Thinking of upgrading your sail wardrobe? Winning skipper and coach Ian Walker shares advice on how to choose the right sails Andy Rice

When asked his advice on how to extract maximum value from your sail budget, Ian Walker first offered a health warning: “You do know that I work for North Sails, and we provide sails for the vast majority of the high performance market?” In other words, North Sails are not the cheapest. So it’s unsurprising that Walker is keen to point out that buying purely on price is not the best option, even when budgets are tight.

It’s a broad, difficult subject that we have asked him to address, but Walker’s knowledge is highly sought after and he offers some good, solid advice for sailors who have to make sure they spend as prudently as possible.

Buy on value

It’s easy to be taken in by the lowest price, but buying the cheapest sails can be a false economy. Ask yourself why they’re cheap. How well have they been designed? Are the materials inferior? What technology is used to make the sails? Any of these factors will result in lower performance and potentially less longevity, which means you will not perform well and could end up needing to replace sails more often.

Do your research

The best sources of research you’ve got are looking at race results and word of mouth recommendation. Ask around the fleet, find out which sails are doing well in the fleet. How well have the sails lasted? What kind of service and advice can you get from the sailmaker? They’re all critical factors to consider. A common mistake is to be lured by the latest fads.

Carbon is certainly useful in the right circumstances but it’s not right for every boat and ever sailor

Do you need carbon?

One of the biggest fads of all is carbon for carbon’s sake. People will buy a sail because they’re told it’s got carbon in it. But depending on what you’re planning to use the sail for, it could be completely the wrong yarn. Carbon may offer the lightest, lowest stretch sail but it won’t be as robust, it won’t like being folded as much and won’t like being dragged along a deck. It might also not be the best sail for your mast, rigging or deck fittings.

What is important is to have the right combination of materials in your sails for your boat and your style of racing. You may want to trade off the last 1% of performance for increased longevity and durability. Your boat may also not be suited to sails with very high modulus (low stretch). So if you’re buying sails for a cruising boat, you’d almost certainly want a higher Spectra content, and you may want enough aramid or carbon to make sure the sail has the right stiffness. You might also want an outer protective scrim like taffeta to protect it further.

Inshore to offshore

If you’re used to mostly doing windward-leeward racing, you don’t worry about genoa staysails, flying headsails, Code 0s or blast reachers. But if you’re entering offshore races, you need to turn your focus on to reaching sails and downwind sails. Depending on your boat there could be an array of sails for certain angles and different wind speeds offshore, which you don’t need inshore. Talk to other sailors who race similar boats to find out which form of reaching sail might work best.

Inshore you don’t necessarily need your sails to go through the wind range as much. So most racing boats might carry a light, medium and a heavy jib. On a Maxi 72, for example, you might carry four codes of jib: light, light/medium, medium/heavy and heavy. But offshore you don’t ideally want to do a lot of sail changes – especially if you’re short-handed. Most likely you’ll want your sails to go through a broader range and might take just a light/medium and a medium/heavy. Therefore you might need to consider different structures and different depths.


The Maxi 72 Momo using Doyle’s cableless tech. Note the lens structure built into the luff. Photo: Ingrid Abery

Structured luff sails

Now, this is going to sound like a sales pitch but one of the revolutions in sailmaking is the structured luff, which we [at North Sails] call Helix [other sailmakers have their own versions]. Because of the carefully designed structure in the sail you can manifestly change the shape of it by adjusting the luff tension. Which means that a structured luff jib can go through a much wider wind range. One minute, it can be really full, then by tightening the luff, it can be altered to look like a flat, heavy air jib.

This is why structured luff sails are becoming popular in short-handed racing where you need to be able to change gears through the wind range without too many sail changes. Bear in mind though that your light jib may have to be built slightly heavier than it might have been because you’re going to push it up the wind range.

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