The Extra Half Knot

Whatever we do, most of us like to do it well. Competence inspires confidence – and when we're both confident and good at what we're doing, we have more fun. We also like to be seen to be smart rather than struggling…


…How many sailors, for example, enjoy being overtaken – especially by a smaller boat? Since even dyed-in-the-wool cruising salts can suddenly become racing demons and start tweaking the sheets to avoid being left behind, it's clear that our innate competitive instinct rarely sinks far beneath the surface. Then there's our curiosity, usually combined with a healthy urge to improve: why is he going faster than we are?


Whether or not we're in danger of losing face, knowing how to pull our sails into the right shape can make all the difference to our enjoyment on the water. Good, well-trimmed sails get us home before the pub shuts, the tide turns or the front arrives to batter us with 30-knot headwinds. They make the difference between lurching along on our beam ends with the tiller under our chin and the soup spilled all over the cabin sole, and sailing swiftly and comfortably with dry decks.


Speed and comfort, in fact, often go together – because setting your sails efficiently is all about maximising drive and minimising drag. Racing or cruising, we share the common goal of more speed for less heel and less leeway. If we're racing, we fly more sail because we have more muscle power and more crew on the rail to balance it. If we're cruising, we fly less sail but still want it to be driving us forwards, not pushing us sideways – and the more efficiently it's working, the less we need.


In this booklet, we'll be discussing how get the best from your sails for cruising and club racing (though we're always happy to hear from sailors involved in top-level competition with queries on technical matters). We'll also be pointing out how to tell if it's time to replace your sails, because all the trimming in the world will achieve little if they're stretched beyond recognition.


Why buy from Hyde?


No matter how well they've been looked after, no sails will last for ever. Besides, do you want to be seen with something resembling two halves of the Turin Shroud hanging from the rigging? A lovingly-maintained old engine may be a source of justifiable pride, but sails of a certain age need to be retired: they'll be holding you back long before they start falling apart.


Should it be time to think about new ones, we hope you'll talk to us. We've been helping racing sailors win at the highest level for decades and, with our background in competitive sailing, we can probably do more to enhance your boat's performance, comfort and handling than you ever thought possible. In the same way that Formula 1 technology finds its way into the cars we drive every day, so grand-prix sailmaking experience and expertise can benefit the cruising and club-racing sailor. Fast racing shapes are fast cruising shapes, and Hyde's insistence on using the best fabrics means our sails last longer, too. We're among the small number of sailmakers to have an Instron Tensile Tester, which scrutinises every roll of cloth to ensure that it meets the manufacturer's specifications. Any that fails to make the grade, we reject – but you can be sure that it finds a home somewhere else.


With sails, as with most things in life, buying on the basis of price alone rarely proves to be the best decision. And because the sails are the most visible part of your boat and your primary means of propulsion, we believe that cutting corners is a false economy. Cheap sails made from low-grade cloth that will stretch and lose its shape after a season or two are a handicap you don't need to live with.


That's why, instead of selling sails for the lowest possible price, we offer a more expensive alternative that reflects our commitment to the ultimate in performance, quality and service. When you buy from Hyde, we'll not only deliver superbly-cut, long-lasting sails, but we'll also be happy to offer advice on getting the best from them. Depending on where you keep your boat, we may even be able to fit them and join you for an on-the-water trimming and tuning session. After all, you're buying sails with the bold blue Hyde logo in the corner. It's a reminder to everyone who sees it that you expect the best.




However good your sails, they'll never set as the sailmaker intended unless the rig that supports them is doing its job properly. Rig tuning is sometimes seen as rather complicated, but the basics are quite straightforward. Here are the most important points to check:


Sail Tuning


Make sure it's upright


Your mast must be upright athwartships. Take a halyard from a central masthead sheave to a fixed point at deck level – like the chainplates – first one side and then the other. The same tension should be needed each side. If it's not, slacken one cap shroud and tension the other by the same amount.


Get it straight


With the masthead now central, sight up the luff groove: athwartships, the mast should be straight. Any bends can be removed by adjusting the lower shrouds.

Sail Tuning

Set the rake


Most boats go better with the mast inclined aft a degree or two, so set the forestay to allow a little rake. Unless the designer, builder or class association has any specific advice, start with 6 to 12in (150 to 300mm) on a 30ft (9m) mast. Measure it at the gooseneck by hanging a weight from the main halyard.


Tension the rigging


Cruising yachts often have their rigging too slack. You might think it's kinder not to wind it tight, but slack rigging does more damage by allowing the mast to move around. Besides, the weight on the windward shroud when you start sailing will be greater than when the boat's at rest.


Once you've tensioned the cap shrouds (you'll find it hard to over-tension them with normal hand tools), set the lowers/babystay to induce a little pre-bend – so the mast bows forward slightly in the middle. Finally, check the rig under way, making sure there's no sideways bend in the mast and the leeward cap shroud isn't waving around in the breeze. If you can deflect it more than a couple of inches with your finger when sailing upwind in moderate conditions, it's too slack. New rigging especially will stretch, so keep an eye on it.


TUNING THE FRACTIONAL RIG (with swept-back cap shrouds)


Like its masthead counterpart, the fractional rig needs to be upright and straight athwartships. It also needs rake and pre-bend – usually a little more of both. Structurally, the difference is that the cap shrouds, being swept back, support the mast fore-and-aft as well as laterally. In other words, they're doing the job of both the caps and the backstay on a masthead rig.

Sail Tuning



Don't be frightened to tighten


Because of the swept-back caps, the backstay plays little or no part in keeping the mast up. Instead, it's there to help control the shape of the mainsail by bending the mast – as we'll see later.


The cap shrouds' dual role means that they need to be tighter than on a masthead rig. If they're not tight enough, neither is the forestay. You need to wind them down to between 20% and 25% of their breaking strain instead of around 15% (don't worry about measuring it – we'll show you how to tell if it's right).


Setting the bend


Another difference between masthead and fractional rigs is that, with the latter, tensioning the caps will bow the mast by pushing the spreaders forward. That's fine, because you can pull it back again by taking up on the lower shrouds. The caps and lowers keep the mast stable by acting in opposite directions.


You need more pre-bend with a fractional rig, so tighten the caps until there's plenty of bend and then reduce it with the lowers. As a rule of thumb, about 2in (50mm) works well on a 25-footer (measured with a slack backstay) while bigger boats with taller masts should have more.


Why pre-bend?


With no babystay or lowers, you need pre-bend to stop the mast inverting: if it were to bow aft instead of forwards in the middle, it could become unstable in the mid-sections. A reefed mainsail, for example, pulls the middle of the mast back.


Checks under way


As with a masthead rig, make sure the mast stays straight athwartships when you're sailing. And with the backstay slack, you should only see a little play in the leeward cap shroud.




Having tuned the rig, you can turn your attention to the mainsail. Try to find reasonably flat, open water so you're not thrown around or forced to tack every two minutes. And choose a wind strength in which you can carry full sail comfortably – 12 to 15 knots is ideal for most boats.

Sail Tuning


Getting set


Start by sailing to windward. Set everything as normal, and look up at your sail from beneath the middle of the boom. Now, at about mid height, draw an imaginary horizontal line from luff to leech. If you can take a photograph with a wide-angle lens to examine later, even better.


Where's the deepest point (known as the draft)? If it's more than half way back towards the leech, the sail will be producing more heel and weather helm than forward drive. Tension the luff with the halyard and/or cunningham to move the draft forwards. In light winds it should be at about the mid-way point – but as the wind picks up, you want it further forward to keep the boat on its feet. If no amount of luff tension will shift it into the front half, your sail has stretched irredeemably and it's time for a new one!

Sail Tuning

Look at the depth


As well as the draft's position, you want to check it in relation to the fore-and-aft length of the sail (the chord). In other words, look to see how full the sail is.


If you divide the chord by the draft, you should end up with a figure between 8% and 20%: the sail should be between 121/2 and five times as long as it is deep. In light to moderate airs you need a deeper (fuller) sail for lots of drive. Then, as the wind picks up, you have to make it progressively flatter, to de-power the boat and control the heel. You do this with extra tension on the halyard (it flattens the sail as well as moving the draft forward) outhaul, sheet and backstay. It's like changing down the gears to go up hill.


Bear in mind that heavier and chubbier boats need fuller sails than light, easily-driven racers. And on any boat, you need fuller sails when punching into a seaway than in flat water.


Finally, don't worry about carrying a calculator all the time to work out the percentages. Experience and a feel for the boat will soon tell you when it's right.


Trimming aids


Two simple trimming aids help enormously. One is a set of camber stripes – contrasting stripes running horizontally from luff to leech at about quarter, half and three-quarter height – and the other is a telltale on the leech by the top batten.


The camber stripes make it easier to gauge the sail's depth and draft position as we've just described, while watching the telltale is as close as you'll get to seeing the wind. To windward and on a reach, it should be flying. A droopy telltale means the airflow has broken away from the sail.


Sail Tuning


Using the telltale


In light winds, the telltale is especially prone to stalling if the mainsheet is too tight. On the other hand, you need the boom as close to the centreline as possible when sailing to windward, so haul the traveller (if you have one) up the track and ease the sheet. That will allow the sail to twist, with the top batten pointing further outboard than the boom. As the breeze picks up, you need to reduce the twist to maximise drive from the sail while still keeping the telltale flying – so sheet in harder and drop the traveller down to keep the boom on the centre line. In more breeze still, there will come a point at which you need the boom further outboard to avoid excessive heel and weather helm. Keep the sheet tight while letting the traveller down the track or, if you don't have a traveller, ease the sheet while tightening the kicker to stop the boom lifting.


The basic rules when sailing to windward are:


1. Keep the telltale flying. Experiment with the sheet, kicker and traveller until it's just on the edge of stalling.


2. Keep the boom as close to the centreline as you can without too much heel or weather helm. In stronger winds, flatten the sail and let the boom further outboard.


A word about the backstay


Many small boats with masthead rigs have no means of adjusting backstay tension other than a bottlescrew, whereas fractional rigs almost invariably come with an adjuster – normally a block-and-tackle purchase.


Tensioning the backstay will have a greater effect on fractional configurations because the unsupported topmast encourages the whole mast to bend further, flattening the sail and opening the leech. With lots of backstay in strong winds, you can de-power the main and often avoid reefing. The same principles apply to a masthead rig, but the effects are less pronounced.




Compared with the mainsail, the headsail needs to be slightly fuller and with the draft further forward. (If tensioning the halyard no longer pulls the draft towards the front third, it's time for a new sail.) Again, a set of camber stripes will make the shape easier to see, so ask your sailmaker to fit them if they're not on already.

Sail Tuning

If you don't have telltales, have them added at the same time. You need three each side, about a foot back from the luff and, like the camber stripes, at about quarter, half and three-quarter height. Setting the twist With the telltales fitted, set the headsail, sheet in and sail to windward. First make sure that the leech comes up against the spreaders as the foot approaches the bottom of the shrouds. A tight foot and slack leech means you should move the car forward along the track a few holes. With the opposite problem, move the car aft. A rule of thumb which applies equally to smaller, non-overlapping headsails is that a continuation of the sheet's line though the sail should meet the luff at about mid-height.


That's your coarse tuning completed: now for the telltales. Your aim is to have all six streaming together. Start by watching the windward three as you luff gently from a close-hauled course. If the top one starts lifting while the others are still streaming horizontally, the sail has too much twist and you need to move the car forward to pull the leech down harder. Should the bottom one start lifting first, the car needs to move aft. With the car in the right position, all three should start lifting at the same time.

Sail Tuning

Reading the telltales


Now you need only look at the bottom set of telltales. On the wind with the sail sheeted in tight, a lifting windward telltale means you're sailing too close and need to bear away a little. Conversely, a lifting leeward telltale is telling you to head up.


When you're reaching with the sail eased, it's normally the trimmer's job to keep the telltales happy. A lifting windward telltale means sheet in, while the leeward one lifting means ease the sheet. As you bear away on to a reach, the top windward telltale will start lifting continually. Moving the sheet lead forward and outboard with a barber-hauler taken to the toerail will help.


Reefing the headsail


Because the clew will move forward as you reef a roller genoa, you need to move the car forward to retain the right sheeting angle. Cars that can be adjusted from the cockpit with control lines make life easier.

Sail Tuning

Trimming tools


Apart from the sheet and genoa car, your principal means of controlling the headsail's shape are the halyard and backstay. As we've already discussed, tensioning the halyard pulls (or should pull) the draft forward in stronger winds. At the same time, the extra weight in the rig will tend to increase the forestay sag – and that makes the sail fuller just as you want to start flattening it.


The solution is to tension the backstay, which not only bends the mast to flatten the mainsail but also pulls the forestay tighter. It has more effect with a masthead rig because it's pulling directly against the forestay: with a fractional rig, more of its energy goes into bending the mast. That's why tight cap shrouds are vital with fractional rigs.


A slack forestay adds to the friction in the reefing system as well as increasing heel by making the sail too full. If you don't have a tensioner on the backstay, talk to your local rigger about fitting one. Otherwise, at least make sure the bottlescrew is tight enough to avoid excessive forestay sag and keep the draft down to about 15% of the chord in fresh conditions (measured with an un-reefed headsail).

Sail Tuning

Halyard tension


Moving the draft forward reduces the heeling force in stronger winds. The rounder entry also has two other effects: it means you won't be able to point quite as high, and it gives the helmsman an easier job by making the sail less sensitive to the wind angle. In shifty winds or choppy seas – or any time when you're having difficulty getting the windward and leeward telltales to fly together – try a little more halyard tension.


Basic rules


As the wind increases, apply more tension to the sheet, halyard and backstay to flatten the sail. Less wind calls for less tension all round and a fuller shape.





Imagine that you're setting out on a 25-mile hop along the coast on a nice, warm summer's day with a gentle Force 3 on the quarter. It sounds a pleasant prospect, but under plain sail alone you find that you make a modest 31/2 knots. At that rate, it's going to take over seven hours – not allowing for any tide. What's more, the genoa spends much of its time collapsed under the mainsail's lee, while the left-over sea rolls you about and makes it almost impossible to keep the mainsail filling either.


So, what's the alternative if you want to arrive in time for supper? Down sails and turn on the engine, rolling even more and breathing in exhaust fumes all the way? Even with the main sheeted in as a steadying sail, it will slat noisily as it fills first one side and then the other. Either way, the passage brings little pleasure.


Now let's say that you have a cruising chute on board. Since it's also in a snuffer, setting it short-handed is a doddle. A few minutes later, you've more than doubled your effective sail area. Your speed shoots up to an effortless 5 knots, the rolling virtually stops because you're sailing faster in relation to the waves with a constant pressure in the rig, and you look forward to arriving more than two hours earlier after a thoroughly enjoyable sail. Which option sounds better to you?

The easy way


Don't be put off by the sight of racing sailors battling with acres of unwieldy, flogging spinnaker nylon, rolling from gunwale to gunwale and broaching wildly out of control. They often fly spinnakers in conditions that would make cruising folk think twice about even leaving the mooring. It's a game for the determined, the experienced and, you might think with some justification, the foolhardy. Except on the new breed of sportsboats with retractable bowsprits, they also fly them to windward from the end of long poles which add to the potential problems. For enjoyable cruising – especially with a small crew – a cruising chute (or asymmetrical spinnaker) set from the stemhead will bring many of the benefits with minimum hassle. For extra efficiency with the wind well astern when it would otherwise be blanketed by the mainsail, you can always pole out the chute like a conventional spinnaker given the necessary gear. Or, if you enjoy the challenge, buy a symmetrical spinnaker instead.


Whichever option you choose, downwind sails will make your cruising faster and more fun. And if you sail competitively, a new spinnaker can do wonders for your results.




Good sails are worth looking after. Some people buy cheap sails, treat them badly and end up with a boat that looks shabby and performs poorly. We reckon it makes more sense to invest in good-quality sails, treat them well and enjoy the benefits for longer. Don't forget that many budget-priced production boats come with the cheapest sails the builder can buy, which often lose their shape in little more than a season – even if they still look nice and white.


Before leaving the boat




• Slacken the halyard to avoid stretching the luff.


•Roll it securely so it won't be blown open by the first gale. But avoid leaving it for too long. Sail cloth develops a memory when wound around a small tube: left for a month or more, a headsail may remain creased and never recover its original shape. Other problems are degradation from UV light – even with protective leech and foot strips – and staining from water running down inside. The time taken to stow it down below is well spent.




• Ease the outhaul (and reefing lines, if you've been out in a blow).


• If you have elastic at the inboard end of the batten pockets, removing the battens will prolong its life.


• Put on the cover to protect the sail from the sun.


General care


• Avoid putting sails away when wet, if possible – especially for long periods. Damp encourages mould and mildew.


• Rinse out the salt. Apart from abrading the fabric and stitching, the granules attract moisture.


• Don't let your sails flog unnecessarily. It ruins their shape.


• Avoid chafe. Ask your sailmaker to fit patches at any rubbing points.


• Cover sharp corners. Split pins are among a sail's worst enemies.


• Remove rust and dirt. No mark looks nice, and some will damage the sail cloth. The sooner they're tackled, the easier they are to remove – but stick to mild soaps, water and a sponge. Some proprietary cleaners and rust removers are harmless, while others should be avoided. Ask your sailmaker for advice.


• Watch for wear and tear. Having your sails checked and valeted during the winter is a good idea.


• Avoid hard creases – they break down the cloth. When removing your sails, flake them, fold them loosely or, ideally, roll them to avoid creases all together. And don't use them as mattresses!


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