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Know Your Storm Sails

Luff grommets and hanks are keyed to avoid error. The clew is as bulletproof as the rest of the sail.

ATN’s Gale Sail sets well on a furled genoa. Luff grommets and hanks are keyed to avoid error (inset left). The clew is as bulletproof as the rest of the sail (inset right).

To sail to windward in heavy weather, you need a flat-cut headsail. A heavily reefed roller genoa typically is anything but flat. The draft in the sail migrates aft as the sail is reefed, and you end up with a baggy sail that presses the boat down and won’t allow it to point.

One solution is to drop your genoa and hoist a storm jib. Another is to set a storm jib on a detachable inner forestay. But both these options are usually too much hassle for a typical coastal cruiser, who rarely runs into severe conditions and then only briefly. Enter ATN Inc. and Banner Bay Marine: both companies market storm jibs that can be set over rolled-up headsails. Simply furl your headsail, rig either of these storm jibs, hoist and trim. The boat should immediately benefit from a more balanced helm and greatly reduced power.

Last summer SAIL tested Banner Bay’s STORM-BAG and ATN’s Gale Sail to get a feel for how easy it is to set and stow these systems. Here’s what we learned.

ATN GALE SAIL

The ATN Gale Sail is a fairly straightforward storm sail made from bombproof 8.5- or 9.5-oz. Dacron, depending on the size of the boat. What sets it apart from a typical storm jib is the bright red sleeve sewn into the luff. To rig the sail, you simply attach the tack pennant to a shackle below the furling drum and, beginning at the foot, wrap the sleeve around the furled headsail, clipping the piston hanks to their corresponding grommets as you go. Once the hanks are secured, clip a halyard to the head of the sail, run the sheets and hoist. Ideally, you should have a pair of dedicated sheets already bent on to the clew. We also found it’s a good idea to secure the genoa sheets to the base of the forestay with a sail tie so they won’t get in the way.

In admittedly benign conditions, we had no trouble hoisting, trimming or flying the Gale Sail; however, we did find it was a little tricky to attach the piston hanks to their grommets, a process that requires two hands. Factor in a heaving foredeck, cold fingers and plenty of wind and water, and this task could prove difficult. This was the sail’s only real drawback. Everything else was a breeze.

It is best to practice rigging it in calm conditions (far left). You can adjust tack height to suit your boat (left)

It is best to practice rigging it in calm conditions (far left). You can adjust tack height to suit your boat (left)

Banner Bay’s STORM-BAG uses a clever integral packaging system to stow, prep and hoist the sail. Each STORM-BAG sail folds into a bright yellow case that resembles two giant cockpit cushions sewn together at one end—think of a wallet—with bits of hardware sticking out.

In actuality, the case contains two identically cut storm jibs that are stitched together at the luff and share a single head loop and tack pennant. To rig the sail, you simply carry the STORM-BAG forward and wrap it around the headstay. The two clews are then clipped together with the shackle at the end of a pair of dedicated sheets that are included in the kit. A halyard is clipped to the nylon head loop, and the tack pennant is secured. The sheets are led aft to the requisite headsail cars and winches. (You will, of course, have already figured out the correct lead positions.) Once solid sheet tension is exerted on the bag—it can take some effort—the Velcro closures on the case rip open and the two-ply day-glow orange sail can be hoisted. The case dangles from the foot of the sail.

The STORM-BAG looks like a pair of cockpit cushions; it can be rigged in next to no time

The STORM-BAG looks like a pair of cockpit cushions; it can be rigged in next to no time

Setting and using the sail was a snap. We found that the sail could be rigged and hoisted with minimal time spent on the foredeck. Tacking the sail was no problem and trimming also proved easy. Because the sail is actually two sails, each made of slightly less robust cloth than a single storm jib, there was some audible chatter between the two pieces of sailcloth, especially along the leech. Air pressure keeps the two sails pressed against each other, but chafe could be a problem over time. Also, it would be interesting to see what happens if the plies separate when running downwind in a strong breeze.

My concerns about the STORM-BAG began when we lowered the sail. After each use, the sail must be tightly flaked and packed into both sides of the STORM-BAG, which would be a challenge on a small deck in even a dead calm. Throw in subsiding storm conditions and the job would be impossible.

This is a substantial drawback. Re-hoisting the sail without its clever packaging would be harder than hoisting a standard storm jib due to the fact that you’d have to contend with twice as much sail area. We ended up cramming the sail belowdecks, where it nearly filled our 34-footer’s saloon. Back on solid ground with ample room to work, we were able—after some coaxing—to flake the sail into its case using the manufacturer’s reference marks.

A tug on the sheets and halyard breaks the Velcro’s grip. Right: the sail sets well and is robustly built

A tug on the sheets and halyard breaks the Velcro’s grip. Right: the sail sets well and is robustly built

THE RACER

 Many racers will ask their sailmaker to build a main sail with a very deep third reef

Many racers will ask their sailmaker to build a main sail with a very deep third reef

The crack crew on our 45-foot racing boat has chosen not to carry a trysail on board. They don’t contend it’s unnecessary, but rather that it constitutes a lot of extra weight. Instead, they’ve asked their sailmaker to build a mainsail with a very deep third reef. The sailmaker also added large reinforcement patches at the reef tack and clew. When the wind builds, the crew will simply tuck in the third reef. This is not a bad option, providing the reef is deep enough. It may look small at the dock, but in during a gale even a small sail starts looking big. There is an old adage: “Big winds, little sails.”

One advantage of using your reefed mainsail as a storm sail is that it has a much more efficient sail shape than a trysail. Most trysails are cut very flat, and their geometry, with a long leech and foot relative to the luff, make them relatively inefficient, especially if you are the kind of sailor who likes to keep a boat moving during a storm. A moving boat gives you more maneuverability, which allows you to get out of the way of the biggest waves.

On the other hand, many sailors simply view their trysail as a good sail for heaving-to and would rather save the wear and tear on their mainsail. If you are like Dave Ullman, you will likely keep racing, but most of us will slow the boat down and take things cautiously.

Our racers would like to have a roller-furling storm jib, as described above, but it’s out of their budget. Instead, they have a different setup. Their boat does not have a permanent inner forestay; instead, they use a very low-stretch aramid line that is fastened permanently to the mast a couple of feet below the masthead, high enough that it is not necessary to set running backstays to counter the load of the storm jib when it’s set. This “soft” stay is secured at the mast when racing, leaving the foretriangle open for quick and easy tacking.

If the crew needs to set a storm jib, they attach the lower end of the aramid stay to a tackle on the foredeck and lead the fall of the tackle back to a winch, so they can tension the stay.

Their storm jib is bright orange for visibility and has soft hanks along the luff. These hanks are made from webbing strops that do not chafe the aramid stay; they easily wrap around the stay and fasten back on themselves. This rig is light and easy to set up, but is not recommended for extensive offshore sailing.

CONCLUSIONS

We tried both sails in a gentle 8-knot breeze, which made setting them much easier than it would have been in 30-plus knots of wind. When it’s blowing hard you want to spend as little time as possible on the foredeck. We found the STORM-BAG to be the easier sail to rig, thanks to its clever case. For most families who mainly daysail or make short passages, this is likely the best solution. The Gale Sail shines on longer passages and for serious offshore work. It is not as easy to rig as the STORM-BAG, but you don’t need a large work space to re-flake the sail, and it takes up considerably less room.

Whichever sail you use, go out on a calm day—as we did—and practice hoisting it with your regular crew. You’ll be happy you did once the wind pipes up and the waves turn ugly.

The Racer written by Brian Hancock

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