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Convert Your Sloop to a Double-Headsail Rig

Most boats today have a single permanently hoisted headsail with a roller-reefing unit on the headstay. This arrangement works well, but becomes problematic when there is more wind than the sail on the furler can handle.
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Most boats today have a single permanently hoisted headsail with a roller-reefing unit on the headstay. This arrangement works well, but becomes problematic when there is more wind than the sail on the furler can handle. Three common solutions include sailing with the headsail partially rolled up beyond its optimum reefing range, motorsailing with just the main, or simply motoring. However, none of these solutions is as satisfying (or as low stress) as a smaller jib on a Solent stay.

In fact, the French singlehanded sailing fraternity first developed the Solent stay and sail to address this very problem: what to do when there is too much wind for the big sail. Having been involved in the installation of a number of these stays over the past few years I can attest to their effectiveness and the satisfaction of the owners—including both racers and cruisers. 

The term “Solent” is used by the French to describe a 100 percent jib, which in this case sets on a dedicated stay that runs parallel to the headstay and as close to the latter as possible, usually about 9 to 15 inches. The stay can be released and pulled aft from the primary headsail when not needed.

A Solent stay is not a cutter’s inner forestay, which is farther aft and typically requires additional support in the form of running backstays or extra swept-back shrouds. This is one of the biggest attractions of a Solent rig: no extra standing rigging required. Here’s what you need to know to install a Solent stay for hanked on sails on a typical 42 to 44-foot boat. 

Required hardware

1.The stay: This can be wire, but fiber stays are preferable because of their strength and light weight. On the last installation I oversaw we used Dynex Dux, the latest generation of a Dyneema product. The strength of the stay needs to be, at a minimum, equal to that of the headstay.


2.Attaching the stay to the mast: The stay will land on the mast as close to the top of the spar as possible. The most cost effective attachment is a Gibb T fitting. It is important to ensure the headstay halyard swivel will not foul the Solent stay.

3.Halyard and sheave box: The sail will need both a halyard and means of attaching it to the mast. One option is to install a second sheave box, but a more useful alternative to cutting another hole in the spar is to use an existing second masthead headsail sheave in combination with a halyard deflector/fairlead, lead down to just under the stay attachment. If you have to install a new sheave, there also needs to be a halyard exit hole above deck and provision for leading the halyard (preferably via a clutch) to a winch.

4.Stay tension: There needs to be a method of tensioning the stay from on deck. I prefer a 4:1 tackle, as opposed to a Highfield-type lever, because it can be re-tensioned after a few hours of sailing when everything has stretched a bit. A tackle is also physically easier to handle, because the stay can be left connected to the deck with the tackle loose and the sail bent on ready to hoist. The tail of the tackle can then be hauled on from the cockpit as the crew on the bow merely urges the sail along the deck. With levers and similar hardware, someone needs to carry the whole weight of the

stay and the hardware forward, fit the hardware to the deck fitting, tension the stay, and then hank on the sail. This effort almost negates the original value of the Solent.

5. The bottom end of the stay: This should have a thimble spliced into it. There may be no need for any blocks, since the latest generation of machined aluminum thimbles are not only lighter and strong enough, but cheaper as well. To run the purchase through the thimble, attach a second thimble underneath like a fiddle block. This will permit the tensioning line to run smoothly. There will be less friction if blocks are used. 

6.Padeyes forward: I prefer to use a combination of two folding padeyes and a single double padeye. The double goes on centerline, and the two others go outboard to either side of the double in a row abreast. When you set sail, the tack goes to the aft bail of the double padeye, while the forward bail carries one part of the purchase. One of the outboard bails carries the bitter end of the tensioning line. The other carries the last fall and leads the line aft.

7.The tensioning line: This comes aft to a winch. The lead varies with every boat and depends on where fairleads and clutches can be installed, bearing in mind access to the underside of the deck. This line ought to be a modern low-stretch one, since there will be a lot of it. Four times the “J” dimension of the boat is a lot of string, so use a snap shackle at the bitter end to make the tackle only 3:1 as the stay is being pulled aft or forward. Measure the length of line required when it is tensioned and led aft to the winch, adding enough extra length for a few turns. Use the expensive stuff to cover this distance, and then splice in a cheaper tail to travel the rest of the distance to the bow and back. Make sure the splice and tail will go through the fairleads. 

See below: Ingenious sailors have come up with a variety of ways to tension Solent stays. Most involve leading the tail of the tensioning tackle back to a cockpit winch

8.Sheet lead: The sheet lead for the sail need not be a track and car. A simple padeye will suffice, along with a thimble in-hauler that can be adjusted with some suitably strong cordage.

The Solent sail

1. The sail need not overlap the mast, since a 100 percent headsail will be plenty big enough in the conditions under which you typically set a Solent.

2. The sail can be slightly higher clewed, depending on the sheet lead.

3. It should hank on. You can use one of three types of hanks. Regular hanks are cheapest, and they will slide over fiber stays with no chafe. You can also use stainless steel hanks or hanks made of fiber. If you’re using hanks on a fiber stay, the hanks may need to be the next size up, since the stay will be thicker than equivalent wire.

4. For better value, the sail can have

a reef in it. The design and mechanics of a headsail reef are similar to those of a mainsail and sailmakers know them well.

5. A turtle bag is useful, but not required and can be added later.

Other considerations

1. Other sails can be set on the Solent stay, like a light-air drifter or a storm jib.

2. Many recent European boats, especially those sailed by the French, are delivered so that much of the Solent gear is already in place.

3. A thorough inspection of the foredeck area where the stay is to land is vital, because of the forces involved. Seek professional guidance­—a few hours with a designer can be invaluable.

4. Either a competent yard or a third-party rigger can install a Solent stay. You can also do it yourself, but it requires some experience. 

5. The rigger and the sailmaker need to be fully up to speed on what the other is doing.

This may sound like a big project, but in reality it’s pretty simple, and it’s becoming increasingly common. Most importantly, with a Solent stay, you are likely to get more use out of your boat, since sailing on a windy day will be less intimidating. 

Photos by Joe Cooper; top photo by Don Miller

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