In one of our underway posts I mentioned in passing the special downwind rig that Amel boats use. By special request, here is a more detailed description of that rig. This might be a bit technical for non-sailor types. Also, I have no good photos (yet) of Harmonie sailing off downwind, so I had to find some on the internet to help with my explanations.
Like many things on Amel boats, the basic concept might not be unique, but the execution is uniquely well thought out. An “old fashioned” rig for downwind sailing is twin jibs, poled out to either side. This is the basic concept Amel has taken and refined.
Here is a photo of an Amel running with her downwind rig fully set:
The two sails combined are large, over 1400 square feet. The second sail is called a “ballooner” and is made of lightweight nylon.
Most of the time when boats are sailing straight downwind they roll very uncomfortably. When twin sails like this are trimmed properly (which means not too tight!) they dampen the roll completely. We ease the sheets when using this rig out until the top 15% or so of the sail is right on the edge of luffing. We can watch one sail’s head fill, and then the other constantly pushing back against the direction of roll as the boat sailed along totally flat even as the following sea rolled underneath her. With just one sail on one side, the boat rolls dramatically as the top of the sail alternately fills and then luffs.
So far this is nothing you might not have seen written in a book about cruising sailboats 75 years ago. Joshua Slocum used a variation of this rig sailing around the world in the 1890’s and he didn’t invent it. Amel’s modern implementation of this old system make it very easy to use.
First, are the poles that hold the sail out. Unlike standard whisker poles, each pole is two pieces, with an articulating joint at the shrouds. This means the outside length of the pole can pivot back and hook on the rail. Like this:
Attached to the pole are four lines. A topping lift, a fore guy, and aft guy, and a downhaul that are tied off at marks, no fancy adjustments required. With the sheet fit into the block on the outboard end of the pole, the outhaul lifts, and the fore guy pulls forward, and it is ready to go. The first time we did it it took us 5 minutes. The second time, it took half that. So, Amel Invention #1 is the easy-to-rig twin poles.
Amel Invention #2 is even cooler. Carrying that much sail is great when the wind is light, but if it picks up you need to reduce it quickly. Ordinarily, that would mean taking down the 2nd jib. Captain Henri Amel had a better idea.
When you put up the ballooner, its halyard would normally prevent you from using the roller furling because it would get twisted around the top of the headstay and very bad things would ensue. On an Amel, the halyard is used to raise the sail, which then is caught by a latch at the top of the roller foil. Then you take the halyard down. Now you can roll both sails together. Like this:
The foil actually has three tracks on it. One for the jib, one for the ballooner, and the third track is used when you want to take the ballooner down. The halyard is used to send the “mouse” up the foil which opens the latch holding the sail. Pull it down and stuff it into the sail locker up on the bow. Easy!
Here is a more detailed visual of what happens at the top of the mast:
This system allows a two person crew to fly a huge sail plan even in changeable weather, because they know that they can easily and quickly reef down if things get gnarly.
Many modern boats on passage will fly a spinnaker during the day that is taken down at dusk so they don’t have to deal with the takedown of a free flying sail in the dark if a squall comes up. On an Amel you leave your tradewind rig up all night, and if the weather turns bad a lone watchkeeper can easily furl both sails. So at night on the Amel, you go flying past the “faster boat” because you’re sailing at full speed all night.
Some details of the poles:
This is a rig that most other sailors do not understand, and hence do not appreciate. On most other sailboats there is no combination of sails that allows you to sail straight downwind with any efficiency, safety and connivence. Yes, most sloops or ketches can run wing-on-wing, but that introduces the danger of a catastrophic accidental gybe that has to constantly be managed. On many boats, a wing-on-wing configuration also can cause the boat to roll intolerably under some wind and sea states. Proper sail trim on the ballooner rig as described above prevents this.
There is no question that a very large, free flying sail–under the right conditions–will get to a downwind destination faster than this rig; but that sail is a great deal more difficult to handle, and typically is confined to a narrow window of wind strengths. It can not be reefed, and is an all or nothing thing.