September 13th, 2012
Roger Kitchen and his son Chris built the first Weta prototype in 2003, having commissioned a multihull designer to sketch hull shapes to suit their brief. They wanted to create a new kind of boat for New Zealand which was easy to store, easy to rig, safe and stable, high performance and suitable for all members of a family to enjoy. Three years and many design changes later, a production line was set up in China where the Weta is built in foam sandwich construction. Sails by Gaastra and the carbon mast, beams and spinnaker pole are also sourced in China, which helps explain the relatively low cost for a boat packed with carbon accessories. The first production Weta was sold in New Zealand in October 2006, followed by sales in China, France, Holland, Sweden, Thailand and the USA, boosting Weta production to 75 boats in its first year.
Meade Gougeon, USA sailing legend and cofounder of the West System Epoxy, spotted a Weta 4.4 on a Florida beach last autumn and was so impressed that he now sails his own Weta, which is a handsome accolade from a former ‘Boat of the Year’ judge in America.
The Weta does indeed look different from anything else in the boat park. Imagine a cross between a New Zealand insect and a 60ft racing trimaran, scaled down to the size of a 14ft dinghy. It’s no wider than an average dinghy, sitting on its trailer or in the boat park with floats stowed alongside, but nor is it a hassle to double the width of the Weta in trimaran mode. The floats and carbon cross beams weigh 18kg and slide into sockets, where they are secured by tying a bowline and applying tension through a jamming cleat. This takes about a minute for each side and creates a surprisingly rigid platform — there was no obvious flex when powered up on the water.
The carbon mast slides together in two sections and weighs just 6kg, so no problem popping it up or taking it down singlehanded, using the standard method of attaching shrouds and pulling up/down on the forestay. The Gaastra laminate mainsail slides up the luff track easily, though it took us a few minutes to get the knack of locking the halyard at the top of the mast. This is standard multihull procedure, ensuring there is no halyard stretch when you pull on the downhaul to depower the sail. Pulling on the jib halyard provides tension to prevent luff sag, with the ends of the halyards neatly stowed alongside the mast. Complete rig to water time — or vice versa — should be inside 20 minutes with practice.
The Weta feels quite a bit more chunky to push or pull on its trolley than an average singlehanded dinghy. It also might be handy to have a ‘helper’ for trolley retrieval. The Weta won’t blow over, but it will blow sideways if you leave it unattended on the water for too long.
Our guest testers were Rollo Pyper and Jeremy Pudney. Rollo races an International 14 out of Itchenor SC, so clearly understands the concept of ‘high performance sailing’. Chris Kitchen had stepped in as Rollo’s crew at the International 14 world championship in New Zealand in 2005, and Rollo was keen to discover how the Kitchen family’s Weta concept had progressed from the 2005 prototype. Jeremy Pudney is a former International 14 stalwart who retired gracefully from dangling on 14s a few years ago and created his own Wind Raider custom trimaran — main hull by Phil Morrison, floats and rig from a Hurricane 5.9, big asymmetric off an International 14. He’s now sold that particular Wind Raider, with the intention of downsizing into something smaller, simpler and easier to handle, which can still provide a good enough blast to satisfy a former 14 sailor who has hit 70 years of age. Rollo commented that the rig of the Weta looked ‘…a bit small’ but he’s clearly accustomed to the outsize rig of an International 14! The Weta rig appears nicely in proportion to the boat. It also delivered the right amount of power for our test session in Force 3-4 winds — like any multihull, the Weta is made for a breeze when the ‘grin factor’ soon kicks in. In less wind, the Weta may have felt a bit draggy, but it’s still a light boat with an easily driven, super-slim main hull, plus the daggerboard should help it point high enough to spar with most dinghies upwind.
When you launch, the Weta is an easy boat to climb on board because it’s so stable and you can get into the cockpit from the open transom or over the low side. The cockpit is roomy, with enough space for a couple of people. Speaking on behalf of older sailors, Jeremy Pudney would have liked more depth to avoid that back-straining ‘knees-up’ attitude, which you get on all shallow bottom boats when sitting on the side of the hull. Whether this is a concern will depend on personal flexibility levels, and becomes irrelevant when you move onto the trampoline from where most Weta sailing will be done.
You need a bit of a push to get on the tramp, but once out you’ve got a great view of the action and can enjoy what the Weta does best: acceleration! When a gust hits, this little boat really takes off. In an average wind speed of 10-15 knots, with one gust up to 20 knots, the Weta flew along but felt stable and easy to handle at all times. And it was quick. I gybed downwind from Itchenor to Hayling Island SC and then beat back again in double quick time.
Upwind, the Weta felt light, responsive and close-winded, although it always pays to sail free and go for speed with a multihull. Tacking on flat water was quick, precise and worry-free. In waves you may need to take more care to ensure the floats don’t stall the Weta mid-way through the turn. Offwind, you unroll the screecher which is a miniaturised version of the big headsail on an Extreme 40 cat or Orma 60 trimaran. I found the roll-out/roll-up worked really well, taking the normal precaution of sailing deep to blanket the screecher. The only way to sail is on the apparent wind. Yank in the mainsheet, cleat it off and forget it’s there, using the screecher to lead the boat downhill — steer upwind to build power, bear away to blast on the apparent wind, then steer upwind to rebuild power.
Unlike a cat there is no mainsheet traveller, and unlike a dinghy there is no kicker or gnav since there is no head-bashing boom. So you rely totally on the mainsheet for leech and foot tension offwind. If the wind is up, this should not be a problem as you can sheet in tight on the apparent wind, even when sailing deep downhill. But in marginal winds, keeping power in the mainsail will clearly be more of a challenge when sailing offwind.
Gybing was easy during our moderate wind test. The screecher flipped neatly round the forestay every time and the floats prevent any chance of the boat heeling right over, but you can run out of hands when it comes to re-sheeting the jib. That helps explain why Weta sailors leave the jib on shore when sailing in stronger winds. As mentioned, the Weta has impressive acceleration when a gust powers up, so just take care you don’t fall off the back of the tramp. If that happened, the Weta would surely leave you behind!
You need to get acclimatised to sitting out on the trampoline and finding a suitable brace position, which is comfortable for all weathers. The Weta is basically trim forgiving — just slide to the front of the rack for beating and back for reaching when the Screecher will tend to lift the bows. It’s clearly not designed for hiking off the side of the rack, which would be painful, with only floppy footstraps providing limited support on the tramp.
During our test session, the Weta never showed any inclination to bury its bows or capsize. What’s more, we didn’t opt for a capsize, knowing that the Weta would invert and probably shove its mast into the shallow muddy bottom of Chichester Harbour. With a fast flowing tide, that would be a potential recipe for a broken carbon mast. If the worst should happen, it’s some consolation that you are only likely to have to replace one half of your carbon mast!
But Wetas can capsize. The Wetamarine website shows some interesting YouTube high wind antics, featuring a Weta blasting in Force 5-6 winds. The main bow and leeward float submarines on several occasions, but the Weta nearly always recovers and carries on sailing. But when the Weta does capsize, it turns almost immediately upside-down. However, a neat technique that has been developed to get it back up again: that involves unscrewing a hatch in the stern of the nearest float and standing on the float so it floods and sinks, which will flip your Weta to the 90-degree capsize position. Then you can pull the Weta upright on the daggerboard in normal dinghy style.
The first ever New Zealand Weta National Championship was held on Lake Taupo last December, and the first ever European Championship will be held at Muiderberg in the Netherlands from September 26-28. That kind of racing would be fun for both singlehanded and multi-handed Weta sailors, but you could also race against dinghies using a Portsmouth club or trial number, or against cats using the Weta’s SCHRS measurement rating.
The Weta looks good with a choice of green, red, yellow or grey hull colours and the all-Chinese construction appears first class, with carbon and foam sandwich ensuring the Weta is a stiff, lightweight performance boat that should provide many years of good service. The rig also looks great, with Gaastra laminate sails providing a seethrough view and flexible carbon mast ensuring the rig is both light and efficient.
Not everything can be perfect. The spinnaker pole does not retract and could be a worry manoeuvring among tightly packed boats. Jeremy Pudney felt the Weta would be easier to handle with two skiff-style tiller extensions, although my view was that you soon get accustomed to flicking the extension across the new side. Both Jeremy and Rollo had problems with the screecher-furling cleat unlocking at inopportune times, while I found the mainsheet cleat a bit of a fiddle since it tends to waggle around. Other improvements could include a mini-traveller for mainsail leech tension, a self-tacking jib to take the fumbling out of tacks and gybes and decent footstraps for better security on the tramps, all of which would add weight, complexity and cost to the boat.
The Weta has plenty going for it as a somewhat unusual, but totally modern ‘family boat.’ For summer blasting, it’s big enough to take young kids for a ride which will surely put a smile on their faces, and fast enough to ensure that adults or teenagers get guaranteed fun. Optimum conditions should be around 12-20 knots. If the wind is lighter, children will be able to handle the boat. If the wind is stronger, experienced sailors will sheet in and hang on for a memorable and possible topsy-turvey blast. Another potential market is sailors with lower body disabilities who have been looking at the Weta 4.4 with interest.