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Expert advice: sail handling tips and tricks

Good sail handling can be the difference between a great passage and a frustrating one. Here our experts offer their tips and tricks.

Get to know your boat before deciding on the gear you need. Credit: Sailing Uma
Credit: Sailing Uma

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

Both sails here could do with some more halyard tension. Credit: Graham Snook Photography

Both sails here could do with some more halyard tension. Credit: Graham Snook Photography

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

Lower just enough mainstail to get the cringle on to the ram's horn

Lower just enough mainstail to get the cringle on to the ram’s horn

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

Running the number two genoa to leeward can save a trip forward when sailing through a low. Credit: Randall Reeves

Running the number two genoa to leeward can save a trip forward when sailing through a low. Credit: 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

Flogging can put stress on furling sails. Make sure you check them regularly. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

Flogging can put stress on furling sails. Make sure you check them regularly. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

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

A spring-loaded clip will help the mainsail cringle stay in place. CreditL Randall Reeves

A spring-loaded clip will help the mainsail cringle stay in place. CreditL 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

Scandalising the main will make reefing easier. Credit: Lester McCarthy

Scandalising the main will make reefing easier. Credit: Lester McCarthy

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.


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