Rags From Riches: common pitfalls with cruising sails

Sailing upwind in the Caribbean

Jamie periodically shares his expertise in a technical article: here he reviews typical problems cruisers experience with their sails, and how to address them. For more from the wells of this cruising sailmaker, see tagged posts on the topic.

Way, way back when I was designing sails for crazy people that sailed around the world in the Whitbread, BOC, and Vendee Globe races, the sail inventory budgets were dazzling! A maxi-boat (about 82’ long) mainsail in the 1989-90 Whitbread Race could be $35,000. Racing around the globe competitively required at least 4 mainsails. Add 25-ish headsails and even more spinnakers and you can imagine why sailmakers loved long distance races.

That boom went bust when the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly Whitbread Round the World Race) organizers limited the entire sail inventory to just 17 sails. Millions of sailmakers weep for the loss. Porsche dealers and Rolex merchants report lackluster earnings because sailmakers stopped comin’ ‘round.

There is a glimmering benefit to all of this. More time for sailmakers and cruising sailors to make better cruising sails. Sailmakers will laugh. Woven Dacron sails shimmer like tin, not gold. Cruising sailors will either malign sailmakers for not listening to them and then delivering a product that’s unimproved in 50 years; or worship their sailmaker because by-golly they make ‘em like the good ‘ol days, with leather at the corners!

New cruising rags take riches that are too little for sailmakers and too much for cruising sailors. So, naturally, neither shares much quality time for the other. Cruising sails remain lackluster. Some are okay. Many are just lousy: poor quality or mismatched sailcloth, poorly sized headsail, junk hardware, and lame details. If you think my judgement harsh, it comes from many occasions that go something like this.

Sailor: I hear you’re a sailmaker. Can you look at my main? It has a small tear.

(10 minutes later)

Me: You’re right, it is a tear.

Sailor: Hey! Why are you tearing it further?

Me: Like tissue paper. Rotten sailcloth. You need a new sail.

Sailor: What? How can that be, my sails are only 3 years old?

Me: Oh, in that case we should also check your headsail for UV damage.

Sailor: WHAT!?!?

Sailmakers aren’t trained to gracefully deliver bad news. The emotional toll is terrible, even before Sailor stumbles onto the worst part. They’re at a remote paradise with bad sails and no way to replace them. Sailor weeps for the loss. I’ve had this scenario play out many times, including a mainsail that was just two years old. Moving forward, this cruising sailmaker presents common problems and solutions for better cruising sails meant to go the distance.

The dream… champagne sailing! The reality… repairs in exotic locations. Fixing a new friend’s sail in the Bahamas

(Note: sailcloth is a really big topic. Laminated sailcloth has a place on some cruising boats, but consequences like mildew and delamination make it a poor choice for many. Therefore, my focus is on woven cloth problems.)

Problem: High aspect sailcloth in sails bound for the tropics

Fibers make warp and fill yarns and woven to make sailcloth. High aspect sailcloth has many more fill direction fibers than the warp fibers. Logically the sail designer pairs high aspect cloth and high aspect sail (tall and narrow) to best manage sail loads. This is fine in temperate regions and seasonal sailing; it’s a serious flaw when cruising the tropics.

UV degrades tensile strength of exposed fibers. The outer fiber layer of a big yarn protects the inner fibers like sunscreen. High aspect warp yarns are tiny, and degrade entirely. This is how the cloth can fail in 2 to 4 years of active tropical sailing. Low aspect sailcloth is a better choice, even on a high aspect rig. Of course, always cover the sail when not in use.

Problem: Underbuilt sails

Sailcloth manufacturers provide recommendations to match cloth weight to sail size and type. Fixed calculations don’t account for context, like the type of sailing to be done, but that’s where the conflicted sailmaker comes in. Conflicted because when a situation warrants heavier Dacron or woven hybrid sailcloth, the cost goes up, followed by sail price that appears less competitive. Underbuilt sails stretch and distort easily, and are more susceptible to UV degradation. Stronger sails cost more, last longer with more reliability when going remote.

There are three ways to do this. One is simply higher weight sailcloth. A better method for boats over 40 feet, roughly, is adding a 2-ply leech. This puts more Dacron only along the leech of the sail where loads are highest. Last is woven hybrid cloth the combines Dacron and Dyneema/Spectra fibers, such as Dimension Polyant Hydranet. This is stronger, lower stretch, and lighter than conventional Dacron – with a premium price. Rags from riches.

Sailing wing and wing

Not underbuilt! Totem underway to Colombia

Problem: Low grade Dacron

Dacron is a Dupont brand name that has come to colloquially mean Polyester fiber woven sailcloth. A point murkier than bright white Dacron: Polyester fibers in sailcloth come in different grades. Quality brands such as Marblehead by Challenge Sailcloth and AP Blade by Dimension Polyant use high tenacity fibers that are stronger, lower stretch, and more expensive. Economy Dacron may suit casual sailing needs just fine, but come up short on long distance sails.

Problem: Headsail size

Multiple headsails sized for different conditions would be nice, but limited storage and more work with shorthanded sail changes makes them impractical. Instead, many full-time cruisers have one or two headsails, plus staysail or storm jib. The trick to this compromise is sizing the primary headsail well. Setting off to sail the world with a 135% or bigger genoa is probably not a good match. While it can be partially furled to reduce sail area, doing so creates a poorly shaped smaller sail with bias loading that can distort sailcloth. Consider conditions where you intend to sail and boat characteristics. I find that 100% to 120% range is enough without being too much for boats reaching out to multiple regions.

Problem: UV cover fail

Mainsail covers and UV covers on furling sails use materials resistant to UV degradation to protect sailcloth. They only work while securely sewn in place. Astoundingly, so many UV covers still get sewn on with thread that rots in the sun. UV resistant cloth and rot prone Polyester thread! Instead, Tenara thread does not rot and will last the life of the cover material.

Jamie repairs the UV strip for a friends headsail on the dock in Panama

Problem: Chafe

Chafe happens. Running with the main plastered into the rigging chafes at stitching and cloth. The pocket covering full length battens gets the worst of it. Rigid battens rubbing against shrouds and spreaders can cut through the pocket after only a few short passages. The solution is Polyester webbing sewn on top of the batten pockets. This provides many years of chafe protection, and help to dampen shock load to battens if they impact the shrouds after a gybe.

Problem: Survey says!

Having read many marine surveys, it’s fair to say that most marine surveyors don’t put much time or expertise into evaluating sails. Often sails get lumped together and reported as “good”. The transaction goes ahead and new owner brings sails into the local loft for inspection. A few days later a dispassionate sailmaker reports the mainsail is ready for the bin. The leech has serious UV damage from not being covered. The genoa may last another season or two if the UV cover gets replaced. New owner curses the surveyor. Sailmaker hands new owner a quote for new mainsail and genoa repair on the way out the door, mumbling something about being late for a regatta, before disappearing into an old reliable Volvo.

Wondering about your own sails? Jamie’s happy to share expertise one on one, just send us an email! Meanwhile, Totem is happily seeking out taco carts in La Paz, Mexico, and excited to sail north up Mexico’s Sea of Cortez this month.

Cruisers should care about performance sailing

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There’s a problem: many cruisers think that sailing performance isn’t important. Hey, cruising is about slowing down, right?! But dismissing performance is poor seamanship. After some years of listening to cruisers disregard performance and gripe about slow passages, it dawned on me that confusion is to blame.

Our good friend William demonstrated this last year during a fun race in Madagascar. William is a good sailor with much blue water cruising experience. He doesn’t race, but his competitive side, or maybe his social side, was piqued by party and prizes to follow the competition. With his racing cap on he chose a bold spinnaker start while single-handing. It didn’t go well. The gun cracked and his spinnaker tangled, slipped, and dipped…he did not have a good race. On passage William is slow and deliberate when setting a spinnaker, a pace that isn’t very racer-like but ends with a performance boost. Had he stuck with this instead of confusing performance and racing, he would’ve had more to celebrate at the party.

To clarify this issue, let’s forget all about performance; and instead, talk about “efficient sailing.” A rabbit in a bunny suit is still a rabbit, so what’s the point? Comfort and safety come with avoiding or minimizing bad weather, and stress comes from contemplating a three day passage when weather windows only last for two days. Efficient sailing is getting from A to B with minimal effort. What could be more appealing to a cruiser than minimal effort!

Making landfall in Comoros, Indian Ocean

Making landfall in Comoros, Indian Ocean

Racing sailors are pedantic about sail trim. Constant adjustments can yield subtle gains that show when measuring against competitors. We’re not interested in subtle gains. Reasonable sail trim takes no more time than bad sail trim, but yields better speed with less wear and tear to sails.

For example, when reaching and running, a boom vang locks the boom from lifting and dropping due to changing wind pressure on the mainsail. This may seem insignificant, but not using a vang slows you down and will cost you money in repairing a mainsail chafed by rubbing against rigging.

Another example is headsail trim. Sheet blocks are often set for reasonable trim going upwind, which fine, except that most of the time cruisers aren’t sailing upwind. When using an upwind sheeting point for reaching and running, the upper portion of a headsail twists to leeward, spilling wind causing the upper leech to flap. A barber hauler is an easy way to trim the headsail correctly for broader wind angles. This gives a considerable boat speed boost that can be 10 miles and more per day.

brberhuler

Both barber hauler and sheet are used for max efficiency at the wind angle

Racing sailors are well practiced at sail handling for fast transitions. Fast is usually not important or practical for short-handed cruisers, like our friend above. Efficient sail handling from a well setup boat, practice, and good crew communication reduces crew risks and equipment breakages.

Step one is setting up the boat to make sail handling easier. Cruising boats are usually reasonably well set up, but it takes time on the water to learn what works well and what needs improvement. Friction causes the most trouble. Friction makes you weak, and swear like a sailor. I installed a Harken furling system for cruising friends in Singapore. The next day they had words with me because furling was harder than ever. I went back to their boat and tested each furling line guide blocks. Only one of them actually turned, and the rest were easily fixed with fresh water and silicone spray.

Keep winches, blocks, and sheaves in good order. Watch for line chafe and metal fatigue. And give thought to unplanned sail handling events – they happen. When Totem was ghosting along the Pacific ITCZ, the heavy duty stainless steel pad eye securing the mainsheet to the boom sheared off. The part was less than a year old, and failed from slatting force. By chance, I had installed a webbing strop around the boom just in case such a thing happened. The mainsheet was reattached in just a couple minutes.

strop

Pacific, between Mexico and Marquesas. Bonus squall. Rather undesirable twist in the mainsheet….

Step two of efficient sail handling is matching sails to the conditions. This may seem obvious, but it’s common to see people raise the anchor and hoist full sails; then outside of the protected anchorage, bigger wind hits and they scramble to reef the main. This is almost like sport in the eastern Caribbean this spring watching boats poke out from the lee and into the channel between islands. Start the day with a weather forecast and a few moments of observation before getting underway, and don’t forget the impact of geography.

Once underway, reducing sail area is all about observation and timing. In 20 knots of true wind, I can reef our mainsail on my own in 2 minutes –less if more motivated by approaching squall. In 30 knots it takes at least twice as long. Monitoring wind speed and watching for obvious changes (like squalls) and subtle changes (such as increasing gusts) gives you time to adjust sails when it’s still easy.

Approaching the South African coast last November, we expected landfall 6 to 12 hours ahead of forecasted bad weather. With 20 miles remaining of the 1,000 mile trip, we were sailing in gentle conditions with a perfect sunrise, and feeling good. Then I looked up. Above a thin layer of clouds going our way, clouds whipped along in the opposite direction. Bad news: the southerly buster came early! Engine on, we prepared for strong headwinds. At 7 miles to go, wind was 25 to 30 knots on the nose and against the strong Aghulas current. Waves piled up with no gap between them, and our speed dropped under two knots bashing into them. It was a tedious few hours getting in, but each additional hour out there would have been worse.

This post was contributed by Jamie, who shares his more technical sailing experience from time to time. It’s really two legs on a three-legged stool, because routing is as important to efficient passagemaking as sail trim and sail handling…that post will have to come later.