Good sail handling can be the difference between a great passage and a frustrating one. Here our experts offer their tips and tricks.
Sail handling is an important skill for any sailor. At its most basic, sail handling merely means sheeting in and out of sails, but there is more to it than just that.
Understanding halyard tensions, leech tension, reefing, backwinding, the list goes on and on. In truth sail handling and the many skills associated with it is something that even the best sailors are continuously learning.
Getting the best out of your sails is one benefit of efficient sail handling but just as important are understanding how to do sail changes in the safest way possible and taking the minimum effort. This will leave you with more time to enjoy your sailing and less worry when you have to take on some of the big tasks.
Our expert panel of sailors have got together to provide their top tips and tricks for sail handling from improving performance to easy reefing and beyond.
Look at your luff – Graham Snook
It’s easy to set and forget your halyards but rarely does the wind stay at a constant strength throughout a sail.
When you first adjust your halyards (this includes the genoa halyard) take up the tension until you see horizontal creases at the front (luff of the sail) disappear, and then ease the tension until just before they appear.
Vertical creases mean you’ve got too much halyard tension.
Get into the habit of checking the luffs of your sails to see whether the halyards need adjusting.
Ease the main sheet – Jonty Pearce
On a recent trip with friends the time came when we agreed it would be wise to reef the mainsail.
The yacht was fitted with a self-supporting vang, slab reefing, ram’s horns, a single clew reefing line per reefing point, and a stack-pack with lazy jacks.
The helm indicated that he was going to go head to wind and stop the boat for the procedure. We were close-hauled and the sea state was fair; it is my preference not to stop the boat and wallow around whilst being lashed by the genoa and its sheets, but to keep sailing with the genoa set while depowering the main by easing the mainsheet.
Not all the crew knew this technique; I clipped on and went up the windward side to the mast; the trimmer eased the sheet and the vang, and the main started flapping.
I loosened the main halyard but kept enough tension on it to prevent the sail coming down in a rush, and pulled the reef down so the ring could be slipped over the ram’s horn.
Once the main halyard was re-tensioned and the clew’s reefing line pulled on, the trimmer reset the sail and the vang, and we were done. Simple.
I’m sure this is the procedure followed by most sailors but felt it worth a mention as it was new to several on board.
Number two genoa sheet to Leeward – Randall Reeves
When running off in a gale, one may wish to avoid unnecessary trips forward.
So, if I know a low is on the approach, and once I’ve chosen my tack, I will often run the free/windward number two genoa sheet to leeward and feed it through the most forward sheet block and back to the cockpit.
This means that when it comes time to roll in the number two to that ‘storm’ position, I simply move the readied sheet to the working winch and I thus avoid a trip forward to reposition the sheet block on decks often underwater.
Lower your furling sails – Rachael Sprot
Our furling sails can take quite a battering – they’re regularly half rolled up yet still under tension, they flog unceremoniously when they need pulling in quickly and often the halyard tension gets left on in port.
Back in the days of carrying multiple different headsails you would naturally be lowering and raising sails each time you went out and casting an eye over the gear for damage.
Every month or so it is well worth lowering your furling sails and inspecting everything carefully.
You need to look out for chafe on the halyard and at the head of the sail; check that the top furling unit moves cleanly and that the halyard is securely attached, and go over the stitching on the sail to identify where things might be getting worn.
This may save you from that fate of having the sail half in and half out because something has got jammed at the top of the mast.
Mainsail reefing clip – Randall Reeves
On my 45ft sloop, Mo, the mainsail tack reefing cringle slips into a spring-loaded clip rather than the standard ramshorn hook, a quick customisation your boatyard can do.
This ensures that the cringle stays in place while the crewmember at the mast goes about getting the rest of the sail reefed.
Reefing on a reach – Rachael Sprot
When you’re sailing on a reach and decide you need to reef it is often hard to de-power the sail enough to allow the sail to drop. In sheltered water you can always luff up a bit, but if you’re in a big sea state that can be difficult.
Luffing up also results in an increase to the apparent wind speed – the last thing you want when you’ve decided you need to reef.
Before altering course there are two things you can do. The first is to raise the boom higher using the topping-lift or the vang. This will ‘scandalise’ the sail, opening the leech, making it much easier to de-power.
Option two is to sheet the headsail in tight to help backwind the sail. The tell tales on the genoa may complain, but may just give you enough airflow to backwind the main and put a reef in.
To reef or not to reef? – Helen Melton
Through the years of sailing, there have been plenty of times when we’ve been flying along on a reach, toe rails underwater.
It’s an exciting way to sail, but can be scary for youngsters.
Our current boat has two single-line reefs and two slab reefs.
The section of the sail above the fourth reef is reinforced so that it can act as a storm sail, cutting the need to rig a trisail.
On a boat with a young family crew, this is a much easier manoeuvre.
Weighing about 15 tonnes, SeaEye reaches well once the wind hits 10 knots and when it hits 18 knots, we consider putting a first reef into the mainsail.
The boat sits up more stably in the water with no loss of speed and the crew feel secure
Singlehanded mainsail handling – Dr Roger Geary
Lazy jacks and stack packs are brilliant for stowing the mainsail, particularly shorthanded. Getting the sail back up, however, is a different matter.
Lashing the tiller or using an autopilot to stay head to wind can help, but there is an easier way, and that’s to heave to under headsail alone and lash the tiller.
Modern boats will need some headsail to remain furled and be stable enough to hove to.
I then go forward on deck and lower the leeward lazy jacks.
You will then need something to hook the lazyjack lines round somewhere near the gooseneck in order to obtain an ‘L’ shape, holding them down and out of the way of the main with a cleat, winch, ramshorn or even a bungee cord with toggles that can be looped around the boom, or mast below the gooseneck, and hooked around the lines.
If you put a sail tie around the sail before doing so, you will stop it spilling on deck.
The step-by-step procedure is as follows: leave the berth having unzipped the stackpack and attached the main halyard, and put a sail tie round the sail.
Choose a sensible place to heave to. If it is windy enough to put a reef in, it is windy enough to clip on!
Lower the leeward lazyjack halyard and hook the lines at the gooseneck. Undo the sail tie and hoist the main.
Re-tension the lazyjack halyard and retreat to the cockpit. Come out of the hove to position and sail away. S
ome think this is unnecessary and that all that is required is to sail close hauled under headsail and hoist the main.
Whenever I do this I end up with a batten catching the lazyjacks!
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