Is Your Quiver of Sails Sufficient?

New sail designs, materials, hardware add up to value and versatility.


There’s no question that sailors heading offshore face a different set of challenges than those cruising coastal waters. And theres good reason that the circumnavigators sail inventory must be more durable, cover a wider wind range, and cost more than that of the coastal cruiser. The big question is should the inshore sailor mimic the cutter-rigged ocean voyager, or is the inshore sailor a separate specie with a sailplan anatomy all his own?

In this two-part look at headsail options, we focus on sails for coastal cruisers and daysailors. The first part delves into what we’ve observed during our new-boat sea trials and vintage sailboat reviews. In next months report, we will divide the fleet into categories based on how, what, and where boats are sailed and explore what sailmakers have to say regarding headsail material and what sail options they recommend for a 35-footer. Our goal is to define which types of sailors will do just fine with a standard boat show sail inventory (a mainsail and a roller-furling jib or genoa),and to examine whether coastal cruisers need a second smaller headsail. We’ll also look at who’s a candidate for a drifter/reacher or an asymmetric spinnaker, and why thats a measure of both crew mindset and vessel design.

Regardless of whether you’re crossing oceans or crossing Long Island Sound, efficient sailing is all about changing sail area and trim in order to cope with variations in wind speed and wind direction. In essence, this is a crews way of shifting gears, and roller furling has become the automatic transmission of choice.

This furling/reefing process is in some ways analogous to a window shade and its ability to regulate the amount of sunlight entering a room. In the case of the shade, the material is flat and the diameter of the rolled up spool of cloth has little effect on the shades efficiency. Unfortunately, efficient headsails are three-dimensional shapes, and sailmakers must carefully position draft to create lift. Once you start rolling up a sail, the draft changes as the sail area changes.

Sail designers cope with this problem by designing roller-furling headsails with less draft, and in some cases, by adding foam padding that helps keep shape in the sail as it is reefed. The bundle of sailcloth that builds up around the headstay is another detriment to lift, but the versatility and convenience of a roller-reefable sail win out.

The bottom line is that no sailmaker will tell a customer that his 150-percent genoa can be incrementally reefed down to storm jib proportions with the sail working well at each stop along the way. And this is just what we found to be true in our on-the-water sea trials. More often than not, the post boat-show test sails we do involve a two-sail (main/genoa) combo. Having sailed just about everything that floats-from windsurfers to tall ships-weve come to believe that the right sail inventory is a linchpin when it comes to having fun under sail.

Friendship 40 boat
A big rig and a high sail area-to-displacement ratio allow the working sails to keep this Ted Fontaine Friendship 40’s 15/16th headsail rig going in light air.

What We Tested

By intentionally postponing a look at the sail inventory for ocean-crossing, high-latitude venturing sailboats, this report zeroes in on what 95 percent of cruisers and daysailors need from their sails.

Most of the boats we step aboard after the boat shows are sloops or cutters, and the sails included are crosscut, medium-quality, woven Dacron. Those that aremasthead-rigged rely on genoas (120 to 135 percent of the J measurement, which is the distance from the mast to the headstay), while fractional-rig sloops (with forestays that terminate below the masthead) favor a big main and small jib working sailplan.

The smaller, roller-reefed, non-overlapping headsails on a fractionally rigged sloop behave better in a wider wind range. However, in light air, their ability under sail hinges on a tall mast and a very big mainsail. In a building breeze, the fractionally rigged sloops mainsail-not the furling headsail-becomes the focus of any effort to dial-down sail area. Well explore the trade-offs involved when choosing between masthead and fractional rigs when we look at sail options for these specific rig designs.

Island Packet 460
A versatile, conventional cutter rig with a furling genoa and staysail, like this one aboard an Island Packet 460, remains a cruising preference. In really light air, a low-RPM motor-sailing option often fits the bill.


The two-sail tango is especially suited to the inshore daysailor who seeks simplicity in getting underway, ease of handling, and a cost-effective approach to upgrading a sailplan. This combo can be fine-tuned for local conditions, meaning that if you live where a sea breeze moves the true wind speed from a morning average of 7 knots to an afternoon with 15 knots, your sailmaker may opt to design a headsail that can be roller-reefed to cope with the wind range. Or he or she may engineer a sail thats content right through that wind range; this could be a 100-percent jib on one boat and a 135-percent genoa on another. It all depends on design characteristics such as the boats sail area-to-displacement ratio and displacement-to-length ratio-statistics that define the power in the working sailplan and the light-air efficiency of the vessel itself (see PS August 2015 online).

Fractional-rigged monohulls depend more on large mainsail area than jib size. Hardcore racers like to delay reefing on these boats, but this is a bad habit for the short-handed cruiser. In either case, the small jib has a wider wind range than the big genoas found aboard masthead sloops.

Both inshore cruisers and racers will find the single-headsail, sloop rig to be the most convenient to handle. The wide-open foredeck is free of other stays, making a tack or jibe a clean flip-flop from one side to the other-no coaxing the headsail over a forestay. In predominantly light-air regions, a nylon, masthead, reaching asymmetric spinnaker can be a worthy addition to the inventory.

Weekend Inshore Cruisers

With only two days to wander, the weekend cruiser is unlikely to stray too far from home. This is especially true for those nestled on lakes, bays, and coastal estuaries. The assumption in this case is that the weather pattern and sea state exposure will remain similar to whats encountered while daysailing. The big difference, especially during hot, humid summer months, is the potential for thunderstorms and perhaps less chance to return to safe shelter.

The challenge here is that the two-sail combo is not well suited to coping with gale-force winds, even for only 10 minutes or so. A crew needs to recognize that dousing the mainsail, a tight headsail furl, and a turn of the ignition key may be their best approach to coping with a thunderstorm.

Another sensible approach is adding a second headsail thats about 100-percent of the J and able to be roller-reefed to about 85 percent. This sail must be set up ahead of time, and the process includes dropping the big genoa and feeding the luff tape of the working jib into the foil before hoisting. Doing all this when youre in the grip of a raging thunderstorm is like trying to varnish in a gale.

Catalina 27
A two-sail pocket-cruiser with one deep reef in the main and a 120-percent genoa (above, left), like this Catalina 27, is a versatile, quick-to-get-underway daysailer. Some multihulls, like this Seawind 1160, furl lightweight reachers ahead of their heavyweight working jibs (above, right); other crews up the ante with a large asymmetric spinnaker.

Vacation Voyagers / Coastal Cruisers

Once a year, many sailboats labeled daysailer or weekender get fully provisioned and head east to the Vineyard, west to the Channel Islands, north into Puget Sound, or south toward the Florida Keys. These aren’t dashes across oceans aimed at shaking the bonds of civilization; instead, they are more controlled tests of close-to-home cruising waters. While ports of refuge remain near at hand, two sails (main and jib) wont quite cover the shoulders of the wind range, and the one you shouldn’t ignore is the wilder side of that 15-knot norm. The cost-effective solution lies in making sure you have a deep second reef in the main, or in-mast/in-boom furling and reefing.

When it comes to headsail dynamics for cruisers in this category, even those equipped with a furling headsail will want to add a small jib (100 percent of the J) to the inventory as well as new means to deploy it.

But what about the hardware? In the old days of piston-hank sails, you craftily shackled the tack and hanked on the working jib prior to dousing the genoa. When the hank-restrained genoa reached the deck, there was only a brief wrestling match as you hog tied the beast into submission. The halyard was swapped, and the small jib was hoisted into action. But now, with the convenience of well-engineered roller furling, we roller reef our way into a blind alley. Each uptick in wind velocity causes us to wind a bit more of the big genoa around the headstay.

Those who try to turn a 150 genoa into a working jib usually find it so poorly shaped that it creates only heel and flogging sounds when the helmsman steers what should be a manageable weather leg. However, if you have a small jib, you have the right sail and only one big problem stands between you and the perfect combo (reefed main and small jib) in this situation.

Before you can set the small jib, the big genny must be unfurled and extracted from the foil slot. Those who have tried to master this feat will recall the eased sheets flogging and snarling as they help create the friction that locks the luff tape in the foil slot. The last thing you want to do in a building breeze is unwind the big genoa. And in our opinion, one of the best ways to avoid doing that is to add a removable wire Solent stay on which you can hoist a piston-hank, heavy-weather jib (which is a little smaller and higher cut than a working jib).

Many larger cruising boats (40 feet and longer) that are set up for coastal cruising are equipped with a roller-furled Solent sail. In most cases, the high location of the upper tang (just below the headsail halyard exit point) means that running backstays will not be needed. But the downside to this approach is that every time a tack or jibe is made, the headsail must be rolled up and unrolled. The slot is too small to coax the sail from side to side, and thus, the simplicity of a single-headsail sloop is lost. The long-distance cruiser who stays on one tack for long periods of time is less encumbered by this drawback. For coastal sailors, however, we favor a removable Solent stay that can be set near the shrouds and cleared from the foredeck when not in use.

Performance in light air is the other side of the equation, and most furling, single headsail sailplans are undersized and overweight when it comes to coping with true-wind speeds in the 5- to 8-knot range. Adding a removable bowsprit (see PS June 2008 online) and a 2-ounce drifter/reacher and/or an asymmetric spinnaker builds in a way to enjoy light-air sailing and make meaningful progress without resorting to diesel propulsion.

This light-air sail commitment only makes sense if your boat has design attributes that favor sailing in single-digit wind speeds. Way too often, we see short-rigged, heavy-displacement cruisers set up with easy to handle, narrow shouldered asymmetric spinnakers. The colors look great, but the boat is stuck in the water. In such cases, theres just too much skin drag and too little mast height to hoist enough sail area to generate the drive needed. An asymmetrical wants to bring the apparent wind forward and must put girth in the shoulders to work. Those with heavy, beamy boats and short rigs are better off adding extra fuel tankage rather than an endless-line furler and asymmetric spinnaker. Just motor sail at a low RPM, charging the batteries and making good way while you wait for the breeze to fill in.


The benchmark that signifies how much life remains in your headsails has more to do with shape than it does with whether the sailcloth is still as stiff as rhino hide. All too often, the material has stretched so much that the draft has migrated too far toward the leech. On a beat to windward, such sails deliver more heel than ever and less lift than should be tolerated.

Those sailing jib-and-main boats put their roller-furling/reefing headsail to the toughest test. How long it lasts depends upon the material chosen and skill of the sailmaker. But it also hinges on how often the sail is used roller-reefed and how overpowered it is in such trim. A Solent sail alone will not improve performance in heavier air conditions, but it extends the life of the more costly genoa.

Designers, sailboat builders, sailmakers, and rig suppliers have made a concerted effort to make sailing a more user-friendly experience. The good news is that spars, sail material, furling systems, and rigging are better engineered than ever. The not-so-good news has been a trend toward wider and wider, high-skin-drag hull shapes with less ballast, less draft, and lots of volume (windage). These characteristics hinder performance under sail and are not easily overcome with the addition of a light-air sail and a smooth clean bottom.

The point here is that those looking for the pure pleasure found under sail should take note of a new industry trend and the appearance of a modern daysailer/weekend performance cruiser. Boats like the Tartan Fantail 26, CW Hood 32, and Morris and Hinckley 42-foot daysailers are a trend toward efficient, easily handled, lower volume sailboats, and in many ways, they remind us of the leaner hull shapes that were dominant for decades. This has inspired many cost-conscious sailors to refit a Ranger 33, Express 37, or venerable old Cal 40.

VALUE GUIDE: Recommended Headsails

DAYSAILOR100% to 135%N/AReaching asymmetricSmall clew portion of genoa
WEEKEND CRUISER100% to 135%*> 100% luff tapeReaching asymmetricPartially furled, 100% working jib
COASTAL CRUISER100% to 135%*> 100% Solent stayFurling drifter/reacher and asymmetric spinnackerStorm jib on Solent stay
* Depending on rig design and weather patterns; shorter rigs in light-air regions may require 150-percent genoas.
Adding a Solent Stay
Is Your Quiver of Sails Sufficient?
The modern, fixed Solent, dual furling headsail setup is an either-or sailplan, and the large drifter/reacher must be rolled up to tack or jibe.

Whether you view it from the top down or the bottom up, a Solent rig needs to be carefully thought out, well-engineered, and strategically located. Some sailors add a short bow sprit or U-shaped, tubular extension that includes a bobstay and supports the attachment of a new headstay. The old headstay chainplate becomes the new tack point for the Solent stay. Another approach is to retain the existing headstay and simply attach a new tang just a bit below the headstay sheave box. Then add a deck fitting to attach the Solent stay and tack the sail(s). The deck must be reinforced with a transverse member, or a tie rod must be mechanically fastened to the stem so that the tension loads don’t damage the deck.

Either approach can be a win-win solution, but as with all sailboat modifications, the devil is in the details. On the up side, both options offer a double-headsail rig that doesn’t require the addition of running backstays. But when the sprit option is chosen, rig support can be jeopardized due to the placement of the headstay outboard of the stem of the vessel. On a traditional cutter, the same thing occurs, but the original stem-mounted headstay simply becomes the forestay, and the loads are shared. With a removable Solent stay disconnected, this belt-and-suspenders security is lost.

Make sure that the loadbearing capacity of the sprit and its attachment points have been carefully calculated. This structure must account for more than tension in the headstay(s). It includes designing the structure to counteract forces such as those exerted by one or two anchors pounding into short, steep seas on a squally afternoon sail home. Little things can play a major role down the road, like properly sizing bobstay terminals and fittings to account for degradation caused by intermittent or continuous immersion in seawater. Many modern designers prefer to add a little more ballast and a little more height to the mast rather than put the headstay outboard on a 21stcentury bowsprit. However, plumbbowed boats have complicated anchor handling, making short sprits almost a necessity.

In the case of boats with high sail area-displacement ratios, you may want to put a light-air genoa or a drifter/reacher on the headstay and set up another roller-furler with a non-overlapping sail on the Solent stay. The trick is knowing when to switch gears from the lightweight sail on the headstay and unwind or hank on the small jib that sets on the Solent stay. In either case, when the stay becomes a permanent fixture, the rig is better supported, but each tack or jibe of the larger headsail requires rolling it and unrolling it.

The Details of Jibs & Gennys

When it comes to headsails, the possible variations in design and materials are numerous. Below is a look at some important headsail details to consider.

Stay tuned for Part II in this series, in which sailmakers weigh in on what to look for in a headsail and what kind of range you can expect from a furling genoa.

Is Your Quiver of Sails Sufficient?
1. Some laminate sail material is better suited to roller-furling than others. The moisture trapped in a furled sail and the torque of furling/reefing can shear the bond and cause delamination issues. Make sure that your sailmaker knows whether or not the sail you pick will be roller-reefed and furled.
Is Your Quiver of Sails Sufficient?
2. Genoas start to develop poor sail shape when they are over reefed, and performance upwind really suffers.
Is Your Quiver of Sails Sufficient?
3. The black band and telltales on this mid-size, 120-percent genoa give those in the cockpit plenty of useful sail-trim info. More and more one-design race boats and offshore racers are turning to roller-furling headsails, even though one size doesn’t fit all.
Is Your Quiver of Sails Sufficient?
4. Piston hanks are still a part of the sailor’s repertoire, and many who favor a roller-furling headsail still prefer to hank on staysails, Solent jibs, and storm jibs. This old-school approach allows these stays to be detached, so the boat can tack quickly up a tight channel like a single-headsail sloop.
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida.


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