Sydney Hobart - Look after your offshore main or carry a spare?

Torn mainsail
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628 miles to Hobart with an average of two frontal systems. It’s a testing voyage south to latitude 41 for boat crew and sails.

In the Rolex Sydney to Hobart Notice of Race, there is a change to standard offshore racing regulations which allows boats to carry spare mainsail as a bona fide replacement for a mainsail damaged during the race.

Yet one of the most common reasons for retirement, often on the first night of the race, is a torn mainsail.

While many boats do carry a spare mainsail there are plenty of serious sailors who elect not too.

Sail-World asked one well known Tasmanian born sailor, a 33 Hobart veteran Roger Hickman does he carry a spare main.

The answer was simple. Never. Had he ever retired because of a torn mainsail?

Same answer Never.

Hickman explains ‘Racing south certainly you need to look after your people. You need to feed and rest your people. You do need to look after the hull.

'However, the most vulnerable thing on the boat is potentially the mainsail.

‘Reefing and looking after your main sail is the most important thing you can do.

‘Now the danger for mainsail damage has been has been reduced by swept-back spreaders. Swept-back spreaders have made the mainsail handling a lot easier and a lot better.

‘In the days with running back stays, check stays, lower check stays, over-bending of mainsails, inverting masts, and things like that, all could cause damage to the mainsail.

‘But if you have a fairly new mainsail, and you treat it up with utmost respect, there should be no reason for that sail to fail.

‘Therefore, I wouldn’t and haven’t ever carried a spare mainsail.

‘But as I’ve said, the mainsail has always been in serviceable condition, i.e. brand new or very new and in very good working order.

‘It’s one of the luxuries you can have if you buy a new mainsail to do the Sydney to Hobart every year or every second year. Certainly carrying a sail that’s old and tired I would not recommend.

‘However, if your financial situation is such, or the sail maker couldn’t produce it in time and your taking a sail that is suspect, by all means take a spare one.

‘We have heard lots of stories about how the mainsail failed.

‘May I suggest boldly that it’s human error? Sometimes the cloth fails, sometimes, but usually it’s because they’ve pulled too much outhaul on or usually because they pulled too much Cunningham.

‘Or they’ve had a madly flogging mainsail while they are reefing. It only needs to flog for a couple of minutes, and it can delaminate.

‘One of the things when you are pulling a reefing, you really need a jib on, and you really need the jib feeding air onto the mainsail to stop the mainsail flogging or flapping.

‘You don’t mind the odd flap, but if it’s flogging relentlessly you are in trouble. So if you’re reaching to protect your mainsail you might pull the jib on a little bit to feed some air into the back of the lower side of the mainsail.

‘But could you imagine the bigger job of changing a mainsail?

‘And then what do you do with the old one? Do you stuff it down below?

‘In 1997 on Atara we broke a main halyard just off Gabo Island, so we went across Bass Strait without a mainsail. When the weather moderated off St.Helens Coast, we went back up the mast and ran a new halyard.

‘But getting back to the mainsail - You’ve got to make sure the mainsail is serviceable and fits the purpose. If it’s a day mainsail forget it. If it’s a one reef mainsail, forget it.

‘If it’s a mainsail built for recreational sailing, forget it. You really have to have a sail that fits the purpose. It’s got to be a two or three reef main and these are often made more durable with a taffeta layer in the laminate.

'To retire for not having a mainsail that would be a tragedy. So carrying one could be a good idea.

'But my preparation is, we have a mainsail fit for purpose and we look after it as though it was a newborn baby in order to get it to Hobart in one piece.

'The really critical time is reefing and also preventing flogging or chafing when reefed.

'That’s what gets a lot of people. When you put one reef in or the second reef the sail flogs a lot.

‘So what’s happened in recent times is a lot more boats are going back to what they call ‘lazy jacks’. ‘Lazy jacks’ are a very good idea because that can help reduce the chafe.

‘The last four Sydney to Hobart I’ve done on boats that most people would consider you don’t need ‘lazy jacks’ to support the mainsail. We have had them.

‘A couple of years ago we took Alan Briety's yacht (the then new Reichel-Pugh 63 Limit) south, we had a fully battened offshore mainsail because that too helps, because it stops that flogging during reefing. '

We have watched with interest the retirements again this year and we note that ‘Torn Main’ figured high in the lists, and ‘Hit Sunfish’ usually a winner, did not even score - a bit like our Australian Test Cricketers.

Alchemy III - boom damage
Bacardi - broken mast
Brindabella - damaged mainsail
Calm - Retired
Exile - steering damage
Jazz Player - damaged mainsail
Nautical Circle - Engine problems
Nemesis - Retired
Pirelli Celestial - Sail damage
Salona II - Steering Problems
Scarlet Runner - Sail damage
Shamrock - damage to rudder bearing -
Shining Sea - Broken Rudder - Heading Triabunna
Southern Excellence - At Sydney
Swish - radio damage - heading to Sydney
Two True - Engine problems
Wot Eva - engine problem
Yuuzoo - torn headsail