THE CATAMARAN ADVANTAGE - DOUBLE HEADSAIL DOWNWIND SAILING
When we started our circumnavigation, we decided that we wanted to
do it the easy way. We would sail around the world in the trade
Of course, it's impossible to go all the way around the world in the
trades, but for the majority of the long passages, it's possible to
sail in the trades.
Five-hundred years ago, sailors knew that the trade winds were their
friends. Whenever possible, they headed for the trades to get
the horsepower they needed for their global adventures. Although
ocean voyaging has changed a lot since the days of the square-riggers,
trade wind sailing remains unchanged. When we wish sailors well,
we still say, "Fair winds and following seas." That means only
one thing - winds and seas abaft the beam.
Catamarans are excellent trade wind yachts. They can sail
directly downwind without the rolling that plagues monohull yachts.
Catamarans travel like they are on railroad tracks when sailed like a
square- rigger downwind.
The fore and aft rig is a problem when running directly downwind. When
you run wing and wing, the mainsail and genoa continually battle for
supremacy. If the mainsail wins, the boat rounds up into the
wind, and if the headsail wins, you sometimes experience an unwanted,
uncontrolled jibe. It's hard to balance the mainsail and genoa
in the wing and wing configuration. The crew continually has to
stay on top of the sail balance and make helm adjustments to keep
things under control.
The battle between the genoa and mainsail isn't so bad if you don't
mind standing eternally at the helm staring at the sails. You
can sail wing and wing forever if you have a large, competent crew.
But if you want to use the autopilot, the wing and wing configuration
can cause problems. Out of balance sails can overwhelm the
autopilot, and if you are unlucky, the autopilot will strip its gears
while attempting to get the boat back on course.
When I sail offshore, my first priority is to keep my crew out of
harm's way, and my second priority is to protect the autopilot.
Our autopilot steered Exit Only 99% of the way around the world, and I
hold our autopilot in high regard. On only one occasion on our
circumnavigation, our autopilot was overwhelmed by a full mainsail in
following seas, and the autopilot made a valiant attempt at correcting
our course, and instead succeeded in stripping its epicyclic gears.
When the autopilot attempts to make a course correction without
success, it doesn't stop trying. It just keeps putting pressure
on the gears, and finally the motor overwhelms the gears and strips
I stay away from the wing and wing configuration on Exit Only because
I want to protect my autopilot. I also stay away from it because
a double headsail rig works much better on a catamaran.
When I sail downwind in the trade winds, I don't use my mainsail.
Instead, I sail using two genoas held out by two eighteen foot
spinnaker poles. One of the genoas is attached to the roller-furler,
and the other is flown with a free-standing luff.
This double-headsail rig moves the center of effort of the sails all
the way forward to the bow, Exit Only glides smoothly over the waves,
and the autopilot has a smile on its face. With the
double-headsail downwind rig, lee helm and weather helm aren't a
problem. The helm remains neutral, and the autopilot easily
makes small course corrections as we sail downwind.
In the picture at the top of this page, I am enjoying our
transatlantic voyage as I recline in the comfort our mainsail.
The autopilot holds us on course for Barbados as I live my trade wind
When we sailed across the Atlantic, we used our double-headsail rig
all the way to Barbados. The rig is easy to set up and take
Before we leave port, we fix our spinnaker poles in position using a
topping life, a foreguy and an afterguy. We leave those poles up
all the way across the Atlantic. The poles serve a triple
purpose. First, they keep the sails out in front of Exit Only at
the level of the bows. Second, they keep the headsails quiet.
Third, they allow us to carry the double
headsail rig until the wind moves forward almost to the beam.
Keeping the sails out in front of the bows keeps the center of effort
of the sails forward and balanced which makes it easy for the
autopilot to steer downwind.
Keeping the sails quiet is a big help to the person on watch. He
doesn't need to continually look at a thousand square feet of white
sail in front of his eyes to tell what's happening. He only
needs to listen with his ears. If the sails are starting to
flutter, the wind has moved forward, and it's time to adjust the
course. If the sails are quiet, it's time to keep on trucking.
The poles make it possible for the wind to move around a great deal
without having to make major course adjustments. You don't need
to be sailing directly downwind for the rig to work. As long as
the wind stays twenty degrees abaft the beam, you can carry the
We have one headsail on a Profurl roller-furler, and the second
identical headsail flies with a free standing luff. We roll the
Profurl headsail in and out according to how hard the trades are
blowing. The Profurl sail is like a throttle that we adjust to
control our speed and the amount of stress on our rigging.
If the wind becomes too strong and we want to take down the
free-standing genoa, we unroll the Profurl on the same side of the
boat as the free standing genoa to blanket it. Then we can
easily take down the genoa without having to battle a flogging sail.
It would be easier to have two Profurl roller furling headsails, but
that would cost a lot more money and require modifications to the mast
and rigging. So we do it the less expensive way which is a
little more work.
If the trade winds blow really hard, we use only one headsail; we roll
the Profurl in and out to suit the prevailing conditions.
It's more fun to go sailing when you do no
bruising cruising. It's more fun to sail downwind when you have
a balanced helm. It's more fun to cross oceans when the
autopilot steers the boat. That's why we sail in a catamaran and
use a double-headsail downwind rig.