14 November 2013

GEAR: sea kayak sail set up options

I was now heading for the cliffs fast and frantically tried to depower my sail.
I had been sailing in following seas with increasingly stronger winds and having a ball.
My kayak was humming along and surfing from wave to wave; it was one of the most exciting days of a month long trip in the Swedish East coast archipelago.
I was in a borrowed kayak and loaded with a lot of gear and food, my kayak was tracking pretty straight.

FEKS high mount_gdn
borrowed kayaks set up with Flat Earth sails and KariTec hardware

I let go of my main sheet, the rope that holds the boom in position and with the wind from behind the sail swung to the front. I felt relief as my kayak slowed down and I was travelling now at a much lower speed thinking I had avoided ending up against the cliffs.
I then let go of my up haul (the rope that holds the mast upright) and nothing happened. I tried to lower my sail altogether and stow it back on deck but that just would not happen; the wind kept on pushing my bow downwind and the kayak would not broach on the waves coming from behind! I continued to head to the cliffs…

FEKS high mount3_c
not actual footage of event
Desperately I pulled the main sheet again hoping to bring my sail around but the wind was too strong and the boom was just stuck in a forward position. I was not happy, actually a bit panicky to tell the truth; I have never experienced that before.

On my sails when the conditions become unmanageable I just simply let my uphaul rope out from the cleat, the kayak broaches pushed by the wave from behind and the sail falls into the water.
The forward momentum brings the sail close to the cockpit where I can collect it and secure it on deck: I have done it hundreds of times.
With the sail set up with the boom above the side stays, the boom could swing all the way around instead of stopping on the stays at about 90 degrees with the kayak. Once the boom is in the forward position I could not bring it back to me as the wind was exerting too much pressure on the sail; the mast stood up proud and solid.
Eventually, with monumental effort, great acceleration and strong sweep strokes I managed to bring my kayak around enough to let the sail fall into the water. I caught up with my paddling partner who was new to sailing; she was having the same problem as me and I helped her out of danger of the cliffs. It was an experience that I did not predict and did not want to repeat. However a few days later the same thing happened but this time I was in open waters and I had time to get myself sorted.

Things I learned from this experience:
- I prefer the predictability of my sail set ups: if the wind is too strong I can just drop my sail anytime
- While theoretically the full swing boom should make things easier in high winds it did not for me as I could no longer lower the sail.

I paid close attention to some sail set ups in my paddling circles and noticed somebody with an additional rope coming from the mast back to his cockpit. He had boom-above-3 stays set up and explained to me that the additional rope was to bring his mast down when sailing down wind. It made sense to me: he must have similar problems than me although he usually does not sail in stiff breezes.

FEKS_high mount2_gdn
sail set up with additional down haul rope

One question remains: to bring down the sail in a downwind situation he must use two hands to pull the rope back in?
That reminds me of V sails where one must actively pull the sail down instead of letting it just fall down on its own. It was one of the reasons that I opted out from those sails: I wanted a more efficient way of handling dicey situations.

I understand that my system of two side/back stays has a few problems:
- there is more pressure from the mast onto the deck of the kayak; decks need to be very stiff or reinforced internally
- the boom can not swing all the way around for de-powering in case of a stiff breeze, but as I found out that might not be a good thing?

The advantages:
- there is less pressure on the mast as the stays anchor higher up. I wonder how many mast would I have broken by now if I used the other system ( I do hear of people braking masts in higher winds)
- sail mounted lower therefore less healing (force of wind trying to tip me over),
- two less ropes to deal with on deck. On the 3 stays set up more ropes add to more chances of entanglement if tipped over and trying to roll back up? I know that occasionally I have to wiggle my paddle out of a loose stays before I scull my kayak if tipped over.

While there is an increased risk with ropes on deck I am used to them now and deal with them. However I rather not add any more than I have to.

These are my findings on sailing with both systems: 2 side/back stays and 3 stays.
I know that there is a strong following with the 3 stays set ups but I also hear that that is not recommended for winds that I usually enjoy sailing in.
I wanted to share my experience of sailing sea kayaks for ten years, the last 4 with Flat Earth.



  1. My first day with a FEKS (which I love) had a strong downwind and I realized I needed a downhaul to be able to drop the rig quickly when needed. I ran a line I temporarily attach (when sailing) with a snap shackle to a loop around the mast, then through the padeye that has my sheet block attached to it centered on the deck and towards the cockpit. This downhaul line has a small ball attached to it that is on the cockpit end of the padeye, creating a taut line between the mast and padeye. I run the excess line to the cockpit under the bungies to keep it out of the way but easily accessible. I can easily grap with one hand. Hope you can picture this.

    1. thank you for your idea. If I had to use stays-below-boom set ups I would consider your solution or go with Douglas Wilcox's suggestion. I hope other users of Flat Earth sails can draw wisdom from your contributions.

  2. That is one of the many reasons I prefer a free standing mast in a tube. Anytime you want the mast down you just bang the boom up with your paddle and the whole rig is beside you in the water when it can be easily stowed. Also it tends to fall right out if you capsize.

    1. my first (pre-loved) kayak came with a sail like that. It was in high winds where I had trouble getting the mast out of the tube to put away my sail.The friction caused by the wind pushing the sail was too high for me to dislodge it from the tube. I soon changed that sail for a style similar to what I use now.

  3. Hi Gnarly, using stays below the boom you can still prevent the boom swinging in front of the mast by tying a knot in the sheet to limit its length.
    Douglas :o)

    1. but of course: I guess it's so much simpler than running an additional sheet as down haul. Thank you for that. I will remember it next time I borrow those kayaks with the stays-below-boom set up.

  4. Charles Congdon11/19/13, 7:24 AM

    I've adopted a technique I saw Mick use in one of his videos - my uphaul line is long enough that I can loop it back to the mast from the jam cleat and through the eyelet that the uphaul attaches to (effectively making the uphaul into a loop). Keeps it out of the way and gives me a downhaul line that also stays out of the way. The hand that undoes the uphaul then holds onto the line and uses it as a downhaul.

    But I think Douglas' solution is the winner, since having the sheet wrap around the mast after depowering the sail is a major pain when time is critical.

    1. I've been wondering about a downhaul system too and I've just found it on this webpage!! I'm thinking of using both the Mick MacRob's system that you describe Charles and also adding a knot as well (noted by Douglas). In that way 'mast wrapping' can be avoided and the mast can be lowered quickly with out struggling to turn the boat up into the wind in difficult conditions.

  5. Patrick Forrester on 11/21/13, 11:45AM said:

    I go out on the biggest wind days I can find. I live in Tornado Alley, and use my big sails on big wind days when it is safe, just for training to handle big wind & see what my rig can handle. Getting the sail down, is never a concern for me. It use to an issue when I had a Pacific Action sail, but that is it.
    In the very rare situation when my mast stays up even after releasing the forestay I am on a dead down wind run. I that case I turn a bit in the up wind direction ( away from the sail ) and the mast quickly falls.
    With that technique I keep 2 hands on my paddle which is what I really want. Maybe it works great for me because my back stays are a bit aft of some I see on other boats.
    As well as this works for me, I guess maybe it would work at least okay on a different rig.

    If I want to pull on a line, to get the mast down, the sheet line works fine also. If I am truly out of control I would rather steer my way out of a problem.

    1. Wow - great comments on sailing. I sail some quite challenging seas in the south island of New Zealand. The Pacific Action rig is not much good if you want to get back home. I have developed a rig for my s.o.t. Ocean Kayak Prowler that is pretty good for extreme weather sailing. It is a very simple balanced lug with easy reefing using the boom as a roller furl. Sailing in rough weather is pretty stress free with this rig. The sail can be reduced to to he size of a rag and the kayak will still self steer to windward. A large amount of sail can still be carried for fun sailing in light winds. I am constantly working to improve this rig. If anyone is interested in these easily self built freestanding systems I am happy to share thoughts on design.

  6. I like those FLAT EARTH sails and Patrick's one is very good also but the balanced lug has some great features for serious expedition sailing and fishing. The big draw card for me is that more sail can be carried without any extra stress to the sailor. The balanced rig (portion of sail is forward of mast) allows much easier rudderless steering and any accidental jibes are quite gentle and don't heel the boat too much. The center of effort can be kept relatively low thus keeping the boat more stable. An essential feature of any good kayak sail is instant dousing and retrieval of the sail from the cockpit with one hand. Infinite reefing should also be easily achieved using one hand. It seems to me that kayak sailing is here to stay and is quickly evolving into a very exciting concept. The simplicity of sail, paddle and seaworthy kayak makes it the perfect craft for exploring and fishing etc. The very best wilderness areas can be enjoyed without the hassle and pollution of motors.

  7. Love your setup and the breakdown of why it worked for you. Great post.


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