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Sails for the Racer/Cruiser: Can You Build Dual Purpose Sails?

April 14, 2016

Racing and cruising: can one boat really do it all? If you’re willing to make a few compromises, it can … if you have the right sails. With the right stretch and weight fabric, and a closer look at your spinnaker, you can race your cruising boat this summer with dual-purpose sails.

The Racer/Cruiser - The cruising boat Greatful Red races at the 2016 Quantum Key West Race Week. Photo by Sara Proctor.

Most hard core racing sailors scoff at the notion that you can have one boat that will enable you to both race and cruise. After all, is it really reasonable to expect that you can race effectively while carrying your house around with you? Making a boat suitable for dual purpose usage also invariably entails compromises to the ergonomics that make racing a boat easier. Cockpit seats and cabin tops get in the way. But for many the logistics of owning two boats just aren’t practical or economically feasible. They want to race and are stuck with using the boat they also daysail and cruise on.

One of the big expenses with racing a cruising boat is sails. Again, in a perfect world we would have two separate sail inventories. A set for cruising and one specifically for racing. If you have the budget, and don’t mind swapping sails out every time you change modes, go wild! For most of us this is not really an option given our more limited resources. The question for the rest of us is can I buy sails that are truly dual-purpose?

The answer is a qualified maybe. It depends on the type of sail and how competitive you want to be. There are sails that can do double duty pretty well if you are willing to accept a weight penalty. The good news is that the two most important characteristics that make a great racing sail, the design and the shape can be the same. The other critical ingredient is stretch. Racing sails use construction techniques and types of fiber that provide the lowest possible movement so that the design shape stays intact throughout the range. Fortunately these same approaches are available for cruising sails. 

Modern racing sails (like Quantum’s Fusion M) are usually made using a custom fiber network of high modulus fibers like aramids (technora, twaron) and carbon sandwiched between thin films. Modern high performance cruising sails can be made using the same process and same fiber, so they can have the same great low stretch characteristics as a full on race sail. The key difference comes in the exterior skins that protect the fiber package. The films used in racing sails cannot provide the toughness against chafe, wear, and tears, nor can they protect the fiber against UV. Cruising sails typically use woven polyester exterior skins (called “taffetas” in the trade) to protect the fiber package. Taffetas come in various weights for different boat sizes and applications. They add significant weight, but are critical to insure long term durability. 

So, if weight is not a critical issue for an upwind sail, you can have the same design, shape, and stretch characteristics of a grand prix race version. Mainsails and headsails intended for use in more than 10 knots of breeze are perfect candidates for dual purpose construction. Mainsails, supported by mast and battens, actually set up reasonably well even in lighter conditions. The only sail where weight is a critical issue are light jibs and genoa. This is where the heavy taffetas are a real penalty since they keep the sail from filling, lifting and taking the designed shape.

There is a new intermediate alternative to woven polyester taffetas. Lite Skin, which is a filament fortified film made by Dimension Polyant. While it is not a direct substitute for woven taffetas, it does provide additional chafe and wear resistance at a much lighter weight. It can be used on one or both sides of the sail. For a weight comparison LS adds 30 grams per square meter and the lightest woven taffeta adds 53gsm. This means that LS is only adding a couple of kilos to a typical sail for a 30-40 boat. It offers a good way to beef up and potentially add durability to a racing sail for a relatively small weight penalty.

Downwind sails are the other part of the equation. Symmetrical spinnakers are rarely used on cruising boats for an obvious reasons, so I would not put them into the category of dual purpose usage. Asymmetrical spinnakers are commonly found on cruising and racing boats so there is a logical crossover. Often asymmetrical designed specifically for cruising are somewhat smaller than their racing brethren, but there is no reason why they have to be. When you work with your sail designer ask them to consider the relevant rule you will be racing under, and talk to them about the target wind angles and speeds you intend to use the sail. Is it a close reaching sail or one optimized for broad reaching and running. This will have a big impact on the sizing and shaping of the sail and determine weather it really can be used effectively as a dual purpose sail. Ask also about the type of nylon fabric being used. There are better (lower stretch) grades used for racing, and cruising asymmetrical are also built out of heavier material than would be used for the same purpose.

The bottom line is that with some relatively small compromises you can make sails for many applications that can be used equally effectively for racing and cruising. 

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