A sail for light wind

A cruiser turns to an un­con­ven­tional so­lu­tion for light-wind voy­ag­ing

SAIL - - Contents - By Stephen Parry


For the past seven years my wife, Jody, and I have been cruis­ing aboard Blue Pel­i­can, our Pear­son 424 ketch. We spent most of those years sail­ing the East Coast of the United States and the Caribbean, but in 2015 we tran­sited the Panama Canal and sailed Blue Pel­i­can across the Pa­cific to Bris­bane, Aus­tralia.

In re­view­ing our sail plan prior to our Pa­cific cross­ing, I re­called hav­ing once read about the con­cept of a ny­lon main­sail. A light­weight main­sail for light airs—how use­ful that would be for long stretches of light wind, such as would most likely be en­coun­tered at some point while cross­ing the Pa­cific. You know how an­noy­ing it is when you have just enough wind to fill a sail, but then you get that slap­ping sound as the wind leaves the sail with the next bit of wave or swell, and then fills it again. That “Fill and Flop” mo­tion, as I call it, is tough on the rig­ging, par­tic­u­larly the goose­neck, and tests the break­ing strength of the vang.

I didn’t know any­one who had a ny­lon main­sail, though I asked around. It would be for light-

wind work only, up­wind, reach­ing or down­wind, where it would be set wing and wing with a ny­lon drifter set on a pole. Would it work? How would it work? Where could I get one? How much would it cost? Would it be worth it?

An in­ter­net search turned up an old photo of a ves­sel with a ny­lon main­sail, but there were no de­tails other than the grainy pic­ture it­self. Lin and Larry Pardey made men­tion of a ny­lon main­sail in one of their books; they be­lieved a ny­lon main­sail was con­cep­tu­ally a great idea, but hadn’t ac­tu­ally come across one. I spoke to some sail­mak­ers—sure, they could make one. Any proof of hav­ing ac­tu­ally made one? Sure, oh, umm, well, no, not re­ally.

So any­thing we or­dered would be of our own de­sign. What pa­ram­e­ters should we in­cor­po­rate?

I spent a cou­ple of sea­sons ocean racing as a main­sail trim­mer, and one of my skip­pers im­pressed on me the im­por­tance of keep­ing the boat mov­ing in light air, and of ex­per­i­ment­ing with dif­fer­ent ways of do­ing so. Will­ing to ex­per­i­ment, want­ing to im­prove lightwind per­for­mance and hav­ing no sail de­sign to copy, ours was go­ing to be an orig­i­nal ef­fort. Here’s how we worked it out.

The fab­ric: Ny­lon is rel­a­tively strong—to a point. It is light, so it is eas­ily han­dled. It stretches. It can be stuffed into a bag to make easy stor­age [or a bean­bag type cush­ion chair if you want]. Its UV re­sis­tance is not good, the pro­tec­tion comes from the pig­ment. The darker the pig­ment, the bet­ter the UV pro­tec­tion. What weight of fab­ric should we use? Tak­ing our spin­nakers as a point of ref­er­ence, a 0.75oz weight would seem too light for the sail size and in­tended pur­pose; 1.5oz seemed more prac­ti­cal, and the ba­sic en­gi­neer­ing cal­cu­la­tions I ran sug­gested it would be suit­able.

The de­sign: The sail­mak­ers I was con­sider- ing sug­gested a fuller shape. I didn’t want to go that way be­cause I wanted the sail to have some up­wind abil­ity. Bear­ing in mind the stretch­i­ness of ny­lon, I wanted a flat­ter-cut sail to min­i­mize the loss of shape. I also wanted the cor­ners la­beled so I could eas­ily iden­tify the cor­rect ends for quick hoist­ing—I don’t want to be on deck any longer than nec­es­sary.

The cri­te­ria: The head at­tach­ment would in­cor­po­rate the ex­ist­ing main­sail track, and the sail

would use the ex­ist­ing fit­tings on the boom. It had to be quick to set up, quick to douse, and not get in the way of re-hoist­ing the Dacron main, which would re­main flaked on the boom in­side the lazy­jack lines for im­me­di­ate hoist­ing once the wind filled in.

The head at­tach­ment: I spent a lot of time work­ing this one out. I had en­vi­sioned us­ing mul­ti­ple slides to keep the ny­lon sail at­tached to the mast, but this would mean open­ing the gate to in­sert the slides. A mock trial un­der­way proved this to be too dif­fi­cult. The so­lu­tion was to keep a spare slide on the track above the Dacron main­sail’s top slide. This is at­tached by a thin cord and goes up with the Dacron sail when it is be­ing hoisted, and re­turns with the douse. With the Dacron sail at rest be­tween the lazy­jack lines I sim­ply de­tach the slide from its head, and at­tach it to the ny­lon main­sail’s head. The tack is at­tached by a strop to the reef hook on the boom, and the clew is lashed at the boom end—sim­ple, quick and easy.

It’s also amaz­ingly quick and easy to raise the ny­lon main us­ing the main hal­yard, and just as easy to douse. With no bat­tens to catch on the lazy­jacks the soft, light ma­te­rial is hoisted in mo­ments, even off the wind. The fact that the sail is loose-luffed has not af­fected its sail­ing per­for­mance.

Since the ny­lon main comes down so eas­ily, and stores so com­pactly (I of­ten leave it lay­ing along­side the boom with a bungy cord sys­tem hold­ing it in place), it takes lit­tle time or ef­fort to swap be­tween the mainsails. I just re­lease the hal­yard, haul down the sail, un­tie the slide from the ny­lon main­sail and reat­tach it to the Dacron main­sail’s head­board, clip on the hal­yard and hoist the main­sail.

Dur­ing our Pa­cific Ocean cross­ing, we trav­elled a path north of the Gala­pa­gos and en­coun­tered flat seas and a pe­riod of very light winds. The ny­lon main proved to be what we had hoped. With a true wind speed of around 5 knots, we were able to bring the ap­par­ent wind around ahead of the beam to cre­ate enough ex­tra breeze that we were rid­ing along at around 5 knots, quiet as a nun, on a good course, and feel­ing very proud of our new sail.

Once the wind picked up to say 8 knots or just above (or we saw a change or squall com­ing) then the ny­lon main came down and the Dacron one went up. We have held pretty well

to this, be­cause we don’t want to over­stretch the ny­lon sail and wreck its shape.

Our Pa­cific pas­sage was plagued by atyp­i­cal con­di­tions. After round­ing the Gala­pa­gos from the north and west, we en­coun­tered fickle and con­trary head­winds and ended up hav­ing to sail south in a se­ries of lulls and squalls. The way we made progress was to sail in any di­rec­tion it took for us to get un­der a squall sys­tem, then use the force of the squall winds to gain some ground and di­rec­tion, and get us closer to the trade wind belt. In these lulls, we had the ad­van­tage of the ny­lon main to help us keep mov­ing. And be­ing able to douse read­ily and hoist the (usu­ally reefed) Dacron main for the squall meant that the sail changes were not too phys­i­cally de­mand­ing. I think I did 12 changes in one day.

So for us the new sail worked well, and was a valuable con­trib­u­tor to our Pa­cific cross­ing.

We had the ny­lon main built by Lee Sails out of Hong Kong. For my part, I have found them to have a good rep­u­ta­tion. I had been ad­vised by another Lee cus­tomer to be very de­tailed in the or­der. The qual­ity met ex­pec­ta­tions, ex­cept for the small mat­ter of the la­bel­ing on the cor­ners, which was hand-writ­ten in felt pen. That was a shock, and not in keep­ing with the rest of the work­man­ship. The sail cost $600, de­liv­ered to Panama. [As an aside, there are bet­ter coun­tries to have things de­liv­ered to than Panama].

Be­ing ny­lon, there is a wide range of bright col­ors avail­able. We wanted to re­duce UV dam­age as much as pos­si­ble. I liked the dark blue, but thought that would be too pi­rate-like, so chose a medium dark blue.

Ly­ing at an­chor in the Whit­sun­day Is­lands off Aus­tralia’s Great Bar­rier Reef, we have not used the ny­lon main for a while, since there is a rea­son­ably per­sis­tent wind. But as we jour­ney north from Aus­tralia, through In­done­sia and South East Asia, we ex­pect to meet lengthy spells of light airs, and we’re sure to have that ny­lon main­sail earn­ing its keep once again. s

Stephen Parry and his wife, Jody, are cur­rently cruis­ing in Aus­tralia’s Whit­sun­day Is­lands on their Pear­son 424, Blue Pel­i­can, be­fore head­ing to­wards South-East Asia

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