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Much-maligned runners have their advantages

2022 January 1

Our local fleet champ recently declared that he’s done with sailing.

“This is it,” he said. “When this sailboat sells I’m not buying another. Runabouts don’t have runners.” He’s a terrific sailor and we’d be sad to lose him to the dark side, but his frustration is understandable.

His boat, a sporty and light 30-footer designed to surf downwind, nearly lost its rig when a running backstay was caught mid-maneuver during a heavy-air race. For a few minutes, the entire fleet paused to watch as the sharply inverted rig—looking more like a boomerang than a mast—was brought back into column. Why it didn’t snap remains a mystery but for the quick response of the veteran team.

The running backstay was a compromise designed to pick up the structural slack when fractional rigs became popular with racers, leaving the tops of rigs unsupported. (Masthead rigs generally don’t require runner support and cruisers prefer simpler systems.) On boats with runners, the backstay bends the rig and the runners and checkstays control rake, headstay tension and support a bendier, lighter-weight rig. While trimmers appreciate the sail shape benefits and helmsmen like the higher pointing that runners are said to enable, the rest of a sailing team usually frets about them. How long will it take before one of those loose shrouds gets fouled on a tack or jibe and the boom fetches up on it, potentially causing the rig to come down? For some teams, runners are a lightning rod of controversy and displeasure.

On many racing sailboats you’ll hear the announcement “Tacking!” followed by “Who’s got the runners?” Followed by “(Insert four letter word), now we’re not tacking! Looks like we’re banging a corner now.”

Sailboat and spar designers seem to regret the invention of the running backstay. Engineers have been working for decades to make runners obsolete, using techniques such as extremely swept spreaders or shrouds at the toerail, both necessitating their own compromises, like mainsail chafe or non-overlapping jibs. Runner backlash is the root cause of something called “big jib envy,” the feeling aboard a boat that can’t carry overlapping headsails when it is passed by one with them in light air. Even the Code 0 is a product of runner hatred, as one of its main jobs is to reclaim the horsepower lost with lost sail area.

The running backstay is to sailboats what the Blackberry was to the smartphone; a transitional architecture that one day might be omitted from our lexicon altogether. For me, this will be a sad day, because I admit to loving runners and checkstays.

A few years ago, while sprinting downwind during the long leg of an offshore race, our crew was tweaking for every ounce of speed. One savvy trimmer noted that despite a slack backstay and no rake, the pre-bend in our mast was still robbing the mainsail of some shape and he went to work recalibrating runners and checkstays to add horsepower with a deeper middle section. It was as if he’d found a sixth gear, and we ended up on the podium. Today, we never discount the power of runners to afford bits of competitive advantage. It’s an advanced toolkit that I miss when sailing on boats without them.

More importantly, runners are where kids and other sailing newcomers can find a meaningful first role on a big boat. The person with responsibility for controlling the runners during tacking and jibing is able to stay safely out of the cockpit mosh-pit while enjoying the best view of the rest of the game. It’s a job that can be done well assuming basic instruction, and where the novice learns fast. 

When working runners, you learn to keep lines straight, work cleats and  winches, and you begin to recognize the timing of tacks and jibes and the dance of the crew to get from starboard to port rails and back. You can see starting lines and port tackers and understand overlaps. You can listen to the banter of tactics, trim, angles and targets. 

On our boat, the station provided the opportunity for our young daughters to be members of an intergenerational sporting team, creating lifelong family memories. Today every new person that joins our team takes the job of runners first. We start by explaining, tongue in cheek, “When the boom comes across, you’ll ease this line and pull on that one, and if you don’t get it right, the rig will fall down” and then we all laugh and promise extra hands if needed. It’s how the newcomer comes to trust the boat and the team, and vice versa.

None of that can happen on a runabout without runners.