Which downwind sails are the right choice for you? and how do you take the stress out of sail handling on a tradewind passage? Toby Hodges quizzed more than 240 skippers in last year’s ARC to find out

Downwind sailing is any cruising sailor’s dream. The thought of days, or even weeks, of reliable following tradewind pushing you across an ocean with just a warm apparent breeze over the deck seems particularly far-fetched for those of us who have just suffered the wettest winter imaginable.

We all need a reliable downwind setup, whether coastal cruising or passagemaking. But those planning an Atlantic crossing or Pacific crossing will want to give this aspect particular attention, perhaps adding some tweaks or sail wardrobe investments to help ensure that dream adventure is as comfortable as possible for your crew and your yacht.

While there’s certainly no one-fits-all answer, we can learn a lot from those who have done a crossing. Last year we used our annual ARC Gear Survey to focus on the topic of downwind sails and handling and have since analysed the responses to our detailed questionnaire, from over 240 skippers on the ARC and ARC+ rallies.

The reason why there’s no optimum solution for all is multifaceted. Sure, the shape of your hull and keel type can help narrow down options. Unless you have a sportier design, then sailing the downwind rhumbline should equate to least stress and gybes and therefore potential problems. Those with newer hull shapes may want to calculate their polars and work with sailmakers to evaluate which angles and sails best suit their hulls.

How about your rig – is it easy to use a pole? Is there a track to fit one… or two even? Can you square the boom or do you have swept-back spreaders? Do you sail short-handed or with plenty of crew to help pull strings and get poles down? The answers can lead to yet more considerations, including chafe points, how to avoid rolling, and how to easily depower or reef.

Does your mainsail help and does it fill the slot better when reefed? What’s your best setup for short-handed or at night? What are your backup systems (notably for torn sails or a broken halyard or pole)?

A lot can be answered in advance by considering such questions. The weather, however, cannot. We can only hope for reliable trades and the sort of downwind crossing conditions last year’s ARC crews gratefully experienced.

Photo: Tony Gratton/Niord/WCC

Weighing the options

Spinnakers can be ideal if you have the experience and crew to handle them, their numerous associated lines, and can get them down easily. Asymmetric spinnakers or gennakers can make this handling much easier, as they don’t require a pole. They were carried by over 40% of the fleet last year, making these the most popular offwind option in terms of numbers carried (an indication of a modern fleet), but they don’t suit true downwind sailing, meaning extra miles to sail.

Aero-style vented spinnakers, aka parasailers, can seem like the holy grail for many on a downwind crossing as they can be set from the bow or in front of the boat and are capable of reaching and running. However, these are among the costliest sail options/upgrades and there’s a range of different brands now which all claim the optimum design.

That said, perhaps the clearest message from 2023’s ARC skippers was the real love of – or wish for – a parasailer. Over 40 yachts carried one, yet so many more commented that they would have wanted one. This is perhaps a reflection of last year’s consistent tradewind conditions – “The parasailer was perfect for the conditions we had” said the skipper of German Catana 47 Aquila.

Other downwind sail setups include twin headsails, or the specialist Bluewater Runners and TradeWinds, versatile sails which share a single luff.

However, a poled-out genoa, where the headsail is typically flown wing-on-wing/goosewinged with the mainsail, is still considered the most reliable method for downwinding.

Carrying a range of options is ideal, but remember you also need the space to stow them!

Grand Soleil 46LC Flying into the sunset poled-out. Their twin headsails were “a dream”. Photo: Peter Blackadder/Flying/WCC

Pole-out – belt and braces

Around 60 yachts used a poled-out headsail, with over 40 of these skippers still rating it the most reliable method. It uses your heavier-grade white sails, the mainsail can be securely prevented, and both can be easily reefed.

Asante, a 2007-built Oyster 56, has a gennaker aboard but found: “Best setup when windy is two reefs in main, poled-out headsail – easy solution and fast going at 8-10 knots (we covered 205 miles in 24 hours)”. Serenity, a French HR40, said it “allows for a good wind angle in tradewinds and is easy to reef single-handedly if needed”, while German Bavaria 51 Mola adds this setup is “extremely resistant to squalls”.

A poled-out genoa worked best aboard the Moody 54 Dilema, albeit making for a ‘rolly’ experience: “Simple and effective. We used centred staysail as well to reduce roll.” UK-flagged Rustler 42 Carrik also remarked on the rolling but was otherwise in praise: “sailing goosewinged spared us the drama of the spinnaker when winds were 20-plus knots (which was most of the time) and allowed us to sail the rhumbline”.

The Swedish-flagged Hallberg-Rassy 48 MkII Sally was sailed double-handed so kept it straightforward with main and poled-out headsail, sailing wing-on-wing for two weeks. “Our simple sail approach worked well for us, fast enough and easy.”

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Also sailing double-handed was Fisk, a 2007 Oyster 46: “Our poled-out genoa (130%) proved to be a very useful all-round tool, goosewinging with the main when feasible.” They bought these sails new before the ARC but think a light wind sail could have been useful too.

Jeanneau Sunshine 38 Cloud Jumper points out that “goosewinging is less weight on the bow than twin headsails.” They sailed like this for 22 days. And 20-year-old Oyster 53 Jarina had another reason for the ease of this setup: “a foredeck crew with the combined age of 200! Poled-out headsail plus main and preventer equals ease of handling. Stable and controllable.”

Experimenting and enjoying the process should be encouraged. Ipanema developed a motto by doing this: “poled-out genoa if wind greater than 18 knots; gennaker if wind less than 20 knots”. Bestevaer 53ST Aegle thinks having a good solution for various apparent wind angles is key: “goosewing is very effective; a furling spinnaker makes life much easier”.

Twin headsails (one flown free) on Island Packet 380 Niord. Photo: Tor Johnson

Twins – twice as good?

Some bluewater yachts install their own systems as standard, including a pole or twin poles, knowing twin headsails are ideal for tradewind cruising. The Barters on their 20-year old Super Maramu Nunky hail the Amel twin headsail system as “superb: great downwind and they can be furled together in a moment”. Equally, Oyster 54 Ostara says: “the Dolphin twin headsails performed very well – very versatile and fast passagemaking in tradewinds”.

Other skippers might choose to fit or retrofit two forestays or twin luff grooves. “Twin headsails on the same furler worked really well,” is the verdict from Rival 36 Topaz Rival. They sailed like this for 17 days, including at night, so it didn’t affect their watch pattern.

Norwegian Sun Odyssey 44 Moyfrid used genoa and jib poled-out for 15 days, as it’s “easy to adjust, gave us flexibility and safety of handling quickly in squalls”. The same reasoning was given by Discovery 58 Aqualuna, who found twin headsails excellent for double-handing. “It meant we could do three hours on, three hours off”. The summary from Oyster 53 Distraction: “Twin headsails is easy but not fast, asymmetric is fast but not easy.”

The Blackadders’ Grand Soleil 46 Flying has twin headsails, a gennaker and a Code 0, “and trapped the edge of the tradewinds to use them all”. They found “our twin headsails/twin poles worked a dream – easy to fly single-handed and not too rolly.” They also found them easy to adjust and reef, and adaptable to different conditions including winds up to 35° off the quarter.

US-flagged Ovni 450 Reverie running west to the sunset under gennaker. Photo: Tony Martin/Reverie/WCC

Spinnakers – Going deep

Anyone in a hurry, racing or wanting some sport for an active crew would probably choose a spinnaker (or several, space and budget willing). While capable of harnessing those tradewinds most efficiently, a big free-flying sail can be tricky to gybe and get back on deck. A popular ARC solution is to fly a spinnaker during the day and poled-out headsail at night as the latter is easier to manage/reef without affecting the watch system.

Oyster 406 Penny Oyster: “We used the spinnaker during the day (weather permitting) which increased speed and was less rolly. Poled-out jib overnight felt very stable and safe. Easy to manage solo.” It was the same for Grand Soleil 50 Sidney II and 20-year old Sweden Yachts 42 Freedom, the latter promoting: “full main and spinnaker when 15 knots or less (sailed on a dead run for 90% of trip); main and genoa goosewinged if 15 knots or more”.

Symmetrical kites (and parasailers) are often a popular choice for catamarans as they can be set off each bow. Sailing double-handed on their Aussie flagged Outremer 51 Spirit, the McMasters bought a symmetric kite for the crossing to supplement their gennaker, flew it with the mainsail and considered it “easy gybing and conservative for double-handing”. Fellow Outremer Madeleine (a 45) carried Code, A-sails and a symmetric spinnaker and found a “half-reefed main and spinnaker stable and easy”.

Foredeck crew of Estonian Oyster 565 Larimar stow the furled gennaker while under TradeWind. Photo: Magnus Harjak/Larimar/WCC

Asymmetric/Gennaker – working the angles

Despite gennakers being the most popular offwind sail option carried (90 yachts), only around 20 skippers found this to be their most successful sailplan for the crossing, with many frustrated by not having a kite with enough belly to sail the deep downwind angles experienced last year. (While deeper cut asymmetrics are available, many, especially furling types, have a flatter shape and suit reaching more). Grand Soleil 46LC Mandalay reckons their inability to sail deep cost them two days.

Grand Soleil 50 Mr Twister found that flying their gennaker with a double reefed main “allowed for a more downwind course”. This was backed up by the Peckhams on their Hanse 455 Infinity of Yar: “Two reefs in the main allows wind over the top of mainsail so 165-170º TWA is possible”. At night they resorted to the boat’s standard white sails but as this involves a self-tacking jib, they’d want to fit a poled-out genoa or yankee if doing it again.

Handling an A-sail and whether to use a furler or snuffer, also needs due consideration. Najad 490 Adastrina cautions that a “top-down furler with its torsion rope is difficult to stow due to bulk”, while Oyster 47 Aequitas also warns: “Don’t sail too deep as the snuffer jams.”

Code 0s have transformed cruising for many production yachts, particularly those which typically day sail in light winds and want an easily furled fetching or reaching option. However, they are not deemed so useful for tradewind passages as they lack the deeper shape for downwind conditions. “Code 0 was excellent, but could not run deeper than 155°,” confirms new Canadian-flagged X46 Imi Makani.

An exception was perhaps the Oyster 745 Mexican Wave: “We loved both our Elvstrom Code 0, which we flew 10 days and nights, and our Bluewater Runner which was great in light wind. Both on hydraulic furlers – easy.”

Birds-eye view of the deep bellied Bluewater Runner on Hanse 505 Mojito. Photo: David Anning/Mojito/WCC

Specialist sails – Bluewater Runner & TradeWinds

Elvstrom’s Bluewater Runner (BWR) and North Sails’ TradeWind (TW) were purposefully designed for downwind events such as the ARC. They take some of the twin headsail concept, but use lighter fabric and modern furling technology for a versatile multi-use sail.

The twin headsails are joined at the luff and can be flown together on the leeward side to act as a light wind genoa/Code sail equivalent, or peeled apart when running to be flown wing-on-wing, independent of the fixed forestay and headsail. And in principle, they can be easily furled from the cockpit.

Hallberg Rassy 40 Northern Light purchased a BWR for the crossing, used it for 16 days during daylight hours, and found it “very effective when running dead downwind.” The Hanse 505 Mojito agrees: “Worked really well, easy to handle, and doubles up as a Code 0. It gave the best downwind performance and can be managed from the cockpit.” That said, they consider their BWR “too powerful for the rig even in 20 knots of wind – we snapped one halyard and broke the bobstay and bowsprit padeye.”

HR57 Saltair advises it needs lots of halyard tension, while Lagoon 410 Newbee agrees that less than 20 knots wind suits the BWR – they resorted to a triple-reefed main and genoa when things got livelier.

Pinnacle before chafe issues with its TradeWind sail. Photo: Stephanie Stevens/Pinnacle/WCC

North Sails’ latest offerings are popular on modern luxury cruisers. Rock Lobster IV is a new Oyster 565 with a wardrobe of North Sails including a TradeWind and a Helix structural luff gennaker. “Helix is very easy (little point using the G2); TradeWind is great in moderate wind, and poled-out yankee gives good flexibility”. They wisely “adapted sails to crew ability”.

Fellow Oyster Ri-Ra, a 675, also with a new North suit, had “lots of difficulties with TradeWind sails,” however, and blamed a poor setup and “inadequate halyard casting”. Meanwhile Mastegot, a new Oyster 595, found their poled-out jib and main more successful than the TW, and if doing again they’d instead consider twin headsails, “because they can be reefed”.

But there were words of praise from Amel 60 Mrs G who found their TradeWind most reliable with a reefed main, and the Swedish Passad 38 Lulu: “very good lift and speed, much better than wing-on-wing”.

Parasailor – fast, stable and no rolling,” says Contest 50CS Athena. PHoto: Philip Mrosk/Athena/WCC

Parasailers – the vented kite

For want of a generic term ‘parasailers’ are specialist cruising spinnakers with a pressure relief valve. This vented part diffuses gusts while the paraglider-style wing creates lift and provides support to the sail (they don’t require a pole, but can be used with one).

It’s a forgiving, versatile option that can be used for running and reaching, but it’s an expensive investment and one that pays to learn how to handle properly. They work well without needing a mainsail set and are increasingly popular with multihull owners.

How they work and the different types available – Istec’s Parasail and Parasailor, Wingaker and Oxley – is another whole article.

Lagoon 450F Marlove was one of 44 parasailer users last ARC, flying theirs for 13 days and nights: “made our life easy, perfect sail to cross the Atlantic”. Another Lagoon, Rockhopper of London, agreed, calling it a ‘hoist and forget’ sail: “no trimming – the sail coped well with wind shifts”. And Ovni 385 Contigo reports: “Parasail is amazing up to 20 knots and easy to snuff if the wind got too high.”

The Harpers on their two-year-old Jeanneau Yachts 51 Blue Pepper spent a season using their parasailer to prepare: “We practiced all the configurations we used several times as a crew before we got to the Canaries – it paid off. The Parasailor was excellent, stable, including in gusts, and very easy to manage. Twin headsails also worked well and were surprisingly powerful, but Parasailor is faster, easier, with less wear and tear on running rigging.”

Fountaine Pajot Saba 50 Lady Roslyn exhibits all 190m2 of her bright red P16 model Wingaker. Photo: Wingaker

Those with parasailers seemed happier to keep them up at night. The skipper of Lagoon Cosi mentioned how he would sleep in the cockpit for this. However, several others added caution about getting a parasailer down – the wing element can makes snuffing tricky, confirmed by the double-handed crew on Broadblue Rapier 550 Blue Wonder. Hence others promote snuffing parasailers early, including Galatea Of Aune, who tore theirs in a squall.

Of the 44 international skippers who shipped parasailers it’s hard to know exactly which types they had as many just list them as ‘parasailer’, but there were clearly some staunch supporters of both Oxley and Wingaker types. “Oxley is amazing! Very stable, very flexible in terms of wind strengths (gusts and wind direction),” reckon the Dutch crew on their Garcia Exploration 60 Fiore.

The Swiss crew on Moody 54DS Nautilia were equally impressed: “We used it up to gusts until about 24 knots – gives calm downwind sailing with good speed.” The Bösch’s on Jeanneau 51 Wolkenschlosschen said their Levante “worked really well,” using it 90% of the time, adding “take Oxley down below 20 knots TWS and use it in gennaker mode”.

Aussie-flagged Fountaine Pajot 40 Cat’s Pajamas flew their 130m2 Oxley for 16 days and, other than advising to get it down early for squalls, the only thing they’d change is to get a larger version.

Oxley offers the Levante (for up to 20 knots) and the flatter Bora with an inflatable double-layer wing for higher winds, seas and gust damping.

More Oxley fans on the Garcia Exploration 60 Fiore. Photo: Harmen-Jan Geerts/Fiore

“The new Bora was excellent,” reports Oyster 55 Valent, although they still found it difficult to snuff once the wind was over 14 knots.

The main difference the Wingaker has over other parasailers is that it is a single construction including the vent and wing, which it claims produces a more stable performance and is easier to handle and crucially to snuff. The feedback for it was equally praiseworthy, particularly from catamaran owners.

The new Seawind 1600 cat Pure Joy thought it just that: “Wingaker very easy to handle and gybe as well as sail completely downwind.” The American crew on FP Aura 51 Darla J left a strong testament: “2,142 miles without taking the Wingaker down”. And the Kiwi FP Elba 45 Aratui simply stated: “Take a Wingaker” after flying theirs for 90% of the voyage including at night.

More multihull solutions

Multihulls offer great platforms for experimenting with downwind setups. While it’s easy to picture a cat flying along on a flat reach under screecher or A-sail, running downwind brings questions on how best to fill the slots in different wind strengths. Indeed the Canadians on their new Nautitech 44 Open June asked for “more detail on catamaran downwind strategy in the ARC’s downwind seminar”. They found “full main and gennaker faster than Oxley but poor below 150° TWA – Oxley backs wind behind main”. They wished for a better solution for between 18-24 knots wind.

The family dream? Letting the parasailer do the work on June, a Canadian Nautitech 44 Open. Photo: Peter Hunt/June/WCC

Portuguese FP Tanna 47 Portlish found a good combination between gennaker (with furler) and parasailer. “Gennaker was used for 110°-160° AWA and also during the night, parasailer for 160°-180°.” However, they advised it’s not easy without a pole: “We would add a spinnaker pole to be able to use a poled-out genoa for downwind sailing in above 25 knots of wind.”

The 53ft bluewater catamaran Lost Abbey favoured goosewinging either their spinnaker, asymmetrical or screecher with the genoa, but still would have liked a parasailer. Norwegian RCC Majestic 530 Tempus seconded this: “If money were no object I’d buy a parasailer.” Instead, they mostly used “the asymmetric spinnaker on either bow plus one to two reefs in main”.

FP Lucia 40 Wanderlust used a Code 0 and asymmetric the most: “both behaved well downwind and sometimes we flew both side-by-side”. They caution: “big mainsails and booms are a pain downwind!” While the new Excess 15 Vida Loca adds: “as the rig required the mainsail to be flown with the gennaker, our sailing angles in decent wind were 160° AWA”.

Nautitech 46 Open Pinnacle found their most effective sailplan to be: “TradeWind with third reef, next asymmetric with third reef – downwind sails need less mainsail in the less wind,” they warn after they had problems with their snuffer twisting. The sail lashing at the head of the TradeWind also chafed through, tearing the sail as it came down. Which leads us to other sail handling problems…

Sewing sail repairs on the Contest 50CS Athena. Photo: Philip Mrosk/Athena/WCC

Problems & repairs

Having your ideal sailplan is one thing, but what do you do when that breaks? The majority of ARC skippers experienced failures with sails and their handling, mostly with tears they needed to repair, and the overriding advice is to carry plenty of tape and patches, a sewing machine if possible, an extensive sewing kit if not.

“With a good sail repair kit a sail can always be repaired,” the crew on Penny Oyster advise. Grand Soleil 46LC Mandalay suffered a torn clew and luff in their headsail and a torn batten pocket in the main, but report all were “hand stitched or taped and held OK”. After the A-sail “ripped from leech to luff” on the new Oyster 595 JaZoFi, the crew stitched and taped the 12.5m tear, “but only had a 25m roll of 50mm tape”. Frustratingly, the repair only lasted an hour.

Chafe to sheets and halyards is the other biggest issue on long downwind passages. “We had chafing on pole ends caused by metal eyes on sheets,” Jeanneau Sunshine 38 Cloud Jumper warns. “We failed to use plastic balls to prevent damage until too late.”

There were also a large number of halyard failures last year, including two spinnaker halyards and the genoa halyard on the Alloy Yachts Irelanda alone.

Amel 60 Mrs G and Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 44 Moyfrid both snapped gennaker halyards: “the halyard fell down inside the mast – unable to retrieve it while underway,” Moyfrid bemoans. “Carry spare halyards to replace any that chafe or break,” is Hermione III’s advice.

Final thoughts

Having compiled this survey for over 15 years, it’s clear to see that ARC yachts are getting newer and larger and their owners are increasingly happy to spend that bit extra to get the best out of their yachts or find their ideal sailplan.

Today’s easily set and handled Code sails and asymmetrics offer a completely transformative experience during most of the test sails I do on these new boats. But for a tradewind passage I’d choose a specialist downwind sail, budget and space willing, and/or make sure I had a pole and headsail large enough to goosewing effectively.

Know your sails’ limits (in wind and waves) and what you would default to over certain strengths, remembering that tradewinds can be strong for days and nights at a time.

Then get comfortable with your downwind setup so all crew can safely manage and ideally reef it short-handed, identify chafe points in advance, and have a backup plan including spares and repairs.

Your dream crossing should be just that, so take the stress out in advance if you can – and enjoy the ride!

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