The three S’s of mainsail handling get a lot of attention. Rightfully so, too. Whether it’s a small family sloop or a flat-out ocean racer, there are few troubles for a sailor that are worse than having difficulty setting, shortening, and striking the mainsail. To make it four S’s, you might also throw in stowing.
On an old square-rigger, the majority of control lines were devoted to the three S’s. The myriad lines on those vessels far exceeded the piles of “spaghetti” seen on modern race boats whose crews often appear to think that disorder is cool. It’s not. It’s dangerous.
Aboard big sailing ships, carefully stowed on belaying pins, there were the usual halyards and sheets for the clews and braces for the yard arms. There were lots of very sturdy pin racks at the base of the masts and pinrails along the bulwarks. In an emergency, any line could be released by simply pulling out its pin, and hoping the line didn’t run foul.
Other control lines had colorful names that are now long gone from common usage. There were throat halyards, laskets (sewn-in loops of small line used to set bonnets and drablers*), gaff peak vangs, crossjack lifts, and whip tackles.
Every sail had brailing pendants, which, when the sail had to be doused in a hurry, were quickly hauled in to the mast via a single line with five or six whips, a sail’s peak, clew cringles and leech. It was sort of like a crowfoot without a euphroe**.
Most noteworthy among the rigging terms that have survived is “buntline.” The word escaped death by disuse only because it’s a superb hitch, easy to tie, and very secure. It was used to adjust lines attached to the foot or middle (the bunt) of a square sail through buntline thimbles. Hauling on the buntlines from on deck dumped the air out of a sail, and may have saved the mast from time to time. But we digress.
On a modern sailboat, handling the mainsail quickly and surely is equally important, both as a safety measure and as a matter of convenience. Thanks to a lot of thoughtful engineering—beginning with the replacement of laminated, steam-bent, copper-riveted oak hoops (they also came with brass machine screws to dismantle and slip on an already stepped mast) or iron rings with parrels—with good mast hardware, it’s less complicated, too.
Perhaps the simplest way ever devised to join a mainsail to a mast was the two-layer sleeved sail. A few sails still are sleeved, which makes a very efficient sail, but they’re seen mostly on small one-design boats like the Laser.
Cruising boats with unstayed masts, like the Nonsuch (which has a fierce following) and early Freedom Yachts, flirted briefly with sleeved (or wrap-around) sails, but reefing and stowing them proved to be too difficult.
Most often seen up to three-score years ago, on either wood or aluminum masts, was the external bronze or stainless steel track on which rode metal slides lashed or shackled to the sail. Modern versions have bits of clear plastic to protect the sail from chafe. This is still a near-perfect system, which has enough flexibility to make the sail easy to hoist, reef, or strike and stow. (The shackled-on slides are easy to replace; the newer webbed versions require some marlinespike skill.)
Still, sailhandling efficiency took a step forward when the boltrope luff and slotted mast system came into the mainstream some years later. This system presents a nice shape to the wind and eliminates the gap between sail and mast. It remains the current choice for conventional race boats, but is not much favored by club racers and cruising sailors. A boltrope sail can be difficult to hoist, a mess to lower and, in a mounting breeze, requires at least two crewmen to reef.
An attempt to overcome the boltrope sail’s shortcomings arrived with nylon slugs—plastic extrusions, lashed or webbed to the sail—that fit in a circular mast groove. Like metal slides on a metal track, the slugs stay in the groove and pile up when the sail is struck or reefed. In early versions, the slugs were too weak. When one broke, the load on its neighbors quadrupled, and soon the luff went like the buttons on a fat man’s vest. Today’s best slides are made of UHMW (ultra high molecular weight) plastic, which is tough, hard, and slippery—ideal properties for sail slides.
As the metals industry became more and more adept at squirting liquids out of precision-made dies, the next development was an extruded aluminum mainsail track with an internal shape needed to accept plastic or metal slides. This facilitated a host of refinements. A sail being lowered tends to fold on both sides of the boom, which twists and racks the slides, and tends to bind or break them. Aluminum slides, hardened by anodizing, are excellent, but here again, the UHMW plastics are tending to prevail. There have been extensive and successful efforts to improve slides (and slugs) and some of which are depicted here in photographs.
Then battens came along to complicate the issue. You can now get battens in almost any size and most shapes. Bainbridge—one of the main suppliers to sailmakers of sailcloth and mast hardware—offers 15 batten shapes in its latest catalog.
There’s also an ever-growing need for specialized kinds of track. Some hardware makers now have proprietary track for use only with their hardware. The Harken catalog, for instance, contains dozens of kinds of track, from Micro CB low-profile, to midrange track, to high or low-beam (as Harken calls it) small boat track, to mini-maxi, maxi, and stainless steel track, not all of it for masts, of course. Harken is a big track player.
Working in the other direction, which seems equally if not more sound, Antal (available in the U.S. via Euro Marine Trading) recently introduced track that can be easily and securely mounted in any spar’s existing round luff groove. It uses a half-round slug and a clever fastener (see photo pg. 18). With this approach, there’s no need to drill and tap holes in the mast, but Antal’s track can only be used with the company’s own hardware—low-friction plastic slides mounted inside an aluminum car.
Because a boat owner who wants a new sail-handling system often cannot afford to buy a new mast, other manufacturers have also tooled up to make other adaptor tracks in a similar fashion, like Dutchman, Facnor, and Selden.
Finally, not too many years ago, sailmakers fell upon an idea that Chinese mariners discovered so long ago that its origin isn’t known—fully-battened mainsails. However, unlike the Chinese, modern sailmakers have made it quite complicated and, of course, equipment-rich.
Full-battened sails are de rigueur for most multihulls and sport boats. These sails aren’t yet as common with all cruising sailors, but they’re rapidly gaining acceptance.
A knowledgable observer of the retrofit market, Tim Robinson, vice-president of Euro Marine Trading, told us: “There are more and more full-battened systems. They’re growing all the time. We now install up to 300 systems a year. They’re expensive, no doubt, but good.”
Tom Braisted, the service manager of the Hood Sails loft in Middletown, RI, gave us an example of the cost. “We quoted a sailor with a Bristol 38.8 for a full-batten main, but the cost—around $8,000 to $10,000—set him thinking.….A full batten system for, say, a Tartan 30, would cost an extra 15 or 20 percent,” said Braisted, comparing that to one with partial battens. “And, if you want Harken hardware, the cost of a replacement mainsail might double.”
Despite the increased cost of full battened sails, Dolph Gabeler, the service manager at North Sails, in Portsmouth, RI, is quick to cite the advantages of these mainsails. He’s been a sailmaker for 30 of his 42 years and said that about 85 percent of mains from his company are now fitted with full battens.
“They’re more efficient, not only by permitting more roach, but also by making it easier to reef, flake, and shape the main,” he said. “Especially important to the cruising sailor, there’s a lot less movement—luffing, flapping and fluttering—of the material and that drastically cuts wear.”
Despite the occasionally heard view that a full-batten system is favored mostly because it makes flaking and reefing easier and is only a “faster” sail because the battens support more roach, Gabeler said: “You get more power and speed because the shape can be more precisely controlled. Once thought to be only for boats, say 40 feet or more, you’re seeing full-batten mains on lots of small boats, down to about 25 feet.”
“The worst [arrangement] is a full-battened main on slugs in a slot,” said Aaron Jasper, of Jasper & Bailey, a small, traditional sailmaker based in Newport, RI.
There have been lots of bumps in the development of the modern full-battened mainsail. The forward pressure exerted by the batten on the mast has taxed some very inventive minds to come up with better slides and cars (with ball bearings, wheels, or special inserts). Because of the growing popularity of full-battened mains, the competition has been intense, and Practical Sailor has kept abreast of this.
Over a six-month period in 1996 to ’97, we published reviews of Fredericken’s expensive yet versatile ($2,000) Ballslide track system, Harken’s much-admired Battcar approach ($1,400), the Tides Marine Strong system ($750), Sailpower System’s Battslide ($300), Martin van Breems’ Dutchman ($200) and Antal’s HS system.
Those are 1996 prices quoted for a midsize cruising mainsail, which, alas, no longer apply. (A headboard with slots for triple webbing and a double slider for Antal’s small Size 40 system retail for $70 and $170, respectively. That’s $240 for just the head of the sail. For a big racing boat, a “race headboard” goes for $373 and the “race quad carriage” for $1,390, which means you could easily have close to a couple of grand waving around up there.)
And now we can add to those systems mentioned above others from Facnor, Rutgerson, Sailman, Schaefer, and Selden. Such low-friction systems designed and built to handle the loads generated by full-battens under pressure fall into two basic categories: those that use a dedicated track attached to the mast, and those that utilize a slide or car fitted for the existing groove in the spar.
It’s evident that there’s intense research going on in this area, and new developments intended to enhance the use of full-battened mainsails debut on the market with regularity. Most recently, Schaefer Marine and North Sails collaborated to create a new batten box they’re calling the Parco Batten Box (see photo at right). The principal advantage of this product is that it allows battens to be loaded from the luff end of the pocket, thus enabling the sailmaker to permanently close the batten pockets on the leech end. The Parco Batten Box has a sliding cover that opens with just one fastener, and offers a range of adjustment up to 50 mm; longer than any other comparable batten box on the market. (PS has yet to test this new device.)
The other mainsail handling area that has undergone a lot of development in the last few years, is reefing. Point reefing (as well as slab and jiffy reefing) remains the simplest, most reliable, and cheapest approach to shortening sail. It can be fancied up with single-line controls and blocks of various kinds, but it’s simply an extra set or two of tack and clew cringles and a line or two in the sail. Ease the sail down (the halyard can be marked to match clew and tack selections), secure the tack (on a horn or with the tackle), adjust the clew reef line and outhaul, rehoist, and tie in the reef pendants. Sounds simple, but it does take time, and a little practice.
Of course there are other systems. In its earliest versions, boom reefing (inside or around) often was a disaster. The Cal 20, for instance, had a spring-loaded boom that was intended to be pulled aft and then rolled in order to take up sail area. The problem was that the spring engineered to lock the ratchet teeth in place so that no further rotation occurred, was not strong enough. The main usually just unrolled itself when wind pressure was applied, which made a frightful noise. And, need we add that any around-the-boom system nullifies the use of a normal vang?
Sailmakers are familiar with the half dozen manufacturers of in-boom furlers, all of which remain very expensive. Aaron Jasper, told us: “They are fussy work for a sailmaker. Owners need careful instructions on how to handle them. And some have electric winches that can tear things up in a hurry.”
In the mid-1970s, Ted Hood introduced an interesting idea. Hood had a lot of them. This one he called the Stoway mast. Eventually, after considerable development, it proved a slick but terribly expensive way to manage the main. Of course this led to imitations, including versions that were mounted just aft of the mast. But due to their complication and expense, we at PS feel that these products must be regarded as big-boat gear.
Besides the expense, the most frequent criticism of in-mast furling is that the mast becomes heavy and the mainsail cannot have horizontal battens, though new systems with vertical battens are now emerging.
Tom Braisted offered this ultimate warning: “None of these fancy furlers are as reliable as you might like….or expect, considering the cost.”
*Drablers — Drablers and bonnets were strips of canvas laced to sails to add area.
**Euphroe — A crowfoot was a big flat board with multiple holes for hanging an awning, and a euphroe was an oblong block with holes that gathered, supported, and helped organize and adjust the crowfoot’s lines; neither word has survived in modern nautical terminology.
• Antal (EuroMarine Trading), 401/849-0060, www.euromarinetrading.com
• Dutchman, 203/838-0375, www.mvpinfo.com
• Facnor, 704/597-1502, www.facnor.com
• Fredericksen, 727/545 1911, www.ronstan.com
• Harken, 262/691-3320, www.harken.com
• Rutgerson (Challenge Sailcloth), 860/871-8030, www.rutgerson.se
• Sailman (Bainbridge International), 781/821-2600, www.bainbridgeint.com
• Schaefer Marine, 508/995-9511, www.schaefermarine.com
• Selden, Inc., 843/760-6278, www.seldenmast.com
• Tides Marine, 800/420-0949, www.tidesmarine.com