Two Headsails Are Better Than One

Being able to fly twin genoas when you’re sailing off the wind far outweighs the aggravation, when sailing closehauled, of having to furl to tack. From “Hands-On Sailor” from our August 2010 issue

September 28, 2010

solent rig 368

Sailing downwind, the two headsails set on the solent rig¿s stays help steady the boat and increase speed. Michael Hilbruner

Osprey is the first boat we’ve ever owned with a solent rig, that is, two headsails that are placed close together fore and aft and in line with one another. At deck level, a mere 21 inches separates the two furlers, an arrangement that has distinct advantages, especially for downwind sailing, and disadvantages, when it comes to going to weather. After about two years spent learning this rig, last summer we added a third furler for the staysail, which we find has given the arrangement far more versatility on all points of sail.

The most obvious benefit of this type of rig is the ability to have multiple headsails ready to deploy. On the headstay, we carry our No. 1, a 145-percent genoa, and we have our 125-percent genoa, the No. 2, on the inner forestay. These two sail sizes are what the boat came with. A third headsail, a 90-percent jib, is carried on the staysail stay. Before we added a furler on this stay, we used a hank-on staysail, but with the furler, we’ve found new ways to put this small sail to use; more on that later.

The solent rig truly shines going downwind, particularly dead downwind. What, on many other boats, is an awkward, rolly, nerve-wracking point of sail is, on Osprey, often like riding the rails on a fast-moving train. Along with its headsail arrangement, Osprey came with two spinnaker poles, which we mounted on a double-car track. With both our genoas poled out and the mainsail either double-reefed or taken down completely, the boat sails dead downwind extremely comfortably. With the mainsail down, we eliminate the worry of an accidental jibe, and as soon as the poles are set, the boat becomes remarkably stable. In 25 knots of true wind and 10-foot seas, we’ve made steady speeds of 7 to 8.5 knots with little effort while in complete control. (In air under 10 true, we use the cruising chute when possible for dead-downwind sailing).


Setting Sails Launching this sail arrangement takes a little time and requires someone on the foredeck, which in rolly seas can be tricky. Starting with the headsails furled, we position one pole with the sheet through the jaws, then unfurl the sail against the pole, pulling the pole aft until the sail is set. Because the poles are on a single track and each pole car is independently controlled, it’s necessary to launch the lower pole first. On Osprey, the lower pole is the starboard pole. Once the starboard pole is set, we repeat the process by lowering the inboard end of the port pole and launching it.

To get the most from this double-pole rig, the ability to adjust the sheet-lead angles is critical. We use 12-foot-long Harken Big Boat genoa tracks and adjustable cars with a 4-to-1 purchase.

Once the sails are set, the boat nearly sails herself. And because the two sails balance each other out, the load and strain on the autopilot is greatly diminished. However, one disadvantage to this rig is that once the poles are out, our ability to maneuver radically for any reason-quickly altering course, for instance, to avoid another vessel or floating object-is limited. On a run, we make it a point to be extra vigilant so we have plenty of time to douse one or both poles if needed.


We’ve found with practice that dousing this rig is also fairly easy. Starting with the upper pole-on Osprey, the one set and stored to port-we ease the jib sheet, letting the pole go forward. It becomes pretty easy to furl the headsail. We disconnect the pole, raise it to the top of the track, and stow it in its proper vertical position, with the inboard end at the top of the track and the outboard end mounted on an attachment point just aft of the forward lower shrouds on the port side. Next, we do the same with the starboard pole, whose outboard end mounts on the starboard side at a similar mounting point. Sometimes we need to refurl the last 10 feet of the headsails to get a proper furl.

With the solent rig, the spinnaker poles also come in very handy on a broad reach. With an apparent-wind angle of 170 to 120 degrees, we pole out one of the headsails to windward and run the main to leeward. Wind velocity determines which headsail we choose and whether we reef the main. My husband, Johnny, came up with this idea from his years spent sailing Snipes and other racing dinghies that employ whisker poles rather than spinnaker poles. On our 14-ton Osprey, this arrangement has proven extremely fast and stable. The windward pole eliminates the blanketing effect of the mainsail, which can collapse a leeward-set jib, making the boat roll and the sails slap and bang. Heading from the Bahamas to the U.S. East Coast across the Gulf Stream in lumpy conditions and 10 to 12 knots of true wind at 130-degrees apparent, we were able to sail pretty comfortably at 5 to 6 knots of boat speed while the two boats with us, which couldn’t pole out their jibs, were often forced to motor, rolling all the while.

The Downside to the Solent Rig As the wind angle closes, some of the solent rig’s disadvantages become more apparent. Unlike a cutter rig, in which the head stays are separated by a good distance, the close proximity of the two headsails in the solent arrangement makes flying both at the same time impossible; you must choose one or the other. In lighter air, when we use the No. 1, the rig behaves very much like a traditional sloop-rigged boat. The biggest problem with this, however, is tacking-Johnny likes to say that the rig was designed to tack once a month, and that seems about right. The slot between the two sails is so narrow that it’s extremely hard, without furling the No. 1, to get it through to the other side. Also, in heavier air, the close proximity of the headstays significantly disturbs the airflow on the No. 2, degrading the boat’s ability to point using this headsail.


When sailing upwind in 10 to 15 knots of true wind, we use the No. 1 and the full main. This gives us the power that Osprey needs to sail through wind chop and moderate swell while making anywhere from 5 to 7 knots, depending on the sea state. In wind speeds of 15 to 20 knots true, we use the No. 2 and, depending on conditions, a full main or a single reef. In 25 knots and up, going upwind, we double-reef the main (we only have two reefs), and reef the No. 2 as needed.

To try and mitigate some of the solent rig’s upwind foibles, we started experimenting with the staysail. We found it to be so useful that last summer we added a third furler for it. This extra sail is easy and quick to deploy and tack. Now, for instance, if we’re sailing upwind in 25 knots or more, rather than use the No. 2 at all, with its limited pointing ability, we now deploy the staysail. Should we be sailing close to the wind with the No. 1 and need to tack, we can unfurl the staysail, furl the No. 1, and with the added horsepower of the small staysail, the boat moves efficiently through the tack instead of stopping dead, particularly in choppy conditions. Now we often add the staysail on all points of sail. We use it to complement the No. 1 when we’re sailing upwind or close to the wind, and it usually adds half a knot of boat speed. The staysail also works well with either of the genoas when they’re poled out to windward.

The roller-furled staysail also eliminates another disadvantage to the solent rig: heaving to. Unlike a cutter rig, with its small, setback yankee jib, Osprey’s No. 2 is too big and too far forward for us to easily find the sweet spot to balance the boat. The staysail, due to its size and its location farther aft, lets us heave to quickly and comfortably.


After two and a half years of getting to know the solent rig, we feel we’re finally starting to make it work to its full potential. Its long-distance downwind-sailing abilities and its off-the-wind versatility thus far have outweighed its disadvantages when going upwind. And by adding the staysail as a permanent fixture, we’ve mitigated many of those problems. It’s not the easiest system, but for us it’s proven its worth time and time again.

The Clarkes in May sailed Osprey, with poles out, 1,200 nautical miles downwind from the Dominican Republic to Guatemala, where they plan to spend hurricane season.


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