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The Best Sailing Innovations

2021 September 1

We asked notable sailors to share their picks for the gear innovations that have made the biggest impact on sailing

SAILING editors’ best gear innovation PICKS

High-performance sailcloth

Stretch has always been the bane of sails. Baggy sails that no amount of tweaking can help were unavoidable 40 years ago, but advances in both sailmaking as well as the materials used to make those sails has changed the performance calculation. The synthetic fibers used to make today’s sails—carbon fiber, Dacron, kevlar and high-molecular-weight polyethylene like Spectra and Dyneema—give sailmakers the tools to create long-lasting sails that behave more like foils. They’ve even made new kinds of sails, like code 0s, possible.

High-tech line

It wasn’t too long ago that boats with high loads had to rely on lines that weren’t line but rather wire for halyards and pole guys. Plenty of sailors probably still have scars from the meathooks that came with the territory. Even as line technology improved, some lines, even on average-sized boats, were so thick and heavy that coiling them when they were wet was a workout in itself. Today’s lines capable of managing huge loads are bulked up with bigger covers, just to make them easier to handle. Some Dyneema line is so strong it can be used for standing rigging, at a fraction of the weight of cable rigging.

Light, strong deck hardware

Sailors of today may have the luxury of not remembering the bad old days when blocks would jam up and steel ball bearings would need lubrication. Peter and Olaf Harken came up with the idea of using plastic ball bearings instead, and sent their Harken blocks to the 1972 Olympics, managing to change sailboat hardware in the process. Thermoplastic ball bearings along with advances in metal and manufacturing technology mean that not only are blocks, traveler and jib cars now much smaller, they are also long-lasting and nearly indestructible. 

Safety gear

There is no doubt that sailing is much a safer sport than it once was, despite boats capable of sailing much faster than even the speediest of boats on the water half a century ago. Auto-inflating life jackets are comfortable, highly wearable and generally very reliable. EPIRBs sent a message via satellite that help is needed. AIS technology helps boats avoid collisions at sea. Seamanship still goes a long way, but such technology stacks the deck in sailors’ favor.

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