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The genoa is dead, long live the jib

2022 April 1

Inventions hailed as some of the greatest gifts to mankind since a Mesopotamian genius made the first wheel in 3500 BC don’t always stand the test of time. The Segway comes to mind, speaking of wheels.

When this two-wheeled “personal transport device” was introduced in 2001, it was hyped as an invention that would change the world. No less a visionary than Steve Jobs said its impact on civilization would be greater than the PC. Its inventor, Dean Kamen, famously declared it would be “to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”

Segways went out of production in 2020. They were a clever invention, but it turned out few people were interested in spending more than $5,000 for a self-balancing machine that could not travel safely on crowded sidewalks and streets.

The sailing world has a Segway of its own—an innovation that failed to live up to its overhyped promise. It’s the genoa. Unlike that short-lived personal transport device, it took almost a century for users of this invention to doubt the hype.

I may sound like a heretic now, but I was once a true believer. If all of the genoas I’ve owned were sewed together, they would make a dacron-mylar-kevlar-carbon tarp that would cover pretty much of a Walmart parking lot.

Most of us still sail with genoas, of course, and they do the job, but we are learning that there are better ways to sail upwind than by setting enormous headsails that overlap the mast as far aft as the cockpit.

That realization has been gradual, but in contrast the genoa’s first appearance was a eureka moment. Sven Salen, a famed Swedish racing sailor who later competed in the Olympics, shocked the fleet in an international regatta in Italy in 1926 by hoisting a huge overlapping headsail on his R-class boat. At a time when racing headsails were tiny, short-footed jibs set on fractional rigs, the big sail was so much of a sensation that it came to be named after the place where it debuted—Genoa.

“Bigger is better” being an irresistible (though dubious) aphorism, genoas grew and grew. Fifty years after the sail was invented, I was sailing a 30-foot boat with a genoa that was 180% of the foretriangle—23 feet long on the foot. Some boats of that era experimented with 200% genoas sheeted almost to their transoms.

Boats sailed faster with genoas than with little non-overlapping jibs, but at a cost, and not just in the higher prices sailmakers had to charge. The big sails, with their yards of stiff material having to be pulled around the mast and sheeted in with big winches, made coming about a clumsy, disruptive operation compared to the quick, efficient tacking typical of jibs.

Mainsails paid a price too, as they were rendered virtually irrelevant by backwinding from the monster genoas that left them perpetually in some stage of luffing. Designers responded by shrinking mains into shapes they called “high aspect,” which really meant they were skinny triangles attached to ridiculously short booms.   Mainsails lost the right to their name. Genoas became the main sail.

It wasn’t just that genoas were big; they came with the mythical power of the “slot,” the compressed space between the genoa and the main, which supposedly acted as an accelerant that magically increased boat speed.

Slot mavens first claimed the magic came from a venturi effect that increased the speed of the air between the sails.

Then revisionists piped up and said, no, it’s the opposite, the slot doesn’t accelerate the flow of air. It slows it down, which causes the boat to point higher. Huh?

Both theories sounded like mad-professor bunk, and they have been thoroughly debunked, not by more esoteric theories, but by reality on the water. A new generation of high-performance boats appeared in the last decade with non-overlapping headsails that have proved faster then genoas. 

The performance increase was so obvious that rigs were designed to better accommodate the new jibs. Masts got taller. Chainplates returned to gunwales, where they had been before genoa obsession caused shrouds to move progressively inboard. (No wonder rigs fell over so frequently during the reign of IOR racing rule.)

Genoa-free boats point higher, thanks to the tight sheeting angles possible with non-overlapping headsails. And they are able to harness the full power of mainsails, which have grown apace, with wide roaches, enhanced in some cases by square tops. They are once again the main sail.

Ditching the genoa has another benefit. It opens the way for a return to a sail combination that has stood the test of time—the double-head rig. Cutter-rigged boats dating as far back as the 19th century sailed with the combination of staysail and a high-clewed flying jib, or jib top as it’s also called. Now the double-head rig is standard on the fastest monohull sailboats and is making a comeback on cruising sailboats.

The modern iteration of the double-head rig, using state-of-the-art molded sail technology and structured luffs, is more powerful and efficient than those of yore and is effective even in upwind sailing. As Robbie Doyle of Doyle Sails explained in an article in the March issue of SAILING, boats using modern flying-jib setups point slightly lower than boats with single headsails but achieve a better VMG by sailing faster.

When reaching, rigs with flying jibs and staysails avoid the excessive heeling and mainsail backwinding that results when genoa sheets are eased.

Yes, it is time to say goodbye to the genoa, but let’s send it on its way with a few words of praise. Unlike the Segway, it was an invention that actually did change the world, the world of sailing, that is, and for a while in good way. Now it is being replaced not by a better invention, but by updated versions of old sailing ideas.