How to squeeze more speed from your sailing yacht

26 March 2021by Marilyn Mower

Faster is almost always possible. Here's how to squeeze every ounce of speed from your sailing yacht and turn a middle-of-the-pack cruiser into a regatta champion...

You love your boat. It meets your needs, you know how to sail it well and it’s packed with stories all ending in the phrase “good times”. But last season’s disappointing result couldn't really be blamed on one bad race; the truth is, your boat isn’t sailing up to its rating anymore. So how can you soup up your superyacht?

We put this scenario to three project managers and a few equipment makers: imagine a 33- to 40-metre performance cruiser, four to eight years old. What could an owner do to boost performance (short of a major refit) for club, Bucket, point-to-point or short course windward-leeward racing?

From rigging to bowsprits, owners have a number of options for improving their race results.
Picture credit: Sailing Energy/Superyacht Cup Palma

Ben Stitt, of yacht consultancy Cornelsen & Partner, says that assuming that a new bowsprit or spinnaker will definitely turn things around is not the right approach. “Gear only wins races up to a point,” he says. “Quite often, a top-notch navigator, tactician, helm and race captain will be the difference on the circuit.”

But your gear can definitely be past its prime. “A lot of the fleet that is eight to 10 years old still has Nitronic 50 steel rigging,” says Adrian Pawson, who works in system development for Southern Spars. “It may pass the rigging survey, but it’s heavy.” Switching to carbon rigging might see a 75 per cent weight reduction, says Sam Watson, Southern Spars Group CEO. “It may take 400 to 600 kilograms out of the weight aloft. On a performance cruiser with a 70,000-kilogram displacement, that’s huge.” It’s relative, though. “Saving 600 kilograms on a 600-tonne cruiser like a big Perini isn’t going to put it up with the racing boats,” points out Pawson, “but it might reduce the heel angle by one or two degrees and that is going to bring more comfort to guests on the sundeck.”

Magic Carpet3 is often upgraded to keep it at the top.
Image Credits: Guillaume Plisson

Among the high-tech racer-cruiser fleet, the poster child for upgrades is the Wallycento Magic Carpet3. At launch in 2013, it was the raciest thing out there, says Watson. Captain Danny Gallichan and owner Sir Lindsay Owen-Jones have constantly updated the boat. “In 2018 they asked us if there was anything left in the tank,” recalls Watson. By “us”, he means the full arsenal of North Technology Group, which has a suite of software for running simulations on masts, rigs and sails – load cases they call it – that factor in usage. “We looked at the mast tube and our simulation suggested that a larger diameter tube with thinner walls would have the same stiffness and would let us lose one set of spreaders.” The new carbon fibre mast is 120 kilograms lighter, enough to offset the drag and then some. “The real difference is that the mast relies less on spreader tension to stay in-column; it’s better for the boat,” Watson adds. Plan ahead: a mast for a TP52 requires 16 weeks to build and deliver; a mast for a 36-metre yacht will take about six months.

Magic Carpet3 also opted to install Future Fibres’ AEROsix rigging, a premium product of ECsix multi- strand rigging that combines thin carbon strands and flat carbon bar in an elliptical shape. The covering on the rigging has a dimpled surface that, like a golf ball, reduces vortex drag. Designed for high-performance boats and Maxis, the Swan 98, ClubSwan 125 and Royal Huisman’s 60-metre MM597 will all carry AEROsix.

A new mast and rigging can save on weight as well as reduce vibration.
Image Credit: AEROsix

Benefits of multi-strand rigging include reduction in vibration and drag. All carbon rigging suppliers – Future Fibres in Spain, Navtec Rigging Solutions in the US, Carbo-Link in Switzerland and SmartRigging in the Netherlands as well as other large suppliers – still manufacture both solid carbon rod and multi-strand bundled products because there are applications for both. Carbo-Link makes an elliptical solid rod. Rod has a slightly smaller diameter and thus less windage, but multi-strand is more forgiving – a crack in a rod could travel through its entire dimension and fail while a crack in a strand won’t go farther than that strand. Multi-strand rigging should last the life of the boat and you can upgrade it in stages.

Peter Wilson, co-founder of MCM, notes that the initial thing an owner in search of more speed should do is remove unnecessary weight by ruthlessly exploring all lockers and storage spaces and storing spares, etc, ashore. Check if the boat’s anchors can be reduced, while still complying with the Lloyd’s equipment list. Relocating the anchor chain locker farther aft can also help. For distance racing, consider a water filtration system to eliminate the need to carry bottled water.

The Swan 98 carries AEROsix rigging.
Image Credits: Dan-Eric Olsen

Next to consider is upgrading or replacing your steering system. “This might include hiring a naval architect to design a more high aspect rudder,” suggests Wilson. “At any rate, see if you can reduce the gap between the top of the rudder and the hull.”

If you've had new sails, check whether the deck hardware placement is optimised for your current inventory and sailing programme. Chances are your new sails sheet farther inboard. Move the head sail tracks and replace blocks with the latest and lightest. Installing code sails that furl removes the need for spinnaker poles. “Top-down furling is a must for superyachts,” says Jens Christensen of North Sails. These sails can eliminate extra crew on the bow.

Modern moulded sails can be lighter and improve pointing ability.
Picture credit: Raphael Demaret/ North Sails

Adding a bowsprit is a significant change to a boat – and can impact a yacht’s rating. Christensen advises you ask yourself, with any upgrade you're considering: “Are you deliberately looking to change your rating or change your class, or maximise performance where you are?” A new bowsprit involves major surgery – and expense.

Christensen adds that a boat set up for sailing in the typically light air of the Med will need new lines for the bigger winds and seas of a Caribbean season. “Safety is the most important; old sheets that could go another season in the Med will break in the loading of an 18- to 20-knot breeze in St Barths when the crew is going for that last five inches to flatten a sail.” 

The new “one head sail rule” adopted by some regattas as an optional class is a bit of a misnomer, he says. “It’s been exploited. Yes, they have one head sail on the boat for race day, but they have four other sails [of different weights and sizes] on the dock.”

Yachts will need different tweaks and amendments depending on which waters you are normally sailing in.
Image Credits: Nico Martinez

A code sail – a flatter, asymmetrical, free-flying headsail unattached to a permanent stay or foil on its leading edge – is a fairly new development. Typically, these sails relied on cable to maintain shape, but new sail engineering means the load once taken by the cable is now distributed through the sail by a load path constructed by integral tape or the very fibre of the sail. Called Cable-less Structured Luff by Doyle or Helix Luff by North, “it’s a different concept, you push more sail in front of the luff,” says Christensen. They furl to tack instead of being gybed.

“In the Maxi Worlds last year, the Maxi 72s with furling code sails found they could save 10 boat lengths over those who had to gybe. And you won’t lose it in the water on the manoeuvre.” However, for a crossing, he says, an old fashioned spinnaker “is still the best”. A range of materials – spectra, aramid, Kevlar and carbon fibre cloth and filaments – plus software have had a big impact on shaping sails. North now moulds most of its sails – both cruising and racing – resulting in weight savings of 15 to 20 per cent compared to than sewn-panel sails.

Sailing yacht G2
Image credit: Quin Bisset/ Pendennis

Stitt says the redevelopment of G2, formerly Cinderella IV, is a good example of why he cautions an owner and captain to not necessarily replace like for like when they are updating a yacht. In G2’s case, the boat was 10 years old and technology had improved. “Do a complete analysis of the yacht first, including the rig and sails, and consider the type of racing, the location and the likely competition,” Stitt says. “The naval architect will have performance prediction software, which can lead to different sail configurations, bowsprit additions or even redesign of the rudder and keel that could have an improved effect on the yacht’s hull efficiency and enhancement to the helm feedback.”

On the highest-performing yachts, practise weight control, he says. Modern material choices and construction methods, especially in interiors, can significantly reduce weight. Exchange metal awning poles for carbon fibre; do the same with gangways and ladders. But balance this against the cost: “Some things are worth the high expense of carbon or titanium and some are not,” Stitt says.

G2 has benefitted from amendments and updates
Image credit: Quin Bisset/ Pendennis

A project manager has to gauge the level to which an owner really intends to compete, says Godfrey Cray, a sailing new-build and refit veteran. He recommends establishing a top-level racing budget first, including personnel, practice days, flights, fees and chase boats, as it makes little sense to put grand prix gear on a boat without a grand prix programme. For those owners, upgrade budgets should start with items that make the boat safer and easier to operate. The committed competitor should proceed with a thorough ORC rating optimisation done with the help of a naval architect, says Cray, then it’s a matter of following the recommendations.

CHECKLIST: MAKE YOUR YACHT A SPEED MACHINE

1. Mast: a wider mast with thinner tube walls might be lighter and eliminate a set of spreaders

2. Keel: a telescoping keel may reduce turbulence and allow deeper draught for upwind sailing

3. Rudder: a re-engineered high-aspect rudder might improve handling, with or without tweaks to the steering gear

4. Rigging: elliptical multi-strand rigging vibrates less than rod, reducing windage

5. Bowsprit: extend the foretriangle without increasing mast height

6. Furling code sails: new top-down furling sails tack faster, remove the need to gybe and keep extra crew off the bow during manoeuvres

7. Hull: strip the bottom paint all the way back to the hull and re-fair, then apply a new super-slick surface

8. Tender: consider a smaller, lighter version, and carbon fibre chocks

9. Dump the junk: empty lockers of items that really belong in your shore container

10. New jib tracks: match new tracks to suit sheeting angles

11. Flat-top main: increase light-air downwind performance with increased sail area

12. Move the chain locker: doing this distributes weight farther aft

13. Upgrade to titanium: even if it’s a few pieces at a time, go with lighter fittings. Start at the ends of the boat. Even stainless winch caps can be replaced with titanium

14. Replace sheets and halyards: use new, lighter, less stretchy Dyneema lines

15. Replace the deckhouse: it is major surgery, but a carbon deckhouse will save tonnes, and you can upgrade the glass to a lighter, more heat-reflective surface at the same time

16. Water woes: stop dragging bottled water around (each litre of fresh water weighs 1kg) by installing RO with taste filters. You'll reduce waste, too

This feature is taken from the April 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.