Rod Heikell's very informal site on sailing around bits of the world and an eclectic collection of things nautical or nearly so.

Practical Boat Stuff 1: Sails & canvas


These pages have a motley collection of practical stuff for boats. It all comes from hands-on stuff on our boats that gets tested in the real cruising world and on those wet salty passages where you find out what works and what doesn't.

KISS   keep it simple stupid


If you wander around the boatshow as I did this year, you could be forgiven for thinking that somewhere between the good old days and the glittering arrays on the stands at the boat show that we seem to be missing the point about going sailing and cruising. The basics have got mixed up with the toys that have a by-line like ‘essential for every cruising boat’ or ‘don’t leave port without one’. Its all for your convenience and you would be a fool not to have one on board.

There is a grand complication between the salesman’s patter about the integrated, PC or Mac compatible, talking to the instruments, gee-gaw that you must have and that simple old fashioned concept of capturing the wind in those white things and gliding over the sea to a destination.

In fact most of the equipment we need is low-tech and it needs to be reliable. We run all sorts of complicated gizmos in Skylax: a couple of chart-plotters, integrated instruments and autopilot, radar, lap-top navigation and routing software, all sorts of stuff. The nub of it all is whether you need to continually be repairing all this stuff or whether you keep cruising and repair or replace a piece of equipment when you can. I see all sorts of boats stuck in a harbours around the world waiting for a spare part or replacement gear. In fact most of what we need to keep these sailing dinosaurs going is simple basic stuff and a lot of what enhances cruising is low-tech or at best intermediate technology.

KISS. Below are some simple things that make your cruising more enjoyable and also some caveats on things we use.

Wing & Wing

New genoa for Skylax

Boat canvas

Liferaft cover

Mosquito & 'no-seeum' protection

Dinghy covers (chaps)




Wing & Wing

From the Skylax blog   Saturday, June 30, 2007

I'm writing this just after the kiwi boys have lost another race to the other kiwi, sorry Swiss boat, Alinghi, and after watching them sail around 100 degrees on the downwind legs with their big assymetrics. And so I got to musing on poddling downwind on a cruising boat.

On the Atlantic crossing we used a technique which Iím sure many people know of, but which I am grateful to my friend Andy Barker for pointing out to me. How did I sail for so many years with a roller reefing headsail and not know about it? If you are poling out the genny downwind then it is much easier to put the pole on with the genny rolled up and then just unroll it making adjustments to the pole topping lift and forward guy as you go. With a telescopic pole minor adjustments to the length can be made when the genny is out, though in practice this is rarely necessary. We donít use an after guy as with one person only on watch the genny can be quickly rolled up with the pole still attached if a squall comes through, though there is no reason why you couldnít have an after guy led back to the cockpit which could be easily released.


On seven tenths the main had makeshift preventers made up which were just a couple of bits of multiplait tied around the boom which went forward to a block amidships and then back to a cleat in the cockpit. This proved more than adequate to both stop accidental gybes and control intentional ones. On Skylax we use a boomlock which costs a whole lot more than some string and a couple of blocks.


One thing. Remember all that stuff about twin headsails downwind and all the various ways you could rig twin headsails. On this trip I didnít come across one boat that used a twin headsail rig though Iím sure there must have been some out there and Iíve heard of a few boats using the twizzle rig.


Newer yachts with swept back spreaders canít let the main right off downwind and it would be interesting to know if they adopted twin headsail rigs or sailed with the wind on the quarter in a racing-style mode looking for hot angles. On the Antigua to Azores leg we had a Fingulf 46 blast across our stern while we wing-and-winged and then two days later he appeared in the evening gloom and blasted across our stern again. Not much gain there thenÖ Iím not sure what angles these guys sail but it looked to me around 110į, maybe 120į, and it looked very wet compared to our dawdle straight downwind.


Makeshift gybe preventer on Skylax before we got the Boomlock.

These videos show (very slowly) how this all happens with the pole permanently in place. It's a bit like watching paint drying so you have been warned...

Poling out the genny en route to the Canaries.

We set up the pole and then unfurl the genny with the pole in place. Any squalls that come through then we roll up however much we need to and once the squall has passed unroll a bit more again. In fact the pole pretty much stays up there with topping lift and fore and aft guys for off the wind passages. Even when we gybe the main over the pole holds the genny out on the same side for a bit more air with the wind on the quarter (we're not racing here...). Occasionally we need to swap the pole over to the other side which is a bit of a faff but no real drama is involved.

So put the pole up (topping lift and fore and after guys) and then leave it there while you pull out or pull in the genny on the furling line.

Poling out the genny video 1.

Poling out the genny 2. Nope - this is definitely no action movie...


New genoa for Skylax

From Skylax blog   Saturday, Apr 21, 2007


New sails

When we sailed back across the Atlantic in 2005 with Skylax we were woefully short in the sails department. The main is at least 15 years old. The roller reefing working jib started shredding down the leach on the way down to Grenada from Lauderdale and by the time we arrived it looked like we were flying giant tell-tales all the way down. Surprisingly the rest of the sail inside the vertical leach panel was not too bad. I enquired about getting a new sail made in Grenada and was promised one from the loft in Barbados in a month. Then I asked around and found that others were still waiting after a couple of months and realised we could be stuck there waiting for it, leaving our departure across the Atlantic a bit late. So I had the old roller furling jib cut down and re-made so it was probably around 75% - somewhat smaller than a working jib now.

Before leaving Lauderdale I had rigged an inner forestay (there were fittings for one) and bought a second hand (pre-used in that lovely American vernacular) sail to hank on that was about right for a staysail. In practice I found that when it was up it made no impression at all on our speed. I tried just about everything but none of it made a difference. Some boats are just not designed for cutter rig and Skylax is one of them. Maybe in heavy weather it would be useful though I have to admit that in the past I have just used the roller reefing genny reefed down to a rag.

Skylax with the cut-down jib

So with a 75% less-than-working-jib we were severely handicapped on the way across the Atlantic in anything less than 15 knots of wind. It was painful at times. So one of the first items on my list on arriving in the Mediterranean was a nice big roller reefing genoa. Ė at least 140% for all those light wind days and Iím not just talking about the Mediterranean. You get more light wind days in the ocean, even on trade wind routes, than most people think. And most peopleís response is to fire up the donk when boatspeed falls below some arbitrary figure, often 4 knots or so! Some superyacht skippers tell me the engine goes on when speeds fall under 6 knots, that is if they have bothered to put any sails up at all.

So in late 2005 I ordered a 145% genoa from Elvstrom. They have a loft in Thessaloniki so transport down to Levkas was not too much of a problem. They make reasonable quality sails, not the best and not the worst, and I ordered the cruising version with extra stitching and reinforced eyes. After a bit of research I cried off the composite laminate sail I really wanted. Sailmakers can be a bit coy about laminates versus old fashioned dacron, but if you press them then the consensus is that dacron will last longer and is more resistant to chafe. Dacron is also cheaper and importantly you can repair the sail in most parts of the world. If I was sailing solely in the Med I think I probably would go for a laminate for its better shape in most wind ranges.

Skylax with 145% genny


The new sail has improved boat speeds no end. We recently sailed (to windward) from Nikiana down the Meganisi Channel to Sivota in company with an Oyster 82 which a friend was skippering. There was hardly any wind, around 4-10 knots apparent, yet we could make our way down (OK its flat water) for a long enjoyable sail. I have to hand it to Rob Humphreys as the 65 ton Oyster sailed all the way down as well Ė well the owners werenít on board so skipper enjoyed doing some sailing. But in such light airs it was amazing a boat of this size could move at all. When the wind gets up we do 7 knots hard on the wind and 8-9 on a reach. Hey Ė itís a heavy boat fully loaded for cruising and Iím talking average speed here, not occasionally touching 7 or 8 knots. We carry over half a ton of water and nearly as much fuel for starters.

So now Iíve ordered a new main from Elvstrom which will hopefully be waiting in Levkas when we get there. Its in Dacron again and 2+2, not fully battened. Why? We normally sail with just the two of us and getting a fully battened main down in a squall or because we have just left it too long can be tricky. Unless we got something like Harkenís bat-car system or some other system involving a lot of extra cost (probably min £2K by the time it was fitted), a fully battened main was off the list. Anyway I notice that a lot of the new Swans use a 2+2 system so it canít be too bad. I had a 2+2 system on seven tenthsí main and it had a good shape. And itís an awful lot easier to get up and down and easier to reef when there is a bit of wind. We shall see.


Boat canvas

Our American cousins across the water are a lot better than Europeans at fitting out a cruising boat with good canvas. It protects from salt and UV degradation. It's practical. Useful. And it looks pretty.

Skylax with all the kit:

Permanent mainsail easy-stow cover with lazy-jacks

Sprayhood with zip-down front panel


Hatch covers



Sprayhoods should have a zip-down or up front panel for low latitude cruising. The benefits of getting air flow through the cockpit at anchor or in a berth is like turning the thermostat to cool. When bashing to windward zip it up.

seven tenths with zippered front panel.








Canvas covers over the hatches keep things much cooler down below and protect the perspex.


seven tenths in Sardinia







Covering up the dinghy stops all that UV damage that will degrade hypalon and polyester in no time. The liferaft in front of the mast also has a cover with a foam squab on the top that turns it into a useful seat. It has an elasticated bottom and only once has a wave swept it off the liferaft - it has a security string!


seven tenths






seven tenths canvassed up: bimini for shade and to keep us from too much UV damage, even the sprayhood provides a bit of welcome shade with ventilation through the zippered panel, and the old easy stow mainsail cover to stop UV degradation of the main (and keep it tidy).









A custom boat cover keeps dust, dirt and bird poop off the decks and cabin. A full cover over the hull is generally too bulky to carry on board, but a cover like this one on seven tenths can be stowed away until you leave the boat somewhere. I always like to haul where possible when leaving the boat as even GRP likes to dry out and it would need to be hauled anyway on return to clean off bottom growth and antifoul.


seven tenths in Grenada. She was badly damaged when Hurricane Ivan devastated the island, but we repaired her and cousin Frank and friends sailed her back to Turkey in company with Skylax.



From the Skylax blog 24-09-07



Last time we came across the Atlantic we had just an old coastal 4 man liferaft in a valise. It was in date, but definitely past itís best. So in Levkas I ordered a new Seago 6 man offshore in a canister from Ionian Marine Safety. They seem to have come out well in the test in the yachting mags (both UK and French) and importantly are made of neoprene and not polyvinyl.

To go with it I ordered a canvas cover (that UV degradation again) and Joe here suggested pockets in the side. You can put odd bits of string, winch handles and in our case a knife and marlin spike with a shackle key on the end. The leather pouch is tied on with a bit of string and it sits snugly in the pocket. So we have a knife to hand on deck and, gods forbid, a knife to cut the lashings holding the liferaft in place.


Mosquito and 'no-seeum' protection


I meet some cruising folk who just before sunset insert mosquito screens into hatches and close everything up, imprisoning themselves down below. Apart from the fact you usually let a mossy or two in when you go up to the cockpit, the little buzzers seem to get in somewhere anyway.

On seven tenths (left) and Skylax we use cheap mosquito nets over the bunk to keep mosquitos out. They are cheap and with a few mods will fit most bunks.

Apart from a mosquito net we use the usual lotions and potions. One item we have is a 12V version of those 240V gizmos where you insert a tablet into a holder and a heating element releases nasty stuff to keep them away.

In the cockpit we use various lotions and also light cotton long sleeved shirts and long trousers with elasticated bottoms. And ankle and wrist bands with DEET (the most effective mosquito repellant) squitted onto them.




Dinghy covers (chaps)

From the Skylax blog 09-08-08

Dinghy covers

A few years ago, OK about 15 years ago, I had a nearly new inflatable and had just taken delivery of a brand new outboard. I was up the Dinding River in Malaysia getting ready to sail up to Thailand and was proud of my new acquisition. It was shiny and you could read the makers name on the side of the engine cover. I had always looked at those cruising boats that had canvas covers for the dinghy and the outboard as people with an affectation, maybe too much time on their hands and maybe a secret wish to be tailors. Sure the dinghy chaps, (cover: Americans call them chaps because they look pretty much like the chaps that cowboys had over their legs, at least in the movies), looked wonderful and the engine cover looked smart with its canvas cover, but it seemed a lot of unnecessary bother and an affectation.

That evening I motored my dinghy into the wharf, tied it up and went ashore for a few beers with some other cruising folk. As it always does, one thing led to another, a few more beers, some sweet and sour crab and noodles at the Chinese restaurant, and it was fairly late by the time I got back to the dinghy. I couldn�t see it until I spotted the painter and found my dinghy under the wharf jammed against a piling. By the time I extracted it the neoprene was cut to ribbons on the oysters and mussels that grew on the pilings and my brand new outboard was dented and scratched and looked a few years older than it had a few hours before.

I revised my opinion on dinghy chaps and outboard covers in a �on the road to Damascus� like moment, and soon commissioned a local cruiser to make up chaps and outboard cover. You need to protect the dinghy from shellfish on piles, rocks and bits of wire that stick out of dinghy docks, and even concrete which can rub away at a dinghy and abrade the hypalon or PVC that keeps your dinghy air-tight and waterproof.

So when we purchased a RIB in St Maarten prior to setting off for Panama I was keen to find someone who could make up chaps and an outboard cover for the new dinghy and the newish outboard. In Colon where we were held up in the backlog for the Panama Canal we found Breeze and Debby on Blue Sky who made chaps and covers that looked great. Even better the price was half that quoted by the sailmaker in St Maarten. We duly sent the dinghy off to them and they disappeared off to the Chagras River to make the cover up.

It is smart. Flashy even. But it has earned its keep already in places that would have gouged the dinghy and mashed the outboard. It�s so good I hate it when it is grinding up and down on a bit of rough concrete or the shellfish collection on a piling, but that is its job.

One other thing worth getting is a little kedge for the dinghy that you can throw out the back and hold the dinghy off when there is some swell. We use a small folding grapnel with a metre of chain, but in NZ I�ll probably change it for a mini-fortress or danforth. The grapnel works first time about 60% of the time, but in sand and mud the danforth type or a mini-fortress works a whole lot better looking at those that use them.

Very smart dinghy with the kedge out and abovein Colon, Breeze & Debby, the best chaps-makers around.

Specs: The dinghy cover is made of Subrella and naughahide which has a better abrasion resistance (the dark brown bits on the chaps). Breeze glued little hypalon patches with the male or bottom part of a snap fastener on it around the inside of the dinghy and the female or top part on the chaps. So they just snap fasten in place around the inside of the dinghy. On the outside a seam with 3mm string (good stuff) in it tightens onto the groove in the strake and fastens at the back to a small hoop screwed onto the transom. That way you get real tension on the string seam to make sure it is nice and tight. Debby also used naughahide around the lifting straps and rowlocks. If you are making one don't underestimate the work involved and it is best to use paper patterns to get the shape and size right.




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