Monday, 22 December 2014

A Ballad of many Sails

While sailing thousands of miles in our Ballad, we had a chance to try various sail combinations and test the rig in most weather conditions. Some things worked as intended, some didn't. I am hoping that an in-depth summary of our experience can be of use to other small yacht sailors - whether you are sailing an Albin Ballad or a different make, whether cruising in coastal waters or crossing oceans.
Sailing downwind in a gale
The scope of this article is somewhat ambitious, especially considering the shear number of books written on the subjects of sail trim, heavy weather sailing and cruising rigs. So I will stick to what we learned ourselves, with a few speculations on potentially desirable improvements thrown in for good measure.

1. The basic rig

An Albin Ballad has a single-spreader masthead rig with in-line spreaders and fore and aft lowers. Staying the mast is fairly straight-forward, as long as the shrouds are the right length, and the spreaders are set pointing above horizontal so as to bisect the angle at the cap shroud (for an introduction to rig types, as well as advice on set-up and tuning, I advice the excellent Selden website)

The chainplates are set inboard, allowing large overlapping genoas to be sheeted closer to the centerline. The downside of this arrangement is the increased load on the chainplates (due to the smaller leverage). The shrouds have to be tight enough to not sag on the leward side when sailing close-hauled - and with 50% ballast ratio and pronounced tumble-home, the Ballad is very stiff when healed, adding to the loads. It appears that most boats suffer from creeping deformation of the hull, deck and structural bulkheads with age - meaning that some sail with a rig too slack to be efficient (and safe), while at least one suffered a catastrophic failure due to the continuous tightening of the bottlescrews. Since we have reinforced the chainplate backing structure, we have not needed to re-tighten the rig.

The mast is keel stepped. With sufficiently stiff mast partners, we found that the mast can be tuned to be almost straight in moderate winds with a slight rake aft and most tension taken by the cap shrouds and aft lowers, while forward lowers are tensiond just enough to stop any pumping (mast movement in waves). Tightening the backstay further in stronger winds induces a slight bend while controlling the headstay sag - this is especially important with our slightly baggy mainsail and low aspect-ratio (short-luffed) jibs (see below). A new main with a flat cut, as well as a selection of high-aspect jibs (see below), would probably work well with less backstay tension and a straighter mast.

2. The sail warderobe

The Ballad was designed to race (and rate) successfully under the IOR handicap rule - hence the huge overlapping genoas and the very short boom (and thus small mainsail area).
This means two things: one, we have to change headsails early, and two, once the jib is down (say, sailing into an anchorage or a man-over-board situation), the yacht will not go well to windward or tack - especially not in waves. So, we try to leave up more mainsail as we change to smaller genoas (also helps to avoid lee helm as the wind drops again), and I would go for a jibe before a tack any time if I have to sail back to a man-over-board withour engine.
On Auriga, we have two mainsails (each with 3 reefs), plus a selection of genoas - from large to small, the #1, #2, #3, #4, and two storm jibs of different size. In addition, we have the drifter (a huge light-wind genoa), the reefing jib-top (a high-clewed reaching jib of approx. #2 area, reefing down to approx. a low-clewed #3), and two spinnakers. This specialist sails are covered below.

The area of each jib is determined by (one half of) the product of the luff length and the luff perpendicular (LP, the distance between the clew and the forestay). On most modern boats, all jibs have nearly the same luff length, while LP decreases to produce tall and narrow sails for stronger winds. On Auriga, the genoas are roughly proportional, and even the #4 overlaps the shrouds while only going part-way up the forestay. On the other hand, because of the large fore-triangle, a small high-aspect sail will be so far forward of the mainsail that the two sail will not interact - thus, with a storm jib set on the forestay and three reefs in the main, windward performance leaves to be desired (hence we now always set it on the inner forestay, below). Optimizing the sail plan is a huge topic, but I would definitely consider higher-aspect jibs down to, say, the #3, and more mainsail area. The latter can come from two changes: one, the boom can be made longer (as some owners have done), and two, with the addition of a full top batten and longer battens lower down, the main could probably have more roach (i.e. convex curve of the luff).

3. The inner forestay

The positioning of our removable inner forestay was largely determined by structural considerations and the available halyard exits. This meant that the lower end is set almost a meter aft of the stemhead, and the upper end is barely a meter above the spreaders. This means that the inner forestay is only used to set the two smallest storm jibs/staysails. With a selection of hanked-on jibs set on the main forestay, this works well as a heavy weather solution. However, if yacht has a single large genoa set on a furler, I would consider positioning the inner forestay further forward, so that jibs from maybe the #3 size and down can be set independently of the furler. While it is tempting to have a furler and a permamnent second forestay close together, remember that if they share the load (balanced with the backstay), neither is tensioned properly for upwind work!

An inner forestay set well below the masthead, as on Auriga, requires extra support from the running backstays. The sag is obvious when the runners are not used, and is mostly due to the mast bending out of shape. To sail upwind, the sag has to be controlled!

4. Odds and ends

Finding the best sail plan in different situations necessitates a few extra bits of kit.

Ensuring proper tension in both the halyards and the reefing lines is a mast. We have two mast winches for the main and jib halyards, while all three reefing lines are permanently lead aft to jammers and winches. The staysail and spinnaker halyards are also lead aft. We find this setup is ideal for single-handed hoists, drops and reefing.

Our reinforced mid-bow cleat not only supports the inner forestay, but also allows us to run a preventer and/or a spinnaker pole downhaul back to the cockpit. When not using the inner forestay, its tensioning line can be conveniently used as either of the two, with extra lines taken through the cleat or through an additional snatch block on the foredeck, as necessary.

Next, toerail jib sheet blocks in various positions provide better leads and help avoid chafe when the clew is eased outside the guardwires. Auriga had additional genoa tracks along the toerail - convenient!

Finally, for long-distance sailing, redundancy becomes an issue. With the inner forestay and running backstays we have extra support for the mast, and we try to use them even in lighter winds. The spinnaker pole-up is separate from the staysail halyard, and so we can for example substitute the latter for the former or pole out the staysail. We have two permanently run jib halyards plus a spinnaker halyard exiting through a fully articulated block. The topping lift is run to double as a spare full-strangth main halyard. The halyards have extra length so we can move the chafe points. We have spare sheets and jib cars, so a storm sail can be ready to hoist immediately. We can always replace a torn jib or the main sail with another one from the sail locker until we can make repairs, etc. etc. etc. And, we have the means and the materials to do the repairs - from small pinholes to rebuilding the foot of the jib-top.

4. Sailing in different conditions

Below, I would like to describe our typical sail plans and associated caveats and evolutions, from drifting conditions to gale-force winds.

4a. Sailing upwind

We start with drifting conditions - less than 8 knots of wind. If the sea is flat-calm, a drifter provides the much-needed half a knot to a knot over the #1. However, any swell will make it flog against the spreaders - not a pretty sight, so we change to a heavier weight jib.
The #1 we have is somewhat baggy, so it only sets well in light winds - up to 12 knots say. Our primary upwind sail is the #2 - it covers a huge range of wind speeds, and taking reefs in the main is easier than changing headsails. However, remember the note above - if you have to dop it and the main has 2 reefs, the yacht will hardly make it to windward. Better to change to the #3 early and keep more main area!

We have experimented with using the jibtop upwind - lured by the ease of reefing it down to #3 size. Several problems arise - first, it is fuller and not as efficient close-hauled. Second, the sheet lead has to be moved almost to the quarter - we are lucky to have extra blocks, but easing the sheet necessitates moving to a different lead every time. Finally, the reefed jibtop has a very low foot compared with the #3 (like the #2 and the jib-top!), and by the time we want to use it, there is a lot of water coming over the deck. However, bear away 10-15 degrees, and the jib-top comes into its own, covering a huge range of wind speeds and angles!

With the #2 or #3 set, it pays to pre-rig the storm staysail. We learned that a forecast of "F5-6" can easily mean a gale. The staysail is completely independent, with its own sheets run inside the caps but outside the lower shrouds. If the wind build suddenly, we can drop the #2 or #3 and hoist the staysail - with 3 reefs in the main, we can easily beat into a F8-9. Our smallest "hurricane" staysail has so far remained in the bag - but it's good to know we can go one step smaller!
If the wind remains marginally lower, we can set the #4 - again keeping the staysail ready. With about a meter between the forestays, it is still easy enough to tack or jibe the jib any time - provided the sheets are run correctly.

We have also tried using the staysail for that extra 0.1kn in light winds. I would like to say I am certain it helps, but most I can say it didn't hurt, and seemed to help in certain conditions.

Finally, another complication of having a large overlapping genoa is that Auriga will not heave to well - making significant headway and sitting very much beam-on to the wind and waves, unless the headsail area is reduced for better balance.

4b. Sailing on a reach

The sail selection on a reach is simple - use the jib top in most winds, change to the #3 or smaller if overpowered, reef main as required. Adding the staysail works great on a reach and makes it easy to reduce the sail area instantly by dropping the jib.

For the jib, we use outboard leads, while the staysail sheets are run outboard of the cap shrouds.

We have also started using a tack strop to set the #3 higher and avoid chafe on the foot where it touches the pulpit.

While the jib-top is a fairly specialist sale, a lot of the sailing we do is on a reach - but any high-clewed sail (like our #3) is better than a low-clewed upwind genoa. This applies when sailing downwind, too, as described next.

4c. Sailing downwind

Sailing deep we have three options: use the spinnaker, use a jib or staysail to leward (down to a broad reach), or pole out the jib or staysail to windward. Our spinnaker is one of the most-used sails on board, but I will not get into the racing trim vs. cruising simplicity debate here, instead pointing out the relevant technical details on our Albin Ballad.

First, we use a preventer - we lead it from the end of the boom through a fairlead on the bow, through the bow cleat and back to a coachroof winch, so it can be released from the cockpit.

Secondly, the drifter as well as the #1 are too big to be poled out, and flog violently in the low apparent winds. The #2 has a very low clew, and so using the jib-top instead provides the same sail area, and can be poled out with a pole set high (good for looking ahead) and at 90 degrees to the mast (good for sail shape).

The pole is rigged with a downhaul, an uphaul and an after guy clipped to a loop near the outboard end - all lead aft to the cockpit. The windward sheet is passed through the jaw and lead back to the cockpit through a toerail block - so the jib can always be moved to the leward side and/or dropped, while the pole stays in place.

As the wind builds, we can tie the same sheets to the #3, a storm jib set forward, or a storm staysail - all provide a great stable downwind rig.

When flying the spinnaker, we use a single pair of sheets and jibe end-to-end - with a little practice, it can be done hassle-free and in full control single-handed, with the windvane steering. Ask me how if you are interested. Jybing a poled out jib also works best end-to-end, if the main is jybed first (again, ask for details if interested, or I might add the description at a later point). Unlike on yachts set up for dip-pole jibes, pole manoeuvres are not hindered by the inner forestay.

A spinnaker staysail usually belongs in the realm of IRC-optimised Grand Prix racers. However... setting our storm staysail inside the spinnaker in all but lightest winds actually improves speed, or stability, or both, and was our preferred configuration while sailing in the Doldrums between squalls! As the squall approaches, sail deep and watch the apparent wind building. Before it's too much to stay in control, blow the guy, blow the halyard and stuff the spinnaker in its bag on the rail at leisure, leaving the staysail and the full main up. Auriga will happily sail downwind under full main and staysail in 30+ knots - as long as the water is flat, as it is in a sudden tropical squall. Or reef at will. As soon as the big ominous cloud passes, hoist the spinnaker and carry on! Works equally well with a staysail set inside a poled-out jib.

5. Further thoughts

We have often discussed what changes we would make to our sail warderobe. This is to be understood with short-handed all-weather cruising rather than racing in mind.

First, the staysail is so useful we wouldn't want to sail without it, but we would consider adding one of the maximum size that can be set on the inner forestay (maybe also move the inner forestay higher).

Second, going for the maximum possible mainsail area, as explained above, would provide a more balanced sail plans, and reduce foredeck work.

Third, a higher-clewed #2 jib could combine upwind performance with the benefits of the jib-top. It would in fact cover most wind conditions, since we rarely use the larger jib anyway, and a bigger main would improve light-wind performance. If set on a furler, the jib could be cut slightly larger and reefed to somewhere between the #2 and the #3, before changing to staysail only.

With a furling jib, the inner forestay can be fitted with a more permanent tensioner, and two preventer/pole-down lines could be lead back permanently.

On the other hand, any sail change involving a furler or other luff groove system is a chore short-handed - not that it stopped us from sailing Auriga from Spain to England in the past.

This article is a work on progress, and I am hoping to add, expand and illustrate the various topics mentioned. I am hoping it will be interesting and useful to fellow sailors, and I myself will be grateful for any comments, suggestions and corrections.

1 comment:

  1. Cracking article, what did you use to reinforce the chainplate backing structure? Did you use a loos guage to tension the rig? To what tension did you choose? I have Triola, Ballad #50, so I'm following your progress with interest.