Baggywrinkle, double headsails and a windvane:

twenty years ago these were the characteristic features of every bluewater yacht.

Times have changed, technology has moved on and boats are no exception.
If you would like to find out more about the relative advantages and disadvantages of sloop, cutter and ketch rigs, read a few opinions about the right size of boat for a small crew or discover whether double headsails still deserve a space in your locker, this is the place to start.

Sails for passage making

Twenty years ago it was easy to pick out the bluewater yachts in the harbour. Traditional craft had a long keel with the mast relatively far forward and a long main boom. Few deviated from the established sail plan of two headsails, each on its own boom, to drive the boat forwards (the long-footed mainsails typical of the time produced too much weather helm off the wind).

Times have changed! Today's higher volume production boats from companies like Hallberg Rassy, Najad, Malö, Wauquiez, Amel, Westerly, Moody, Oyster, Bowman and Rival feature moderate underwater profiles with the keel and rudder some distance apart. Rudders are mostly at least partially balanced and, thanks to the preferred position right at the stern, are enormously efficient. Masts are generally much further aft than was once the case and consequently mainsails have shrunk while headsails have grown. Modern designs derive most of their power from the headsail.

What is the ideal sail plan for a modern bluewater yacht?

The great range of factors to be considered means, unfortunately, that there is no short answer to this question.

How big a boat for how big a crew?
The dream length for most sailors twenty years ago was around 30 ft: even a small crew could manage sail handling and rigging on boats of this size. As anybody familiar with the big bluewater ports will be able to testify, however, aspirations have grown. Cast your eye over the yachts massing in Las Palmas every November, for example, and one thing is immediately obvious: there is plainly a great deal more money around! The average length for a bluewater yacht in 1997 was up around the 42-44 ft mark and the true giants are way in excess of this.

Boats may be bigger than they used to be, but crew sizes have remained pretty much the same: a married couple alone on a 50 footer is almost par for the course. Clearly a small crew will need some help to handle such a large sail area. Roller furling systems for main and headsail and large manual or hydraulic winches mean that even a 60-footer can be sailed solo with practice. We are of course assuming here that the systems and power sources required to operate all these labour saving devices can be trusted to function reliably. Bear in mind though that if conditions take a turn for the worse and the technology shuts down, those powerful spars and sails will have to be tamed by hand.

Natural limits and a general consensus within the yachting community all point towards 42-44 ft as the ideal size for small crews planning long passages. This length seems to strike the best compromise between stowage requirements, living space, comfortable sailing and manageable rig and sail area. A 42-footer is not a small boat. Good deck equipment will be a must for long term use, but winches and so on need not be powered, which considerably enhances their reliability.

One simple principle governs the choice of sails: hauling sailbags on a 44ft boat is no fun and should be avoided at any cost! The full wardrobe will typically consist of one set of conventional fore and aft sails plus special canvas for light airs and storms. The great convenience of modern furling headsail systems is that a single sail can be used for all but the most extreme conditions. Add a spinnaker or gennaker (in a snuffer) for light air days and a storm jib or small, heavy-duty conventional jib for ugly weather and you are ready for just about anything. Changing a rolling headsail in bad weather can be a slow, unpleasant and potentially dangerous undertaking and a separate storm sail with its own dedicated stay will make life much more pleasant. Racers in the BOC and Vendée Globe are now using several different large furling headsails arranged closely spaced one behind the other each on its own stay: as soon as one is furled, the next can be unrolled. Sails of the size carried on these superfast racing boats would otherwise be almost impossible to manage singlehanded. Typical modern bluewater yachts carry only one or at most two furled headsails.

Different weights of sailcloth, thickening materials in the luff and special cuts have helped to make today's furling genoa a pretty effective all rounder. Furling mainsails, on the other hand, still have a long way to go. The need to ensure the sail reefs and furls smoothly through a narrow slot in the mast forces the sailmaker into some major comprises. Anything approaching the ideal profile for generating power is out of the question, as are the battens required if a sail is to enjoy the powerful extra area provided by a reasonably dimensioned leech. Boom-furling alternatives do nothing to overcome these fundamental drawbacks. Both options impose severe limitations on sail performance and both tend to be troublesome and difficult to use. Experience suggests that a conventional (i.e. nonfurling) main is better on boats up to 45 ft or so, as a sail of this size is not too big to be managed by hand. A modern fully-battened main with ball-bearing sliders at the mast, lazyjacks for easy recovery and three reefing points with single line reefing should be at least as easy to use as a furling mainsail and has none of the performance compromises.

The case for the roller furling main becomes much stronger above 45 ft and a small crew could well find that there is simply no other way to keep so much sail area under control. Longer boats tend to sail faster anyway, so the loss of performance inherent in a furling sail can be tolerated if need be. Unfortunately the furling system in the mast also means substantially increased weight aloft, which causes the boat to heel, pitch and roll more readily. Some sailmakers regard the furling main as nautical heresy, but it does, perhaps, have its place. An issue of more practical concern to most users is the amount of care needed to furl the main into the mast properly. Even just snagging the burgee pennant or applying too much or too little sheet tension when rolling the sail could cause the kind of chaos you need a knife to resolve. Freeing or recovering a jammed sail can, moreover, be beyond the strength of a small crew, especially as the boom is usually too high above the deck to be accessible.

Baggywrinkle and chafing

Twenty years ago almost every bluewater yacht would have had lengths of frayed old rope in the rigging to stop the sails chafing. Modern sails are built from tough synthetic fibres and are nothing like as delicate as the old cloths. Heavily stressed areas likely to chafe on spreaders, radar domes, shrouds or stanchions/lifelines can be reinforced either by adding an extra layer of cloth during construction or simply sticking on an adhesive patch. Modern stitching techniques using a double row of six step zig zag (and six knots) are better than the once popular three rows of two step zig zag and generally last for years without problems. A roll of wide sail repair tape (for quick fixes) and some extra material for strengthening chafed areas should always be kept on board. Provided you have this repair kit, even an average set of modern sails is quite adequate for serious bluewater adventuring.

Sails for passage making

Following winds mean comfortable and comparatively level sailing; life on and below deck is pleasant even on a monohull and the miles clock up nice and quickly. These are the conditions of which sailors dream! The traditional passage routes attract countless circumnavigating bluewater yachts every year, most of which cross the oceans with an autopilot or windvane steering gear at the helm. Steering by hand might be fun for a weekend cruise, but it can be punishing on a long trip and is generally avoided. Any boat setting out on a long voyage without adequate self-steering is likely to reappear in harbour all too soon.

Any type of self-steering device will perform immeasurably better if the boat is properly balanced under sail. If the boat is not well trimmed, the self-steering system has to work harder and move the rudder more in order to hold a course and, in the case of an autopilot at least, will consequently consume more power. While windvane owners need not worry about this particular problem, the windvane gear will still have to tug harder and more frequently on the rudder of a poorly trimmed boat and that means wasted boatspeed. Inadequate trim will eventually overwhelm any self-steering device, at which point steering by hand becomes the only option.

Fortunately it is really quite straightforward to balance the sail plan on a modern bluewater yacht. Most skippers stick to the standard sails with the headsail poled out to windward and the main fixed to leeward with a preventer and the first reef taken in from about Beaufort force 5. Flogging sails and clanking spars are irritating and accelerate material fatigue and should be avoided.

The ideal headsail size can be obtained by furling the sail until the foot length matches the J dimension (the horizontal distance from the mast foot to the forestay), as the sail can then be set optimally using a spinnaker pole with the same J dimension. Provided they are the same size, double headsails can be hoisted on the same furling gear, flown with spinnaker poles of identical length and reefed simultaneously. This configuration is ultimately impractical, however, as it generally causes excessive rolling and means that the main cannot be set without blanketing one of the headsails. Good trim is difficult even with the wind more towards the beam, as the spinnaker poles are the same length. Telescopic poles might seem like an answer, but they can be disadvantageous in stronger winds, as their adjusting lines become overloaded. A telescopic pole is ideal for use with a cruising chute at the lower end of the wind scale. If you choose to have a headsail made especially for downwind passage sailing, the dimensions should ideally be close to those for a jib or No. 3 genoa (approximately 110 %) and the cloth should be no less than 250 gsm/5.8 smoz. Another way to maintain good trim while minimizing rolling is to combine a genoa on a long spinnaker pole out to weather with a reefed main fixed to leeward with a preventer and a jib on the cutter stay sheeted amidships.

Sloop, Cutter or Ketch?

It has to be said, at the risk of stepping on a few toes, that the only use for a mizzen mast on a modern bluewater yacht is as a handy place to mount radar, antennas, wind generators and so on - and two masts of course look far more imposing than one in the photos!

A mizzen has very little to contribute on a long voyage: the sail generates unnecessary weather helm and the extra mast costs money, demands maintenance and increases weight aloft. The original idea of spreading the sail area over a larger number of sails is no longer relevant given modern yacht design and new sail-handling options. A cutter rig is ideal provided the cutter stay can be removed easily when tacking in the restricted waters of an estuary, for example. One practical solution is to set the jib or storm jib on a cutter stay that is rigged and tensioned using pelican adjusters and kept lashed out of the way at the mast or to the lower shrouds when not in use. This way the stay can be kept clear for easy tacking but fitted quickly when the mast needs extra support. The backstays need to be rigged such that you can tension the headstay(s) effectively upwind for really optimal sail trim. It can simplify matters considerably if there is a stowage space for the extra headsail accessible from the deck.

Another way to obtain the benefits of an extra stay is to run an extra halyard alongside or just below the existing headsail halyards. A wire halyard makes an ideal stay and can carry a conventional storm sail on hanks if necessary (but bear in mind that a plastic masthead roller will not survive long with a wire halyard). The advantage of this approach over a dedicated cutter stay is that you do not have to worry about mast chafe and noise when the stay is not in use. There is no need for an extra backstay provided the halyard exits close to the top of the mast

Sun and UV protection

Sunlight can do terrible things to a yacht and its crew!
Furling headsails usually come with a UV-protective strip at the leech to protect the sail when furled. This strip consists of thin sailcloth (often blue or white number cloth) glued to the sails and will last a few years in the more temperate parts of the world. Nearer the equator, however, the sun works a good deal faster. Once the protective strip starts to break down, the only way to remove it is to peel of the flakes by hand. Most people therefore opt simply to have a new strip glued over the remains of the old, but this adds to the weight of the leech, changing the flying shape of the sail and impairing performance. It is hard to make any kind of case for such protection on a bluewater yacht, as the sail will be unfurled and working in the full glare of the sun for most of its life anyway. The best protection when you leave the boat is to wrap the sail in a cover or fold it and bag it.