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Story Contributors: Neil Mackley

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RACING SAILS AND CRUISING SAILS

North Expert Neil Mackley Explains What to Look for When it Comes to Performance, Design, and Materials

racing cruising sails

People with sailboats use them in many ways, but broadly speaking we define them as either cruising or racing. Cruising might be an hour-long daysail, with only one sail hoisted, or it might last a year or more and take you across the South Pacific. A race, likewise, can last one short evening before sunset, or it can take you to the highest levels of competition at the Olympics or across the ocean.

The proper sails for each of these activities varies widely, but at the level most people engage in cruising and racing, we can simplify the differences between the sails required if we talk about performance, design, and materials.

Performance expectations

Both cruising and racing sails are designed for performance, but for each type, performance is measured differently. The ultimate measure of performance in a racing sail is speed, although other factors can play a role. Great performance from a cruising sail is more about ease of handling and durability.

In simple terms, speed is derived from sail materials and sail shape, which need to match each other. Depending on how much speed is sought, this often comes at a cost to ultimate durability. Do you want to be able to sail a minute faster on a long upwind leg, or do you want to be able to hoist and fly the same sails 10 years from now?

Given how many different types and sizes of sailboats we have on the water and the wide variety of sailmaking materials, though, it’s not quite as simple as choosing a durable cruising sail or a speedy racing sail; before we make the best selection, we need to learn about some of the other differences between racing and cruising sails.

Chief among them is the owner’s expectations. Aboard a full-race TP52, where pure performance is the only measure of a sail, a team will often decide that their mainsail is finished and should be replaced after one windy regatta. Most racers sail below the pro level and on smaller boats, so they often replacing sails seasonally, or selectively over multiple seasons.

By comparison, some cruising boat owners expect their sails to last seven to ten years. They won’t replace a sail until the material and shape are so compromised that the boat’s performance is seriously compromised.

racing cruising sail performance
3Di RAW, IC37 by Melges 📸 Hannah Lee Noll

Design differences

One big difference between racing and cruising sails is that, in an average race, the boats will be sailing against the wind up to fifty percent of the time. Cruising boats are rarely sail hard upwind; typically, when the wind is blowing from the direction that cruisers want to go, they will choose to go somewhere else, wait for the wind to change, or hoist the main to steady the boat and turn on the engine.

As a result, cruising sail shapes are often designed with slightly rounder shapes for better performance when reaching. The entry angles are similar, but the sail will be a little bit deeper and the aft section of the sail a bit rounder, to allow for better shape as the sheet is eased.

In contrast, the crew of a race boat is usually trying to sheet the sails very hard, as close to the centerline as possible, so their sails are flatter, with more open leeches. Typically when a race boat begins to reach, the crew changes to a jib top or code sail, often putting up staysails, too.

cruising sail design
Dacron crosscut cruising sail option

The material difference

The materials used for sails not only vary for cruising and racing, but also depending on the length and weight of the boat and the resulting loads the sails carry. Commonly, jibs and mainsails are made from panels of sailcloth, either Dacron or light laminates with higher-strength fibers. North Sails also makes a proprietary type of molded sail called 3Di.

Dacron has been the primary material for paneled jibs and mainsails for more than half a century, with some improvement over that span of time. It remains a common option for many boats, particularly cruising boats.

However, light laminate sails have been developed that carry the loads far better than Dacron or other polyesters, which is a performance bonus to both cruisers and racers. They incorporate ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fibers; Spectra and Dyneema are examples of this material. These materials dramatically reduce the amount of stretch in the sail and also make the sail much more durable because its sandwich construction using Mylar film provides resistance to chafe. One downside to these light laminates is that they are subject to small amounts of permanent stretch known as “creep,” but they work much better than Dacron because they stretch far less.

For these reasons alone, few racing sails are made of paneled Dacron any more, except for small boats and in racing classes where rules prohibit laminate sails. But the advantages of laminates go well beyond maintaining a designed shape and lasting longer, and as a result, cruising sails are increasingly being made of laminates as well.

Take for example a mainsail for a cruising boat made of 7-ounce Spectra rather than 10-ounce Dacron. The weight savings is significant: a 90-pound Dacron sail might weigh only 55 pounds if made of Spectra. When you consider that the center of gravity for the sail might be 30 feet up, that’s a dramatic reduction in weight. A boat with a Dacron sail will heel and pitch a great deal more. This can have a massive effect on a cruising boat with in-mast furling; even when the sail is reefed, all that weight remains aloft.

There’s more: When your boat heels a few degrees less, you don’t have to reef as early. If you have a Dacron sail up, it will stretch and get deeper under the loads, causing yet more heel. If you have a laminate sail, it will stay much flatter and offer more forward force rather than heeling. The sail designer of a laminate sail understands this dynamic and can design a shape that’s deeper than the Dacron sail, providing more power in lower wind ranges.

One final reason that larger cruising boat owners choose sails with more advanced technology is that many cruising boats don’t have ways to make significant sail and rig adjustments underway, for example changing the tension on outhaul or backstay. Racers have many controls and can bend their masts significantly to flatten or deepen their sails.

racing-cruising-sail-material
NPL Tour , upwind

Racing and Cruising 3Di Sails

In recent years, we have taken a new approach to making sails here at North Sails; called 3Di, the sails are constructed on a mold shaped for each specific sail. 3Di has been adopted by many racers already, but cruisers are also using them for improved speed, durability, and weight. While 3Di sails are a more premium option, we believe their performance attributes and longevity make them worthwhile for an increasing number of sailors.

Many racers use the version we call 3Di RAW, often made of pure carbon but also by blending different mixtures of fibers—carbon, polyester, aramid (Kevlar), and UHMWPE (Spectra/Dyneema). This provides even better shape control than laminates. Because of carbon’s extra strength, some sails can be made with fewer fibers and less overall weight.

Performance-oriented cruising sailors may choose a style of 3Di called ENDURANCE, which combines carbon, Spectra and aramid filaments and then adds an exterior layer of film to help with chafe resistance.

North also has a third 3Di range called OCEAN, which is made specifically for cruising. 3Di OCEAN sails are molded composite sails that contain Spectra and aramid filaments, with added durability and strength thanks to protective outer surfaces of woven polyester (Dacron) taffeta tapes.

3d racing cruising sail design
3Di OCEAN for cruising 📸  Amory Ross

Summary of sail differences based on boat size

The differences between racing and cruising sails can also be viewed across three size ranges—small (under 35 feet), medium-sized (35 to 45 feet) and large (longer than 45 feet).

For racing boats under 35 feet, sails are often made with light laminates, incorporating Mylar or other film and fibers made of Spectra or aramid; different 3Di products are also being developed. In restricted classes, some race sails will be made of Pentex (a low-stretch polyester) and others of Dacron.

Cruising sails for both small and mid-size boats are typically still made with Dacron, laid out either in cross-cut or radial panel configuration. Warp-oriented Dacron like North’s Radian costs a bit more but delivers notably better performance than stretchier crosscuts.

Somewhere around 40 feet in length—and definitely by 50 feet—Dacron is no longer a rational option for cruising boats. The material doesn’t hold its design shape for long, and it’s heavy, typically a 10- or 11-ounce cloth; the boat heels more easily, and the sail will be harder to furl. At this size, light laminate sails and North 3Di ENDURANCE and OCEAN sails become the norm.

Mid-size boats that both cruise and race will choose light laminates or 3Di ENDURANCE, balancing the small increase in weight for an extra layer of durability. For single-purpose race boats, both mid-sized and larger, using Dacron is out of the question; the two choices are laminated sails and 3Di RAW sails.

upwind-racing-cruising-sails
NPL Tour Ultra, racer/cruiser

Downwind cruising and racing sails

The good news for racers and cruisers is that the America’s Cup has spun off significant developments in downwind sails that apply to both.

For many years, the most common downwind sail for a cruising boat has been the asymmetrical spinnaker, tacked to the bow, also known as a gennaker. Easy sail handling is critical for cruisers, so the gennaker is typically hoisted inside a “sock” that is itself raised when it’s time to use the sail. When it’s time to take it down, the sock is pulled down around the sail before the sail is lowered to the deck.

Early asymmetrical spinnakers were unstable and hard to trim, but once the designs took advantage of America’s Cup technology, all of a sudden we could produce full-molded tri-radial cruising sails. Now the shape of the sail is built into every seam instead of just the cross panels. As a result, the sails have a more natural draft position and are much more stable.

racing cruising spinnaker
NPC Downwind, Premier Cruise, Oyster Yachts

Cruising sailors have begun adopting another America’s Cup development—the Code Zero sail, which is a very flat spinnaker set on a roller furler. When the true-wind angle is between 90 and 130 degrees, the Code Zero fills a big gap between the upwind jib and the downwind-oriented gennaker. Some cruisers find the roller-furling so convenient that they don’t even bother with the gennaker anymore; instead they tack downwind using their Code Zero.

Cup development has helped develop downwind racing sails, too, and most race boats will fly a mix of Asymmetrics and Code sails, plus staysails. While older boats still fly symmetrical spinnakers with poles that must be jibed by the crew, nearly all newer models use asymmetrical spinnakers set on a sprit or pole. Code sails have become even more important since most new boats are built with large mainsails and small, blade-style jibs instead of overlapping headsails. When a race boat like that begins to jib reach, it is massively under-powered unless a Code Zero is set.

Downwind sail materials are mostly commonly nylon. On bigger boats, we use laminates for the code sails to keep them stable, but on large cruising yachts and superyachts, nylon and polyester-based sails are often used for sails that are not so close-winded. A boat that will do some racing will find laminate the ideal fabric to fill the gap once the furling jib becomes less effective. If cruising only, polyester or nylon will be the choice.

Neil Mackley, a salesman in Gosport, UK, has worked for North Sails since 1982. Please contact Neil if you have any questions about racing or cruising sails, or find a cruising expert close to you.

downwind-racing-spinnaker
NPL Downwind code zero on a J/121 racer/cruiser.

Story Contributors

The Difference Between Racing Sails and Cruising Sails headshot
Neil Mackley

Sail Expert — Gosport, United Kingdom Manufacturing – Gosport, UK

Neil has served in almost every capacity available in our UK loft since coming aboard as a teen in 1982: sailmaker, loft floor manager, service manager, sales manager, director and now, again, sales. It’s safe to say that he knows...

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