Chapter 9 – Storm Sails – Part 2

8 Jan

Chapter 9 deals with the all important storm sails. In Part 1 we looked at the best options for a Storm Jib including the Gale Sail and in Part 2 we will discuss the Trysail, deploying your storm sails and preparing for the worst with a dry run.

You can download this chapter as a pdf here



The Storm Trysail

The second part of the storm sail equation is the storm trysail. This sail is more for balancing the boat rather than driving it forward, since in galeforce conditions you need to be sure that you have some control over how the boat lies relative to the waves. It’s an important sail, but in my opinion not as important as the storm jib, as I’ll explain a little later.


As with the storm jib, the trysail needs to be built and engineered for the conditions and should not be an old sail that has been cut down. The same fabric weights apply as for the storm jib, as do the oversized corner reinforcement patches. And if the sail has slides, there must be adequate reinforcement at each slide to handle the point loading.

Again, this sail should not be confused with a performance sail. A trysail is a balancing sail without any of the potential problem areas a regular mainsail might have like battens and batten pockets. Virtually all rating rules call for a storm trysail to have a maximum area no larger than the result of the formula: 0.175 x P (mainsail luff) x E (mainsail foot), with a hollowed-out leech and foot, the area will be roughly 25 to 30 percent that of the mainsail. This is a good, proven size for all boats, both racing and cruising.

Storm Trysail set but I would not attach it to the boom. More likely than not you are going to have a sail on the boom and it will be heavy and unwieldy. Lower and lash the boom and set the trysail with two lines running from the clew to blocks on the rail. Safe and secure and requires no attention when you tack the boat.

A Separate Trysail Track?
Many offshore sailors insist on a separate trysail track running up the trailing edge of the mast, and I tend to agree with them, especially aboard larger vessels. For a racing boat where weight and windage are a consideration, however, sharing the track with the mainsail is acceptable, providing there is a simple and secure way of loading the trysail’s slides without having to remove the mainsail. Boats below 30 feet in length do not need a separate trysail track. The sails are a manageable size and changing from a mainsail to a trysail is not a long, complicated procedure. If your boat does not have a trysail track and you are heading offshore, they are fairly easy to install but be sure to talk to the mast manufacturer before you do so.

You need to consider two things when setting the storm trysail. First, you do not want to have to remove the mainsail from the mast. With a bolt rope you have no choice and you need to take every bit of care to ensure that the sail does not get away from you when it is lowered. If the main has slides, lower the sail and make sure there is a “gate” well above the top slide that can be opened easily to accept the storm trysail slides. The gate must be well above the top slide because in storm conditions it’s very difficult to get the slides to stack neatly. Chances are there will be gaps between them, and you do not want to have to deal with this issue when waves are breaking over the deck.
Second, consider the height of the gate and its accessibility. It’s dangerous and unseamanlike to be hanging onto a mast trying to feed slides into a gate. This may appear easy when the boat is tied to the dock, but when the wind is up and howling, it’s very different. If you can’t reach the gate, consider either a step on the mast (either side) or a separate track that runs down to a height that is easily accessible. Once the trysail is attached to the mast, it is hoisted with a short pennant at  the tack. This allows the sail to set above the mainsail, which is lashed to the boom. Like the storm jib, the trysail should be set with its own sheets permanently attached at the clew. It’s important to note that these sheets should be run to a reinforced pad eye on deck or a snatch block on the rail, as opposed to the boom, which should be secured to the deck or in its own gallows if the boat has them. Make sure that the strop at the tack allows the sail to be sheeted correctly. Only a “dry run” will allow you to check this and to mark the sheets and strop with reference marks.

Many sailors insist not only on having a separate trysail track that runs all the way to the deck, but on having the trysail permanently attached to the track. In other words, load the slides and leave the sail in its bag at the base of the mast. While I commend this nod to good seamanship, I think this measure is a bit extreme. I have sailed well over 200,000 miles and only had occasion to use a try- sail three times. The rest of the time the sail would have been in the way, possibly rotting in the sun. My call would be to stow the sail somewhere accessible and then bring it up on deck only when rough weather is forecast.

Carry Out a Dry Run
Again, I would encourage any crew planning an offshore passage to do a trysail drill while the boat is still tied to the dock. Practice dropping and lashing the mainsail, and then setting the trysail. The crew will be able to get a feel for the size of the sail and see how it attaches to the mast relative to the mainsail. They should all know where the sail is stowed before leaving the dock.

This boat is carrying out a dry run which is highly recommended. I like that  the mainsail is completely lowered and secured and that the trysail is set with two lines running from the clew to blocks on the rail. 

Other Factors to Consider When Setting Storm Sails
Many other factors come into play when it comes to storm sails. Different boats have different needs, a fact that was brought home to me aboard my own boat in a gale in the Gulf Stream. With water spouts developing on the edge of the Stream and gale-force winds threatening to rip the rig out, I dropped the mainsail and attempted to make do with just the storm jib. On this boat, however, the mast was far forward, and the boat could not respond without a second sail to balance the helm. Fortunately my crew and I had done a trysail drill, and we were able to set the sail without too much trouble.

Of course, some boats will sail just fine with only a storm jib set, especially boats with long keels and balanced sailplans. The old cruisers that had keels that ran the length of the underbody, although slow and cumbersome, were very seakindly. The long keels gave them directional stability that even an unbalanced sailplan, i.e., too much sail forward or aft, could not mess with. On the other hand, many fin-keel boats without much underwater shape will suffer without both an effective storm jib and trysail set at the same time, since there is not enough lateral stability under the boat to help it ride the waves. The result is that the sails end up dictating how the boat will lie relative to the seaway. Therefore, setting only a storm jib without the trysail to counterbalance the sailplan would make it very difficult to keep the boat on a steady course.

Sea state or the boat’s location also need to be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to bend on storm canvas. If, for example, a lee shore looms and the boat needs the trysail to balance the helm in an effort to claw to windward, then it’s a reasonable trade to endanger the crew’s lives to set the storm sails. The alternative, a grounding, makes the choice an easy and obvious one. On the other hand if there is plenty of sea room and the boat is managing okay, then leave the crew below where they will be safe since the worst that will happen is that you will end up a hundred miles off course.

In a situation aboard my boat in the Gulf Stream where we had ample sea room, the boat would not sail on autopilot with just a storm jib, so I deemed it a reasonable risk to set the trysail to balance the helm, and then keep the crew below where he would be safe rather than have him on deck hand steering. The fact that we had also practiced setting the sail played a role in my decision. Again, these decisions need to be made by each skipper on a case-by-case basis. The point is that all sailors need to look at all the factors when making decisions during severe weather. When the wind is up and the senses are heightened, it’s important to consider all options, even the unconventional ones.

One final point to consider when deciding whether to set a storm trysail concerns the mast. Generally, modern masts require the support of a mainsail or trysail pushing against the trailing edge of the spar to add to the structural integrity of the mast, so setting a headsail alone could actually result in the loss of the entire rig. The heavy masts found on most cruising boats, on the other hand, are fine without the mainsail, although you should be sure to check with the spar maker for his advice since you may need a sail set to support this kind of mast as well.

Storm Preparation
It’s human nature sometimes to deny the obvious, especially when work is involved and that work is dangerous and means getting soaked. We are all guilty of it. The forecast is for a gale, yet the conditions are still manageable and we convince ourselves that it will not be as bad as forecast. My experience is that storms take people by surprise, and that is when they do their most damage. It’s true that often the forecast is wrong and the wind does not blow like expected, but some- times the forecast is right. Prudent seamanship means that all sailors should plan for the worst and be grateful when it does not happen. This includes preparing storm sails. It really is important to do a dry run at the dock so that all the crew know where the storm sails are stowed and how to use them. Races like the Newport to Bermuda Race now make it a race requirement before they will let you start. It’s equally important for you to prepare for an approaching gale well in advance. Hanking the storm jib onto the inner forestay and preparing to drop the mainsail is more easily accomplished before the wind comes up than after it has started blowing. Know your boat. Know if it needs the trysail or if the boat can sail on a storm jib alone. Decide whether having your crew at the mast feeding slides onto a track is an acceptable risk (especially at night). Think about the sheeting positions of both sails and be sure that the blocks are secured to their pad eyes long before the leeward pad eyes are underwater. Storm sails are a very important part of your safety — know how to use them and be prepared to use them well in advance of increasing wind. Sometimes the only thing standing between you and disaster is preparation.

Note: I wrote an article for SAIL Magazine on Storm Sails – you can download a copy here.

My friend Bernard Stamm dealing with the conditions at the start of the Velux Five Oceans Race.

I hope that you enjoyed this blog. I invite you to subscribe so that you will not miss a blog post. You will get a great free gift, a pdf copy of my book Maximum Sail Power and weekly blogs about sails and sailmaking. Click the pic to subscribe and if you are in need of new sails please contact us for a no obligation quote.

Brian Hancock – Owner Great Circle Sails

This article was syndicated from Maximum Sail Power Blog

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