New sails for voyaging

New sails can be one of the largest single expenses in the life of a cruising sailboat. As a boat owner, you have myriad sources for new sails, including local sail lofts, online sailmakers, and multi-national companies. You’ll also have to choose the type of sail material, construction technique, shape and size, as well as other design features. Like all things sailing, rarely does one best solution exist for upgrading sails. The following is an interview with three different actively cruising sailboats and their recent experiences with buying new sails.

New headsails from North on John and Tadji Kretschmer’s Kaufman 47 Quetzal.

How did you know it was time for new sails? Tell me a little bit about your old sails: how long have you had them?
Sargo: We are the third owners of our Garcia Passoa 46, Sargo. The boat came with two separate sets of main and genoa, all of which were laminates and approximately 15 years old. One set was from North Sails that had been used as the primary sails for the prior 10 years. The others were Zaoli, an Italian loft. It was unclear how much they had been sailed. We sailed for a season with the Norths and noted some minor delamination and poor sail shape. The next year, we put on the Zaolis thinking they would be in better condition as we set out for full-time cruising. The Zaolis had a bit better shape but began to delaminate quickly. After approximately a year of sailing from Maine to the Caribbean and back, we knew it was time for new sails. 

Quetzal: I am not an obsessive person at all… except when it comes to sails. We do a lot of miles every year, and I replace sails every three years, which translates into every 20,000-25,000 miles. The signs of fatigue are lack of overall crispness, leech stretch, lousy shape, small tears popping up, and the boat slowing down.

Ventus: I purchased the boat three years ago with Quantum Technora sails (performance cruising laminate, with a protective taffeta layer). The sails were already six or seven years old but appeared to be in pretty good condition. This past year, I was having to make repairs with increasing frequency, and water had infiltrated the covering layers, leading to mildew. The sails were clearly beyond their useful life, and I didn’t trust them to stay together in heavier winds. I guess the definitive moment was receiving my mainsail back from a repair with the sailmaker’s recommendation of “don’t gybe in any heavy winds.”

Tell us about your boat, cruising style, and sailing geography.

Sargo: Sargo is a performance cruiser, built for comfort and safety offshore and set up for long-term cruising. Her deck layout and hardware is race-based. For example, we are Solent-rigged, but also have two spinnaker halyards and a spare jib halyard. Jib and genoa tracks are fully adjustable, and there are nine cockpit winches. We regularly use our large poled-out symmetrical spinnaker or a screecher that is on a bottom-up furler off the bowsprit. We are full-time liveaboards with our two children aged 11 and 13. We have spent two summers in Maine, transited the East coast to Florida three times mostly offshore, and spent a season in the Caribbean. We are presently in the Bahamas making plans to do an Atlantic crossing in the spring to explore Europe. During the last 18 months, we have sailed more than 8,000 nm. We are currently planning to cross the Atlantic from Florida to Portugal in the spring/summer of 2021.

Quetzal: Quetzal is a Kaufman 47 “slutter” – somewhere between a sloop and cutter, but most offshore sailing is done with the staysail. She was designed as a performance cruiser but has evolved more into a cruiser that still performs pretty well. She’s one of the most well-traveled boats out there. Since 2003, we’ve never sailed less than 5,000 miles in a year and as many as 15,000. We have somewhere around 150,000 miles under the keel; in truth I’ve lost track. She’s made eight transatlantic crossings and many challenging north-to-south passages. We mix cruising with our business of conducting offshore training passages. Our sails take a beating year after year.

Ventus: Ventus is a 2003 J/42 J-Boat. She’s a light, performance cruiser — J-Boat racing genetics and a cruising interior. The rig and deck layout are simple and uncluttered but “racey,” having slightly swept spreaders, two spinnaker halyards, a spare jib halyard, adjustable jib cars, and end-boom sheeting. There’s not as much interior volume or storage as in a more traditional cruiser, and end-boom sheeting means no full cockpit enclosure. Already an easy boat to short-hand, I’ve made some tweaks, such as rigging two-line reefing and installing locking foot blocks so I can repurpose the mainsheet winches. I’m a full-time cruiser, currently single-handing, and I bring experienced sailing friends along for any trip of more than 24 hours. To date, I’ve been ranging between The Bahamas and Nova Scotia. COVID curtailed my plans to cruise Newfoundland in 2020, but I plan to get up there in 2021, before crossing the Atlantic in the spring of 2022 to cruise Northern Europe. 

What different sources for new sails did you consider? And how did you ultimately choose the source you used?

Sargo: We looked at a local Maine loft, North Sails, and Zoom Sails. We ultimately got our sails from Zoom. Jamie Gifford of SV Totem provided great advice and support throughout the process. Jamie is a full-time liveaboard, experienced rigger, and sailmaker. We spoke to multiple other cruisers who had Zoom sails and were pleased with their experience. Zoom Sails’ design and build quality has a great reputation, and the cost for the sails was significantly lower than other quotes.

Quetzal: I am extremely fortunate to have a great working relationship with my sailmakers. I have been working with Peter Grimm, North Sails, Fort Lauderdale, for more than 20 years. He’s a great sailor, legendary really, and a dear friend. Together with his partner, Bob Meagher, they’ve designed and built sails that have kept Quetzal moving at a relentless pace. I have complete confidence in their recommendations and products.

Ventus: I discussed design and received bids from a local Maine loft, North Sails, and Precision Sails, eventually going with Precision. A member of the J/4x owners group had used them with good results, and I liked the design and build process as they described it to me. It was a decision I struggled with, wanting to work with a small, independent loft that was highly recommended by trusted sources. Eventually, I felt that I’d get the same materials and acceptable quality design and build for my purposes at a significantly lower cost with Precision.

Tell me about the process of ordering the new sails.

Sargo: Our process was very smooth with excellent and timely communication from Zoom. We gave basic specifications and measurements for the sails, then received quotes for different sail materials and designs (Dacron vs Hydranet, Panel vs Radial). We talked over the advantages/disadvantages to the different options with Zoom, then chose to go ahead with a Tri-Radial Hydra-Net design. We then discussed what we like/don’t like and want to modify with our old sails. Other discussion points included: intended use and sailing style, battens, batten pockets, cars, sail hardware, Sunbrella UV covers, and Tenora stitching.

Zoom then sent us detailed and clear instructions on taking our own measurements. This was the most nerve-wracking part of the process. We took photos of every measurement and measured everything at least twice. Zoom helped where needed and asked for clarification on several of the measurements after they had received and reviewed our numbers. Once the sails had been designed, we did a final review and confirmation of the materials, hardware, and specs. I wanted to match our Antal hardware and use a specific clew-ring from our old sails. Zoom let me send in our sail hardware to their loft for the new build, which also saved us about $500. 

Quetzal: This is easy for me because Peter and Bob know Quetzal well. But interestingly enough, we never just plug in the numbers and pump out the same sails. We are always evaluating how they performed and also, and probably more importantly, what kind of sailing I am planning in the future. We talk about what I prioritize. And for me, durability comes first. I take people to sea for a living, and we make some challenging passages. My sails must be able to endure hard jibes, a bit too much flogging, not always the best helming, and frankly, that’s fine by me. I want people to learn and to be able to make mistakes. The sails just have to be tough but also well designed because I hate to sail slow.

I didn’t order a main. I probably will in a year, or maybe two at the most, and when I do it will be a two plus two main with a moderate roach. That means the top two battens, the shorter ones, are full; the lower two are partial. Why? Because I am a firm believer in reefing off the wind. Believe me –– I know how a full batten main powers up but it’s far more important to be able to easily pull a reef in without coming up in the wind. We essentially live offshore, and it isn’t practical to come up flogging and crashing into the wind every time you want to reef or take a reef out. The two plus two is a compromise that works for Quetzal.

Ventus: The design process went really well. Since this was the first time I was buying sails, I appreciated the patience and depth of detail the designer provided. We discussed what I like and do not like about my current sails, as well as my upcoming sailing plans and priorities.

What material did you choose and why?

Sargo: We went with HydraNet for multiple reasons: increased sail performance, shape, durability, UV and mildew resistance, strength, and weight – the new sails are lighter than our old laminate sails. In addition, we can do repairs with our SailRite machine if needed. The performance/material/design “fits” with Sargo’s overall level of outfitting, helping maintain vessel value.

Quetzal: I chose crosscut Dacron, North’s NorDac, for the two headsails. The sails are both 9-ounce but the genoa has a low aspect fill and the staysail a higher aspect. Crosscut paneled construction aligns lowest-stretch fill yarns with primary leech load which is exactly what I need on a training boat. Of course, I am intrigued by North’s 3DI molded sails and understand the advantages of radial cuts, but my sails are super durable, resistant to UV, chafe, and flogging. And they’re affordable. They’re also easy to repair on the fly, with sticky-back Dacron and a needle and palm. Because I replace sails often, I always have fresh sails, so performance is comparable to cooler laminate or radial sails that might be a few years older. The Gennaker, or asymmetrical spinnaker, is 1.5-ounce Norlon, North’s trade name for Nylon. It’s a G1 all-purpose design, perfect for cruising in moderate breezes, and includes a snuffer. 

Ventus: Radial cut HydraNet for a balance of durability, longevity, and performance.

What other sail features can you tell me about?

Sargo: Sargo’s mast is on the shorter side for her size at only 61 feet to the masthead. This means we can make it under ICW bridges without removing any wind instruments or antennas. With the shorter mast, we went with a larger-than-typical genoa at 140%. Interestingly, even at that size, the new genoa seems smaller than our previous one! We can sail the 140% genoa to about 20 knots apparent wind without reefing, even upwind. We chose full-length battens for main sail performance and streamlined batten pockets at the luff, which reduces any “catch” on our lazy jacks when raising or hoisting. Our new jib and genoa are both tri-radial cut – which is more expensive to build, but creates a flatter, faster and more durable sail. We went with a full batten main for improved performance and sail shape. John aboard Quetzal makes an interesting point about his two-full, two-partial batten compromise, however, we’ve been able to reef our full batten main without heading into the wind in offshore conditions.

Quetzal: Over the years, I have made the furling headsail smaller. I have finally settled at 120%, which I have found to be about the sweet spot for offshore sailing. It’s big enough to provide horsepower in light-to-moderate breezes, even on a deep reach, and small enough to not need to be furled in 15 to 20 knots. It’s high cut, which provides good visibility and fewer lead adjustments. North uses an efficient rope system on the luff, the RopeLuff pad. As the sail rolls, the deepest part of the draft moves forward. The rope adds bulk to the diameter of the roll, pulling more sail forward from the middle than at the top and bottom, flattening the shape when reefed, and making it more efficient. It works better than the foam luffs.

We put a lot of thought into the staysail. We added about 15% more sail area and included an adjustable tack line. I wanted more performance upwind in heavy air. We often go looking for winds; our heavy weather passages are our most popular. I want to be able to carry on happily in 30 knots upwind with two reefs in the main and staysail. It’s really old school, it’s hank on but with a reef, a very clever design allowing it to be a storm jib for serious conditions without relying on a furler. That’s the point of the adjustable tack line, or jack line as Peter calls it, so that when we reef the hanks don’t stack up. I know that seems old-fashioned, or low-tech, but as Peter says, “it’s the right tech for you.” I confess, I like to work the deck, to move. I am not quite ready to be a prisoner of the cockpit.

Ventus: The most significant changes I made in the new design were a smaller, higher-cut genoa, and switching to two deep reefs on the main (I almost never used the first, small reef on my previous mainsail).

How long did the process take?

Sargo: Our whole process took approximately two months from making the decision to get new sails to the delivery of the finished sails.

Quetzal: From when I first called Peter to the time the sails turned up in the US Virgin Islands was about 10 weeks. However, from when I actually placed the order, it was closer to seven weeks.

Ventus: I spent about two weeks working with the designer to define and review all the details and to take and deliver extensive measurements. The extended timeline was almost entirely due to my digging into details and taking time to make decisions. Being my first time through the process, I took much more time than I’ll need for future design conversations. I had some long, detailed conversations with the designer and learned a lot about sailmaking.

About three months later, I’m still waiting for my sails. There was a mix-up with my order, and being the holiday season during a global pandemic, timelines quickly stretched beyond what was reasonable. Once I began working with the owner, Darryl, he accepted full accountability for the delay. It’s been a frustrating ordeal, but I appreciate Darryl taking extraordinary steps to get me back out sailing, and I still feel good about the company. Precision adapted my design to expedite a set of cross-cut Dacron sails that I’m using until they are able to get my order of HydraNet to the loft. Darryl also agreed to hold off the final build of my sails until I’ve submitted any tweaks I have to the design. It’s not a terrible outcome, since I have the unusual opportunity to trial my sail design with more experienced friends before the final set is cut.

Are you happy with your new sails? What is the biggest difference you’ve noticed?

Sargo: We have been very happy. The new sails are beautiful, the cloth appears bomb-proof but is light, construction is excellent, and the fit on the boat is good. I am very impressed with the sail shape, and we were amazed at the performance difference. We could only sail at an AWA of 50 degrees with our old genoa. We can now carry the Genoa to 35 degrees AWA (!!!) and our boat speed is improved. The racer in me is very happy!

Quetzal: I am delighted. Nothing breathes new life into an old boat like new sails! I love the new staysail and am still waiting to test it in strong winds. The Gennaker is beautiful and has a wide steering groove just as advertised. We are shoving off in a few weeks to sail across the Caribbean and back, and we will put the sails to the test.

Ventus: I cannot yet speak to the final product. There was a mix-up with my order, delaying shipment until well after I would be off cruising. Precision delivered a set of cross-cut Dacron sails for me to use in the interim. On the upside, I’m able to submit tweaks to the final design before giving Precision the go-ahead to build and deliver the HydraNet sails.

These experiences highlight different options and approaches to cruising sails. There are advantages to purchasing sails through someone who knows your boat and cruising style, goals and budget. If possible, it’s helpful to spend some time sailing whatever sails you have. The more you know about your sailing style, the better your decisions.

As John Kretchmer says, “nothing breathes new life into an old boat like new sails.” 

Jayme Okma Lee and her family are full-time cruisers. They are currently in the Abacos, Bahamas, on their 46-foot Garcia Passoa and hope to cross the Atlantic this summer.

By Ocean Navigator