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Sailing the F16 Viper

(Posted by Kevin)


My brother and I grew up racing catamarans. We had Hobie Cats – first, we had a 16' that we raced together. Then, we bought a pair of 14's that we could race individually. Finally, I bought my own 16' and we each raced with another person as crew. We both did pretty well for the amount of time we spent in the sport. We won a few regattas in the starter classes, and each filled up a pantry with a bunch of cheesy trophies. Whenever we competed against each other, Craig usually won. He seemed to be a bit better at coaxing speed from the boat, and his tactics were generally fearless and spot-on.  

When I moved to Oregon from Texas, my racing dropped off considerably. Then, our father died, Craig married, had kids, and started moving around the country to less-sailable racing locations like Chicago, and both of us ended up going dark on the sailing for awhile.

A couple of years ago, we both simultaneously got interested in sailing again. Laura and I bought our Hobie Tandem Island – for day sailing, cruising, fishing, and Kayaking. Craig, still much more interested in racing – went to racing school this summer and purchased an F16 Viper.  

Today, in the Florida Keys, we finally got to take the Viper out together.

This… is a FAST sailboat. It's difficult to find the right words to explain just how incredibly, frighteningly, soberingly fast this thing is. The website of the manufacturer "Australian High-Performance Catamarans" – claims that this is "without a doubt the fastest 16' catamaran on the planet."

I am now officially a member of the group of people who do not doubt that. This boat is high-strung, lightweight, temperamental, and insanely quick. If you lose focus for even a second or two – you'll find yourself taking a sudden and unexpected bath in the Gulf of Mexico. If Ferrari or Lamborghini made a sailing catamaran… it would be much slower and tamer than this thing.

Craig brought the boat down to sail during the weekend here at Long Key. Our campground had a beach that was suitable for launching, rigging, and parking. The first day we were here, we spent an hour or two taking the boat off the trailer, rigging its incredibly complex systems, and getting it into the water. As we were rigging, the wind was coming up to a menacing blast. By the time we were ready to sail, we were both pretty apprehensive. The winds were probably in the 20-25 knot range, and that's near the maximum for a very experienced racing crew on a boat like this (which we are not). We set sail and very conservatively went out and made a tack or two. Waves were whitecapping and we had to keep the sails almost completely powered down just to keep upright and to keep some semblance of control. We gave up after only a few minutes and gingerly moved the rig back up on the beach.


Today was a different story. We finally got to take the boat out and explore its full potential. The wind and waves were still strong, but less intimidating than yesterday. He showed me the ropes (heh) on the new boat – what to adjust, when and where to move my weight, and how the boat behaved under different points of sail. Before long, we were rocketing upwind at something over 20MPH, flying a hull, with both of us out on trapezes – standing horizontally on the side of the boat as we skimmed across the water.

Then came the really tricky part. We turned downwind at an angle, deployed the massive spinnaker, and held on for dear life. On a broad reach with the chute up, this boat is capable of incredible speed. I was out on a trapeze at the very stern of the boat – hanging out over the water with all my might – trying to prevent the leeward bow from plowing into waves and causing the boat to pitchpole (something like a forward cartwheel). I succeeded almost every time. During one rocket-ride, we were jibing (turning) through the wind with the spinnaker up, and I didn't release the tension quite quickly enough.  In less than two seconds, we went from crazy forward speed to upside down in the water. After assuring that we were both still holding onto the boat, we went through the righting procedure, got the boat back upright, and were on our way sailing again.  


All was well. Oops, except for one thing. My super-awesome iPhone waterproof case only works if you fully close and seal it. Apparently I had not. During the crash, I was fully submersed for a couple seconds, and was swimming in the ocean for a few minutes after that. The iPhone officially did not survive the incident.

The boat ride was without a doubt the most intense and exhilarating sailing experience of my 30+ years of sailing. I now have the utmost respect for anyone who masters one of these F16 or F18 catamarans. The skill, strength, and stamina required are daunting. I need to hit the gym a bit harder before my next outing. 

If you want to see extreme competitive action in boats similar to (but much larger and more capable than) this boat, watch the America's Cup World Series and, of course, the upcoming America's Cup. This time, it's all being sailed in catamarans and the action will be incredible.

(Posted by Kevin)