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Sailing Under the Storm Trysail

There wasn't any indication of severe weather in the forecast, but it was well on its way by the time the race started.
Nowhere in the weather forecast prior to last week's 54th annual Annapolis to Newport Race was there mention of gale-force winds, but that's what we got. The remnants of Tropical Storm Allison were to linger across the southern Chesapeake Bay for the beginning phase of the race, but the principal effect on the 64-boat fleet was seen to be excessively wet and humid weather, with scattered thunderstorms accompanied by torrential rain. There was a 10 to 15-knot northerly breeze forecasted, shifting to the northwest and west as the dying low pressure center moved up the coast towards New England, parallel to the track the fleet would take towards Newport.

On board Bob Towse's Reichel/Pugh 66 Blue Yankee, watch captains Steve Benjamin and Ed Adams, along with our navigator Jerry Swinton, discussed the various scenarios in our crew's pre-race briefing. Depending on the movement of what was left of Allison, and the convergence rate of an approaching cold front, the breeze would stay in the southwest to northwest quadrants for the duration of the race. "Regardless, it's all good, and we'll have a fast race," Benjy assured us.

What we didn't anticipate was that a mere 24 hours later we'd be struggling to wrestle down the already-reefed mainsail and No. 3 jib in 40 to 50-knot gusts off the mouth of Delaware Bay. It seems the approaching cold front and the energy from the low must have combined to create a gale force nor'wester, something not anticipated in any of our forecasts. There were reports from coastal stations of 25 and 30 knots, but nothing greater than this. Regardless, the reality was that we had to shorten sail, and do so quickly, so amid the deafening howling and screaching of the wind, and as 14-foot waves washed over the decks, the call was made to set the storm trysail.

A storm trysail (seen here with a storm jib) is a bulletproof, free-footed sail set in place of the a reefed mainsail.

Why a Storm Trysail?    We had a fairly experienced group among our crew of 15, yet still a brief poll revealed only half the sailors had had a trysail up ever, and fewer still during a race. So, many on the crew were asking these basic questions:

What the heck is a trysail?

A trysail is a small triangular sail, usually made from heavy Dacron sailcloth, that has a luff length less than 20 percent of the luff length of the mainsail, and a foot length 30 to 40 percent less than the main. It is built with some shape for power, but is bulletproof in construction to withstand high winds.

When is it used?

There's no set benchmark for breeze in which a trysail is better or faster than a reefed main, but basically it will come into its range when the main can no longer be reefed down to keep the boat balanced. Most racing boats, including Blue Yankee, and some cruising boats have only one reef point in the mainsail. While many racing rules (such as those issued from the Offshore Racing Council (ORC) or from PHRF specify the minimum depth of that reef, they do not require further reefs, especially if a trysail is carried on board.

On boats with reasonable righting moments, the trysail may become a viable option at the point where the breeze tops 40 knots in sustained strength. It is around this wind speed that the sail will become an invaluable tool to help keep some boat speed to maneuver, as well as to keep the bow from blowing off in the wind and to keep the helm balanced.

Heavy weather situations vary. Sea state and hull shape will all play a factor in whether you fly a storm trysail, or use a storm jib alone (above), or simply run with bare poles.

How is it set?

The answer to this depends on the type of mainsail luff groove or track system on the mast, but in either type the foot of the sail is loose and the clew is sheeted independently of the boom. On luff groove systems, the trysail is simply fed into the mast groove after the mainsail is removed (and either flaked on the boom, or removed entirely band stowed below as we did on Blue
). On track systems, the process is more complex, since the luff slides on the mainsail are stacked on the accessible portion of the track above the gooseneck. In this case, either the luff slides must be removed, or on many cruising boats a parallel track is installed just off-center so that the trysail can be hoisted without removing the main slides from the mast. In either case, the main halyard should not be hoisted until the tack and clews are secured.

For the clew, either a ring or a strop is used to attach two sheets, port and starboard, which are in turn led aft through snatch blocks on the rail to winches for trimming. Because the angle from the mast to these sheet turning blocks is fairly broad, the set up is not ideal for trying to go to windward. On Blue Yankee, we modified the rig to attach the clew strop to the main boom, thereby allowing us to use the main traveller to bring the sail closer to centerline. Having two sheets on the sail is important, both for tacking (if that's necessary), and as a safety in case the primary sheet breaks from either load or chafe.

Though the chances you'll sail in winds of 40 knots or more are rare, knowing how to set and use your storm sails will save time, equipment, and maybe lives.
Do I really need to know this stuff?

In offshore sailing, either racing or cruising, Murphy's Law applies, so at some time or another it will pay to know how to rig and set up the storm trysail to avoid too much confusion and chaos when the sail is actually needed. In fact, in offshore events such as the Admiral's Cup and Kenwood Cup, event organizers often require teams during their pre-race inspections to demonstrate how they would rig their storm trysail.

Often in gusty conditions a reefed main can be feathered long enough to withstand a blast of short duration, and is preferable to taking the extra time and effort necessary to set the trysail. But knowing how to do this when the time comes will not only save time, but may even save your equipment and the safety of you and your crew. And while few us willingly seek out 40-plus knots of wind, if you ever do find yourself sailing with a trysail in storm conditions, the experience will qualify you for membership in one the world's elite sailing fraternities: the Storm Trysail Club!

Eds. Note: Sixty-three boats started this race, but at least two dropped out due to damage sustained in the severe conditions. Joe Dockery's Farr 60 Carerra finished the race first, about 23 minutes ahead of Blue Yankee. Both boats, as well as Fred Detwiler's Andrews 70 Trader, and George Collins' Farr 52 Chessie Racing beat the 1999 record set by Collins' Santa Cruz 70 Chessie Racing. For additional information see

Suggested Reading:

Storm Tactics by John Kretschmer

Lessons from a Sailing Disaster by John Rousmaniere

The Forgotten Lessons of Heavy Weather by Beth Leonard


Buying Guide:  AirForce Sails

Dobbs Davis is offline  
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