The Vendée Globe boats are allowed to carry 9 sails. What are they and can the cruising sailor learn anything from these sail choices?
Mainsail and J2
The sails wardrobe of a Vendée Globe is built around the mainsail and the J2.
The mainsails have 3 reefs, 4 on some boats. They are square top which allows for highly efficient progressive twist, reduced mast tip vortex and optimized sail area distribution.
The J2 is a real workhorse – used down to 110 / 120 degrees and sometimes even downwind in strong conditions. On the IMOCA 60s they measure around 100 square metres. They are rather flat and have some battens.
The Vendée Globe boats carry one asymetric spinnaker measuring a massive 400 square metres. They use it downwind from 5 to 25 knots when sailing double handed, bringing it down sooner when sailing single handed. It’s difficult to handle due to it’s huge size and the fact that it is not on a furler- so it’s not a popular sail with a lot of the Vendée Globe sailors who generally prefer using the big gennaker… but below 15 knots the spinnaker is slightly more efficient…
The boats carry two gennakers.
The big gennaker measures around 300 square metres and is used between 15 and 30 knots, at between 120 to 160 degrees to the wind.
The small gennaker measures 200 square metres and is used for downwind sailing in strong winds when there is between 25 and 35 knots. This sail has a dual purpose and is also used instead of a Code Zero when sailing closer to the wind.
The J1 measures around 140 square metres. It is used when sailing upwind in 10 to 15 knots. On the Vendée Globe boats it also serves a wider more multi-function role – the sailors like to make use of it’s large size, adjusting it’s shape so that it is less flat, they use it up to 120 or even 130 degrees to the wind.
The J3 is around 50 square metres. It’s used when sailing close hauled in strong winds. But this sail is now much more multi-purpose than in the past and is less flat. It’s nowdays used most often in conjunction with the spinnaker or gennakers where it acts to stabilise the boat and helps direct the flow of air towards the mainsail. This makes it the most used sail after the J2.
The sailors also like using it as a screen to mask other sails they are trying to furl.
The storm jib is compulsory as per ISAF regulations but it is never used and lives in a bag. “Even in a huge storm, aboard these boats, we prefer to sail with reefs in the mainsail or without a mainsail and just the J3,” says Yann Eliès, skipper of Groupe Quéguiner - Leucémie Espoir.
The Ninth Sail
This is a tactical choice and the exact sail chosen to fill this slot is usually kept secret. Rumours abound about Michel Desjoyeaux’s magic staysail and the “winning reacher” of François Gabart in previous editions…
A lot of sailors choose a very resistant reaching sail that will be used practically all the time in the strong winds of the Indian and Pacific oceans. The purpose of this sail is also to preserve the J2 that will be needed to sail back up the Atlantic…..
What lessons can be drawn from these sail choices?
Favour multipurpose sails in slightly heavier more resistant materials so that they can be used in a variety of conditions. Modern sailcloths are more resistant to load and deformation and enable such multipurpose usage… Because modern sails do not stretch out of shape when under load, their wind rage is increased so the need to change sail is reduced…
Have a good downwind sail that you can use in stronger breeze when you no longer feel confident carrying your spinnaker – whatever that sail might be for your boat. Something that will let you absolutely fly downwind in 20 to 30 knots and that you will be confident handling in those conditions so that you actually use it… After that you can use your ORC jib as a downwind sail… as realistically most of us won’t really be pushing it in a Force 8…
The biggest omission in the Vendée’s boats’s sail inventory is an upwind sail that can be used in very light winds – 0 -10 knots – conditions that they only very briefly experience through the doldrums but which the average cruising sailor will encounter often. Such a sail can be the difference between a fun sail and motoring.
The fact that they don’t use the storm jib simply reflects that the IMOCA’s are monsters and the challenge of trying to set a storm jib, in the conditions where it would be needed, is simply too dangerous for a solo sailor on these boats. That is not true for a regular boat where a storm jib is a very worthwhile addition to the sail inventory – even if it is seldom used. You’ll be glad to have it when you need it.