I was recently reading a reputable boating magazine that I respect when I came across a “rule of seamanship” that simply took my breath away, it was so wrong:
Reefing line(s) and hardware should be used to set a reef, not to take the full load. An easy way to reduce load is to use an earring. This is a length of line passed through the new clew and around the boom. A 3/8-inch line passed three times and knotted with a square knot serves fine. Once the reef is set, but while the sheets are still eased, simply lash the earring to the reefed clew. Slightly easing the reef line will put the load on the earring rather than the reef line. Because the reef line doesn’t hold the load, your reef lines won’t chafe through during a long passage.
At first reading it sounds logical and right, doesn’t it? And the worst thing is that this “rule” would, I suspect, sound perfectly correct to a new sailor.
But a Really Bad Idea
But I’m sure the more experienced among you have already come up with several reasons why it is bad advice. Here is my take:
- Tying the “earring” in will put the crew member in a highly dangerous position standing up next to the thrashing boom (“sheets still eased”) for several minutes. If you don’t believe that it will take that long, just try passing a line three times through a reef clew and then tying it tight with a square knot while standing up and trying to keep your balance as the boat jumps around in a building wind and seaway.
- Tying in the earring will necessitate bringing the boom almost into the center line of the boat, even when reefing off the wind, with the attendant steering problems that will occur just when a crewmember is in a vulnerable position—an accidental gybe will ruin that crewmember’s day.
- Tying a “square knot” requires both hands, thereby violating one of the base rules of seamanship: “one hand for the ship, one hand for yourself”.
- Someone forced to go through this whole song and dance every time they reef will tend to put off reefing too long—it’s just human nature.
- There is no way to tie the “earring” tight enough so that the sail will retain a good set after the reef pennant is eased. And further, the “earring” will slowly move forward on the boom over time, which will exacerbate the situation.
- The “earring” will cause more chafe than it solves.
In some 40 years and 140,000 miles at sea, on many different boats, I have never seen a “reefing line chafe through”. I do know that it happens, but that is the result of a poorly designed reefing system and not a reason to prescribe a fundamentally dangerous “rule”.
But That’s Not The Point
But guess what? None of that is the point of this post. And my purpose is not to take the writer in question to task. If for no other reason than I’m sure that I, myself, have, over the years, written and said plenty of things that were just plain wrong too.
Here is the point: A set of rules will never make a seaman, only common sense and experience will do that. So when you read a “rule of seamanship” spouted by an expert, always apply the common sense test. Yes, even if the expert is me! And if applying the “rule” being espoused seems onerous or even dangerous, ask yourself, even if you are new to offshore sailing, if there is a better way.
Not Always Wrong
By the way, add three words at the start of the above “rule” and it becomes good advice (except for the square (reef) knot). Those words are “In some cases”. For example, you are crewing on, or delivering, a poorly set up boat and your inspection shows that the reefing system components are undersized and have sharp edges that will chafe the pennants—common sense rules the rules.
A Safety Strop, Not an “Earring”
Even the idea of reinforcing the reef pennant is not fundamentally wrong. On Morgan’s Cloud, if we are expecting to be reefed for a long period (I’m talking a day or more) in a building breeze and therefore have tied in the reef points round the bunt of the sail—normally we just leave the bunt lying in the lazy jacks (full battens help make this work well)—we will then use what we call a “safety strop”: a short length of 5/8” line reeved once through the clew and tied with a couple of half hitches back through the loop that we have made with a pre-tied bowline. This can be done quickly with one hand after everything has settled down.
Our main reason for reeving the (non-loaded) safety strop is that it will prevent a tired and stupid crewmember (probably me) from releasing the reef clew before casting off the points, which will destroy the sail as the points load up and rip through—an error I have seen made at least twice; and one I saw the results of often when I was a sailmaker.
Of course the strop will also prevent damage in the unlikely event that the clew pennant does break. However, the chances of this happening with a well designed reefing system like ours were always small. And now that we use high-modulus rope for our pennants, the chance is almost non-existent, not only because of the strength of the line but also because the low stretch means that the pennants don’t work back and forth an inch or so when the boat goes over a sea, as they used to with Dacron pennants.
If you want to comment about your reefing system, great. A good reefing system and the knowledge to use it right are one of the largest contributors to offshore safety and enjoyment there is. But I for one am much more interested in hearing about other incidences when a seemingly logical “rule” has failed the common sense test.