In this article you can see how we solved the sail handling so that one of us can sail the boat while the other sleeps. Maybe it can give you some ideas on how to solve it on your boat.
2023-03-05: Updated with more information about preventers.
2023-03-11: Updated with information about our running backstays.
Since there are several different types of sails and sailboats, there are different solutions for how to pitch and control the sails. There are also different needs if you are to be able to handle the boat alone compared to when there is a crew.
What is important to us
Before we decided on the sail handling we wanted on our long-distance boat, we thought through how we wanted it to work and then we came up with some simple requirements that made it easy for us to choose.
- We must be able to sail for several weeks straight
- We must not fall overboard while sailing
- We want to be able to live and sail relatively comfortably because the boat is our home for a long time
If someone falls overboard (even with a life harness on) while sailing on the open seas, it is difficult to get the person back up, especially if there are only two in the crew. There is also a risk that the person who remains on board will also falls overboard during the rescue attempt. It is enough to practice rescue on a rolling boat, for one to realize that it is difficult.
So what can be done to avoid falling overboard?
We have promised each other to stay in the cockpit during sailing. We chose a boat that we thought had a cockpit that is safe to stay in while sailing. For us, this meant that we chose a boat model with the cockpit in the center of the boat, a so-called ”center cockpit” and with the mainsail sheet behind the cockpit to avoid the risk of someone being injured by it in an involuntary gybe.
If we still have to go up on deck, we must first make sure that the other person is up in the cockpit. On deck, we must always use a life harness.
Sailing several weeks at a stretch
When we sail for a long time, we need to sleep, but we have choose to never sleep at the same time. For it to work, either of us must be able to sail Sally when the other is asleep.
We have met this need by having a boat where one person can handle all control functions for the sails without leaving the cockpit. Further down in the article, you can read about how it works in practice on Sally.
Comfortable sailing, is it possible?
It largely depends on the weather and whether you have water, food and adequate heat. The boat you sail with also affects how comfortable you experience it. It’s one thing to live and sail for a few weeks during a vacation compared to having the boat as your home for years and being able to cross oceans. This has meant that we chose a slightly larger boat, than the one we had when we sailed in Swedish waters during our vacations.
We ourselves can influence the boat’s condition and equipment, if we have water, food and adequate heat through various preparations before we sail. The weather, on the other hand, is what it is and we can only adjust where and when we sail. So it is important to know what the weather is like where we plan to sail so that we can choose the appropriate time of year for sailing. Sailing in the Baltic Sea is best done during the summer months.
But even if the season is right, the weather varies so much that we need weather forecasts to get an idea of what the weather will be like in the next few days. The picture below is the weather forecast for when we were to sail across the Bay of Biscay, northeasterly winds around 20 knots. That didn’t stop the weather from delivering over 35 knots of wind from the northwest on the first evening and night with waves up to 5m.
On an ocean, wind strength plays a greater role than when sailing on small seas such as the Baltic Sea. This is mainly due to two things.
- You have a long way to land so the waves get bigger and risk the of capsizing the boat increases
- If you are forced to spend several days in rough weather, the waves make it more difficult to get enough sleep to feel good
This means that nowadays we always judge the wind based on how strong the gusts are.
But even if you know that the wind will be moderate, it is important to know which direction it is comes from in relation to which direction you are going. It is much more difficult to sail against the wind than with the wind from the side or from behind.
The pictures below are from the sailing from Antigua to the Azores. In the first picture, the wind is 10 knots. In the second picture the wind is 25 knots with wind waves plus 2 m swell from the low pressure behind us and which is heading east across the Atlantic. Low pressure is traveling at around 15 knots so it’s only a matter of time before it catches up with us. This time the low pressure moved a little north and we changed course and sailed a little further south. This meant that we got at most 30 knots of wind before we reached the Azores. The day after our arrival to Horta, the wind was about 40 knots where we had sailed.
On almost all long-distance sailboats, the headsails are hoisted on a furling profile that can be spun around and furls the sail when not in use. You mount the sail when you are in port and store it rolled up around the furling profile. An UV-protective canvas is often put on the back of the sail.
When it comes to the mainsail, there are basically three different ways to handle it. I am only explaining the principles of how the sail is handled when it is hoisted, furled and taken in. There are advantages and disadvantages to all three types of mainsail and efforts have been made to improve certain properties to make the sail easier to handle, more durable, etc.
- The traditional way, i.e. the sail is hoisted on the mast when it is to be used and taken down and stowed on top of the boom when not in use. The sail is mounted when in port and stored folded on top of the boom. The sail is usually fitted with battens.
- The boat has a special mast where you roll the hoisted sail onto a furler inside the mast. The sail is mounted when in port and then stored rolled up in the mast. The sail may have standing battens.
- The boat has a special boom that you furl the sail into. The sail is mounted when you are in port and stored rolled up in the boom. The sail is usually fitted with battens.
Our starting point for handling our sails is that one person should be able to handle most sail maneuvers from the cockpit without having to change course. For us it meant one we chose a mainsail without battens that is rolled into the mast (variant 2 above) and two headsails that are rolled onto furler profiles. With two headsails, we can use the smaller sail when it is very windy. In theory, you can furl the genoa so that it is the same size, but a sail that is furled too much gets the wrong shape and does not work as well. It is most noticeable when sailing with the wind from the side or upwind.
On Sally, all three furlers are powered by electric motors that we control with buttons on the steering wheel. Should the electric motor not work, the sails can be rolled in by hand using a special crank handle.
When there is a headwind, you sail diagonally towards the wind. If it’s windy from the direction you’re going, you have to tack with the boat. When we have a headwind, we use the genoa and mainsail in winds up to about 15 knots.
If it blows more, we reduce the sail area by furling the mainsail and/or genoa. If it blows over 20 knots, we furl the entire genoa and unfurl the inner headsail (cutter jib) which is permanently mounted. We gradually furl the mainsail as the wind increases. When the inner headsail is used, we also use the running backstay which is permanently mounted when we sail.
If you look at the sails from the side, you can see how big a difference there is in sail area when the mainsail is furled and the inner jib is used. In order for the boat to maintain a good balance when sailing against the wind, we usually try to furl the sails in rhythm so that the top of the mainsail and the top of the headsail are at approximately the same height all the time.
Should the wind be more than 30 knots and the waves begin to approach 3 m high, we change course and sail with the wind instead. This is why it is so important not to go too close to land that is leeward of the boat when the wind is strong.
Sailing with the wind from the side is the most comfortable sailing as long as the waves do not get too high and steep that they risk breaking over the boat and possibly causing damage or even the boat capsizing.
At the bottom of the article there is a section about waves.
When we have crosswinds, we use the genoa and mainsail in winds up to 20 knots. If it the wind is stronger, we reduce the sail area by furling the mainsail and genoa gradually the more it blows. When there is a risk of 5 m high steep waves breaking, we keep an eye out for large waves and steer away if a large wave approaches. When it’s dark we change course and sail more with the wind all the time.
Sailing deep downwind requires a little more wind for Sally to sail as fast as in a crosswind. Another effect is that the genoa is behind the mainsail and get no wind. Therefore the genoa needs to be moved on the opposite side as the mainsail. This is called sailing wing on wing.
To keep the genoa out against the wind, we use a jib boom where one end is attached to the mast and the other end to the genoa.
As long as the wind stays below 20 knots, we can sail with the whole mainsail and the whole genoa up. If the wind increases more, we start by furling the mainsail to reduce the force from the mainsail that wants to turn the boat. In rough seas, this can mean a risk of ending up with with the side of the boat facing the waves and a risk of capsizing.
We start furling the genoa when the wind is over 25 knots.
Inner sail when going downwind
If the waves cause the boat to roll a lot, we also hoist the inner sail (slightly furled) and sheet it as flat as possible to the opposite side of the genoa. This makes the genoa fill a little better and the cutter sail stops the boat’s rolls a bit.
Hauling the mainsail
On our boat the mainsail is hauled on a sheet rail behind the cockpit and we use winches to control the hauling of the sail.
To control the tension of the leech (the rear edge of the sail), the boom is equipped with a so-called rod kick. It is controlled by a line routed via blocks and a rope clutch to the port side aft winch in the cockpit.
We have also fitted a so-called boom brake which means that the boom moves slowly from one side to the other when we gybe. It is important that the boom brake cannot lock the boom completely, as the boom could then break off in a gybe.
When we sail longer distances downwind, we have a rope that holds the boom so that it cannot gybe accidentally, a so-called preventer. The line is attached to the end of the boom and goes through a block in the bow of the boat. From there the line goes through loops on the outside of the stanchions to a rope clutch on the rail and up to the aft winch in the cockpit. We have mounted a preventer on each side of the boat and if we need to gybe often, both are attached to the boom all the time.
This arrangement allows us to gybe with preventers without having to leave the cockpit.
Hauling of genoa and inner headsail
The genoa is hauled through a block running on a rail on deck. The position of the block can be adjusted with a rope from the cockpit. The position needs to be regulated when the genoa is reefed or when the position of the clew needs to be changed to control the leech of the genoa.
The inner headsail is hauled in the same way as the genoa, i.e. through an adjustable block on the same sheet rail as the genoa’s sheet block. Then on to the same winch as the genoa sheet. On the outside of the cockpit there are cleats to attach the sheets to the headsail that is not currently in use.
The whisker pole on our boat is always attached with one end to a rail on the front of the mast. When we plan to use the whisker pole, we lift the outer end and attach the two lines that will hold the pole down (downhaul).
When the pole is then rigged up, one of these lines is attached to the front cleat, the other line is attached to the cleat on the middle of the boat. We also attach a line (uphal) to the outer end that goes up the mast and then down to the mast foot where a cleat is used to regulate the height of the end of the pole. Finally, we move the end on the mast and lift the pole so that it is approximately perpendicular to the mast.
When we are going to use the whisker pole to hold the genoa out when sailing downwind, we attach an extra line to the genoa’s clew (the red line). The red line goes through the end of the whisker pole and on to a sheet block at the stern of the boat. From there, the sheet line goes to one of the winches by the cockpit. We have put wear protection on the sheet line to prevent it from being worn by the pole.
We have tried using the usual genoa sheet in the whisker pole, but it didn’t work so well on our boat. There was too much downward pull in the whisker pole, and it was not as easy to gybe with the genoa as with an extra sheet to the used for the whisker pole.
When the inner headsail is used, we attach the windward running backstay. There is a running back stay on each side and they are attached to the mast in level with the top of the inner headsail. The other end is attached with a pulley to a block on the rail aft of the cockpit and on to a rope clutch at the cockpit so they can be stretched up with the genoa winch.
We stretch the running backstay on the windward side of the boat with a winch at the cockpit. While on the leeward side it is loose and pulled forward to the deck mount for the aft lower shroud. We have attached a control line to the running backstay which goes via a block at deck level back along the side of the cabin to a rope clutch at the cockpit. It allows us to manage the running backstay without leaving the cockpit when we need to tack.
Some pictures showing how it looks on Sally.
Discussion about mainsail
If you have a mainsail of the traditional type, much of the sail handling is simplified if you have full-length battens and a Lazy Bag with Lazy Jacks. The battens prevent the sail from flapping when hoisted but not hauled. The Lazy Bag makes it much easier to collect and store the sail on the boom.
To avoid going up the deck during reefing, you can mount so-called single line reefing that can be managed from the cockpit. Changing the sail area still requires that you may have to change course so that the wind blows the sail away from the mast. The halyard of the mainsail needs to be controlled from the cockpit to avoid going up on deck when changing the sail area.
When a mainsail like this needs to be hauled down completely, a person must be on deck to fold the sail so that it fits in the stowage on the boom. Someone also needs to close the zipper or whatever device you have to stow the sail on the boom.
The sail can be made without batten or fitted with vertical battens that can be rolled into the mast. It is important that the boom is perpendicular to the mast (adjusted with the kick) when the sail is rolled in or out. With the right technique, a sail like this can be rolled out or in, regardless of which direction the wind is coming from.
A sail that is old and worn has a high risk of messing up, especially when it has to be rolled out. This is because the sail has a larger belly and wrinkles more when it is rolled in. The wrinkles mean that it takes up more space and can be difficult to both roll in and out of the mast.
If you have standing battens in the sail, you can increase the so-called leech curve of the sail, which gives a relatively large increase in the sail area compared to a sail without battens. If the sail lacks battens, it must have a so-called negative leech curve so as not to flap when sailing.
There are many different variants and the modern ones have full-length battens. I myself have no experience of sailing a boat with a roller boom. What I have seen is that it is very important that the boom is perpendicular to the mast for the sail to be rolled up correctly on the boom. There must also be a system that automatically feeds the sail’s slides into the funnel on the mast and that system means that you have to maneuver the boat so that the wind comes from the front.
The system is common on slightly larger sailboats and super yachts that want to retain the performance increase that a mainsail with battens provides, while at the same time wanting to get rid of the problem of collecting and folding a large sail on the boom.
A little about waves
According to a study at Southampton University in England from 1984, a breaking wave that is about as high as the boat is wide can cause the boat to capsize, i.e. be rolled around by the wave.
For Sally, this means that a 4.5 m high breaking wave hitting broad side could capsize the boat. Such a wave can occur at a significant wave height of 2.5 m. A 5-meter wave then occurs approximately 3 times per day. You also have to be unlucky to be where the wave occurs, so in practice the risk of encountering the ”monster wave” is much smaller.
Extra large waves can also occur when there is a swell (long waves) at the same time as the wind creates waves on top of the swell. The waves that then are created are more difficult to predict and can be both high and steep.
A third factor that affects the waves is ocean currents. A current that goes against the waves creates short and steep waves, not something you want to sail in regardless of which direction you are going.
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