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The Background of the Headsail

What do you call that sail you hang from your forestay? It might have a number of names...

The ubiquitous and fairly self-descriptive ‘furling headsail’ is a feature of cruising yachts world-wide. Once viewed with suspicion, the roller furler is now a safe and reliable piece of kit, and even if there is a jam whilst it is partially furled (the worst case scenario), one can always sail in circles to furl the sail back up!

There has been confusion over the difference between a genoa (which overlaps the mast) and jib (non-overlapping) for years, and these are often used interchangeably in a modern sloop rig. If used on a furler you may hear ‘roller genoa’ used (or, less often, ‘roller jib’), and many modern sailplans now define a furling self-tacking jib on a track forward of the mast for ultimate ease of use upwind.

If you have a dual-headsail arrangement, the most likely combination is to have a yankee at the front (indicating a high cut clew for leech control whilst reaching, and improved visibility), and a staysail on an inner stay (usually a fractional hoist jib, with a name inherited from the old square-riggers). Furling systems for both exist, further complicating the nomenclature. Of course, this assumes a Bermudan ‘cutter’ rig that allows both to be used any time the wind is forward of the beam...

The modern shift of the inner stay forwards along the deck, and up the mast, means the term ‘slutter rig’ has become common too. An unkind-sounding portmanteau (of sloop and cutter) describes a larger staysail, and therefore a more balanced ‘goose wing’ arrangement downwind; this arrangement is consequently popular with those planning ‘Trade Winds based’ journeys. The two sails will interfere with each other upwind, and hence one or other is generally used in isolation.

When the weather gets windy, mainsails can be reefed, but roller reefing a headsail tends to make the sail deeper (and therefore more powerful) as it’s rolled, which is undesirable to say the least! The application of something like our foam luff strips helps to take up some of the shape, but beyond the 4th or 5th roll the shape generally becomes fairly hopeless for upwind work, and other options should be considered.

Of course, with space and crew, one might have a huge number of headsails to select from: the “Drifter No.1” might once have been a 160% overlap, followed by the “Med/Hvy No.1” at 155% - all the way through to the storm jib at the other end of a scale, and which might include 15-20 choices appropriate at very small windspeed increments! But that is unrealistic in most scenarios these days.

Many people will instead opt for a temporary inner stay available for a hank-on sail, and a well reinforced deck and mast attachment points are essential for this. The stay, in wire or alternatively in high performance fibre, can be stored out of the way most of the time, and deployed if needed using a high power lever, or multi part block and tackle, to achieve the tension required.

This arrangement, along with a heavy weather jib (or “hard wind jib”) stored in a deck bag, allows the centre of effort of your rig to be lowered, and the ‘heeling moment’ to be reduced significantly, and this is even more helpful if your storm jib also fits here.

Don’t be afraid of the storm jib: the more often you use it, the more familiar you’ll be with it, and the less likely it has become a salt caked and corroded mess in the bottom of your locker! If you don’t have an inner stay arrangement, a “storm sleeve” will allow you to use it around a furled headsail, meaning you don’t have to consider how to unfurl and drop your ‘furling genoa’ in 30kts+ either!

So remember whatever sail you have, or want, Kemp Sails has huge experience in the selection and specification of headsails, and enjoy the strong support of all the major cloth suppliers in the UK: before you make any decision, come and have a chat with us.


Owain Peters, January 2019

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