I have always liked sailing in light air. Ghosting along close to shore on a quiet evening feels like magic, especially in a small boat. But light-air sailing, though relaxing, is surprisingly challenging. In moderate winds, any boat competently handled can attain hull speed, but light wind requires sharp skills and careful attention to detail to get the most out of what’s available. Sail shape and trim make a big difference, and having a little extra canvas adds a sharp arrow to the quiver.
My two melonseed skiffs, like most of their type, have small, simple rigs. The single 62-sq-ft spritsail is easy to set and moves the boat along nicely in most conditions. It takes very little to make a melonseed go, but to make things more interesting in faint wind, I tweaked the rig to accommodate a topsail. This complicates the setup, but that’s sort of the point–it offers something fun to tinker with when conditions are calm and less demanding.
When my boats were still under construction, I contacted Stuart Hopkins of Dabbler Sails with the idea of a topsail and he found the proposal intriguing. He agreed to help with design challenges and to make the sails. His suggestions were instrumental in coming up with a solution that works well.
The sails themselves are small and, according to Stuart, relatively easy to make because they require very little draft.* The difficulty is in establishing final dimensions to enable the sail to set well. The topsail needs to overlap the top of the mainsail near the mast to maintain clean airflow but requires a gap at the aft end, near the tip of the sprit, to allow room for sheeting adjustments. My original drawings did not account for either of these details. In fact, when assessing the photos of our first attempt when it was installed on the boat, Stuart decided it did not meet his exacting standards, so we made further adjustments and tried again. The second try nailed it. The topsail is permanently laced to a long, 1-1/2”-thick yard of Douglas fir, so it flies like a flag on a thin pole. On a small boat such as a melonseed, with the mast far forward, there’s no easy way to raise or douse sail while afloat, so rigging is done at the ramp before launch and the topsail is only used when conditions are mild and predictable.
The sail and yard are raised together as a unit. The halyard is lashed to the yard above its midpoint, runs through a bee hole at the top of the mast, then down to a cleat near the deck. The point on the yard where the halyard attaches can be adjusted until proper set is achieved. The foot of the yard is then lashed to the mast, which keeps the whole assembly upright.
For sheeting the topsail, a lightweight line runs from a grommet at the topsail clew, through a bee hole at the tip of the sprit, then down the length of the sprit to the mast. I tension the sheet until the sail looks right, then just tie it off to the sprit. A small cleat here would be handy.
Getting a good set of the sail required a lot of trial and error. All the component parts of the assembly—mainsail, topsail, spars, and lines—are surprisingly interdependent. Small adjustments anywhere in the rig affect the other parts. For example, I found that tightening the snotter of the mainsail’s sprit boom is important when using the topsail, as this adds tension along the whole leech, from the top of the sprit to the mainsail’s clew. This detail helps reduce twist, which will first appear at the top of the rig. If you don’t tension the boom, the top of the sail will still flutter and luff while the bottom is sheeted in too far, which simply makes the boat heel and reduces efficiency.
The topsail only increases the sail area by about 25 percent, but it does so high on the rig where it counts most. It also extends the length of the luff, where the most power is derived when going upwind.
The actual performance enhancement is marginal, given the effort that was involved. However, when the topsail is set well it definitely improves the aesthetics, adding a nice traditional look to an already classic design. And it makes you feel like the boat is going faster, whether it is or not. Often, that’s all it takes to bring a big smile.
*The Sailmaker’Apprentice recommends that a topsail be “quite flat” with only a slight curve in the luff, a slight hollow centered in the foot—about 1″ per 6′ of length—and a straight leech. For a look at another topsail, check out this month’s From the Editor—Ed.
Barry Long is a writer, photographer and media arts professional from the Chesapeake Bay region, where he sails his two of Melonseed skiffs. He keeps a blog at eyeinhand.com
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