Escape 17 Catamaran

The ideal way for a beginner to get a taste of sailing is on a small sailing catamaran. With their single sail and double hulls, the small boats are light, stable and easy to sail. The Escape 17 continues that tradition, writes Norman Holtzhausen.

Escape 17 Catamaran
Escape 17 Catamaran
The Hobie company popularised catamaran sailing when it launched the first Hobie Cat in 1967 – and almost single-handedly changed the course of recreational sailing, achieving enormous popularity within a few years.

Hobie cats featured fibreglass hulls which were cheaper and more durable that the alternative material of the time – wood. However, they are relatively heavy, and the nature of their construction means they are also relatively expensive. Fibreglass is also environmentally unfriendly, with no good method of disposal at the end of its useful life.

Fast forward to 2006. The Escape 17 is a whole new concept in family pleasure craft. By using rotationally-moulded polyethylene, all the objections to fibreglass are removed. The complete boat weighs around 40% less than a fiberglass model of similar size, and is considerably cheaper as well.

Polyethylene is one of the best materials to use for recreational craft of this type. The seamless one-piece hulls are virtually unbreakable, maintenance-free, light and fully recyclable at the end of their life. In the unlikely event that the material is damaged in any way they are easily repaired through a plastic-welding process that is quick and simple. These hulls cannot be damaged by osmosis, UV-exposure or rot, and fittings are easily attached.

In addition to the material, the design of the Escape 17 includes refinements in just about every area. To eliminate the need for fiddly daggerboards the hulls have a narrow keel fin moulded into the bottom of each hull. This shape keel section provides good directional stability.

The keel fin also allows for simplified rudders, avoiding the complexity of kick-up rudders required on normal cats. The rectangular spade rudders are fully protected by the keel and the boat can be run up onto a beach without having to remember to release the rudders first. Of course this simplicity does have a tradeoff – the Escape has a turning circle that is best described as generous.

Despite the keel the hull has a very shallow draft and can be sailed directly off the beach or launched from a ramp. The cross-bars holding the hulls together are anodised aluminum with a one-piece, snag-free trampoline. Although the hulls flex apart slightly during sailing, the whole construction is extremely solid. The tiller bar has flexible rubber mountings to the rudder stocks and despite not having a tiller extension, it is easy to reach from anywhere on the trampoline.

The simple design has been carried up into the rigging. The two-part aluminum mast can be broken down for easy transport. Four stainless steel stays ensure the mast stays exactly where it should, and the process of rigging takes just minutes. When rigging on a slope two people are required to get the mast up, but this can conceivably be achieved single-handedly if it is done on with the hull level.

The sail itself is another revelation. Fully-battened, the lowest batten is close enough to the foot of the sail for it to be loose-footed, so there is no boom to worry about. This makes it easy and safe for beginners to sail. The sail is constructed of Mylar with Kevlar reinforcing, which is very durable and, like the rest of the boat, requires almost no maintenance. Our test craft had a six-year-old sail which still looked brand new.

The boat has a single mainsail, so sailing is extremely simple. We decided to get a couple of sea scouts to give the boat a hard time and see how they liked it. Unfortunately the wind on our test day was more along the lines of whimper than a thrashing – gusting 5 knots.

Nevertheless, they were impressed by how quickly and easily the boat was rigged. It is a simple matter to single-handedly slide the boat off the trailer. The forward stays were attached, the mast was stepped and the side stays just clipped in – pretty impressive, and no shackles or loose parts (which have a habit of getting lost) anywhere.

The sail was then attached to the halyard and hoisted. The mainsheet pulley, already pre-rigged, was simply clipped to the clew of the sail. With the vang pulled tight, everything is ready to sail, having taken around 10 minutes to rig. A few quick instructions and the scouts pushed off.

The very light winds meant that they were never going to get into much trouble, although with the polyethylene hulls we were not concerned about any damage to the boat. However they managed to sail easily, stalling a couple of times when they did not have enough speed to make the relatively large turn required for a full tack. However on these occasions the boat easily turned while slowly moving backwards, a useful feature when sailing into a marina or area where turning space is limited.

While sailing downwind the steering was easy and the scouts stretched themselves out upon the comfortable trampoline. Tacking across the wind got the speed up, and there was virtually no sideways slip. Unfortunately we were hardly able to test the speed or high-wind capabilities of the boat, but everything suggests it will become even more fun under more testing conditions. The trampoline has ample space to accommodate 3 or even 4 people, and is rated for 340kg.

At the end of the sailing the scouts were both enthusiastic, and strongly recommended the Sea Scouts do away with their existing boats and buy a fleet of these! At a price of just $8000 for a complete boat, excluding trailer, these are certainly affordable for commercial and non-commercial organizations as well as private ownership.

These boats have had considerable success in the commercial arena, particularly around holiday resorts. Their simplicity, durability and above all, forgiving nature when being sailed, has ensured that many resorts have installed Escape 17 fleets.

Mike Barker of Marine Scene has bought the last of the current batch of these bullet-proof boats, so if you want one you had better get hold of him quickly. More details can be found on his web site at, or give him a call on 021-236 3014.

Specifications Escape 17

Length 5.05m (16’ 7")
Beam 2.44m (8’)
Hull weight 100kg (220lbs)
Sail Area 11.6m2 (125 sq. ft)
Capacity 340kg (750lbs)

Complete hull and sail package: $8000
Trailer $1500 plus on-road costs

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