What Sails Should You Take Cruising?

While preparing for an extended cruise or passage, one important consideration is going to be what sails you are going to decide to take. Being away from home for so long, and making sure you have room to stuff in all the oreos and legos, you aren’t going to be able to take lots of sails. As the bulkiest item you’ll carry, you need to carefully consider what you’ll be taking.

I made the arbitrary decision that I would take just five sails. Having to store three below decks would eat up two large lockers in the V berth, and we couldn’t really afford more space to store additional sails.

We had already decided that Alchemy needed a new mainsail, and after considering the merits of a mass produced sail from somewhere like Rolly Tasker vs a local loft, had actually decided to go for a middle option and get a brand name sail that had a local rep.

First Choice – Mainsail
Doyle Durasail mainsail, 8.77 ounce Marblehead Dacron crosscut construction, 4 full battens, 3 rows reef points, loose foot, cruising roach.

But what about the rest of our sail inventory? To figure this out, as usual, I researched online, and also took to sailing forums.

First to consider was how we would address our heavy weather sailing plan, also known as, “oh bugger, the waves are getting really big now!”

Interestingly, the Sail Magazine blog had just posted about storm sails. There was nothing especially new in the post, but it’s worth reading if you are unfamiliar with the choices. Bascially, you need some kind of sail for heavy weather for the main and for the headsail. For each, this comes down to a few basic choices.

  • Mainsail – Third reef vs trysail
    It’s easy to find lot’s of discussion about whether to have a deeply reefed main, or a separate trysail. Most long term cruisers opt for the third reef, with a relative minority electing for the trysail. This group seems characterized by those expecting and prepared to still be sailing in real nasty weather.
  • Storm Jib – Second forestay vs  wrapped on furler vs full cutter rig.
    Probably the most ideal is a cutter rig, but this is something you either have or you don’t. The next choices involve a hank on storm jib on a second forestay, like a solent stay. These can be either permanent or swung into place when needed. An uncommon alternative would be a small sail that wraps round the furled up Genoa. Two examples of these are the ATN Gale Sail and the Saumag Storm Bag.

We had already decided to get a new sail, and I much prefer the idea of tying in a 3rd reef rather than installing a second mast track and mucking around with a trysail. For the type of cruising we’ll be doing with no real schedule, if it’s blowing up the wazoo, we’ll just stay anchored.

(Still First) Choice – Heavy Weather Mainsail
Achieved with a 3rd reef in our new mainsail.

With our Storm Jib, the previous owner already had an ATN Gale Sail. I have used it and it’s a relatively effective way to put up a small sail without much complication of hank on jibs. To use a real storm jib we’d have to install some kind of solent stay, which wouldn’t be trivial.

Second Choice – Heavy Weather Jib
ATN Gale Sail.

So with by electing for a third reef, we have three spots left in our sail inventory. At least one will be our main headsail. Lots of other options exist for the other two:

  • A different size headsail, for either lighter or heavier winds
  • A spinnaker
  • Some kind of modern downwind (ish) sail.

To help ponder this question, I engaged in a bit of crowdsourcing, and posted a poll at sailnet.com

“What five sails would you take in the scenario of a typical “snowbird” in a 35-45′ boat

  • Topical cruising in the Caribbean.
  • Shorthanded.
  • Includes offshore passage to get there and back.”

Sailnet Sail Poll

Over 70 people voted and there was a great discussion in the posts. As you can see in the picture, the five most popular choices were:

  1. Mainsail (duh)
  2. 100-130% Headsail
  3. Storm Jib
  4. Spinnaker
  5. 130%+ headsail

Now, with a vote like this, these five choices were not voted as a complete integrated set, but they are useful as a measure of what sailors are using, or would like to.

We already have two similarly-sized older headsails on Alchemy, a 100% jib and a 154% jib. We have found that the 100% actually carries us at 80-90% of speed even though it is smaller. I like the idea of having a smaller, more manageable headsail as our day to day sail. With only two of us, and and the three boys, manageable albeit slightly slower is a wise trade off. For general light air, the 154% would be a solid second choice. Although I don’t think there is much “light air” in the trade winds of the Caribbean, it would be useful to have a back up as these jibs are 5+ years old.

Third Choice – Smaller 98% Jib
UK tape drive sail (with aramid tapes) ~ 10 years old

Fourth Choice – Full size 154% Genoa
UK Sailmakers and it is made out of a polyester scrim laminate~ 10 years old

This leaves us with our last spot in our inventory. Collective sailnet wisdom points us to a spinnaker, but this could be a traditional symmetric spinnaker or a more modern asymmetric spinnaker.

It would be nice to have something like a Parasailor, but at $8000, that’s out of our reach. We currently have a traditional symmetric spinnaker with a ATN sock. The sock will help handling, but it’s unlikely that we will be able to manage a spinnaker pole with just the two of us. This would imply an asymmetric spinnaker, but that would be several thousand dollars additional cost.

One option we have tried before on our smaller boat is an ATN tacker. It’s a small, inexpensive device that attached to a furled headsail and the clew of a spinnaker. We have used it quite successfully with our symmetric spinnaker and just the two of us have been able to fly it without the need for a pole. We probably won’t use it much as trade winds will mean a spinnaker probably isn’t even needed downwind, but for lighter air days, this will fill our last spot.

Fifth Choice – Symmetric Spinnaker
0.75 oz with ATN Tacker and sock to make handling easier.

If we had the budget, our first two replacements would probably be a new 135% jib to replace our two older ones, and a modern asymmetric spinnaker.


What sails do you carry?