Storm-Sail Choices

Before about 15 years ago, when roller furling had not yet spread to the average voyaging boat, offshore sailors equipped their boats with a storm trysail and storm jib. These sails were bent on when conditions at sea required the reduction of sail beyond the limits of the working sails’ deepest reefs.

The mainsail was lashed securely to the boom and the jib removed from the stay and stored belowdecks. The luff of the storm trysail — an overstitched, multi-ply, bomb-proof sail the size of a large handkerchief — was fitted into a separate track on the mast; the main halyard was removed from the working mainsail and shackled to the head of the trysail, and if conditions were really miserable, the sail was sheeted to windward to reduce speed and prevent tripping over the tops of waves. On the bow, a tiny storm jib, similarly built, was hanked to the jibstay or inner forestay and raised with the jib or foresail halyard. The boat, its sails balanced, would then ride the waves like a duck, the crew hunkered down, waiting for the worst to pass or steering gradually away from the storm’s center. A day or two later, the winds would ease, the storm sails were removed, and the boat was got underway again by its battered, but otherwise unharmed, crew.

Much has changed in the last decade and a half. Boat design has developed to the point that offshore voyagers can now attempt to outrun even fast-moving storms by carefully monitoring weather information via satellite in real time. These boats, capable of speeds far greater than 10 knots, are kept moving, their crew reducing sail only to the point that the boats are not overpowered. If you know where the storms are, the thinking goes, you avoid the worst of their fury, adjusting your course to whisk you on your way.

One of the most vocal proponents of this type of voyage planning is Steve Dashew, developer of the sled-like Sundeer line of yachts and owner of several narrow, elongated boats with high-aspect rigs that he has taken around the world. His series of books (written with his wife, Linda Dashew), from Surviving the Storm to the Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia to Practical Seamanship, all espouse this go-fast approach, which embraces technology for enhanced communication, weather information and high-tech sail-handling.

But the traditionalists, Lyn and Larry Pardey, for example, argue that sooner or later, if you spend enough time at sea, you will be sacked by a storm and your lightweight boat smashed to oblivion, regardless of how fast it is and how informed you are about the storm’s whereabouts. Each of their books, including the ever-popular Storm Tactics Handbook, cautions against relying too much on technology. They, too, have circumnavigated the earth several times on their deep-draft cutters, designed by the late Lyle Hess, that are based on 19th-century British pilot cutters, and they claim their experiences support their beliefs. They are proponents of heaving a boat to, deploying a sea anchor in survival conditions, and waiting out the worst of storms until it is safe to continue.

What’s in between

Dan Neri, author of the recently released Sail Care & Repair (see the review on page 15), has been making racing and cruising sails since 1980 and is currently director of development and head of cruising sails for North Sails in Portsmouth, R.I. Neri said that in the last year and a half he has developed a two-halyard storm jib that uses the traditional approach — a hanked-on jib — with modern materials, including a high-modulus halyard/stay combination made of 12-plait Spectra- or Dyneema-core line, such as Samson’s AmSteel-Blue.

“We build a storm jib or storm staysail with a high-modulus luff rope and hanks,” Neri explained. “Then we make a ‘stay’ out of AmSteel-Blue with a long splice in both ends and a shackle at the bottom. The jib is hanked to the stay, and the jib and stay are stored together. When storm conditions are approaching, the stay is shackled to a pad eye on the foredeck aft of the roller-furler headstay. The stay is then hoisted and tensioned with the first halyard. The jib is hoisted with the second halyard. For this to work, you need two halyards at the same height on the mast. Ideally, the halyards are in the position where an inner stay would be otherwise, typically at the top spreader on a two- or three-spreader rig.”

Neri explained that the potential sagging of the luff of the sail in heavy winds is minimized by having two exceedingly tight halyards &mdash of unstretchable material &mdash and the minimal size of the storm jib. “Eight years ago, halyards simply weren’t strong enough to withstand this kind of tension, and they would also just chafe away,” he added. When not in use, the halyards are secured at the base of the mast. Neri said he’s not the first person to develop the system; he credits racer Steve Pettengill with being the first to introduce to the U.S. sailing community the concept of a high-modulus soft stay aboard his BOC boat Hunter’s Child.

Neri installed his first such system last year on Hawk, a custom aluminum design built for circumnavigators Evans Starzinger and Beth Leonard. He has since built seven other two-halyard, storm-jib systems in the last year and a half, he said, and expects to continue at a growing rate in the coming years.

Another approach to the modern storm-jib concept is ATN’s Gale Sail, a storm jib that incorporates a flap of cloth that wraps over the rolled jib like a tortilla. Advantages to the Gale Sail include the peace of mind gained in knowing that the roller jib will not become unfurled &mdash it can’t because of the sleeve &mdash and not having to remove the working jib in the first place.

Neri questions the value of storm trysails in this day of laminated, ultralight sailcloth. He still builds a fair number of trysails each year when a customer specifically requests one. Despite the availability of Spectra and Kevlar cloth, he maintains that good old Dacron is still the ideal storm-sail fabric. “These sails live in the bilge,” he said. “Laminated fabric will mildew and begin to delaminate as the adhesives evaporate over time. You don’t want a storm sail that’s only going to be around for five years, when the boat’s built to last 20 or 30 years, and a well-built Dacron sail will last that long, too.”

As a believer in the get-away-from-storms-before-they-get-you approach to voyaging, Neri believes a storm trysail can actually be a hindrance on a modern boat. “On a modern boat, you sail your boat to get away from the worst part of the storm. The boat’s not going to be subjected to a long period of storm conditions with that kind of boat. A storm trysail doesn’t make sense. And if you’re caught, it’s not a great time to start changing out sails anyway. It’s better to reef down hard. The only time I can see where a trysail might come in handy on this kind of boat is if the boom breaks.” (Tony Gooch, an Australian-Canadian sailor living in Victoria, British Columbia, who recently returned from a solo circumnavigation aboard his 44-foot aluminum cutter, broke his boom in a gale in the Southern Ocean. Gooch then deployed his trysail while effecting repairs to the boom. See the story on Gooch’s trip on page 7.)

Neri allowed that heavier, longer-keeled boats would employ different storm tactics. “For those kind of boats, obviously, a storm trysail makes sense; it’s a different kind of sailing,” he added.

Neri has also installed deep reefs in a boat’s working mainsail &mdash a reef that leaves the same amount of square footage of sail exposed as recommended by the Offshore Racing Council for a storm trysail &mdash such as that featured on Ellen MacArthur’s Kingfisher. Far above her two working reefs, MacArthur had a deep reef installed on her working mainsail, which, when used, left only the smallest patch of canvas exposed. The tack and clew of the reef were not fitted with steel grommets. Reef lines were passed through loops of webbing that were stitched into heavily reinforced patches. The system is lightweight, eliminates the need to change sails and transfer the halyard, minimizing the crew’s exposure time on the open deck.

The Cadillac approach

Phin and Joanna Sprague, owners of Portland Yacht Services in Portland, Maine, circumnavigated the world aboard the 72-foot Alden staysail schooner Mariah in the 1970s. With Phin’s brother Abbott, they are building another Alden staysail schooner at their yard. They expect to launch Lion’s Whelp, a full-keel cold-molded design, later this year. Phin Sprague was so impressed by the versatility of the staysail schooner rig on his previous voyages that he was convinced to replicate the design, albeit with a small measure of modern sail technology.

“Shortened down, the staysail schooner makes for a very powerful heavy-weather configuration. The staysails are the working sails of the boat. When the weather gets snotty, we can put a second reef in the main and move along well under the reduced main and the two staysails. When Joanna has finally had enough, we can then drop the main staysail and still forereach under the reduced main and forestaysail. If we need to reduce sail even further, we can drop the main and use the two staysails and set the trysail and storm jib, and at some point, we can even back the trysail to reduce headway further, even to the point of drifting sideways, leaving the boat’s own turbulence to windward,” Phin Sprague said.

With this combination, he can balance the rig and “forget about the rudder.” The center of effort is concentrated properly for the lateral resistance of the hull and sail plan, and as a consequence, the boat is directionally stable at very low hull speed without needing steerageway to maintain a stable orientation to the seas and wind. Thus with no one on the helm, the boat doesn’t “hunt around.”

He tries to keep the boat moving but not overpowered, so it will blast through the tops of waves and risk being knocked down when it loses stability, but enough to maintain headway. The long keel of the schooner will also prevent broaching in the event of being overtaken by a breaking sea, he said. “Of course, this advice is only worth anything on a long-keeled boat,” Sprague added.

Is he a traditionalist? “I drive an old American station wagon that takes the bumps well; I don’t want to wear a helmet and a mouthguard when I go sailing. If I’m looking to live on a boat that can go anywhere, I want the Cadillac ride,” Sprague said. “Maybe it’s a concession to growing older, but sailing on a modern boat with a fin keel and a nearly flat bottom in heavy weather is like riding a piledriver. Part of seaworthiness is that you need your crew to be able to function. When you’re not trying to break any records, you want the least amount of stress possible. The shape of my hull and my sail inventory supports that.”

Lion’s Whelp’s working sails were built of Dacron by Butch Ulmer of Ulmer Kolius in City Island, N.Y. Ulmer convinced Sprague to leave the main and staysails loose-footed, bent to their booms only at the clew and tack, for optimal sail shape.

His Reckmann roller jib is fitted with both a luff tape and a series of grommets along the leading edge that will be used to lace the sail to the stay, an added protection to guard against losing the sail if the luff tape fails. (This is also an ORC recommendation for roller systems.) Sprague also had several storm sails built by Richard Hallett’s loft in Falmouth, Maine, (Hallett Canvas & Sails). These sails are all of fluorescent-orange Dacron cloth &mdash so that the crew of an aircraft can spot the vessel in storm conditions.

Included in the storm inventory is a storm trysail that will be run up a separate track on the mast. The sail can be stored on deck &mdash on a crossing to northern Europe, say &mdash and lashed in place. The sail is flaked in the bag, tied inside the bag with webbing, with the head at the top so that the bronze cars can be prepositioned on the track, which leads low to the deck. When the sail is needed, the halyard is switched, the tack secured with a tag line, the sheet bent to the clew, and up she goes. Richard Hallett, an accomplished ocean racer and sailor, also believes in the benefit of storm trysails and has numerous harrowing tales to bolster his points.

The traditional approach to storm sails is still pervasive on the U.S. West Coast, perhaps because of the lack of sheltered cruising waters for serious sailors. “We build a storm trysail for almost every boat that sails offshore,” said Carol Hasse of Port Townsend Sails, in Port Townsend, Wash. Hasse said that her loft builds sails predominantly for offshore voyaging boats. At the time of the interview, the loft was building sails for numerous production and custom offshore sailing vessels, including a Hallberg-Rassy, a Hylas, and a Valiant, and each of them was equipped with trysails and an inner forestay for hanking on a storm jib.

“Having a storm trysail is a requirement in my opinion,” Hasse said. “It gets the center of effort lower and farther aft; if the boom breaks, you have a spare main, and it also reduces the wear on the mainsail.”

A ride to Iceland

Dave Martin, his wife and three children live aboard a 33-foot hard-chine steel sloop with a fin keel and skeg-hung rudder, built in France in 1981. “What Driver lacks in beauty and finesse is made up for with bulletproof reliability,” Martin said. They have sailed across the Atlantic and cruised northern Europe and the ice-choked islands of the far North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean, including Spitsbergen and Jan Mayen Island.

“Good-quality storm sails are the difference between having a good storm experience and having a miserable time. Being able to make headway in bad conditions is good for morale. This is especially true during a long passage, such as on our 2,700-mile passage to Iceland,” Martin said. The boat’s Sobstad mainsail is built of 7.5-ounce Dacron and features triple stitching, a double leach and extra-reinforced corners. The sail has three reef points.

The boat also has a 40-square-foot jib made of 10-ounce cloth, but Martin has found that in storm conditions he prefers to strike the jib altogether and sail under the triple-reefed main alone, which will still allow headway. And although the mast is fitted with a trysail track, Martin prefers to deep-reef the main than set a trysail.

“From the standpoint of safety, I feel most comfortable when the boat is in motion. My favorite tactic in high winds with breaking seas is to sail close-hauled. Even a scant 2 or 3 knots of headway can be enough to achieve this goal,” Martin said. “During the height of the gale (on the trip to) Iceland, we made forward progress with a triple-reefed main &mdash no jib. Our Monitor wind vane steered flawlessly.” Martin and his wife repair their own sails with a Pfaff sewing machine onboard. Before owning Driver, they circumnavigated in a Cal-25.

It remains to be seen if the trysail and storm jib remain an integral part of the voyager’s sail inventory. Like most choices having to do with boats, storm-sail inventory comes down to personal preference, and a sailor’s past experiences. In this age of modern fabrics and cutting-edge boat design, though, today’s ocean sailors clearly enjoy access to more sail options than ever before.

Contributing Editor Twain Braden is the author of The Handbook of Sailing Techniques, published by the Lyons Press.

By Ocean Navigator