It’s rare for professional sailors to look at a boat and go: “how does that work?” But down in Barcelona there is such a craft – the Patín de Vela, or more commonly the Patín Catalán – a hugely popular 18ft long, beach-launched catamaran with a 5.24ft beam that has no rudder, no centreboard, no boom and is controlled by minute adjustments on the dovetail mainsail and exquisite use of body weight to steer.
When the sailors arrive in Vilanova i La Geltrú in September for the first Preliminary Regatta of the 37th America’s Cup, the fast-foiling AC40s will have plenty of company on the water as 210 of these fabulous dinghies are confirmed for the ‘Pati Catala de Vela’ regatta – an historic record number, all gathered at the seaside port, launching off the nearby beaches, for what promises to be a remarkable spectacle. The 210 registered sailors at the regatta that runs on the 16 and 17 September will be representing a total of 27 clubs with sailors from Andalucia, Catalonia, Valencia, as well as from Germany, Austria and Belgium. A strong female representation will be at the regatta with 17 women confirmed – again a record number for the Pati Catala de Vela.
For Gerard Esteva, himself a Patín de Vela sailor, former president of the International Association of Sailing Skate Owners (ADIPAV) and President of the Union of Sports Federations of Catalonia (UFEC), this is a momentous moment for the class as they launch to a worldwide audience, saying: “The opportunity offered by the direction of the 37th America’s Cup will mark a before-and-after in the history of the Patín de Vela with promotion of the class on a world scale. All the sailors are very excited about this exhibition of the Patín de Vela and that is why, I believe, there has been this historic record of registration. We hope to put on a very good show to the world.”
For five days of the week, the Pati Vela Club de Barcelona organises racing, at noon, with these pure craft launched off the Barceloneta and Badalona beachfronts, with the weekend racing both popular and highly contested. The origins of the Patín de Vela can be traced back to the 1870s and the beach off Badalona where fishermen would stand on two hulls and paddle out to check nets but by the early part of the 20th century, the paddles that were similar to modern-day canoeists paddles, were replaced by oars and the craft were adapted for recreation and at times, racing, with the crew sitting down and rowing.
In 1942, the Mongé brothers from Catalonia first started experimenting with wooden masts and sails, placing the foot of the mast far forward and introducing the dovetail mainsail. The addition of a steel rack across the stern, a feature that is still there today, allowed the batten-less mainsail to be sheeted wide but could, crucially, be flattened for upwind work. As the technique developed so did the control lines and on today’s craft, the Patín de Vela ‘skates’ feature an array of control systems that can alter the forestay tension on each tack (the boats have two forestays, one mounted on each hull) to control the bend of the mast and aid direction.
About 40 ‘skates’ are built every year and although the original boats were built entirely of wood (hull and mast), now hybrid skates have gained ground, with fiberglass floats, a wooden deck and an aluminium mast.
The biggest factor for controlling these boats is body weight. Moving forward to luff-up and aft to bear-away with the single sailor moving across the five beams that support the hulls. The sailing style has naturally adapted with the ages as in early videos, sailors can be seen standing upright and precariously stepping forwards and back. Today, the sailors of these fascinating craft are more often found lying across the five hull planks and making small body movements and ‘crawls’ to shift distribution. In lighter airs there is still a beautiful balancing technique of standing up whilst flying the windward hull that proves to be very fast upwind with minute adjustments on the mainsail to keep the boat at optimum pace.
All the control systems lead back to the ‘piano’ an area at the midpoint of the craft between the hulls on the crossbeams that delivers the crucial free-flying cunningham and stay adjustments whilst the mainsheet feeds forward and is trimmed from just aft of the mast so the helm can keep looking forward. It’s a boat that rewards technique with many sailors spending a lifetime perfecting their balance and control and the racing is fast and desperately close all the way through the fleet.
A curiosity born from innovation in Catalonia, the Patín de Vela class also has fleets in France, Holland and Belgium but their uniqueness in the world of sailing makes them remarkable boats to see on the water and inspires much debate as to how these highly skilled sailors, sailing in the purest form of the sport, control their vessels with such dexterity.
It’s a phenomenon not lost on Grant Dalton, CEO of America’s Cup Events: “To be honest I’m still trying to work out how they sail with no rudder and no centreboard – that’s a unique concept to my mind and I’m very much looking forward to meeting the sailors and watching their technique down in Vilanova i La Geltrú in September. I believe it’s a record fleet at 210 so this is going to be a very special regatta and provide a lot of talking points not just amongst the fleet and spectators but also within the America’s Cup teams. I’d like to think I could sail one, but I imagine it takes a lot of dedication and practice to get good. Fascinating boats and we look forward to welcoming them at the first Preliminary Regatta of the 37th America’s Cup.”
Entries are now closed for the Exhibition Race of ‘Pati Catala de Vela’ which runs from the 16 September through to 17 September hosted by the Club Pati Vela Barcelona, Club de Mar Vilanova and Club Maritim Cubelles.