Excerpt from Maximum Sail Power:
The Complete Guide to Sails, Sail Technology and Performance

by Brian Hancock
(Nomad Press, $44.95). Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

Storm Sails

Techniques, Tips, and Some Lessons Learned
Few sails in any sailor's inventory are as neglected, controversial, or ultimately important as storm sails. These generally consist of a trysail, i.e., a kind of mini-mainsail bent on the mast after the regular main has been lashed to the boom, and a storm jib, a tiny scrap of sail flown either from the forestay or an inner forestay in place of a standard jib. In both cases these sails are made to withstand gale-force winds and an occasional knockdown. They should also be bright orange so that they are highly visible. You can have them manufactured out of special orange Dacron, or you can have your sails painted with a florescent paint.

Figure 9.1 A storm jib must be engineered and built for extreme conditions—typically with a high clew and no foot round so the waves crashing over the foredeck will be able to pass easily under the sail.

The Storm Jib
A storm jib must be engineered and built for extreme conditions. It usually has a high clew and no foot round so the waves crashing over the foredeck will be able to pass easily under the sail. The fabric must be heavy enough to withstand not only the loads imposed on it by gusts, but more importantly, the flogging that occurs when the sail is set. For boats 30 to 40 feet in length, the fabric should be a woven Dacron weighing no less than 10 ounces. For boats above 40 feet the fabric should be at least 12 ounces or even 14 ounces. A well-built storm jib should have reinforcement patches sewn behind each hank, since when it is being hoisted a lot of point-loading occurs at each hank and without a reinforcement patch these areas could be potential weak spots. A storm jib should also have oversized corner reinforcement patches and a set of sheets permanently spliced to the clew to avoid having to search for strong sheets at a time when you need to concentrate on other matters. You should also splice a short strop at the tack to make sure that the entire sail is raised up off the deck allowing waves crashing over the foredeck that much more room to pass easily under the sail. Waves cause as much, if not more, damage in extreme weather as wind.

Under no circumstances should you consider cutting down an old sail to make a storm jib. Likewise you should not attempt to ride out a storm with a rolled-up headsail. In both of these cases the sail will not be strong enough for gale-force conditions. Storm jibs can be set on either the forestay or the inner forestay, and it's my recommendation that it be set on the latter with hanks rather than a furling unit or bolt rope system. This is because when the wind is up you need to bring the center of effort of your sailplan more in toward the center of the boat. Setting the sail on the headstay will have the opposite effect. Setting it closer to the mast will improve the way the boat manages the conditions.

As for simply reefing a roller-furling headsail instead of setting a specially designed storm jib on hanks, the same points that were outlined in Chapter 7 apply, only more so, namely:
• Hanks are reliable.
• The storm sail will have a flat chord depth specific for the conditions.
• The location of maximum draft in the storm sail will be correct.
Indeed, I find it astonishing that some well-meaning sailmakers are still telling sailors that they can use their heavily-reefed headsail as a storm sail. There are a number of things wrong with that assumption.

• As we learned in Chapter 7 the amount of engineering that would need to go into a headsail to have it fly properly in moderate conditions while still being strong enough to withstand gale-force conditions, is impractical.
• Relying on a furling line to keep the sail reefed, or some kind of pin device to do the same is unsafe. There is an immense amount of torque on the furling unit and gale-force conditions only add to this torque. Furling lines break with alarming regularity and having to deal with fixing a pin on the bow of the boat when a storm is rising is unseamanlike at best.
• When it comes time to set the storm sail, you are not going to unroll the headsail and drop it. It's simply impossible, especially if you are like most of us-a bit in denial about the impending increase in wind strength until it's too late to safely set the storm jib.
• It's very difficult to hoist a storm jib with a luff tape or bolt rope, since it requires a person at the bow to feed the tape inch-by-inch into the groove, and someone to wind the halyard - an unsafe solution at best.

Note that the above points assume you are sailing on a larger boat or a boat that has room for an inner forestay. Small boats are a little different. If you only have a single headstay you might just have to sail with a heavily reefed headsail or change sails as a storm approaches. Fortunately, changing sails is not quite as difficult on a small boat.

The Gale Sail slides over a rolled up headsail and is an effective storm jib.

Gale Sail
There is also a solution called a Gale Sail, a viable alternative for any boat that either does not have an inner forestay, or has a roller-furling headsail on the inner forestay. The Gale Sail is a storm jib with a luff that wraps around a rolled-up sail. In fact, it sets over the sail, either the one on the inner forestay, if you have one, or one on the forestay, so that you can leave the headsail rolled up where it is. The Gale Sail is designed and engineered to take the abuse of storm conditions and is fairly easy to set with a Dacron luff flap that is fastened back on itself with large piston hanks. You need a spare halyard for hoisting it, but once attached it slides up over the regular sail quite easily. Dacron is actually a fairly slippery material (ever tried walking over a flaked sail on your foredeck and slipped?) as are most other fabrics, and once you have the hanks attached you can hoist the sail just as easily as a regular storm jib. It's a good product that goes a long way toward having a specific storm jib for storm conditions.

Snapped Furling Line

In the early 1990s I sailed a plush 50-foot cruising boat across the Atlantic from Cowes, England, to Miami, Florida. The boat was not brand new, but it had been well maintained, or so I thought. Crossing the Bay of Biscay we ran into some snotty weather, and I learned a valuable lesson: Never rely on furling lines. As the storm approached, and before we were able to roll the headsail away and set a storm jib, the partially reefed headsail completely unrolled itself when the furling line snapped, so that instead of taking off sail, we suddenly had way too much sail up. Our only option was to drop the sail on the foredeck since without the furling line we could not reef it. With only a small crew it was a big job, but finally the sail was under control. A few days later we stopped in the Azores for a little R&R, and I took the opportunity to ask a number of sailors about their furling lines. To a man (and woman) they admitted to rarely, if ever, changing the furling line as part of their on-going maintenance, and that only once a line had snapped did it occur to them to replace it with a new one. If you think about it, this is nothing less than absurd. We pack our sails in bags and add UV sunshields along the leech and foot of headsails to protect them from the sun, but we never think about the furling line baking in the tropical heat and slowly rotting. Just as you change the batteries in your smoke detector on your mother-in-law's birthday, so should you change the furling line on your roller-furling units with equal regularity.

Figure 9.2 A storm trysail.

The Storm Trysail
The second part of the storm sail equation is the storm trysail (Figure 9.2). This sail is more for balancing the boat rather than driving it forward, since in gale-force conditions you need to be sure that you have some control over how the boat lies relative to the waves. It's an important sail, but in my opinion not as important as the storm jib, as I'll explain a little later.

As with the storm jib, the trysail needs to be built and engineered for the conditions and should not be an old sail that has been cut down. The same fabric weights apply as for the storm jib, as do the oversized corner reinforcement patches. And if the sail has slides, there must be adequate reinforcement at each slide to handle the point loading.

Again, this sail should not be confused with a performance sail. A trysail is a balancing sail without any of the potential problem areas a regular mainsail might have like battens and batten pockets. Virtually all rating rules call for a storm trysail to have a maximum area no larger than the result of the formula: 0.175 x P (mainsail luff) x E (mainsail foot), with a hollowed-out leech and foot, the area will be roughly 25 to 30 percent that of the mainsail. This is a good, proven size for all boats, both racing and cruising.

A Separate Trysail Track
Many offshore sailors insist on a separate trysail track running up the trailing edge of the mast, and I tend to agree with them, especially aboard larger vessels. For a racing boat where weight and windage are a consideration, however, sharing the track with the mainsail is acceptable, providing there is a simple and secure way of loading the trysail's slides without having to remove the mainsail. Boats below 30 feet in length do not need a separate trysail track. The sails are a manageable size and changing from a mainsail to a trysail is not a long, complicated procedure. If your boat does not have a trysail track and you are heading offshore, they are fairly easy to install but be sure to talk to the mast manufacturer before you do so.

You need to consider two things when setting the storm trysail. First, you do not want to have to remove the mainsail from the mast. With a bolt rope you have no choice and you need to take every bit of care to ensure that the sail does not get away from you when it is lowered. If the main has slides, lower the sail and make sure there is a "gate" well above the top slide that can be opened easily to accept the storm trysail slides. The gate must be well above the top slide because in storm conditions it's very difficult to get the slides to stack neatly. Chances are there will be gaps between them, and you do not want to have to deal with this issue when waves are breaking over the deck.

Second, consider the height of the gate and its accessibility. It's dangerous and unseamanlike to be hanging onto a mast trying to feed slides into a gate. This may appear easy when the boat is tied to the dock, but when the wind is up and howling, it's very different. If you can't reach the gate, consider either a step on the mast (either side) or a separate track that runs down to a height that is easily accessible.

Once the trysail is attached to the mast, it is hoisted with a short pennant at the tack. This allows the sail to set above the mainsail, which is lashed to the boom. Like the storm jib, the trysail should be set with its own sheets permanently attached at the clew. It's important to note that these sheets should be run to a reinforced pad eye on deck or a snatch block on the rail, as opposed to the boom, which should be secured to the deck or in its own gallows if the boat has them. Make sure that the strop at the tack allows the sail to be sheeted correctly. Only a "dry run" will allow you to check this and to mark the sheets and strop with reference marks.

Many sailors insist not only on having a separate trysail track that runs all the way to the deck, but on having the trysail permanently attached to the track. In other words, load the slides and leave the sail in its bag at the base of the mast. While I commend this nod to good seamanship, I think this measure is a bit extreme. I have sailed well over 200,000 miles and only had occasion to use a trysail three times. The rest of the time the sail would have been in the way, possibly rotting in the sun. My call would be to stow the sail somewhere accessible and then bring it up on deck only when rough weather is forecast.

1979 Fastnet Race

The first time I set a storm trysail was during the 1979 Fastnet Race, the now infamous race in which 21 people died during a severe gale that rolled through the fleet midway through the race. Seventeen people who were participating in the race died as well as the four-man crew on a small trimaran. When all was said and done 19 boats were abandoned, five sank and only 85 of the 303 starters managed to finish. I was sailing on a Swan 57 called Battlecry, and we had just rounded Fastnet Rock off the Irish Coast when the storm picked up intensity. The night was as dark as any I can remember, and as the storm heightened and the seaway worsened, both the spirit of the crew and a couple of the boat's ring frames took a turn for the worse. Some frames had cracked, and the pressure of the waves coming over the boat was forcing the small gap to open up and let in water. Unless we reduced pressure the boat was going to sink, a rather unpleasant thing to contemplate in the North Atlantic in the middle of the night in the middle of a gale. At the time we were still racing, and with a deep-reefed mainsail and storm jib were heading back toward England. That was until a call came from the captain to reduce sail further and turn the boat for Cork on the south coast of Ireland. Reducing sail meant dousing the mainsail altogether and setting the storm trysail. What I learned that night was a critically important lesson and led me to form a deep-seated opinion about the use of storm sails.

The crew of Battlecry was experienced, I was the "nipper" on board with only a little over 10,000 offshore miles under my belt, and we had raced as a crew all summer, so we knew the boat well. Still, none of us had ever set a storm trysail. In fact, only one person on board even knew where it was stowed, and he was seasick. As it turned out, the sail, like the storm sails on so many boats, was buried under the bunks in the forepeak so that just getting to it proved to be a gruelling exercise in balance and perseverance. Once we had the sail on deck and the mainsail doused, it took a full hour before we were able to figure out how to get the trysail onto the mast, and another half hour to get it set. All this time massive waves were crashing over the deck with the area around the mast being especially vulnerable. We were lucky not to injure anyone or lose anyone overboard. Later in the week, after we had made it to safe harbor in Ireland, I wondered how sensible it was for us to have attempted to set the trysail after all. In fact, I came to the conclusion that it was probably the stupidest thing we could have done given the circumstances. Random polls taken since have confirmed my suspicions that almost all crews taking part in offshore races like the Fastnet have never done a trysail drill, and I conclude that most crews would be better served by just leaving the sail under the bunk rather than placing their lives at potential risk trying to set the sail for the first time during a storm.

Carry Out a Dry Run
Again, I would encourage any crew planning an offshore passage to do a trysail drill while the boat is still tied to the dock. Practice dropping and lashing the mainsail, and then setting the trysail. The crew will be able to get a feel for the size of the sail and see how it attaches to the mast relative to the mainsail. They should all know where the sail is stowed before leaving the dock.

Other Factors to Consider When Setting Storm Sails
Many other factors come into play when it comes to storm sails. Different boats have different needs, a fact that was brought home to me aboard my own boat in a gale in the Gulf Stream. With water spouts developing on the edge of the Stream and gale-force winds threatening to rip the rig out, I dropped the mainsail and attempted to make do with just the storm jib. On this boat, however, the mast was far forward, and the boat could not respond without a second sail to balance the helm. Fortunately my crew and I had done a trysail drill, and we were able to set the sail without too much trouble.

Of course, some boats will sail just fine with only a storm jib set, especially boats with long keels and balanced sailplans. The old cruisers that had keels that ran the length of the underbody, although slow and cumbersome, were very seakindly. The long keels gave them directional stability that even an unbalanced sailplan, i.e., too much sail forward or aft, could not mess with. On the other hand, many fin-keel boats without much underwater shape will suffer without both an effective storm jib and trysail set at the same time, since there is not enough lateral stability under the boat to help it ride the waves. The result is that the sails end up dictating how the boat will lie relative to the seaway. Therefore, setting only a storm jib without the trysail to counterbalance the sailplan would make it very difficult to keep the boat on a steady course.

Sea state or the boat's location also need to be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to bend on storm canvas. If, for example, a lee shore looms and the boat needs the trysail to balance the helm in an effort to claw to windward, then it's a reasonable trade to endanger the crew's lives to set the storm sails. The alternative, a grounding, makes the choice an easy and obvious one. On the other hand if there is plenty of sea room and the boat is managing okay, then leave the crew below where they will be safe since the worst that will happen is that you will end up a hundred miles off course.

In the situation aboard my boat in the Gulf Stream where we had ample sea room, the boat would not sail on autopilot with just a storm jib, so I deemed it a reasonable risk to set the trysail to balance the helm, and then keep the crew below where he would be safe rather than have him on deck hand steering. The fact that we had also practiced setting the sail played a role in my decision. Again, these decisions need to be made by each skipper on a case-by-case basis. The point is that all sailors need to look at all the factors when making decisions during severe weather. When the wind is up and the senses are heightened, it's important to consider all options, even the unconventional ones.

One final point to consider when deciding whether to set a storm trysail concerns the mast. Generally, modern masts require the support of a mainsail or trysail pushing against the trailing edge of the spar to add to the structural integrity of the mast, so setting a headsail alone could actually result in the loss of the entire rig. The heavy masts found on most cruising boats, on the other hand, are fine without the mainsail, although you should be sure to check with the spar maker for his advice since you may need a sail set to support this kind of mast as well.

Storm Preparation
It's human nature sometimes to deny the obvious, especially when work is involved and that work is dangerous and means getting soaked. We are all guilty of it. The forecast is for a gale, yet the conditions are still manageable and we convince ourselves that it will not be as bad as forecast. My experience is that storms take people by surprise, and that is when they do their most damage. It's true that often the forecast is wrong and the wind does not blow like expected, but sometimes the forecast is right. Prudent seamanship means that all sailors should plan for the worst and be grateful when it does not happen. This includes preparing storm sails. It really is important to do a dry run at the dock so that all the crew know where the storm sails are stowed and how to use them. Races like the Newport to Bermuda Race now make it a race requirement before they will let you start. It's equally important for you to prepare for an approaching gale well in advance. Hanking the storm jib onto the inner forestay and preparing to drop the mainsail is more easily accomplished before the wind comes up than after it has started blowing. Know your boat. Know if it needs the trysail or if the boat can sail on a storm jib alone. Decide whether having your crew at the mast feeding slides onto a track is an acceptable risk (especially at night). Think about the sheeting positions of both sails and be sure that the blocks are secured to their pad eyes long before the leeward pad eyes are underwater. Storm sails are a very important part of your safety - know how to use them and be prepared to use them well in advance of increasing wind. Sometimes the only thing standing between you and disaster is preparation.

Brian Hancock is an expert in sails, sailmaking, and offshore ocean racing, having made a career as a professional sailor for almost three decades. He apprenticed at Elvstrom Sails in South Africa before leaving the country to sail around the world. In 1981/82 he sailed as a watch captain aboard the American yacht, Alaska Eagle in the 27,000 Whitbread Round the World race. Four years later he returned for a second Whitbread, this time aboard the British yacht, Drum. In 1989 he sailed as Sailing Master aboard the Soviet Union’s first, and by happenstance last, Whitbread entry, Fazisi. With more than 200,000 miles of offshore sailing to his credit Brian is uniquely qualified to write about sails and the business of making sails.

Brian also owned his own boat, Great Circle an Open 50 carbon-fiber, water-ballasted sailboat designed and built for single-handed sailing and Brian did a number of solo offshore passages. Some of his experiences are recounted in his book, The Risk in Being Alive, published by Nomad Press. These days he works on special sailing projects and writes for magazines around the world while raising a family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.