By Joe Cooper

If you are sailing in the Newport Bermuda Race this year, even as crew, there is a lot going on. A very important part of all the activity is figuring out the sails. There are three required sails and an assumed fourth one, the mainsail.

The three required sails are a storm jib, a storm trysail and what is called a heavy weather jib. These are very specifically defined in the safety equipment section of The mainsail has only one requirement and that is:

3.33.1 Reefing: A yacht shall have mainsail reefs capable of reducing the area of the sail by an amount appropriate for the weather conditions possible on the race course.

Except for these four, the field is open as to what sails you can have and how many of them, up to a total inventory of 19 for sloops and a few more for ketches/yawls.

A sailing boat needs to operate in winds from about 3-4 knots to about 45-50 knots and from 30 degrees apparent to 180 degrees, dead downwind. To sail within these two parameters, a minimum headsail inventory you would need to perform as well as your goals dictate would be four, possibly five. This includes two ‘full-sized’ (for your rating) headsails, a 100% jib, possibly a smaller jib. Depending on your boat and a few other variables, an inside staysail probably meets the heavy weather jib definition.

Furler or Foil

There is one critical question to be considered with respect to headsails: Are the headsails to be set on a roller furler, using it as a roller furler, or to be set on a foil not otherwise used for furling sails.

All discussion here regarding headsails is applicable to both classes of headstays but the use of a roller furler system invites all manner of questions. These include the mechanics and the techniques for changing sails, the personnel, the speed reductions and change in boat handling characteristics since it is now going slow and bare headed. For some boats, the installation of a Solent Stay is a viable solution to this question. This is a stay set parallel to the headstay and as close to that stay as possible to which other sails might more easily and safely be set. There is quite a lot of information on this arrangement on my website,


I think three would be the minimum, and for most boats perfectly adequate.

Biggest Kite

First is what I think of as a VMG kite. This is the biggest kite you can have to be set when you want to try to, or can, sail the boat’s best VMG. It will likely be as big in the girths and of a ‘full’ shape determined by your sailmaker. Whether it is a symmetrical or asymmetrical sail depends again on the boat. Next is a reaching kite.


This sail is smaller in area than the VMG kite and is used when either the apparent wind angle or apparent wind speed is too high for the VMG kite. This sail is smaller in girths, flatter and more robustly built. The third spinnaker most people are talking about today is the ubiquitous Code Zero.

Code Zero

This sail needs to be measured as a spinnaker, at least in classes using a handicapping formula. You can measure it as a headsail but it has a disproportionately big hit on your rating. It is, in reality, used as a “cheater” headsail, a spinnaker’s rating in a headsail’s bag, as it were.

A Code Zero is pretty specific in its design requirements. It should be not too big and very flat relative to the shapes of a “normal” spinnaker. This is so you can get close to the wind in less than 10 knots of true wind speed. It should also be robustly built. Depending again on a box of variables, it will set on a free-flying roller although it need not. An advantage of such a sail is it can be used in more wind at wider wind angles and so can fill the gap between the reacher and the headsail, so in this case you get a twofer. Speaking of headsails, three is enough, four is better and a fifth is a sail that can get a lot of use in a Bermuda Race.

Another Reacher

This is a sail, sometimes known as a Jib Top(sail) that is light-ish in construction, fuller than a light number one, higher clewed (clew height has to do with twist when the sheets are eased…another column). It is used when the regular big headsails are eased but not really doing the job and the spinnakers are too big or the angle too tight. Such sails can be a really good fit over the Bermuda Race course. This sail does have a pretty narrow range, but historically such sails have given good results when used in their conditions.


Light One

Otherwise, the first of the two biggest headsails will want to work in 2-5 knots up to around 11-13 knots true, depending on the boat. The light one should be full in shape, and if it is to be a dedicated offshore sail it can be fuller than a light number one used for day racing on windward-leeward courses in flat water. As with all sails, this one can be used in higher wind speeds but only at wider apparent wind angles.

Heavy One

The next headsail on the ‘increasing wind speed’ list is a “heavy” number one. (Many boats may have three ‘size one’ headsails with narrower wind ranges.) A heavy one will be flatter than the light one, but the same shaping rules apply if it is a dedicated offshore headsail. It need not be exactly the biggest LP permitted either. It will naturally be more robustly built, can double on wider and windier reaching angles and on the right boat can be used poled out in really hard weather downwind.

Number Three

This is generally a sail that fits in the fore-triangle and the precise LP is less critical unless there is a rating issue to be addressed. Again, in more wind we need flatter sails and almost always today, threes have three or four battens. One detail that not many sailmakers or owners consider today is that such a sail can have a reef in it – assuming it goes up and down in a foil and is not getting rolled up around a furler.

Reefs in headsails are installed in the same way as in mainsails. And because the reef clew needs to be high (in order to sheet when reefed), a second advantage of this reef is you can leave the sail full hoist at the luff and sheet to the reef clew and so raise the bulk of the bottom of the sail off the deck—or the  breaking waves more particularly. Sheeting the sail this way gives a better sheeting angle when reaching. There needs to be a place to sheet the sail when so rigged, so it’s important to make sure your sailmaker and the yard or riggers are all on the same page with this idea.

Required Sails

At some point it will be too windy for a double-reefed mainsail and even a reefed three. This is the time for the Heavy Weather Jib (HWJ). Design and engineering-wise, from a sailmaker’s perspective these sails are small, flat and heavily constructed jibs. But they must meet the rules for HWJs though which are:

3.33.3 Heavy Weather Jib: A yacht shall carry a heavy weather jib (or heavy weather sail in a yacht with no forestay) of area not greater than 13.5% height of the fore-triangle squared.

A line item in the HWJ definition formally required that seems to have disappeared is the “alternative methods” of securing the sail to the stay.

Today’s headfoils are made from plastic and spinnakers much less likely to be set on poles, but at sea if something can fail – and this is everything – there must be a Plan B. In the case of the HWJ, having your sailmaker install grommets up the luff so the sail can be secured to the foil (by short lengths of line premade for the purpose and stored in the emergency tool kit, right?) is a very good idea. You can also leave the lines in the sail permanently.

Here’s another Cooper Tip: Back-up grommets are something to think about for all headsails. Apart from the fact the headfoil will not get un-busted when the breeze abates and having a way to set headsails is generally a good idea in an ocean race, there is another utility made available by such grommets in the luff. During the headsail changing process, sails so equipped can have a length of light line woven back and forth, Dutchman-like, through these grommets. The bottom end is made off with a figure-eight knot so the line does not pass through the grommets. All of this does a couple things. It helps keep the luff of the sail forward in the flaking process. It offers a way to tie off the bulk of the forward end of the sail. This gives the crew at that end of the procedure a bit more freedom to wrestle the sail back into its turtle. If push comes to shove, a sail can be tied off to the boat at the forward end and it’s perfectly possible for one man or woman to get a headsail into a turtle by his or herself.

Just ask anyone who did the sewer on a 12 Metre, back in the day. Finally, when changing back to this sail as the wind diminishes, the upper end of this line can be temporarily tied off until the sail is really ready to get hoisted. This makes it a bit harder for the (forward end of the) sail to go over the side.

Storm Sails

Sail offshore long enough and you will meet conditions that will require all your seamanship skills and those of your crew, and small sails. The requirements for storm sails are:

3.33.2 Storm Trysail: A yacht shall carry a storm trysail, with the yacht’s sail number displayed on both sides, that can be set independently of the main boom, has an area less than 17.5% of “E” x “P”, and which is capable of being attached to the mast. Storm sails manufactured after 1/1/2014 must be constructed from a highly visible material.

3.33.4 Storm Jib: A yacht shall carry a storm jib not exceeding 5% of the yacht’s “I” dimension squared, and equipped with an alternative means of attachment to the headstay in the event of a failure of the head foil. Storm sails manufactured after 1/1/2014 must be constructed from a highly visible material.

The decision to set a trysail or not (and how to lower and stow it, don’t forget) is largely driven by the size and type of boat and by extension the skills of the owners and crew. The age, physical dexterity, strength, skill, sailing ability, seamanship and experience are all factors in sail handling in these conditions. And the last two are not always the same as sailing skill. One magazine article cannot address the many variables in methods for using and lowering a trysail, let alone the variables on the course. I strongly recommend practicing as often as you can with all the crew and especially in crappy, windy weather doing all the evolutions and especially reefing and headsail changes.

Of all the world’s great ocean races, Newport Bermuda holds the record for the least fatalities: one, as a consequence of a fire aboard. The organizers try really hard to keep this record in place and so should you. Planning and preparation are the hallmarks of sound seamanship. Practice is the glue that binds the first two together.  ■

Joe CooperAustralian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the US after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/ Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog,, when not paying attention to his wife, teenage son, dog, two cats and several, mainly small, boats.

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