Working with your sails, then and now

For the first real installment of Gear Talk I wanted to cover the topic of sails. How working with sails has changed on a typical sailboat with the advent of furling sails, electric winches and other things and in particular our own personal experience comparing sailing aboard a Morgan ’42 Mark II racing yacht twenty-five years ago vs. O’Comillas today.

Some terminology:

  • Furling sails: a sail that can roll on itself to reduce the surface exposed to the wind.
  • Reefing: the process of reducing the main sail by lowering and reattaching it at a lower point on the boom. Thus exposing less surface to the wind.
  • Trimming: the process of adjusting sail angle to the wind.

As I explained in the weather info section, for any given wind direction, wind speed, and waves there is a corresponding combination of course, sails and trimming that is optimal and a range under which such a combination will operate safely. This premise has not changed in the last twenty-five years, what has changed is how easy it is to adjust how much sail to use at any given time.

So lets take a look back at sailing aboard Sagitta, a Morgan ’42 Mark II racing yacht. This sailboat had multiple sizes of genoas and jibs and a mainsail that can be reefed. So basically in the front sail you had a selection of sizes and depending on the wind you would take one down and put a different one up. On the main sail you had four, perhaps five, reefing points. The winches for raising and lowering the sails where at the base of the mast while the mechanical winches for trimming the sails where on the cockpit.

O’Comillas has a furling genoa, a furling jib and a furling main. Once the sails have been raised, they stay up the whole time unless they need to be taken down for repairs. To reduce size, a sail is rolled or furled on it’s self. All of which can be accomplished from the cockpit without having to move to the base of the mast.

So lets put both boats through the simple scenario of going from light winds to heavy winds.

On the Sagitta, you may go through several reductions in the front sail. This entails going below deck picking a new sail and bringing it up. Then for example, you would lower the large genoa, tie it, and then raise a smaller genoa. Both of these tasks have to be done at the base of the mast. Then repeat the operation until you are using a smaller working jib. For the main sail, you may also need to reef twice or more. Each time, you need to go to the mast to partially lower the sail, reef it by hand since we didn’t have one of those reefing systems that exist today, and then raise it again. All these operations can be physically demanding for a short handed crew.

On the O’Comillas, you will start with the genoa and the main fully unrolled and as the wind picks up, from the cockpit area you would roll up more of the sail to make it smaller. At some point it will be better to completely roll-up the genoa and then unroll the working jib but that operation is also easy to do from the cockpit area as well. No going below deck, no physically changing anything on the base of the mast. Easy. The electric winches are also a huge improvement. When talking about a large genoa with a surface area of 754 ft² (70.1 m²) trimming with an electric winch is a cinch.

We do have extra sails such as a spinnaker, spares, and a storm main but for the most part everything can be done without having to move from the cockpit area. Furthermore, rolling a sail is much less challenging than raising it. All these changes make it possible to operate a 49-foot sailboat between two people very reasonable. A task that would have been impossible aboard Sagitta.


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