A long winded discourse on our sails and why we chose them.
Small sails, big sails, old sails, new sails, high tech sails, old school sails, cheap sails, expensive sails and the sails that came with our boat fit into the cheap and old categories. I worked for 2 years at Bacon Sails and Marine Supplies in Annapolis, Maryland. Around since the 1950’s, Bacons is a family-owned consignment and new marine gear shop that specializes in used sails; and more recently new ones. My job title: “Sail Inspector”. Although the job came with neither badge nor magnifying glass I learned more than I ever thought you could know about sails.
Sails are like a dress for your boat, you want a dress to look good and fit well. There are also about as many possibilities for a dress as there are for sails. I had seen so many designs and materials I wanted to put the lessons and my newfound knowledge to work; and with my employee discount I could!
I could have gone with a classic cross cut dacron sail, the kind you see on 90% of sailboats, but if we are building sails for our boat I want the best I can get.( FYI Dacron is a brand name like Band-Aid or Kleenex) Time after time I kept seeing these old sails come in just beat to hell and still holding together and with more shape than any Dacron sail its age. Cruise Laminate is, as the name says, a laminate, but not the plastic material (mylar) you see on race boats. Cruise Laminate is most commonly made up of two layers of Dacron sandwiched over a grid of a white string looking material called pentex, the grid of pentex provides a rigid strength far superior to Dacron alone.
Sun is a sails number one enemy, Dacron will turn yellow and become extremely brittle, its called “sun rot”. Cruise laminate will not only hold its shape better, be stronger per weight of cloth compared to its Dacron counterpart, but will last longer. I have seen sails where the Dacron has completely rotted away in sections, but was held together by the pentex. Cruise Laminate has its own problems too. Older versions of the cloth were notorious for having the laminate separate which ruins the sail and all Cruise Laminates are susceptible to having mold and mildew grow inside the laminate and spread throughout. The mildew is merely a cosmetic issue, the whole sail can turn black and be fine and the cloth is now made with anti-mildew chemicals in it, but it is a problem.
So we decided the positives outweighed the negatives and went with a 7oz (weight of the cloth) genoa and an 8oz main in Cruise Laminate. The sails were all stitched with a strong triple throw style stitching with Tenara thread. Sail thread is a frequent weakness in sails, often if the Dacron survives into old age the thread will rot and usually on the leach of the sail (trailing edge of the sail). Suncovers on rollerfurling genoas often need to be restitched several times in their lives.Tenara is a Goretex based thread which is sun stable, ie does not sunrot. Our suncovers and our entire sails were stitched with this thread and our leach is a heavier weight of Dacron so it will last longer.
Most sails are horizontal bands on Dacron stitched together, called “crosscut”; strong a simple. Our sails are known as “tri-radial”, the panels of cloth radiate out from the three corners of the sail. The reason for this is that the sails can be designed with a 3-d shape cut into them, computers design the shape and tell you how to cut the panels and assemble the sail. The sails definitely improved our pointing. For most cruising boats the cost-benefit ratio of this style is generally not worth it, but for us it was negligible.
Our main sail is loose footed, which means the bottom or “foot” of the sail is only connected at the tack and clew. This gives the bottom of the sail a cleaner shape and the ability to have a line inside the foot to adjust for shape. Sails traditionally had the foot slide into the boom or had little slides to attach it. The general consensus is the materials of today make the sail and boom strong enough it is not necessary to distribute its load along the boom like that.
Battens, oh the great batten debate. Battens are the (generally fiberglass) sticks in the sail that help give it a good rigid shape. Many cruisers will go with fully battened sails, which means the battens run the full width of the sail. This gives the sail a flatter shape and a generally good trim in all points of sail, but on the other hand mean you can’t adjust the sail shape much, they can be somewhat of a bear to wrangle when flaking or reefing, and really load up pressure on the mast side which can lead to problems when gear weakens over time.
I love to fuss with sails, I enjoy tweaking things here and there as we sail along, it’s a game, it gives me an activity as we sail. So I went with what is called a “powerhead” setup. The top two battens are full while the bottom two battens are standard (ie go about 1/4-1/3 in from the leach). This means I get some of the plusses of full battens, but the body of the sail can still get some belly to it with some adjusting. We also got batten keepers that were lashed shut, not velcroed. Velcro will go bad faster than anything else on the sail and really how often are you taking out your battens that you need the speed of Velcro.
We went with two reef points rather than the classic cruiser three. Our reef points each take away 33% of the sail area, so they are quite deep. On our Bahamas trip we thankfully never had to use the second reef. The reason for this was less weight hanging in the sail which would hurt us in light air and less gear to lead back, in such a small boat the reinforcements in the sail and the lines hanging on it can make a big difference.
Again, sails are like a dress, they should be a good fit and ideally a tailored fit. We measured everything 3 times over and altered the measurements from our old sails. We took about a foot off of the leach of the main sail so the boom would be just over head level in the cockpit. We made our genoa on the smaller side, 130% so we could roller reef and get good shape, in beam reaches or below we would fly the asymmetrical spinnaker, so we would only miss a big genoa head upwind in light airs. More often than not on our trip the genoa had at least a little reefing in it. We also had the genoa cut a little higher so we could see under it better from the cockpit.
The leach line for the mainsail was run overhead through a turning block at the top of the sail (head) down to adjust at the tack. Now we could adjust the leach shape at the mast rather than trying to get to it out on the end of the boom since when I want to adjust it is when we are reaching or on a run. After using the sails for a year I have decided while this is good in theory, this setup has too much friction in a sail this small. It worked, but not as well as I would have liked.
Along the luff of every good roller furling genoa is some sort of padding, usually foam or rope. The reason for this is that when the sail is on a roller furler it can only reef so far before the sail becomes really baggy, which you really want a flat sail when reefing. Padding at the front of the sail helps bulk up the first few turns to give a flatter reef. Foam is the cheaper option, but over time will compact and stay that way. So we had 3 pieces of polypropylene rope in descending lengths on our luff.
Again and again I saw shortcuts and problems with the design of suncovers on roller furling genoas. Firstly, unless you are racing, I think Sunbrella should be used for suncovers. Yes they weigh more than other options, but they last 3 times longer than other options and are easily replaced. Adhesive sun treated Dacron doesn’t work well and its remnants will look awful on the sail. I have also frequently seen a shiny mylar material that is also terrible. There is a vinyl like material that works ok, but is only slightly cheaper than Sunbrella and Sunbrella works so much better!
Also make sure if your genoa has new suncovers put on that they wrap the suncover all the way around the edges of the sail. Often for cheapness or laziness the suncovers will be folded under themselves leaving the leach and foot tabling of the sail exposed to the sun. Though it may look like it will be fine, they will rot and your leaching will catch on the spreaders and tear it to pieces, happens all the time.
Draft stripes, often a dark line of Dacron across the middle of the sail help you see the shape of your sails and are quite useful on bright days looking at a white triangle. We also found a product called Glofast which makes adhesive Dacron for draft stripes and whipping line that GLOWS in the dark. We have 2 glowing draft stripes on the main that really helped us see our sails and their shape on dark nights. The stuff will last the entire night and they are bright! It is comforting to see the sails with such ease on a dark night especially dead down wind, it helped us see the luff bubbling warning us of a possible accidental jibe.
My final piece of unsolicited advice is to protect your sails from the sun. Put the cover on the main sail, zip up your stack pack, and make sure the sail is totally covered. The biggest thing though is to take your sails down when you are not using them! If you are not using the boat in the winter take off the sails. Though they are covered, the sun will still get to them. If you hang up your boats dress and take care of it, they will last so much longer. Sails on a SAILboat are expensive and often neglected.
Spinnakers! Light air and down wind nothing beats a spinnaker. Huge area of sail and made with material 1/6th of the weight of your normal sails. Cruisers today love asymmetrical spinnakers, aka gennaker, aka cruising chute. Similar to a traditional spinnaker, but with no spinnaker pole to deal with, fewer control lines, and easier to jibe. Mostly they come in 0.75oz or 1.5oz rip-stop nylon. Usually boats over 40ft will use 1.5oz, but we found a good deal on a used 1.5oz asymmetrical at Bacon Sails. We love everything to be stronger than is necessary and we had some fun flying our heavy duty spinnaker in over 25kts.
Spinnakers are often used today with a snuffer, aka sock, aka spinnaker condom. A snuffer is a tube with a rigid mouth and a body of lightweight material used to help set and douse the sail. They make handling a spinnaker so much easier. They can be expensive, but we made our own without too much hassle and never had a problem with it. The two main types are chute scoop (budget) and ATN (Expensive French now made in China, but decent quality still).
Part of using an asymmetrical spinnaker is having a tack line. Asym’s are awesome because they can be sailed from a beam reach on down. Part of this is adjusting the tension of the luff with a tack line. Asym’s are meant to be flown in front of the boat, great for bow sprits but not so great for us production boats where the bow pulpit is the most forward thing of the boat. Our bow pulpit is well attached so we welded a ring on its front and ran the tackline back from that.
Another piece of Asym gear on a common production boat is something to keep the tack of the sail in. When on a run you loosen up the tack line, so the sail wants to slide out sideways usually putting the tackline’s tension on the top of the bow pulpit, which can chafe it or when the sail luffs hard bend the pulpit. So many people will use something attached to the tack of the sail that goes around the roller furler. This allows the sail to slide up and down the furled sail as you adjust the tack line tension, keeping the asym in the center of the boat. ATN sells its “tacker” which does this quite well, though I have been on a boat with a tacker with a cheap shackle that kept failing. We have a piece of wire with two eyes and plastic beads (perroll beads) in the middle that roll up and down. The tacker seems to work best, but they are unnecessarily expensive (so what else is new with boats).
So, that’s all the big stuff I learned working on sails for 2 years and how it translated itself onto our boat. I hope this hasn’t been too long winded and can help somebody. Some will disagree with my opinions and observations, but people agree on sails about as much as anchors.