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Using Riding Sails

The riding sail above, set off the backstay, helps to keep this vessel oriented into the wind.
Five hundred miles north, in Texas, the so-called ‘storm of the century' was sweeping south. When a nasty ‘norther' hits Texas, locals like to say, "there is nothing between the North Pole and Texas but a barbed wire fence." Farther down the meridian, in Belize, where I was preparing to shove off on a two-week charter, the still-distant storm was delivering the coldest temperatures on record, along with stiff, biting winds. With hubris reserved for those who go about in heavy steel boats, we shoved off anyway. We were bound for the Lighthouse Reef atoll where we hoped to dive on the famed blue hole when and if the winds abated.

Some of you may recall me mentioning this trip to Belize in an earlier article here at SailNet, The Power of the Kedge. That article describes, in detail, perhaps too much detail, how we sailed out to that atoll, anchored, dragged anchor, nearly lost the boat on the reef, and finally, after a prolonged struggle, kedged off and pulled the boat to safety. At least there was a happy ending; we even managed to dive at the blue hole a couple days later. Those eventful hours, however, have etched themselves into my mind's hard drive and driven home many lessons. One lesson that I learned the following day was how incredibly helpful Fortuna's mizzen sail was at anchor. With the wisdom that only hindsight offers, I am convinced that had I set the mizzen as a riding sail that fateful night, we would have avoided the entire ordeal by not dragging anchor in the first place.

A riding sail, or as it is sometimes called, a steadying sail, should be flown whenever you drop the hook, but especially if it's breezy. However, just a day ago, after dropping my kids off at school, I drove past the anchorage at Lake Sylvia in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. It was windy and several cruisers were tucked up in this secure harbor. Two boats were sailing about on their anchors and none were flying riding sails. And last weekend when I visited a friend who lives aboard a small schooner with his family, anchored out near Ft. Myers, I noticed that the anchorage was crowded with all manner of craft, from reluctantly afloat hulks to a lovely old Swan 57. Once again, there was not a riding sail in sight. Am I just old fashioned? Do I sound like one of those old salts droning on about ‘plastic boats' having ruined sailing? I hope not, but you have to trust me on this one, although it seems forgotten by modern sailors, a riding sail can be a terrific addition to your cruising sail inventory. In fact, I'll wager a beer that once you obtain a riding sail you'll wonder how you ever anchored without it.

Sailors with yawls and ketch rigs, like the one above, can simply set their mizzen sail as a riding sail while at anchor.
Now back to that terrible night on Lighthouse Reef. When we finally wrestled the keel free of the reef, and found a spot to anchor, my friend, the late Dr. Dave Morrison, suggested that we use the mizzen as a riding sail. My nerves were shattered at the time and I was open to any suggestion that might keep us from dragging again. Although it was dark, I knew that the reef was close at hand and isolated coral heads were lurking nearby. The wind was still howling, so we tied in a reef. We trimmed the sheet flat, and with the helm lashed hard over, the bow pointed into the wind like it was on a rail. The very few times we sheered, the sail immediately flogged alerting me to the change. Quickly and without my assistance, the mizzen worked like a steering vane and we came back head to wind. Although I doubt that we would have even dragged, the alarm-like flogging might have alerted me in time to prevent the boat from plunging onto the reef the night before.

I know what you're thinking; you're saying to yourself ‘a riding sail sounds like the same thing as a mizzen, and my boat is a sloop so what good is it?' While the mizzen on a ketch or yawl does make an ideal anchor steadying sail, an actual riding sail, the topic of this column incidentally, is designed for sloops and flown off the backstay. A riding sail will drastically reduce the load on the anchor rode and virtually eliminate sheering, which is the main cause of dragged anchors.

Sheering is created by windage from the hull, the deckhouse, and the rigging. When the wind shifts, the bow naturally falls off to a point, depending on the hull shape, and then the anchor rode forces the bow back the other way. The result is that boat seems to be tacking about the anchorage putting a dangerous sheer load on the ground tackle. Given enough of this activity, sooner or later the anchor will drag. This problem is acute with modern hull shapes because wide beams and narrow keel cords provide little directional stability. Sometimes, if the wind is really honking, the boat may actually heel as it veers from side to side.

Using a riding sail in a crowded anchorage makes great sense as it can keep your boat from wandering into its neighbors.
Pitching is another problem at anchor, especially if there is a chop in the harbor. This up-and-down motion also substantially loads up the ground tackle. Poor Fortuna—her skipper certainly mistreats her. In another anchoring fiasco, this time in the roadstead off the island of Cozumel, a sudden squall turned the once tranquil anchorage into a sloppy seaway. This was before I knew the secret of the riding sail. I had a nylon shock absorber rigged but it was too long. A sudden jerk stretched the nylon to a point where it did not prevent the chain from pulling taught with such force that it sheered the shackle in the anchor well and a 65-pound CQR plow and 200 feet of 3/8-inch chain plunged over the bow. A well-set riding sail might have helped prevent this disaster.

Typically, a riding sail is heavily constructed, like a storm jib, but made from ultra violet resistant material. Peter Grimm of Super Sailmakers in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, suggests at least eight-ounce cloth with stout stainless rings and closely spaced, heavy bronze hanks. How big should a riding sail be? There really are not many rules of thumb, but several factors come into play including hull shape design and overall displacement. Fortuna's mizzen represents about 15 percent of the boat's total sail area, but this is a bit too large for most boats. When reefed, the sail area is about 75 square feet and this seems ideal. A good sailmaker will be able to help size a riding sail properly. The sail should be cut flat and some cruisers strongly recommend full battens. If you go with full battens, be certain that the pockets are extra heavy—a riding sail spends a fair bit of time flogging. Offshore guru Steve Dashew recommends bolting the battens in place with locknuts, and that's not a bad idea.

The sail is flown by hanking it to the backstay and hauling up the main halyard until the head is approximately a third of the way up the stay. Of course you need to be careful if the backstay has antenna insulators. The final hoist position will require a bit of trial and error and also will differ with the conditions. In a real blow, the lower the better. The main halyard usually works well and offers a fair lead on the masthead sheave, but it does render the main useless while the riding sail is set. An adjustable tack pennant is useful, but only a single sheet is required. The sheet is often led to the clew fitting on the main boom, or sometimes to the traveler. A block and tackle allows the sail to be adjusted more easily, but in reality there isn't much trimming required.

Block Island's inner harbor is almost always chock full of boats in the summer months, but it's rare to see a riding sail among the mix.
Grimm says that he prefers a winged riding sail. Like a conventional riding sail, it sets on the backstay but has two equal sized flaps that trim and tie to each side of the boat. This shape is more efficient, especially for modern vessels with low wetted surface area hull shapes, and does a fine job of keeping the boat head to wind. Boats with twin backstays can use a variation of winged riding sail but without a common luff. Either way, make sure all the leads are fair because riding sails are particularly susceptible to chafe.

Riding sails can also be helpful when the wind is light. The same voyage to Lighthouse Reef later took us over the bar and up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala. We found a cove behind Cayo Grande well up the river and dropped the hook. The breeze was light and it was hot, almost unbearably so. However, with the mizzen set as a riding sail, we remained directly into the wind, making our wind scoops more efficient and keeping the cabin habitable throughout the night.

If you are planning a cruise and anticipate spending a fair bit of time swinging on the hook, consider adding a riding sail to your inventory. Sure it may cost you a few hundred dollars, but it can make your life more comfortable and just might save you a lot of grief.

Suggested Reading:

The Power of the Kedge by John Kretschmer

Cockpit Confessions by John Kretschmer

Anchoring Adventures by Beth Leonard

SailNet Store Section:  AirForce Sails

John Kretschmer is offline  
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