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DON'S LOG: stories, experience and advice

Heavy Weather Staysail

The vast majority of boats sailing today are single headsail rigged with the headsail on a foil that the headsail can be reefed when it blows up without any member of the crew having to leave the cocpit. This has practically revolutionized sailing. No longer is it necessary to have a couple of young tigers on board that are willing and able to work on the foredeck in heavy weather changing hanked on headsails.

Now the geriatric ma and pa can sail a 45’ boat with little problem. It is possible to reef a headsail and preserve its shape if the headsail sheet is moved forward so that it is in the correct position for the reefed headsail. To take the guess work out of as to where to move the staysail lead, most sailmakers will put two stripes on the luff of the sail parallel to the luff. (see note side bar) The smart skipper will in moderate weather reef the headsail to the first stripe, ascertain and note the correct sheet lead then reef it to the second strip and do the same.

When reefing to the second stripe it is essential to not only move the sheet lead forward but also inboard as if the lead is left out on the rail cap once the lead is moved forward enough to make the sail efficient when reefed to the second stripe, making it into a G3 the sheet lead to the rail cap is too wide much wider than the normal 10 degree sheeting angle .

Reefing to the first stripe, the sail can preserve its shape and be a good headsail for going to windward but the center of effort will have moved forward and up. When reefed to the second stripe the sail begins to bag, the center of effort is much too far forward and much too high heeling the boat over. You can not sail really close to the wind as the sail has lost its shape, you have lost the slot effect between headsail and main, and the center of effort has move forward.(sketch) throwing the boat out of balance.(sketch) and up heeling her over too much. The speed may stay up, but the tacking angle opens up so the VMG speed made good to windward drops off.

When you are tacking in 90 degrees you must sail 1.4 miles to make one mile to windward, if tacking in 120 degrees you must sail two miles to make one good to windward!!!!

Reefing the headsail to the second stripe is dubious, l beyond the second stripe is a waste of time as the sail has become a bag, the center of effort has moved further forward and even higher(sketch)

This is when a removable staysail stay should be set up and a hanked on staysail hoisted and sheeted. The headsail on the foil should then be completely rolled up. The staysail plus reefed, or double reefed main is a balanced rig. The center of effort is close to where it was under full sail(sketch here full rig, staysail and reefed main showing c of f both rigs) the slot effect has been regained.(sketch)

That this rig works is demonstrated by the fact that when beating to windward in heavy weather in the Virgins, we would discover L’ll Iolaire 28’ yawl, with staysail set on a removable staysail stay, set up by the wonderful small Schafer unit(now out of production), reefed main was keeping up with 40 ‘ sloops that were beating to windward with a headsail rolled up to a number 3, setting like a big bag and reefed main.

The old English saying is “gentleman do not beat to windward” to which my wife replies “obviously I did not marry a gentleman!” as all too often where ever we want to go it is dead to windward. I am sure other sailors, cruising sailors who have no interest in racing discover the long weekend or vacation is coming to a close, home port, or a port where the boat can be left, is dead to windward. It is blowing 25 kts and occasionally gusting higher. This is the exact time that you realize a removable staysail stay with hanked on heavy weather staysail combined with reefed main will earn its keep.

The staysail should be stowed hanked on to the staysail stay, in a double zippered turtle bag (see sidebar on how to make sure the turtle bag is properly made) with the staysail sheets in the bag secured to the staysail via a cow hitch(sketch). I specify a cow hitch rather than tying the sheets to the clew with bowlines as no matter how carefully you tie your bowlines, occasionally the bowline will flog free. Show me a sailor who says his or her bowlines have never flogged free and I will show you a liar!!!!!

To make this system work it is essential that the staysail stay can be connected to a release lever that is powerful enough so that when it is thrown to the on position and the staysail stay is under under full tension. There should be no turnbuckle or other adjustable tensioning devise needing to be adjusted. Adjusting turnbuckles on the foredeck in heavy weather is not on. That is a good way to lose a crew overboard.

In port the staysail stay should be tightened by adjusting the stay tension with the turnbuckle with the tensioning lever in the on position. Once the proper adjustment is made then the staysail stay should be disconnected and up ended so the turnbuckle is at the top of the stay where it meets the mast(see side bar the Ghost of Rod Stephens talking). This means the hanked on staysail is right down on the deck in its stowed position tight up against the T fitting or shackle at the end of the stay. There is no difficult to stow, big turnbuckle or tensioning devise rattleing around on deck!!!

Finding a proper release lever is difficult. Some good ones have been specially fabricated(see side bar) but in all of history there have been made only two really good, off the shelf, release levers.

For wires 5/16 and up the Merriman release lever(top of the three release levers in the photo eliminate the other two release levers) in various sizes was perfect. The merriman release lever on Iolaire was salvaged off the Ondine wrecked on the windward side of Anegada. It is so powerful that it is able to put a bow in Iolaire’s oversize aluminum mast 11 inches in fore and aft dimensions. Unfortunately Merriman went belly up, Pat Black(name of his company will follow) bought all the merriman patterns and designs, but his operation also went belly up.

Nautor in the 70’s fabricated out of aluminum plate Merriman type release levers for their Sparkman and Stephens designed 44’s , 47’s and a few other classes. Finally in 2011 after five years of chasing I made contact with the correct person in Nautor who stated that yes, they had the design and could fabricate a merriman type release lever for various sized wires for about EC 900.(photo if I can get nautor to send one)

The Schafer release lever (photo hopefully Schafer will send one to you from their old catalogue) unfortunately is no long manufactured. It was perfect for wire sizes of 1/4” or less. Twice it went out of production but twice it went back into production as a result of articles I wrote, one for Sail the other for Cruising World on the necessity of are removable staysail stay on for heavy weather staysail on all single headsail rigged boats. In both articles I recommended the Schafer release lever. It created enough of a demand that Schafer temporarily put their perfect release lever back in production. It took up little space(photo) and was operated by a standard winch handle. It is amply powerful enough to tension staysail stays of ¼ “ or less.

I am not quite sure where this next paragraph should go and I do not know how to cut and paste.I leave it to the editor to insert this paragraph where they feel it is best.

The staysail stay should run approximately parallel to the head stay .It will meet the mast approximately at the height of the head of the reefed main. Most cruising boats masts are over built to the point that no runners are needed as when hard on the wind the head of the reefed main will meet the mast at the approximate point where the staysail stay meets the mast. The leach of the main will support the staysail stay. If it is decided that runners are needed; the runners should lead thru a block approximately as far aft of the mast as the staysail is forward of the mast(sketch). If this is done on most boats when going to windward with reefed main both runners can be left set up.

If you cannot find an old, second hand Schafer release in a boat jumble or via the internet, buy a Davey(photo) backstay release lever and secure to it a short length of wire which runs thru a block secured to the deck.(sketch) The wire should have an eye in the end so the removable staysail stay can be easily connected. Description as to how to alter the davey highfeild lever to make it a staysail stay release lever will be written if CW decides to go ahead with this long version of the removable staysail stay.

If the staysail is stowed in a proper turtle bag(see side bar) since the turnbuckle is at the mast not the deck, the hanked on sail will be right down on deck. It can be stowed attached to the staysail stay right alongside the mast ready to go in a moments notice

Insert here discussion of piston hanks which sometimes flog open when jibing down wind in heavy weather vs toplict hank (photo) that can not flog open I will do this if you confirm you want the long version

There is not a single decent release lever on the market. They all have turnbuckles and release levers built into one unit that is connected to a pad eye on deck. In the stowed position you have 5 lbs of bulky bronze or stainless banging around on deck. If staysail is hanked on to the stay it is a foot or so above the deck and can not be left permanently stowed on the disconnected staysail stay.

Needless to say the attachment point of the staysail stay to the deck must be strong. On many boats the attachment point can be secured to the forward bulkead of the fore cabin. If this is not possible a rod should be secured to the underside of the deck and down to the stem head. If this fixed rod interferes to much with the bunks in the fore cabin, put a pad eye on the underside of the deck bolted to the attachment point of the staysail stay. Secure a pad eye to the inside of the stem, and make up a wire with a pelican hook and rigging screw so that the pad eye on the underside of the deck can be connected to the pad eye in the stem when needed. When not needed it can be disconnected and stowed under the bunks.

This will interfere with the fore cabin bunks when connected, but when conditions are such that the staysail stay must be set up and the wire connected, and heavy weather staysail set up, no one will want to be sleeping in the fore cabin.(illustrations to illustrate the three options)

The heavy weather staysail should be cut right down to the deck with no overlap.(sketch) This is for a number of reasons. If it is cut down to the deck it is impossible for someone working on the foredeck to get washed over side, plus the amount of sheet that need to be pulled in when tacking will be short. With good timing very little sheet will have to be ground in on a winch. Finally with the low cut staysail if some on is working on the foredeck and the sail flogs he or she will be hit in the legs rather than in the head or face!!!!

The single headsail rigged boat if she is equipped with a heavy weather staysail, rigged to a removable staysail stay, in combination with a reefed main, the vast majority of modern cruising boats will work to windward efficiently and with a modicum of comfort in 25 kts. This rig will get you home without having a number horror stories to tell about knock downs or tacking back and forth and going nowhere!!!!


1. stripes parallel to luff for first and second stages of reefing.

Back in about 1962 I installed on Iolaire roller furling jib and staysail that really worked as they had no more sag than headsails set on a stay. The reason for little sag was the fact that the luff wire in the sails were the same diameter as the head and staysail stay, 5/ 16. To eliminate halyard stretch the halyards were ¼” 7 X 19, two part lead to powerful winches. We would set up the halyards so tight that the head and staysail stays went slack.

The system worked well except that is was a case of all in or all out. In 1986 Harken built their first big roller furling/reefing gear that they gave to Iolaire along with a high cut J 1 yankee, as they wanted to test the gear before they put it on the market to make sure it would stand up to heavy weather.

Olaf decided if Iolaire and I could not break it up with the hard sailing in a winter in the caribbean, that we had to do with the engineless Iolaire, no one could break it up.

After a few days sailing with the new roller reefing gear and ascertaining that it would hold shape when reefed if the headsail sheet was moved forward, to take the guess work out of where to move the sheet lead, I came up with the idea of two stripes parallel to the luff reducing the size of the yankee from a J1 to J2 to J3. The first sail was marked with indelible majic marker, subsequent sails have been marked by the sailmaker

I mentioned this in an article in Sail. A number of sailmakers immediately picked the idea up and actually all headsails that you intend to reef should have stripes parallel to the luff to take the guess work out the correct positioning of sheet leads when the headsail is reefed.

2 How to get the sailmaker to make a really good tight turtle bag.

Take the heavy weather staysail to the sail loft, with a short piece of heavy wire or 3/16 rod. Snap the hanks on to the rod, furl the staysail as tight as you can, secure the staysail sheets to the clew with a cow hitch and flake down the sheets on top of the sail.

Have the sailmaker make a full length bag closed with a heavy zipper. Close the forward end of the bag with a flap around the stay and the hanks with the ,flap secured to the bag with Velcro. Then have him sew on a second zipper, outside of the existing zipper so placed that when the second zipper is pulled up the sail is packed in a tight turtle bag.

Since with the proper release lever the turnbuckle is at the mast, not the deck, the staysail in the turtle when attached to the disconnected staysail stay is down at deck level. It can be secured alongside the mast. It should live there all season thus be ready to go at a moments notice.

3 The Ghost of Rod Stephens speaking

Once the correct tension is made on the staysail stay, the staysail stay with turnbuckle should be upended so the turnbuckles is at the mast. This meant in with the staysail stay disconnected, it was easy to secure the end of the stay as there was only a T fitting on the end of the stay rather than 3 lbs of bronze turnbuckle tearing up varnish and deck. Once the turnbuckle is moved to the mast, the hanked on staysail can be stowed right down on deck.

This is not DMStreet jr talking, this is the Ghost of Rod Stephens talking. I say this as a university student’s summer job, I cut my teeth in big boat sailing in 1954 as paid hand, then skipper of Huey Long’s 53 ‘ Abeking and Rassmussen yawl Ondine.

Rod Stephens supervised the up grading of Ondine.

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