Vertical Mainsail Battens: A cautionary tale.

I added a new mainsail this year. It was well-constructed and quite beautiful. It did, however, have full length vertical battens. Four of them. The one most proximal to the mast was about 40 ft in length. The next ones were about 30, 20, and 10 feet in length, respectively.

My old sail had three non overlapping vertical battens that descended from the leach. I was quite used to this particular configuration but was open to the new design.

The new main. Three of the four full length vertical battens can be seen in this photograph.
The old main with three non overlapping vertical battens extending to the leach. They truly are not overlapping despite the appearance of such due to the perspective in this photograph.

One problem that plagued me from the start was related to the fact that the inner compartment of the furling mast was too small for the overlapping battens. I couldn’t quite furl the sail all the way in as the thickness of the furled sail was just too great.

I was sailing with my partner one lovely day in 12 kn wind. We ventured into the slot in the SF Bay and, much to our disappointment, the winds were still light. About 45 min later the wind machine began to howl. Suddenly, we had 25kn wind. My vessel had never felt overpowered with the old full main in 25 kn wind. It was clear, however, that we needed to reef the new sail. We went through the usual process, she at the helm, me at the winch and clutches. Unfortunately, however, the sail would not furl. It seemed stuck! Of course, it was now luffing madly in irons.

Engine on. I went forward and noted that the tack and the luff tape had a triangle of space that allowed the sail to kink and not go into the boom.

I furled the headsail.

I attempted to raise the halyard hoping to flatten out the link near the tack. Nothing.

We motored head to wind under autopilot with me trying to feed the sail while she cranked the winch to no avail despite numerous attempts.

We headed dead downwind to decrease apparent wind and attempted the same. No success achieved with this maneuver despite multiple attempts.

I thought of motorsailing back to the slip and dealing with the matter. I didn’t like the idea of a left 90 degree turn from headwind to beam reach with more than 20kn wind. Three on the boat….one to push the boom out to keep the sail head to the wind…..maybe…..but not with just the two of us.

I felt the best option was to lower the main and lash it to the boom. Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t remove the battens regardless of point of sail attempted. And, even if I could have done so, the battens would have been threaded from deck into water due to their length….while the vessel was moving. Under power. Potential for disaster! I felt quite disappointed that what I saw as a design flaw had taken away the best option we had to get out of our situation.

By now, we were an hour into our ordeal.

I had a brief or fleeting thought of cutting the sail loose and cutting the halyard but I could only imagine the potential for injury or some other disaster as the sail broke loose so I didn’t dare try that approach.

We decided to head to the lee of Angel Island to find a wind shadow where lee to us, in the event of any wind, would be open water. The tide was flooding guaranteeing added space for maneuvers.

One last try with the autopilot, headed dead downwind, the lady at the winches, me at the mast, and…….FINALLY! We were able to furl in the sail and head back to the slip. I could have reefed and sailed on. But…… I had to respect the fact that my partner, who held up like a true sailor, had had enough for one day.

The old mainsail is now back on the boat. I consulted Robin Sodaro who owns and operates a Hood sail loft in Sausalito. He is arranging for me to have a mainsail fitted without the full length vertical battens. I look forward to the new sail! it’s suppose to be configured as is the old sail

I’ve since accomplished some internet research and learned of others who have had similar problems with mainsails that have vertical battens.

Be careful if you choose vertical battened mainsails for your vessels. Check with your sailmaker to ensure that they will furl into your mast. The curling compartments of masts are indeed of different sizes. Make sure that you will not have a mismatch. Practice lowering the sail at the docks so that you know what to expect in the event of a need to lower the sail with urgency on the water. Can you remove the battens? What are you going to do with them while you’re bringing the sail down?

Whatcha gonna do Skipper???

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