Starting to sort out sailing

One of the key factors in Sustainable sailing and reduced fossil fuel use that we haven’t written much about yet is the actual sailing. This is an area where there is a lot of work to do.

Starting condition

Fortunately, we have evidence that the standing rigging (that is the stays and shrouds that hold up the masts) was replaced 8 years ago. Insurance companies generally require it to be replaced every 10 years. So in theory we have 2 more summers before needing to replace it.

However, all the running rigging (halyards to put sails up the mast, sheets to adjust the angles of the sails and much more) was in very poor condition and very old. Nearly all of it is rather old fashioned technology (3 strand rope hasn’t been used in decades, it is hard on your hands, stretches, tangles easily and isn’t anything like as strong).

We have 2 winches on each mast and they all clearly need a full service as they are very stiff to turn.

The Mizzen mast and boom are not original and generally seem in good condition. Some work needs to be done as there are broken mounts for a radar reflector and the wiring for the radar, vhf aerial and deck light is in poor condition.

The Main mast and boom are more problematical. At some point a mainsail furling system was added. Originally the boat came with boom, roller reefing (where to reduce sail area you rotate the boom and the sail wraps around it as you lower it down the mast). These systems gave very poor sail shape when reefing. A popular option on newer boats is to have the sail wrap vertically inside the mast. Vida had this type of system retro-fitted to the original mast.

The are problems with this:

  • The sail needs stitching repairs and has black marks where there are joins in the extrusion that is riveted to the back of the mast.
  • Having a section riveted to the back of the mast reduces it’s strength as they expand/contract differently with temperature changes and also have different bending characteristics.
  • This style of reefing significantly reduces sail area (particularly where it is most effective, at the top of the mast). This is because you can’t have sail battens (due to winding the sail into the mast) to support the leech (back of the sail) the back of the sail has to be concave rather than convex.
  • The boom is shorter than it can be and the current sail does not use all the boom. Again significantly reducing the sail area.
  • The whole reefing system was in need of a lot of maintenance with new reefing lines needed. The result was that the sail would not unfurl fully and was jamming when we lowered it (took two of us, and all our weight to pull it down).
  • With these systems, particularly the retrofitted ones, it is easy to get the sail jammed if you are not sailing at the right angle and with the right tension when either unfurling or reefing the sail. That can be a big safety issue if you need to tack towards danger in order to be at the right angle to reef or if the sail gets jammed out when the wind picks up.

For all these reasons we decided to get a local rigging company to advise us (North Spar).

What next?

The very next step (which I think might be happening today) is to get both masts down. I don’t like heights anyway and am not willing to go up the mast to check things or do work until the halyards have been replaced, the rigging connections at the top of the mast checked and the sheaves that the halyards run through checked.

Once the masts are down, Byron, from Northspar is going to

  • remove the old mainsail reefing system (filling the rivet holes with special rivets that don’t cause corrosion).
  • replace all the halyards
  • fit a replacement boom (about 1 foot longer) with a new gooseneck (the swivel joint that connects the boom to the mast)
  • rivet on the plates that are all that remain from the old gooseneck (so that there are no holes to weaken the mast)

Over the winter we will be able to

  • check and clean all the rigging fittings on the mast (and fully document them so that the mast will not need to come down for future work).
  • check and probably replace most of the wiring in the masts (for lights, wind instruments, aerials, radar)
  • service all the winches
  • clean the whole mast to remove staining and check for any corrosion
  • fix the star crazing in the deck around one of the chainplates (where the shrouds are fixed to the deck).

We will also be able to properly check and reseal the “mast feet” which are the metal fittings that the bottom of the masts rest on. As these are bolted through the cabin roofs it is important to check for leaks which might cause the wooden core to rot. The main mast is supported by a metal “compression” post in the cabin and we can see some rust around the bolts.

Rust around bolt that connects the mast foot to the plate on top of the compression post through the cabin roof.
The mast foot for the main mast. 6 bolts and the 2 in the middle go through the compression post plate. Positioning them right next to the water drain seems like a poor decision as they block the flow of water and will encourage leaks.
There seem to be the remains of something that used to be riveted to the mast, maybe for the kicking strap?

Sailing performance

Once we have a new boom and new halyards we will be able to get a new mainsail (keeping the existing one as an emergency spare). This will have slab reefing (more labour intensive to reef but gives good sail shape and maximum sail area). That will also require us to fully service the winches and upgrade the sheets.

Once these changes are done, with the improved size and shape of the sail we are hoping to make a significant improvement to the sailing performance of Vida (both in speed and the angle you can sail to the wind). We are aiming to move from being told she will normally sail at 4 to 5 knots to sailing at 5 to 6 knots. But more than just speed will be the ability to sail more and use the engine less. The keys to achieving much less motoring are

  • Reliable and simple setting sails and reefing them so that we are not tempted to motor because it is easier
  • light wind performance so that we can still move without using the engine even when the wind dies away (we enjoy the challenge of making progress when others give up and motor)
  • strong wind performance. The classic safety challenge is to make headway into the wind when the wind and waves get up. Fortunately this is something that Rival boats have a good reputation for
  • manoeuvrability. By this I mean being able to sail in constricted spaces like rivers; and to be able to pick up moorings or drop anchor without using the engine. Something we have always enjoyed as a challenge, but it requires the well sorted rig, sails and handling.

With the new sail will come more sewing jobs for Jane with her new toy. To get a long life (by protecting it from UV light when not in use) from our new mainsail (as well as making it quick and easy to hoist or lower) we will be making our own sail pack. You can get the general idea from the first couple of minutes of this video:

Longer term

[Update] I have written a lot about Dyneema standing rigging so I now have a guide to it all in: Dyneema / Synthetic Rigging Summary[End Update]

When it comes to replacing the rigging we will probably replace the stainless steel wire with dyneema rope. This is a fairly new option with some significant advantages:

  • huge weight saving (reduces heeling a lot as the weight is high up the masts)
  • much easier to inspect for damage. No worries about rust and failure from UV light or chaffing is very visible on the outside (problems with stainless steel tends to be hidden and hard to spot).
  • easy to repair/replace yourself even at sea
  • possible to carry enough with you to re-rig the whole boat anywhere in the world

There is an initial cost in changing the way it fixes to the mast and the deck. But we will have to replace some of these anyway. Having this done is very expensive as it is time consuming. However, doing that ourselves massively reduces the installation cost. There are also potentially big savings from being able to service and repair it ourselves anywhere in the world.

The key disadvantages are that it is still considered novel by many which can make insurance and resale a bit more tricky. Plus it takes longer to tension it to fully tune the rig.


Presenting everything that we want to do with the rig sounds pretty daunting, hopefully we can divide it into enough small jobs that we can just gradually make our way through the list. We will keep you updated and particularly look forward to sharing actual sailing 🙂

3 thoughts on “Starting to sort out sailing

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