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Improving as a Racer, Part 2, the Sails

I'm always a bit amazed at the poor condition of sails on many sailboats. As a sailor, these are the engines of the boat. Otherwise, we're powerboaters!  But for the improving racer, how important are the sails? This is really a question about sail shape.

The problem with sails and sail shape for the developing racer is fundamentally one of perception - our ability to see color, depth, shape, dynamic effects and most importantly to remember these features. Visualizing the three dimensional shape of a sail is a talent; no amount of theoretical knowledge can replace our intrinsic ability to see the subtle perceptual details of sail shape and identify what's right and what's not.  Sailing is such a dynamic process with so many factors in play that it is impossible to isolate one factor and exclude the effects of all of the others.

The problem is compounded when trying to compare two sails on the water in the same time frame - our visual memory can hold the images for just so long .   We may not be able to ID and then remember the critical differences. 

Coaching or sailing with more experienced sailors is the usual way a sailor develops an intrinsic talent for seeing sail shape.  The match between the coach's ability to identify key features in the sail shape, vocalize or describe these observations to the sailor and have the insight sink in and become usable by the sailor is the essential factor.  The simplest example of this process concerns the use of telltales.  Most sailors get this when they are trained on understanding and using telltales and then adjusting the jib car to get the tell tales to break evenly. Actually seeing the shape change in the sail is where the perceptual talent comes into play.  Being able to see the sail shape  and the effects of sheet tension, rig tension and car position on the sail shape will be the difference between mid pack and top of the fleet.

For example, Beach catamaran sails are fully battened and this allows us to set two boats up on dry land and study the shapes of two sails side by side in very light breeze.  Of course a bit more sheet tension or cunningham or mast rotation *by design* changes the sail shape.  We've spent hours trying to make sure we see what is happening dynamically, alternating between looking at the sail and rig from astern and then looking at that shape from the helm position and trying to remember the sail shape.  Once out on the water it's all different but we have developed a solid basis for making adjustments and our ability to match the wind and water to the rig and sail shape as well as change gears = speed.

So, the question about good and best sails is complicated.  Are we talking about cloth, construction, design shape, stage of the sail's life cycle or marketing and reputation?  Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that "Good Sails" are  half way through their racing life cycle while "Great Sails" start at new and work backwards.

I believe we can't learn or be able to practice gear changes and optimize sail shape unless we have good sails on the boat.   The sail has to be good enough so that when we make the gear change adjustment we will see the shape change and measure or feel the boat  respond.  It is so hard to match perceptual cues to the dynamics of the wind and waves anyway that without good sails we won't be able to feel the boat or keep pace with the fleet.  Most importantly, we won't be able to improve our sailing performance if the equipment can't keep up.

The most difficult thing to do is have the opportunity to SEE THE CONTRAST between two sails, i.e., the perfect one and the sail that has been used for some time.    This contrast is important in knowing what gears you loose as the sail gets older and the shape distorts. When we pull strings on both sails the great sail should adjust full range; as it gets older it looses some of that range.   For most of us, we use experience to cue into the critical features and then pull the strings to match the conditions on the water.  As mere mortals, we never quite know that we've have nailed the solution.   Speeding this process up requires at least good sails and the coaching/talent in seeing both shapes of good and great sails.  Of course, we have to pull the strings properly!  

If we don't pay attention to the subtle details, i.e., we set the jib cars and the break is OK but we haven't studied the sail shape and noticed how it changed and how the shape is changing with pressure and age, then spending lots of money to keep great new sails on the boat won't translate into wins. We might do better but this is a case where a boat speed/tuning coach can be money better spent then for new sails.

If you are purchasing sails, what's critical is the rig. We can't easily change the rig properties.  On Tornado's and A cats each mast is different and we need to get the sail to match the mast as well as have the fast sail shape built in.  In most monohulls the sailmakers are less interested in measuring each mast,  but each boat typically has a rig tuning guide. Assuming the materials are constant, design shape is probably a bit over stated - after all, its a well known problem.   So matching the mast, tune-ability, construction execution, and service become the key factors.

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