North Expert Tom Davis lays out your Inventory Options

For some sailors, “club racing” means a casual jib-and-main evening race aboard a well-stocked cruising boat carrying roller furlers and its anchor and chain in the bow. For others, it means a no-holds-barred weekend race aboard a Melges 32 with a full crew aboard.

best club racing sailsWhile there’s no single answer to the question,”What sails are best for club racing?” most club racers will fit into what we call the “cross-over cruiser” category, so that will be our main focus in this article. If you are a cross-over cruiser, you want to race your boat close to home, but you also want a sail inventory suited to sailing with your family and friends during the day and periodically heading out for a weekend or a week’s cruise.

If you want to compete at any level, there are a few things we would recommend prioritizing long before you ever think about choosing the right sails. For example, if you haven’t cleaned your bottom, no sail inventory in the world will overcome a field of grass on the bottom. Second, get the boat set up with the mast straight and reasonably tuned, with your jib leads in position, etc. Maybe look at installing a folding propellor, too. Then it’s time to think about the sails.

What size should your sails be?

Sail size is dictated very much by your type of boat and rig design. Some masts are designed and positioned for large genoa headsails and smaller mains, while others have the opposite. But you often have some choices to make on size as well.

new club racing sailsMost club racing is scored under PHRF or another handicap system requiring that you declare your sail sizes. If that’s the case in your area, do you really know your genoa’s LP (luff perpendicular) and your mainsail girth measurements? And if so, have they been reported correctly to your handicappers? Our experience is that many casual racers find mistakes on their certificates when they take a close look, and we suggest you talk to your sailmaker; that genoa you may have thought was a 150-percent LP sail may only be a 135 and your rating is penalizing you unfairly.

Next, think about whether new sails either larger or smaller might make a significant difference in your speed or rating. If you feel your boat is chronically underpowered in the predominant conditions, a bigger sail might help you gain power. If you are often overpowered, maybe you have an opportunity to use a smaller genoa, tip over less, and get a more favorable rating.

You may be able to make some smaller gains with your mainsail. If the sail is smaller than recorded in its girth—the measurements from luff to leech at different heights—you may be entitled to a few seconds per mile of rating benefit. In general, the girths that became standard a number of years ago under the IMS rating rule are still the norm for PHRF. IMS girth mains hit a sweet spot with a nice-sized roach for extra power but not so much that the sail hangs up on the backstay in light-air jibes. Work with a sailmaker to be sure you’ve got what PHRF allows in your area, but don’t push the roach too far as that usually carries a hefty penalty.

For some sailors, “club racing” means a casual jib-and-main evening race aboard a well-stocked cruising boat carrying roller furlers and its anchor and chain in the bow. For others, it means a no-holds-barred weekend race aboard a Melges 32 with a full crew aboard.

What’s the best sail shape?

Again, this is a broad question, and for most club racers, we recommend starting by simply identifying the shapes of your current sails. The best tool for this is a camera, with photos taken from as low as you can get, positioned mid-foot looking upwards. Share this with your sailmaker who can readily advise on the condition of your sail shape.

best club racing sail shapeIf your sailmaker isn’t interested in looking at your photos, you probably have the wrong sailmaker to help you get into club racing. No sailmaker can work miracles with a really tired sail through recutting, but sometimes with a little recut or stiffer battens you can breath some extra life into some old sails.

What we often see with older sails is that the shapes become distorted as the material ages. Often, the overall draft moves too far aft. In addition, the leech profile typically changes by “opening up” in the high load middle and upper sections, at which point the whole sail becomes less efficient (aka slower!). That’s a good time to consider putting yourself on a plan to budget a new sail every now and then, starting with the worst one—probably the genoa that you use the most. Every season, take the same sail shape photos again to monitor what’s happening and compare it to your plan.

On most boats, having a good all-purpose headsail of maximum size (for your rating) with nice shape is your single most important sail. A mainsail with mediocre shape that is paired with a nice headsail is usually a better upwind combination than the other way around.

Downwind, the shapes of your main and headsail matter less than their total area. And as soon as you turn the corner to go back upwind, the shape of the genoa is most important.

What’s the right sail in terms of a molded shape for your boat?

It’s a good idea to work with a sailmaker who is experienced in building sails of the right shape for your boat. The ideal mold shape for a boat of heavier displacement is different than on a newer, lighter, more modern boat. This is true for both spinnakers and upwind sails. Finding a sailmaker with a library of sail shapes to call on will make a difference.

club racing sailsYour sailmaker should also know your local conditions; for example, when you’re racing, is the race usually held late in the day and the wind is dying off, or is it breezy all the time?

Another factor is that older boats tend to have overlapping headsails. That should influence the decision of the material chosen for the sail, or at the very least how you can extend the life of sails being dragged across spreader ends and around the rig in tacking. Genoa sail materials often need to be different than those in non-overlapping jibs, and a good sailmaker will be able to address that with a mix of materials.

A flattish mold shape for a medium heavy No. 1 genoa is not going to be the ideal shape for a boat with a lot of displacement and an overlapping genoa . Boats like these slow down a lot if you try to point too much, especially on a light air Wednesday night racecourse. If you’re racing on weekends in higher average breezes, a flatter sail may be exactly right.

Another consideration is whether you want two sails. You may want to use a roller-furling/UV-protected genoa for casual club racing and cruising, then bend on your better “race” sail for the weekend races in regional fleets. And if you use a roller-furling sail exclusively, check to see if PHRF in your area will give you a rating credit for it.

What’s the right material group to look at?

The sail materials you choose will depend on your needs and budget. All else being equal, woven Dacron sails for a boat with a small mainsail and roller-furling genoa configuration will be disadvantaged compared to others. If your budget is modest and you have a desire for practically carefree sails that will last a really long time, it’s a perfectly good choice, but be aware you’ll struggle to compete against any racing boats with higher performance sail inventories, particularly as the sails age and shapes deteriorate.

However, for smaller boats, Dacron can stay close in performance. The loads on a 34-foot club racer are moderate enough that an owner might be very happy with sails made by North of Radian Dacron, a patented single-ply woven sailcloth with stretch performance like a warp-oriented polyester laminate. It is a true “Dacron” sailcloth that enables radial panel layouts which map to loads more efficiently than horizontal panels can, while still providing classic Dacron reliability.

However, a slightly larger boat of 35 to 45 feet will be more loaded up and if you care whether you’re a minute ahead or a minute behind at the end of a long beat, you’ll likely want higher-performance laminated sails, if not 3Di.

club racing sail materials

The next level up is sails made from laminated cloth, often in a radial layout. Nearly all sailmakers make these sails, which incorporate to some extent a laminated film that is more fragile than fiber and has a tendency to shrink, which affects sail shape subtly. Within the North line, the paneled laminate sail is typically a moderate-priced product, has moderate durability and its performance is enhanced, but not state of the art. Shape durability is much better than classic Dacron but not as high as North’s 3D materials. The toughness of these sails is quite high.

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