Choosing a downwind sail

Jeremy White, Loft Manager Elvstrøm Sails UK, considers the factors involved in choosing the right downwind sail.

There are times when drifting downwind with the jib not pulling simply will not get you home fast enough. And motoring is not the reason we own a sailing yacht.

Choosing the right downwind sail enhances your sailing time, and is fun for everyone on board. Selecting the right sail, appropriate for your boat and the capability of your crew is important.

Conventional spinnakers enable you to sail straight down-wind, perfect for a dead run home pushing tide. When reaching they require constant attention from the crew. They need a spinnaker pole, up-haul, down-haul, sheets and guys and hoisting, gybing and dropping need to be practiced to have a smooth routine. So spinnakers are not always the best for stress free sailing.

Here is an example of the Elvstrøm Furlstrom A-sail

Cruising chutes or asymmetrics sails are fun and easy to use and can add performance and excitement with safety. Crew confidence and enjoyment is important, so A-Sails are a popular sail to begin with. A spinnaker pole is not needed, and everyone can get involved in hoisting, steering and trimming.  Good A-sails are versatile and you can sail between 60º to 160º downwind.

Choosing the hoist and sail stowage system also depends on crew experience and personal preferences. A ‘snuffer’, a sock which pulls down over the sail, usually requires someone on the foredeck.  A furling A-sail, such as the Furlstrøm, can normally be operated from the safety of the cockpit.

Size matters with these sails. Some A-Sails may appear quite cheap but they can be very small. That is a problem on a light wind day, when you need it most. Your cruising A-Sail should only be slightly smaller than a racing one, so always check the quoted sail areas. The rule of thumb is I x J x 1.5.

Choosing the right fabric can also be confusing. Spinnaker nylon is a very technical product. Lighter nylons are more difficult to weave and consequently more expensive, however are often better quality. For boats less than 30ft, beware of being ‘up-graded’ to a heavier 1.5oz. It may seem better value, although will be heavy and difficult to fly in light airs. And that is exactly when you should be enjoying a pleasant sail, without any stress or flapping sails.

The Code 0 is a useful sail on a modern yacht with a non-overlapping headsail. Essentially, it is a light genoa for getting the boat to windward in light breezes or broad reaching when windy. It furls around a high-tech luff rope on a furling gear set in front of your genoa.

The Blue Water Runner in goosewing mode. A simple way to maximise speed when running dead downwind is by goose-winging, to expose the full area of the jib to the wind without it being blanketed by the mainsail.

The latest innovation in downwind sails is the Blue Water Runner, which has been designed by Elvstrøm Sails to make offshore cruising easier downwind. Essentially, the BWR is two large genoas fixed on one furling luff. Dead downwind it flies like a spinnaker with both sails peeled apart and goose-winged, with or without a spinnaker pole to balance it, and is easily reefed or furled away. Unfurled as one sail it can be flown as a reaching Yankee, or in very light breezes used as a Code 0 to sail closer to the wind.