How to use your spinnaker staysail to turbocharge your boat

As two-time Volvo Ocean Race winner, veteran of three America’s Cup campaigns and an ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year (2006), Mike Sanderson has some serious mileage behind him as a professional sailor. 

These days you’ll find Mike at the helm of Doyle Sails International, as CEO, and onboard Maxi 72 Bella Mente, as a key member of their race program.

Last month Mike spoke to Yachting World on how to use your staysail to turbocharge your boat.

As Mike points out, staysails are hardly a new idea. “The old clipper ships used to use multiple staysails”, says Mike. “However, the past five years have seen staysails become a ‘must have’ item on high-performance race boats, not least in the Volvo Ocean Race, where footage of triple-headed VO65s blasting along became some of the defining images of the 2017-18 edition”.

As sailors are increasingly looking to gain smaller and smaller advantages in competition, staysail technology is trickling its way further down the sport. Mike looks at which kind of boats are best suited to deploying staysails, and how best to use them on the racecourse.

Genoa staysails tend to appear only on the highest performance race boats that generate significant apparent wind. So here, Mike focuses his tips on spinnaker staysails, which are more applicable to a wider range of boats.

Mike at Doyle Sails NZ HQ

1. What’s your angle?

It is surprising how little you need to ease sheets from close-hauled to start feeling the benefit of adding a genoa staysail. Provided the wind is more than 7 knots, even just bearing away 10° or 12° from fully upwind means you can start to feel the benefits of a genoa staysail.

Spinnaker staysails tend to come into play once you are sailing at an apparent wind angle between 38-90°. Provided your boat experiences that kind of apparent wind angle (AWA) with a spinnaker or gennaker up when VMG running, chances are that a staysail will improve your performance.

A staysail will continue to work until quite a deep angle, but not when you’re getting close to dead downwind. Once you go beyond 150° to 155° true wind angle, you’re often better off furling it away.

2. No penalty power

The beauty of the staysail is that rating rules like IRC and ORC don’t penalise you for using it. It’s measured as a jib, so you’re getting added power for no penalty.

On a Maxi 72, a spinnaker staysail will give another 100m2 of sail area, which powers up the boat more, bringing the apparent wind forward. It’s a very efficient way of increasing the flow across the sail plan, enabling you to sail faster and deeper downwind.

3. Use the jib

Once it gets windy on a high-performance boat, you might want to just leave the jib up and have that working as your staysail. If you’re racing on a short windward/leeward course, the risk of sending the bowman up on a white-water foredeck might not be worth it.

You’ll notice that small sportsboats like J/70s and SB20s tend to keep their jibs flying downwind in most conditions, because it provides added power and improves the flow over the back of the mainsail, just like a dedicated staysail would do.

If you’ve got 100 miles of strong wind straight line sailing ahead of you in a Fastnet Race, for example, then the staysail is a no-brainer. In rough conditions, if in doubt, stick to the jib, and save yourself the potential jeopardy of stuffing up the staysail.

On slower, lower performance boats, you will want to keep the staysail flying for longer, most of the way up the wind range until you’re thinking about using the J4 jib. In many cases the staysail is an easier sail than the jib to handle through gybes as it can be furled.

4. Spec your staysail

When ordering your staysail, we talk about percentage of STL, or the bowsprit length. The longer the bowsprit, the closer to the headstay you can mount the attachment for your staysail.

That’s the case on a Maxi 72, for example, but if you’re operating with a short prod then you will need to mount the attachment further aft along the foredeck. Otherwise it will interfere with the flying of the gennaker and can also be a real hassle for the bowman to get the jib down and furl the staysail – dealing with the bulk of the jib and the risk of the furler line jamming in the jib and so on. This means you’ve got a trade-off to consider between performance versus boat handling.

5. Trim for speed

Trim the staysail like you would trim the jib. If in doubt about how much to sheet on, it’s better to have the luff slightly luffing rather than oversheeting it, but really just keep focussed on the telltales, especially around the middle of the sail.

If you have a fixed, non-adjustable sheeting point then you may want to have a series of strops for the tack of the sail so you can adjust the lead position by raising or lowering the whole sail off the deck at the tack, which achieves the same effect as adjusting the lead.

Deep Blue with a Spinnaker Staysail. Photo Credit: Corey Silken

Doyle Sails is a global sail making company, producing high performance sails with a reputation for being proven innovators with new sail technology. For more information on Spinnaker Staysails visit here.

First published in the February 2020 edition of Yachting World.

Scroll to Top