High-Tech Sails for Everyone

A decade of top-end sailcloth development makes its way into the hands of sailing’s rank and file.

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A 3Di sail in the mold.North Sails

It seems unfair that grand-prix programs get the best possible sail inventories, but then simply burn through them in a single season while weekend warriors pinch every dollar to get a modestly high-tech wardrobe that’s fast and likely to last a few seasons. Is it too much to ask for just a taste of the grand-prix menu? Not anymore, says North Sails, which is trickling down its once-exclusive 3Di offering into the hands of the serious club racer.

North’s new 3Di Race, which will eventually make 3DL obsolete, is the latest application of the sailmaker’s filament-tape sailcloth (there’s an excellent explanation of 3Di in Tom Whidden and Michael Levitt’s revised edition of The Art and Science of Sails). Whereas the grand-prix set blends carbon, aramids, and Dyneema or Spectra for the 3Di Raw, a 3Di Race tape is strictly Dyneema and aramids, making it less expensive and easier to trim.

A Raw sail, trimmed on hard, is darn near close to a rigid foil, which is fine for expert trimmers and helmsmen but challenging for amateurs. The flying shape is so locked in that it’s difficult to notice subtle changes when controls are adjusted or the wind strength changes. The Race sail, says North Sails U.K. sales manager Sam Richmond, addresses this as well.

“[A 3Di Race sail] isn’t as much of a foil,” he says. “With the softness, when you ease your jib halyard, you can see the effect much better. These are designed so that when you move the car, you can see the draft move, and when you ease the sheet, you can see what happens up top.”

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A 3di sail under construction by the North Sails team.Paul Todd/Outside Images

The larger appeal of the 3Di Race, he says, is that owners in the sub-40-footer range can likely get away with one less sail in their inventory. “We know that owners at the club-race level aren’t going to buy sails every six months,” says Richmond. “They want to know it’s going to hang around with a good shape. With this, if you get caught up-range, it’s not the end of the world. There’s much less stretch in the sail, so when it gets to the top of its range, it’s not going to go to bits.”

That much is true, says Nick Gibbens, an Express 27 owner from San Francisco, whose sailmaker convinced him to try the Race with a new 155 percent genoa for the 2016 Rolex Big Boat Series (in which Gibbens won his class).

“After one event, all I can say is that it’s a nice sail and only time will tell about its longevity,” says Gibbens. “I have one kid in college and two others on the way, so I’m hoping I can hold onto it as long as possible.”

Gibbens found the Race sail — a replacement for his 3DL headsail — responsive to adjustments. “It flattened out in the breeze, and there was plenty of shape in the lower end,” he says. “We had a lot of different conditions, so I thought it was a good shape. It was flat on the exit and consistent through the draft stripes.”

The Express 27’s headsails are hanked on, he adds, which is a consideration in San Francisco: Once you commit to a sail, you have to live with it if the wind picks up beyond the sail’s design range. “We had one full leg with it being what would otherwise be the wrong sail, but it was fine. My headsail trimmer liked it, he was happy with it, and it was lighter than anything we’ve had in the past,” says Gibbens. “It did what it was supposed to do, but talk to me in a year. The sail that I replaced was cupping in the leech and had spreader pokes from bad tacks, so that’ll be the difference — whether the back end of it holds up over time.”

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