BMW Oracle Racing USA-17 from the 2010 America's Cup, with a rigid mainsail wingsail, and a conventional jib at the fore
Forces on a wing (green = lift, red = drag) are equivalent on a wingsail.

A wingsail is a variable-camber aerodynamic structure that is fitted to a marine vessel in place of conventional sails. Wingsails are analogous to airplane wings, except that they are designed to provide lift on either side to accommodate being on either tack. Whereas wings adjust camber with flaps, wingsails adjust camber with a flexible or jointed structure (for hard wingsails). Wingsails are typically mounted on an unstayed spar—often made of carbon fiber for lightness and strength. The geometry of wingsails provides more lift, and a better lift-to-drag ratio, than traditional sails. Wingsails are more complex and expensive than conventional sails.[1]


Wingsails are of two basic constructions that create an airfoil, "soft" (fabric-shaped) and "hard" (rigid-surfaced). L. Francis Herreshoff pioneered a precursor rig that had jib and main, each with a two-ply sail with leading edges attached to a rotating spar. The C Class Catamaran class has been experimenting and refining wingsails in a racing context since the 60s. Englishman, John Walker, explored the use of wingsails in cargo ships and developed the first practical application for sailing yachts in the 1990s . Wingsails have been applied to small vessels, like the Optimist dinghy and Laser, to cruising yachts, and most notably to high-performance multihull racing sailboats, like USA-17. The smallest craft have a unitary wing that is manually stepped. Cruising rigs have a soft rig that can be lowered, when not in use. High-performance rigs are often assembled of rigid components and must be stepped (installed) and unstepped by shore-side equipment.[1]

Camber adjustment

Cross section of an aerofoil showing camber line.

Wingsails change camber (the asymmetry between the top and the bottom surfaces of the aerofoil), depending on tack, and wind speed.[2] A wingsail becomes more efficient with greater curvature towards on the downwind side. Since the windward side changes with each tack, so must sail curvature change. This happens passively on a conventional sail, as it fills in with wind on each tack. On a wingsail, a change in camber requires a mechanism. Wingsails also change camber to adjust for windspeed. On an aircraft flaps increase the camber or curvature of the wing, raising the maximum lift coefficient—the lift a wing can generate—at a lower speeds of air passing over it. A wingsail has the same need for camber adjustment, as windspeed changes—a straighter camber curvature as windspeed increases, more curved as it decreases.[1]

Mechanisms for camber adjustment are similar for soft and hard wingsails. Each employs independent leading and trailing airfoil segments that are adjusted independently for camber. More sophisticated rigs allow for variable adjustment of camber with height above the water to account for increased windspeed.[1][3]

Comparison with conventional sailing rigs

The presence of rigging, supporting the mast of a conventional fore-and-aft rig limits sail geometry to shapes that are less efficient than the efficient narrow chord of the wingsail. However, conventional sails are simple to adjust for windspeed by reefing. Wingsails typically are a fixed surface area. Conventional sails can be furled easily; some flexible wingsails can be dropped, when not in use; rigid wingsails must be removed when exposure to wind is undesirable.[1]

Points of sail

Nielsen summarized the efficiencies of wingsails, compared with conventional sails, for different points of sail, as follows:[1]

The top of the wing of an Oracle AC45 racing catamaran


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Nielsen, Peter (May 14, 2014). "Have Wingsails Gone Mainstream?". Sail. Retrieved 2015-01-24.
  2. Houghton, E. L.; Carpenter, P. W. (2003). Butterworth Heinmann, ed. Aerodynamics for Engineering Students (5th ed.). ISBN 0-7506-5111-3.
  3. Widnall, Sheila; Cornwell, Hayden; Williams, Peter (2014). "Effects of Spanwise Flexibility on Lift and Rolling Moment of a Wingsail". Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
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