The part that really struck me was how badly most boats sail to windward with roller-reefed headsails. I was part of a crew sailing a Swan 59, a class of yacht known for its superb windward performance, among other attributes. On this occasion, however, we were not doing so great. One of the problems encountered when roller reefing a sail is that the moment the first turn is taken to reduce sail area, the airfoil shape of the sail is ruined. You reduce sail area and stop the heeling and leeway, but any power and performance you might have had from the headsail is severely lessened.
Having noticed our lack of windward performance for a while, I gave some thought to the other option for reducing sail—changing headsails like in the old days. But watching cold, green water sweep the foredeck, I became prepared to trade performance for convenience and realized that I was glad we had the furling unit on board. Two lessons quickly became clear. The first is knowing and recognizing the limitations of roller-reefed headsails and planning trips accordingly (which often means avoiding lee shores). The second lesson is just how important fabric, features, and sail engineering are to a good sail.
To be sure you get the headsail you want, consider the following features that any reefing headsail should have:
UV Sunshields Sailmakers learned long ago to add an acrylic or UV-treated polyester fabric to the leech and foot of the sail to protect the genoa when it is rolled up on the headstay. The fabric does not add to the strength of the sail, however, but does add to the life of the sail by protecting it from harmful UV rays.
Head and Clew Patches With roller-furling sails, the first parts of the sail to get rolled up are the head and tack patches. They need to be extended (larger) so that the structural integrity of the corner is preserved when the sail is partially reefed. Have your sailmaker mark the foot of the sail so that you have a reference point when reefing. This will allow you to pre-mark the correct location for the genoa lead.
Reinforced Hanks If you have hanked-on sails, you need a reinforcement patch behind each hank. The point-loading on hanks is fairly significant and can rip the luff of the sail if each hank is not properly reinforced.
Telltales Headsail trim is important to the cruising sailor. Have your sailmaker add telltales to the luff of each headsail. Using those as a reference, you can adjust your sheet-lead position so that all the telltales along the luff of the sail lift at the same time. If the top telltales lift first, move the sheet lead forward. Conversely, if the lower telltales lift first, move the lead aft.
In my next article on headsails I will look at ways to get the most performance from your sails, and discuss various sail options for going offshore. After reading that, you should be well equipped to make the right headsail choices for your boat. Remember, these products are an important part of your overall inventory and by extension, your safety.
By the way, we made Newfoundland in good time aboard the Swan, and spent some enjoyable days cruising the island's rugged south coast. It's a remarkable part of the world, made more interesting because the small towns that dot the coast have no access by road. Weekly ferry service is their only link to the outside world. The high-sided fjords and windswept bluffs of this region make for some compelling scenery, but you only want to be out here if your sail inventory is in good order.
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