Sails, Good, Bad, New and Old
Lots and lots of sailors are sailing around with sails that perform poorly. A sailboat will move with just about anything flying as a sail. In many cases, sails are poorly cut, too heavy or too light or they have poor construction. How is a sailor supposed to know? The way I found out was sailing lots of different boats with different sails over a long period of time. Not everyone has those options available to him or her, so maybe the following information will be helpful.
Sails are like everything else in life, there are good ones and there are bad ones. An example of a good sail is one that designed for your wind conditions, fits your boat and can be dynamically changed in shape for a specific wind range. That means that most boats may need more than one headsail. Boats sailing across oceans normally have lots of sails. That's because the wind conditions change over long distances and you will need the right sail to make miles. Lets talk about what a good headsail is supposed to do. A given for any headsail is that you should be able to change its shape from a flat camber to a curve. The grove for a headsail is normally 3 degrees wide with a luff on one side and stall on the other when the boat is on the wind. Installing tel-tails on a sail will show these trim points as they happen. Increasing sail luff tension too much can reduce the camber to zero where the grove is gone and the sail is flat. Trying to sail a jib or genoa with a flat sail or no camber is impossible. When you are on the wind, sailing trim is determined with the jib grove. Reducing luff tension beyond the correct amount for the conditions will stall the sail. Of course we can't see a stall unless we use tel-tails.
You can see from the discussion above that a good sail needs to be dynamic for your local wind conditions. Some of the problems associated with a bad sail are cloth that is too heavy. Back in the early days, Dacron was only made in a few thick nesses. Some early boats got thin sails and some got thick heavy sails. Most of the 1970s small sailboats had sails that were too thin. Early 1980s boats may have had sails that where a little too heavy. They were correcting the too thin problems of the 1970s. If you have sails that don't stretch, they are old and stiff or they are just too heavy, they are not going to sail well unless it's blowing a gale. How can you tell? The mainsail on a Com-Pac 16 should stretch 8 inches on the luff. Take your mainsail all the way to the top of the mast, mark the boom's location and then pull down as hard as possible and see how much the luff stretches. The 1970s sails will stretch allot. All sailboats of all types need sails that stretch. Stretching sails are like the gearshift in a car. You need to be in the right gear for the conditions if plan on sailing well.
Luff tension determines camber size and location. Both are required items to sail well. The camber will move forward as luff tension is increased. This is required when wind speed increases. You move the camber back where it belongs after the wind increases and moves it back in the sail. The right place for most sailboats is 33% for the headsail and 50% for the mainsail. All you have to do is look at the sails and see where the maximum curve or camber is located in the sail. Sailing a boat with the rudder dragging though the water is a slow boat. You can look at pictures of sailing boats to determine sail balance. If the rudder is creating a roster tail, the sails are not balanced. Increasing luff tension would reduce rudder drag or weather helm.
New sails for any old boat are a desirable improvement. There are good new sails and maybe not so good new sails. It's best to use a sailmaker that's made sails for your brand of sailboat before and they have a track record of doing so. I have had a new sail that had a boltrope sewed inside the luff that wouldn't stretch the same amount as the cloth around it with a resulting pucker in the middle of the sail. I have had a genoa that sheeted 10 feet off the stern of one boat. It's difficult to fix an error on a new sail after a sail has been constructed. Some sailmakers make perfect sails that sail much better than production sails. Bob Johnson and his brother make sails in Clearwater, FL and they have lots of experience with Com-Pac sailboats. They made me a performance 155% genoa for a Com-Pac 23 that's better than any other genoa we ever sailed. To build the perfect sail that fits a specific brand of boat is a challenge. Supersailmakers.com builds our replacement sails today and they do an excellent job. Com-Pac boats have changed over the years and getting a sail to fit your legacy hardware can be difficult.
Ok, how do poor sails affect the way we sail? Your boat is going to sail well only in a narrow band of wind speeds. That's why is hard to identify bad sails. They do a pretty good job some of the time. Most well cut new sails should sail well over a large wind range. Sailing a genoa in 25 knots of wind and then using the same sail in the light stuff is very desirable. Learning to sail with good sails is easy and trying to learn with bad sails is almost impossible. Every beginner needs as much time as possible at the helm seeing what works and what doesn't. You need to learn as much as possible as soon you can so you can learn more as time goes on. Getting really good at sailing takes time.
You might have some concerns about furling headsails. They work the same way hanked on sails work. However, making them fit the furling gear can be a problem. If a hanked on sail is going to be converted to furling, the sailmaker needs to know the distance between the head of forestay and where it is connected to the deck and they also needs to know the brand of furling gear. With that information, the sailmaker makes the modified sail fit the furling gear and short enough so it can still be stretched. Some furling gear like CDI do not stretch sails. The sail is installed in a static position. That type of furling gear is cheaper to buy but has less capability than the other more expensive systems.
Keep in mind; if you trailer sail, the furling headsail will be furled on the furling gear and in a horizontal position. Sails don't drain well when they are rolled up in a horizontal position. Rain not draining from the sail will ruin the sail in time. A rule of thumb is in the water boats can furl and trailer sailing boats don't.
The bottom line is if you want to get good at sailing, get some new sails from a good sailmaker. Small boat sails are cheap compared to large boats and that's a good thing. After you have used some good sails on your boat, you will know from that point on about some of the finer points of sailing.
I get in my sailboat and move to a location where I plan on sailing. I like to sail on the wind first because that lets me know if I have the right sails for the wind conditions. If I have too much sail, I will heel over too much and I should consider smaller sails at this time. If I'm not heeling too much, the sails will work for those conditions. You raise the main and then raise the headsail. Both sails will be luffing and making some noise. You fall off the wind until the headsail fills with wind. The headsail will be trimmed in a general close-hauled position for sailing close to the wind. Adjust the mainsail to the wind that's coming off the headsail. Tel-tails on the leach of the mainsail ready help this adjustment. You will start to move out on a course close to the wind. You want to see how close you can come to the wind while maintaining speed and power. You first look for a proper grove from the headsail. Bringing the your boat up a little into the wind will cause your headsail to luff. You can sail just below this point in flat seas and a little lower in heavy seas. You try to sail within the 3 degrees between a luff and a stall and a little closer to a stall in water with waves. We call sailing close to a luff pinching and it is not as powerful as a lower point in the 3 degrees. Then make sure your headsail has twist at the top. Pinching tell you where you are when you start trimming your sails. The wind direction is a little different from the top to the bottom of all sails and the sailmaker builds the sail with twist. You can pull it out with too much tension on the sheets and make the boat slower. A 23-foot boat can be 1/2-knot shower with the twist removed. You have fine-tuned the headsail and now do the same thing with the main. Get those tel-tails flying and make sure the twist is there. I didn't mention halyard tension, but you already know where the camber has to be for power and small weather helm. That's it for close-hauled sailing.
Why would anyone want a trawler sail? You might want one because sailors and like to sail and you might want one to get home if the iron genoa drop's dead. Most conversion are done by sailors that own sailboats. The first time I took a long jorney in a sailboat, I took two motors just in case one of them died on the way. I didn't have any confidence in my sailing ability and I was right to be concerned at that time. Since then I have learned to sail and I no longer carry a second outboard and I don't fear getting home by sail alone. I have done it many times. Making a trawler sail should work well on some conversions, but not at all on others. You need some keel, ballast and a modest sail in the cockpit. A shoal draft keel works best for many reasons. Easy to trailer is the most important for the trawler and tracking in a seaway is also important. Almost as important is the little keel will will keep you from going sideways in a modest wind if you sail. I have learned not to overpower a shoal draft boat when I sail and I sail shoal draft boats almost exclusively. A good example of a trawler with a sail may be our Catalina 22 Trawler conversion. When the keel is down is draws five feet of draft and that's not going to work. With keel up, it draws about eighteen inches and I think that may work. To sail with the keel up, the sail will have to be big enough to move the boat in light winds, but not too big to make the boat heel more than about 10 degrees when the wind picks up. A mainsail in the cockpit will provide pointing power because the sail is behind the center of lateral resistance. It will want to make the boat round up and that will help pointing abililty with a weak keel. It not going to be a perfect sailboat, but I think the trawler could and will sail.
We have a Coastal Packet with a mast in the cockpit. The Packet's displacement is about 1500 pounds and it has a longer keel than a stadard Com-Pac Sun Cat. The boat is a Sun Cat conversion. It doesn't have a centerboard like the Sun Cat because a diesel motor is installed where the centerboard would have been. It also has a large rudder that aids the keel's capability of preventing the boat from going sideways. The sail is a Com-Pac 16 mainsail on a 16 boom. We will do an GPS evaluation next summer and I think it's going to work well.