The best kind of sail for long-distance cruising, when you might encounter heavy weather, is not necessarily the latest laminated sail, says Skip
For serious world cruising, where encountering storm sailing at some point is a given, robustness of equipment is paramount. Choice of material is the main consideration, but the devil is in the detail.
The parameters are sail shape, weight, longevity, repairability and cost.
With modern laminated fabrics, and in extreme cases seamless fabric, the sail shape will be spot on. That optimises performance and means less weight aloft as well. Classic polyester fabrics such as Dacron will stretch over time, and although this is less of a problem with a fully battened mainsail, jibs and genoas can look pretty baggy after many miles.
If you can afford around twice the price for laminated high-tech sails in lieu of polyester, fine, but you should take account of the drawbacks.
Although modern fabrics with improved laminating techniques last longer, there is no doubt a good suit of polyester sails will do a longer distance over a multi-year span. By nature of a more supple woven fabric, folding, creasing and, more to the point, flogging will have a less detrimental effect than on laminated sails where all the activities mentioned tend to break the laminated bond.
Fully battened mainsail
No matter which fabric you choose, a fully battened mainsail is a must not only for better shape, but also to prevent flogging during reefing when the sail simply feathers with the wind when eased. Jibs and genoas are more prone to abuse, though, and on the Pelagics we have a rule that no matter what the conditions, we put the wind on the quarter when rolling up or rolling out headsails to take the load off, quiet the sail and then roll under full control.
To give you a yardstick of that treatment, our first suit of sails on Pelagic Australis lasted for 150,000 miles over six or seven years; we changed them only when the material started to break down from UV degradation.
If you understand the comparison so far, some sacrifice in performance might be worth it when cruising in remote areas over long periods of time. A big advantage is ease of repair. All sails, both polyester and hybrid laminated fabrics, need attention owing to chafe and simple wear and tear. Both can suffer from catastrophic failure when mishandled or when you are caught out with too much sail.
At sea there is little that can be done with substantially damaged laminated sails. The material is extremely stiff, so a downed sail on the deck becomes immediately unwieldly to handle. Glued repairs in a wet environment are also tricky where flat space for a glueing surface is an issue. Polyester, on the other hand, being reliant on stitching, is fixable in a small space, whether wet or dry.
When on a foreign shore (and I mean foreign, not France or Italy) with major damage, you are more likely to find, if not a sailmaker of sorts, then at least some business with an industrial sewing machine. Under your direction an acceptable job of a major blow-out can be achieved.
Lacking that, a 100mm wide roll of heavy-duty sail cloth, a few litres of contact cement, throwaway brushes and hand stitching can get any polyester sail, no matter how badly damaged, back up in the air and be reliable. Remember, they used to make sails while underway on sailing ships.
Trying this with a damaged laminated sail is trickier as the loads on the individual fibres will be all askew with patching. The only solution is DHL (if there is such a service) back to the sail loft, wherever that may be.
If your sailmaker recommends a certain weight of fabric, choose the next heaviest. He will be happy in the end as there is more margin for him! Whichever fabric you choose, the construction detail will make or break the success of the fabric.
SOME PELAGIC SPECIFICATIONS
– in some cases assuming you have polyester sails
- Choose heavier than recommended weight of fabric
- Have rows of stitching on all seams
- Cut flat, as sails will only grow fuller
- Get four reef pendants made in the mainsail (see Part 3: trysail v fourth reef)
- Cut with moderate or little roach
- Get proper sliders or cars on the mast track. Don’t even consider a luff tape in a groove (owners with in-boom fuller, take this on board)
- Get sliders on the foot of the sail as well. A loose fit does not have great shape advantages and plenty of disadvantages, such as a slacker bunt on the first reef and lack of a foothold if you have to walk out on the boom for any reason
- Stitch UV strip on all horizontal seams on both sides of the mainsail
- Have double leech lines on the mainsail so you can adjust the leech line from either side
- Fit reef blocks on the leech at reefs one, two and three; the fourth can be a pressed ring
- Get a back-up pressed ring below each reef in case the reef block fails
- Fit extra heavy duty webbing and reinforcement patches in way of reef clews and tacks
- Fit extra heavy duty chafe strips where batten pockets might touch rigging
- If a bullhorn or a shackle is used to make fast the tacks for the reefs, use a double stainless steel ring either side of the sail, joined by a heavy-duty sewn webbing. On each successive tack point this webbing must be longer to clear the stack of mainsail from the previous reefs
- Fit a bungee system to take up the slack on this tack system so the tack pendants don’t flog
- Get hand-sized webbing handles put in just above each reef tack, both port and starboard, to help pull the luff down during reefing
- Fit a large pressed ring vertically below each reef clew point for the fall of the reef line to pass through. This will keep the bunt of the sail on the boom for each reef, falling in accordion fashion. This ring must be big enough to offer to resistance to the reef line when rehoisting the sail
- The best system is three headsails all on roller furling: a big yankee about 130 to 140 per cent for reaching; a 90 per cent working yankee; a staysail/storm sail, and a small, bombproof blade
- All foresails should high clewed for visibility, to avoid scooping big seas, and to pole out downwind
- Leech lines well aft along foot so can be adjusted with partially rolled up sail
- Cut sails with extremely hollow leeches to avoid flogging the leech
- Fit a safety lashing near the head and tack of sail around the foil to avoid the luff tape being stripped for any reason
- On the 90 per cent yankee, get sewn taped loops either side of the sail at hank points, and a store of traditional hanks in case of total foil failure. If you are in Timbuktu when that happens, you can dismantle the foil (by force), seize on the hanks and be away again, at no cost
- One word of warning: your sailmaker will pooh-pooh many of these ideas as they add weight aloft. Be firm and tell him to get on with it!
When tactics like heaving to and sailing on are not an option, the approach is to either deploy a sea anchor to try and hold position, or to run with the wind trailing tackle astern to slow the boat down