… for the Max from your sailing!

Choosing the ideal sails for the ideal cruiser/racer

With their combination of comfort, build quality, seaworthiness and performance, the Maxi range seem to me to offer a perfect compromise between the needs of a cruising family and my desire to get the very best performance from a boat, whether racing or passage-making.

I guess most Maxi owners must feel the same, as a very high proportion of our members in the Maxi Owners’ Association choose another Maxi when they decide to change their boat. So, if Maxi offers the ideal blend of performance and handling for a cruiser/racer yacht, what is the ideal sail construction to complement it? This was the question I faced in winter 2006/7, when I needed to change my genoa.

Magewind, my Maxi 1050, is now 4 years old, and has worked quite hard. She has competed in a number of races and completed several long passages, including quite a bit of heavy weather sailing. She has proved to be fast and fun in all weathers. But by the end of last season, her original Elvstrom Dacron sails were starting to look a little tired. On the weekend of the Lymington rally, I was sailing in a corporate event, setting a new speed record for Magewind of 11.8 knots (through the water!) coming in through Hurst Narrows, and returning up the Solent in wind gusting over 40 knots. This was clearly the last straw for the poor old genoa, which ended up noticeably stretched and with several small tears along the leach.

This brought to me to www.maxiowners.org.uk, to re-read the excellent articles on sail construction and materials. What I needed was a sail which would be easy to handle, as I often sail single- or short-handed, could be left on the roller and the boom, and would give a reasonable life. But I also wanted a high performance sail, which would not stretch in heavy weather and which would allow the boat to perform to its maximum on the race circuit. So what did I need? Dacron or laminate? Cross-cut, bi-radial or tri-radial? This turns out to be a very complex set of questions, but after much research and many calls to sailmakers, I have come to a decision, and thought you might be interested to hear what I found out…

First of all, I found that there are four basic combinations of cloth type and construction for performance cruising sails:

Woven cloth, cross cut construction. Like the original Elvstrom or North cruising sails supplied with our Maxis, these sails are made from tightly woven polyester (Dacron, Nordac) or, occasionally, polyethylene (Pentex). They are very durable and flexible, but because the weave of the fabric means that the fibres pass over and under each other (“crimp”), they are prone to stretch as the fibres straighten out under load. They will last pretty much for ever – my parents have been using their sails for 14 years – but will lose performance and tend to generate excessive weather helm as they stretch. However, there are special high density “premium” versions of Dacron sailcloth around, which can give good results at a reasonable price. Note that a lot of sailmakers do not recommend woven Pentex, as it cannot be woven as tightly as Dacron, and therefore relies heavily on the resin stuffing to hold its shape. Woven fabrics are reasonably strong in all directions, so a simple, cross-cut construction can be used, where the sail is cut in large, horizontal panels which are sewn together.

Directional laminates, radial cut. Sails can be made much more resistant to stretch, as well as lighter, by laying the main load-bearing fibres (“scrim”) in a straight line and in exactly the right orientation to resist the highest loads in the sail. These scrim fibres are then laminated into or between two sheets of a clear plastic (usually Mylar) film, which stops the wind blowing through the gaps! Special cloths have been developed with two, three or even more directions of fibres, with different strengths, but all running straight with no crimp. These cloths are light, very strong (in the right direction) and completely block the wind (due to the film), but they are more expensive to make, not as flexible and not as robust as woven cloths. Until recently, they were usually used for racing only, with very high-tech fibres such as carbon or Kevlar (aramid ceramic). However, modern cruising laminates (such as Bainbridge’s CL-DIAX and North’s Norlam), with polyester or Pentex fibres and covered with a light Dacron “taffeta” for protection, give near-racing performance and last almost as long as woven sails. Because the cloth is designed to be very strong in just one direction, sails must be cut from multiple small panels, aligned to the load in each part of the sail. This is called a radial cut, as the panels radiate out from the corners of the sail.

Multi-directional laminates, cross cut. The very latest laminate cloths have multiple diagonal fibres, giving the similar multi-directional strength to a woven fibre. Examples of this are Bainbridge’s DIAX2 and Contender’s MAXX, both of which have very strong diagonal fibres built into the laminate. This allows cross-cut sails (cheaper and simpler to make than radial-cut) with the low stretch benefits of laminate cloths. However, the cloth itself is very expensive, quite new (so its durability may not be proven) and some sailmakers have found that its performance can degrade seriously due to stretch and distortion around the joins between panels.

Moulded laminates. The ideal sail would have all fibres laid exactly along the load paths, and be moulded in one piece so that there is no need for joins in the cloth. Some sailmakers can now make a laminate sail like this, in one piece over a special mould. Examples are North’s 3DL, Doyle’s Stratis and ???. Although very expensive, such sails are very light and very low stretch. But they lack the durability of more conventional sails and are very difficult to repair if damaged.
So which of these was right for me? Well, the main issue with my old sails was stretch. I had noticed when they were about two years old that they were not holding their shape, and after four years the performance of the genoa was significantly reduced. So if low stretch cloth was the priority, that meant a laminate cloth.

Looking at the prices for moulded sails, which are around three times the price of other laminates, I quickly concluded that, although they look fabulous, they were out of my price bracket.

I also wanted to be sure I was not wasting my hard-earned money on sails which would fail after a year or two, so I wanted a proven design with a good lifetime (at least four or five years). Given the concerns raised over cross-cut laminates, I decided that I would prefer a radial-cut design, which have been used for around seven years and seem to have stood up well.

This narrowed the choices down considerably, but I still had not decided which sailmaker, which cloth or even whether to go for bi- or tri-radial designs. This came down to comparing quotes and to detailed discussion with the short-listed sailmakers. I found that, even for the same cloth type and construction, prices varied considerably from one sailmaker to another. Generally, the larger, international companies were more expensive than the local ones, and the Solent-based more expensive than the rest. In the end, it came down to a combination of price and trust: in the smaller companies, I could speak to the guys who would be making my sails, find out what they sailed and what sails they used themselves.

My final choice of my ideal cruiser/racer sails was:

Bainbridge CL DIAX P cloth. This is a laminate including diagonal (“bias”) fibres to prevent the film distorting and provide more stable sail shape. It also has Mylar film on both sides of the scrim, preventing moisture ingress and improving resistance to delamination. Finally, a light taffeta on both sides of the sail gives good UV protection and durability.

Tri-radial design. Gives the best sail shape, particularly in the foot of the genoa, at the expense of a few more panels in the sail.

Crusader Sails of Poole were very helpful and honest, they had experience with all the different types of cloth I was considering, talked me through the pro’s and con’s and were willing to make the sails exactly as I wanted them. They also gave me a very competitive price, which sealed the deal!

My new genoa arrived just before Christmas, and had its first outing in late December. In wind varying from 7 to 12 knots, it set beautifully, giving substantially more drive than the old sail in the light conditions, with nearly 7 knots to windward in a 12 knot breeze.

John Skipper