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HSH Yacht Articles

A case against fully-battened mainsails


Jeremy R. Hood

Last year I was one of the organizers for the Cruising World Safety-at-Sea Seminars that was held in the Dallas area for the first time. And as for the previous year we invited John Rousmaniere to attend and moderate the days events. During the afternoon session he referred to his pet peeve: fully-battened mainsails and for me it was as if my worst fears had been resolved. I have never liked this type of sail yet I had never had the courage to say so. But now here it is: my real feelings about these sails!

A year or so ago I was sailing with a customer on a teaching trip down the Texas coast aboard his 45' sailboat which had recently been fitted with a bunch of new equipment including a new liferaft that was sitting on deck when I arrived at the boat. Earlier I had discussed the need for a proper mounting for the liferaft yet here we were, ready to go with it aboard yet unsecured. I decided to lash it on the aft deck with lines securing it amidships and once this was done we were ready to set off. Not new, but in good condition, was a fully battened mainsail. . All was fine for the best part of the day. We had good southerly winds and we sailed well down the coast under full main having a good time. When I checked the weather forecast late in the afternoon it seemed that we would be fortunate enough to reach Port Aransas before the front was due so even that would work out well. As the wind began to die and our speed drop we rolled up the genoa and started the engine, leaving the main up to steady our rolling in the seas left over from the fairly strong southerly that had been blowing all day. We headed toward our destination and I went below for a short nap so that I would be alert for our night time approach at Port A. It seemed only minutes later that the front hit with strong gusts that quickly raised the seas. I was on deck in a flash and turning us into the wind under the engine in order to drop the main, I saw the heavy liferaft slide across the aft deck and I then realized that the lines we had to secure it were woefully inadequate. What should I do: reef the mainsail first or secure the liferaft? I decided that securing the raft was the more important and I steered as the crew went aft to put more lines on it. And it was while this was happening that the mainsail split. The leach tape gave way, a tear started at the leach and ran forward to the luff and then one after one nearly all of the sail slides broke away from the sail. It was a mess as we eventually hauled it down and secured it as best as possible to the boom.

This episode is not one that I am particularly proud of as I made several mistakes though the main one was setting off with the liferaft unmounted in a secure cradle. But even if this had come loose on most vessels, a conventional mainsail would most probably not have torn as ours did.

But before you get the idea that my dislike of these sails results from this event I need to let you know about the new mainsail that I had made for Melos 7 years ago. When I was crossing the Atlantic I knew my mainsail was old and I had more than once taken it down to repair stitching, and on one occasion to re-make a batten pocket which had pulled out, and so when the opportunity arose in St. Maarten to order a new mainsail I did so. And I then those not a conventional mainsail with short battens in the leach, not a fully battened main but a mainsail with no battens at all! And the sail is still in great shape and doing just fine.

Traditionally sails had no battens at all. The sails were simply stitched together to give a good aerofoil shape and were trimmed as best as possible. But with the advent of sailboat racing, boats began to carry more and more sail until rules were introduced about how big the sails could be on a vessel and black bands were added to mast and boom to indicate that the sails could not legally be stretched beyond these marks. And so to increase sail area without breaking the rules, extra cloth was added to the leach of the sail and battens were introduced to stiffen this area of sail which would otherwise flop around. Traditional short battens are there only for this reason and only as a result of a racing technique to increase sail area.

Though over the years, battens have become the norm, they have also been the cause of many sail repairs when battens break and cut the sail, when the stitching gives way under the localized stresses at the ends of the batten and when the battens get caught as the sail is reefed.

To overcome some of these problems, sailmakers came up with the idea of full length battens. The advantages of these are that the sail can carry a full roach (the extra area of sail beyond the leach of the sail) without the localized stresses at the ends of the batten pockets. And in addition the sail would set better and could be reefed more easily. And of course these sails were more expensive than the ones they were to replace.

But with the advantages, a fully-battened mainsail has a number of serious disadvantages. It is not possible to luff the sail and spill wind in a blow (as I found out last year); the sail always catches the wind. And this can be a serious disadvantage. Not only is it impossible to luff and spill wind effectively when at sea, what about the situation where your engine has failed and you want to anchor under sail. Coming up into the wind will not de-power the boat and it will keep on sailing until the sail is actually lowered. Without expensive systems (such as the Harken Battcar system) the sails are extremely difficult to hoist as the sail slides are under pressure from the battens; and with the battcar system they are difficult to reef as the battcars take up so much space on the mast track that a reef cringle will rarely reach low enough to be attached to the reefing hook. And incidentally, have you tried unattaching a sail fitted with batters -- it is time consuming and difficult!

Fully-battened mainsails are considerably more expensive than a simple battenless mainsail. The batten pockets have to be added to the full width of the sail, special end fittings attached and reinforcement added as localised stresses occur at the ends of the battens.

When going cruising, simple is often better and always cheaper both initially and in the long-run. And when it comes to mainsails, my next one with be the same as my present one. I can live without the small additional sail area, I don't need to carry spare battens or worry about sewing up split batten pockets at sea, I can raise and lower the sail easily even in strong winds and I can even scandalize the sail if necessary by raising the boom topping-lift! and the money saved will let me cruise a little longer!

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