Offshore Sails: What you need, What can happen, How to prepare

Published on August 12th, 2015

Skip Novak is an icon in the sport of sailing with both extensive racing and cruising resumes. Novak is a four-time Whitbread Round the World Race competitor, co-skippered the 33-meter catamaran ‘Innovation’ in The Race Around The World, and recent recipient of the prestigious Blue Water Medal by the Cruising Club of America for his many years of cruising and exploring the Antarctic.

With Novak now working with Ullman Sails as a brand ambassador, Scuttlebutt editor Craig Leweck checked in for advice regarding offshore sails….

What are the design and construction differences between inshore race sails and offshore race sails?

In terms of the designs of inshore and offshore racing sails, I see little or no standard differences – inshore conditions can be windy and rough, and offshore weather can be light and variable. You want maximum power in either application.

However for offshore racing you might consider opting for higher-clewed heavy weather jibs for close reaching (assuming you have a selection of headsails and are not on furlers). Once you crack the sail over the lifelines a deck-sweeping sail will scoop up lee bow waves, enough of this can cause the sail to pop. Offshore racers might also look at more hollow leeches for those sails. Over long distances loose-leech flogging will eventually open up the sail’s tabling and seams.

Construction-wise it is simple – inshore racing sails can have a much lighter cloth specification and less detailing. It is safe to say sails built for serious offshore racing will experience many more hours of use and therefore they need to be more durable, and more robust. In reality, that means the sail will be heavier.

What are the common sail failures when sailing offshore?

SN: I believe chafe is the number one killer of sails. Certainly on rigs with radical sweptback spreaders, chafe on the mainsail is the price to pay. Chafing does not only impact the sails in the static position, which can be mitigated to some extent with spreader patches, but also at times when the sea condition is such that it is too rough to head up and relieve the load on the main. Reefing up or down in this sea state with the sail full means dragging the fabric and stitching across the rig, which can’t be avoided.

On headsails problems rarely occur in the middle of the sail but instead on leeches and luff tapes from persistent flogging. Luff tape condition needs to be monitored. Chafe left unchecked, especially at the top of the foil, can lead to a complete luff tape failure with dramatic consequences. A safety lashing through grommets or sewn in webbing loops around the foil near the head is a good and simple system of security to prevent losing the sail should this occur.

Skip Novak Ullman Sails 1What are the tools/equipment/materials to bring along to repair sails when sailing offshore?

Unless you have a racing catamaran (without the cruising caravan accommodation in between hulls), it is usually a struggle to do repairs on deck in the elements or in the confined spaces below. You have to think in terms of a quick and dirty fix until you get to the next port for a proper loft repair.

For seam and fabric blowouts, you need glue to stick the parts together. A roll of wide fabric will also be necessary for between seam tears as an overlapping patch. The type of fabric will determine the type of glue, but a few liters of contact cement and a box of Sika-Flex with gun will do you right for most. Usually a few stitches at the ends or corners of a glued repair is enough to prevent edges from lifting, but the glue does the main job.

Acetone is handy to dry the pieces before gluing in a wet environment, but care must be taken to store this safely. Reattaching clew rings and sewing through multiple layers of edges of sails will require heavy waxed rigging twine, plenty of big sail needles, palms (don’t forget the south paws in your crew), awls, a hammer and punches, and a drill bits and motor to punch through heavy fabric and webbings. A block of hard wood is also a must to save your interior furniture.

What are the rookie mistakes when sailing offshore that lead to sail problems?

Accepting that the sail was constructed properly and the correct material was specified for the sail’s intended purpose, there are two factors that determine longevity – UV exposure and mishandling. Both can be controlled to a great extent.

It seems obvious but make sure you have UV covers on the leeches of your furling headsails and that every time the main comes down you put the sail cover on. Consider every hour the sail is under a cover as increasing its life. Of course mishandling is the road to catastrophic failure of a sail.

Flogging is probably the most common mistake, but is easily mitigated. For racers a certain amount of flogging is acceptable, and with a well-trained crew is kept to a minimum, as altering course is a no-no! For cruisers altering course doesn’t matter when you need to unfurl or furl a sail. To bear away, put the wind just aft of the beam and do it all in control with no flogging, preset the trim while still down wind (easy to do as there is no load) and then come up with hand steering or by autopilot to course. Couldn’t be easier – or safer.

I suppose the other mistake from inexperienced sailors is the scourge of electric winches. They can literally pull a sail apart. Very hard to do when you put the grunt in manually!

For someone that is to race offshore, and is not getting new sails, what should they be concerned about to insure their sails are prepared?

SN: First off, get the sails into a loft, spread them out and do a very thorough check, seam-by-seam, grommet-by-grommet, and fitting-by-fitting.

If the sails are long in miles, then stitching on seams and on leeches might have to be checked over. Are the leech lines functional? Pull them out and rerun. Webbing on sliders or rings might need to be replaced if worn. Are the luff tapes on the headsails sound or full of ‘niks?’ If suspect, replace. These are all cost-effective mitigating measures.

And take a good look at the material. Is it really ready for a long offshore sail, or only fit to help fill the dumpster? Have a feel. Because of UV damage the material will eventually break down and become brittle. This is not to be trusted no matter how much you have gone over the detailing on the sail. In this case, best check your wallet.

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