Cruising Tips: A Nylon Light Air Mainsail

A cruiser turns to an unconventional solution for light-wind voyaging
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The nylon mainsail has proved an important part of  Blue Pelican’s sail wardrobe

The nylon mainsail has proved an important part of Blue Pelican’s sail wardrobe

For the past seven years my wife, Jody, and I have been cruising aboard Blue Pelican, our Pearson 424 ketch. We spent most of those years sailing the East Coast of the United States and the Caribbean, but in 2015 we transited the Panama Canal and sailed Blue Pelican across the Pacific to Brisbane, Australia.

In reviewing our sail plan prior to our Pacific crossing, I recalled having once read about the concept of a nylon mainsail. A lightweight mainsail for light airs—how useful that would be for long stretches of light wind, such as would most likely be encountered at some point while crossing the Pacific. You know how annoying it is when you have just enough wind to fill a sail, but then you get that slapping sound as the wind leaves the sail with the next bit of wave or swell, and then fills it again. That “Fill and Flop” motion, as I call it, is tough on the rigging, particularly the gooseneck, and tests the breaking strength of the vang.

I didn’t know anyone who had a nylon mainsail, though I asked around.It would be for light-wind work only, upwind, reaching or downwind, where it would be set wing and wing with a nylon drifter set on a pole. Would it work? How would it work? Where could I get one? How much would it cost? Would it be worth it? 

The nylon sail is lashed down at the clew and secured to a reef hook at the tack

The nylon sail is lashed down at the clew and secured to a reef hook at the tack

An internet search turned up an old photo of a vessel with a nylon mainsail, but there were no details other than the grainy picture itself. Lin and Larry Pardey made mention of a nylon mainsail in one of their books; they believed a nylon mainsail was conceptually a great idea but hadn’t actually come across one. I spoke to some sailmakers—sure, they could make one.Any proof of having actually made one? Sure, oh, umm, well, no, not really.

So anything we ordered would be of our own design. What parameters should we incorporate?

I spent a couple of seasons ocean racing as a mainsail trimmer, and one of my skippers impressed on me the importance of keeping the boat moving in light air, and of experimenting with different ways of doing so. Willing to experiment, wanting to improve lightwind performance and having no sail design to copy, ours was going to be an original effort. Here’s how we worked it out.

The instruments tell the story; the nylon main keeps the boat moving

The instruments tell the story; the nylon main keeps the boat moving

The fabric: Nylon is relatively strong—to a point. It is light, so it is easily handled. It stretches. It can be stuffed into a bag to make easy storage [or a beanbag type cushion chair if you want]. Its UV resistance is not good, the protection comes from the pigment. The darker the pigment, the better the UV protection. What weight of fabric should we use? Taking our spinnakers as a point of reference, a 0.75oz weight would seem too light for the sail size and intended purpose; 1.5oz seemed more practical, and the basic engineering calculations I ran suggested it would be suitable.

The design: The sailmakers I was considering suggested a fuller shape. I didn’t want to go that way because I wanted the sail to have some upwind ability. Bearing in mind the stretchiness of nylon, I wanted a flatter-cut sail to minimize the loss of shape. I also wanted the corners labeled so I could easily identify the correct ends for quick hoisting—I don’t want to be on deck any longer than necessary.

The criteria: The head attachment would incorporate the existing mainsail track, and the sail

would use the existing fittings on the boom. It had to be quick to set up, quick to douse, and not get in the way of re-hoisting the Dacron main, which would remain flaked on the boom inside the lazyjack lines for immediate hoisting once the wind filled in.

The head attachment: I spent a lot of time working this one out. I had envisioned using multiple slides to keep the nylon sail attached to the mast, but this would mean opening the gate to insert the slides. A mock trial underway proved this to be too difficult. The solution was to keep a spare slide on the track above the Dacron mainsail’s top slide. This is attached by a thin cord and goes up with the Dacron sail when it is being hoisted, and returns with the douse. With the Dacron sail at rest between the lazyjack lines I simply detach the slide from its head, and attach it to the nylon mainsail’s head. The tack is attached by a strop to the reef hook on the boom, and the clew is lashed at the boom end—simple, quick and easy.

Without battens, the sail is easy to set and douse and does not get caught in the lazyjacks

Without battens, the sail is easy to set and douse and does not get caught in the lazyjacks

It’s also amazingly quick and easy to raise the nylon main using the main halyard, and just as easy to douse. With no battens to catch on the lazyjacks the soft, light material is hoisted in moments, even off the wind. The fact that the sail is loose-luffed has not affected its sailing performance. 

Since the nylon main comes down so easily, and stores so compactly (I often leave it laying alongside the boom with a bungy cord system holding it in place), it takes little time or effort to swap between the mainsails. I just release the halyard, haul down the sail, untie the slide from the nylon mainsail and reattach it to the Dacron mainsail’s headboard, clip on the halyard and hoist the mainsail.

During our Pacific Ocean crossing, we traveled a path north of the Galapagos and encountered flat seas and a period of very light winds. The nylon main proved to be what we had hoped. With a true wind speed of around 5 knots, we were able to bring the apparent wind around ahead of the beam to create enough extra breeze that we were riding along at around 5 knots, quiet as a nun, on a good course, and feeling very proud of our new sail.

Once the wind picked up to say 8 knots or just above (or we saw a change or squall coming) then the nylon main came down and the Dacron one went up. We have held pretty well to this because we don’t want to overstretch the nylon sail and wreck its shape.

Our Pacific passage was plagued by atypical conditions. After rounding the Galapagos from the north and west, we encountered fickle and contrary headwinds and ended up having to sail south in a series of lulls and squalls. The way we made progress was to sail in any direction it took for us to get under a squall system, then use the force of the squall winds to gain some ground and direction, and get us closer to the trade wind belt. In these lulls, we had the advantage of the nylon main to help us keep moving. And being able to douse readily and hoist the (usually reefed) Dacron main for the squall meant that the sail changes were not too physically demanding.I think I did 12 changes in one day. 

So for us, the new sail worked well and was a valuable contributor to our Pacific crossing.

We had the nylon main built by Lee Sails out of Hong Kong. For my part, I have found them to have a good reputation. I had been advised by another Lee customer to be very detailed in the order. The quality met expectations, except for the small matter of the labeling on the corners, which was hand-written in felt pen. That was a shock, and not in keeping with the rest of the workmanship. The sail cost $600, delivered to Panama. [As an aside, there are better countries to have things delivered to than Panama]. 

Being nylon, there is a wide range of bright colors available. We wanted to reduce UV damage as much as possible. I liked the dark blue, but thought that would be too pirate-like, so chose a medium dark blue.

Lying at anchor in the Whitsunday Islands off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, we have not used the nylon main for a while, since there is a reasonably persistent wind. But as we journey north from Australia, through Indonesia and South East Asia, we expect to meet lengthy spells of light airs, and we’re sure to have that nylon mainsail earning its keep once again.

Stephen Parry and his wife, Jody, are currently cruising in Australia’s Whitsunday Islands on their Pearson 424, Blue Pelican, before heading towards South-East Asia

September 2017

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