Tom Cunliffe: A guide to downwind sailing
You don’t always want to have to come head-to-wind to reef. In this extract from The Complete Ocean Skipper, Tom Cunliffe talks about how to reduce canvas without turning around
On passage, your mainsail is hoisted and likely to stay up, barring extreme weather, until you arrive and, for much of the time out there at sea, a boom preventer will be rigged. This raises a number of important questions about reefing.
On the face of things, any mainsail is happier being reefed or unreefed at an angle to the breeze that allows it to spill wind. But this does not mean ‘head-to-wind’, and if you are suffering a system that demands this, the only thing to do is get rid of it now.
REEFING THE MAINSAIL
Fortunately, despite strange lessons taught in mysterious covens of ignorance, few arrangements really do ask for this. If the sail-handling gear is any good at all, reefing should be easily dealt with by coming on to a reach close enough to set the apparent wind forward of the beam, easing the sheet and letting things flog for a few seconds while you deal with the heave-ho part of the operation.
Close-reaching or beating, there’s no problem. Just let the sheet off, reef and heave it in again. If the apparent wind is just abaft the beam, it won’t be a big deal to luff 20 or 30 degrees to let things flap.
The trouble starts when the boat is so far off the wind that the main boom is restrained by a preventer, and a booming-out pole for the headsail is rigged on the windward side. If the preventer is rigged in a seamanlike manner, easing this before luffing will be easy. The problem is the headsail. Coming up far enough to flog the main will almost certainly cause the headsail to lie aback against its pole, which puts ghastly strains on things, renders the boat ‘not under command’ and is generally unacceptable. Rolling it away is a solution of sorts, but who wants to do that? If the pole is rigged properly, the sheet can be eased away and the sail taken up on the lee sheet for a short while, but it’s a messy answer. By far the most satisfactory solution is to reef the main while sailing downwind.
It is true that with some mainsail systems the sail simply must spill wind to hoist, shorten or drop, but anybody who’s ever tried to stuff a running boat into half a gale, in a big sea, will never want to do it again. The technique described here works well on a slab-reefing main, although not on a single-line reefing version, because with this the clew cannot be properly controlled at all times.
If your system can’t maintain a restrained clew tension while reefing, you’ll just have to pay the price and luff up somehow. If yours can, you might be agreeably surprised. Here’s how it works with a conventional slab-reefing mainsail.
Don’t top up the boom, but take its full weight by heaving up the topping lift against the vang or kicker, which you have emphatically not let off. Don’t slack away on any preventers. Leave the sheet where it is and the boom is now held, rock-solid, in all directions. Ease the halyard carefully while pulling the tack down. The sail will now try to sag against the shrouds and spreaders, making it impossible to drag it any further. To negate this tendency, pull hard but carefully on the clew pennant as the sail descends.
Snug the tack down tightly, then winch in the last of the pennant, making sure to flatten the foot fully. If you have aft-swept spreaders you may find it helps to ease away the preventer a few feet and heave in the sheet, so as to get the sail off the worst of the friction bonanza offered by the standing rigging.
So far, so good, but what about other handling systems that are supposed to save work?
Fortunately, I’ve known people with in-mast systems on modest-sized yachts who assure me they can reef downwind. The same goes for in-boom, which has the great advantage that its clew is permanently outhauled and the leech is supported by full-length battens. In this case, it may help to ease the preventer, then sheet in a few feet to keep the canvas off the rigging. Keeping the luff tape well lubricated with slippery silicone is a must and always bear in mind that the further out the boom is, the more of a hammering the universal joint in the rolling mechanism is taking.
Being able to reef the main without rounding up is an inestimable benefit. The number of times I have been sitting at dinner in the trade winds only to be turned out to reef for the sunset squall, is nobody’s business.
You won’t want to be taking in poles and putting the seas abeam at a time like that.
I remember heading southwards over 400 miles-worth of the Bay of Biscay with a 38ft sloop in a northeast wind. We started in Force 4 with the boom securely prevented and the genoa poled out. Halfway across, the breeze had piped up to Force 6. We had two reefs in the main and several rolls in the headsail. Approaching Finisterre, the wind rose to gale force. All we had to do was drag down the third reef, roll in the genoa to a few feet short of nothing and press on. We never touched the pole’s guys, the boom preventer or even the main boom vang, all the way across. The boat had no special gear and the passage was a classic manifestation of the success of well- organised downwind reefing.
REEFING THE HEADSAIL
It’s assumed that the vast majority of voyaging yachts now have roller-furling headsails. I’d suggest that if there’s any choice in the matter these should be on the small size, with clews well up off the deck. High-clewed sails roll better than deck-scrapers; you can see under them and they never even look like touching the water on an extreme roll. There is, however, a school of thought that says high clews encourage rolling. There may well be something in this, so, as they say, the choice is yours.
Reefing a headsail is always easier if it can be sheeted into the shadow of the mainsail. On a reach, therefore, it pays to run off briefly while reefing. Wait until the genoa falls, windless, into the main’s lee, then roll it in.
FAIR FURLING LINE LEAD
On my 44-footer I can reef the sail readily without reverting to a winch so long as I can let it flog or shadow it. If you can’t roll it in without power assistance on any boat under that size, you’d be well advised to ask yourself why not. The usual reason is a bad lead on the furling line.
When I bought my boat, this was led to the cockpit via a nasty, cheap block that turned it through 120 degrees. The block sheave was worn almost flat. A predecessor had bought a small reefing winch and cluttered up my nice clean cockpit coaming with it, rather
than binning a block worth £10.
With that block out of the system, the line led sweetly all the way.
By perching on the pushpit quarter seat I can now heave in the whole sail in 25 knots
of wind. The winch is redundant, unless the sail is poled out with wind in it and I don’t feel inclined to gybe the main to give it some lee. Then I must winch it in as I ease the sheet, but the reefing winch is so small I lead the line to a spare primary instead.