In the fading light of a South African summer evening we took off from a small airfield and flew along the coast watching the bays and harbors unfold as we skimmed the treetops. A strong wind was blowing, lacing the ocean with white streaks of spindrift and buffeting our small helicopter. Table Mountain cast long shadows as the sun dipped slowly over the western horizon. Where the water was shaded, the whitecaps stood stark against the dark sea, but toward the horizon they sparkled like small diamonds, reflecting the last light of day. As the cape peninsula tapered to its scenic point I could just make out the boat a mile off the beach crashing through steep waves. Spray was flying from both hulls as the 110-foot megacatamaran Team Adventure sliced through the water at 30 knots. She was heading for the Southern Ocean and beyond, to Cape Horn, the Atlantic Ocean, and finally back to France and the end of her voyage. We hovered a few feet above the top of the mast looking down at the sheets of water rising from each bow and pitied the crew hunkered on deck holding on for the ride of their lives. From my vantage in the chopper I could see both the clean twist of her mainsail and its smooth overall shape. Surprisingly, the thought that passed through my mind was, "trickle down does work."
I was partly responsible for the sail development program for Team Adventure as she prepared for The Race, a nonstop circumnavigation of the world. It was a loaded responsibility since the success of the effort, indeed the safety of the crew, depended upon some of the decisions made before the start of the race. My realm was fabric: the myriad clusters of fibers, film, adhesive, and thread that collectively would harness the wind and propel the boat around the planet. Since the race was nonstop and the sails so enormous and unwieldy, there would be no way to repair any of them if they ripped or came apart. The mainsail that was bent on the boom at the start would have to remain in use until the finish some 27,000 miles later. Working with a number of sailmakers we tested all the usual suspects, including Kevlar, Spectra, Vectran, and carbon, each both alone and in various combinations. We also looked at some of the newer sail engineering techniques like North's 3DL process, UK's Tape Drive, and Doyle's D4. In the end we settled on a revolutionary fabric called Cuben Fiber, which tested off the charts when compared to the others to the point where the numbers looked almost too good to be true. In fact, in some areas they were, but overall the fabric showed so much promise that most of Team Adventure's sails were eventually made from Cuben Fiber. Of course, there was an element of risk involved. Cuben Fiber had never been used for a voyage of this nature before, a fact that alone should have disqualified it from consideration. But we compensated for this drawback by over-engineering the sails. And when the boat took off from Marseilles on the last day of 2000, everyone involved in the sail development process was satisfied that the sails would not only go the distance, but also provide the crew of Team Adventure with an edge over its competition.
As fate would have it, it was an engineering problem associated with equally exotic fibers used for the construction of the hull, not the sails, that forced the boat
"... we tested all the usual suspects, including Kevlar, Spectra, Vectran, and carbon, each both alone and in various combinations"
Considered the world's fastest sailboat, Team Adventure is 110 feet of pure power capable of sailing at 40 knots.
to make an unscheduled stop in South Africa. When I flew to Cape Town to coordinate the repair of the boat, I saw that even after a little over 10,000 miles of use the sails still looked like new. Aside from some opaque crinkles in the laminate from being stuffed into a bag, the "risky" fabric we had chosen seemed to be performing beyond expectations. As I checked the sails and talked to the crew, I realized that the design parameters outlined for these sails would be the same for just about any inventory of sails that might be used for an offshore passage - light sails that hold their shape and have sufficient durability to circumnavigate the world without stopping - and that I might very well be looking at the future of cruising sails. This feeling was further reinforced that evening as I watched Team Adventure plunge from wave crest to trough. I felt sure that one day in the very near future we would be seeing Cuben Fiber sails on some of the larger cruising yachts, perhaps even on smaller ones as the fabric became more accepted. The technology developed and tested at the "lunatic" fringe would one day "trickle down," to use a phrase that President Reagan made famous, to the average cruising sailor.
It's this trickle-down process that has served to intrigue and confuse many sailors out there looking for sails for their own boats. Years back the choices were simple: Dacron for mainsails and headsails, and nylon for spinnakers, all of them constructed in pretty much the same fashion. Because of the way Dacron was woven into sailcloth, the sails were built in a cross-cut style with long panels of horizontal sailcloth running from the luff to the leech. The same was true for the early spinnakers. That, however, was a simpler time in more ways than just the sail-making process. These days it's a complicated world made more so by the increasingly competitive nature of the sailmaking business. One sailmaker will be adamant in his recommendations, while another will be just as definite about something completely different, both making recommendations for the same application. The reality is that both may be right. There are many ways to make an equally good sail and even that old standby Dacron has a role to play in the modern sailing world. In fact more than 70 percent of all new sails currently being manufactured are built from Dacron. The hard part for the individual sailor is deciding which way is right for him. What is it exactly that he or she needs in the way of sails? How do they fit within a given budget, and equally important, how do they fit within proposed sailing plans? These are individual choices unique to each sailor, but this book will go a long way toward helping you, the reader, understand what will best suit your needs once you have decided what they are. You will come to understand how different fibers and fabrics might work on your boat, and how to best invest your hard-earned money. It's a complex subject that is fascinating to
Close racing at Block Island Race Week.
Close racing at Block Island Race Week.
some and frustrating to others. It's my job to lead you through the process, at times getting you wet when we take leave of the technical work and go sailing, but along the way we will unravel the complexities of this complicated, yet uniquely interesting, subject. My hope is that some of the passion and practical experience I have gained from years of sitting on the side of a boat gazing up at the sails will rub off on you. Most of all I hope that you will be better informed and able to make the appropriate decisions the next time you are shopping for sails for your boat.
This book starts with a hypothetical visit to a sailmaker. Use it as a guide for your own sailmaking experience. These days sail-buying choices are so vast it's impossible for me to dictate precisely what you should or should not do when it comes to choosing a sailmaker. In the end it's an individual decision. But, if you do your homework and take the time to understand the subject, you can get just as good sails from your local mom-and-pop sailmaker down the street as you can from a globe-trotting sailmaker working for one of the big franchises. Shop around, compare prices and details, and remember one important thing: There are many different ways to make the same sail and all of them may result in an excellent product.
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