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Double headsail rigs aren't for everyone, but on the right point of sail, and the right vessel, they make a lot of sense.
Last month, along with seven friends and relatives, I sailed the 600-plus miles from Bermuda to Newport, RI, and along the way I learned a lesson or two about a subject that seems to be on every cruising sailor’s mind today—the double-headsail rig, also called the double-head rig or cutter rig. Our vessel was the 51-foot sloop Toscana, which has been owned and well sailed for almost 20 years by my friend and former book editor Eric Swenson. This is the latest of Eric’s several Toscanas, named for the region in Italy where he and his wife, Brooke, were married.

Two Toscanas have provided me with adventures enough for a lifetime. In 1979 the predecessor to this boat, a Swan 47, took us safely through the Fastnet storm of painful memory. Eric later moved up to the bigger boat, an aluminum Frers design, which I raced to Bermuda in her original stripped-out racing configuration. After Eric installed a cruising interior, in 1996 I helped him deliver her back to the States—a passage whose general sweetness was marred by the grim mystery (described in my new book, After the Storm) of a derelict 27-footer that we found drifting in the Gulf Stream, hundreds of miles from land.

And this year, on June 24, I set out again in Toscana. We had a good trip on the whole—catching a long, favorable meander in the Gulf Stream, enjoying three days of beam or close reaching in 15 to 25 knots of wind, and (after a rough night) having a good drying-out day while powering in the flattest of calms. Our time from Bermuda’s Kitchen Shoals to Newport’s sea buoy was exactly 15 minutes less than four days. An average of six knots is pretty good for a delivery passage, especially since the boat’s 13-year-old cruising mainsail blew out early in the passage. With Eric not on board, I didn’t even dream of setting his high-tech racing main. As a rule, it is rude to use your host’s best china without first securing his permission.

The author and his crew first set the storm trysail, and then initially tried it with the full size genoa.
So we set the storm trysail with its clew secured to the boom so it could be trimmed with the mainsheet and traveler. Then we commenced to experiment with headsails.

The problem with long cruising reaches in an easily-driven boat like Toscana is not so much with getting decent speed as it is with securing healthy comfort. Speed comes fairly easily. When even a moderate wind is slightly forward of the beam, surprisingly little sail area is needed to get going. Any boat that has the slows on a moderate-air broad reach will respond wonderfully to sharpening up 10 or 20 degrees to pull the apparent wind forward, get the sails working with aerodynamic efficiency (rather than serving merely as walls against which the wind pushes), and build boat speed. Once you’re moving, slowly head off, keeping the apparent wind abeam. You’ll sail a longer course, but get to your destination faster and more comfortably, too.

While bringing the apparent wind forward may get the boat moving, it usually does not ease her motion if there is a swell or big chop. A comfortable motion is no small consideration offshore, when you’re living aboard a boat for days on end. A heaving, pitching boat not only is slower than a steady one, for all that motion absorbs energy that should go in to forward drive, but it’s far less safe, too. Sailors in a tossing boat roll about in their bunks and lurch around on deck. And less rest and poor morale produce careless seamanship.

That’s why sail selection should be keyed not only to speed, but also to steadying the boat. Aboard Toscana, we had three options: Option 1, genoa on the headstay; Option 2, smaller jib on the headstay; Option 3, forestaysail alone or in a double-head rig.

As a second option, the crew aboard Toscana coupled the storm trysail with the loose-luff staysail.
Option 1, the genoa on the headstay roller-furler, was successful only part of the time, in the lighter stuff. When the wind came up, reefing it worked until the roller-furler line snapped (the loads on a 51-footer sailing at eight-plus knots in 20 knots of wind are tremendous).

Option 2 was a choice between a couple of smaller jibs to set in the genoa’s place. The problem here was the necessity of making room for one of those sails on the headstay by dousing the genny—a risky enterprise at night with a big headsail and small, relatively inexperienced crew. And once doused, the genny had to go below.

Here’s a good rule to remember: in open water, keep people and doused sails off the foredeck—unless, of course, you don’t mind worrying about shipmates’ mortality or are eager to discover how quickly a wave can wash a sail overboard, taking the leeward stanchions with it.

We never did set a smaller jib on the headstay, so we were left with Option 3, which meant finding a sail to set aft of the headstay that had enough sail area both to give us speed and to steady the boat, either alone in fresh air or in a double-headsail rig as the breeze moderated.

"The main benefit of the double-head rig is its flexibility, and that’s why we came to rely on it during our sail up from Bermuda when the wind rose into the high teens and the genny proved too big."

Carrying two jibs forward of the mast—a jib on the outside, a forestaysail inside—is sometimes and somewhat misleadingly called a "cutter rig" because it’s closely associated with cutters. These are single-masted boats whose masts are stepped more than one-third of their overall length abaft the headstays. But sloops, whose masts are stepped farther forward, can also carry two headsails, too, even if there’s less area for them. This rig does not make a boat faster. Contrary to popular opinion, the aerodynamic effect of this rig is less powerful than that of a single sail of equal or near-equal size. (Forget all you’ve ever been told about the beneficial effects of the so-called "slot effect." What makes a sail effective is clean air flow around its outside, not compressed flow on its inside.) The main benefit of the double-head rig is its flexibility, and that’s why we came to rely on it during our sail up from Bermuda when the wind rose into the high teens and the genny proved to be too big.

 We had two types of forestaysail, one set without a forestay and the other set on a stay (sometimes called an "inner forestay"). Both types have been touted as the answer for cruisers, but after our experience I have come down firmly on the side of forestays.

First, we tried setting a reaching forestaysail halfway back from the headstay on its own roller furler, without a forestay, but with its own low-stretch luff. No matter how hard we ground the halyard and tightened the running backstay, the luff sagged off, and that made the sail break or collapse early, often, and very loudly unless we over trimmed it. After a while, we decided to douse this sail in order to check for chafe on the halyard aloft, which led near the upper roller-furling device on the genoa. But when we tried to roll the forestaysail up, its own roller furler was too small for the job and, as two of us hauled on the furling line, the flogging sheet succeeded in grabbing almost every loose line near the mast. We eventually dropped the sail unfurled.

Finally, the crew opted to use the storm trysail and the hanked-on jib, a combination that carried them most of the way to their destination.
As good Ken Ringle (one of our crew) untied that massive Gordian knot, we decided to give the storm jib a try. I was sure it would be too small, but at least it would be set on the boat’s forestay, which was pulled forward from the mast and shackled to a strongly backed up padeye on the foredeck. In fact, this storm jib turned out to be not much smaller than a regular forestaysail—almost as big as the inefficient reaching forestaysail, and much easier to set, carry, and douse since it lived on its own stay. Because this stay was a length of carbon fiber, not wire, the sail was hanked on not with metal snap hooks but with strong fabric loops. It went up easily and set handsomely, with none of that irritating, potentially dangerous sag that had produced the loud "wham" of the wildly luffing reaching forestaysail.

We quickly discovered that when the true wind was 18 knots or stronger, we got by nicely with the storm trysail and forestaysail alone. As the breeze dropped, the boat came back upright, developed lee helm, and began to roll about. That’s when we pulled out the genoa and carried both headsails. With the heel and the genoa’s overlap, the boat had a little weather helm. The speed rose to 7.5 knots, the boat’s motion eased, and along we rolled very comfortably toward Newport, a happy crew in a happy ship with an easily controlled rig.

If I were heading offshore, I would set up the forestay permanently with a smallish forestaysail on a powerful roller furler. It needs a running backstay to steady the mast, but that’s a small price to pay for such seamanlike flexibility.

Author on the Go

Sailors who would like to meet John Rousmaniere will have the chance throughout the summer as he continues promoting his newest book, After the Storm, at locations around New England. Have a look at the schedule below, and use the applicable numbers to attain additional information.

July 9:
Bristol, RI, Herreshoff Marine Museum, 7:00 p.m. (401-253-5000)
July 11: Toms River, NJ, Ocean County Public Library, 6:00 p.m. (732-349-6200)
July 12: Bay Head, NJ, Bay Head Bookshop, 3:00 p.m. (732-892-1235)
July 12: Bay Head, NJ, Bay Head Yacht Club, 6:00 p.m. (members and guests)
July 16: Castine, ME, Compass Rose Bookstore, 4:00-5:30 p.m. (207-326-9366)
July 16: Castine, ME, Castine Yacht Club, 6:00 p.m. (members and guests)
July 17: Searsport, ME, Penobscot Marine Museum, 3:30 p.m. (207-548-2529)
July 18: Falmouth, ME, Books Etc., The Shop at Falmouth Village, 240 US Rt. 1, 4:00-5:30 p.m. (207-781-2775)
July 18: South Portland, ME, Portland Harbor Museum, 7:00 p.m. (207-799-6337)
July 19: Bath, ME, Maine Maritime Museum, 12:00-2:00 p.m. (207-443-1316)
July 19: Boothbay Harbor, ME, Sherman's Bookstore, 5:00-6:00 p.m.
July 19: Boothbay Harbor, ME, Boothbay Region Historical Society, 7:00 p.m. (207-633-3462)
July 20: Damariscotta, ME, Maine Coast Book Shop, 10:00-11:00 a.m. (207-563-3207)
July 20: Northeast Harbor, ME, Great Harbor Maritime Museum, 7:00 p.m. (207-276-5650)
July 21: Bar Harbor, ME, Sherman's Bookstore, 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. (207-288-3161)
July 24: Oyster Bay, NY, Book Mark Café (516-922-0036)
July 26: Cold Spring Harbor, NY, Cold Spring Harbor Beach Club, 6:00 p.m. (members and guests)
July 27: Norwalk, CT, Barnes & Noble Bookstore, 2:00-4:00 p.m. (203-866-2213)
July 30: Edgartown, MA, Edgartown Yacht Club, 12:00-2:00 p.m. (members and guests)
July 30: Edgartown, MA, Bickerton & Ripley Books, 2:00-4:00 p.m. (508-627-8463)
August 3: Woodstock, VT, Norman Williams Library (802-457-2295)

Suggested Reading:

Using Riding Sails by John Kretschmer

Optimizing Your Downwind Performance by John Kretschmer

Considering a New Mainsail by Brian Hancock

SailNet Store Section:  Mainsail Batten Traveler Systems and Components

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