The advances and future of sailcloth

21 January 2015 • Written by Andrew Rice
Adela uses Spectra carbon sails over string sails – the result has been sails with a working lifespan of more than 10 years

Superyachts are sailing harder and faster than ever before. Ten years ago, when big boats went racing, they weren’t so much racing as sailing around a racecourse in an orderly fashion.

Today superyachts are being raced hard, and part of the reason for that is the advance in rig technology. Masts are made out of carbon, not aluminium; nitronic rod rigging is being replaced by composite rigging; and sail construction has advanced in leaps and bounds.

As superyachts have increased in size, so the loads on the sails have increased exponentially. Sailmakers have brought all their experience and technology from the racing scene – the America’s Cup and the Volvo – and applied it to the design and construction of superyacht sails.

The scale of some of these projects is breathtaking. For example, one of the reacher sails built for S/Y Twizzle has a foot length of 32m. That’s longer than some superyachts. These are exciting times for superyachts, but with any progress comes risk. With high loads, crew safety is a real concern, and in this article we consider the merits of some different kinds of rig configuration.

The Maltese Falcon‘s automated rigging has yet to gain widespread appeal (© Roger Lean-Vercoe)

Maltese Falcon lit a new path with her revolutionary clipper rig, which proved safer and easier to handle than most conventional sail plans. Meanwhile, in the America’s Cup, BMW Oracle’s wing rig has inspired Wally yachts’ Luca Bassani to develop his own wing rig, which he claims could make superyacht sailing safer and faster.

Advances in sail technology have filtered through to superyachts, with string sails replacing more traditional panel sales, although some sailmakers question whether this has been a step backwards. In the America’s Cup, race teams are prepared to throw sails away after just a few hours of competition. Lightweight sails may be fast, but they don’t last. Surely superyacht owners should expect greater longevity from their sails, but perhaps that will require a change in regulations, maybe a specification of minimum cloth weight, for example.

Then again, you can’t stop progress, and nor would you want to. Sail technology is advancing as rapidly as ever, and perhaps the next generation of string sails will address some of the problems of longevity. For example, North Sails believes that its new 3Di technology will soon replace 3DL as the standard among performance racers.

Developed for Alinghi in the lead up to the 2007 America’s Cup, 3Di offers a big step up in terms of performance. It’s less stretch for a given amount of weight. Will the superyacht world choose the extra strength, or the lighter weight?

Materials come in all shapes and patterns, such as this sample from Doyle Sails

String vs panel: durability vs performance

Longevity is an issue in superyacht sails. It’s not that sails can’t be built to last, it’s that racing exerts such a big influence on the superyacht scene that it shapes the decisions owners and skippers make about what sails to buy. The so-called string sails, such as North’s 3DL technology, have been the strong trend of the past decade, with traditional panel sails beginning to look a little out of fashion.

However for some sailmakers, fashion is taking too much of a precedence over practicality. Bob Phillips is the owner of Doyle Sails in the US Virgin Islands. ‘The string sails have such a short life, our market here in the Caribbean is durable sails, trade wind cruising sails. We like to build a product that will go numerous times around the world for you, not sails that will wear out in a season.’

Mike Toppa of North Sails believes modern sails are delivering the goods in terms of performance, but agrees with Phillips that more could be done to create more durable sails. Neal MacDonald, the professional sailor who crewed on Highland Fling, also voices his concern about the use of such lightweight cloth. He reckons it’s probably going to take rule on minimum cloth weight for anything to change.

Ultimately it’s up to owners or skippers to decide what they want from their sails, and not to be led too much by fashion. Scott Zebny of North Sails Palma wonders if there has been too much progress for progress’ sake.

‘For a long, long time we built superyacht sails out of Spectra panels. Compared with string sails, the Spectra panel sails are much less sensitive to the environment, either in terms of humidity or temperature,’ says Zebny. ‘So that’s why you see a panel Spectra or Spectra carbon sail lasting significantly longer than any sort of string sail.

‘Spectra carbon sails are now considered kind of old-fashioned but they are very durable and reliable. I’m just getting ready to build a new mainsail for Adela as a replacement for her previous Spectra carbon sail which was built in 2000. It’s 10 years old, it’s getting tired, but it’s still going.’

_P2 _has recently ordered a high-clew sail, which is more effective than a blade for reaching and offshore sailing

Zebny says some of Adela’s other Spectra sails are even older, up to 12 years old. He believes the industry should be more responsible in pointing out the benefits of panel sails. ‘Everybody is kind of saying “well that’s old fashioned, you don’t want to sell that to customers,” but in reality, the vast majority of boats out there should have panel Spectra or Spectra carbon sails, because they only have to replace them every five or six years instead of every three or four years.

‘In the meantime, it’s a question of how do we make 3DL sails last longer,’ says Zebny. ‘We’re always working on it and we are making slow gains and are seeing more and more Superyacht 3DL sails last four to five solid years, but there’s an underlying principle of how they are put together.

‘You can throw a lot more glue at them but we’ve seen a competitor’s 2D string-type sails come to the loft that are heavier than the Spectra carbon panel sails because they’ve used tons of glue and thicker films and all that stuff. It reaches the point where you ask yourself, why wouldn’t you just do a panel sail instead?’

To illustrate the point further, Zebny tells a story about one of his colleagues at North Sails, Tom McLaughlin.

‘He’ll say to somebody, “write a cheque for another set of sails and tell me what date you’d be happy handing me this cheque. If you want that date to be four years from now and you want some really nice looking low-stretch, high-performance, lightweight sails, then you want to go for 3DL. But if you’d rather not write that cheque for five or six years, then go the panelled route – Spectra carbon or whatever’s right for your boat”.’

The WOW concept not only delivers performance increases, but is also easier to manage than a conventional sailplan

Headsail developments

Headsail technology has taken big leaps forward in the past decade. Upwind, big overlapping genoas have given way to smaller, non-overlapping jibs. Downwind, powerful sails such as gennakers and Code 0 reachers are no longer a rarity, they are becoming the norm.

Most of the advances are down to superior sail-handling systems, making it easier and safer to fly big sails without putting the crew in jeopardy. The latest developments such as top-down furling have only become possible with advances in composite cable technology.

North Sails’ Scott Zebny says the move from permanent stays to removable, lightweight stays is transforming the way they use staysails.

‘The big development is to have delivery staysails or racing staysails that you can pull up and down. This means that when you are sailing normally you don’t have to have a stay there so that you can tack the boat normally. On the big superyachts, if you’ve got a forestay you can’t really just tack the sail around the stay. You can – but what happens is that lazy sheet rubs across the furl of the staysail and just chews holes in it.

‘When you see the bucket races and you see boats with a normal, permanent Reckmann furler for their staysail stay, you typically see them furl the headsail until the clew is in front of that stay, tack the boat and then unfurl it again. So it’s slow manoeuvring. The detachable stay changes all that.’

The detachable stay has only become possible as lightweight composite alternatives have started to replace wire.

‘In the old days you had big 1:19 wire, like on Endeavour in 2000,’ says Zebny. ‘In 2001 we had a Yankee staysail on a metal stay and the thing weighed a tonne. If you tried to bring it forward and hook it in, you got tossed around because it’s so heavy the momentum of the stay lifts you up off the deck.

‘Now these things are so light it’s so much easier to handle. I think in the superyacht world that’s the big development, more than the actual sails themselves.’

Advances in sailcloth technology have meant that huge loads can be handled by the material, the temptation is to push much closer to the limit of safety

Another big development is the use of halyard locks to secure sails in their flying position, eliminating the stretch of the halyards, which are now used purely for lowering and hoisting sails. This makes it possible to keep the luffs of headsails under greater tension, although again Zebny offers a caveat:

‘The downside is that it’s nice having that halyard as a shock absorber and now without the halyard and the head of the sails locked off, the shock loading is a lot harder on the head of the sail. It’s not a major problem, it just means we need to make sure the sails are strong enough in the high-load areas to cope with the added stress.’

Downwind sails

In terms of the downwind sails, the development of Code sails is one of the most significant. Originally developed for the Volvo Ocean Race, these are asymmetric sails, not as full or as deep as a gennaker, but easier to set and forget.

Some race-oriented yachts might have two Code sails, a Code 0 and a Code 1 for different downwind angles, but most have just one, as storage space tends to be at a premium.

Zebny says the Code 0 is becoming increasingly popular in the racing scene.

‘What we are seeing is a lot of boats in the 30-35m range where you build a Code 0 type sail that furls around the furling cable and that’s a lot easier to handle than pulling a snuffer up and down, or a lot less risky because it’s a much more controlled process to furling and unfurling the sails than hoisting and lowering a snuffer on a spinnaker.

‘So a lot of boats, like Hyperion, have a Code 0-type Cuben fibre sail, and they use it all the time in the Med. When they are on trips when they are trying to go light air downwind, it’s a great sail to pull out and use because it’s much safer and much less likely to get you in trouble than a snuffer and a spinnaker.’

The DynaRig concept was first proposed in the 1960s, but it wasn’t used until Tom Perkins adopted the idea for_ Maltese Falcon_

High-clew reaching sails

Just as Maltese Falcon’s clipper rig drew her inspiration from times past, Robbie Doyle, owner of Doyle Sailmakers, believes that for better and more efficient reaching sails, we should also be looking to the past.

‘We’re seeing a lot of people using blade jibs with a low-cut clew, which is fine for sailing upwind,’ he says. ‘But if you’re doing any real ocean sailing and reaching you really need to have a higher-clew sail, which we’ve actually just built for the superyacht_ P2_.’

High-cut clews may look old-fashioned, but Doyle says they work: ‘I think our focus on the racing is so big – everybody lines upwind and you can see how different they are, and the high-clew sails are ineffective on that point of sail. But as soon as you’re reaching, the higher-clew sails are fabulous.

‘The sail gets out of the way from the mainsail and you can trim the whole sail effectively. If you have a low clew and not a wide enough boat, you can’t really trim the top of the sail at the same time as you’re trimming the rest of the sail effectively. And then when you do trim it, you can’t get it out of the way of the mainsail enough, so you end up overtrimming the main.’

An added benefit is the reduced loading on the higher-cut sails. This means they’re easier to use and they last longer, says Doyle. ‘The loading from the high-clewed sails comes way down. That’s one reason why all the old boats have high clews and why they broke the sailplan up into multiple sails. They didn’t have the fibres and the construction techniques that we have today.’

The WOW project was started 10 years ago, and saw renewed interest following BMW Oracle’s success at the last America’s Cup with the innovative wing

Wally Omer Wing (WOW)

Luca Bassani has always been ahead of his time. The president and founder of Wally, his minimalist approach to luxury yacht design has redefined the landscape, and now he wants to redefine rigs and sails for superyachts.

He first conceived of the Wally Omer Wing (WOW) 10 years ago. ‘The wing sail had proven its incredible advantages on racing multihulls, and we wanted to simplify and develop a system for cruising yachts,’ he explains.

Wally used a 10m boat to test the concept, but then joined forces with ex-fighter pilot and sailing enthusiast Ilan Gonen who had embarked on a similar project to develop his own version of a wing rig: the Omer Wing Sail.

‘I discovered that there are many similarities between flying and sailing, between airplanes and boats,’ says Gonen. ‘The most remarkable one is the use of lift force. So I asked myself, why do we try to make the sails look like wings, and why don’t we just use wings instead?’

Having combined the best of both concepts, the WOW rig uses a freestanding mast with carbon fibre frames, which support and give shape to the fully battened 3DL sail cloth, which effectively consists of two mainsails that combine to create a wing shape.

The BMW Oracle wing rig was quick, but it was also a logistical nightmare

There are two booms – one forward of the mast, and one aft – and between the two booms there is a hydraulic ram which controls the trim and camber of the wing.

‘We think this is the future,’ says Bassani. ‘It could apply to any boat because it is easier to achieve much higher performances, much easier to manage, and it’s going to last longer because you don’t have the sail flapping around.’

The project had been dormant for a while, but when BMW Oracle’s wing proved so devastating in 2009’s America’s Cup, Bassani was straight on the phone. ‘I called Ilan and I said “this is the moment”, because right then everyone was watching and they could see the power of the wing.’

The BMW Oracle wing rig was quick, but it was also a logistical nightmare, particularly lifting the delicate wing in and out of the boat. Bassani believes his rig provides the solution.

‘This sail is going to be as easy to reef and to take down as any other sail,’ he claims. ‘You have fewer sails, fewer manoeuvres, just one sheet and one control for the camber of the sail; a deeper camber for reaching or flatter camber for sailing upwind.’

Bassani has been testing the concept on two Elan 37s, trialling the WOW rig against a conventionally rigged boat, and claims a 10 to 15 per cent performance gain on most points of sail. He also claims to have generated serious interest from potential customers.

‘We have one client who wants to build a 30m yacht who is interested in this kind of rig,’ he says, ‘and also a preliminary project working with a very big multihull on which the only solution would be to have this kind of rig, because conventional sails would be too big or dangerous to handle.’

Furling technology is revolutionising the way superyachts are using their sails off-wind. Developed from offshore race yachts such as Volvo Open 70s, superyachts are beginning to use these systems for furling loose-luffed gennakers.

Safety issues

Advances in technology have enabled superyachts to grow bigger, sail faster and race harder than ever before. But with progress comes an increase of risk, both to equipment and sailor, as was seen on day one of the Loro Piana Superyacht Regatta in Porto Cervo in June 2010. A snapped jib sheet on the Dubois 45m Salperton IV resulted in one of the crew being hurled against the boom and severely injured.

Salperton’s owner, Barry Houghton, commented, ‘Maybe it is a wake-up call. Everyone has been getting more professional and aggressive. A good example: the first day we were coming down with all the chutes up. If you came to one of these regattas eight years ago only 30 per cent of the boats would have had a chute!’

If you take America’s Cup technology to go to the extreme, there’s a lot of that that you can transfer to these boats which actually makes them easier to sail

Jens Christensen, director, North Sails Denmark

Part of the reason why more superyachts are carrying chutes is because technology derived from the grand prix racing world is trickling down to the superyachts, making them easier to handle and making it possible to carry more sail.

For Jens Christensen of North Sails Denmark, such progress is a double-edged sword: ‘There’s no question we’re pushing the boats harder and harder. A lot of designers and sailors are starting to understand that if you take America’s Cup technology to go to the extreme, there’s a lot of that that you can transfer to these boats which actually makes them easier to sail – the right equipment, the right blocks, and so on – which certainly makes things doable, but then when things get doable, everybody is pushing the limit again.’

Zebny of North Sails Palma says 3Di is a big advance from 3DL, but warns of the associated risks of upgrading to a much stronger sail cloth.

‘The sails are so much less stretchy that we are seeing hardware fail,’ he explains. ‘It’s like when we went from Dacron sails to Kevlar sails, when we saw tack fittings and shackles and halyard breaking. Now we are seeing some of that same thing again in the race world, because the sails don’t give.

‘On the one hand that’s bad because you can break stuff, but on the other hand you are taking the energy and turning it into boat speed rather than just stretch.’

So it’s a matter of applying the right technology to the right place.

‘You wouldn’t take a 20 year-old 30m yacht and just stick some of these sails on there and not have a good look at what halyards he’s using,’ Zeby adds. ‘But, provided you take a good look at the rest of the equipment on board, you would probably be OK putting 3Di sails on.’

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