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Optimising a vessels’ rig for Tradewind sailing



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What is the issue?
Tradewind sailing is synonymous with extended periods of down-wind sailing. In the traditional or un-modified sailing vessel's wardrobe, the sails of choice for this point-of-sail will be the spinnaker or the goose-wing sail arrangement.

Both of these sail arrangements are high maintenance set-ups that require constant vigilance and make reefing either impossible or highly complicated. This is far from ideal in a situation where boisterous conditions can quickly develop and, with the wind coming from astern, the boat will most likely be rolling, from gunwale to gunwale in some cases. These set-ups simply do not lend themselves to vessels with a small crew running downwind, day after day, for extended periods and are entirely inconsistent with a relaxed cruising experience.

Why address this?
Anyone preparing to do extended cruising will spend an enormous amount of time in the Tradewinds.
Working a spinnaker 24x7 for weeks on end is just not feasible. Goose-winging with a poled-out jib and a main secured by a preventer is somewhat better but not much, and it forces a vessel to round up to put a reef in which is a simply torturous procedure.

Likewise running before the trades is not as straightforward as you might be lead to think. The 15 to 18 knots of warm breeze over the transom accompanied by blue skies, fluffy white clouds and long gentle ocean swell, which is the picture postcard version of Tradewind sailing, can vary dramatically from the reality. Some years the trades blow 25 to 30 knots and churn up massive waves, while at other times they die out for weeks at a time. Changes also occur with dramatic rapidity when line squalls bowl in astern as often as not accompanied by heavy rain and strong winds. In reality, a deep ocean Tradewind passage will most likely experience all of these conditions at one time or another.

So you have to prepare a special Tradewind set up, that is easy to fly, easy to reef, largely looks after itself and can handle all eventualities. Get this right and Tradewind sailing will be easily managed.

How to address this?
Use a modified rig set-up to optimise the yacht for down-wind Tradewind sailing. Life will be more agreeable with a boat that is set up with a twin headsail Tradewind rig and associated supporting spinnaker gear as set out below.

Tradewind optimised sailing rig
Image: Michael Harpur

The standard yacht sailing rig requires the following equipment to be added to the vessel to achieve this Tradewind set-up:

  • 1 x Headsail furling roller foil that has a twin luff groove. You may already have this, as we did, because most cruising furling systems have twin luff grooves as standard.

  • 1 x Additional Genoa. This does not have to be new or in great condition. We found a sailmaker with a second-hand sail that was very tired looking and had it cut down to match the existing genny. If you have the option, cut it as low as you can in order to lower the centre of effort so as to minimise roll. If the two headsails have different luff lengths a pennant can be used on the shorter headsail to make them the same.

  • 1 x Extra spinnaker pole, the lighter the better.

  • 1 x Additional connection point added to the centre of each spinnaker pole for the up-haul (green lines in the diagrams above and below) to connect and hold it aloft. This fixing point can be simply added by fastening a shackle down to the top of the pole with a large hose clip and then covering any sharp edges with insulating tape to prevent chafe.

  • 1 x Additional sturdy spinnaker pole track and slider on the mast. These need to be solidly attached and are required to enable the two poles to be independently connected simultaneously.

  • 2 x Up-haul blocks needed to be provisioned at the crosstree level and a winch and cleat to tie each of them off. These are used to raise and support the spinnaker poles.

  • 2 x Spinnaker pole up-hauls lines.

  • 2 x Blocks are required at the bow, and if necessary for routing at mid-ship, for the ‘forward adjuster’ (red lines in the diagrams above and below).

  • 2 x Forward spinnaker pole adjuster lines.

  • 2 x Aft spinnaker pole adjuster lines (blue lines in the diagrams above and below).

  • 2 x Aft spinnaker pole adjuster lines.


Tradewind optimised sailing rig plan
Image: Michael Harpur

In use, we typically got the rig set-up just before departing. We simply left the spinnaker poles high on their slides, heads down on the deck forming an inverted 'V' formation. Then, when we were clear of the shore we would put the sheets through the fittings on the end of the poles and host them out into their final configuration as presented in the diagrams and tighten everything down. We often sailed like this, on one sail, waiting for the wind to come round astern so that we could hoist the second sail. The rig just sits in place and needs no attention once set up.

Tradewind optimised sailing rig side view
Photo: Michael Harpur

When it came to raising the second sail we dropped the genny and then hoisted it again with our second sail alongside it in the second luff in the foil. It can be a bit stiff raising up both sails at the same time and the luff groove should be positioned to be facing forward when pulling them up . Otherwise, with the groove facing aft, the wind blows the sails around the foil adding a measure of friction that makes it very difficult to hoist both sails together. You will need someone to feed the two bulky sails into the foil and keep them running in smoothly.

Feeding the sails into the twin-luff foil
Photo: Michael Harpur

We only had one halyard available so we had to hoist the two headsails at the same time. A better approach would be to be able to hoist the second sail independently so it can be raised and discarded as needed.

We easily managed to achieve a very large sail area via this approach, yet all the elements were fixed in place so that the sails were under complete control at all times. Once set up all the lines lead back to the cockpit so most sail management can be controlled by a solo sailor, often without leaving the safety of the cockpit. Once they were hoisted, the rig to the largest part took care of itself and the system is reasonably tolerant of wind shifts.

Underway with the optimised rig
Photo: Michael Harpur


The best part of this system is that the sails can be easily and quickly reefed by the headsail furling system. If the wind developed or a squall came along all that was required for the two headsails was to slowly ease the sheets and furl the sails until the desired amount was still showing, or indeed entirely removed. When we experienced sudden squalls where the wind veered we found we could simply let the stalling sail go and it would lay flat on the working headsail until the wind shifted back when it could be reset by simply sheeting in again.

The same system can also be used to securely fly a spinnaker as shown at the top of the page in the header shot. Sadly, there is nothing that we found we could do to lessen the dreaded downwind roll. We hoisted the mainsail out to the full and sheeting it down flat tight on the centreline. All it did was slap and bang to the noise.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, with thanks to Bernie and Sue McDonald, Yacht New Liver Bird.
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