Sailing Out of Range

Taking a sail out of its designed range and making it work

In a perfect world (certainly in this sailmaker’s one), we would have a sail for every racing condition. This would mean a graduated series of headsails with six- to eight-knot optimum wind ranges. Four would be about right to take us up into the low 20s. 

Many one-design classes eliminate this option, limiting the number of headsails and controlling sizing in the hopes of keeping costs down. This sometimes backfires since the wear and tear of using one or two primary sails just means they need replacing more often. For handicap sailors it is nice to have a full quiver of sails even if we don’t bring all of them for every race. It is also nice to have a flexible mainsail capable of taking us through the whole range. 

Unfortunately, sailboat racing being what it is, it is not always easy to have the right sail up at the right time. Invariably the breeze ends up dropping or building unexpectedly, and we all know how painful a sail change can be. This is especially true when just as we make the change, things go back to the way they were. There is also a good argument for keeping things simple and light and minimizing the number of sails we drag around. The key is being able to take a sail out of its designed range and make it work. There are a number of tricks to turn that medium/heavy headsail into a light-air sail. We can also turn that sail into a heavy-air headsail if the pressure is on.

Down Range

In modern swept-back-spreader fractional rigs, tuning has a big impact on powering up sails. In one-design classes rig tensions are well defined, but regardless, the principle is always the same. Less overall tension allows the headstay to sag more since the aft-swept uppers and lowers pull back and tension the forestay. Sag generates power in the headsail. A softer rig may also allow the middle of the rig to sag to leeward. This effectively adds luff curve and power to the mainsail. 

Finally, a soft rig allows for more pre-bend which keeps you from having to add backstay to get the mainsail to set up properly. If the mast is too straight, the sail will have a round, knuckled entry. You can go pretty far on many designs in terms of how soft the rig can be. Leeward shrouds should be floppy with the upper just going soft. You have overdone it only if the headstay is so loose that it bounces and makes the headsail unstable. For more traditional masthead rigs with in-line or slightly swept spreaders, you cannot make radical changes to athwartship tuning. You can make sure the backstay is completely off and generate as much headstay sag as possible.

For all headsails luff tension should be soft. There should be a hint at least of horizontal wrinkles coming back off the luff perpendicular to the headstay. Ease the halyard until these wrinkles show up. Do not over trim! The sheet will need to be eased from normal position: a little farther off the spreader or out from the middle if using non-overlapping headsails. Since the sheet is eased, the lead will need to go forward (or down if you have athwartship jib leads) to round up the foot and keep the top from twisting off. We need the whole sail. Weight can be relaxed to help with the helm, which also means the headsail trimmer can be in. The sheet should be played constantly in puffs and lulls so that the driver does not have to chase the tell tales.

The mainsail should also be as full and powerful as possible. Outhaul eased. Backstay off. Do not over trim! (Sound familiar?) Ease the mainsheet (make sure the vang is off completely) to allow the top of the mainsail to remain open. Ideally the top telltale will fly. Pull the traveler up so that the boom is at least on the centerline to power up while keeping the top of the mainsail open.

Up Range

In many ways we just need to flip everything we did to power up. If we have adjustable rig settings, we need to go tight to minimize headstay sag. This will also allow us to use maximum backstay without turning the mainsail inside out. The leeward upper shrouds should not go loose even if the lowers and intermediates do. The mast should now be straight with no sag in the middle. For conventional masthead rigs, we need to be able to use maximum backstay without over-bending the mast. Check-stays may be required to prevent over-bend (evidenced by the mainsail developing diagonal wrinkles from clew to mid-mast).

For headsails, it is time to get rid of horizontal wrinkles, using enough halyard to smooth them out. Do not get too carried away. Avoid a vertical wrinkle up the luff. We can trim harder, but be careful not to close the top leech off. 

If the headsail looks perfect and the mainsail is flogging to keep the boat on its feet, we need to change the setup. The first step is easing the lead aft or up, if using athwartship tracks. This will flatten the foot and open the upper leech. Twisting the leech depowers the sail. If you have the luxury of athwartship tracks, it may be as simple as allowing the lead to move outboard. 

Ultimately, we want to de-power the mainsail and headsail evenly. Each should be doing some luffing. On smaller boats with high horsepower-to-weight ratios you will need to get even more radical. Play the sheet just as you would the mainsheet. Ease just a little in the puffs and grind back in when things get lighter. This again promotes a balanced shedding of power between the two sails.

The mainsail should be board-flat with maximum outhaul, backstay, and enough luff tension to remove any horizontal wrinkles. The mainsheet and traveler need to be played aggressively. The traveler will be down to control the overall amount of power. The mainsheet is the quick-release valve. Ease to keep heel under control. Wind on in the lulls.

Above all, sail at a constant angle of heel. Forget the headsail telltales. Feather the boat in puffs (let it come up); don’t fight. The ultimate goal is a steady state. We want to avoid vacillating between too much heel and not enough. It’s better to err on the side of speed. It’s much easier to manage puffs when up to speed. They will kill you if you are slow. 

You may need to get radical. I’ll never forget suffering through a miserable, slow first beat and accidentally kicking the up-down jib lead out of the cleat at the leeward mark (which let the clew go way up and totally dumped the top of the sail) and taking off. We all just looked at each other and said, “leave it.”

Just a few tips and tricks to turn your headsail into “the headsail.”

Questions? Email David Flynn at


This content was originally published on Spinsheet.

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