Yachtmaster Ocean instructor and co-founder of Rubicon 3 adventure sailing, Rachael Sprot, offers her hard-won tips on setting a storm trysail

We were running before a deep depression en-route from Ponta Delgada in the Azores to La Coruña. The sea was building behind us and the gale we had was due to become a severe gale soon.

We were perfectly comfortable in our 30-ton Clipper 60 Hummingbird but I knew that the whoops of excitement would soon be replaced by weary silence when the weather started to exact its toll on the crew.

The massive TSS off Finisterre coincides almost perfectly with the continental shelf and we had just under 100 miles to run before we got there.

By my reckoning we’d arrive just as the sea state peaked in 12 hours’ time, and it would be dark. In the current sea state we were already invisible to shipping most of the time and what was worse, they were invisible to us.

The mainsail had a preventer on which made manoeuvring more difficult, and I wasn’t confident that the preventer would hold if one of the crew had a slip of concentration.

We needed storm sails. A storm jib is easy to set and we could have run before the weather under that alone, but I wanted the option of making ground to windward or at the very least holding station, so we needed the trysail too.

What is a trysail?

A trysail is a substitute mainsail designed solely for storm conditions. Setting independently of the boom it is loose-footed and designed to sit above the stack of your mainsail using a long tack strop.

A trysail is rigged independently of the mainsail. Photo: c/o Rachael Sprot

They aren’t designed to give you optimum close-hauled performance, instead they’re a way of clawing some ground to windward or maintaining a safe distance off a dangerous lee shore.

To most sailors a trysail looks very odd, as it meets two conflicting demands: it needs to sit above the bulk of your mainsail so that it can fly in clean air, yet the centre of effort needs to be as low as possible to reduce heeling.

The result is that most trysails will be as long in the foot as they are in the luff, thereby gaining sail area horizontally rather than vertically. The sail also needs to sheet down to the deck, so it will have a long leech with the clew position considerably lower than the tack. In many respects it’s more like a second jib than a small mainsail.

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A trysail is much better adapted to strong winds than your expensive main. Pete Sanders of Sanders Sails has made hundreds of trysails over the years: “Everything is heavily reinforced. The material itself needs to be a heavy cloth, at least as heavy as your mainsail cloth if not heavier, and you can’t use laminates for a trysail. It’s stitched using three rows of 3-step stitching and the pressed eyes in each corner are reinforced with webbing straps.”

Rigging a trysail

To be able to use your trysail in anger you need to be able to set it independently of the mainsail – there’s no way you’ll want to de-rig your main in rough weather and feed a trysail into the existing track.

There are three options: a separate track on the mast; securing the trysail with tough Velcro straps that attach around the mast; or creating a stay from the masthead to the gooseneck using your topping-lift and hanking on the sail.

All of these options have their drawbacks.

A separate mast track is expensive to retrofit, it works on older-style aluminium spars with curved section profiles but slimmer mast profiles often don’t have room for an extra track.

The Velcro strap option sounds appealing, but it relies on you having a fairly clean mast without many external halyards or other obstacles to catch on.

If you have a substantial ram’s horn on the gooseneck then creating your own stay from the topping lift is an option, but you need to be able to get really good tension on it in order to get a taut luff so it needs to lead to a winch.

Trysails can be used to continue sailing after a boom breakage, as here on Kialoa II in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

Like all things at sea, preparing your trysail is easiest before the weather hits. If you have the option of feeding your trysail into its separate track and leaving it neatly stowed on deck by the mast or lashed to the boom, it makes life a thousand times easier when it comes to hoisting it.

At the very least it should live somewhere accessible for ocean passages.

There is no point in carrying a trysail if you haven’t practised rigging it. You need to know which sheets you’ll use, where you’ll sheet it to, how high it needs to be to clear the mainsail stack and whether there are any special techniques for raising and lowering it on your boat.

You’ll only find these things out by trying it, preferably when alongside on a sunny day.

Better to reef?

World Sailing used to dictate that all boats in offshore races needed to carry trysails, but recently offer an alternative: in Categories 1&2 (including the Fastnet) you can now opt for a very deep 50% reef instead.

This is essentially a fourth reef and it has many advantages: it’s quicker to put in, you don’t need a separate track on the mast, and in rough weather there’s less work to be done outside the cockpit.

But the decision is not straightforward. Can your boom accommodate a fourth reefing line? Do you want to sail around with all that extra knitting? If it can’t, you’ll need to de-rig one of the other reefing lines and use that. On large boats such as ours the prospect of standing on the coachroof and untying the first or second reef, then trying to feed it through a reefing eye on a flogging leech, doesn’t appeal.

For yachts that regularly sail in exposed seas, having a fourth reefing point in the main gives you options.

If you know gales are likely you could de-rig your first reef before leaving port and run it to the fourth reefing point instead. You can’t use your first reef and might have to opt for a slightly slower speed under your second reef at times, but as you get closer to home if the weather forecast seems stable you can easily pull the fourth reefing line out and feed it through the first reefing point.

It’s much easier to swap the reefing lines over this way, than trying to run the fourth reef as bad weather approaches.

Ideally an ocean-going yacht would have both options: a sturdy trysail which is straightforward to rig and a fourth reefing point in the mainsail.

There are many incidents when trysails have been used because of a boom breakage rather than storm survival conditions. Carrying a trysail gives you valuable redundancy.

If there’s one time that you’re going to damage a mainsail or boom, it’s in heavy weather, with a crash gybe, knockdown or big breaking wave. Setting your trysail allows you to take the boom out of the equation in a controlled way.

Setting a trysail

1 Set the storm jib. This reduces canvas and means you can find a comfortable point of sail to drop the main without being over-powered.

2 Drop the mainsail. This is easier said than done in a gale. Allow the main to luff by coming onto 
a close reach with the sheet 
well out. On bigger boats a strong crewmember with a boat hook may be able to pull the luff down by hooking the sliders one-by-one.

3 Run downwind and keep the boat as stable as possible while you do the rest of the deck work. Lower the boom and secure it off to one side with a strong lashing.

A ‘blanket stitch’ lashing of the mainsail to the boom. Photo: c/o Rachael Sprot

4 Now lash the mainsail. On a large yacht with a high boom this is one of the most difficult parts of the job. Throw a long line over the boom a few times and truss it up as best as you can!

5 Attach your trysail at the mast if it isn’t already rigged (pic C). Make sure the tack line is attached to a strong point at the gooseneck – you can even tie it around the gooseneck. Leave some extra length in the tack line so that you can adjust the height of the sail.

A trysail with two sheets to a point on each quarter. Photo: c/o Rachael Sprot

6 Set up two sheets to a point on each quarter, the spinnaker sheet blocks usually work well. Make sure the lazy sheet goes over the boom and forwards of the topping lift (if it’s still attached) or you won’t be able to tack or gybe.

7 Hoist the trysail. This can be easier said than done if you’re running downwind – you’ll almost certainly need to come up on the wind and allow the sail to luff with the sheet eased.

8 Once the sail is up you can adjust its height using the tack line. Make sure that it isn’t chafing the mainsail underneath and that it has a clean air flow and good sheet lead.

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