Gravity is an important force at work on a sailboat. It keeps the boat upright, it makes the anchor drop to the bottom, and it makes the mainsail slide neatly down the mast to be flaked and put away at the end of the day… until it doesn’t.
In the case of dropping the mainsail, the enemy of gravity is friction. Full-length battens and modern, stiff sail materials place forces on traditional mast grooves and luff slides that were not anticipated when these systems were developed in the 1960s. The result is excessive friction when hoisting and lowering the mainsail, as was the case with Misirlou, my 1963 Cal 40.
There are many friction-reducing mainsail track options on the market, some with recirculating ball bearings and near-zero friction, but I always fancied the Tides Marine Sail Track and Slide System for its simplicity and value. The extruded UHMW Polyethylene track is tough, UV resistant and extremely slippery. The cast and polished stainless steel slides have a large surface area to spread out and handle large batten and sail loads.
The Tides track is secured to the mast by your existing luff groove or external track. Tides will send you a set of plastic gauges you fit into your mast groove to identify which of the over 100 combinations of groove width, lip thickness and internal flat or round slug shape works with your particular mast. The website also walks you through how to measure your luff length.
Several styles of slides are available, including normal luff slides, headboard slides and two sizes of batten-end slides with swivels. If you are adapting your existing mainsail to the Tides system, it is possible for the do-it-yourselfer to swap your old slides for new Tides slides, as the latter has a removable pin for connection to your existing webbing luff loops. (If you have to cut your old slides off, be sure to preserve the webbing loop.) Alternatively, your sailmaker can make short work of the job. Our sailmaker (Doyle) even had the Tides hardware in stock.
The well-organized Tides Marine website (tidesmarine.com) made it easy to research and order my new track. Shortly after ordering, a giant 4ft pizza box arrived containing my rolled-up track and all necessary hardware. Also included was a short section of track with a lifting ring attached for you to run up the mast with the halyard to make sure your existing luff groove is free of obstructions, debris or dents that could impede installation. Once a clear path was confirmed, I removed the boom at the gooseneck and fed the Tides track into the luff groove. Installation was a breeze, easily accomplished by two people in less than an hour.
Our experience with the system has been very positive. In fact, it has even changed the way we handle the mainsail. I was raised to believe that unlike spitting, raising and lowering the main must always be done while pointing directly into the wind with the sail flogging, lest the slides bind in the luff track. However, with the Tides track, we now find we can lower the sail while motoring back to the mooring at just about any angle where the wind is ahead of the beam, allowing us to luff (but not flog) the sail.
Another advantage is responsive luff tension control. Before installing the Tides track, if we eased the halyard or cunningham for a little more sail shape in light air, track friction would get us little puckers along the luff on only about one third of the sail unless we luffed up a bit. With the Tides track, a little halyard ease in light air produces a uniform spread of “speed wrinkles” along the luff’s entire length.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the benefits of the smooth and slippery sail track comes when reefing. Before the new mast track, reefing meant heading up and flogging the main, usually with heavy seas breaking on the bow, soaking the crew while wrestling the main down getting the new tack hook in. With the Tides track we find we can luff (but again, not flog) the main at almost any wind angle, so long as we are not up against the spreaders, meaning we can now lower the main to the reef point with minimal drama.