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Adjustable backstays for racers

If you’re a racer, you understand the importance of immediately decreasing backstay pressure to power up the main and to help project the tip of your mast forward (which is especially effective on fractionally rigged boats) as soon as you round a windward mark. Because they need to make adjustments rapidly, racers use one of three types of adjustable backstays: hydraulic, a simple or cascading tackle setup, or running backstays.

Hydraulic backstays have a pressure-release valve (usually a knob that you turn counterclockwise to release pressure) or, in some cases, an additional quick-release button that allows you to instantly decrease backstay tension. Because racers are weight conscious, hydraulic backstays are popular aboard boats whose masts are too stiff to be bent by a tackle system (usually this means boats that are 35 feet LOA and up).

While hydraulic backstays have gauges (either on the hydraulic cylinder or on the panel), these are typically hard to read. If you’re racing, a simple, easy-to-read reference point that everyone aboard can see is useful.

Taping a batten to the back of the hydraulic cylinder and marking off one-inch increments, starting at the top of the cylinder and moving upward, gives you an easy visual reference for how much backstay tension is being exerted on the rig. Moreover, it also gives your crew a good sense of the boat’s “gears.” By sailing in a wide variety of winds, you can ascertain how much rig tension your boat likes in certain conditions, allowing you to instantly match rig tension to sail trim.

Small-to-medium-size raceboats (under 35 feet LOA) typically use a tackle system to create purchase; this allows you to create a lot of rig tension by manually pulling on (aboard small boats) or winching in (on medium-size boats) a backstay-tackle line. On boats under about 25 feet LOA, the backstay terminates at a block; a tackle sheet originates from a padeye on one of the stern quarters, runs through the backstay-terminator block, and then runs through a second block that’s situated on the opposite stern quarter (forming a simple triangle shape). From here, the tackle tail is led to a camcleat so that the helmsman or the mainsheet trimmer can quickly add or bleed off backstay tension.

Medium-size raceboats (roughly 25 to 35 feet LOA) typically use a high-purchase tackle system that is orientated in the cockpit so that either the helmsman or the mainsail trimmer can quickly add or release backstay tension. On a raceboat it’s crucial that your backstay can be rapidly adjusted as you approach a leeward or windward mark. Sail your boat in a variety of conditions and determine which “gear” best matches the conditions. Then, using a rope-safe marker, mark your backstay-tackle sheet so that you can quickly shift gears to the optimum setting.

Running backstays are usually found on high-end racers. Instead of a single backstay, there are two independent backstays, port and starboard, that typically attach to the mast at several points before combining into one part that runs to a turning block located on the stern rail and is led to a winch. The reason for using “runners” instead of a permanent backstay is to allow for mainsail with a bigger roach, but the drawback is that you need to have crew diligently working the runners during each tack or gybe. While this setup is effective, it isn’t appropriate for anything except a purebred racer. Many less high-end racers also carry running backs or checkstays in addition to a permanent backstay. These can be used both to mitigate compression loading, and to increase forestay tension on a fractionally rigged boat.


Whether you’re a racer or a cruiser, an adjustable backstay will improve your sailing experience, enhance performance, and get you where you’re going faster and in more control.


Resources

Hydraulic Adjusters

Navtec, 203-458-3163

Sailtec, 920-233-4242

Harken Custom Hydraulics, 262-691-3320

Holmatro, 410-768-9662

Mechanical Adjusters

Harken, 262-691-3320

Wichard, 401-683-5055

C. Sherman Johnson, 860-873-8697

Sparcraft U.S., 704-597-1502

Seldn Mast, 843-760-6278


Redundancy for hydraulic backstay adjusters

Hydraulic adjusters are reliable and require minimal maintenance. But like any piece of hardware, there is a potential for failure, and carrying a spare hydraulic adjuster is cost-prohibitive. There are, however, two simple and low-cost backup solutions for hydraulics that begin to leak. The first is to carry an extra bottle or two of hydraulic fluid. Should a hydraulic seal fail, you can add fluid to the reservoir, thus buying time to make a permanent repair. The second option is to have a substantial padeye on deck (just forward of the hydraulic cylinder) and a link (or a toggle) between the backstay and the adjuster that makes it easy to rig a tackle or a “preventer” to a winch to maintain a tight headstay until the hydraulics can be repaired.

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