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The Power of Sails

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I suppose it isn’t merely a coincidence that I’ve made significant changes to the sailplans of the last three cruising boats I’ve owned. The first project was the biggest. My old Golden Hind 31, Sophie, had lots of charm and character, but her sloop rig was laughably small. After blundering about for a couple of years, I treated her to a much taller spar, a fixed bowsprit and a new set of sails, and so transformed her into a very handy cutter. She sailed as smartly then as any boat with three keels (including her two bilge keels) could ever hope to.

My first Lunacy, an aluminum Tanton 39 cutter, also got a new fixed bowsprit, though it had to be welded rather than bolted on. This allowed me to add a third headsail to the foretriangle—a large lightweight Code 0-type genoa (I called it a screecher) that furled on its own luff courtesy of an easily removed continuous-line furler. The sail was easy to set and strike, much easier than changing the regular working yankee for a regular genoa, and greatly enhanced the boat’s light-air performance.

I sailed my current Lunacy, a Boréal 47, for three full years—including one transatlantic and three winter sojourns in the West Indies and southeastern U.S.—before deciding what changes were needed. Job one was to replace the stock staysail, permanently mounted on a fixed stay and roller-furling rod, with a removable staysail that furls on its own luff and is controlled by a continuous-line furler, like a Code 0. This solved a key dilemma with the Boréal rig, since the staysail isn’t really a staysail and cannot normally be flown in tandem with the headsail, as on a true cutter, because the two stays are too close together. The staysail really is more of a solent sail, designed to fly alone in strong conditions. It is used only rarely and the rest of the time just makes it hard to tack the genoa.

The second change was more subtle. I had always sort of resented the Boréal’s full-batten mainsail. In part because I was talked into ordering it, but mostly because it was so heavy, very hard to hoist and difficult to reef when sailing off the wind. This past spring I finally replaced it with a “hybrid” main, with two full top battens and the rest partial. The sail is over 20lb lighter than its predecessor and much easier to handle. It is also much easier to control its shape. Where the shape of the old full-batten main seemed set in stone, the new sail is quite responsive to changes in halyard, outhaul and vang tension.

Now I’m very happy with my sailplan! The new staysail when furled is very easy to set and strike. Even better, when I want to have it handy and ready to go, but still want to have it out of the way, I can just ease the halyard tension a bit, unclip the snap-shackle under the continuous-line furler and bring the whole rig to the mast.

Best of all, with the staysail out of the foretriangle, it is now possible to quickly and efficiently short-tack the Boréal in light to moderate winds with the full genoa flying. I celebrated this new superpower on my very first test sail of the new rig in early June. Beating dead to windward singlehanded up a narrow channel in Maine’s Casco Bay in apparent winds ranging from 9 to 21 knots, I tacked 17 times in four hours—with some boards as short as half a mile—and enjoyed every minute of it. With the old rig, where I often had to go forward to drag the genoa around the staysail, this would have been virtually impossible.

The moral of the story, in case you’re wondering, is that you should never take your rig for granted. A boat’s sails, quite literally, are its engine, the core of its motive power. After carefully examining your rig’s strengths and weaknesses, you can often make improvements, big or small, that will increase both its performance and your enjoyment. Even if it’s simply a matter of changing new sails for old, I’ve always found that fiddling with a boat’s rig is supremely rewarding. 

October/November 2021

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