Tremors in the Cat World

Once upon a time there were many small catamaran one-design classes, often raced out of yacht clubs. The North American Multihull Sailing Association provided some structure, a handicap system for open events, and a national championship. Along came Hobie Alter and his hot-selling Hobie 14 and 16, which shifted cat sailing to the beach and to pure one-design racing. In the '70s, cat racing grew as a fun, adventurous, coed recreation for a youthful crowd of Baby Boomers, pushed along by lots of marketing support. Other companies, such as Prindle, joined the wave with new classes. But then came windsurfing, roller blading, mountain biking, and other activities, which competed hard for the outdoor attention of subsequent generations. Some of Hobie's new classes didn't hit the mark, and the competition from other builders grew tougher. By the late '80s, sailing was also seeing a downturn in popularity, and the one-design model couldn't carry a company like Hobie. At the same time that many larger sailboat builders were going out of business, Hobie changed hands and left its one-design classes to fend for themselves. In the last decade, most new catamarans have been bigger, more powerful, and faster. Spinnakers have proliferated--even the Olympic Tornado got one--and boats have become more sophisticated. As in windsurfing, dinghy sailing, and sportboats, raw performance is intoxicating, but not for everyone, and much of the energy among cat racing's aficionados has bypassed the smaller, easier-to-manage designs. Yet even as one-design fleets have shrunk, both handicap and formula-style racing classes have filled in, and good racing has continued at different levels. After leaving the 470 behind, U.S. Olympic medalist Bob Merrick went looking for a cat class to sail with his girlfriend and settled on the Hobie 16. His story in this issue ("Break into Beach Cats") reviews classes that suit a range of racing styles and budgets--the Hobie 16, the F18 formula class, and the A class, a singlehanded development boat. This range of designs represents a new balance point for the cat world. Cat Sailor magazine's editor, Mary Wells, admits that the number of cat sailors is far smaller than it was in 1980, but she says the number of dedicated racers has grown relative to the '60s, and is growing again. The Hobie Co., after diversifying into recreational boats under new ownership, is once again providing a measure of support to its racing classes, including formula classes. The company also reversed a recent decision to suspend production of the singlehanded Hobie 17 in response to an outcry from class members, and Doug Skidmore, president of the Hobie Co., expects the upcoming Hobie 16 Worlds in Mexico to be one of the biggest Hobie regattas ever. Even the North American Multihull Sailing Association has been reincarnated to help provide structure for the fragmented cat racing scene. Like other parts of sailing, cat racing keeps evolving; one of the latest ideas is a little Formula 14 class, running counter to the "bigger is better" trend. All sorts of fast and faster cat racing can be found through cat dealers, racing associations, classes, and NAMSA (http://www.multihullsailing.org). Maybe the only further step that's needed is for cats to get back into the yacht clubs to help hook the next generation of youth sailors.