Sails for the Circumnavigator

Circumnavigation is no easy feat. It requires a boat, sails, and hardware that all stand up to the elements. Quantum’s Dave Flynn has reviewed case studies on sail options and materials for a Passport 545 and a Valiant 40. Read on for some of his recommendations and insights on what to consider when building an inventory for circumnavigation.

Materials Overview and Considerations

For both case studies, I have suggested a classic woven polyester (Dacron) and Fusion MC composite membrane option. Based on the size of the sail and loading differential, the fiber type would change. For the Valiant 40, the Fusion MC 4000 composite uses a polyester fiber network. For the Passport 545, the Fusion MC 6500 uses a carbon/Technora fiber map. Both the woven and composite versions are equally rugged, though the Fusion MC composite holds its shape better initially and over time. (For differences between sail life as a triangle and as an airfoil, read How Long Do Sails Last.)

There are various pre-made materials available to use in paneled tri-radial constructions, including Hydranet, Fibercon, and Radial Dacron. Hydranet, a spectra-reinforced woven material, has been used in tri-radial applications with success. Hydranet makes a durable sail with slightly better performance and no mildew issues, though round-the-world sailors won’t typically have mildew issues because their sails are in constant use.

Woven Materials

All top cloth makers (Contender, Bainbridge, Challenge, and Dimension) provide various grades of woven polyester, distinguished primarily by their stretch characteristics. The lower the stretch, the higher the cost. Typically, each manufacturer refers to their top-of-the-line options as HA (high aspect). The only downside to these fabrics is that their same relatively small fibers produce a dense weave and low stretch and more quickly burn up in the sun. For extended cruising applications, some additional stretch is the penalty for using slightly larger yarns that maintain their tear strength over time. All woven sails for these two boats are spec’d with Contender Supercruise. Comparable products include Challenge HMW, Bainbridge Ocean Premium, and Dimension Heavy. All could be spec’d with HA fabrics if better performance is the primary design criteria.

Composite Materials

Composites for cruising sails have come a long way since they were introduced in the mid-1980s. The latest generation of membrane style construction effectively eliminates the paneled jigsaw puzzle approach with a one-piece integrated fiber network that addresses sail loadings holistically. Issues of de-lamination have largely been addressed with advances in lamination technique and adhesives. Composites also offer dramatically better shape life and gains in initial performance, particularly as the boat size and loads increase. There are almost no sails for boats over 65 feet that aren’t constructed of some form of composite material. This is proof of the viability of modern membrane composite construction.

Case Study 1: Passport 545

In my mind, the P545 rig setup is where cruising boats are headed. With two headstays, one behind the other, this setup allows for a big sail and a small sail to always be available with just the twist of a furling system; there’s no need to change sails. The foretriangle is balanced relative to mainsail area, lessening the need for a big, overlapping genoa. Cruising sailors can take a cue from racing boats: Lose the overlapping headsail! And easier tacking makes short-handed sailing much more manageable. The Passport 545 is flexible in how it can be set up, offering an option for a small self-tacking jib on the aft stay or a larger, but usually non-overlapping sail trimmed from conventional tracks. Tracks inboard and outboard provide a full range of options to properly sheet the sail on all points of sail. On the outer stay, you can opt for a big genoa or a specialized reaching sail (Code Zero). The P545 also comes in a tall or ICW (intracoastal waterway height) version. My favorite setup is the tall rig with a maximum size non-overlapping jib on the inner stay and a Code Zero on the outer stay. Throw in an A2 running asymmetrical for the long downwind legs and a storm jib set on a separate removable stay as insurance against really nasty weather, and away you go.


With an in-mast furling mainsail, the one question that always comes up is the use of vertical battens. The Selden spar is designed for use of vertical battens. Selden spars will help clean up the leech and minimize the need for leech cord. Their downside is service work. The pockets are a natural point of wear. In a worst-case scenario, they can compromise the function of the system, jamming and keeping the sail from rolling properly. In my mind, the downside risk is not worth the gain. You have already accepted the sail design constraint of an in-mast system, and you are headed around the world. Keep it simple.

Upwind Headsails

I prefer the full-sized non-overlapping sail for the best combination of handling ease and performance. An overlapping genoa is only necessary in a light air area. For maximum ease of use, go with the self-tacking jib, but make provisions for sheeting to the rail by adding the additional track. The self-tacking jib is small enough that when it’s partially furled it will probably not require a storm jib as well.

Reaching and Off-wind Sails

With any luck, reaching and running are the points of sail where you will spend most of your time. While a genoa is a better reaching sail than a small jib, a Code Zero is a much better reaching sail than the genoa. A careful balance of size, shape, and lighter material will make a code sail much more useful, and a conventional furler makes it totally reliable and easy to use. Most Passport owners tell me this is the sail they use the most. For broad reaching and running, there is no substitute for a traditional asymmetrical spinnaker. I would go for a full-sized A2 runner optimized for the broadest angles possible. An ATN spinnaker sock is my choice, given its simplicity and reliability. Top-down furlers are also an option, but consider their pros and cons, particularly for a large-girth running sail.

Storm Sails

An in-mast furling mainsail pretty much eliminates the need for a storm trysail in my mind. It’s easy to make the sail small enough; it has no battens and, when partially furled, is not all that dissimilar in size and shape to a trysail. In the self-tacking furling jib configuration, I think the sail is small enough to work as a storm sail. If using one of the large jib/genoa options, a storm jib set on a separate removable stay makes sense.

Case Study 2: Valiant 40

The Valiant 40 is the quintessential classic cutter rig, designed in an era when furling systems were just becoming an option. The rig proportions, with a large foretriangle and relatively small mainsail, call for a good-sized headsail as the primary furling sail. A non-overlapping sail isn’t really an option unless you’re sailing in a very windy place. Ultimately, you want a second, smaller jib for heavy air work and as a backup if the primary sail is damaged. Quantum has evaluated a number of 95-percent to 100-percent working jibs for the Valiant 40 and determined that the issue with them is the need to change from big to small sail. By the time a change is necessary, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for a short-handed crew. As a classic cutter, the staysail is too small to be this working jib, though it makes a great storm jib.


The conventional mainsail is simple and reliable. Sail size, shape control, structure, and handling should be optimized by the use of full-length battens. I prefer two deeply spaced slab reefs (15 percent and 32 percent of luff length) as opposed to three. The hardware isn’t there for three; having two slightly bigger reefs makes more sense. Full-length battens demand proper battens and hardware. Custom E-glass/epoxy RBS battens are spec’d and batten luff receptacles are mandatory. Consider a track system such as Tides, Antal, or Harken.

Upwind Headsails

See notes in Case Study 2: Valiant 40 intro.

Reaching and Off-wind Sails

The large genoa is a good reaching option, so a Code Zero is not as important. A Code Zero could be added on a separate free-flying furling system with a torsional rope, but the first sail I would add is an all-purpose (A3) asymmetrical. Since it covers a wider range of conditions, I would not build a full runner (A2), but would go for a slightly reduced girth sail. Since the J is so large, the foot length needs to be shortened as well (1.7 x J). If you don’t shorten the foot length, the sail will have too low of an aspect ratio. An ATN spinnaker sock is my preferred method for handling the sail.

Storm Sails

The staysail covers the storm jib requirement, since it is only a few square meters larger than a storm jib. A trysail on a separate mast track could be useful, as it reduces wear-and-tear on the mainsail.

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The Discussion