The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Reefing Made Easy

In this chapter we will cover in detail, complete with photos illustrating each step, how we reef on Morgan’s Cloud and, more specifically, how we reef when sailing downwind, which is much easier and, more importantly, safer than rounding up head to wind.

This technique works well at pretty much any wind angle but is safest from about 115° to 170° true wind angle where the boom can be far enough out for the preventer to be effective.

Required Gear

First off, the boat needs to have the right gear:

  • A powerful two-speed (on all but the smallest boats) self-tailing winch capable of grinding the reefing pennant in while the sail is full.
  • Clutches to secure the in-use reefing pennant so the winch can be used for the next reef. Note that a year or so after we took these photos, we replaced the jam cleats with clutches, which work a lot better since they can be released under load when shaking out a reef.
  • A winch with the same capabilities as above for the main halyard.
  • A simple and quick way to secure the tack of the reef.
  • A vang that is capable of holding the boom down and up while reefing. Ours on Morgan’s Cloud is hydraulic, but there are mechanical ones that will do the job.
    • In a pinch, you could even just rig a tackle from the boom center to the toe rail. (Be careful doing this since if you forget it and trim the main sheet it is a sure way to break the boom.)
    • If you don’t have a rigid vang, you will need a topping lift.
  • Good-quality low-friction sheaves for the main halyard and reefing pennants.
  • Adding an Ewincher can make the process even easier and faster.

Desirable Gear

  • A full-batten main, while not required, makes reefing easier.
  • Ball-bearing mainsail track cars for boats over about 50 feet or a slippery track like those from Antal for smaller boats.
    • We used to reef off the wind without them, but it’s a lot easier with our current system.

The Technique

You can click on the photos to enlarge them so you can really see the details.

Step 1-Trim The Main

Ease the preventer and trim the main in just enough that it is clear of the shrouds and spreaders and then re-tension the preventer.

Step 2-Ease The Vang

Ease the vang just a bit to take some of the load off the leach and to allow for the amount of reef rocker. (Any sailmaker worth his or her salt will have “rocked” each leach reef cringle up a bit to allow for the bunt of the sail and to bring the boom up a bit further from the water as the waves get bigger.)

Careful not to ease too much or the upper part of the sail will contact the spreaders.

Reefing Position

We reef and handle all halyards at the mast. This results in a lot less friction than leading lines back to the cockpit, less clutter, and you are where you need to be if anything jams.

That said, reefing from the cockpit works and can be done downwind too.

Step 3-Ease The Halyard

Phyllis has eased the main halyard only about 18 inches.

If Phyllis had eased the halyard the full amount of the reef, the sail would have bunched up against the lazy jacks and spreaders, jamming everything solid.

Step 4-Grind In Reefing Pennant

Phyllis is now grinding in the reefing pennant the same 18″ that she eased the main halyard.

We have reefing winches on both sides of the boom and the #2 and #3 pennants are double ended so that we can always reef standing to windward—the #1 pennant (shown in use) is single ended.

That said, reefing winch position is not critical, as long as you can see what you are doing while operating them.


Phyllis repeats steps 3 and 4 until the reef tack gets to the boom end and the reef cringle nearly so.

She is in no hurry since the sail is not flapping and banging and she is not getting wet, as she would be if we had rounded up.

Here is what things look like halfway through the process:

  • The sail is not up against the spreaders or shrouds and is only impinging a bit on the lazy jacks.
  • The vang is holding the boom in position.
    • Without it the boom end would rise as Phyllis ground in the pennant, which would prevent her from keeping enough tension on the leach to stop the sail rubbing against the spreaders and shrouds.

Every so often, Phyllis takes the slack out of the 2nd and 3rd reef pennants so they don’t get jammed in the bunt of the sail.

Step 5-Tack Ring

Phyllis drops the tack ring over the horn at the goose neck.

There is one tack ring each side connected together with strong webbing through the reef cringle.

Step 6-Tighten Halyard

Phyllis grinds the mail halyard tight, and then grinds the last few inches of the pennant in.

We have marked the main halyard with black permanent marker at each reef position.

Step 7-Tidy Up

Phyllis has unloaded the first reef from the winch using a clutch and in this photo has loaded up the second reef so we are ready to go if the wind pipes up some more.

The reefing lines are different colours and rope types so that it is easy for us to tell them apart.

Phyllis adjusts the vang and eases the main sheet back out and we are done.

If we are expecting really heavy weather, we put a safety strop through the cringle to take the load if the pennant breaks, and tie the bunt down with sail ties through the reef points and between the boom and the sail. But normally, the bunt just rests in the lazy jacks.

How Long?

It took you more time to read this than it takes us to do it. I have timed us at less than three minutes, start to finish.

Further Reading

More Articles From Online Book: Sail Handling and Rigging Made Easy:

  1. Six Reasons To Leave The Cockpit Often
  2. Don’t Forget About The Sails
  3. Your Mainsail Is Your Friend
  4. Hoisting the Mainsail Made Easy—Simplicity in Action
  5. Reefs: How Many and How Deep
  6. Reefing Made Easy
  7. Reefing From The Cockpit 2.0—Thinking Things Through
  8. Reefing Questions and Answers
  9. A Dangerous Myth about Reefing
  10. Mainsail Handling Made Easy with Lazyjacks
  11. Topping Lift Tips and a Hack
  12. 12 Reasons The Cutter Is A Great Offshore Voyaging Rig
  13. Cutter Rig—Should You Buy or Convert?
  14. Cutter Rig—Optimizing and/or Converting
  15. Cruising Rigs—Sloop, Cutter, or Solent?
  16. Sailboat Deck Layouts
  17. The Case For Roller-Furling Headsails
  18. UV Protection For Roller Furling Sails
  19. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing—Convenience and Reliability
  20. In-Mast, In-Boom, or Slab Reefing —Performance, Cost and Safety
  21. The Case For Hank On Headsails
  22. Making Life Easier—Roller Reefing/Furling
  23. Making Life Easier—Storm Jib
  24. Gennaker Furlers Come Of Age
  25. Swept-Back Spreaders—We Just Don’t Get It!
  26. Q&A: Staysail Stay: Roller Furling And Fixed Vs Hanks And Removable
  27. Rigid Vangs
  28. Rigging a Proper Preventer, Part 1
  29. Rigging a Proper Preventer—Part 2
  30. Amidships “Preventers”—A Bad Idea That Can Kill
  31. Keeping The Boom Under Control—Boom Brakes
  32. Downwind Sailing, Tips and Tricks
  33. Downwind Sailing—Poling Out The Jib
  34. Setting and Striking a Spinnaker Made Easy and Safe
  35. Ten Tips To Fix Weather Helm
  36. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 1
  37. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 2
  38. Two Dangerous Rigging Mistakes
  39. Rig Tuning, Part 1—Preparation
  40. Rig Tuning, Part 2—Understanding Rake and Bend
  41. Rig Tuning, Part 3—6 Steps to a Great Tune
  42. Rig Tuning, Part 4—Mast Blocking, Stay Tension, and Spreaders
  43. Rig Tuning, Part 5—Sailing Tune
  44. 12 Great Rigging Hacks
  45. 9 Tips To Make Unstepping a Sailboat Mast Easier
  46. Cruising Sailboat Spar Inspection
  47. Cruising Sailboat Standing Rigging Inspection
  48. Cruising Sailboat Running Rigging Inspection
  49. Cruising Sailboat Rig Wiring and Lighting Inspection
  50. Download Cruising Sailboat Rig Checklist
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments