An intensive course promises a fast-track ticket to skippering a catamaran. Helen Fretter goes catamaran sailing to find out more
Can one week change your life? That’s a whole lot of pressure to put on a holiday. But for a surprising number of graduates of the Nautilus Sailing catamaran sailing course, that’s exactly what their one week aboard is: a first step to catamaran ownership or liveaboard adventures.
Nestled under the towering castillo on the tiny Balearic island of Cabrera is a simple tapas bar, known as the Cantina. Overlooking the dinghy dock and a short dusty road to nowhere, its terrace is a place where sailors sit to contemplate the stars, the swinging anchor lights, and life in general.
Over olives and white sangria my crew mates were considering their next life move, and they were resolute that it would involve buying a catamaran, and making that leap.
Of course, a liveaboard catamaran sailing course doesn’t have to be about reinventing your life. It’s a week afloat in the sun, hopping from bay to bay in some of the loveliest sailing destinations around, and an opportunity to pick up the skills to do it all again some time – only next time chartering your own boat, with friends or family.
Tacking between the islands of Conils and Cabrera, before tucking into the deeply sheltered nook of the Puerto de Cabrera anchorage, surrounded on all sides by a silent national park where the only visitors arrive by sea, is a day to treasure for anyone cruising the Mediterranean. For those experiencing yachting for the first time, it’s akin to being given the key to a secret world that only sailors have permission to access.
Catamaran ownership has boomed, but the huge sales of recent years aren’t solely the result of previous monohull owners converting to multihull life. There’s no question that the popularity of YouTube sailing mega-brand La Vagabonde, and other multihull vlogs like Gone with the Wynns and Sailing Zatara, have showcased the liveaboard lifestyle to thousands of viewers for whom moving aboard a more modest yacht would never have appealed.
The other big shift has been in the charter sector, with catamarans overwhelmingly the preferred option in many charter sailing areas. For experienced monohull sailors, skippering a rental cat isn’t usually particularly troublesome. However, for newer sailors looking to charter for the first time, there can be a real learning gap between the introductory courses taught on small keelboats and monohulls, and the reality of taking responsibility for a 45ft catamaran.
To fill this space in the market, the Nautilus Sailing course is a ‘zero to hero’ fast-track curriculum that takes students right from the introductory ASA (American Sailing Association) 101 Basic Keelboat Sailing course, through coastal cruising and bareboat cruising certificates (ASA 103 and 104), up to ASA 114, Cruising Catamaran Sailing. It assumes no prior knowledge, and promises to get students from absolute novice to capable charter cat skipper in just six days.
It’s a lot. The sheer volume of terminology and theory that new sailors need to grasp to rattle through four test papers is daunting. For many, however, the immersive week is just the first step on an even bigger mountain they’ve set themselves to climb, to become full-time sailors.
My fellow crew mates were doing just that. Hailing from San Francisco they’d become intrigued by the idea of going cruising over lockdown, a curiosity which built into a dream to learn to sail together, buy a zero-emissions multihull and set off around the world. Before arriving in Palma last September, they’d never set foot on a yacht. The Nautilus course would be a real-life test of whether a week can change your life.
Nautilus Sailing is the nominated teaching school for Dream Yacht Charter, and our home for the course was one of their Mallorcan base’s catamarans, a Fountaine Pajot Elba 45. Vastly spacious, the four of us rattled around it for a week. Living aboard a typical sailing school yacht means getting to know your fellow students very quickly. By contrast the 45ft cat offered plenty of privacy, with four spacious cabins with ensuite heads, and separate living areas including a large saloon, outdoor dining area, and enormous flybridge lounging deck.
The Elba 45 represents the upper end of the size range that the ASA ticket qualifies you to charter, with high topsides and an elevated helm position to starboard. Skipper and instructor for the week, Nautilus Sailing founder Tim Geisler, gave a quick line handling briefing before deftly taking us out of Palma’s packed marina.
Our first exercise in catamaran handling came as soon as we’d cleared the entrance to the busy port, practising manoeuvring using the Elba’s twin engines. Instead of starting with a whiteboard and talking through the points of sail, this set the tone for the hands-on teaching style of the course.
Beyond the catamaran sailing curriculum
Over the week it became clear that Geisler’s aim was to teach people how to cruise as much as how to sail – and not only the mechanics of navigation and sail handling, but the little habits and pleasures which define life afloat.
After an easy reach south-east, our first anchorage for the night was off the 2km sands of Estrenc, a perfect introductory spot to practise dropping the hook with ample swinging room and Caribbean-clear waters.
The beach was near deserted, the weather less balmy than ideal for September. Following dinner on the sheltered aft deck (everyone takes a turn at being chef) we settled into our new evening routine of chatting boats, life and everything in between over local red wine and chocolate.
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Overnight, the Mediterranean put on a spectacular lightning show as it shook off the last days of summer, thunder clamouring overhead. Between sideways rain squalls, I could see other charter boats in the bay hastily re-anchoring. Ours held firm, Geisler’s first lessons clearly well heeded.
The following morning the storm clouds had scuttled away, the sea was back to its aquamarine hues, and the real business of the course began. Daily morning and afternoon teaching sessions ran through essential knowledge.
For the first morning in Estrenc, a bow-to-stern tour of the boat was followed by rummaging deeper: pulling up floorboards, checking seacocks and tank levels, and performing engine checks. It quickly became clear that crew mates Jason and Crystal were model students: they’d read the multiple ASA textbooks every attendee is sent before arriving, they’d watched the instructional videos, and they had all the vocabulary down pat.
Having raced superbikes and track cars, the mechanics of a Volvo Penta held no mysteries for them, and as a skydiver and fledgeling pilot, reading detailed wind forecasts was second nature for Jason. I began to see why the learn-to-sail-in-a-week premise felt achievable.
Each day a different crewmember would be nominated ‘skipper’, responsible for updating the forecast, systems checks, and passage planning. Tim’s twice daily briefings covered everything from safety equipment, pollution avoidance, rules of the road, US federal requirements, and dive etiquette, to basic navigation calculations, traditional chartwork, as well as using Navionics and the onboard plotter.
Via a combination of theory and practical sessions, the curriculum rattled through anchoring techniques, sail handling and basic sail trim, emergency protocols and VHF usage, knots, and man overboard recovery.
In between, our route for the week alternated different cruising experiences: from Estrenc we motor-sailed around the southern tip of the island to Cala d’Or, a passage clearly designed to test new-found navigational skills as we picked our way along the busy, narrow inlet to the small marina at the very end.
The following day was a 20-mile hop south, down to the national park of Cabrera, where we used the six-mile island and the surrounding archipelago which make up the national park as a natural obstacle course demanding different points of sail.
A 40-mile passage to Andratx on day five gave the newer sailors a chance to test their sealegs, and for anyone who wanted it the opportunity to helm for longer periods. Each afternoon we nipped into a sheltered cove for lunch, more teaching sessions, and a quick swim or paddleboard, while day by day Tim stepped back a little more, showing – and building – confidence in whoever was in control.
But there’s no hiding the fact that this is a course to be passed, and by day three our routine was punctuated with test papers. The ASA exam format is a simple multiple choice, usually 100 questions, with an 80% pass rate required. It quickly became clear that passing wasn’t the goal. Jason and Crystal, high achievers from west coast tech and law firms, were after 100%. Dropping a point or two would be noted; I was going to have to up my game.
Geisler says that while my crew mates were remarkable, they are not an anomaly. “The intensive learning style is not for everybody, but for some it really works. Most of our clients have started their own businesses or they’ve been very successful, they’re very driven. They want to get it done right, so they give 110%.”
Since Geisler started the business 13 years ago, besides a near-total shift to multihulls over monos, he has also seen a marked change in the demographics of his customers. They’ve become a lot younger – back in 2010 the ASA reported that 82% of people learning to sail were over the age of 60, while the intensive courses offered by schools like Nautilus appeal to busy, working professionals in their 30s, 40s and 50s. And although the vast majority have zero prior sailing experience, he notes that more than half of Nautilus Sailing clients now want to learn to sail not only to charter, but with firm intentions to buy their own boat.
Four test papers over four days later, and we were all certified ASA catamaran charter skippers. So how well equipped does a week like this leave you to take sole charge of a multihull?
The compressed schedule does put the course slightly at the mercy of conditions. We had uncharacteristically unstable weather in September, turning several longer passages into more of a motorsail than ideal for practising sail handling and helming.
A quirk of chartering out of Palma is that there’s also very little opportunity to work on docking (though ample chances for anchoring and picking up mooring balls); Geisler reports that at the other teaching bases they usually find an unused fuel berth or similar to practise on. Certainly a day or two spent pontoon bashing under the eye of an instructor would be a useful follow up.
To a non-American eye, some of the ASA curriculum seems heavy on regulatory points. To Nautilus’s credit, while the teaching is designed to get you through the test paper, the bigger picture is to equip you to go sailing and focus real-world skills – such as using weather apps.
A casual online search of ASA qualifications might lead you to sites comparing the ASA and RYA (Royal Yachting Association) course structures. Some, erroneously, describe the ASA 104 Bareboat Cruising course as equivalent to RYA Day Skipper, and anything above as equivalent to RYA Coastal Skipper. It is not comparable, and Nautilus Sailing certainly does not claim it is. The Day Skipper course, and above, have minimum mileage requirements, including night hours, and require skippering in a range of conditions that the ASA courses do not.
What the ASA intensive course does offer is a kick-start. It’s a way to learn skills in an immersive environment, to experience a simulation of the ‘end goal’ of cruising, while cramming knowledge in with uniquely catamaran-specific cruising instruction.
To get the most out of a single week on the water benefits from a hefty commitment to doing the prep work beforehand, and it would be enormously sensible for new sailors to spend time practising those recently taught skills before taking responsibility for a yacht. Certainly that’s what Jason and Crystal did, signing up for a fractional ownership scheme in San Francisco Bay while they decided on their next step.
More seasoned cruisers who are considering a move to a multihull, particularly where one half of a couple might have less experience and confidence, could certainly benefit from Nautilus’s small-group teaching.
“When you pass your driving test, you have the basics to get out on the road. Are you ready to go and race a Formula One car? No. It’s down to you to put in the time. So we tell people this is a licence to learn,” says Geisler.
A few months after getting home from Palma, our group chat pings to life. Jason and Crystal have been binge-watching YouTube sailing videos, this time mostly boat tests on the Yachting World channel. They want Tim’s advice on some rigging options because they’re close to purchasing their first yacht. After just one week, their lives are changing.
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