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Preview: Shaping Sails for Performance, Part 1 – The Control Lines

November 18, 2015

Brooklin Boat Yard owner Steve White takes us aboard Vortex, the Swede 55 he has sailed to victory over so many decades, to show us how he uses the running rigging and various control lines to shape her sails to match specific conditions.

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– [Voiceover] In this series on Shaping Sails to Get the Best Performance, Steve White takes us aboard his sweet 55 design Vortex. For nearly 30 years, Steve’s been winning races up and down the East Coast on Vortex. So we asked him, to walk us through how he shapes his sails to get the best performance.

– [Steve] This boat was designed in 1975, and it’s a development of the Skerry cruiser, the Scandinavian boats for racing and day sailing. The 55 refers to the sail area. There’s 55 square meters of sail. And that’s how the rule developed for the boat. That was the maximum amount of sail you were allowed. And then, the boat could be anything the designer wanted. This boat is a Knud Reimers design, 52 feet long, it’s just under 10 feet wide, and has 55 square meters of sail. And they have found that the performance, again, was improved with a thin keel and a spade rudder. This boat draws 7 and a half feet of water, which is not bad here in Maine. I’ve only been aground a few times.

– The cockpit on this boat, Steve, is really interesting, in that you’ve got your own helmsman area and it’s split athwartships with this traveler. Can you talk us through the control lines of this boat and what we’re looking at?

– Sure. This boat is not designed to be single-handed. I can sail it single-handedly, the- having the auto-pilot makes a big difference for me being able to do that. But it really is designed to be sailed with a crew of at least one on a day like today, and if you’re racing, four or five people with the spinnaker and stuff is nice to have. But the controls are laid out in such a way that I have the main sheet right here in front of me, if I want to, it’s a double-ended main sheet. So, single block on the boom leads out to this winch here, and also to this winch over here. So I can manage the main sheet with a winch handle from either windward or leeward side if I choose. The traveler controls right here are also right in front of me. Traveler control is also part of main sail shape and can help you point higher in light winds, or you can ease it off and it’ll reduce helm, keep the boat going faster with less rudder angle. It’s an important control. What changes the shape of the sail, so in a light wind, say we’re on a port tack going this way and I wanna be able to point higher to windward, I’m gonna try to get the boom on the center of the boat, or sometimes even above the center of the boat. And to do that, I will pull the traveler all the way over to the side and depending on how much wind strength there is, this line will stretch and bend off some. If the wind starts to blow harder and the boat starts to heel more, I can release this traveler control. It will come down this way, down to leeward, and what that does is, it eases the leech of the mainsail. The very back of the mainsail will bend off this way and it reduces power, it reduces the amount of of heeling motion that you have on the boat. The boat will stand up little bit more easily and it’ll go through the water and you’ll have less weather helm when you’re sailing the boat.

– So in puffy conditions on a boat like Vortex, once your main sheet is set and you’re in the groove, do you play puffs with the traveler?

– If…

– Or are you just easing the main sheet…

– If you’re really racing the boat and trying to race the boat, the traveler is often the better control than the main sheet for that. It’s not, it’s usually not as quick, but it is a little, it’s better in terms of your performance than it is to ease the mainsail off, the main sheet off. If I’m sailing, just myself for fun or something, I’m more likely just to head up a little bit on a puff and then bear away when it goes off. But for performance, yes, you will absolutely play the traveler quite a lot. The other control that is convenient here to me are the running backstays, which are these lines that lead up to where the top of the jib is attached. And, the running backstays do a couple of things. They help stabilize the mast in heavy conditions, and on this boat particularly, the mast is deck stepped. It’s stepped on top of the cabin, it doesn’t go down through so they’re little more important perhaps than a mast that goes all the way through. But the running backs are primarily for shaping the jib. It controls the tension on the jib stay, and the amount of sag that you get.

– So Vortex is 3/4 rigged? Or 7/8 rigged?

– Yeah, she’s somewhere between 3/4 and 7/8, yeah.

– So the jib, the stay for the jib doesn’t go all the way to the masthead, and that is the same point at which this backstay comes in. Where the headstay comes into the mast, there’s still more mast above that to the top of the headboard of the mainsail, is the same place that this running back goes to on the backside of the rig. So you’re basically playing the headstay tension…

– That’s right.

– In the shape of the headstay with that.

– In light wind conditions, you often want a little more sag in your headstay, you want a little more power in the sail. So you’ll make a deeper draft and by having a looser headstay and or a looser halyard tension, you can accommodate that. And generally speaking, the harder the wind blows, the more you’re gonna tighten things up.

– Alright.

– One of the other controls that is also back here but not particularly accessible is the permanent backstay adjuster. And that’s this hydraulic cylinder here, and this pulls in on this line. There’s a little control valve on the side here so I can open it up and it releases it. If I close it, I can tighten it up and this cylinder here starts getting shorter and shorter. As it does that, it’s pulling, pulling the mast the very top of the mast back and it’s bending the middle of the mast forward. And what that does, is increases the draft in the mainsail. So the mainsail’s getting flatter and flatter and flatter. And we can sight up the mast and then we’ll release it and you can see how much it changes. So now, I’ve pulled the mast back as far as this will allow me and as far as I feel comfortable in terms of the shaping of the mast. And as you sight up it, you’ll see that it has pulled the top of the mast back probably eight inches and the front of the mast has probably gone forward four or five inches. What that does to the sail, is it pulls the draft forward and it flattens the sail, so in heavy weather, that’s reducing power. It’s reducing the amount of heeling moment that you’ll feel with the boat. It keeps the boat going faster. I’ll ask Eric to ease that backstay cylinder off. It doesn’t seem like whole amount, but it makes a big difference in the sail performance. So as the backstay tension is increased, it’s not just pulling the whole mast back, it’s actually introducing a bow to the mast. Imagine just taking a small dowel, putting it on the ground, putting your finger on the top and pushing down and back a little bit. It will bow forward, it won’t just lean back, it’ll actually bow forward. Ant that bowing part is what reduces the cord depth of the sail, it flattens the sail when it’s pushed forward like that. That reduces the power and reduces the heeling moment on the boat.

– So forward of the helm, a pair of winches here for jib?

– Yes, for my jib trimming, I basically use just two jibs on this boat. I’ve got what I call a blade jib, which is about 100-105% meaning that it comes back behind the mast just a little bit. And that’s the jib I use 90% of the time now. The other sail that I have is a genoa which is about 140% and I’ve found that the blade jib and anything 10 knots or more, the blade jib is at least as fast as the genoa is going upwind because you can point a little bit higher. And it’s a much smaller sail, it’s easier to trim, it’s easier to see the boat, it’s just a great all-around sail. And genoas are a pain in the neck. They’re great, big, overlapping sails, takes a lot of work to clear them every time you tack. These are very easy sails.

– So just a turning block on the side of the calming that leads that jib sheet to the winch and then it leads to this track which is right along the side of the cabin house with that car.

– M-Hmm.

– And that car, your 105 and your 140 jib both sheet to the same track?

– They both sheet to the same track, this boat has two lower diagonals and then a single upper. Most of the more modern rigs now, you won’t see this forward lower at all. But that’s the way this boat was designed in 1975 and that’s the way it’s still rigged. So with my blade jib, the lead for this is through this car, and then it’s outboard of this forward lower, but it’s inboard of the vertical one, V1 as they’re called, and it’s inboard of this aft diagonal. When the genoa is in place, this car has to move way back on the track, and then my leads end up having to go outside of everything.

– So a bigger overlap on the foot of the sail, the 140, would sheet back to here somewhere.

– Back into there, that’s correct.

– So the car would move back on this track?

– That’s right.

– With a little pin stop here.

– Yeah, like I say, with the genoa on, the closest I can sheet the genoa is to this shroud. I can’t pull it in any tighter, and it’ll start to hit the ends of the spreaders up there. With the blade, the blade is inside of this and forward of the spreader so I can sheet it in almost a foot closer.

– Steve, can you talk us through the few control lines you have running down the housetop?

– Yeah. Some of the additional sail controls I have coming from the mast back here are used for trimming the sails or adjusting the shape of the sails. All the halyards are up forward. So everything that’s gonna make the sail go up and down is up there, but additional trimming is back here so the crew members don’t have to go forward. It’s here in the cockpit and I have these small winches here. So I’ve got on this port side, I’ve got two of the probably more important controls. This one is the boom vang here. These are stoppers that hold these lines in position. So I can use one winch with either one. This controls my boom vang. It controls the angle of the boom up and down. A really important control for sail shape, and very little maintenance put into this. I have done nothing to this boom vang for 25 years. Knock on wood. My other control I have on the side here, and they’re labeled on top of these stoppers, is called the outhaul. And again, this leads forward to the mast, up, and then actually inside of the boom, there’s a block and tackle arrangement in the boom that is attached to the very end of the mainsail. Right up here to this car on the end of the mainsail. It’s just moving the end of the mainsail in or out on the length of the boom and this, on a lot of traditional boats, you see it as well. It’s just on the outside of the boom because it’s solid wooden boom instead of a hollow boom.

– Alright. Alright, starboard side of the housetop.

– Starboard side, very similar but different controls. There’s actually three-gang stopper here. This is left over from when I used to have a symmetrical spinnaker, and this topping lift here used to control the end of my spinnker pole. I don’t use it anymore, I only use an asymmetrical, so that’s just an empty one now. The four-guy is my line that leads all the way to the bow when I have my asymmetrical spinnaker up, this controls the tack of the spinnaker. So it leads all the way to the bow of the boat, through a block, attaches to the tack of the spinnaker. And I can ease this, if I’m going very deep down-wind and white air, I can ease it to fill the sail up or I can pull it in if I start to go upwind and I want a tighter luff and flatten. The cunningham is another control for the mainsail. This line leads forward and attaches onto the luff of the mainsail. And I use it to control the draft of the mainsail right at the mast. If I pull it tighter, move the draft forward, release it, increase the draft. You can see most of these mainsail controls are all about shaping the mainsail. Making it flatter or making it deeper. And depending on the conditions you want, they need to be adjusted all the time. So all my halyard controls, all my halyard winches are grouped here around the mast. And they lead inside the mast, they exit the mast and come down to these turning blocks and I can use them on these winches. You’ll notice that almost all of my winches, in fact all of my winches, are self-tailing winches. They have these self-tailing things. It reduces the number of cleats I need. I use the self-tailing winch as my cleat. A lot of people think that’s a little scary, but for in-shore sailing it’s fine and it’s very convenient. So this is my main halyard winch. This’ll hoists the mainsail up and down. This is a spare jib halyard. This line coming out of here, which you can’t see very well is my number one reef. When I go to reef the sail I’ll use this. On the port side is my jib halyard, this red one. This is up all the time because I have a roller-furling jib and the sail is just rolled up around the headstay. So that doesn’t really get adjusted. This is my spinnaker halyard and it comes back to this winch or there.

– Let’s hoist some sails.

– Alright, let’s hoist some sails.



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