TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Sailing

PA SAIL Pacific Action Sails Revisited by Robert O. Hess
Originally published as a TopKayaker.net Forum Post

It's been about six months now that I have had my Pacific Action (PA) sail (or rather sails), and I thought it was time to share my experience with this amazing sail rig. Most of you on TopKayaker.net's forum already know about, and in some cases own, PA sails. So I won't rehash the basic information on these sails. You should, however, also see my article: Low-Performance Stand-Alone Sail Rigs in Part II of In Search of the Perfect Sailing Sit-On-Top Kayak.

Instead I will focus on 1) certain hardware modifications I've found valuable, and 2) certain performance-related ideas and modifications that may be of interest. For those who have no prior experience with PA sails, this article will hopefully still answer some basic questions and perhaps encourage you to give these rigs a try.

Rigging Modifications:

1. Improved sheeting system

The first modification, one that I actually cooked up myself, is to the sheeting system of the sail. I quickly became frustrated with the single-sheet system supplied by PA. The basic problem with the original system is that it requires two hands to adjust the sail. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the cleat supplied by the factory (which "floats" freely along the sheet) is very small and awkward to handle. In real life, this means that you have to put your paddle down for at least 10 to 15 seconds (if everything goes well, that is) when jibing or tacking, or even just sheeting in the sail to go from a downwind run onto a beam reach. In high wind, I regularly ended up getting drifted downwind in the process, losing my upwind position I had fought so hard to gain. It also makes it easy to lose your paddle in the process. Even if you use a paddle leash, it's still not a great idea to have your paddle ripped out of your hands in good-sized ocean swells (it has never actually happened to me, but I have come close once or twice).

PA SAILThe rather simple solution to this annoying problem was to cut the single sheet at the midpoint, run each of the resulting sheets through a pad eye installed crosswise at about knee level (to function as a fairlead), and lock the sheet into a small clam cleat mounted on the gunwale within easy arm's reach.

That way, I can now control the sail in exactly the same way a sail is controlled on a regular sailboat. All it takes is a quick tug with one hand. An additional plus is that I no longer have a line running either over or under my legs, which has caused me to get entangled a few times when exiting the kayak.

Looking back now, I frankly find it hard to understand why PA uses the system it does. Separate sheets and deck-mounted cleats and fairleads are clearly more efficient, easier and safer. Installation is the same, except that two pad eyes are now replaced by two clam cleats.

2. Deck plate for mast foot

PA SAILI also did not like the way the mast foot dug into the deck of my kayak in high-wind conditions. Especially when sailing across the wind, the geometry of the mast foot is such that only a very small part of the mast foot actually touches the kayak, meaning that a lot of force is applied to one particular point of the deck, often causing the deck to buckle under the pressure. When I raised the issue with my local dealer, an avid kayak sailor himself, he suggested that I place a foam-padded deck plate below the mast foot. He had already made such a contraption for previous customers, so I quickly signed on to the idea. The plastic deck plate weighs no more than half a pound and is simply strapped to the mast foot by little bungee loops that are permanently attached to the plate. That way, the deck of my kayak stays protected, and the shallow V-shape of the shield also helps spread the two masts a bit, giving the sail a better shape.

3. Stainless steel strap buckles for mast foot

PA SAILOne last, perhaps minor modification is that I replaced the deck-mounted plastic strap eyes supplied by PA with stainless steel strap eyes. My dealer had told me that in high wind, he had actually managed to break several plastic strap buckles using the larger 1.5 m and 2.2 m PA sails. Since I recently added the 1.5 m sail and often sail several miles offshore, I thought it would be a good idea to eliminate this obvious risk factor. Stainless steel also looks so much "cooler".

Performance-Related Ideas and Modifications:

1. Reaching vs. running

Everyone agrees that PA sails make excellent downwind sails. But few people seem to know that PA sails can also be used for sailing across the wind (reaching). This is puzzling because that is really the greatest advantage of a sail - to be able to travel in less time and with less effort in a direction that, under paddle power only, would take more time and more effort.

Paddling downwind is relatively fast as it is. Paddling in a cross wind, especially high wind, is another matter, even with a rudder.

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Admittedly, sailing across the wind can be a bit of a challenge. In low wind, the PA sail is rather sluggish requiring a light to moderate paddle stroke for maintaining speed. Personally, I really enjoy paddling while under sail (hey, I am a kayaker, right?), plus I tend to get cold and bored pretty quickly once I stop paddling. Speed is around 3-4 mph in my Scupper Pro (just a conservative estimate at this point, as I don't own a GPS yet). While this is not fast, keep in mind that it's almost a free ride, with minimal paddling effort. It makes my Scupper Pro feel like a much faster boat, and I can effectively cover much greater distances under sail than under paddle power only.

In higher wind (15-20 mph), paddling is optional (at least with a rudder), but now I have to lean to windward to avoid capsizing (remember I am only 145 pounds), and I have to carefully trim the sail and control the rudder to minimize leeward drift. Speed is around 4-5 mph without paddling, and maybe 5-6 mph with paddling, depending on wind speed, wind chop, swells, etc.

PA SAILI have found that by sheeting in the sail so that the lower mast is about 30 degrees from horizontal and raking back the upper mast just about 15 degrees past vertical, I can actually point to about 75-80 degrees off the wind. 90 degrees is easy to maintain.

Tilting the lower mast past 30 degrees seems to be counterproductive, perhaps because the upper mast no longer functions as a leading edge to funnel air into the sail. What I try to achieve is something close to the ideal sail trim for a windsurfing sail (I used to windsurf before my body told me otherwise) -- mast raked back, sail sheeted in, but not too much. To maximize speed, which is really the weakest point of the PA sail, I also move my seat farther back than I normally do for paddling. That way, the bow of my full-ended Scupper Pro rises out of the water, climbing more readily over swells and wind chop.

There has definitely been a learning curve, and to some degree there still is. But now that I've got the hang of it, I just love scooting across the wind at a good clip, effortlessly climbing over 3-4 foot swells. Running downwind or on a broad reach is, of course, a lot of fun too. But I somehow get a greater sense of satisfaction out of a beam reach. There is something magic about turning lateral wind force into forward momentum.

PA SAILI am currently planning a 20+ miles open water crossing to Catalina Island for sometime next year. I hope to cover the last 10-12 miles paddle-sailing - with the wind right on the beam.

Unlike others who have done this crossing in traditional sea kayaks, I'll actually look forward to (and need!) a nice sea breeze in the second part of the day. Without a sail, I really don't think I could -- or would want to -- paddle my Scupper Pro for 20+ miles. Photo: Catalina Island - the object of my fascination.

2. Rudder use

Another common misconception about PA sails, or perhaps kayak sailing in general, is that you need a rudder. While a rudder is without question very helpful and much more efficient, it is by no means necessary. Until just a few weeks ago, I did not even have a rudder on my Scupper Pro. Yet, I was able to do all of the things described above, including reaching in high wind, simply by using my paddle.

So if you don't have a rudder and your kayak tracks reasonably well (pretty much any SOT kayak 14 ft. or longer should do), don't think for a minute you cannot sail your kayak. You can. Here are some tips how.

For downwind sailing, you don't need to do much other than the occasional sweep stroke to keep the kayak pointed downwind. This is mostly a matter of paying attention and anticipating course deviations, requiring relatively little physical effort. If longer distances are involved, and sailing dead downwind becomes too tedious, you may want to try sailing about 15-30° above downwind in a flat zigzag pattern (you'll obviously have to trim the sail accordingly). What I have found is that on this bearing, my Scupper Pro pretty much steers itself, requiring almost no course corrections on my part.

PA SAILWhen the wind is fairly minimal, no more than 8 mph, I sometimes sail that way while lying down on my kayak, with my feet propped up on the rear hatch. I'm able to make any necessary course corrections from the supine position simply by applying a short stern rudder stroke now and then. This is a neat way to take a welcome break without having to stop.

I am not actually sailing in this picture, the sail is reefed. But it gives you the basic idea.

Sailing on a beam reach is quite a bit harder, especially when it really blows. You basically need to do a continuous sweep stroke on the leeward side to counteract the tendency of your kayak to fall off the wind. That does get rather tiring after a while, but I have managed to sail that way on a single tack for about 2 miles at a time, in winds of 10 mph or less. The key thing here is efficient sweep stroking. You don't need to sweep stroke more than perhaps once every 10 seconds, nor do you need to apply a lot of force to each stroke. Rather, good form and a steady rhythm are important. Holding the paddle asymmetrically also helps, I've found.

Because you are paddling on one side only, you may want to consider using a single-bladed canoe paddle. I have personally never had a chance to try one, but some members of the Watertribe (www.watertribe.com) maintain that a carbon fiber single blade canoe paddle, which can weigh as little as 8 oz., is a lot more efficient and less tiring to use for sailing than a standard two-bladed kayak paddle. One of these days, I will have to borrow a high-end canoe paddle from my local dealer to find out myself. A canoe paddle could also do double-duty as an emergency paddle easily stored inside the hull.

A rudder, in my mind, becomes a necessity only if you are planning to cover long distances sailing across the wind - like 20+ miles to Catalina Island ;-)

3. Seating comfort

A good kayak seat does not necessarily make a good sailing seat. For unrestricted paddling in an upright position, I use a very flexible, low-back surf seat made by Xstreamline - see also the Back Pro Two. The problem is that for sailing, I really need more back support so I can comfortably lean way back and windward, wedging myself into the cockpit. Thanks to the Scupper Pro's deep seat, there is some built-in back support, though the rim of the cockpit is way too sharp for comfort. After experimenting with EVA foam pads cut from an old camping mattress, I finally decided to invest in a Surf to Summit GTS Elite seat.

What a change! The plush S&S seat is unbelievably comfortable, providing not only solid back support and padding, but also side support, which is great for leaning out to windward. The only downside of the new seat is that I find it too restrictive for proper paddling. As a result, I now carry two seats, one for sailing and one for paddling. Switching from one seat to the other on the water, though inconvenient, really is not that hard, and takes less than five minutes. Thanks to the large hatches of my Scupper Pro, I have no problems accommodating the somewhat oversized and heavy S&S seat inside the hull along with the rest of my gear (which has grown to substantial proportions).

If you already use a high-back seat for paddling, great, you're all set. But if you don't, you may want to think about investing in one. It will give you better boat control (especially if the seat back makes contact with the cockpit) and more comfort. Sailing is just no fun, if you're sitting in an awkward position liable to tweak your back.

4. Sail stowage

Pacific Action recommends that you bungee the sail diagonally to the gunwales next to your thighs/hip when the sail is not in use. Once you try this (if you haven't already), especially with the 1.5 m sail, you'll see that the sail interferes with paddling in that position. While you could modify your paddle stroke, doing so is obviously less than efficient. In any case, it's really unnecessary. What I do instead is to fold the sail backward right along the longitudinal (rather than diagonal) axis of the kayak and tie it down either with a strap of the forward hatch and/or with a bungee loop attached to a pad eye on the center divider. That way, the sail is completely out of the way and securely fastened.

The sail sits low enough not to interfere with paddling, even when using a low angle paddling style. The mast tip of my 1 m sail is about 12 inches away from my body. For the 1.5 m sail, the distance is only about 3 inches, but I have not found this to be a problem. Before you install the sail, you may want to check whether there is enough clearance for your belly. If not, consider moving the sail forward a few inches.

PA SAILPA SAILIf I need to move forward for any reason, I simply move the sail off to the side or let the rolled-up sail pop up to about 45°.

Both pictures show the 1.5 m PA sail.

There is only one important caveat: NEVER carry the sail in that position when entering or exiting through surf. Should you suddenly be propelled forward by a wave, you might get impaled on the mast tip, which is pointed right at your soft abdominal area. What I do instead in this situation is stow the sail below deck (even the larger 1.5 m sail fits nicely into my forward hatch) and then set it up after I've cleared the surf. It's a bit awkward to do, but very doable, especially if you use the fairlead/cleating system I described above. The PA rigging is a bit confusing to set up, and takes longer. When exiting through surf, I mostly just let the rolled-up sail pop up to about 45°. When entering through surf, this is not a good idea, though, because a wave breaking over your bow will push the sail into the horizontal position in a split second (as I found out the hard way).

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5. Reefable PA sail

One final modification I am currently working on is a reefable Pacific Action sail. The basic idea is to be able to reduce the sail area of the 1.5 m Pacific Action sail to 1 m. That way, I could use a single sail for the full range of wind conditions. Right now, I either carry both sails (one installed, and the other one stowed below deck) or I make an educated guess about which size sail will likely be the best for the day. Neither solution makes a lot of sense to me. For efficient and safe sailing in all wind conditions, you need to be able to reef. Period.

Making the Pacific Action sail reefable really should not be all that difficult. I envision two zippers, each about 10-15 in. in length, sewn into the sail at the top of each mast. That way, you could fold the top part of the sail down, reducing the sail area from 1.5 m to about 1 m. The folded portion would then be rolled up and secured by velcro fasteners. I have already worked out the basic mechanics, velcro placements, etc., but these details are difficult to share without the help of graphics. If and when I implement my plans, I will of course post the results on this forum. If any of you have some ideas along these lines, please let me know. I certainly do not want to reinvent the wheel.

Well, that's it for now. Any questions and comments are of course greatly appreciated. Post them here on my forum thread: Pacific Action Sails Revisited. After all, exchanging ideas, and learning from others, is what Topkayaker.net's forum is all about. I have certainly learned an unbelievable amount of information here since I joined almost a year ago. My hope is that by sharing my experiences with kayak sailing, I'll finally be able to "give back" a little bit.

Robert is a regular contributor to Topkayaker.net's Forum. He also welcome's
your questions or comments: Robert O. Hess.

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