Headsails

Whilst often used interchangeably, the terms “Genoa” and “Jib” have different historical roots, with the former dating back less than a century when Sven Gustaf Salén used the first in the eponymous town’s “Coppa del Tirreno” in 1926, and the latter going back at least twice as long (and possibly much longer) due to its association with the schooner rig.

The modern convention is that a Jib describes any sail that is less than 100% of the foretriangle area and a Genoa extends further aft.

By the end of the 20th century, it had been established that the largest (up to 155% in some cases) was called the “Number 1”, with smaller headsails numbered sequentially for increasing windspeeds. Thus the “No. 2” might have been 125-140%, with a “No. 3” 110-125%, and a “No.4” anywhere from 95-110% – and quite often complemented with a “Working Jib” at around 80% – as well as the Storm Jib!

This century, alternative numbering systems to describe different shapes of potentially similar sizes of sail on modern fractional rigs have become more widespread (e.g. J1, J2 and so on), but often these are intended for boats designed for only non-overlapping sails.

The catch-all “headsail” covers the wide set of options that the range of historical rig types might require. On many boats, especially if masthead rigged, the headsail can be the main driving sail to windward. However there is the (increasingly rare) option of whether you choose a roller reefing system, or a suit of separate headsails?

Staying separate….

For most cruising sailors, rolling headsails are now the automatic choice – but let’s not forget the benefits of individual sails. Perhaps most obvious is their simplicity and inherent reliability and for racing, a suit of headsails is still the right option to remain competitive in all windspeeds. And a dedicated headsail will always set more efficient than a partially furled reefing genoa of the same size.

What’s more, a roller reefing headsail sets higher up the forestay as you wind it in, raising the centre of effort and increasing the heeling moment. The chances are, if you choose separate headsails, that you’ll actually need fewer than you might imagine – particularly on a fractionally-rigged boat with a large mainsail and relatively small fore-triangle. Sometimes, for example, just a genoa and a jib will cover most of the wind range. Even on masthead rigged boats, reefing points in the genoa can limit the wardrobe to two or three headsails plus a storm jib (which you’ll probably need even with a rolling system).

…or going for a roll?

Despite the advantages of separate headsails, roller reefing genoas make more practical sense in many cases. They give you an infinitely variable sail area, which can be controlled quickly and easily from the cockpit. Don’t forget, though, that once you’ve reefed the sail, you’ll need to move the genoa lead forward along the track to maintain the correct sheeting angle – so you may wish to consider a cockpit-controlled genoa car system to save a trip along the deck. The other major benefit of reefing systems is the need for fewer sails. Nonetheless, there’s much to be said for having two, rather than using the same one for everything down to storm jib conditions.

To set well in gentle breezes, a typical 145% or 150% rolling genoa must not be too heavy – and that in turn means it will be under severe strain when reefed down in 35 knots of wind. That’s why we often recommend having a heavier reefing sail for this kind of rig (typically at around 130-140%) which will set more efficiently as the wind builds.

Another reason for this recommendation is genoa track lengths. A roller genoa needs to have its clew higher than the tack – otherwise the foot would roll over itself when the sail is reefed, resulting in a very distorted shape. So a reefing genoa with a large overlap inevitably has a fairly high clew, which calls for a sheeting angle which may extend well abaft the end of the track on a boat designed before the days of roller genoas.

These suggestions are, of course, general guidelines. We’ll be pleased to discuss your specific requirements in detail – so come and talk to us. We’ll make sure you’re on the right track.

Foam luffs

Roller genoas tend to become fuller as they’re reefed – but, when the wind picks up and you start reducing area, you actually need flatter sails. We can overcome the problem of over-full reefed genoas to a certain extent by cutting them flatter than a dedicated sail of the same size when fully open. If they’re too flat though, they’ll lack power in lighter conditions. The answer is to incorporate foam strips down the luff, which remove some of the fullness as the sail is rolled around the headfoil.

We make these using strips of closed-cell foam, so they won’t absorb water and remain ‘padded’ for a long time; the number and length of them can also be fine-tuned to suit the rig and sail sizes involved, offering a more accurate on-the-water experience too.

As with all aspects of genoa design and construction, we’ll discuss the options with you to work out which is best for your boat – and we won’t try to sell you features you don’t need. If a simpler design will do everything you want, we’ll tell you.

Cloth choice

Particularly with roller genoas, it can pay to consider laminated cloths – but not the mylar film racing versions where weight is paramount, rather the modern ‘Cruiser Laminates’ with chafe-resistant surfaces.

With their higher strength for a given weight, they lend themselves to use in sails which need to cover a wide range of wind strengths. Like most highly shape-stable cloths, laminates don’t like being folded or crumpled more than necessary – but, if well treated, they’re actually very durable.

And, since roller-reefing genoas are handled much less than conventional headsails, laminated fabrics can score on two points – offering not only potential performance advantages, but also a longer life, which can more than offset their slightly higher cost.

See our Fabrics page for more detail on that, and the Sunsleeve or UV page on protecting an installed headsail.