Cruisers should care about performance sailing


There’s a problem: many cruisers think that sailing performance isn’t important. Hey, cruising is about slowing down, right?! But dismissing performance is poor seamanship. After some years of listening to cruisers disregard performance and gripe about slow passages, it dawned on me that confusion is to blame.

Our good friend William demonstrated this last year during a fun race in Madagascar. William is a good sailor with much blue water cruising experience. He doesn’t race, but his competitive side, or maybe his social side, was piqued by party and prizes to follow the competition. With his racing cap on he chose a bold spinnaker start while single-handing. It didn’t go well. The gun cracked and his spinnaker tangled, slipped, and dipped…he did not have a good race. On passage William is slow and deliberate when setting a spinnaker, a pace that isn’t very racer-like but ends with a performance boost. Had he stuck with this instead of confusing performance and racing, he would’ve had more to celebrate at the party.

To clarify this issue, let’s forget all about performance; and instead, talk about “efficient sailing.” A rabbit in a bunny suit is still a rabbit, so what’s the point? Comfort and safety come with avoiding or minimizing bad weather, and stress comes from contemplating a three day passage when weather windows only last for two days. Efficient sailing is getting from A to B with minimal effort. What could be more appealing to a cruiser than minimal effort!

Making landfall in Comoros, Indian Ocean
Making landfall in Comoros, Indian Ocean

Sail trim

Racing sailors are pedantic about sail trim. Constant adjustments can yield subtle gains that show when measuring against competitors. We’re not interested in subtle gains. Reasonable sail trim takes no more time than bad sail trim, but yields better speed with less wear and tear to sails.

For example, when reaching and running, a boom vang locks the boom from lifting and dropping due to changing wind pressure on the mainsail. This may seem insignificant, but not using a vang slows you down and will cost you money in repairing a mainsail chafed by rubbing against rigging.

Another example is headsail trim. Sheet blocks are often set for reasonable trim going upwind, which fine, except that most of the time cruisers aren’t sailing upwind. When using an upwind sheeting point for reaching and running, the upper portion of a headsail twists to leeward, spilling wind causing the upper leech to flap. A barber hauler is an easy way to trim the headsail correctly for broader wind angles. This gives a considerable boat speed boost that can be 10 miles and more per day.

Both barber hauler and sheet are used for max efficiency at the wind angle

Sail handling

Racing sailors are well practiced at sail handling for fast transitions. Fast is usually not important or practical for short-handed cruisers, like our friend above. Efficient sail handling from a well setup boat, practice, and good crew communication reduces crew risks and equipment breakages.

Step one is setting up the boat to make sail handling easier. Cruising boats are usually reasonably well set up, but it takes time on the water to learn what works well and what needs improvement. Friction causes the most trouble. Friction makes you weak, and swear like a sailor. I installed a Harken furling system for cruising friends in Singapore. The next day they had words with me because furling was harder than ever. I went back to their boat and tested each furling line guide blocks. Only one of them actually turned, and the rest were easily fixed with fresh water and silicone spray.

Keep winches, blocks, and sheaves in good order. Watch for line chafe and metal fatigue. And give thought to unplanned sail handling events – they happen. When Totem was ghosting along the Pacific ITCZ, the heavy duty stainless steel pad eye securing the mainsheet to the boom sheared off. The part was less than a year old, and failed from slatting force. By chance, I had installed a webbing strop around the boom just in case such a thing happened. The mainsheet was reattached in just a couple minutes.

Pacific, between Mexico and Marquesas. Bonus squall. Rather undesirable twist in the mainsheet….

Step two of efficient sail handling is matching sails to the conditions. This may seem obvious, but it’s common to see people raise the anchor and hoist full sails; then outside of the protected anchorage, bigger wind hits and they scramble to reef the main. This is almost like sport in the eastern Caribbean this spring watching boats poke out from the lee and into the channel between islands. Start the day with a weather forecast and a few moments of observation before getting underway, and don’t forget the impact of geography.

Once underway, reducing sail area is all about observation and timing. In 20 knots of true wind, I can reef our mainsail on my own in 2 minutes –less if more motivated by approaching squall. In 30 knots it takes at least twice as long. Monitoring wind speed and watching for obvious changes (like squalls) and subtle changes (such as increasing gusts) gives you time to adjust sails when it’s still easy.

Approaching the South African coast last November, we expected landfall 6 to 12 hours ahead of forecasted bad weather. With 20 miles remaining of the 1,000 mile trip, we were sailing in gentle conditions with a perfect sunrise, and feeling good. Then I looked up. Above a thin layer of clouds going our way, clouds whipped along in the opposite direction. Bad news: the southerly buster came early! Engine on, we prepared for strong headwinds. At 7 miles to go, wind was 25 to 30 knots on the nose and against the strong Aghulas current. Waves piled up with no gap between them, and our speed dropped under two knots bashing into them. It was a tedious few hours getting in, but each additional hour out there would have been worse.

This post was contributed by Jamie, who shares his more technical sailing experience from time to time. It’s really two legs on a three-legged stool, because routing is as important to efficient passagemaking as sail trim and sail handling…that post will have to come later.

8 Responses

  1. Always great to hear your sail advice Jamie. I feel there is a book in you – sails & sail trim for cruisers! It’s time.

  2. Good article. I always enjoy Jamie’s contributions to this blog. Question. How do you have your boom preventer rigged? The easy solution I am tempted with is to simply attach a block to the toerail up forward and bring the line back to the unused windward winch. I am concerned however that the aluminum toerail may not be strong enough in a bad backed main situation. The backing on the individual bolts is not all that big and I would hate to separate the rail from the deck.

    1. Hi Greg – my preferred method, and the one we use on Totem is the one you describe. To attach the block to the toe rail, I use a loop spliced from 6mm Dyneema. An end of the loop passes through the toe rail, then goes forward (or aft) and passes back through the toe rail again. Then attach the block shackle to the two ends, or better yet is to form a ring hitch from the two ends, then attach the block. The point is that the Dyneema loop is secured across a bigger area (2 toe rail holes instead of just one) to distribute the load. This setup has withstood considerable load without issue.

      I’ll also add that the best setup is to secure a Dyneema line to the aft end of the boom and run it forward to just short of the boom vang – ending it with an eye splice. When not using the preventer, secure tightly so it doesn’t droop below the boom. Then when you want to use the preventer – presumably the boom is out, but the eye splice on this line is easy to reach because it’s secured at the vang (so you don’t have to lean out over the water). Then just tie the deck led line (Polyester, so has some stretch) to the Dyneema eye splice, and tighten the other end at the winch. And when not underway, the Dyneema end of the preventer is perfect to secure the end of the boom from movement that with wear on the gooseneck over time. Hope this all makes sense – sometimes hard to write out understandable description of the simplest things.

  3. Good article. I agree that a vang is necessary. On Velic we use a simple 4:1 block & tackle vang that snaps to a strong padeye on the rail, moving port or starboard as required. The simplicity is unbeatable, and it also acts as an ersatz preventer. Speed of adjusting the vang, while critical when racing, isn’t so when cruising. We’re not jibing or tacking every few minutes, after all. This also leaves space under the boom for the dinghy, keeping the foredeck clear for sail handling. For a proper preventer, I use a 5/16″ length of nylon with eye splices in both ends, about 3/4 length of boom so that forward end can be reached on deck. In use, one eye is looped around the end boom bail (luggage or ring hitch), and the unused lee-side foreguy clips into the forward eye. Thus the preventer is adjustable from the cockpit, and has a bit of stretch. But a preventer does not replace a vang.

  4. Hi Randy – all good points. I just want to add that vang purchase is relative to mainsail area. When we got Totem, it was a 4:1 purchase – and totally unusable (“E” = mainsail foot = 18′). I changed it to cascading vang by adding a 2:1 purchase above the 4:1 – thus becoming 8:1. Better, but it was still inadequate so added another level of 2:1 cascade, doubling purchase to 16:1. And this works very well. I do see many bigger boats with 4:1 which may stop the boom from lifting, but cannot possibly add enough purchase to pull the boom down except in light air. It’s a simple system and without the big cost of rigid boom vang. I do prefer that the vang base is attached to the mast (ours is attached to a Dyneema loop around the mast), simply because you don’t have to go forward to setup/remove (in the middle of the night in rough conditions etc.).

  5. As stated above, I also like when Jamie contributes to the blog with his knowledge. For me, I can’t help but to constantly monitor the sail trim and note wind direction, etc as I love to see how fast I can get the boat going in the current conditions. That is of course until one of the AC boats decide to pass me like I’m standing still, which kinda takes the wind out of your sail. 🙂

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