Self-Tackers: an Old Idea Revisited
The trend in boat design today is toward larger mainsails and easier-to-handle nonoverlapping headsails that, in many cases, take care of themselves.
On a whole lot of sailboats that are still out there sailing, the crew has often worked up a sweat after cranking the genoa around during a series of short tacks. Too often, somebody also has to scurry to the foredeck to help the genoa around the inner forestay and to free flailing sheets from a deck fitting. For too long, boat designers seemingly forgot that genoas were created primarily as rule beaters. Headsail area in excess of the foretriangle was lightly taxed, leading eventually to such monstrosities as 180-percent genoas (measured as a percentage of the foretriangle) sheeted to a boat’s aft quarters.
Sure, the extra canvas added power, but it was well known, even as we hoisted those acres of canvas, that a tall blade jib with slight overlap is far more efficient for a given area. What made matters worse was that the favorable handicap for genoas encouraged designers to expand the size of foretriangles, position masts sometimes ridiculously far aft, and shrink mainsails until these sails became mere shadows of their former selves. The worst of these sail plans seriously degraded the handling characteristics of boats that already suffered from misshapen hull forms, also encouraged by racing rules. As a result, many of these boats lacked, among other liabilities, the power and balance to allow the crew to sail under mainsail alone.
Thank Aeolus that sailors managed to kill such rules as the I.O.R., and designers could turn once again to making efficient wings to drive better-balanced hulls. The blade jib returned, first augmented by a more manageable genoa of, perhaps, 130 percent. At the same time, mainsails grew again, a real boon to boats needing to maneuver in harbors under main alone.
As is often the case, advancements in sail plans often trickle down from the racing crowd, and we can trace the move to more easily handled rigs to offshore circuits featuring shorthanded sailing, which were unfettered by handicap rules. At the same time, multihullers, particularly catamaran sailors, couldn’t set the same headstay tension as monohull racers, so they needed smaller jibs to go upwind well. These cats and tris and the monohulls that followed, especially the “aircraft carrier” style of open-class racers that evolved for such contests as the BOC/Around Alone and the Vendée Globe, required very efficient sail plans. These included more powerful mainsails and smaller headsails so that shorthanded crews no longer had to wrestle with enormous and heavy headsails while changing them in every puff or lull.
On a generic boat of this type, skippers would fly a 100-percent to 120-percent jib for moderate conditions. As winds strengthened, they’d reef the more easily controlled mainsail first. Rolling the jib (and/or striking it) and unrolling a smaller staysail would carry the boat into heavy conditions. To put the pedal to the metal in light airs, crews employed an ever-increasing spectrum of specialized headsails, from code zeros for upwind work in light airs to gennakers, screachers, and asymmetric spinnakers set forward of the blade jib, often on a bowsprit, to handle sailing off the wind. Eventually, many designers eliminated all overlap on the working jibs so they could employ longer spreaders and take the shrouds out to the rails of even quite wide boats, which reduces the loads on rigging and spars and decreases their weight.
What’s in It for the Cruisers?
These trends have finally begun flooding into the design of production boats. What’s more, many manufacturers have asked, “Why not go one more step? Let’s really ease the sailhandling problem, while giving away just a little performance, by using self-tacking jibs.” Wally Yachts became notable by churning out such elegantly austere deck layouts that, when assisted by electronic or hydraulic winches, a competent captain could get a maxiboat or even a megayacht under way, then drive it and tack it without assistance.