What sails do you need for a trouble-free transatlantic crossing? Toby Hodges sifts through the advice we gathered from 276 ARC skippers
Tradewind sailing is hard to beat. Every yacht is different, however, and each skipper likes to sail their boat their way. They’ll establish a recipe that works for them, whether that’s prioritising comfort, ease of handling, performance or, most likely on a long passage, a combination of these.
When we are family sailing our boat, we’re happiest when goosewinged in a following breeze, with mainsail and boom prevented to one side, and the genoa poled-out to the other. But while this set-up is enjoyable on daysails and short passages, I’d give things more consideration for a long downwind passage.
Where would the main chafe points be? Would it be worth investing in a second foresail to fly twin headsails and avoid the need for the mainsail and risk of an accidental gybe? What would be the easiest and safest method to reef short-handed? And what would my back-up systems be if I lost halyards, tore sails or broke a pole?
We conducted a survey with the 276 skippers who completed last year’s ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) and asked about their sails and sail handling systems. We looked at sailcloth, handling/furling methods, which sails they used or had bought for the crossing, what they flew at night and how that affected watch systems, and any breakages and repairs they had.
We wanted to know which set-ups worked best, and why.
Tried and tested
If the tradewinds establish themselves properly – which they did last year – it means sailing deep downwind angles. If you choose to sail the angles, you’ll add hundreds of miles to the rhumb line distance. With a stable following breeze, there is little need to use anything other than white sails on cruising yachts. It’s no surprise, therefore, to see twin headsails or a poled-out genoa coming out as the most popular options in our survey by a majority.
Many fly a spinnaker during the ARC, and enjoy some spirited sailing, but a squall, trouble with the snuff/drop or a tear in the cloth may mean that the sail is quickly relegated to the bottom of the sail locker. However, modern snuffers and furling technology are helping to make spinnakers much easier for smaller crews to manage.
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Despite most yachts carrying a spinnaker or offwind sail, over 60 skippers commented that using a poled-out foresail was the most effective downwind option, with twin headsails proving the next most popular. For those with non-overlapping headsails, carrying a larger genoa or a furling reaching sail such as a Code 0 that can be poled-out or flown as twin headsails is recommended.
“A poled genoa and reefed main is the most flexible and safe arrangement,” says the crew of the Beneteau Oceanis 473 Heaven 47, adding that a pole is a “must have – to protect sanity from a collapsing genoa”.
The Oyster 485 Talisman sailed for 15 days with a reefed main and poled-out genoa and for four days under an asymmetric. They report that their poled-out headsail worked particularly well, especially when balanced by a staysail, but advise: “Plan gybes with the pole – you must take time to furl in and not try to force the sail across.”
Jonus Edlund sails his Hallberg-Rassy 48 MkII, Sally, with his wife (and, for the ARC, their son too). He says reaching with main and genoa offered the most comfort, but that the poled-out genoa and main gave them best speed.
They found their 150m2 gennaker hard to snuff in more than 15 knots and that it collapsed around the forestay in rolly conditions. So they settled on a wing-and-wing set-up for most of the crossing using the in-mast mainsail and furling genoa poled-out.
In 6-20 knots of following wind, they would furl the genoa slightly so it didn’t flog when the boat rolled and, in 20-30 knots, they could keep it poled-out but reefed.
“We have an extra pair of genoa sheets that run through aft blocks, which makes it easier to change the genoa between the poled position and reaching,” Edlund explains. “The pole is stored with the forward point fixed to the deck and the forward and aft guys ready to set, so it can be all be done by one person.”
Using a traditional-style twin headsail system is nearly foolproof when there is a sufficiently stable following breeze. Whether they are using twin headsails or genoa and Code sail, skippers commented about how easy they are to reef and handle by all crew abilities.
“Twin headsails because they’re fast, easy to reef, and allow for one crew only on watch,” was the conclusion aboard Hanse 588 Y Knot I.
A second genoa was purchased for the ARC for the Lagoon 450 Hawkeye, which spent all 20 days of the crossing under twin headsails. It worked so well their skipper’s only regret was not experimenting more.
Equally, the crew on Lagoon 380 Blue Tattoo loved the easy gybe, easy furl ability of twin headsails (they did not set a mainsail), but said they would add a large Code 0 to their inventory for downwind sailing.
The skipper of Cara of Bute, a Contest 44CS, favoured twin headsails, both poled-out. “You need nine lines but once set up it’s great – very easy to reef.” He added, however, that it’s not easy to gybe without two on deck.
Summerwinds of Cuan, a Moody 419, purchased a 100% genoa to use with their existing twin foils and an asymmetric spinnaker, and chose to spend all 21 days under twin headsails.
The short-handed crew comments: “This system is very easy for one person to reef alone. We tried it with the mainsail with three reefs pulled tight – it worked well in big seas (5m) but hindered [the foresails] in normal 2-3m seas.”
Combinations and night watches
Sail selection and sail handling is dependent on boat type, crew experience and number, and conditions. The trick is mixing the sail combinations “as required to maintain boat speed and to reduce the effect of the swell,” says the skipper of Kathryn Del Fuego, a Hallberg-Rassy 46.
Dan Bower, author of our Bluewater Sailing Series, explains that they flew only white sails at night aboard their Skye 51 Skyelark of London, and chose to broad reach if the breeze was light.
“Less sails doesn’t always mean less speed,” he advises, adding that they also only fly their symmetric spinnaker in winds under 16 knots. Bower also finds that using a staysail with the poled-out genoa is useful as a “gybe guide for hand steering”.
The “perfect combination” for the RM1200 Cadences, which carried a Code 0, asymmetric and symmetric kites, was to use “spinnaker and main during the day and twin headsail/no main at night.”
Those aboard Emily Morgan, a Bowman 57, also recommended this as a “simple and robust” routine. Night sailing typically demands more prudence.
“Twin headsails during the day; white sails/staysail at night”, offers the skipper of Jeanneau 57 Octanes Memoires. A Wingaker (a spinnaker with a vent) was purchased for the crossing aboard Great Circle, a Lagoon 52S, and when night sailing a back-up watch would sleep in the saloon if this sail was being used.
A specialist sail such as a Parasailor/Wingaker or twin headsails that can butterfly open have long been favourites of ARC skippers. In recent years, Elvstrom and North Sails have created their own takes on the traditional twins system – essentially two free-flying furling headsails that join at the luff.
The Blue Water Runner was the first of these new symmetric twin furling sails, which Elvstrom brought out three years ago, and it certainly proved one of the big successes of the 2019 crossing.
This is a running sail when flown as twins or can be a reaching genoa when the sails are set conventionally. The nine skippers who purchased a set for the crossing all reported how well they thought it worked.
“My wife and I double-handed with this sail and like it so much that we have a spare one aboard,” says Giorgio Aru from the Hallberg-Rassy 48 MkII Jan. “It takes us about half an hour to set the sail, but takes only one minute to close it in a blow, just pulling an infinite line – safe and fast.”
The Catana 42 Double Vision describes it as a “brilliant sail”. Despite already having a Parasailor from their previous crossing in 2016, they had less-experienced crewmembers last year so the Blue Water Runner “made watches easier and possible for everyone to sleep”. After 15 days sailing with this system, they found it ideal over 14 knots wind but advise not to use it in squalls.
Other skippers also cautioned against using twin sails in squalls, but many commented that, if they were doing the crossing again, they would choose a Blue Water Runner.
“Twin headsails are safe, but slow,” says the skipper of Neel 51 La Linea. “The Parasailor works perfectly.” Parasailors have long proved popular with ARC participants.
The skipper of Neel 51 San perhaps had the largest collection of coloured sails, including three different sized Parasailors and two asymmetrics. Birte and Mathias Wagner sailed double-handed for 12 days under Parasailors. On their blog, Mathias has produced a helpful report about his set-up including deck leads, stowage, usage, trimming and chafe.
The Wagners were one of 23 rally crews sailing with only two adults (couples crossing either double-handed or with children under 16). Being able to adjust sail trim without calling on other crew is vital to a successful watch system.
Despite having an asymmetric spinnaker aboard, the skipper of Bavaria Ocean 38 Cross Ocean elected to sail mostly with a double-reefed mainsail and poled-out genoa. But they often only used the genoa, explaining that it was “tough to hoist the mainsail in the sea state.” If doing the crossing again, they’d consider buying a furling Code 0.
Aboard the Ovni 435 Nauplios they carried a cruising chute and snuffer but relied on white sails. “We planned not to use the main, just the staysail/poled jib, but discovered we did need to use the main for balance and speed.” It’s a system they wouldn’t change if doing the crossing again.
The Haglunds aboard Aliara, a Malo 36, sailing double-handed, meanwhile swore by sailing with a reefed main and poled-out genoa and stuck with it for the full 16 days. They believe that reefing early and in daylight helped prevent any sail damage.
Downwind under spinnaker
A surprisingly small proportion of our survey respondents (around 15 skippers) rated spinnakers as the most valuable downwind sails, and they were mostly skippers of larger yachts, or those with large crews, including a Swan 82 and an X612, or high performance yachts such as a Pogo 12.50 and a JP54.
Those skippers advise using spinnakers with caution, and counsel the need to reef early, trim vigilantly and douse safely before conditions get lively.
Ross Applebey always drives his Oyster Lightwave 48, Scarlet Oyster, hard with his full charter crew – and 2019 was his third consecutive year of winning the ARC racing division. He finds the boat very manageable under 25 knots with a big spinnaker and main and sailed like that for two weeks, including at night, only opting for twin jibs if it was squally.
“We are constantly ready to get the spinnaker down, by means of an envelope drop,” Applebey explains. “With four plus on deck at all times we can have the spinnaker doused inside 30 seconds.”
Idefix, a Lagoon 450S, has a modern set-up, which includes a Code 0 on a furler and an asymmetric on a snuffer, and the crew found the Code sail easier to furl quickly when squalls approached. They settled on a main with two reefs and the Code 0 flown wing-and-wing when the breeze was over 20 knots.
Downwind on multihulls
With two (or three) bows from which to set a headsail, multihulls are well suited to flying a variety of downwind sails. Julian Ronnie, the skipper of Catana 47 Domini, quickly found that using his genoa with the screecher (a large, furling, high-clewed sail) worked well, and stuck with that for 13 days. “We figured out setting the screecher to windward and genoa to leeward worked better than the other way round, which surprised us,” he comments.
While a Code 0 and jib flown wing-and-wing worked best on the Lagoon 450F Opus One, the favoured downwind combination aboard the Fountaine Pajot Saona 47 Brizo was either flying a gennaker with a double-reefed main or goosewinged using a single reefed main and genoa. However, after 15 days sailing with white sails and no pole, the skipper admits he would have liked a symmetric spinnaker for running deeper downwind.
“Most catamarans that sail dead downwind use a symmetric spinnaker only, without the mainsail and without a spinnaker pole,” says Robbert Verboon, who owns Saona 47 Eight.
“As a racing sailor, it feels odd to sail this way. I tried the spinnaker with the mainsail up but at 170° True the spinnaker gets very unstable. So I added a spinnaker pole, which allows me to keep the mainsail up, generating more speed and allowing me to douse the spinnaker behind the mainsail.” Verboon had experienced hands aboard with him and they used a variety of offwind sails and experimented with other set-ups including three-sail running (see picture, above).
Breakages and repairs
Sail breakages are commonplace on the crossing – 158 skippers said they experienced sail or running rigging damage – so it’s important to plan a back-up system or a means to repair a breakage.
Most sail repairs involved tape, patches and stitching, so taking suitable materials, glues and a sewing kit is essential. After a long repair to their kite with fishing line, duct tape, sail repair kit and a roll of Dacron sail tape, the crew of the Bali 4.1 View Finder were one of many who wished they’d carried a heavier weight spinnaker.
There were also many broken halyards and pole breakages, including aboard the Jeanneau SO54DS Scilla, where an angle grinder was used to cut the pole before using rivets to join it back together.
The crew of Oyster 575 Janus were frustrated when they broke their whisker pole just two days into the crossing, as this prevented them using their downwind sails. Those aboard Bianco, a Dufour 520GL, didn’t have a pole for the asymmetric or genoa so, inventively, made one out of wood. It lasted 11 days.
Many breakages were not repairable, including a tear in the woven polyester main on the Beneteau First 47.7 EHO1.
Marco Thyssen, now in Tahiti on the World ARC aboard his Hallberg-Rassy 53 Ngahue IV, has seen his membrane sails suffer from severe delamination after just three years and his view is that a high-tech membrane sail is not suitable for bluewater sailing.
While the sailmaker has provided replacements, Thyssen says his local salesman “should never have recommended this type of sail for a circumnavigation – a good Hydranet sail would have been around 35% cheaper and much less hassle.”
Case study: Family lessons learned
The Frarys bought their Catana 65 just in time for the ARC 2019. Steve Frary, his wife and two children had spent the previous 18 months living on a Herreshoff ketch in the Caribbean and “transitioned to Libeccio for the longer passages of the World ARC,” he explains.
Despite the favourable weather conditions, they had a number of equipment failures and broke both the mainsail and spinnaker during the crossing. Steve shares some lessons learned, including:
- Make a complete inspection of all key rigging including reefing lines and exposed gear on the rig that could catch the spinnaker.
- Sail downwind angles rather than focussing on the rhumb line to minimise gybes.
- Slow all sail manoeuvres down and go one step at a time, with lots of communication.
- Beware the electric winch: it’s easy to put too much load on halyards, sheets and reef lines. Go slow.
First published in the August 2020 edition of Yachting World.