 90+ ... and pass most of the younger (wetter) crews in traditional boats at the same time ;)



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