This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)

The first thing you notice when talking about sails is, on the one hand the huge quantity of information available everywhere on this topic and, on the other hand, the apparently contradictory lack of information.

Confusion reigns supreme among abbreviations and fancy names of materials. It is therefore no surprise that this subject – in the vast majority of the cases – becomes in the end a mere talk in which everyone has a say. And, often, all this only results in a pleasant evening spent with friends.

The only indisputable truth is that the perfect sail does not exist, nor the right one for all uses and conditions. And if we add another variable to the equation, i.e. price, then it becomes really difficult to get out of what seem to be countless possibilities. There is really a wide range of combinations of cuts, materials and finishing.

The first question to be examined and answered after deep reflection concerns the main use of the boat. You need to know the purpose of your boat to make an informed and conscious choice. In short: costs and peculiarities of the sails shall comply with your plans.

If you are going to cruise, you should be mainly concerned about sail cost and lifespan. Dozens of items are available on the Net and, spending some time on it, you can gain a fairly precise idea on mainsail and headsail setting-up e.g. furling, battened.

Dacron is a material beloved by yachtsmen: it is cheap, long-lasting and highly resistant to UV rays and to heavy-duty conditions. All this makes Dacron a material suitable to middle-level offshore races, where sail reliability may be more important than its overall performance.

The main obstacle to the use of Dacron in races is its weight. In large boats (from 40’) the weight of sailcloth begins to be significant, especially when maneuvering and with a reduced crew. In addition, good performances can hardly be maintained for long as Dacron stretches over time.

In high-performance boats over 40’ for top-level races, weight becomes an insurmountable obstacle and this is why an IMOCA 60 will never be fitted with mainsails in Dacron.

But in very long races the use of this material wouldn’t be totally wrong, yet on the contrary, many wear and tear problems will be solved. However, such a big mainsail made of Dacron would be too hard to handle. The problem has more to do with sail handling than with sail performance. 

As for wear and tear, loosing shape and performance, these have to be carefully taken into consideration while you focus on your plans. Statistics show that a north European average sailor travels about 2,200 miles a year while an Italian one sails about 900 miles: it’s up to you to have the wisdom to find your position in the range.

If you are among those who sail just a few times a year, every cent you spend on high-performance materials is a waste of money. Instead, special attention needs to be drawn on maintenance, UV-ray protection, treatments against mould, possible damage.

As an example, the flapping of a genoa not trimmed tight enough on the furling headsail during a gust of wind in a marina.

However, between the two extremes, the correct position which meets your requirement is at hand.

Some mainsails in laminated cloth can actually meet high-performance requirements. Once again, you have to be honest and put yourself in the right perspective. If you are going to organize just few summer cruises or, at the most, to take part to some regattas or zonal trophies, a good classic mainsail in Dacron is, in my opinion, an appropriate choice. Better if more often replaced and correctly maintained. It should not be forgotten that although this sport of ours is strongly influenced by materials, in the end it’s the sailor that makes the difference. Many amateurs have the strange habit to putting forth the excuse that the sails are inappropriate to mask their incompetence at racing.

I would simply suggest that, if a crew regularly ranks second behind the most technological boat of the fleet, there are good reasons to speculate about the quality of the materials used. But until then I suggest to invest in crew training, boat tuning and sail trimming. It could be worthwhile to hire a good skipper for the regatta and, why not, a coach to train the crew.

In short, if the budget for the season is small and the goal is to improve performances, I suggest not to change anything and just start training: I’m sure things will begin to get slowly better. You can buy the best spinnaker available on the market but if it takes 5 minutes to hoist and lower it, there will be no improvement at all!

A further advantage of a training programme is the opportunity to get more information on the boat and its performances and so to take a reasoned decision about the sail to be replaced being more aware of the expected results.

Skipper and crew, tactic and strategic decisions as well as team spirit, all this account for the 95% of the end result. Only when you are stuck at the best level ever reached, it’s time for you to think about how technology can help to improve your boat’s performances.

Single handed racing or sailing with a reduced crew are an exception to what mentioned so far.

In these case choosing sails and accessories which can make maneuvering easier and lighter is a basic priority. And this is true both for yachtsmen and for racers.

As in motor racing many systems today available in mass produced cars come from Formula 1 research, also solutions at hand today to make matters easier for yachtsmen have not been specifically designed for this field, but come from the world of ocean racing with a reduced crew.

Spinnaker socks, for example, allow solo sailors to handle even very big spinnakers. Special furlers developed for gennakers, lazy jacks and lazy bags have been used for decades in oceanic racings and have finally become commonly available among yachtsmen.

It must always be clear that each and every sail is designed and manufactured taking into consideration its conditions of use.

The basic idea is that any combination of cut and material has been designed to withstand the maximum stress expected due to the use of that specific sail under normal conditions. If a light genoa or a Code break during a gust of wind, the fault is ours, as we have been late or reluctant to reduce the sail or replace it with one more appropriate for the change of weather.

Often, when we are caught off guard by strong gusts of wind we wait too long to reduce sails, just for laziness. Damage resulting therefrom will be attributable only to an incorrect use of what the boat is equipped with.

In order to extend the lifespan of sails and avoid they break, we must learn how to minimize material stress. Sailcloth does not blow out just because of wind load, if said sail is the proper one and correctly trimmed. And this is even truer for laminated or high-tech sailcloth, which easily withstands heavy-duty use but gets easily damaged if misused.

Now let’s talk about headsails. First of all it is important to be clear about the terminology to be used. In Italy some people wrongly think that the symmetric sail set up with the pole is a spinnaker, while the asymmetric one set up on a bowsprit is a gennaker.

This is wrong. To set things right: the correct terminology is symmetric and asymmetric spinnakers.

In other words: the distinction between spinnaker and gennaker has nothing to do with using a bowsprit or a pole. Not surprisingly, there are symmetric spinnakers to be used with the pole and asymmetric spinnakers to be used with a bowsprit. A gennaker is, instead, a much flatter sail, often furling, designed to sail abeam

We have stated there are gennakers (only asymmetric) and spinnakers (both asymmetric and symmetric). There are also Codes, which, due to their setting-up and peculiarities, can be considered special gennakers.

Code o, for example, which has become popular only in the last decade, is a very flat gennaker to sail full and by. It has been designed for very light-breeze and is very delicate. But it can be very useful when we are doing everything to make the boat proceed in light airs.

As sailmaker codes show, Asymmetric ones are marked with the letter A, Symmetric ones with the letter S, Jibs and Genoas with the letter J and finally Codes. These letters are followed by a number which indicates, in increasing order, which sail has to be used according to wind speed. In detail: J1, J2, J3, J4; A2, A4, A6; S2, S4, S6.

So, to conclude, let’s step back to the start of this article: materials, cuts and finishing shall be directly suggested by the deep analysis of your sailing plans, paying a special attention to solutions that facilitate maneuvering with a reduced crew.

And as for racers, I repeat the same saying: much, much, much training and a special attention at boat tuning will bring more results than spending a lot of money in top-level equipment!

Fair winds to everybody!

Renzo Crovo

Renzo Crovo