Complete Guide to Storm Sails

Complete Guide to Storm Sails | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Storm sails are popular safety measures that help you retain control of your boat in high winds. They also reduce the risk of knockdown.

In this article, we'll cover the most common types of storm sails and their uses. Additionally, we'll go over storm sail materials, cost, sizing, and tips from the sailing community. You'll also learn when (and how) to deploy storm sails at sea.

Storm sails are durable and compact sails designed for use in rough weather. They're smaller than regular mainsails and headsails. The most common kinds of storm sails are the trysail and the storm jib. Storm sails can be deployed alone or in pairs.

The information contained in this article was sourced from expert sailors and storm sail manufacturers. Additionally, we sourced technical specifications from reviewers and users of storm sails.


Table of contents

What are Storm Sails?

Storm sails are small and durable headsails and mainsails designed for use in rough weather. They are a fraction of the size of typical mainsails and headsails, and they attach to the vessel using a multi-point tie system.

Storm sails are almost always triangular regardless of what kind of vessel they're deployed on, which includes storm sails designed for gaff-rigged sailboats. This is because a three-pointed sail is durable and easy to deploy at the base of the mast. Three connection points are easier to deal with than four, and storm sails don't require the use of top spars.

Storm sails are typically bright orange in color to distinguish them from other canvas aboard the vessel. Additionally, high visibility material makes it easier to see the boat in dangerous conditions. This is especially useful in emergencies, and it helps avoid collisions with other vessels.

Storm sails are stronger than the rest of the sails aboard most vessels. They are designed to stand up against gale-force winds and heavy ocean spray. Most storm sails can be deployed rapidly without completely removing the mainsail or headsail.

How do Storm Sails Work?

The concept and function of a storm sail is simple. A storm sail is essentially just a reefed version of your headsail or mainsail. Storm sails provide propulsion in high winds, which is essential if you want to keep control of the boat.

Storm sails are useful because they are smaller than the smallest configuration of your typical sail setup. In other words, they give you a smaller sail plan than you could have achieved by reefing. During dangerous storm conditions, this could be the difference between a controllable boat and a knockdown.

Types of Storm Sails

Most vessels that carry storm sails have one for the forward sail plan and one for the after sail plan. This typically includes a trysail for replacing the mainsail and a storm jib for replacing the headsail. In some cases, vessels opt to carry only a single storm sail as an easy precautionary measure.

Vessels that only carry a single storm sail generally opt for a storm jib, as it can be easier and safer to rely on a headsail during foul weather conditions. Additionally, it frees up the mainsail for precise adjustments, as it's easier to reef and trim from the cockpit. The downside of carrying only a storm jib is that it requires someone to trek to the bow of the boat during hazardous conditions.

In addition to trysails and storm jibs, there are many sub-varieties of storm sails available today. Next, we'll cover a few of the most popular storm sail types and their intended uses.

Basic Storm Sails for Emergencies

Basic no-frills storm sails are available for typical cruising boats to use in emergencies. These simple, often brightly colored Dacron sails are easy to rig and compact for long-term storage. They are triangular and often flat, which makes them ideal for quick deployment.

They are the most affordable type of storm sail and often considered 'universal fit' for boats within a certain size range. In other words, you probably won't have to custom-order a basic storm sail setup for your production fiberglass cruising sloop.

Basic storm sails often come in a convenient and weatherproof storage box that's clearly marked for stowing with your other emergency gear. These are not the most efficient or durable storm sails available, but they're strong enough to improve your chances in a dangerous situation.

Racing Storm Sails

Storm sails have found a unique niche amongst some offshore racing sailors. Vessels that participate in offshore regattas in foul weather often rely on them to achieve high speeds. This is especially true in conditions that are too hazardous to deploy a standard sail plan.

There are not a whole lot of purpose-built storm sails for racing. However, many sailors who participated in ocean races choose higher-quality and more controllable storm sails. That said, ocean racers often choose storm sails with unique shapes and characteristics.

Racing storm sails are usually slightly larger than basic emergency storm sails. They often have a deeper reef and longer leech, which increases the size of the canvas and brings it closer to the deck. Additionally, these characteristics make the small sail more efficient and allow the vessel to reach higher speeds while retaining precise control.

Racing storm sails are often reinforced in key areas, which is done at the factory or after the fact by the owner. This is because they're more likely to be deployed more than once and left on extended periods. Sometimes, Racers opt to delete unreliable quick-rig features that are found on standard storm sails.

Custom Storm Sails

There are many reasons why a sailor might choose to have a custom storm sail produced. As far as cost is concerned, it's comparable to a typical custom sailmaking job. Custom storm sails can be made with unique dimensions to optimize their efficiency on a specific hull design.

Custom storm sails are sometimes produced with higher-quality materials than consumer models, which gives sailors additional peace of mind. In many cases, the unique design of some sailboats requires purpose-built storm sails.

Most sailmakers will produce storm sails upon request. However, you may have to provide additional specifications ahead of time. They can also reinforce consumer storm sails using high-quality material or make adjustments to provide a better fit for your boat.

What are Storm Sails Made Of?

Storm sails need to be strong and weather-resistant. Additionally, they need to survive long periods of storage in less-than-ideal conditions, such as in the bilge or under a deck hatch.

Modern sale materials such as Kevlar and laminates are strong, but they don't always perform well in long-term storage. As a result, storm sails are typically made with a thick sheet of good old Dacron.

Dacron is a popular type of polyester sail fabric that's found in all kinds of sailboats. The primary difference between a Dacron storm sails and run-of-the-mill sail fabric is color and thickness.

When to Use a Storm Sail

What sort of conditions warrant the use of a storm sail? This varies between boats, and also between captains and crews. But generally speaking, storm sails can be deployed in high-wind conditions when typical reefing and adjustments aren't enough.

The precise wind speed that causes you to deploy storm sail is impossible to predict without knowing your specific vessel's handling characteristics. However, storm sails are sometimes found in winds exceeding 30 or 40 knots.

If a knockdown is imminent, the best course of action is most likely maneuvering. It will be very difficult to rig a storm sail when the vessel is at extreme risk of being blown over. It's best to rig a storm sail when the boat is still under control, either by you or someone else.

How to Rig a Trysail

Storm sails rig up similarly to your regular sails. Precise installation instructions vary between boats and sail models, but you can expect to install them roughly the same way.

The luff and tack of the main storm sail (trysail) typically rig up using sheets to the spinnaker blocks on the mast. The storm sail sheet runs to a block on the deck and then to a winch, similarly to how a jib sheet would run.

How to Rig a Storm Jib

The storm headsail, or storm jib, rig up using an inner forestay or halyard. The storm jib is hanked on, and the jib sheet runs to block and winch on the deck. The storm sheet typically follows the same route as a regular job sheet.

Are Storm Sails Required?

Some sailors believe that the Coast Guard requires storm sails aboard all sailboats. This is not the case, as the USCG doesn't list storm sails on its roster of mandatory safety gear. The majority of sailboats don't (and probably won't ever) have a storm sail aboard.

While storm sails are not a legal requirement aboard sailboats, there are situations where sailors must carry them. Ocean races are an example of one such situation, as many offshore regattas mandate them. This is especially true in Northern latitudes, where rough weather and gale-force winds are commonplace. Most of these organizations don't require sailors to use them; they just require sailors to have them.

How Much do Storm Sails Cost?

Storm sails are typically affordable, at least compared to other emergency gear, such as automatically inflating lifeboats. Storm sail prices vary based on material quality, thickness, and size. Below, we'll cover the price and specifications of a typical storm sail as an example.

Our example model from National Sail and costs $640. It's a conventional hank-on storm jib, which is the most common type. It has a luff of 28 inches, a leech of 22.5 inches, and a foot of 11.9 inches. It has an overall weight of 9 pounds. Based on its size, this model is designed for a boat around 40 to 50 feet in length.

As you can see, storm sails are relatively affordable, even for large boats. The prices you can expect to pay for a typical 30-foot cruising vessel are between $200 and $350, depending on the quality and thickness of the cloth.

Boat Size (LOA) Average Price
20-25 ft $200-300
26-30 ft $300-400
31-35 ft $500-600
36-40 ft $600-700
41-45 ft $700-800
46-50 ft $800-900
51-55 ft $1000-1200

Storm Sail Sizes

It's essential to find the right size storm sail for your boat. Storm sails vary in both dimensions and fabric weight (or material thickness). Most storm sail manufacturers produce trysails and storm jibs for vessels between 20 and 60 feet in length.

Boat Size (LOA) Sail Area (Sq. Ft.) Luff Leech Foot Average Cloth Weight
20-25 ft 28 12.0 in 9.0 in 6.0 in 6.0
26-30 ft 48 16.0 in 12.0 in 8.0 in 8.0
31-35 ft 77 20.0 in 16.0 in 9.6 in 8.0
36-40 ft 86 22.0 in 17.5 in 9.6 in 8.0
41-45 ft 100 24.0 in 19.0 in 10.3 in 9.0
46-50 ft 115 26.0 in 20.5 in 11.0 in 9.0
51-55 ft 145 30.0 in 23.0 in 12.6 in 9.0

Are Storm Sails Necessary for Offshore Cruising?

The debate about the necessity of storm sails has been raging for years. The jury is still out whether sailors should keep one aboard. Some people swear by them, and others dismiss them as a needless complication when reefing and handling would suffice.

It comes down to your personal experience and judgment. Storm sails work, and there are many instances where they've been deployed and likely helped save vessels from knockdown or foundering.

That said, sailors rightfully note that they can be very difficult (and even dangerous) to deploy during storm conditions when captain and crew effort would be more useful trying to handle the vessel.

Storm Sail Use and Preparation

It's essential to practice with storm sails in windy conditions before relying on them in truly dangerous situations. Go out on a windy day and practice deploying and controlling your storm sails. Put a plan in place to get them up quickly and safely.

Make sure to wear a life jacket and harness when deploying storm sails or moving around the boat in rough weather. Ensure that you have a place to attach your harness along the way, especially in areas that you need to stand to rig your storm sails.

Also, make sure to find harness attachment points on both sides of the mast, as you never know what side the boat will be heeling when you need to deploy your storm sails. Once you're confident that you can deploy and control your storm sails quickly and safely, you'll be ready to rely on them as an additional safety measure in rough weather.

Should I Buy Storm Sails?

So, should you buy a set of storm sails? Again, the answer depends on your location, sailing conditions, and personal experience. If you live in an area where rough weather is common or if you intend to embark on an offshore race, it's worth considering a set of storm sails. For the price, storm sails are a cheap insurance policy for hazardous weather.

Complete Guide to Storm Sails
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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