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July 11th

The best sails for downwind cruising

Posted by // July 11, 2014 // COMMENT (9 Comments)

Boats and Gear, Cruising,

asymmetric

What’s the difference between a drifter, a gennaker, a code zero, and a screecher? Where does a spinnaker fit in? And if you’re a cruiser, what sail should you use for downwind sailing, anyway?

There is no single “best,” because everything on a boat is a compromise, and individual styles/needs vary, but we have some opinions on the optimal choice for most cruisers.

This question came up on a women’s sailing forum I participate in recently. Because Jamie is a sailmaker, I asked him for help with a response that would be useful to differentiate the options for downwind sails. Differences between these sails aren’t difficult to understand, but get confusing because the names are mixed up or misused. I knew Jamie’d make sense of it, so he’s helped me organize this primer to provide basic general information on each sail, as well as his opinion on what’s the best for cruising purposes. Punchline: code zeroes are great for cruising. Does it cover all bases? No! What’s the catch? Keep reading!

my new favorite picture of Totem

Flying the asymmetric on Totem in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Courtesy of Jesse / SV Frances Lee

The descriptions below are for cruising context, racing applications add complexity. Putting this together was a pushme/pullyou between me and Jamie: my urge is to simplify (I’m a fan of Big Animal Pictures), Jamie wants to share detailed technical knowledge (he knows way too much about the subject). Hopefully we struck a balance, but if terms are unfamiliar, it might help to read some the definitions at bottom- or if you’re impatient, skip to the summary: What sail should you use?

 

Spinnaker

 

-     AWA: 90° (beam reaching) -180° (DDW)
-     TWS: 3 to ? (most likely 20 to 25 TWS, but can be higher if you dare)
-     Complexity: moderate to high, for experienced sailors; easier on catamarans
-     Sailcloth: nylon or polyester (not good for cruising), 0.4oz to 2.2oz per SY
-     Construction: tri-radial is best (and typical); older sails can be bi-radial or crosscut
-     Hoist/douse: with a sock (easiest) or directly from bag
-     Storage: very bulky

This is a symmetrical sail, so vertical edges are free flying and either can be luff or leech.  For monohulls, a spinnaker pole attached to tack controls the sail’s angle relative to the wind and boat. In some situations, monohulls can “free float” a spinnaker without pole. Multihulls can use a pole or free float the sail between hulls. Spinnakers have more involved rigging (sheets, guys, pole, topping lift, downhaul, halyard) and require more attention trimming, although catamarans have it easier because they can fly from the hulls and avoid a pole. Cruisers tend to over-trim to reduce the attention otherwise required, so they’re rarely used optimally. Spinnakers can be designed and built as general-purpose, or for specific wind characteristics.

Merlin spinnaker

Merlin’s crew estimates they used a spinnaker for 80% of the Pacific crossing. This pic of their boat above (courtesy of Emmanuel Beucher-Hall) helps show why it’s easier on a catamaran: instead of needing a pole they can fly it from each bow, using a quick release clip on one side for safety. (PSA: this beautiful boat is for sale!)

 

Drifter

 

-     AWA: 45° – 180° (DDW if poled out)
-     TWS: 1-5
-     Complexity: easy
-     Sailcloth: nylon or polyester (not good for cruising), 2oz to 3oz per SY.
-     Construction: crosscut or miter cut
-     Hoist/douse: from bag
-     Storage: very bulky

A drifter is for the lightest of winds only and the size (geometry) varies widely. It’s often attached to a stay, but can be a free flying luff with Dyneema luff line. Drifters have a very full shape to slowly bend wind around the sail. They’re relatively inexpensive, but have a very limited range of use.

fun & games on Totem

Poles: not just for sailing!

Cruising chute / gennaker / MPS /asymmetric

 

-     AWA: 90°-ish (beam reaching)  to 180° (DDW) if poled out.
-     TWS: 3 to ? (most likely 20 to 25 TWS, but can be higher if you dare)
-     Complexity: moderate
-     Sailcloth: nylon or polyester (not good for cruising), 0.4oz to 2.2oz per SY
-     Construction: tri-radial (best) or bi-radial
-     Hoist/Douse: with a sock (easiest) or directly from bag
-     Storage: very bulky

Unlike spinnakers, asymmetric sails have only one vertical edge that can be the luff, unless hoisted incorrectly- which is symmetrically embarrassing! Sail shape is fuller in the front (luff) and flatter in the back (leech), like a headsail. It is easier to rig and fly than a spinnaker. In general, the tack attaches at the bow via a tack lines and has a free-flying luff. There are many geometry and shape variations based on boat/purpose/etc. but a general-purpose sail is most common. Using a spinnaker or whisker pole adds complexity (though still simpler than spinnaker setup), but helps the sail fly better. When close reaching, attaching the tack to pole give complete control of tack location. For broad reaching to DDW, attaching pole to clew helps project the sail to keep it filled and reduce collapsing.

 

Code zero / screecher

 

-     AWA: 60°-ish – 180° (DDW) if poled out.
-     TWS: 5 to ? (very sailcloth / AWA dependent – closer angles = less max wind, otherwise similar to asymmetric)
-     Complexity: easy to moderate.
-     Sailcloth: nylon or polyester (not good for cruising) or laminates (polyester and/or high modulus fibers)
-     Construction: tri-radial
-     Hoist/douse: continuous line furler (stows in bag with sail)
-     Storage: rolled up, so less bulky

Now we’re into it! Code sails (0, 1, 2, 3, etc.) are designed with very specific purpose (wind velocity/angle) for racing. A “code zero” for cruising doesn’t really fit what implied within racing. Some sailmakers are branding names (Doyle UPS, etc.) but let’s just call it a cruising code zero (CCZ). A screecher for cruising has the same general characteristics as CCZ, but for multihulls. To simplify here, they’re collectively called CCZ/S.

Asymmetric sails blend features of spinnaker and headsail to simplify flying. CCZ/S takes design another step closer to headsail than the rest: it still has a free flying luff, but geometry and shape slide closer to a genoa. This sail’s purpose is to increase effective AWA sailing range, and can approach close hauled angles, and handle a higher load (windspeed). It’s easier to fly, and takes up less space stowed. Furling is generally easy, although practice and good gear help. CCZ/S can be made with a UV cover to remain hoisted for longer periods, making it again one step easier to use.

The virtues of the CCZ/S Jamie wanted to share run for several more paragraphs, but this hopefully captures the essence.

What sail should you use?

 

Every boat, every crew, every situation are different, but Jamie offers these opinions as a general guideline. It’s not an attempt to be the gospel of downwind sail choices, but a summary to help cruisers understand the relative pros/cons in a succinct manner. Meanwhile, there are other options like double headsails, a poled out headsail, etc.

Hanna headsails

Hanna’s mainsail cover stayed on during wind-and-wing saling for at least 17 days out of their 21 day Atlantic crossing. Thanks Jan A. for this photo! 

  –     Spinnakers are too much effort for most cruising boats, although they are easier on cats. It’s best sail for deep angles or dead downwind, but DDW is a slow point of sail best minimized. If you have one, make the most of it, but if you’re shopping for a new sail, I wouldn’t recommend it for most cruisers.

  –     Drifters have a limited purpose, so aren’t usually a good choice unless you’re in an area with very little wind and endowed with a great deal of patience.

  –     Asymmetric (cruising chute/gennaker/MPS/etc.) are a step in the right direction, but their all-purpose designs, tend to limit wind velocity and angles. We have an asymmetric sail for Totem that’s gotten far less than expected: it’s either to light, too windy or the angle is too tight. (Jamie wishes we had a code zero!)

  –     CCZ/S is the best choice, for three reasons. First, they can be used across a wider range of wind speeds and angles. Second, they’re easy to set and fly. Finally, they’re more space efficient to store. Further, most cruising boats don’t spend much time beating upwind (close hauled and tacking). A CCZ/S can’t sail higher than 60°-sh degrees like a genoa, but from that angle back a CCZ/S is a better sail than a genoa; thus, for many boat eliminates the need for a genoa. Instead a CCZ/S and 110%-ish all-purpose furling headsail cover a big range of conditions

If you’re in the market for a CCZ or any sails, Jamie would love to work with you. He’s collaborating with a New Zealand sailmaker to build great sails, shipped anywhere in the world. His expertise can benefit you, and your orders help us keep cruising. Not in the market, but just have questions about sails? Feel free to get in touch and Ask the Sailmaker. And, thank you!

As always, Code Awesome readers know we love it when you read this on the Sailfeed website.

Definitions

Sailmaking terms

Symmetrical – Both vertical halves (left and right if projected in front of the boat) of the sail are identical (the same geometry). Either vertical edge of the sail can be luff or leech.

Asymmetrical – All sails, except spinnakers are asymmetrical, but the general term refers to downwind sails whose vertical halves (left and right if projected in front of the boat) are not identical. There is only one luff and one leech.

Sailcloth weight – refers to the actual weight of one “sailmakers yard” (SY) of cloth. A sailmakers yard is 28-1/2” x 36”.

Crosscut – panels are run perpendicular to leech (actually to line between head/clew), across the sail.

Miter cut – a sail constructed with 2 sections, separated by the miter seem which is roughly perpendicular to the luff and intersects with clew. The leech section panels run as in a crosscut sail, the foot section panels are perpendicular to foot.

Bi-radial – Narrow panels radiating out of head to about mid-height of sail. The lower half has wide panels oriented horizontally.

Tri-radial – Narrow panels radiating out from each corner, intended to follow the load paths in the sail.

Sailing terms

Free flying luff – the luff (leading edge) of the sail is not attached to a stay or spar.

AWA – apparent wind angle, no big definition here other than to say the direction that the wind feels like it coming from while the boat is moving.

TWS – true wind speed

DDW – dead down wind, meaning wind come from directly behind the boat

This article was syndicated from Sailing Totem

9 Responses to “The best sails for downwind cruising”

  1. […] do you want to know about downwind sails? It turns out, more than we expected! Last month’s post on the best sails for downwind cruising was an answer for a friend, but it prompted other questions in responses- […]

  2. Great info in a compact space.

  3. cwyckham says:

    Thank you for this great article. I use an assym in a sock for my coastal cruising in the PNW and love it. I’ve often though about a CCZ, but rejected the idea. I’m curious about your three reasons for liking a CCZ better:
    1) Wind speed and angle. Why are they better for a larger range of wind speeds? Are they just typically built of stronger material? One could certainly build a heavier assym.

    Angle: Many of us have a genoa that we would use upwind for all but the lightest of conditions. I would love a CCZ for typical light wind conditions and then have a 110 jib for moderate to heavy. I fear that I would lose a lot of pointing that way, though. How can a sail that can only hit 60 degree AWA replace a genoa?

    In light winds/seas we’ve been able to hold the assym up to about 60 AWA, sometimes a bit further.

    Once you’re sailing across or downwind, won’t the fuller shape of the assym be much better? How about the fact that the assym’s luff can project a bit upwind when broad reaching?

    So for a downwind sail, I’m not clear on why a CCZ is better than an assym, though it clearly would be for light wind close reaching.

    2) and 3) Being easy to set and fly and taking up less room to store both seem to be comments on the fact that the CCZ usually comes on a continuous line furler. Definitely a great piece of kit, but you can put an assym on a furler as well. I’m not sure if you can leave it up, though, as I’ve never seen a UV guard on a furled assym.

    Just some thoughts. I’d love to hear what you guys have to say as you have infinitely more experience than I do and these questions have been rattling around in my head for some time.

    Chris

  4. Jim Thomsen says:

    A really great article Behan! Thank you.

  5. Sherry Day says:

    Behan, this is a great article. I would like to save it. Can you send it to me as a PDF? Thanks.

  6. Ted says:

    Mack Sails in Stuart Fl makes CCZ sails for cruising boats.

  7. Katie T says:

    Excellent information! Thank you!!! BTW, you guys are awesome for sharing so much useful information about all things sailing.

  8. Les B. says:

    Fantastic insight from cruising perspective with sailmaking experience and expertise to back it up!! I’ve already forwarded this to a few friends.

  9. Kim M says:

    Awesome information! Especially for the newbies out here (that would be ME). You did a great job of not making the information too technical while keeping it conversational and fact filled. I am bookmarking this article from your blog for future reference. Thank you.

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