The best sails for downwind cruising


What’s the difference between a drifter, a gennaker, a code zero, and a screecher? Where does a spinnaker fit in? And if you’re a cruiser, what sail should you use for downwind sailing, anyway?

downwind sails 101There is no single “best,” because everything on a boat is a compromise, and individual styles/needs vary, but we have some opinions on the optimal choice for most cruisers.

This question came up on a women’s sailing forum I participate in recently. Because Jamie is a sailmaker, I asked him for help with a response that would be useful to differentiate the options for downwind sails. Differences between these sails aren’t difficult to understand, but get confusing because the names are mixed up or misused. I knew Jamie’d make sense of it, so he’s helped me organize this primer to provide basic general information on each sail, as well as his opinion on what’s the best for cruising purposes. Punchline: code zeroes are great for cruising. Does it cover all bases? No! What’s the catch? Keep reading!

my new favorite picture of Totem
Flying the asymmetric on Totem in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. Courtesy of Jesse / SV Frances Lee

The descriptions below are for cruising context, racing applications add complexity. Putting this together was a pushme/pullyou between me and Jamie: my urge is to simplify (I’m a fan of Big Animal Pictures), Jamie wants to share detailed technical knowledge (he knows way too much about the subject). Hopefully we struck a balance, but if terms are unfamiliar, it might help to read some the definitions at bottom- or if you’re impatient, skip to the summary: What sail should you use?


  • AWA: 90° (beam reaching) -180° (DDW)
  • TWS: 3 to ? (most likely 20 to 25 TWS, but can be higher if you dare)
  • Complexity: moderate to high, for experienced sailors; easier on catamarans
  • Sailcloth: nylon or polyester (not good for cruising), 0.4oz to 2.2oz per SY
  • Construction: tri-radial is best (and typical); older sails can be bi-radial or crosscut
  • Hoist/douse: with a sock (easiest) or directly from bag
  • Storage: very bulky

This is a symmetrical sail, so vertical edges are free flying and either can be luff or leech.  For monohulls, a spinnaker pole attached to tack controls the sail’s angle relative to the wind and boat. In some situations, monohulls can “free float” a spinnaker without pole. Multihulls can use a pole or free float the sail between hulls. Spinnakers have more involved rigging (sheets, guys, pole, topping lift, downhaul, halyard) and require more attention trimming, although catamarans have it easier because they can fly from the hulls and avoid a pole. Cruisers tend to over-trim to reduce the attention otherwise required, so they’re rarely used optimally. Spinnakers can be designed and built as general-purpose, or for specific wind characteristics.

Merlin spinnaker

Merlin’s crew estimates they used a spinnaker for 80% of the Pacific crossing. This pic of their boat above (courtesy of Emmanuel Beucher-Hall) helps show why it’s easier on a catamaran: instead of needing a pole they can fly it from each bow, using a quick release clip on one side for safety. (PSA: this beautiful boat is for sale!)


  • AWA: 45° – 180° (DDW if poled out)
  • TWS: 1-5
  • Complexity: easy
  • Sailcloth: nylon or polyester (not good for cruising), 2oz to 3oz per SY.
  • Construction: crosscut or miter cut
  • Hoist/douse: from bag
  • Storage: very bulky

A drifter is for the lightest of winds only and the size (geometry) varies widely. It’s often attached to a stay, but can be a free flying luff with Dyneema luff line. Drifters have a very full shape to slowly bend wind around the sail. They’re relatively inexpensive, but have a very limited range of use.

fun & games on Totem
Poles: not just for sailing!

Cruising chute / gennaker / MPS /asymmetric

  • AWA: 90°-ish (beam reaching)  to 180° (DDW) if poled out.
  • TWS: 3 to ? (most likely 20 to 25 TWS, but can be higher if you dare)
  • Complexity: moderate
  • Sailcloth: nylon or polyester (not good for cruising), 0.4oz to 2.2oz per SY
  • Construction: tri-radial (best) or bi-radial
  • Hoist/Douse: with a sock (easiest) or directly from bag
  • Storage: very bulky

Unlike spinnakers, asymmetric sails have only one vertical edge that can be the luff, unless hoisted incorrectly- which is symmetrically embarrassing! Sail shape is fuller in the front (luff) and flatter in the back (leech), like a headsail. It is easier to rig and fly than a spinnaker. In general, the tack attaches at the bow via a tack lines and has a free-flying luff. There are many geometry and shape variations based on boat/purpose/etc. but a general-purpose sail is most common. Using a spinnaker or whisker pole adds complexity (though still simpler than spinnaker setup), but helps the sail fly better. When close reaching, attaching the tack to pole give complete control of tack location. For broad reaching to DDW, attaching pole to clew helps project the sail to keep it filled and reduce collapsing.

Code zero / screecher

  • AWA: 60°-ish – 180° (DDW) if poled out.
  • TWS: 5 to ? (very sailcloth / AWA dependent – closer angles = less max wind, otherwise similar to asymmetric)
  • Complexity: easy to moderate.
  • Sailcloth: nylon or polyester (not good for cruising) or laminates (polyester and/or high modulus fibers)
  • Construction: tri-radial
  • Hoist/douse: continuous line furler (stows in bag with sail)
  • Storage: rolled up, so less bulky

Now we’re into it! Code sails (0, 1, 2, 3, etc.) are designed with very specific purpose (wind velocity/angle) for racing. A “code zero” for cruising doesn’t really fit what implied within racing. Some sailmakers are branding names (Doyle UPS, etc.) but let’s just call it a cruising code zero (CCZ). A screecher for cruising has the same general characteristics as CCZ, but for multihulls. To simplify here, they’re collectively called CCZ/S.

Asymmetric sails blend features of spinnaker and headsail to simplify flying. CCZ/S takes design another step closer to headsail than the rest: it still has a free flying luff, but geometry and shape slide closer to a genoa. This sail’s purpose is to increase effective AWA sailing range, and can approach close hauled angles, and handle a higher load (windspeed). It’s easier to fly, and takes up less space stowed. Furling is generally easy, although practice and good gear help. CCZ/S can be made with a UV cover to remain hoisted for longer periods, making it again one step easier to use.

The virtues of the CCZ/S Jamie wanted to share run for several more paragraphs, but this hopefully captures the essence.

What sail should you use?

Every boat, every crew, every situation are different, but Jamie offers these opinions as a general guideline. It’s not an attempt to be the gospel of downwind sail choices, but a summary to help cruisers understand the relative pros/cons in a succinct manner. Meanwhile, there are other options like double headsails, a poled out headsail, etc.

Hanna headsails

Hanna’s mainsail cover stayed on during wind-and-wing saling for at least 17 days out of their 21 day Atlantic crossing. Thanks Jan A. for this photo! 

  • Spinnakers are too much effort for most cruising boats, although they are easier on cats. It’s best sail for deep angles or dead downwind, but DDW is a slow point of sail best minimized. If you have one, make the most of it, but if you’re shopping for a new sail, I wouldn’t recommend it for most cruisers.
  • Drifters have a limited purpose, so aren’t usually a good choice unless you’re in an area with very little wind and endowed with a great deal of patience.
  • Asymmetric (cruising chute/gennaker/MPS/etc.) are a step in the right direction, but their all-purpose designs, tend to limit wind velocity and angles. We have an asymmetric sail for Totem that’s gotten far less than expected: it’s either to light, too windy or the angle is too tight. (Jamie wishes we had a code zero!)
  • CCZ/S is the best choice, for three reasons. First, they can be used across a wider range of wind speeds and angles. Second, they’re easy to set and fly. Finally, they’re more space efficient to store. Further, most cruising boats don’t spend much time beating upwind (close hauled and tacking). A CCZ/S can’t sail higher than 60°-sh degrees like a genoa, but from that angle back a CCZ/S is a better sail than a genoa; thus, for many boat eliminates the need for a genoa. Instead a CCZ/S and 110%-ish all-purpose furling headsail cover a big range of conditions

If you’re in the market for a CCZ or any sails, Jamie would love to work with you. He’s collaborating with a New Zealand sailmaker to build great sails, shipped anywhere in the world. His expertise can benefit you, and your orders help us keep cruising. Not in the market, but just have questions about sails? Feel free to get in touch and Ask the Sailmaker. And, thank you!

As always, Code Awesome readers know we love it when you read this on the Sailfeed website.


Sailmaking terms

Symmetrical – Both vertical halves (left and right if projected in front of the boat) of the sail are identical (the same geometry). Either vertical edge of the sail can be luff or leech.

Asymmetrical – All sails, except spinnakers are asymmetrical, but the general term refers to downwind sails whose vertical halves (left and right if projected in front of the boat) are not identical. There is only one luff and one leech.

Sailcloth weight – refers to the actual weight of one “sailmakers yard” (SY) of cloth. A sailmakers yard is 28-1/2” x 36”.

Crosscut – panels are run perpendicular to leech (actually to line between head/clew), across the sail.

Miter cut – a sail constructed with 2 sections, separated by the miter seem which is roughly perpendicular to the luff and intersects with clew. The leech section panels run as in a crosscut sail, the foot section panels are perpendicular to foot.

Bi-radial – Narrow panels radiating out of head to about mid-height of sail. The lower half has wide panels oriented horizontally.

Tri-radial – Narrow panels radiating out from each corner, intended to follow the load paths in the sail.

Sailing terms

Free flying luff – the luff (leading edge) of the sail is not attached to a stay or spar.

AWA – apparent wind angle, no big definition here other than to say the direction that the wind feels like it coming from while the boat is moving.

TWS – true wind speed

DDW – dead down wind, meaning wind come from directly behind the boat

31 Responses

  1. I second the code zero endorsement. We fly ours whenever we can in light airs and with the foil-less furler it couldn’t be easier. One note: though the code zero is designed for upwind work, we have successfully used it for downwind. The only problem is that it’s cut so that the foot nearly lines up with our toe rail when sheeted in for upwind, but we have to let all that out for downwind work and then the foot flies high and a ton of potential sail area is lost–so that’s the downwind compromise. Nice post.

    1. You’re correct that a code zero is for upwind work, if using the term in racing sail design context. A cruising version is similar-ish, but really not the same sail, or intent – which is why calling both by the same name, is problematic.
      Genoas/jibs are upwind sails by design, but get much use downwind. They are exceptionally versatile, but only “the best choice” in some conditions. A cruising code zero, falls short of genoa/jib sailing close to wind and in higher wind velocity – but is superior in other conditions. A cruising code zero doesn’t match downwind-only sails (spinnaker and asymmetric) when they are in their ideal conditions, but ideal conditions are very limited. Every sail is a compromise, which is why racing boats have so many sails (to reduce that), and why the versatility of cruising code zero / screecher makes it a great choice for cruising.

  2. This is a really great post. I’ve only been sailing two years and my boat doesn’t go downwind all that fast so it’s a constant battle to balance everything. I have a sort of custom made downwind sail called a ‘Twistle Sail’ which is two genoas sewn together and poled out without the poles touching the mast. It massively reduces the rolling when going downwind because the sails can roll without forcing the boat to roll too!
    Great blog, keep it up!

    Kitiara in Wanderland

  3. This is a very good question?

    I have done lots and lots of racing on some extremely high performance racing yachts and i have only ever herd of the Code Zero and the spinnaker, among A – S sails.

    Thank you for opening my eyes the vast array of other dow wind sails and there requirements 🙂

  4. Another thing that might support the code zero strategy is the way the apparent wind angle decreases as the boat picks up speed for various reasons. What you started out with a 90 AWA now has decreased to a 70 AWA.

  5. I’ll be forwarding this to MIke. the PO of our boat gave the spinnaker to his brother several years ago because he didn’t use it much. Also I suspect because the brother gave him money for it. He’s offered it to us for sale, but the spinnaker pole weighs a ton. if we had a crew maybe we would use it, but it’s so big and heavy it would be a danger to try to deploy. . When we are. ready to get some new sails we’ll be in touch!

    1. hey Melissa, You are certainly right about straining yourself, but seamanship skill is all about working out techniques where you don’t have to strain yourself. i.e. winches, blocks, etc. If the sail is cheap enough, I would get it and work on your methods. Maybe using and ATN or sleeve so you hoist before you open it up. Your boat is really big, so it’s going to be all about methods it think. respectfully, mark

  6. Hi! I just found my way here from Zach Aboard, and I look forward to reading about more of your adventures. We lived aboard seasonally in Michigan (which meant 91 days out of the year!) and have recently moved to the greater Houston area, where we will be moving onto a 1966 Ericson 35-1 within the next two weeks. Our dream is to sail abroad and to explore, just as you are doing.

    1. Hi Bethany, thanks for commenting and leading me to your blog- your plans sound great! And, I’m making those enchiladas asap. yum!!

  7. Hi, great blog. A tip on downwind with the main. On longer ocean crossings I prefer to take the main down when off the wind. You clear some walking space, and there is the safety factor (death jibe) but mostly, it clears the air for your headsail/kite configuration. I like my speed and don’t find a measurable loss of it. My boat was flat bottomed so I didn’t have a roll issue. On rolly boat deliveries, almost dead downwind with poled out headsails, we have reefed and sheeted hard to center the main to stop the roll.

    I look forward to more of your adventures 🙂


    1. Woody,

      My boat is also flat bottomed with retractable keel. I am still learning how to sail it efficiently. I have added a Parasailor (symmetrical spinnaker with a wing) but haven’t used it all that much yet. Going upwind is always a chore but downwind is the boat’s forte.

      We have seen 14 kts in 35-45 winds and big seas from Aruba to Panama. The boat never seemed overpowered or out of it’s element.

  8. Good article! We gave our asymmetric spinnaker a free round trip ride to the Bahamas this summer. Tries to fly it once but the air was just too light and fickle for most of the time we were there. A Code 0 and a small self tacking jib for upwind work would be the bee’s knees!

    1. Glad you found it helpful, Bill! We have the same situation with our asymmetric, and will love adding a CCZ when it fits into our budget …someday! Let us know if Jamie can help you with one for Wanderer.

  9. Sailmaker, (and of course the rest of the Totem Crew)

    My wife and I are in the prep stages for our cruising adventure. We have the boat and are working to get it and ourselves ready for some extended cruising. For us that’s pretty open ended, we’ll likely start small with the US East Coast – Bahamas – Caribbean and then if all goes well like the idea of Panama and the Pacific…and beyond.

    Which brings me to my real question here. We currently own a 1999 Island Packet 40 which is in great shape, but is in need of some new sails. We’ll likely go with Mack Sails for the new furling Jib, staysail/stormsail (heavy duty), and main. All 3 are furling (main is in mast) for better or worse that’s what we have. We’re leaning towards a 110% for the jib/genoa and then a small heavy built staysail for heavy weather use only and then of course a new main. These are all in need and we want good quality and long lasting/durable options. The concern is that given a 110% headsail and our very cruising focused boat (heavy) we know from our previous offshore work, bringing the boat from Maryland to Texas, that we really need some good light wind sail options. I’ve been reading up on CCZ sails and enjoyed this article, along with most of the other ones…please keep up the great work.

    But I’m curious, given a few of your comments I’ve read on CF, what kind of light/down wind sail would you recommend for something like an IP40. For a cruising couple in their 30s/40s, for…let’s just say extended tradewinds sailing?

    My apologies for the length of this message. I really am long winded?


    1. Hi Erin- the sailmaker’s response got waaaaayyyy too long for a comment, so Jamie’s sent you an email. Thanks for reaching out, and hope his feedback is helpful for you!

      1. Thanks Behan,

        Haven’t seen an email yet but will keep an eye out for it.

        Thanks again and please keep you’re excellent blog and facebook page going. We love following along with y’all as we prep for our own cruising.

        Thanks again,

        1. Hi, I’m working through a similar situation with our IP380. Do you happen to still have the email with recommendations? Thanks!

  10. I am pricing out Cruising Code Zero’s right now for our Meta Dalu 47. It is a 52 foot aluminum double headed cutter i.e. three head sails. The two most forward are on furlers and the staysail is hank on.

    I would like to replaced the old large heavy genoa with a Code Zero to be more or less permanently hanked on that foil with Kiwi Slides. The furlers are heavy duty Reef Rite models.

    We are looking primarily for a sail that would permit us to move in light upwind airs where now we have to motorsail.

    Here are the specs for the boat.

    I=52.0, I2=50.25, I3=49.2
    J=18.5, J2=16.75, J3=11.9

    Obviously this new sail will need good UV protection since it will remain on the foil a good bit of the year.

    Thanks and sorry to interrupt your arrival in Comoros with this.

    Victor Raymond

    PS we are not in a hurry and won’t need the sail until March or April.

  11. Thanks for the great info. I recently lucked into a cruising Code 0 screecher without realizing what I was getting. Your article makes it sound like that is just what I was needing. Now I am anxious to finish rigging my boat to go out and try it!

    J. Allen

  12. Ahoy Totem!

    Picked you guys up from your SV Delos interviews and have subsequently recommended your book to a colleague – literally last week – so I hope that equates to some cash in the kitty.

    With some years of sailing experience – but mostly ‘on-the-job’ cruising and with no ‘kite’ experience – I found your article precise and informative. Thank heaps.

    Would love a copy of ‘that’ Sailmaker’s email if you don’t mind.

    We’re looking at a purchase in the near future to begin our odyssey; primarily focusing on a Hunter 41 DS. If you’ve got any feedback on this boat – negative or otherwise – please advise!

    The boat we’re looking at only has jib and main; ergo my interest in a setup for downwind / light conditions for extended, short-handed cruising. Purchasing such a setup is not going to be for 6 to 12 months (if at all) but happy to share the karma by assisting you guys when the time comes to purchase same.

    It sounds like a CCZ may be the ticket but if you would have a minute to provide some more detail about your recommended setup for an extended downwind run – including potential pole / rigging, mitigating roll and of course likely cost – it would be appreciated.

    Travel safe.

  13. I recently purchased a Pacific Seacraft 34 cutter rig. It has no down wind sail. I will be mostly in the Bahamas. Would you recommend an asymmetrical or CCZ?

    Thanks, Andy

  14. Hi Andy. Most likely a CCZ, but the details make the decision.

    CCZ and asymmetric aren’t very different in price, but hardware costs can make CCZ a bit expensive. Both sail types benefit from having a pole and a furler (asymmetric does fine with less expensive sock, but it does take more stowage space). A CCZ really benefits from a sprit to set forward of the pulpit. Your boat has a short sprit/anchor platform, and I suspect that extending it wouldn’t be crazy expensive but does add cost

    Sailing region: I haven’t been to the Bahamas, but will be there later this year. A regions wind angles and velocity can make 1 sail a clear choice over the other. I suspect the scattered islands of the Bahamas present a range of sailing angles that benefit CCZ over the narrower band that suits an asymmetric. I’m not sure what typical wind velocity is like there. Generally speaking, CCZ works in a bigger wind velocity range, but is heavier than asymmetric. So if conditions tend to be very light then perhaps an asymmetric is better to get the boat moving – as long as its smaller range of sailing angles isn’t too limiting.

    Drop me an email if you have more questions –

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