Bowsprits are all the fashion on new boats these days, but do you need one? Graham Snook looks at how a bowsprit can make your sailing easier and faster
Walk down any marina or boat show pontoon and you could be for thinking there was some sort of nautical jousting competition afoot.
Older yachts too can get in on the act with retrofitted deck-mounted retractable bowsprits, but do you really need one and do they improve performance?
There’s nothing new about bowsprits – sailing ships have been using them for centuries as a means of creating more real estate from which to fly canvas as well as to balance a vessel’s rig – but they are more popular on cruising yachts than ever before.
With advancements in sail-handling technology, a furling spinnaker can now be set up in port by one person and stay rolled up until it’s ready to be used.
At that point, it’s a case of unfurling it, sheeting in, and you have a spinnaker!
Taking it down is almost as easy: ease the sheet and take in on the furling line until the sail is neatly rolled away and perfectly tamed, a feat that would have been unmanageable by a single cruising sailor a few decades ago.
Why so popular?
Their popularity has mostly been brought about by modern yacht design and the quest for better accommodation.
The IOR rules of the 70s did much to determine hull shape, but the demand for more space and accommodation has changed yachts forever.
One big difference is the rig.
Gone are the stumpy masthead rigs and vast overlapping genoas encouraged by the IOR without penalty, which have been replaced by tall, efficient high aspect ratio rigs.
The increase of popularity in cruising, and the lack of rules constraining it, gave designers a free hand.
Mast sections and materials became lighter and stronger, enabling rigs to go higher.
By moving the mast forward in the boat, it enabled designers to open up the saloon, and by moving the chainplates outboard and attaching them directly to the hull, eliminated the need for tie rods that eat into accommodation, increasing the feeling of space below while also reducing manufacturing costs.
Over the last 15 years bows have become less raked and more vertical.
This change has improved performance as the static waterline length and forward buoyancy in the hull have increased.
On deck, things weren’t as rosy for the cruising yachtsman.
Plumb bows and anchors are not good bedfellows, as anchors seem to be as attracted to them as curious hands are to ‘wet paint’ signs.
In no time there were battle-scarred bows all around the world.
To right this wrong, bow rollers started protruding forward.
Outboard chainplates reduce the loads on the mast and rigging, but to get good windward performance the sheeting angle has to be as small as possible.
Clearly this conflicts with an overlapping genoa which has to go outboard of the shrouds.
Leading the sheet through the shrouds improves the sheeting angle, but spreaders still prevent an overlapping genoa from being used.
With the high aspect ratio rigs and the increased ‘I’ measurement (foretriangle height), and a reduction in the J (foretriangle base) jibs went from being 150-130% of the foretriangle down to 110% or less.
Not only did this increase upwind performance with more efficient sail shapes, it also made sail handling easier:
A shorter foot can be tacked faster as half of the sail doesn’t have to be dragged around the front of the mast before being sheeted in – 90% headsails have the advantage that they can also be self-tacking.
This is wonderful when tacking upwind, but in light winds, and when sailing off-wind, you start paying the penalty for reduced sail area.
A narrow headsail loses more power at the head of the sail as the leech falls away and it is increasingly blanketed by the larger mainsail the further off the wind you sail.
This is where bigger off-wind sails became popular and, necessary.
Download our comprehensive step-by-step guides to using spinnakers and cruising chutes
Basic winch design has changed little since the 1970s, but change is here. Graham Snook travelled to St Malo in…
As former editor of Yachting World, David Glenn has plenty of experience of both monohull and multihull cruising. Here he…
Sails for bowsprits
On older yachts with larger headsails that could be poled out, it was easy to forget the colourful but unruly spinnaker – many kites lived their life under the forward berth, used only when there are crew in abundance or on a perfect day.
Some are put off by the hassle of setting it up, others may have had bad experiences and been put off.
But with many owners opting for a more manageable headsail of 135% – to make tacking easier and reduce the need for early reefing – the lack of sail area is noticeable.
Those with a smaller headsail area, found an easy-to-use downwind sail was needed.
Asymmetric (A-sail) spinnaker
Unlike a symmetrical spinnaker that requires a pole to take the load from the tack and the guy, an asymmetric (A-sail) can simply be flown by attaching the halyard and sheets, with its tack taken to a fixed point forward on the yacht.
With the bow roller now sticking out ahead of the bow it made the perfect location to attach one – although many needed to be reinforced to take the upward load as they were originally designed only for the downward load of the anchor chain.
When furling systems became smaller, by using a single continuous line and the advent of the top-down furler, it sped up the demise of the symmetric spinnaker.
Although symmetrical spinnakers are better for sailing dead downwind, once rigged, a furling asymmetric can be set, gybed and furled by one person, all from the safety and comfort of the cockpit.
The crew no longer had to dance around on a rolling foredeck, wielding a long pole while shouting instructions back to the cockpit – guidance, if needed could be spoken to the person next to you.
The downside of furlers is that they are expensive.
However, they are quality bits of kit that enable you to extinguish a sail with the pull of a rope.
The cheaper alternative is a snuffer or sock, but this requires someone to go forward when launching or recovering the sail and it can’t be left in position when not in use.
As bows became more vertical so did pulpits, so a line from the top of the mast could go to the bow roller without fouling the pulpit.
But on many older yachts, that had pulpits inclined forwards, to gain the clearance from the genoa furling drum they needed a bowsprit.
To get the best performance advantage from your sail, the bowsprit needs to protrude forward of the genoa as much as practicable, while still retaining the support needed to take the loads.
Taking it to the maximum
Some yacht designs, notably J-Boats, take this to the maximum with their retractable carbon-fibre bowsprit.
Others, like Fauby, have an inclined bow and have a reinforced raised fitting in the pulpit to take extra sails.
A smaller headsail area (in newer and older yachts) means if you’re trying to sail in less than around 10-12 knots of true wind, it’s time for the engine.
It’s at this time sailing folk of the 1970s would be heaving the large but lightweight ghosting headsail on deck.
Nowadays, we have furling genoas, and changing headsails is usually only performed on racing yachts or during a storm.
This is where we turn to the Code Zero.
A Code Zero is technically a racing sail, but Code Zero-style sails are popping up, as many sailmakers have their take on it and now the moniker covers sails that are usually flown on an internal luff rope, although various sailmakers have followed Elvstrøm’s lead with a cableless Code Zero.
While aimed primarily at the racing market, the lack of a torsion cable around which the sail is furled reduces weight and stowed size, and allows the luff to project further forward when halyard tension is slightly eased.
Code Zero sails are usually lightweight nylon or mylar and are furled and stowed while not in use.
They aren’t intended to live rigged for longer than they are in use.
One exception is Crusader Sails’ Super Zero aimed directly at the cruising market, which is made from laminate cloth and has a UV sacrificial strip material so it can be rigged at the start of your cruise and removed at the end.
Because of the loads and the luff rope within, a Code Zero will often require a bobstay from the end of the sprit to a point just above the knuckle of the bow to help the bow roller or bowsprit take the loads.
How furling asymmetric spinnakers work
Most furling asymmetric systems work in a fashion known as a top-down furling.
A shallow furling drum that accepts a continuous line is attached to the bow or bowsprit.
On top of the drum is a swivel to which the tack of the sail attaches; this swivel can rotate independently of the drum.
The furling drum is fixed to a torsion rope (one designed not to twist), and the head of sail is fixed to the top of this, above which a swivel connects the torsion rope to the halyard.
When the sail is ready to be furled, the sheet is eased and the furling line is pulled and the drum rotates.
Because the tack of the sail is on a swivel the rotating drum does not affect it, but turns the torsion rope, which starts the furl at the top of the sail.
As you continue to pull on the furling line, the sail is wrapped around the torsion rope and tamed from the top down until the whole sail is furled and the furling line can be cleated off.
Often a patch of velcro on the sail’s clew will help prevent the furls unfurling.
The luff of the A-sail has to be short enough not to hang down over the furler, and have a shallow enough draft to allow it to roll away.
Therefore, using an existing asymmetric and converting it to a furling asymmetric may be impossible.
With some furling asymmetric systems, such as Crusader Sails’ ‘Magic Furl’ system, the furling sail is pulled onto the torsion rope by lines attached to the luff of the sail at intervals up the luff.
Pulling the furling rope pulls these grab-lines, wrapping them, and then the sail, around the torsion rope.
Off-wind sail for bowsprits
Asymmetric sails (A-sails) benefit from longer bowsprits – something that has been known in the dinghy and sportsboat world for decades – as it enables them to sail deeper downwind and the sail is less blanketed by the mainsail and has a more usable sail area.
A-sails cover many different styles of loose luff asymmetric spinnakers for use from 60-170° apparent wind angle.
A-sails run from A0 to A6 although as cruisers we tend to just use one – a cruising chute, which is an asymmetric spinnaker with less sail area than its racing counterpart.
Narrower shoulders make it easier to handle when it comes to trimming.
Variations in sails
A-sails vary in fullness; if a sail is cut flatter it’s designed to sail higher to the apparent wind – the deeper the draft the further off the wind the sail can be used.
Sails also vary in size as foot length is typically 1.6-1.8 times the length of the ‘J’ and a percentage of this measurement at a distance halfway up the sail (known as the mid-girth measurement).
Many will have heard of a Code Zero sail; it’s a lightweight genoa for light winds.
Under IRC rules a sail that has a mid-girth measurement 75%, and over, rates as a spinnaker, so technically the Code Zero is a spinnaker but it’s attached to a torsional luff rope that supports the sail so it can be used from around 40-90° off the apparent wind.
They are usually flown on a furler and give extra sail area in light winds – handy if you reduced your genoa’s overlap for easier handling.
Fitting a bowsprit
If you want to add a furling headsail on a boat that does not have attachment points ahead of the forestay, you may need to fit a retractable bowsprit.
This will also give the advantage of creating space for more sail area.
I did exactly this on my Sadler 32. Here’s how it’s done…
1. Using the spinnaker halyard, determine the best length for the bowsprit – this is usually decided by your pulpit design.
I could have mounted the bowsprit forward or aft of the forward edge of the pulpit.
I wasn’t keen on the pole being in the pulpit because of the sail’s proximity to my navigation lights
Using the spinnaker halyard, determine the best length for the bowsprit – this is usually decided by your pulpit design.
I could have mounted the bowsprit forward or aft of the forward edge of the pulpit.
I wasn’t keen on the pole being in the pulpit because of the sail’s proximity
to my navigation lights.
2. The pole is supported by a circular bracket at its forward end – the bracket can be deck, side or bow roller mounted.
Having a single bow roller (to starboard) it was decided that the pole should exit to port.
The support was bolted to the deck, and access to my anchor locker made access easier.
A spacer was added to raise the pole above my bow fitting.
3. The aft end has a spring-loaded lock that attaches to a padeye on deck (in my case just aft of my anchor locker).
Once the pole is cut to the correct length, the end fittings are drilled and riveted in place.
4. The finished pole is stowed along the guardrail to avoid fouling the anchor locker lid when not in use.
My Sadler 32 required the largest 72mm diameter pole because of its unsupported length forward – thanks to the Sadler’s forward-swept pulpit – and my wish to fly a Code Zero-style sail.
After fitting I installed a Dyneema bobstay to further support the upward forces on the pole.
- 72mm Seldén Pole kit, including end-fitting and pad eyes, £705
- Bow bracket ring £130
- Installation by Crusader Sails from £250
- Faster, more enjoyable sailing in light winds
- Less motoring
- Easy to use single-handed
- Pole stowage
- Covers anchor locker when set
- Additional hardware cost
The Seldén bowsprit is easy to install and rig, but less easy to stow.
With a bit of thought, though, this isn’t a problem.
Once, when sailing into a quiet anchorage and going forward to take the anchor out of the anchor locker, I realised I couldn’t because the pole was rigged over the top – I had to de-rig the sail to access the anchor.
It’s a mistake I only made once.
Now if I’m anchoring, I’ll take the anchor out and leave it on the bow roller.
This test is as much about the Magic Zero from Crusader sails as it is the bowsprit.
Sailing single-handed, I think nothing of rigging in the marina and using it on the water.
Comparing performance, my 135% genoa would make 4.5-5 knots (with an apparent wind of 12 knots at 60°), the Magic Zero would take my Sadler 32 to 7 knots.
In light winds, where before I’d have to motor, I can happily coast along at 4 knots with the Magic Zero drawing nicely.
Rarely has a trip gone by in the five years since installing it when I haven’t used it at some point.
About the author
Graham Snook is a photographer and journalist who has been testing yachts and equipment for over 20 years. He cruises a Sadler 32.
Have you thought about taking out a subscription to Yachting Monthly magazine?
Subscriptions are available in both print and digital editions through our official online shop Magazines Direct and all postage and delivery costs are included.
- Yachting Monthly is packed with all the information you need to help you get the most from your time on the water.
- Take your seamanship to the next level with tips, advice and skills from our expert skippers and sailors
- Impartial in-depth reviews of the latest yachts and equipment will ensure you buy the best whatever your budget
- If you are looking to cruise away with friends Yachting Monthly will give you plenty of ideas of where to sail and anchor