Shifting Gears with Your Foresail by Lee Huddleston

The only thing on Barren River Lake that is consistent is change. Wind speed and wind direction fluctuate throughout most days of sailing. If you hoist a foresail that is perfect for 5 knots of wind, you probably will not be too surprised it the wind increases to 7 knots and then drops off to 3 knots. And the foresail you have chosen may be completely inappropriate for both 7 knots and 3 knots. If you have a large inventory of sails, you might stop and change sails and then stop again and change to another sail. Of course, most of us do not have the luxury of such an inventory. And if you are just day-sailing, who wants to keep fooling with sails.

If you are racing, you almost certainly do not want to stop and change sails. Even on a long course, stopping to change sails is usually fatal. So what do you do if you are beating to windward and the wind is too strong for your foresail and your boat is having a hard time staying upright? Even if you could instantly switch to a smaller sail, as soon as you round the weather mark and start running or reaching, you are going to wish you still had that larger sail up. The answer to your dilemma is to “shift a gears” with your foresail.

The key is the fairlead, the block or pad-eye through which the sheet goes before it is cleated or turned around the winch.  Normally, you set the fore and aft position of the fairlead by sighting along the seam in the middle of the foresail. The seam will run from approximately midway along the luff to the clew. If your fairlead is located along the line as though the seam extended aft pass the clew, your foresail should be set properly. When the sail breaks it should bread along the entire luff at the same time. If the sail breaks at the top first, the fairlead may be too far aft. If it breaks at the bottom first, the fairlead may be too far forward. (I hope that I have that correct; if I have gotten them mixed up, you have permission to laugh at me.) Unless you are intentionally “shifting gears” (as I will explain below), you need to move the fairlead to correct this problem. Otherwise, it will prevent you from pointing as high and will depower your sail unintentionally.

So, assuming for now that your telltales normally break at the same time all along your luff, here is how you “shift gears.” If the sail is too large for the amount of wind, move the fairlead aft. This will tighten up the foot of the sail and, more importantly, open up the leach. When a puff hits the sail, it will open up and let that heavy air escape out the back of the sail. It will depower the sail some, but you already have too much power.

What if the wind is too light? To some extent you can increase the sail’s power by moving the fairlead forward. Then when you bring in the sheet, you will be tightening the leach and loosening the foot. In other words, you will be making the sail more like a cup. And as you will recall, curves are power.

I can sense some of you thinking, “But I do not have tracks or movable fairleads.” If that is your situation, you can devise a system sometimes referred to as “barber haulers.” The sheet is run through a loose block (or even just the loop of a line). Then the block or the loop is tied down forward or aft of where the fairlead normally is. In other words, you change the angle of the sheet by making your own temporary fairlead. If you find that this works to make your sailing safer and more fun, there are probably tracks and moveable blocks in your future.

See you on the water,


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