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.

Dissecting a passage: Bonaire to Colombia

sailboat and helicopter

Pinterest passage to ColombiaThis dreaded passage unleashed one true horror. It was not a failure in rigging or other key systems. It was not the feared washing machine sea state. No, it was the ugly reality of unclogging a toilet while sailing at 9+ knots!

That awful job aside, almost everything else on the passage went very smoothly. Weather variance remained on the pleasant side of the forecast, and factors less easily predicted (namely, katabatic winds) were mild. Totem flew along, averaging over 200 miles per day towards landfall in a little over two days. About the most eventful thing that happened was when we were circled a few times by a very curious and official looking helicopter about 7 miles west of Bonaire… as photographed buzzing Utopia, above.

What did we do well?

  1. Careful planning, which included a lot more than just a route plan and the right weather window
  2. Patience to wait for good weather!
  3. Adapting the plan to suit conditions
  4. Anticipating sail handling at night or in rough conditions
  5. Remembering local effects

What could we have done better?

  1. Fish.

OK, so we did the fishing thing exceptionally poorly by not actually putting any lines out (truth be told). We were going kinda fast for mahi, which I’d have guessed our catch, as we have miserable luck with tuna. On the other hand, Utopia DID catch a tuna: and this is all that was left when they reeled it in… ripped out from the gills back. Oh, that would have been some spectacular sashimi!
tuna fish head shark bait

Really though, it was great!

The longer route we planned ran about 416 nautical miles from Bonaire’s mooring field in Kralendijk to the Marina Santa Marta in Colombia. Meals were prepped ahead, just in case… it was nice to just heat & eat. Smooth conditions made a lot of reading time… and time to catch shooting stars on night watch, under clear skies. Shooting stars filled my night watch once the waxing moon set and a carpet overhead shone with a brilliance you can only get from the open ocean’s absence of light pollution. As the tall Sierra Nevada range came into view, a gust of wind brought the rich humus smell of landfall with an intensity I’ve rarely felt after a week at sea, much less a couple of days, a hint of the lushness that awaits.

We have the highly unusual tendency to pace very closely to Utopia II on passages. It’s close enough that we actually have to be kind of careful – when you’re in the ocean, two boatlengths is at least a dozen boatlengths too close for comfort, especially at night! Adjusting course to avoid an unwanted encounter with our buddy boat… that’s a first.

Vessel traffic was minimal, but enough to require a close eye on the radar and AIS. Both proved useful when a ship loomed on a course for direct collision that closed remarkably quickly based on boat speeds and the face we were headed directly at each other. Whatever you want to say about the “rules” of the road, mass wins every time; I appreciate the mate of the 117 meter long tanker who altered course to pad our nearest distance with a comfortable mile of separation.

Hindsight, and changes from the plan

The crew of Rhapsody snapped us departing Bonaire the morning of the 26th. (Turns out that means we missed Second Christmas in Bonaire – which is a THING!).

I am REALLY going to miss my morning swims with Sarah & Bob from Rhapsody!

I am REALLY going to miss my morning swims with Sarah & Bob from Rhapsody!

Jamie wrote this summary below on what shifted from our original plan (see the Passage Planning blog post for details), a follow up to the exercise we posed for coaching clients. Pardon the wobbly mouse illustrations annotating this OpenCPN screenshot to help illustrate.

Routing #3, pic5

1. Route change

Based on anecdotal info about sea state, I tweaked original plans and set the route to 50 miles offshore instead of 40. Note the thin line that more or less parallels the blue portion of the chart. The line marks the 1000 meter (330 feet) depth contour – outside is 2000 – 3000 meters, this is the continental shelf where significant depth change can contribute to further sea state unpleasantness as water piles up.

2. Conditions

a. Wind: consistently ENE. I expected a slight change to E, but didn’t happen.

b. Ocean current: the Caribbean current was strong, as expected, and very much in align with forecast position.

c. Waves: by reputation, waves were going to define this passage. There were six distinct phases:

  1. Bonaire to north end of Curacao waves were normal wind driven waves up to 2 meters.
  2. From north end of Curacao to the northernmost point of continental shelf was SLOPPY! Why? Wind from NNE makes wind waves from the same direction. Strong current is perpendicular to wind waves AND causing bunched up water from islands in the way and huge depth change. This made for 100 miles of confused seas from multiple directions. Fortunately, we were there in good conditions with a full 24 hours since stronger winds and bigger waves – so it was lumpy but manageable.
  3. Once north of the continental shelf, waves became patterned and regular wind waves again. A route over the continental shelf (close to shore) would be miserable!
  4. Because sea state was fine, you can see that we cut the gybe corner a little to reduce sailing distance. Good sea state continued after the gybe, so we continued to shave more distance (remaining inside of the planned route).
  5. We had delightful conditions, wind and waves, all the way to the cape, just 4 miles from destination. I’ll talk about that below.
We use PredictWind to see how weather shifts may impact our route plan along the way. Even on shorter passages like this, conditions change and bear monitoring.

Updating route plan on PredictWind while underway: even on shorter passages like this, forecasts change and bear monitoring.

3. Sailing

a. Leg 1 was 220NM on starboard tack, beam reaching. Very fast sailing and more so with current push. We did 208NM in the first 24 hours.

b. Knowing there was a gybe coming, I tweaked the route some to set timing of gybe to be in daylight. We reached the gybe point at 8AM, furled headsail, eased the preventer, gybed in 20 knots of wind with single reef in the main. Easy.

c. With turn to SW, was clear the sailing angle close to dead-downwind (DDW). So we set up for wind-n-wing. Boom out to starboard with preventer on and single reef; genoa poled out to port.

d. We thought wind would shift to E and we would have to take pole down to be fully on port tack, but the shift didn’t really happen – there was a little change but we managed wind-and-wing just fine with wind angle at 150 degrees (30 degrees from DDW, wind over port side).

e. At about 50 miles to destination, course shifted further S requiring pole down and gybing the genoa to the starboard side. Likely this would happen in the dark, so before sunset, I checked all lines to be sure this would go smoothly (OK, I always check them anyway!). This change happened about 4AM and went easily.

f. At 40 miles out, wind was 20 to 25 so put in second reef.

4. Hello, cape!

Route plan, good weather window forecast, and actual weather was as predicted made this an easy and fast passage. It wasn’t all perfect sailing along at 8.5, surfing to 12 knots sailing–although that describes a lot of the passage! But there was also a cape to go around. Always, always, ALWAYS, expect enhanced conditions at a cape.

Routing #3, pic6

Approaching the cape just after sunrise was perfect timing for visibility. Land here is mountainous–the Sierra Nevada range here, part of the Colombian Andes, is one of the tallest coastal ranges in the world. Conditions were a wall of gray overland, with a pronounced dark gray band extending to the west, with rain below it. No other visible signs of wind or sea state build at the cape, but to repeat, ALWAYS EXPECT ENHANCED CONDITIONS AT A CAPE!! Totem already had two reefs in the main, but I thought it prudent to partially furl the headsail as well. Turns out, this was a good idea!!! How it played out, and what we did:

a. Wind built from low 20s up to 35 – 42 knots. This is not GRIB predicted effect, rather, compression induced wind build because of mountainous land. [If you remember one thing: GRIBs are not Gospel! There can be more dynamics at play in determining wind force.]

b. Wind waves of two meters towards the WSW, also compressed around the cape and bent around to be perpendicular to the land. And they GREW, both confused and bigger, much bigger.

c. From cape to destination was four miles. For two miles, the waves doubled to four meters with four waves of at least five meters, from dead astern. All waves are not created equally. A five meter swell (dying wave) is gentle. These were waves (building, living) and very aggressive. Even though five meters isn’t a huge wave, it’s plenty big enough for catastrophe.

d. Things can happen very quickly when going down the face (front) of waves driven by strong wind such as these. The very real risk is broaching – getting knocked onto your side, beam to the waves. The boat doesn’t want to go straight down the waves; it wants to peel off one way or the other (water friction and balance of sailplan). Steering well is paramount to managing these conditions. Our autopilot was doing OK, but I felt better boosting its turning speed with hands on the wheel. Totem has a big rudder, so bites in nicely. It was a very exciting (hairy) couple of miles before seas eased to three meters and then two meters on approach to Santa Marta.

Hindsight

Once in Santa Marta, several cruisers came by that chat. Common theme: what a great weather window we had! The past several weeks it’s been blowing 35-40 knots, and gusts have reached up to 60 making conditions outside hellish. On one hand, we played it well. But on the other, a lot of what’s felt in the marina we presume to be katabatic winds – not so predictable for anticipating a weather window. Partly lucky, partly smart, glad to be on the other side of this particular stretch of water.

* * *

The first taste of Colombia yesterday is sweet: friendly staff welcoming us into Marina Santa Marta. In town, colonial buildings with faded elegance and colorful street art. Pedestrian malls lined with restaurants spilling out into streetside tables with busy conversations and delicious aromas. But more about that later – I’ll leave you with a few images from passage.

Sailing into the sunset again: this had such great green flash potential!

Sailing into the sunset again: this had such great green flash potential!

Utopia in the distance at dawn, day two

Utopia in the distance at dawn, day two

Jamie at the helm as we get past the cape - seas NEVER look as big on camera...

Jamie tethered in at the helm as we get past the cape, while I hide under the dodger – seas NEVER look as big on camera…

Hello, Santa Marta!

Hello, Santa Marta!