Pete Goss delivers his masterclass on when to reef, and explains why it is critical to keeping control of your boat and sailing through a blow
There is nothing more rewarding when you reef than to feel a boat’s relief as she settles comfortably to a rising wind and sea.
The easier, more upright motion often helps increase the speed, loads are reduced and the crew imbued with confidence.
The decision to make that first of many reductions, followed by the attendant battle to actually get the reef in, is when the initiative is wrestled from the increasingly threatening conditions back to the crew.
It’s the first reef that settles the nerves as you mentally brace for the storm that’s soon to come.
No matter how conservatively we passage plan, even on short trips, there will always be a blow that needs to be dealt with, and preparation is the answer in both training and equipment.
As a starting point, you should get to know your boat intimately so that she can talk to you in her own language, be it through motion, creeks or the kick of the helm.
It’s no good sailing by wind speed alone because the numbers can be way off the mark, and wind strengths will feel different in varying seasons and climates.
During the British Steel Challenge I recorded every sail change and found that we could carry head sails in warm dry Mediterranean conditions in up to 15 knots more wind speed than in wet heavy airs farther north.
I am reminded of an experienced skipper swaggering down to a strong aluminium 40ft Dutch yacht in the Outer Hebrides.
He was about to set off on the next leg of the two-handed round Britain race and there was a nasty gale in the offing.
Knowing the waters I warned him that perhaps he consider delaying for 12 hours as the density of cold air gives teeth to the wind up here.
My heart sank at his bombastic reply: ‘I’ve handled stronger winds than these.’
Try as I might he just wasn’t for turning.
The Mayday came in later that day; the lifeboat was damaged by a knockdown during the callout.
The subdued Dutchman suffered a broken rib, the yacht had extensive damage including a broken frame and the mast was barely standing.
The numbers had blanketed both the power of the wind and waves.
It pays to put your nose in the air, bum in the saddle and tune in.
Systems and setup
When considering a boat and sail reduction, it is best to start with safety in mind.
Are guard rails set up properly with a rope connection at the cockpit end so they can be cut if needs be?
Is the deck nonslip still rough enough and do the crew have adequate footwear?
Is there a handy deck knife stowed at both the mast and cockpit?
Are enough sail ties easily accessible in the cockpit?
Winches should be serviced with handles close to hand and a spare readily available below in case of loss overboard.
Can the crew clip on from inside the companionway and are the jackstays easy to use when moving about the cockpit?
Once clipped to the deck jackstay you should be able to move from cockpit to bow without unclipping.
Are the jackstays regularly replaced due to UV damage and have you checked below to make sure that the securing points are properly fastened?
The deck can be a dangerous place in a gale so make sure your crew are covered.
Setting up lines and reef points
Once you have set things up in the marina, sew markers into all lines so that you know when to stop lowering the halyard or winching in a reefing line.
Ropes stretch over time and new sails come and go.
Sewn markers can be removed so you don’t get confused by loads of old permanent marker points.
Go up the mast and check the head when each reef is in place – you don’t want the reefed head to coincide with a track join.
Nor do you want it able to catch on rigging, flag pennants and the like.
Make sure that the changing rig loads of each reef are focused on strong points.
It’s better that a reefed head is just below the running backstays if you have them so that both can be on when it gets really rough, or at the height of the forestay or cutter stay.
Once you are happy with the set up, go through all the reefs under load and look up the mast to check that the rig remains in column, and adjust the rigging tension accordingly.
Fine-tune your set up
When putting a reef in make sure that there is sufficient reefing line tension to hold the new tack close to the gooseneck, so that when the kicker is applied the foot isn’t stretched – a common mistake of tired crew.
Put a grommet in the spot where water collects in a reefed sail, for over time huge amounts of water can build up to destabilise the boat and induce terrible chafe.
Check out the configuration of using the first reef at the gooseneck and the second at the clew to lift the boom.
This prevents dipping when rolling downwind in very bad seas.
Many a boom has been broken about the preventer by the enormous loads that can build up as you bury the boom when surfing.
Try and prepare a list to walk through, and visualise tasks before each sail change.
During the British Steel Challenge one of the yachts forgot to remove the sail ties brailing a reef and winched several perfect vertical tears down the mainsail.
Reefing for different rigs
Starting with a blank slate, I would always choose a cutter-rigged boat when it comes to handling strong winds.
The benefits of a cutter rig is extra support for the mast and that as you reduce sail area both the centre of effort and centre of lateral resistance remain in harmony to maintain balance.
Many, if not most, coastal cruising boats these days are designed as sloops.
This is the set up for a lot of modern boats and I accept that they are often designed for coastal sailing with good forecasts and short runs to safety in mind, though many people sail them much further afield.
The rig keeps things simple to handle, and also reduces costs, though this is not a cost saving I would personally accept for longer passages.
With a sloop rig, whether with hank-on or furling sails, all effort moves progressively forwards as you reduce sail area.
This makes the boat a pig to sail to windward.
The worse the conditions, the less control you have, which is a downward spiral best avoided.
With this setup you have to favour sail area in the main as you reef to keep the centre of effort as far aft as possible.
If you are going to be cruising anywhere offshore in a sloop, the best thing would be to add an inner forestay that is dedicated to a storm jib.
Chat to a rigger, but there is often enough structure in the forward part of the accommodation area to take the load.
To refine this, you can have a removable inner forestay to keep the foredeck clear in normal conditions.
My preference for the staysail would be for a permanently hanked staysail with a reef in it.
This means that when a storm jib is required it can be hanked on.
I’ve sailed thousands of miles with the staysail brailed on deck and never had any chafe issues.
With this setup it’s nice to have inner grab rails fanning out from the inner forestay to tie the staysail down when dropped.
A dedicated deck bag will reduce any chance of chafe and protect the sail from UV.
Once set up you can make sure the storm jib tack is long enough to clear the hanks of the stowed staysail, which I lash to the windward rail allowing room for breaking seas to sweep under the storm-jib.
There are a number of storm jibs that are compatible with a furled sail but I have to confess to never having used one in anger.
Indeed, we carried one on Pearl but my sense is that a simple belt-and-braces approach is the way to go when your back is against the wall.
If a furled headsail is for you then I would seriously consider the merits of a removable stay that is mounted inside the staysail for a dedicated storm jib.
This is sometimes seen as overkill but shouldn’t be discarded without careful consideration.
The truth is that Pearl came with furled headsails and I was very happy with the result.
We didn’t hit a major storm and if we had I was keen to fiddle about to finally nail this dilemma down.
As a racer I love the efficiency and redundancy of a number of headsails, but as a cruiser, I accept that a furled headsail is undoubtedly the way to go, particularly when short handed.
The downside is that when furled there is a huge amount of windage and weight high up.
On the Vendée Globe, when I was young and fit, I had no furlers at all aboard the Open 50 Aqua Quorum, and put the effort in for the return in efficiency.
I had done an analysis of all previous retirements and the highest cause was furler failure.
They’re not perfect, so make sure you have a good one and take spares.
The next person to race qua Quorum added furlers and found it very hard to tack her due to the extra windage pulling her bow down.
If I was to be caught in huge survival conditions in a boat with furling headsails, I would take the headsail off and stow it below during the calm before the storm.
Stack packs and lazyjacks
A stack pack, a permanently rigged sail bag attached to the boom and supported by the lazy jacks, are an enormous help for gathering in sail when reefing, though they do hinder visibility when it comes to reefing, particularly if you have single line reefing and no one watching at the mast.
The next best thing is lazyjacks but these can chafe the sail so I always add soft webbing strops to the area that the main rests in.
A vang that supports the boom is great but even with the insurance of a stack pack or jackstays I will always have a permanently made off topping lift, ideally one that could be used as a spare main halyard if it were ever needed.
Battens and leech lines
I much prefer a fully battened mainsail rather than one with just leech battens, as it makes the sail docile, provides lovely shape and pushes the leech out for more area.
It also means that the sail doesn’t flog itself to bits when unloaded.
All sails need a leech line and this will often need to be adjusted after a reef.
Reaching them at the end of a moving boom is no mean feat, so I like to have my leech lines come to the tack for both the mainsail and headsail.
This makes it easy and safe, which in turn means this crucial job actually gets done as opposed to being guiltily ignored from the comfortable confines of a warm sprayhood on a miserable seasick day.
We’ve all seen it, but a fluttering leach can do untold damage.
Reefing line colours
I like to make sure my reefing lines are of very bright, distinctive and differing colours.
Be aware that some colours can look the same at night so get some samples to check.
In addition to this its a good idea to lead the lines in a logical manner – kicker on the inside jammer as that’s the first thing to be eased.
Then use some other logical system that works for your boat setup.
There will be occasions when straightforward verbal directions are called for.
You’ll be doing things in a hurry when it’s dark and you’re tired, so simple systems will minimise errors.
Looking after your crew
The power required to undertake any reduction of sail area comes solely from the crew.
As such, as much time and effort should be spent on the crew – whether you sail solo, as a couple or with a full crew – as you do on the boat.
It is a waste of time having a lovely setup and a tired, demotivated crew.
Make sure you are well fed before the blow and keep hydrated and fed with regular pre-organised snacks if proper meals are not practical.
No-one comes out with me until I have checked that they have adequate wet weather clothing, thermals, footwear, hats and gloves.
Bunks must have good lee-cloths and a well thought out watch system designed to make best use of them.
Personal head torches, a multitool and a couple of sail ties are essential.
All this will mean you’re set for any bad weather that does come your way.
There are a lot of ergonomics to a reef and I can’t over-stress the need to train, refine and train again.
I always start in the marina on a calm day to work out the best routine and to ensure that everything is set up properly.
I will then train in moderate conditions with each member of the crew taking on the different jobs in rotation.
With such a complex dance of interconnected tasks, often undertaken at night, empathy with the overall picture is essential to smooth operations.
Easing an inch in this task can make a mile of difference to the next one. Once the routine is bedded down a bit of fun can be introduced with a stop watch.
There’s nothing like competition to shake out hidden gremlins that otherwise present themselves when it’s too late.
Every evolution should be followed by a team talk so that all ideas are embraced.
In time a good crew will unthinkingly fall to the nearest job and spring collectively into well-oiled action.
The reef will be fast, safe, tidy and left ready for the next evolution.
All ropes should start to be unthinkingly flaked out and re-stowed a couple of times per watch.
I have a simple template of how to reduce sail which covers crew safety and the boat’s balance.
With my cutter rig, I will put the first reef in the main and then reduce the headsail.
After that it’s the second reef followed by dropping down to the staysail alone.
This moves all subsequent deck work back to the safer area around the inner forestay.
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You might surmise that this protection of crew is unfounded when using a roller furler from the safety of the cockpit but it is good practice in case there is a gear failure.
Once I get to know a boat beyond this basic template I tweak it to her quirks, the wind direction and sea state.
When going to windward I favour more power in the main to keep the head up in confused seas.
Conversely, when going downwind I will reduce the main earlier to keep the power forward and so encourage a natural downwind preference.
This makes it easier on the helm and significantly reduces the risk of a broach.
Most people will have found that the larger the boat, the more friction there is in single-line slab reefing, and it soon becomes prohibitive.
If you have separate reefing pennants for the tack and clew, it is slightly more complicated, but will hugely reduce friction.
If you do have separate reefing pennants, or even use a ramshorn at the tack, when reefing the mainsail I always ensure that the leeward tack line is used so that the main flies away from the boom as opposed chafing on the windward side.
Indeed, if a tack is called for I will make the effort to swap the tack to the leeward side.
With single line reefing it isn’t possible to unreeve the line and change how it is led while sailing, another disadvantage of the system.
Over time the boom-end reefing pennants will often wriggle towards the gooseneck and there is nothing more demoralising than going through the effort of a reef only to find that the foot is as slack as a sack of spuds.
It’s very difficult to rectify this in a gale so on setting up the reefing pennants in a marina I make them off with a light line secured to the boom end.
They can always be tidied up with a strip of Gaffer tape to stop them hanging down (some booms have adjustable sliders for this task).
Remember, a full sail will produce bad windward performance and induce significantly more healing momentum.
In the worst case scenario, this will leave you more vulnerable to a knockdown.
A common practice is to make off a reefing pennant by passing it under the boom and then making a bowline back on itself.
This is perfectly functional but over time the bowline can tighten up and ‘weather’ into a solid block that is almost impossible to undo.
I found that the better solution was to use a timber hitch which can be undone and made up with one hand when grappling the boom with the other in rough conditions.
This proved particularly useful during the British Steel Challenge when our hands were too cold to function properly.
I have never had one shake free in over 250,000 miles.
The reason for working at the end of the boom was that we had to leapfrog the first reef up to the forth with a mouse line.
This wasn’t perfect and although easily manageable with a large crew I don’t think I would use this technique in the future.
In the cacophony of a storm’s sound, spray and violence, it is worth having a good hand signal system to keep everyone in the loop.
I like the crane signals of pointing upwards and circling the hand for winding in and pointing down and circling for easing.
A clenched fist means hold, and crossed forearms means the task is completed.
I also like to have the crew’s first name to be stencilled on the back of the hood so that you you can identify individuals within the mob of a bundled up crew.
There are radio communications systems on the market but most of these are not up to a storm and impractical under a hood unless you invest heavily.
Winching and furling
My rule on a boat, unless it is unavoidable, is to never winch a sail up or down for it is so easy to damage something due to the loss of feel.
I once tore a snagged leach line due to being bone tired in the early hours and opting for the ease of winching.
The tear ran from one reef to the next – never again.
When furling a headsail I will bear away before furling so that the sail isn’t under big loads.
This means that the sail has a more even spread of load and so reduces distortion and promotes longer life.
I always try to furl by sweating the furler line rather than winching.
If you treat your boat with kindness then she will look after you in turn.
It’s always worth making sure that when the headsail is fully furled a few extra turns of the sheet are added to secure it tightly.
Once in place there should be about three turns remaining on the furler drum.
This ensures there is no point load on the furler lines’ stopper knot which could otherwise chafe through during a storm.
I tie off the furler with a sail tie to avoid this absolute disaster that could drop your rig.
Another vital test is to have a good system for stowing cordage once reefed.
With three reefs there is a ton of cordage kicking about which breaking seas love to knot up in the bottom of the cockpit.
The worst thing is a halyard tail coming unravelled at the mast and being dragged under the boat to catch on the rudder or prop.
It’s also important to have a unified method of making off cordage for there will be times when the next person on watch has to work with what how you’ve left things.
In the dark it’s a great safety benefit to know how all cleats, lines and winches are made off for it can save fingers.
One issue that we all struggle with is reefing the main when going down wind.
As soon as the halyard is released the main sags onto the rigging and jams.
It’s not practical to head up into wind as the apparent will shoot through the roof and of course it means going beam on to the seas.
I find that the best thing is to sheet in the boom to about 30º from the centre line, ease the kicker a fraction and then winch in the outer pennant so that as the leach tightens and becomes, in essence, the luff.
As soon as this happens the main will suddenly drop until the leach falls away again.
Repeat the process until the job is done.
You might have to bring the main close to a gybe to help facilitate the drop.
If it’s blowing, you sometimes have to wait for a surf to further aid the drop.
Be patient, work with the forces rather than against them.
When to shake out a reef
We are all familiar with the idea that if you are in doubt, reef in early, but you should also shake out your reefs even earlier – a lot of masts come down after the storm has passed and the boat is under-powered.
Without the steadying hand of an increased sail area, even if the violent gyrations don’t simply tear the mast out of the boat, they will make life very uncomfortable on board. particularly if the rigging has stretched or light damage has been incurred.
This is the one time that you sail to the wind only and ignore the seas for they often hump up for a short period as the wind drops off, also making broaching on the face of a wave more likely.
At the very least, it is easy to be lazy about changing back up the gears as the wind eases, but this won’t help your passage times, or the motion of the boat.