On the Ease of Handling an INDOSAIL Vessel

by Peter Willcox

Captain for Greenpeace from 1981–2019 

One attraction to the INDOSAIL rig is the ease of handling for the crew. Since I have had experience with three 3-masted INDOSAIL vessels, I am quite enthusiastic to talk about this aspect.

The three vessels I have sailed include the 8 meter tank model for the Maruta Jaya, the 63 meter cargo vessel to be built in Indonesia. For sailing tests and student’s graduation thesis, it was completed with a fully functional sailing rig. This model was sailed on the Alster Lake in Hamburg in 1989, as a crew trainer for the second Rainbow Warrior.

The second Rainbow Warrior was a 55-meter North Sea trawler converted to the INDOSAIL rig in Hamburg in 1988 and 1989. I sailed her off and on till 2005.

The third vessel was the Syscomp 1, another North Sea trawler (52 meters with the bow sprit), with the conversion done at the same yard (Jöhnk-Werft) in Hamburg. I sailed her from 1992 to 1996.

(Perhaps it is not fair to mention the 8-meter testing model. I leave that to the reader.)

Mechanical winches vs. Captive reel winches

Although the second Rainbow Warrior and the Syscomp 1 looked from a distance to be very similar, there were a couple major differences. When we put the RW together, I was 35 years old, and did not want everything mechanized. So, the sheet winches were hand-operated yachting type winches by Andersen of Denmark. They are excellent winches, and worked well. But they required a lot of muscle. It generally took seven or eight crew to gybe or tack the RW, and more if they were available.

The Syscomp 1 was put together before I arrived. For that boat, Peter Schenzle and his friend Frederic Weiss selected industrial electrically-powered captive winches for the sheets and outhauls. The ease of operation, requiring one crew member, caused my jaw to drop on the deck.

We sailed Syscomp 1 maybe 40,000 miles while I was on board. For a majority of these passages, we had a crew of three. Myself, Chief Engineer Jan Madsen and Mate / Cook / Steward / Deckhand Tanya Gomez. (Jan was also engineer on the second RW, and as such has a lot of INDOSAIL experience.) Ninety percent of the time we each stood a four-hour watch, and then had eight hours off. Occasionally, we would pick up an extra hand, or at times my wife and daughter sailed with us.

Setting Sail

Setting the sails on an INDOSAIL vessel is pretty easy. There are two controls: an outhaul and the furling-tube. The outhaul runs to the clew and the peak and pulls the sail out along the track of the boom and gaff. The furler runs to the furling-tube just aft of the mast.

When setting the sail, I always made it a point to unroll the tube a turn or two to get some slack in the sail. When setting, I tried to have some extra belly in the sail, so I could be sure that no extra stress was being put on the sails themselves by the winches. When the sail was set, I would very carefully pull more on just the outhaul, until a slight bow had appeared in the roller tube. At the end, use only one control at a time, and go carefully. Remember, the winches have to be strong enough to strike the sails in a very strong wind or squall.

When striking the sail, it is all done in reverse. First, slack the outhaul only to get some extra belly in the sail. Then the operator can go on both buttons, slacking the outhaul and going in on the furling-tube. The idea in both cases is not to allow the sail to get tight. Having the furling-tube and the outhaul pull in opposition to each other could rip the sail. Both the second Rainbow Warrior and the Syscomp 1 were designed so that the furling-tube and outhaul would roll or unroll together. But the variable diameter of the sail when rolled around the furling tube would make this impossible to get exactly right. 


Since reefing is done with the same controls, it becomes a simple matter, and easy to do. There were many times in the tropics when I would see a small squall coming up from behind. It was an easy matter to reduce the fore and main to 50%. We were probably good then to 40 knots of wind. In this case, I usually expect a 50% increase in the wind speed. So, if it is blowing 18 knots, we could expect 27 knots in the squall.

That the reefing was part of the setting and striking was a plus. One of the indicators for reefing was watching the trailing straps. When they get loose, it is time to reef. This shows that the load on the sail is getting too great. It works when the boat is on the wind (when angle of heel also works as an indicator) and when running. It also explains why it is so important to tune the rig correctly. (Please see the section on this page for tuning the rig.)

The fact that the sails could be set from 100% to 0% means it is easy to trim the vessel to the optimum. The best example of this is when we set sail in a mistral from Sete, France at the head of the Gulf of Lyons. It was blowing Force 10 plus. The jib was set to 40%, and fore and main to 10% and the mizzen to 30%. Because we were up under the shore in the calmer water, the boat flew. We averaged 10 knots to the SW corner of the Gulf. The boat was not heeling more than 10 degrees. The waves would hit the bow and send a sheet of water up, and then the wind would catch it, and send it across the bows like a speeding bullet! 

Gybing and Tacking

The basic sail maneuvers were all able to be done by one person.

Gybing was probably the most complicated. The person driving would start by walking casually up to the bow and tossing off the backing line of the jib and the three preventers for the other sails. Jib backing lines may be particular to the INDOSAIL rig. They hold the balanced jib in opposition to the sheet. Sometimes when running down wind, there is more tension on the backing line than the sheet. When tacking, it can be used as a backing line to get the jib to back quicker, and the vessel pushed onto the new tack. The backing lines of the jib do the same job as the preventers on the other sails. But they are used frequently to actually back the sail against the wind. Thus, the name “backing line”.

The next step when gybing is to sheet in the sails. The jib and the fore come in first. I suppose one person could do three or four sails at once, depending how the buttons on the panel were arranged. It was my practice to do two at a time. I would sheet the forward two sails in first. Then start the boat into a turn, using perhaps 10 degrees of rudder angle. I would try to time it so that the mizzen, and maybe the main, would be sheeted-in to the center as the stern of the boat was passing through the wind. Then when the sails went onto the new tack, quickly sheet out on the mizzen and main. This would keep the boat from rounding too far into the wind. Then sheet out on the fore and jib. A walk up to the bow would be used for setting up the new jib backing line, and the other preventers.

Tacking at times was slightly more complicated. When needing to use a jib backing line, it required a crew member to be stationed at the bow. Undoubtedly, we could have put the jib backing lines, and all the preventers on captive reel winches. But I have not sailed such a boat yet, so I cannot speak from experience. On both Syscomp 1 and the second RW, when using a jib backing line, we would need to station a crew member at the bow. It would be a simple matter for the crew to take the slack out of the windward backing line, and hold it until setting the jib on the new tack.

When on the wind, it is easy to sheet the sails in too tight. Careful watching of the wake of the vessel will show when she is side-slipping too much. Ease the sails till the wake becomes straighter. (It will never be perfectly straight.)


A word here about the preventers. When converting the first Rainbow Warrior to sail, the rig’s designer was Lloyd Bergeson. He had single handed his own boat across the Atlantic, and at one point had been hit in his head by the boom, causing some damage. He told me it was always important to have the boom (or booms and gaff) secured at all times. This made a big impression on me.

For the second RW, I put double preventers on all the booms, and even one set on the gaffs. This was probably overkill, especially as the booms and gaffs were already horizontally held in place by the topping and kicking straps.

Syscomp 1 had only one set of preventers on each boom. Each preventer went to a hand-powered winch and had to be adjusted manually. It took me a few years to learn that in flat water, the preventers are not needed. A great example of this is the waters around Indonesia, which are surrounded by land. It was with a group of designers and engineers from PT PAL in Surabaya on board, when I told Peter Schenzle that the preventers can prevent you from having an easy time of sailing. He quite enjoyed this. At the time, we were sailing around the crowded waters of Surabaya Harbor, tacking or gybing every couple of minutes (with the standard crew of three). But when sailing in ocean swells, use of the single preventer on each boom is highly encouraged.

I would not bother to put preventers on the gaffs again. There are times when the gaffs will pant, like a quartering sea in light winds. A simple over sheeting will pull in the gaff against the trailing strap. Yes, you will lose a 1/4 knot of speed. Live with it. 

Getting under way: Solo

A last example illustrating the ease of handling will be the half dozen times I sailed the Syscomp 1 off or on the anchor single handed. Remember, this was a 52 meter (170 feet) three-masted schooner. Hoist up the 800 pound anchor on the hydraulic windlass. Go back to the bridge and put the engine in gear, set the auto pilot to a course that you can set the sails on. Set the sails. Back on the bridge, adjust the course, and the sheets to optimum. The whole operation generally took me 16 to 18 minutes. During these times, the crew would often run the owner to shore, and stop at the nearest bar to have a drink before coming back a couple hours later. And everybody would have had a good time.

Lastly, do not spend your time trying to get the last 1/4 knot out of the rig. This is commercial sailing, not America’s Cup. This is not to say it is slow. I set my best speeds on Syscomp 1, better than the third Rainbow Warrior, which was considerably larger, a modern hull and had the latest high tech yachting type rig. But the third RW never went as fast. We had a couple 260 mile days on the Syscomp 1.

Tuning the Rig

There will be a section on how to tune the rig by measuring the oscillations of each part of the rig, from the headstays to the trailing straps. This section should be read and understood before the new vessel starts sea trials. I should note that I was never able to get good readings on the shrouds (those wires holding the masts sideways). But it is critical to get good reading on the head stay, trailing straps, and back stays. The masts are held from falling backwards by three different elements: the head stay, the jib furling tube and the trailing strap of the jib. Not having these three correctly adjusted will put too much load on the other elements and cause problems. But it is not hard to do. Just follow the instructions. I think I made it a habit to do this at least every six months, and more often at the beginning.

Commercial vs. Yacht Equipment

I have had experience with both commercial and yacht equipment. I started off my career on racing yachts in 1966, and still race today. I have raced for Dennis Connors on America’s Cup 12-metre yachts. The third Rainbow Warrior used winches and blocks from Harken and Lewmar. It is beautiful gear. The second RW and Syscomp 1 used more commercial type gear. For an INDOSAIL vessel, I would lean more toward commercial gear. Yachting equipment takes more maintenance, and is more prone to failure.

Non-INDOSAIL items

These techniques assume that the vessel has a good auto pilot. Ours was connected to the gyro, and worked well.

Another difference between the second RW and the Syscomp 1 was the rudders. The second RW had a standard rudder that went to 35 degrees on each side. The Syscomp 1 has a rudder that went to 65 or 70 degrees each side. This did not make much difference when sailing. A rudder will stall out between 15 and 25 degrees without propellor wash. But when maneuvering around the dock using the engine, the rudder that goes to 65 degrees makes a huge difference. The third RW also took advantage of this. With a bow thruster and a steeply turned rudder, you could practically walk sideways off the dock. I would not do another boat without this feature.  

We encourage anybody who likes the idea to use it!