Cruisers should care about performance sailing

7 Sep


There’s a problem: many cruisers think that sailing performance isn’t important. Hey, cruising is about slowing down, right?! But dismissing performance is poor seamanship. After some years of listening to cruisers disregard performance and gripe about slow passages, it dawned on me that confusion is to blame.

Our good friend William demonstrated this last year during a fun race in Madagascar. William is a good sailor with much blue water cruising experience. He doesn’t race, but his competitive side, or maybe his social side, was piqued by party and prizes to follow the competition. With his racing cap on he chose a bold spinnaker start while single-handing. It didn’t go well. The gun cracked and his spinnaker tangled, slipped, and dipped…he did not have a good race. On passage William is slow and deliberate when setting a spinnaker, a pace that isn’t very racer-like but ends with a performance boost. Had he stuck with this instead of confusing performance and racing, he would’ve had more to celebrate at the party.

To clarify this issue, let’s forget all about performance; and instead, talk about “efficient sailing.” A rabbit in a bunny suit is still a rabbit, so what’s the point? Comfort and safety come with avoiding or minimizing bad weather, and stress comes from contemplating a three day passage when weather windows only last for two days. Efficient sailing is getting from A to B with minimal effort. What could be more appealing to a cruiser than minimal effort!

Making landfall in Comoros, Indian Ocean

Making landfall in Comoros, Indian Ocean

Sail trim

Racing sailors are pedantic about sail trim. Constant adjustments can yield subtle gains that show when measuring against competitors. We’re not interested in subtle gains. Reasonable sail trim takes no more time than bad sail trim, but yields better speed with less wear and tear to sails.

For example, when reaching and running, a boom vang locks the boom from lifting and dropping due to changing wind pressure on the mainsail. This may seem insignificant, but not using a vang slows you down and will cost you money in repairing a mainsail chafed by rubbing against rigging.

Another example is headsail trim. Sheet blocks are often set for reasonable trim going upwind, which fine, except that most of the time cruisers aren’t sailing upwind. When using an upwind sheeting point for reaching and running, the upper portion of a headsail twists to leeward, spilling wind causing the upper leech to flap. A barber hauler is an easy way to trim the headsail correctly for broader wind angles. This gives a considerable boat speed boost that can be 10 miles and more per day.


Both barber hauler and sheet are used for max efficiency at the wind angle

Sail handling

Racing sailors are well practiced at sail handling for fast transitions. Fast is usually not important or practical for short-handed cruisers, like our friend above. Efficient sail handling from a well setup boat, practice, and good crew communication reduces crew risks and equipment breakages.

Step one is setting up the boat to make sail handling easier. Cruising boats are usually reasonably well set up, but it takes time on the water to learn what works well and what needs improvement. Friction causes the most trouble. Friction makes you weak, and swear like a sailor. I installed a Harken furling system for cruising friends in Singapore. The next day they had words with me because furling was harder than ever. I went back to their boat and tested each furling line guide blocks. Only one of them actually turned, and the rest were easily fixed with fresh water and silicone spray.

Keep winches, blocks, and sheaves in good order. Watch for line chafe and metal fatigue. And give thought to unplanned sail handling events – they happen. When Totem was ghosting along the Pacific ITCZ, the heavy duty stainless steel pad eye securing the mainsheet to the boom sheared off. The part was less than a year old, and failed from slatting force. By chance, I had installed a webbing strop around the boom just in case such a thing happened. The mainsheet was reattached in just a couple minutes.


Pacific, between Mexico and Marquesas. Bonus squall. Rather undesirable twist in the mainsheet….

Step two of efficient sail handling is matching sails to the conditions. This may seem obvious, but it’s common to see people raise the anchor and hoist full sails; then outside of the protected anchorage, bigger wind hits and they scramble to reef the main. This is almost like sport in the eastern Caribbean this spring watching boats poke out from the lee and into the channel between islands. Start the day with a weather forecast and a few moments of observation before getting underway, and don’t forget the impact of geography.

Once underway, reducing sail area is all about observation and timing. In 20 knots of true wind, I can reef our mainsail on my own in 2 minutes –less if more motivated by approaching squall. In 30 knots it takes at least twice as long. Monitoring wind speed and watching for obvious changes (like squalls) and subtle changes (such as increasing gusts) gives you time to adjust sails when it’s still easy.

Approaching the South African coast last November, we expected landfall 6 to 12 hours ahead of forecasted bad weather. With 20 miles remaining of the 1,000 mile trip, we were sailing in gentle conditions with a perfect sunrise, and feeling good. Then I looked up. Above a thin layer of clouds going our way, clouds whipped along in the opposite direction. Bad news: the southerly buster came early! Engine on, we prepared for strong headwinds. At 7 miles to go, wind was 25 to 30 knots on the nose and against the strong Aghulas current. Waves piled up with no gap between them, and our speed dropped under two knots bashing into them. It was a tedious few hours getting in, but each additional hour out there would have been worse.

This post was contributed by Jamie, who shares his more technical sailing experience from time to time. It’s really two legs on a three-legged stool, because routing is as important to efficient passagemaking as sail trim and sail handling…that post will have to come later.


  1. J Wass

    I’ve had a considerable amount of seawater pass under the keel. Including a 15K mile, 22 month voyage, LA to Tahiti to NZ to Seattle, and ports between. One doesn’t need to squeeze every mile they can out of day. Keeping the boat sailing efficiently, and relax; enjoy the ocean, that book, And the incredible night sky. And WOW, watch for the “Green Flash”(I’ve seen it), whales followed for days at a time. Dolphins playing at the bow. One of my favorite experiences was watching the “Big Dipper and the North Star” getting lower on the horizon behind us, while the “Scorpion and the beautiful red star Antares” rose higher in the sky every night! and I’m just getting just getting started. One of the best things about a 30 day passage is making landfall! So be safe, gather knowledge constantly, and stop to smell the seaweed once in awhile. AND I had a nice little 3 cylinder Diesel engine. And I’ve got no problem turning it on. Becalmed my ass! I’m all about “miles per day”! Keep the rpm’s down to conserve fuel. I made 100 miles a day, No wind = no seas, usually. So it’s good motoring. And learn how to motorsail! It’s really cool when conditions are right. It’s EFFICIENT! I love efficiency!
    I sailed due west along 38* S from New Zealand to Southern French Polynesia, and made 1200 miles in eight days, a real sleigh-ride, and among my favorite sailing memories!
    Next time I’ll tell you about my voyages to Alaska, Japan, the East and West coasts of North America (Florida, Bahamas, Long Island. rounding Cape Fear and much more. Thanks for listening. Have fun and be safe. “knowledge is power” and that power is what keeps as safe as possible at sea (safer than on the freeway)! “aloha” friends!

  2. Mark Kraft

    D. Pole, don’t be such a….pole. This was a well written post by Jamie! I cruise and thought it was well very relevant. Totem has serious credibility.

  3. Behan Gifford

    Hi Bruce, thanks for chiming in (you too Mike, kind words welcomed!). Honestly, I wrote off Dimon as a troll. I think there’s a lot of what you say– people experiencing sights/sounds– but I think there’s also the *intention* of better performance that’s unrealized. Getting to B sooner isn’t about speed necessarily, it’s also about safety, so the fact that knowing how to eke out performance eludes cruisers is important.

  4. Bruce Conron

    Regarding Dimon’s disparaging reaction to Jamie’s first sentence, I think it could be said that racers are preoccupied with sail performance,. After all, it’s their raison d’etre for being out there on the water, achieving the shortest distance/time from point A to point B. . Cruising sailors, such as I, are looking up too, for the best they can do re sail trim, but that part of their time aboard is incidental to observing wind direction and wave motion and experiencing the sights and sounds, the impression their craft is making on the water.

  5. Dimon Pole

    When author starts his post with something like “many cruisers think that sailing performance isn’t important…”, I don’t even know is it worth to continue reading. Dude is abviosly lost. He forgot that he is writing for the “sailing community”. Oh, common! Seriously? You rally think that anyone who sails “think that sailing performance isn’t important?!”
    Well, than I recommend you to write for some other magazines.

  6. Mike Sorrell

    Common sense provided in a readable and relevant manner. We could all do well in putting into practice.

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