Thursday 14 January 2016

Flat Earth Trade Wind 80 Sail Review - Douglas Wilcox

Here's a very comprehensive review of Mick MacRobb's newest sail design, the Trade Wind 80, from Douglas Wilcox (

Photo courtesy Douglas Wilcox (
Flat Earth Kayak Sails "Trade Wind 80" long term test, by Douglas Wilcox.

The number of sea kayakers paddle sailing in British waters, particularly with Flat Earth Kayak Sails, has increased to the extent that designer Mick MacRobb chose Scotland for the World launch of his latest design! It is called the Trade Wind 80 sail and has a new cut and a new trilaminate Grand Prix cloth.

Design and construction 
The Trade Wind 80 is available now, other sizes will follow. It is 0.8sqm in area. This is the most popular size as it has the widest wind range. Compared with the current Code Zero sail, it has a slightly shorter luff and has more sail area in the head and roach (upper rear). The outline is more similar to the current P&H version of the sail but the cut and material are different. The new Grand Prix sail cloth is a mylar/scrim/mylar trilaminate. The scrim is made up of carbon and kevlar yarns so it is very resistant to stretching or tearing. This type of trilaminate material is very tough and resistant to UV and has been long used on windsurfer wave sails and they take a real thrashing. The previous Code Zero cloth is great when new. It is a thinner, lighter mylar/dacron bilaminate but it tends to soften with repeat folding and this may be why the leaches of some older Code Zero sails "motor" or flutter in stronger winds. I suspect this will not be an issue with the Grand Prix cloth. It is partially see through. There is no window option but recent Code Zero 0.8 and all P&H branded Code Zero sails had dropped the window. If you use the standard mast, the window only gave a view of the sky anyway.

Photo courtesy Douglas Wilcox (
The Trade Wind 80 is the fourth generation of the Flat Earth sails that has been available in Europe. It has less twist than previous generations of Flat Earth sails, particularly the first and second generation dacron sails. The twist made the early sails forgiving in gusts but due to the head twisting off , the boom needed to be kept sheeted in a bit when sailing downwind to prevent the roach of the sail moving forward of the mast and spilling wind. The new sail can be sheeted out more on the run making it more efficient. With less twist, the new sail is indeed a bit more unforgiving and as Mick MacRobb says "aggressive" than the original sails but will retain more power before auto spilling the wind. When the Trade Wind 80 is sheeted in a little further in a reach position I think the fullness low down looks a little further back than in the previous Code Zero which will make it a little more powerful for its size especially on a broad reach. When sheeted right in on a beat the head of the sail is flatter than previous versions but there is still plenty fullness low down. As a windsurfer, I have always liked using sails with a deep belly, a flat head and a roach with controlled twist for their wide wind range. As a sea kayaker, I like this style even more. I think Mick has really nailed it with this particular cut!
The boom of the new sail sits higher on the standard mast than previous sails. This gives all round vision under the sail. You could cut the mast top down and lower the sail but I am not going to do that. I like the sail up higher as the wind gets slower and more turbulent the closer down it is to the surface of the sea. The batten, boom and gooseneck fitting are unchanged from previous generations of the sail. Also unchanged is the neat and expert way the sail has been cut, assembled and sewn.

The old Code Zero 80 compared to the Trade Wind 80

Photo courtesy Douglas Wilcox (

On the water
Phil Toman and I received preview sails at the end of the winter and since then we have extensively tested them on unloaded P&H Quest, Delpin, Aries (with forward fin) Cetus MV and Valley Nordkapp LV kayaks. The Quest and Cetus MV have also been tested with the sail when fully loaded on camping trips. We were able to test the sails side by side with all three previous generations of FEKS on identical P&H Aries and Cetus MV kayaks. 

conditions varied from force 2 to force 4 on exposed (quite rough) water and force 5-6 on sheltered (pretty flat) water with a fetch of 15km. The sails have been tested in the tidal waters of the Sound of Jura and the Solway Firth, in exposed waters at the mouth of the Firth of Clyde, in more sheltered water among the islands of the Firth of Clyde and along the exposed North Sea coast between Lunan Bay and Arbroath. Between us we have covered over 500km with the Trade Wind 80 sails.
After the sail arrived I wasted no time in getting it out onto the water on my P&H Delphin. The wind was very gusty offshore in a sheltered bay from F2 to the bottom of F5. The sea was flat. On all points of sail the sail set with a noticable lack of wrinkles. When launching the sail, it goes up with a satisfying wumph! One thing to note is that the top batten is now longer than the mast. When launching in stronger winds I like to hold the sail by the tip of the mast for a few seconds and allow the sail to blow free before pulling the uphaul to fully hoist the sail. This checks that I have not folded the sheet right round the sail when I previously furled it. Initially I found myself holding the top batten rather than the mast but I have since learned to go for the shorter mast. The sail has less twist and so is indeed a little less forgiving when you launch it on a broad reach than the original all dacron version. Code Zero and P&H branded FEKS sail users will probably not notice much difference though. The very gusty winds were a good test for me (a relatively experienced paddle sailor) to see how a newcomer might find the sail in steadier, lighter conditions. Well it was no trouble at all. I liked everything about it, launching, tacking upwind, on a reach, running, gybing and furling. There were no scary moments even in the most sudden gusts. In the strongest winds there was not a hint of the leech "motoring".
Photo courtesy Douglas Wilcox (
This sail proved very controllable and powerful downwind in stronger winds. In winds at the top of F4 it gives the extra power to your paddling to overtake the wave in front then climb over it and chase the next wave. The GPS showed my maximum speed hit 22.9km/hr when paddle sailing the Aries hard in a F4 with following sea and I was frequently hitting over 20km/hr when planing on a wave. The cut and heavier cloth give the Trade Wind 80 sail a very stable feel downwind. When you drop off the plane you slow down and the apparent wind increases (you should paddle hard at this point to maintain speed and reduce the load on the rig).
In the older dacron sails if you suddenly slowed, the leech would suddenly twist off spilling wind but this moved the centre of effort and made the sail feel a little unstable. This sail continues to pull hard when you decelerate but in no way does it feel unstable. My one reservation for someone upgrading from a dacron sail is that undoubtedly the stays will be transmitting more force to the hull, especially if you are loaded with expedition gear. You may wish to reconsider your existing stay anchors. I now use two side stays and two back stays, all anchors are bolted through the kayak seam.

Many kayakers will not bother to use their sails upwind but it is worth the effort learning how to do so. The Grand Prix sail material is stiffer than the original dacron material and it is a little more difficult to judge how high to the wind you can paddle sail without luffing (back winding) the sail. The softer dacron sails definitely showed the when the leading edge back winded at an earlier stage. I was not bothered by this but if beginners are particularly concerned about beating performance (rather than just blasting downwind having fun) they could thread a wool tell tale through the luff of the sail about half way up and in front of the batten. The tell tale should blow horizontal sailing close as possible to the wind but if you point too high into the wind it will start to move vertically. Swapping between two Aries kayaks, one with the Code Zero and one with the Trade Wind
80, the experienced paddler found it easier to out point the other paddler when using the Trade Wind 80 upwind in a F3-F4. However, down wind there was little difference in speed between the two sails. Interestingly the flat area behind and above the batten often appeared to be back winding when close hauled but the full part of the sail below the batten continued to pull strongly. One thing I did notice about the new sail is I find it easier to control upwind in stronger winds. It feels much more stable than the previous dacron versions of the sail. Although they may be softer and more forgiving, they lack the feeling of stability and power of this new sail. I think the Trade Wind 80 sail's very solid feel is due to its centre of effort being much more static. Basically I like the feel of Trade Wind 80 a very great deal when going upwind. It also proved particularly effective upwind in combination with the Aries using a forward fin.

Use when fully loaded on expedition
Paddling sailing fully loaded on expedition is very rewarding especially with a favourable wind at the end of the day. However, the kayak will not accelerate so quickly in the gusts and unless you are lucky with the waves it will be very difficult to get it planing. This means you will be travelling slower and when you are paddling downwind the apparent wind will be greater with greater forces acting on the rig. This is another situation where it is important to continue to paddle hard to reduce the pressure on the rig. This is also why I think the 0.8 sqm sail is more suitable for all-round paddle sailing including expedition use than the 1.0sqm sail. We were recently paddling south down the West Kyle of Bute when a "securite" strong north wind warning was broadcast on the VHF. In the relative shelter, the water was flat but the squalls were coming through the mountains at F5-F6 from various angles. All the yachts dropped their sails and motored home under bare poles. We carried on paddle sailing on a very broad reach. We were in identical Cetus MVs loaded with supplies for 5 nights camping. I had a Trade Wind 80 and Mike had a Code Zero 0.8. In these extreme conditions there was a lot of load on the rigs and I think I had an easier time controlling the Trade Wind 80 than Mike did with the Code Zero. Two days later we enjoyed a more moderate F3 to F4 downwind blast of 30km across open waters of the Sound of Bute and it was more difficult to differentiate between the two sails' performance and handling.

Wear and tear
At the end of this test there was no sign of wear, cracking or delamination in either of the sails on test or the material.

I like what Mick MacRobb has called the "slightly more aggressive" nature of the Trade Wind 80 sail. I felt more of the gust was being transformed into forward drive rather than spilling out off the roach as the sail twisted. The defining characteristic of the Trade Wind 80 is a very stable centre of effort. This makes paddle sailing at the top of your ability and conditions range a joy! This is steady evolution, it certainly won't make your Code Zero or P&H FEKS sail redundant. However, if you have one of the original all dacron (or dacron with mylar reinforcement on the leech) Flat Earth sails, then changing to the Trade Wind 80 would make a significant and noticeable upgrade. You could always sell your old dacron sail to a newcomer to paddle sailing, who might not yet be ready to invest in a new sail and who would appreciate the older sail's softer feel in lighter winds. If you are new to paddle sailing do not be put off by the high tech appearance of the Trade Wind 80, it is actually very easy to handle, especially in the lighter winds you should get to know it in. If you already have a Code Zero or P&H FEKS, the incremental improvement is probably not worth an upgrade at this time, unless you just MUST have all the latest kit! The biggest
difference in performance is in winds that will probably be at the top of most people's comfort zones anyway but it also excels if you like going upwind in F4 winds. I cannot think of a better day or expedition sail for paddle sailing in all weathers, summer and winter.
If you are in the Southern Hemisphere keep an eye on the Expedition Kayaks web site as they are main distributor in the FEKS's native Australia.

Conflict of interest
Phil and I have been using free loan sails that remain the property of Flat Earth Kayak Sails, the only cost to us was the postage from Australia. I have however, bought three other FEKS sails at full price. Neither Phil nor I have any financial interest in FEKS.

We have stock on the shelf for $390 including shipping nationally, you can order HERE

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