For offshore yacht racing, storm canvas is sometimes a mandatory requirement. It should be a serious consideration for offshore cruising sailors as well.
Anyone sailing offshore can expect to be caught out in bad weather eventually. Although our working sails will be adequate for ninety-nine per cent of our sailing, it’s the remaining one per cent which contains the greatest peril.
Sailors racing offshore are often required to carry storm canvas. Indeed, the somewhat merry photo above show entrants passing through a 'declaration gate' to demonstrate they have the equipment on board.
No matter how good the quality, it’s unreasonable to expect a deeply reefed mainsail or genoa to function properly in extreme conditions. When the going gets really tough we need specialist sails: a storm jib and a trysail. Let’s look at them individually.
Technically, the storm jib is the only true storm sail, since in survival conditions we must run downwind and only need a scrap of canvas forward to maintain steerage way. Ideally, the sail should be cut in the manner sometimes known as ‘scotch cut’ - with no seams emerging along the sail’s foot or leech. In descending order of desirability, the storm jib should be carried:
*** On the inner forestay, if a cutter (or a sloop or ketch with such a stay). Clearly this places the sail where it can most easily and safely be hanked on. And its inboard position will minimise any chance of lee helm.
*** On the forestay itself. If a roller reefing genoa is fitted, wrap-around types of storm jib can be used.
*** On a secondary, removable stay set immediately aft of the forestay. Many sailboats have this fitted anyway – either as a reserve of perhaps to carry a light weather drifter.
*** Set flying from a convenient anchorage on the foredeck. This is by far the poorest arrangement, but I’ve used it when there was no alternative and it does work after a fashion. Many storm jibs have a wire luff which can be tensioned just about adequately if cinched down hard with a halyard winch.
The storm trysail is a much more versatile sail than the name suggests. Indeed, it can be argued that if conditions are bad enough to demand a third reef in your mainsail it’s better to set a trysail. They are great for close reaching, producing lots of forward drive with very little heeling. On sloops, you should be careful not to sheet them in too hard because you may be pulling against an unsupported part of the mast. Cutters, with their inner forestays, should have no such problems.
The best arrangement is to have a dedicated track on the mast. If you know there's wind to come you can prepare the trysail and leave it bagged on deck. It's best not to sheet the trysail to the boom. Instead, fit specially fitted blocks, one on either quarter – perhaps attached with strops to the after mooring cleats. Thus rigged, the boom can be immobilised to prevent it injuring the crew.
Whatever choices you make, the important thing is to have your strategy worked out in advance. As a professional boat surveyor I often board boats where the storm canvas still has the sailmaker’s original ties around them. I'm sure we would all agree that a dark night in howling conditions is no time to start wondering what goes where and how.