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Old 06-30-2000
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Brian Hancock is on a distinguished road
Headsails

AirForce Sails Product Manager Brian Hancock continues his series on sailmaking technology and what you need to know to get the best and most appropriate inventory for your boat. (Review Part Five.)

 
One of the most versatile sails in your inventory should be a roller-furling headsail designed for the upper or lower wind range.
 
I did my first circumnavigation in the days when Dacron was dominant, hanks were the only way to go, and headsail changes were a part of every watch. We sailed around the world via Cape Horn, and the memories of changing heavy sails in a heaving sea with ice-cold water crashing over the bow are as vivid today as they were 20 years ago. Thankfully, much has changed since then, and one of the great leaps forward in sailing technology has been the advent of the roller-furling unit. That simple mechanical device, found on just about every ocean-going sailboat these days, has transformed the way we sail and, much to the chagrin of sailmakers, has reduced our headsail inventory to just a few sails. The challenge for sailmakers now is getting the sails right so that they cover the expected wind range and perform adequately through a broad variety of conditions. In the last few articles I've discussed mainsails; now it's time to take a closer look at the other half of that delicate balance—your headsails.

Many of the same principles apply. You should start by asking yourself about your sailing goals. Are you staying "coastal" or heading for blue water? Do you want the headsail to complement your crosscut mainsail, or do you want to upgrade to a more exotic fabric and panel layout that might give you better performance? This is the time to assess carefully what exactly it is you want in your inventory. Most sails these days are tailor-made to fit your boat, and more importantly, to meet your expectations, so be clear about what it is you want. And if you're at a point where you are able to modify your sail plan, you would do well to consider what I regard to be the optimum configuration for offshore sailing—a large mainsail and a small headsail.

 
The author's own boat is fitted with two headsails, one that's roller-furled and one that hanks onto an inner forestay.
 
As we discussed in the article about mainsails, I prefer big mainsails that are easy to handle, with full-length battens, ball-bearing cars, jiffy reefing, and lazy jacks. To complement these, I prefer a smaller foretriangle with a 115 to 120-percent roller-furling headsail on the forestay, and a heavy-weather jib or staysail hanked onto an inner forestay. I am a big fan of the inner forestay because it provides you with a safe and secure place to hank on a storm jib. That way, when you're sailing with a reefed main and heavy-weather jib, your sail area is moved in toward the center of the boat where it is most efficient. The double-headsail rig is ideal for reaching in the trade winds, and when a squall passes overhead, you simply roll away the headsail, and sail on the heavy-weather jib and mainsail until it is safe to add more sail again.

In the days before roller furling, a passage-making boat would carry a number of headsails of different sizes and fabric weights, and set the appropriate sail to match the wind condition. While this was a lot of work for the foredeck crew, the result was a headsail that was exactly suited to the conditions, and a foretriangle configuration that balanced the boat. The sail size complemented the mainsail, the weight of fabric was sufficiently robust to take the weather, and the shape of the sail had the draft and camber located for maximum performance. It was also the most reliable way to sail on the wind, discounting of course, the time spent changing sails. With roller furling now an established component of passage-making paraphernalia, sailors have opted for the easy-to-handle performance of a single headsail in the hyped-up hope that one sail will do it all. In fact, one sail can't do it all, and many boats, when really put to the test, do not sail to windward very well with their headsail roller-reefed. This is especially true if you are relying on a single-reefing headsail to perform well in the myriad of wind conditions encountered offshore. Let's take a quick look at roller furling and the role it plays in a modern sail inventory.

 
The author takes a closer look at the headsail trim aboard his 50-footer.
 
I think it is fair to say that the roller-furling unit has come of age, and any offshore sailor doubting its usefulness and reliability can rest easy. These devices work just fine; however, the sails carried on them still need some evolution. There was a time when we were told that a 130-percent roller-furling headsail could be reefed down to 70 percent without any significant loss of performance, and we desperately wanted to believe that it could happen. We wanted the larger LP (see diagram) to give us light-air performance, while at the same time we did not want to make the effort to change sails when the wind piped up. We have slowly come to recognize that this is a compromise that could jeopardize our safety. If you only use your boat to sail along the coast and you keep a weather eye out for wind, then a single headsail (a 130-percent jib that reefs well to 90 percent) will probably suffice.

 
 
However, that arrangement will not be adequate if you are heading offshore and you would do well to take two headsails—a 135-percent genoa that reefs to around 95 percent, and a 105-percent genoa that reefs to 75 percent. As a rule of thumb you can reef as much as 30 percent of the length of a roller-furling headsail's foot, leaving the remaining 70 percent to sail on.

The problem you face with roller furling is that once you have a sail set on your headstay, you are committed to that sail. It's dangerous and difficult to change it if you are already in conditions where even one reef is necessary. You need to decide in advance which sail you think will be most useful and hoist it on the furling system. If you're sailing in the high-pressure conditions prevalent in New England during the summer, set your large headsail. If you are heading offshore for the trade winds in the Caribbean, set your smaller one. Some true blue-water sailors have modified their rigs to accommodate two headstays, and they set both sails. Whatever kind of rig configuration you have, make sure that you do not head offshore without at least two headsails to cover the range.

 
It's no coincidence that single-handed racers favor roller-furling headsails for their performance and sail-handling efficiencies.
 
A lot of design and engineering went into developing roller-furling systems, and likewise, a lot of thought has gone into developing the "ultimate" roller-furling sail. Because the two components worked well together, some of the practicalities were overlooked. Sailmakers never stopped to think how hard it would be for a middle-aged couple to pull in their big headsail using anything other than a powerful electric winch. They also never considered how important windward work is for a cruising sailor. Some of these problems can be remedied by careful passage planning, knowing and understanding your limitations and designing your headsail inventory accordingly. Set smaller sails if your winch power is limited, or if you are sailing short-handed, and I strongly urge you to consider two roller-furling headsails, especially if you are heading offshore. Sailmakers like Airforce Sails design and manufacture sails differently depending upon whether you are a blue-water sailor or someone who stays closer to home. The differences are subtle, but the result is a sail inventory properly suited for the conditions.

In the next article we will look at the many features that go into making a good headsail, including features that work best on a headsail that's going to be used while reefed, and those that are appropriate for a hanked-on inventory. We will briefly revisit fabric choices and panel layouts, and come up with a good headsail inventory for a boat heading offshore. To enable you to get the best performance from your headsails, we will include tips on sail trim and suggest some modifications you might consider for your deck layout. Once we have finished looking at headsails, you will never again look at that triangular piece of fabric forward of your mast the same way.

Brian Hancock's Sail Tech series will continue in a few weeks with a closer look at headsails.

 

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