Choosing the right sails for you, cruising, racing, single-handed or crewed

When it comes to sails there is always a lot of confusion, between names and acronyms, incomprehensible names of traditional and exotic materials. No wonder it’s the perfect territory for eternal yacht club pub discussions. Everyone has their say often with the only result of having spent a pleasant evening with friends.

The truth is that there is no perfect sail, nor one suitable for everyone, nor for all conditions. If you add cost to the equation, it is often difficult to extricate yourself from what appears to be an infinite tangle of possibilities. In fact, there are many combinations of finishes, cuts and materials.

The first question you must ask yourself, answering honestly, is the one relating to the use you will make of the boat. Your navigation intentions should be the number factor on which to base your choices. Both the cost and the characteristics of the sails must be suitable for your plans.

If you only use the boat cruising, your main concerns should be relating to the cost and duration of the sails. There are a ton of articles describing the various types of construction for mainsail and headsails, furling or battened sails. You can search for them online and there’s no point for me to repeat easily available information.

Start of the 2009 OSTAR, with mainsail and jib (furled) in Dacron and A1
Start of the 2009 OSTAR, with mainsail and jib (furled) in Dacron and A1


Your navigation program

Dacron is the main material for cruiser, it costs little and lasts a long time and is very resistant to both UV rays and mistreatment. Do these qualities make Dacron also suitable for offshore racing where reliability is an important factor? Reliability of a sail can count more than its overall performance. For example, at my 2009 OSTAR I had a Dacron mainsail and jib, because it was the most suitable material for my needs. Mine was a cruising boat that would not have gained significantly by choosing more advanced and higher cost materials.

When I switched to the Class40 there were two problems, a mainsail and a Dacron jib of that size would have an important overall weight. Since all reefing manoeuvres of the mainsail were to  be done single-handed in the long run it would become tiring. Furthermore, it would have been difficult to maintain a good performance with a single suit of sails for a whole circumnavigation and the preceding season, Dacron stretches over time.

One possibility could have been that of having two mainsails and two jibs to make each one sail half the mileage. But by adding up the price of two cheap sets, we reached the budget needed for more advanced materials suitable for my needs. In addition, they would have been lighter and would not have lost shape. The use of these expensive fibres was justified both by the application and, ultimately, by the costs. In the end, in fact, I only used one suit, saving overall on the two sets made with poorer materials.

Navigation with Mainsail and A2
Navigation with Mainsail and A2


The weight of the sails and the effort

On boats over 40 feet weight becomes an insurmountable factor and in fact you will never see an IMOCA 60 with a Dacron mainsail. At the start of the Vendée Globe, the non-stop round the world single-handed race, Dacron would not be the wrong choice in itself. Indeed, many wear and tear problems would be solved, when single-handed it happens to be in uncomfortable situations where the materials pay the price. But, a mainsail of that size in Dacron would be too tiring to handle alone around the world. This is a practical problem even before a performance problem.

It’s all relative

Speaking of stretch, loss of shape and performance, you really need to be honest about your plans. This question arose when we were discussing my racing program. In my case, we knew that over the course of two years I would have to do about 42,000 miles. An article I read recently gave some interesting statistics. The typical English sailor sails around 2500 miles every year, an Italian one around 1000. If you fall into this category and really use the boat a few times a year every penny you spend on special materials is wasted. Your problems will be others. Good maintenance, protection from UV, mould, or damage. For example, the flapping of a badly furled jib during a storm when you are away from your boat.

Between the two extremes

Starting from these two extremes, there are obviously many options in between. There are super-tech mainsail made to satisfy needs that cannot be satisfied by a Dacron sail. There are sailboats that are used only for some summer outings. The latter category needs nothing more than the simplest Dacron canvas. Those who do some racing can still get away with it with cheap materials, perhaps replaced more frequently. Or they could approach more advanced materials that could provide good durability and good value for money.

Many racing sailors hide behind their equipment to justify that they are not that good, and start spending money chasing results. Often they do not realise that over the years and with the various sail changes they have had the opportunity to learn. As they slowly improved their results, perhaps the merit is not exclusively due to the new super light exotic fibre sail but goes down to extra miles and learning.

Laminated sails in Carbon fibre and Kevlar
Laminated sails in Carbon fibre and Kevlar


Don’t blame the sails

To give it a try and see if the problem lies in your sails you could try hiring a more experienced skipper for a day of racing. This way you can also do a check-up of the boat’s adjustments and have an expert opinion. Even better would be to spend part of the budget on hiring a trainer. A coach will give you some more tips on how to improve the handling of your boat.

A good sail in one material or another will make so little difference in the beginning. Only when you start to consistently finishing second behind the boats with exotic material sails will you have the right to speculate that it was the materials’ fault. Until then, make your admissions of guilt and look for problems elsewhere.


During my project to sail around the world on a very small budget, a basic principle applied to all choices. Every euro I spent had to be justifiable by a gain over my competitors. In this sense, if you have a very low budget for next season to try to improve your results, I will give you some advice. Do not touch anything and go out to train, you will see that things will start to improve.

The added benefit of a training program is that you get to know the boat better. The day you actually decide to change a sail, you will do it with full knowledge of the facts.

The skipper and the crew, the tactical and strategic choices, the harmony still make up 95% of the result. When you are stuck at the top of your level you may worry about how technology can help you improve performance.

Navigation with storm jib and four reefs
Laminated sails in Carbon fibre and Kevlar


Sails for sailing short-handed

If you sail with a small crew, choose a set of sails that is well suited for the reduce crew by reducing manoeuvres and their difficulty. This applies to both the cruiser and the racer. The solutions you find today to make life easier for the cruiser were not developed specifically for this market.

They come from the world of single-handed ocean racing: spinnaker socks allow solo sailors of the Vendée Globe to manage spinnakers of incredible sizes. The furlers developed for flying gennakers are now common on cruising boats to. Lazy jacks and lazy bags have always been used on offshore boats and have now become common equipment among cruising boats.

Range of use

Each sail is designed and built by imagining the conditions in which it will have to be used. One sentence you will hear is that a sail is designed to withstand the intensity of maximum wind in which it is appropriate that you use that sail. If you are caught with a light winds sail by a gust of wind, it is not the sail’s fault if it breaks.

The fault is ours for not having seen the oncoming cloud. Often when we are surprised by a reinforcement of the wind, we are lazy to reduce the canvas at the right moment. In practice we will cause damages that are exclusively due to the misuse of what we have available.

Navigation with Mainsail and A2
Navigation with Mainsail and A2 

The correct manoeuvres

To extend the life of a sail and avoid breakage, you will need to learn how to minimise the moments of stress on the materials. The fabrics rarely tear only due to the action of the wind that flows along the correct sail correctly adjusted.

It is more likely that you will tear a code zero left over its wind range, or to tear the leech of a genoa left flapping during manoeuvres. This is even more true for laminated or technologically advanced sails which, withstand well the workloads, but suffer a lot from being mistreated.

Spinnaker and Gennaker

First of all, let’s clarify the terminology to be used. Many sailors have the habit of thinking that the spinnaker is the symmetrical sail that is rigged with a pole. The gennaker would instead be that asymmetrical sail that is rigged on the bowsprit. It is not so and you have to get over it, if you take a sail maker catalogue and go to the downwind sails section it will speak of symmetrical and asymmetrical spinnakers.

In other words, the distinction between spinnaker and gennaker has nothing to do with the use of the bowsprit or pole. It is no coincidence that there are symmetrical spinnakers, which are used with the pole, and asymmetrical spinnakers which are used with the bowsprit. The gennaker, on the other hand, is a much flatter sail, often furling, designed for reaching.

Code 0 armed to two thirds of the bowsprit
Code 0 armed to two thirds of the bowsprit 

Gennaker and Code 0

A Code 0, which has only become common in the last decade, is a very flat gennaker that allows you to sail to windward. It is a sail designed for very light winds and is very delicate. However, it can take us away from delicate situations with very little wind, managing to give create some apparent wind and give pace to the boat and advance even in the the lightest airs.

The correct naming of downwind sails

We have established that there are gennakers (asymmetric only) and asymmetric and symmetrical spinnakers. In addition to these there are Code sails which by construction and characteristics are particular types of gennakers. For convenience, in the standard North Sails nomenclature, Asymmetrical sails start with the letter A, Symmetrical sails with the letter S. In addition to these we have Codes then jibs and genoas indicated by the letter J.

The letter is followed by a number, which increases according to the intensity of the wind range when we’ll use the sail. Jibs and genoas are in progressive order, J1, J2, J3, J4. As for Spinnakers, it’s all those with an even number, usually starting from S2, S4, S6 for symmetrical ones and they are for downwind work.

The asymmetric spinnakers for downwind sailing will therefore be from the largest to the smallest name A2, A4, A6 respectively. You can have an A0, which refers to the largest and lightest downwind sail achievable for the boat.

When dealing with downwind sails, if the number following the letter is odd, conceptually we are speaking of a gennaker. The A1, A3, A5 are all broad reach to reaching sails, from largest to smallest as the number increases. As a rule they should always be with free leech, without anti-torsion cable, and should count as spinnakers on your IRC certificate. If the sail is cut like a huge genoa, and uses an anti-torsion cable as its temporary stay, we enter in the world of so called Code sails. The most common is the Code 0 for very light winds, very light and very delicate and would not be possible to rate it as a spinnaker and would count as headsail under IRC rules.

Navigation with Code 0 in very light wind
Navigation with Code 0 in very light wind 

A, S, J and Code

The Code 1 is rarely heard of, while Code 3s and Code 5s can be furled on an anti-torsion cable. Being designed for stronger winds Code 3s will not sail as high as a Code 0 but will be used for broat beating to reaching and broad reaching. The Code 5 is a reaching or broad reaching sail which can be used also as a strong wind downwind spinnaker. Furled A5s are not recommended in strong winds due to the difficulty in furling them in strong winds.

On our Class40 we therefore had a Mainsail, Soleng, Staysail (jib), Storm Jib, Code Zero, A2, Code 3, Code 5, A6. I would have gladly replaced that Code 5 for an A5 but the budget was tight (NOTE: during the Global Ocean Race we were allowed an extra sail compared to the standard 8, and it was our Code 3, also we were allowed 3 exotic sails rather than 2, and our code zero was of carbon kevlar).

As a last consideration, typically sails named with the letter A or S are all made of nylon. Codes 0, 1, 3 are typically in polyester laminate (or exotic fibres where allowed). The Code 5 like the A5 is usually of heavy nylon.

Navigation with Code 3
Navigation with Code 3 


From Dacron to the most advanced technologies, the materials and cuts must be suitable for your navigation programs. Solutions that facilitate manoeuvres open up the possibility to handle the boat with a reduced crew. For the most avid racers often an examination of conscience and a lot of training will bring more results than pulling out their wallet and wasting budget on new sails.