What makes a sailboat different from a powerboat? Sails and Rigging!
A beautiful and comfortable yacht with walk in closets, air conditioning, and every last gadget under the sun with non working sails and rigging is just a floating tomb that can't get you to shore. Eventually, you will run out of resources and die! You need to be able to get back to land, and to do that you will need working sails and rigging.
It is imperative that you fully inspect all your standing rigging, running rigging, and sails before you head out to sea. If you have any problems, you need to address them before you head out to sea.
Now, having perfect sails and rigging when you head out to sea doesn't mean that you will make it across safely without complications. While out at sea, problems can begin to occur, and you need to be prepared to manage and repair all issues associated with your sails and rigging.
Lets start with your sails.
Your sails need to be in good condition. This doesn't mean new, it just means "good". They can be stained, they can be old, but they need to be capable of getting you across the ocean and safely to the other side.
Sails need to be inspected closely, giving extra attention to the condition of the sail cloth, condition of the stitching, and the condition of every cringle in the sail.
The cloth should sound "snappy" when you flex it around. If it sounds and feels like a bed sheet or cotton tee shirt, then your sail cloth is old. This doesn't mean that the sail needs to be replaced, but it should raise a red flag in your mind about the condition of the sail. Old sails will still act as giant bags that can pull you down wind and get you across an ocean, as long as the sailcloth is not so old that the cloth will blow out on you. So, your sail sounds and feels like an old bed sheet, but is it ok to cross an ocean on it? Simply take the sail in to a sailmaker and ask them to evaluate the sail. Let them know that you are about to cross an ocean and ask them if they think this sail can make it across! They know sails and can tell you how much time a sail has left just by looking at it. If your sail is in good condition according to the sailmaker, then you should feel safe going out to sea. If your sail is not in good condition according to the sailmaker, then follow their recommendations before you head out to sea!
The stitching should be in good condition. You want to check for chafe and missing stitches. Be sure to inspect any place that running rigging passes near a sail, as the rigging can chafe away the stitching on that part of the sail. If the stitching is laying flat and looks shiny, then you are fine. If the stitching is loose, fraying, or missing, it should be repaired before heading out to sea.
The last place that you should inspect on your sails are all the cringles. Cringles are the little rings in your sails, and each cringle is a stress point and a potential point of failure. The tack, clew, head, reef points, and reefing tie points are all potential points of failure. The reefing tie points are a very weak area, since they are not reinforced to resist stresses, they are very easy to rip if you are shaking out a reef and forgot to untie one of the reefing ties.
The cringles should be rust free, and all the stitching around the cringle is in good shape. The sailcloth around the cringle should also be in good order, ending neatly inside the cringle without any fraying around the cringle.
Each cringle is a potential failure point, so reducing the number of cringles is a great way to reduce your exposure to problems.
Reefing tie points are the little ropes that go through your sail that you tie to hold the bottom of your sail neatly when you are reefed. If you have lazy jacks, they will hold your sail when it is reefed. A sail tie at the end of the boom will hold the end of the sail in place without the need of tying the little ropes! If you don't tie the little ropes, you won't have the issue of ripping the sail at these points.
Not putting the little ropes in the sail means that you have reduced a large number of potential failure points! In our mainsail, the first reef has 4 cringles, the second reef has 3 cringles, the third reef has 3 cringles. That's 10 potential failure points that can be removed by simply not using the little ropes.
The second area that can be improved is the tack points for reefing. Cringles in the sail are a potential fail point, while having the tack stitched onto the side of the sail with webbing will mitigate this problem by simply replacing your "hole in the sail" with a stitched on loop.
In our mainsail with three reefs and a Cunningham, the number of cringles was reduced from 20 to 7! The tack, Cunningham, head, clew, 1st reef clew, 2nd reef clew, and 3rd reef clew are the only "holes in our sail" that are loaded.
Now, having good sails when you set out to sea doesn't guarantee that you will arrive on the other side of the ocean with good sails! You need to be able to check the sails yourself and you should be able to carry out any repairs along the way.
It would behoove you to carry spare sailcloth, sail thread, and a method to sew the sail. You can have a fancy and expensive sewing machine, or you can also have a "Speedy Stitch" hand sewing instrument. Having it is great, but be sure you also know how to use it. Reading the instructions is nice, but be real here: open the thing up and practice with it before you go out to sea! While in shore, you can pull up a YouTube How-To video to answer a question, but you can't do that out at sea when you actually need to do the procedure.
While out at sea, you need to constantly check your sails for chafe! A common problem that will happen when sailing downwind is the mainsail chafing on the shrouds. It will reduce your speed, but simply not easing the mainsheet as far will keep your mainsail off the shrouds and reduce this point of chafe.
Your headsail's lazy sheet is another point of potential problems. The lazy sheet will lay limply across your deck, rising and falling as you move through the seas. This lazy sheet is just rubbing over and over again, chafing itself, as well as anything else it is touching. This may seem unnecessary to a coastal cruiser, but when crossing an ocean, you will be on the same tack for days, if not weeks! Something that is rubbing a little today will rub constantly until it saws all the way through!
Since you will be on the same tack for so long, it is easy to simply walk the deck and check for potential chafe points and position the lazy sheet in such a way that it doesn't rub. I like to pull enough slack on the sheet that it will lay flat and still on the deck all the way up to the clew, then raising up to reach the clew.
Aside from making sure your sails are in good order, it is important to carry the right kinds of sails. Having your working sails (mainsail and jib) is critical as these are the most commonly used sails for general conditions. You should also carry sails for the extremes! Storm sails and light air sails are a good idea to have with you, but not a "Need to Have" item.
It might feel like we are berating sails and not going over rigging as much. The reason is sails are big and it's easy to overlook a small problem on such a large sail. The truth is rigging is smaller, but just as important to inspect.
Steel rigging rusts, corrodes, and breaks, but it is quite resistant to chafe from sails and sheets. You want to check for broken or corroded wires, paying extra attention to the ends of the stays (this means the top of the stay way up on the mast too). If you see any signs of corrosion or cracks, it is important to repair or replace the failing component.
Just like with sails, it is important to be able to carry out repairs at sea. With steel rigging, you need to carry the materials to fabricate and install a new replacement stay. To do this, it is wise to carry a length of wire equal to your longest stay. The problem with this plan is if you break two stays, you can only replace one of them! Steel stays are heavy, so carrying a full set of new rigging carries with it a steep weight penalty! Just like with sail repair, having the tools and parts to repair your rigging isn't enough; you need to know how to use them and with rigging, you need to know how to use them very well! Steel rigging HyMod fittings have little cones that crush down on the steel wires of 1x19 rigging cable and are one time use item. If you only have one, you better know how to use it and use it well because you only get one try with it!
With synthetic rigging, you don't have to worry about corrosion, but you do have to worry about chafe. Be sure to inspect your stays for fuzziness and chafe, and be sure that nothing is rubbing on the stays while you are voyaging. It is very important to make sure that the lazy sheet isn't rubbing on the forward lowers or cap shrouds because they will saw through your rigging in the course of the ocean crossing.
Synthetic rigging is weaker in the form of chafe, but the tradeoff is very little weight. Since there is practically no weight penalty, you can feasibly carry a full spool of rigging allowing you to fabricate all your stays again. This removes the issue of "which stay to replace" if you break two stays, you can easily replace both!
Keeping an eye on your sails and rigging before you go out to sea is important, but keeping an eye on your sails and rigging while out at sea is critical!
Your sails and rigging are the powerhouse that will bring you across the sea. Keeping them in proper working order is paramount to making it across the ocean. The fancy coffee maker might be a cool gadget in the galley to show off at the marina, but it is absolutely worthless when it comes to getting your yacht to the other side of the ocean. Sails and rigging are what make your yacht a sailboat, which is why it is critical that you maintain them in working order and know how to work on them yourself. Accidents happen and you will have no outside help on your yacht. You will need to know how to take care of any and all problems that could arise with your sails and rigging as you cross the ocean.