Members' Online Book: Sail Handling Made Easy, Chapter 6 of 29

Reefing Made Easy

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

Required Gear

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

  • A really powerful two-speed (on all but the smallest boats) self-tailing winch capable of grinding the reefing pennant in while the sail is full.
  • 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 really beefy vang that is capable of holding the boom down 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.)
  • Good quality low friction sheaves for the main halyard and reefing pennants.

Desirable Gear

  • A full batten main, while not absolutely required, makes reefing easier.
  • Ball-bearing mainsail track cars. 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 of our gear.

Trim the main in enough that it is well clear of the shrouds and spreaders.

Trim the main in enough that it is well clear of the shrouds and spreaders.

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.

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.

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. Note the substantial granny bars to lean against. Phyllis is clipping on to one of two safety tethers that we keep permanently attached at the mast, prior to un-clipping from the tether that runs on the jack line.

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.
Note the substantial granny bars to lean against. Phyllis is clipping on to one of two safety tethers that we keep permanently attached at the mast, prior to un-clipping from the tether that runs on the jack line.

Phyllis has eased the main halyard only about 18 inches.

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.

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.

Phyllis is now grinding in the reefing pennant the same 18" that she eased the mail halyard. We have reefing winches on both sides of the boom and the pennants are double ended so that in the case of the 2nd and 3rd reefs, you can always reef standing to windward. However, the first reef is dead ended at the boom end to keep the clutter under control and because some fumble fisted idiot dropped one of the boom sheaves in the ocean when removing it for service. (I look at the silly SOB every morning when I shave.)

Phyllis is now grinding in the reefing pennant the same 18″ that she eased the mail halyard.
We have reefing winches on both sides of the boom and the pennants are double ended so that in the case of the 2nd and 3rd reefs, you can always reef standing to windward.
However, the first reef is dead ended at the boom end to keep the clutter under control and because some fumble fisted idiot dropped one of the boom sheaves in the ocean when removing it for service. (I look at the silly SOB every morning when I shave.)

Phyllis repeats steps 4 and 6 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.

Phyllis repeats steps 4 and 6 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 half way through the process. Note that the sail is not up against the spreaders or shrouds and is only impinging a bit on the lazy jacks. Note that 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.

Here is what things look like half way through the process. Note that the sail is not up against the spreaders or shrouds and is only impinging a bit on the lazy jacks.
Note that 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.

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.

Nearly done. 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.

Nearly done. 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.

Phyllis grinds the mail halyard tight, and then grinds the last few inches of the pennant in. When I said you need powerful winches for this, I was not kidding. Remember it is now blowing 20 knots true and the sail is fully loaded. Also, when you come to shake out the reef, which we do simply by reversing this procedure, you will need the powerful winch once again.

Phyllis grinds the mail halyard tight, and then grinds the last few inches of the pennant in.
When I said you need powerful winches for this, I was not kidding. Remember it is now blowing 20 knots true and the sail is fully loaded.
Also, when you come to shake out the reef, which we do simply by reversing this procedure, you will need the powerful winch once again.

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

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

Phyllis has unloaded the first reef from the winch using a clutch and in this photo has loaded up the second reef onto the winch so we are ready to go if the wind pipes up some more. Note that the reefing lines are all 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. And it took you more time to read this than it takes us to do it. I have timed myself at less than three minutes, soup to nuts.

Phyllis has unloaded the first reef from the winch using a clutch and in this photo has loaded up the second reef onto the winch so we are ready to go if the wind pipes up some more.
Note that the reefing lines are all 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.
And it took you more time to read this than it takes us to do it. I have timed myself at less than three minutes, soup to nuts.

Book Chapter Navigation:
<< Reefs: How Many and How Deep

Reefing From The Cockpit 2.0—Thinking Things Through >>

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

65 comments… add one
  • Geir ove Nov 21, 2010, 8:38 am

    Looks good, but normal boats don’t have your nice setup. But it will work anyway, as long as they plan it well, and train on it in good weather.

    • john Nov 21, 2010, 12:03 pm

      Hi Geir Ove,

      I agree, most boats, particularly production ones, have poor to downright useless reefing systems. I think that upgrading the reefing system and practicing with it is one of the most important things a boat owner should do before going to sea.

      If you can reef easily, then you tend to do it when you should, rather than putting it off until it becomes an epic struggle.

      I’m sure you know the old Q&A:
      Q: When should you reef?
      A: When you first think about it.

  • James Nov 21, 2010, 10:13 am

    Thanks for doing this. Very useful and informative, and the slide show with captions works well, particularly with the photos enlarged to full screen. I take it you don’t worry about chafe on the pennants? Without a safety strop through the cringle taking the load off the pennant.

    • john Nov 21, 2010, 11:56 am

      Hi James

      If we think the reef will be in for a while, we always tie in a safety strop to take the load if the pennant breaks. Having said that, we have never had a pennant break or even chafe much. In really heavy weather, we do refresh the nip twice a day. To do this you need a double ended pennant like ours.

      Recently we went over to a low stretch Dacron covered exotic rope for the number one reef pennant. This is a great change since the lack of stretch cuts the chafe to zero. We will be changing the #2 and #3 reef pennants to low stretch rope this winter.

      • Matt Marsh Nov 21, 2010, 12:29 pm

        An interesting point, John, about using high-modulus line for the reefing pennants. Now that you mention it, it makes a lot of sense- these ought to be minimal stretch, just like halyards.

        It’s nice to see an expert opinion in favour of having all the controls at the mast. Whenever there’s a boat show, I always see a few “latest and greatest” designs with everything led back to the cockpit- often through a complex array of sheaves and guides. It looks convenient, but I’ve always wondered what happens when such a setup jams, as almost everything on a boat will eventually do. (The best? Halyard led to a cockpit winch, reefing lines scattered all over the boom, tack ring on the gooseneck. Try reefing that with less than three people!)

        As for format- the Flash slideshow is nice at home, but doesn’t run on my campus machines (we students don’t get local admin privileges, so all the software is a year or five out of date). It would be nice if the non-Flash version could be served up on request, not just to iThings.

        • john Nov 21, 2010, 11:06 pm

          Hi Matt,

          You are so right about the mess that some cockpit reefing systems are. As you say, a major task for three people in daylight. One person in the dark does not bear thinking about.

          I have been after the folks at SlideshowPro (the slide show software we use) to provide a non-Flash option for some time, if for no other reason than it would be much more search engine friendly. I will keep pleading. They did great on addressing the iThing issue after Steve Jobs had his hissy fit about Flash, so we will see.

          • Jonny Dec 1, 2015, 8:11 am

            And wow, it’s obvious today that Steve Job’s was 100% correct in his assessment!
            Great article, thoroughly enjoyed and learnt much too. Thanks.

  • Steve Yoder Nov 21, 2010, 12:22 pm

    Very nice and very helpful, especially to a neophyte like me who has only read about these evolutions. Much easier to understand with the slideshow, which worked great. Don’t change a thing. Sure wish I had self-tailing winches.

    • john Nov 21, 2010, 1:11 pm

      Hi Steve,

      Yes, self-tailing winches are one of those things that once you have them, you can’t imagine how you lived without them. Still, it’s really hard to throw away a perfectly good winch and spend the big bucks for self-tailing ones.

      Having said that, I would put them at the top of your list for things to upgrade when the budget allows.

  • James Stevens Nov 21, 2010, 12:49 pm

    Great post. I also agree with you Matt regarding leading lines back to the cockpit. I can raise my main at the mast to about 90%, on my 35′ sloop in 30 seconds, hand over hand, but with the winch and the clutch back at the cockpit, I then have a real scramble on my hands. Reefing from the “comfort” of the cockpit also makes the process much more complicated than is necessary. Your scheme with two winches is particularly cool, and I am motivated to make changes to my rig and abandon all those “deck organizers”.

    • john Nov 21, 2010, 1:21 pm

      Hi James and Matt,

      Yes, I think that leading halyards and reefing lines back to the cockpit is one of those things that sounds attractive in theory, but is in fact very hard to do well.

      You need to use the very best roller bearing blocks available, which production boat builders just don’t do. The combo of a lot of sheaves and cheap gear is a real killer.

      Also, even with great gear, it will always be harder to hoist sails on halyards led back to the cockpit because you can’t swing your body weight on them, as you can at the mast.

      On MC with a really good and expensive main halyard mast sheave I can just get the main up to the top spreaders using my body weight. After that, I must grind. If the halyard was led aft, I would have to grind the main the whole way (over 60 ft)—simply not practical since it would be exhausting. Probably the only option would be an electric winch for the halyard—more complication and a lot of expense.

      • Matt Marsh Nov 22, 2010, 10:20 am

        Not to get off topic or anything…but I’m curious, John, how much luff length do you think you could comfortably handle without becoming wholly dependent on winches? Now and then I hear 45′ with a 2:1 halyard mentioned as a sort of “upper limit” to what one person can hoist and reef comfortably, but it’s becoming common to see big (sometimes even powered) self-tailing winches on sails smaller than this.

        • john Nov 22, 2010, 8:01 pm

          Hi Matt,

          I think that there are rather more variables than just luff length. The key issue, if the halyard is at the mast, is the weight of the sail, plus friction, as against the body weight of the person hauling it up. In other words, our main, with its 5 full length battens, weight somewhat more than I do. The result is that I can get the head to the top spreader and at that point my feet start to come off the deck and it’s time for the winch.

          Of course a 2:1 halyard would solve that problem, but at the cost of having a main halyard 120 feet long! Also, even if we went that way, we would still need a powerful winch to properly tension the luff, although I guess one could use a handy billy of some type. Still and all, I think a good powerful two speed winch and a simple single part halyard is the best and simplest solution.

          A luff length of 45′ would imply to me a much smaller mainsail than ours; probably half the weight, so I would think such a sail would be pretty easy to haul to the top on a single part halyard, but you would still need a way to tension the luff properly, and ideally be able to adjust that tension under load.

  • pipposail Nov 21, 2010, 1:36 pm

    ..grazie mille da pipposail

  • Jay Nov 21, 2010, 1:41 pm

    Thanks for the detailed explanation of how you reef down wind. We follow a similar process but use our brakes on both the reefing lines and halyard so that we use only the large halyard winch instead of the smaller (inadequate) winch mounted on the boom for reefing by a PO.
    I like the double ended reefing lines you use and we’ll likely change to them so we can always be to windward of the boom.
    The slide show is very good and I think works better to ‘put it all together’ rather than bit by bit in the body of the ‘article’.

  • Norris Nov 21, 2010, 3:01 pm

    Great article, very useful. The pictures are absolutely superb, so clear – they look beautiful full screen on our iPad.

    Thanks for setting up the slideshow such that it can also be viewed on the iPad, etc. I think it would be more effective if the information or caption automatically displayed at the bottom of each picture, as opposed to having to hit the “i” button at the top right of the screen.

    By the way, the factor that tipped the scales when we were considering buying an iPad was the built in GPS. After 6 months of use we are hooked. Internet access just about anywhere with the combo of wifi and cellular data plan ($20/month), 12 hr of usage between charges, ereader for books and pdf of our boat manuals, photo archive, iPod for music, etc, etc. The Navionics app for charts of canada east coast, including Lab and Arctic, costs $25. The downside – daylight viewing is terrible, not weather resistant or water proof. Sorry, I didn’t mean to go off on a tangent about the iPad, but your slideshow pictures where stunning when displayed on the iPad. It is the first time I tried one of your slideshows using that device as I had thought the show would only work with Flash.

    Regards,
    Norris

  • Dick T M/V Julia Bryant Nov 21, 2010, 5:05 pm

    Although not very pertinent to normal reefing systems on “leg ‘o mutton” sails, the gaff rig sure makes downwind reefing easier. You first de-power by dropping the gaff down.

  • john Nov 21, 2010, 6:08 pm

    Thanks to all for the great comments, keep them coming. Sounds like the slide show format is a hit, we will do some more of these.

    A sharp eyed reader caught that we had the steps miss-numbered, fixed now, thanks for the heads up.

  • dietmar Nov 22, 2010, 8:05 am

    Very interesting posting, we will definitely try it when the season starts again next spring. However, I am curious if anybody has tried this technique with swept back spreaders. On the previous boat with inline spreaders and only the upper two battens being full length we have reefed many times on our Atlantic crossings. With the previous boat we were afraid that there is too much pressure off the battens on the shrouds (friction, breakage of battens), however we have not tried the method with continuous tension on the aft leech.

    No problem with slide show, but it’d be nicer without Flash, especially if you are not at home hooked up to the high speed internet.
    Regards,
    dietmar

  • Rickard S Nov 22, 2010, 6:16 pm

    Not sure if i am missing something here, but 95% of my reefing is done going upwind, and i just loosen the mainsheet a bit to take pressure off the main and keep sailing on the jib. When the pressure is off the main it will go up or down (i have full battens but no fancy cars) without a problem. I would not consider going downwind, unless the conditions were pretty bad. Richard

    • john Nov 22, 2010, 8:15 pm

      Hi Richard,

      The key here is that most ocean and offshore passages are made downwind, at least by those of us who are a bit long in the tooth and a bit soft. On a multi-day offshore passage the wind will increase to the point where reefing is required many times and you don’t want to have to round up into big seas every time you have to reef.

      Think for a moment about a typical trade wind passage with a reinforced trade wind. It is already blowing 25 true with 15-foot seas, not at all unusual. You have two reefs in and there is a black squall coming up fast from aft. You need the third reef and you need it fast. In this situation you do not want to have to round up to reef.

      The other great thing is that once you have the third reef in, if things get truly silly, it will be comparatively easy to get the last part of the main down and go on under storm staysail or jib. Phyllis and I have clawed down the triple reefed main without rounding up in sustained 50 knot winds. Conditions in which I don’t even want to think about rounding up head to wind to strike the mainsail.

      Finally, if you can reef easily to the third reef while heading down wind, you are then all ready to heave-to, if required.

  • Phil Streat Nov 22, 2010, 8:08 pm

    Very informative and useful; thank you. I see the advantages of having double ended reefing lines with a winch on each side of the boom but I wonder if you have a problem with sail material piled up on the boom interfering with winch and stopper operation.

  • Rob Dec 1, 2010, 6:16 pm

    Thanks. Can’t wait to try this on my catamaran. It shouldn’t be too difficult since the main halyard goes to the helm, so the job can be shared.
    I guess that for downwind sailing you wouldn’t need to worry too much about good halyard tension when hoisting.

    • John Dec 3, 2010, 11:35 am

      Hi Rob,

      Although you don’t need a lot of halyard tension, you will still need a powerful main halyard winch, particularly to unreef while sailing downwind.

  • Chris Dec 1, 2010, 8:27 pm

    Of all of the pros and cons of in boom main sail furling, reefing is probably one of its strongest assets. We have a leisure furl in boom system with the halyard and the furling line lead to the cockpit. Once I have gone forward and attached the halyard I can raise, reef or stow from the cockpit. This can be done on any point of sail. The key is maintaining tension on the halyard when lowering and on the reefing line when raising the sail. I have an adjustable tensioner mounted on the coach roof next to an electric winch so it is easy for one person to handle. The other key element is maintaining the correct boom to mast angle so that the sail furls on the mandrel without walking forward or back. With a good vang and a little attention this is no problem. We had slab reefing on our previous boat. I would have to say that this set up has been much easier to use. Less problems with things jamming up, less acrobatics going forward when I would rather not and much easier for one person to accomplish.

    Chris

    • John Dec 3, 2010, 11:33 am

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for an interesting post on the benefits of in-boom mainsail furling. We did look briefly at the Leisure Furl system for Morgan’s Cloud but dropped the idea after seeing what the price tag and added complication would be.

      Also, as a general rule, we like to keep things as simple as possible on MC. That is not a general criticism of in-boom furling you understand, just the way we like to do things.

      One question: When we looked at the LS system, none of the vendors would commit to us being able to reef with the boat sailing down wind and the sail fully loaded up. Have you been able to do this, or do you need to round up to reef or furl in this situation?

      • Andrew Troup Apr 6, 2014, 7:05 pm

        Like John, I’ve always felt that it’s a major vulnerability to have to come up into the wind to reef. A boat can carry a lot more sail when running off than it can when beating. If the wind rises suddenly when running under maximum sail, it’s not an attractive proposition to flog the sail half to death while getting rid of some or all of it. On big boats it’s downright dangerous.

        Having spent a few months sailing around NZ and the Sth Pacific on a 40′ boat with a tall (3 spreader) rig and a Leisurefurl system:
        The installation on this boat is a very good implementation and works well, but it is not feasible (in fact, it’s asking for a jam) to try to reef when broad reaching with the sail loaded up, which on this boat when at full hoist means anything over about 15 knots.

        The only roller furling system I’ve sailed with which can be reefed in virtually any windstrength when running off is in-mast. To do this in really strong winds, it’s necessary to center the boom so the wind is flowing from leech to luff, and this should be done on whichever gybe puts the mast slot to leeward.

        This technique is not going to appeal to many, and of course is not applicable to boats which cannot be steered accurately downwind in a blow.

        I’m not a huge fan of in-mast furling but this ability would be a big advantage on some boats, for some people.

        It’s hard to compete with the reliability and simplicity of slab reefing, and it seems to me that roller systems need to be really well thought out and engineered to even come close.

        • John Apr 7, 2014, 8:01 am

          Hi Andrew,

          Thanks for confirming what I suspected about in boom furling and for the useful tip for reefing in mast systems, although I do share your worry about steering issues when centring the main downwind in a blow. All in all, your thoughts confirm my happiness with slab reefing.

  • Chris Dec 3, 2010, 1:42 pm

    John,

    We have only had this boat for one year so I can not claim to have tested it under every possible circumstance but here is what I have found.
    1. Reefing is easy and can be done in any increment so I do it early and do it more frequently in smaller bites.
    2. The sail needs to be flattened a bit so if I am deep off the wind I tighten up the vang and or sheet the sail in a little bit.
    3. The actual roller furling system is less mechanically complex than I thought it might be. There is the addition of the electric winch (added stuff to break).

    We had considered boom furling on our last boat but didn’t do it for the same reasons as you. Again not a definitive amount of data in one year but so far it is a big improvement.

    • John Dec 3, 2010, 1:54 pm

      Great information, Chris, thanks. If you have any more insights as you use the gear more, we will be interested to hear them.

  • Ed Seling Dec 4, 2010, 6:18 pm

    I hesitate to offer advice to such an august group but here is how I manage downwind reefing with the modest equipment I have. It’s not a perfect solution but it suffices in many circumstances. I work at the mast and a person on the sheet is handy.

    1. Ease the main sheet all the way.
    2. Raise the boom with the topping lift. About as much as the first reef point.
    3. Pull the reef cringle most of the way down to the boom with the reefing pennant.
    4. Sheet in the main. This will get some sail off the shrouds.
    5. Ease the halyard and haul down on the luff. It may be difficult but probably not impossible. Hook the luff grommet to the reefing hook. (ease the reef pennant if you brought it too far down in step 3.)
    6. Winch up the halyard to tension the luff.
    8. Ease off the topping lift.
    7. Trim the main sheet

    It is really a variation on John’s technique without the two speed winches and bat-cars.

    This may not work in a gale but give it a try in modest winds.

    Ed

  • Scott Mar 17, 2011, 3:00 pm

    In this article it’s not clear (at least to me) how you’ve set up the double-ended pennants. I get that they are not fixed at both ends and are led aft through line clutches to winches on both sides of the boom. Right? But what about the aft end of the boom? Are the pennants led through cheek blocks on both sides of the boom and then to the leach cringle? That would be a nice setup indeed.

  • John Mar 17, 2011, 7:46 pm

    Hi Scott,

    You got it, that’s exactly how it works. Another advantage of the system is that we can “refresh the nip” in heavy weather by easing out a couple of inches on one side and grinding it in on the other which reduces the chafe where the pennant goes through the leach cringle.

  • Ben Mar 17, 2011, 10:51 pm

    Interesting article John and all contributing commentors, I am constantly amazed at just how much good stuff you have on this site.. Anyway a few weeks ago I wrote something about reefing my main, totally independently from this (I should have searched here first…) but if anyone is interested see:

    http://snowpetrelsailing.blogspot.com/2011/02/slab-reefingscratching-surface.html

    The way I have been doing it more or less is the same as what is described here, but I don’t normally sheet the main in, I just drag it down the shrouds… More chafe I suppose, but helps the windvane keep her on course, and means I don’t have to adjust any preventers or boom downhauls.

    I have never tried Ed’s system of using the topping lift and boom weight to help, although I have topped the boom up and pulled in the reef pendant BUT left the halyards alone. This stops the boom dragging in the water on some awkward boats with long low booms (a roll reef?). I must try to reef this way one day, but I suspect my reefing pendants are too far aft on the boom to enable the tack ring to be hooked on easily.

    I like the foot of my reefed sail to be pretty tight, giving a nice flat sail. I often see boats with rather baggy reefed sails, and it seems wrong to me, but I guess it may take some load off the sail and reef pendant?

    John, do you ever have problems with the sail getting chewed into the reef blocks on the boom? I have my blocks at the end of the boom to stop this, with the other end of the pendant timber hitched around the boom at the best spot. It is not possible to do this with your system, but then I suppose by pulling the pendant only from the windward side it keeps the sail pretty clear? Or maybe another solution is having lazyjacks or a boombag to keep the sail clear of those sail eating blocks…

  • John Mar 18, 2011, 3:29 pm

    Hi Ben,

    Great piece on reefing on your site. It’s interesting how many similarities there are in our two systems.

    You are quite right to worry about the damage done to the sail by being dragged into a cheek block on the side of the boom. I have seen this on boats I have raced on and far prefer setting up the way you do with a timber hitch. In fact that is how we have the first reef set up after dummy here consigned one of the sheaves to the bottom of a fjord in Greenland.

    Having said that, we don’t seem to have much of a problem with damage from the blocks since ours are actual sheave boxes set flush into the top of the boom. (The reef pennants are internal.) Also, as you say, reefing from the windward side helps since the bunt is blown away from the sheave that is turning.

    On leaving the pennant loose, I see this too, but I think it is more a function of poor gear and/or technique, not intent. To my way of thinking, there will be less load on a nice flat well set sail, not more. Also a loose pennant will contribute to chafe as everything moves as the boat goes over each wave.

  • Bill Balme Oct 19, 2012, 3:41 pm

    Can I clarify: You describe the reefing pennant – is that the correct name for what I call the clew reef line?

    My boat is set up with 2 deep reefs, with clew and tack line for each reef led back to the cockpit. (I guess I get -1 for coming back to the cockpit… 🙂 )

    I might now get another knock – I don’t put the tack cringle on a horn (I don’t have a horn) so it is simply left in the clutch and means I don’t have to go forward on a pitching deck. Is that a problem? (The tack line is brought a little forward to ensure the tack is kept good and close to the mast.)

    We can reef on any point of sail – in much the same way as you – bit by bit. It’s really easy when we’re both at it – the wife lowers the halyard slowly while I crank in the clew reef line. We finish up by tightening the tack line so that the cringle is about level with the top of the boom and then grind the halyard tight. Being in the cockpit togehter makes for easy communication.

    Since I’ll be pulling the mast this spring to prepare for a transatlantic, I can make changes if there’s good reason. What would you recommend? (I’m about to go looking around your site for reasons to reef at the mast!)

    Thanks for a great description.

    • John Oct 20, 2012, 9:34 am

      Hi Bill,

      I’m not sure that “pennant” is any more correct than your “clew reef line”, but that’s what I call it.

      I think the bottom line here is that if you have a reefing system that you have used in all weather offshore in a big sea that works for you, then it’s not broken, and you don’t need to worry about fixing it. As I say in the post, there are a lot of good ways to reef, not just ours.

      I prefer reefing at the mast because it is much simpler and involves a great deal less friction. I also actually like getting out of the cockpit and “getting the stink blown off” as I call it.

      Having said that, there are plenty of sailors that I respect that reef from the cockpit. Here is a great post by Colin on the tradeoffs.

  • Jack and Jude Jan 3, 2013, 6:28 pm

    Hello Phyllis and John, very similar system we’ve been using on Banyandah since getting our first slab reef mainsail in the 70s. We use a restrainer/preventer system. Agree on working position next to mast, our reefing lines exit the boom to a multi-sheave turning block at base of mast and then to winches on mast, everything handy, secure position.
    Question: We have just installed a new full length batten mainsail with TIDES track and car system – do you have to release your cars from the track. I see a large distance between cars, and wondered if sufficient cloth can be pulled down to engage the tack reef cringle without releasing cars. My cars are quite close, about 2′ apart.
    Great website – a real credit and service to our passion.

    • John Jan 4, 2013, 9:08 am

      Hi Jack and Jude,

      No we do not have to release the sail from the cars to reef. To us that would be a completely unacceptable complication. To make it easier to engage the tack with the horns at the goose neck, at each tack cringle we have two rings, one each side, permanently attached to the sail by passing webbing through the cringle and hand sewing it over. You can see this in the slide show.

      But the real key to being able to get the sail attached at the tack is that each cringle fall equidistant between the luff slides and that the slides are not be too close—two feet sounds closer than they need to be. Your sailmaker should have got this right, but many do not.

    • Dave Benjamin Jan 5, 2013, 5:08 pm

      Jack,

      Did the sailmaker know the sail was intended for use with a Strong Track system? 2′ is too close and typically we’d reduce the number of slides between battens in a situation like that to give us a spacing of 30-32″. Just depends on the luff length. When we’re designing a mainsail, we’re always juggling the combination of slide spacing and reef placement. Typically we’re choosing to install one, two, or three slides between battens. Sometimes it makes sense to add another batten. We are building a replacement main for a Nordic 44 and the previous main had 6 battens. It seems like a lot but when you look at how well the slide spacing and stack height worked out, I think the designer chose 6 for that very reason.

      I’d suggest a conversation with your sailmaker about possible remedies. The right way to do it would be to replace the luff tape and boltrope and start fresh. If you and I were in an anchorage somewhere, I’d add grommets, cover the old ones with insignia cloth, and call it good as a short term fix until you could get to a loft.

  • Dave Benjamin Jan 5, 2013, 5:21 pm

    John,

    This is an excellent article. One thing I want to add though is that while a high quality ball bearing track and car system is practically mandatory on a large boat like Morgan’s Cloud, many of your readers will be well served with Strong Track from Tides Marine. It is extremely low friction and very simple. One of the things I like about it is the fact it doesn’t have bearings. It’s half the cost or less than the more sophisticated systems. Be perfect for the Adventure 40 (hint hint).

    • John Jan 5, 2013, 6:22 pm

      Hi Dave,

      Funny you should say that. I’m just working on the A40 rig specification post. How do you like the Tides system as against the Antal, which I have had very good results from?

      • Dave Benjamin Jan 5, 2013, 6:42 pm

        Tides will be 90%+ as good as Antal in terms of reducing friction at a fraction of the price. It’s not until you get into much larger sails that Antal or other premium systems really make sense. One reason you see them on smaller boats is the person doing the selling wants to make more money. My guiding philosophy is to recommend the product I’d buy myself, if I had the same boat and type of use planned as the customer. I’ve never had a customer express anything other than complete satisfaction with a Tides track system. An added benefit is ease of installation. I can install Strong Track in a fraction of the time it would take to install any of the competing systems. For the Adventure 40, which has an emphasis on simplicity and reliability, I can’t envision a better choice.

        • John Jan 5, 2013, 6:46 pm

          Thanks, Dave,

          We will certainly look at the Tides, although I don’t remember the Antal as being that expensive since it is not roller bearing. We use one as the storm trysail track on MC.

          • Dave Benjamin Jan 5, 2013, 6:58 pm

            The manufacturer retail price for a Tides system which includes the track and all of the luff hardware for the sail is $28.25/ foot. Naturally, as a boatbuilder, you would be buying at wholesale. If you are using a standard type of spar section for the mast, installation time for the track would be under 5 minutes. The sailmaker would install the Tides luff boxes and slides when the sail is manufactured.

  • Jack and Jude Jan 5, 2013, 8:48 pm

    Dave, the sail maker sold us the Tides System so he should have known how to lay out the slides and battens. We installed the battens yesterday and had a chance to examine his spacing and I’m sorry to say it’s every which way. I have written to him on this and another matter of too little roach. I shortened the hoist and foot by 3″ each to allow for a fuller roach of 20″/24″, but he in fact put in less, only 12″ Now we have even less sail area.
    The Tides people were ever so helpful. Ours is an old mast section that they had to especially machine to suit. First they air freighted the guides, and when none of their standards fit, they made a 6″ long sample section, air freighted that so we could run it up our track. That went sweetly. Very nice as we have four joints in our track. The 42′ long Tides section went up wonderfully well.
    Thinking of making up web straps to pass through the reef cringle and reach the horns on both sides. Have to check how that affects boom height at clew. I would have liked the clew up a bit higher with each reef. We’re out the water presently so can only fiddle when no wind. Thank you for your advice

    • Dave Benjamin Jan 5, 2013, 9:56 pm

      Jack,

      Sorry to hear you’re going through these hassles. It’s odd that the spacing is random. When we design a sail, we mark the grommet locations in our software, so that when the materials are cut, the plotter makes distinct markings to preclude confusion. There are some situations where we’ll use non equidistant spacing but that’s pretty rare. Your clew reef cringles should be higher than the ones on the luff.

      Feel free to get in touch with me offline.

  • Ernie Reuter Apr 8, 2013, 8:58 am

    Can’t just say hi to John and Phyliss any more because the crew is getting bigger. So Hi to all…..
    We’re replacing reef lines on Iemanja, along with cleaning up the entire boom rigging inside and out. My question relates to lines used. The old lines were so large that they barely fit through the sheaves. They went through but not without creating a ton of un-needed friction. So I’m looking for line a line type that perhaps contains a spectra core for strength but has a cover that allows good holding power on the boom winch and rope clutches………and I’d like to size down as much as possible to reduce friction. Also what are your thoughts on stripping off the cover from the section of line that never hits a winch or rope clutch, thereby only have the spectra core pass over the sheaves and through the sail cringles?
    Iemanja is a Passport 40 with a mainsail of approx 400 sq ft. Thanks in advance for any thoughts you might have.

    Ernie & Bette
    S/V Iemanja

    • John Apr 10, 2013, 9:05 am

      Hi Ernie,

      Yes, one of the big advantages of using high modulus reefing lines is that you can go down a size so that they run more freely. We did just that on MC, and it works great. I’m sorry, I can’t remember off hand what brand of rope we used, but just make sure that it is one that stays soft and won’t hockle—ask a good rigger.

      And no, I would not strip the cover. Racing boats do that to save weight, but i can’t see any benefit in doing it in this case.

  • Neil McCubbin Aug 17, 2013, 5:34 pm

    We reef downwind without any trouble, with a system quite like Morgans Cloud. We have a 550 sq ft main on a 66 ft stick. Andersen 52 halyard winch and an Andersen 40 for reef pennants, mounted below the boom with a jammer in the boom for each of the 3 pennants and for the outhaul. Our main is about 20% larger than the boats design, so we reef OFTEN. We have Battcars.
    We have T900 (spectra or similar core in Dacron outer braid( for pennants, they have done about 25000 miles with no sign of wear whatsoever at the leech cringles.
    One improvement over MC is that instead of hooking the luff ring over a horn (from which it can fall off) we have snap shackles fixed to the mast at the key spot, so that the luff cringle is captive when hooked on (Idea from Joe Cooper, ex 0f Hood)

    • John Aug 18, 2013, 7:48 pm

      I Neil,

      Not sure I would call snap shackles an “improvement”. We like the hooks because they are very quick and easy to use one handed while the halyard is being eased with the other. Of course the flip side is they can drop off the hook—to each his own.

      • Neil Aug 19, 2013, 2:46 pm

        Sorry, I was not too clear.
        Rather than snap shackles, we use the Wichard snap hooks, which go on, and open, with one hand.
        Several people have commented that they are not sufficiently strong.
        I assume this is because they are an open hook, close dby s simple spring to prevent rope falling out.
        However the breaking load is 1500 kg (say 3300 lbs) which is plenty

  • Dave Benjamin Aug 19, 2013, 2:01 am

    I’ve seen the strops with snap shackle arrangement on a Lagoon 470 catamaran that we’re building a main and headsail for.

    I’m not particularly keen on it but it has worked for my clients. One trick with horns if you don’t want the rings to fall off is to use a piece of fuel hose joining each horn. Pull the hose off, slide ring on horn, push hose back on and the ring can’t fall off.

    • John Aug 19, 2013, 9:06 am

      Hi Dave,

      I don’t think I would bother with the fuel hose because I just don’t find that the ring dropping off on our rig is a big enough problem to justify the additional complication.

      Having said that, its a cool tip (thank you) that may be very useful to others because I think that slight differences in layout can make a big difference to how often a ring does drop off.

  • Peter Sotham Oct 30, 2013, 12:11 pm

    Thanks for the good article. I would like to add that we have found it extremely helpfull in addition to using the boom vang, and securing the position of the boom with preventers, is to FIRST raise the boom with the topping lift to meet the reefing point, and then take up the slack of the reefing line.
    Cheers, Peter

  • Paul Oct 6, 2014, 12:56 am

    Excellent advice for a tricky and real problem. Thank you.

    Would you be able to comment further on the helmsperson’s role during this process? Eg; what are the steering implications of running with the main trimmed in “well clear of the shrouds and spreaders.”

    And do you use waves to assist, or at least minimise pressure? Eg; sit in a trough if possible to get out of the wind (or at least the worst of it)?

    And what do you do if the vessel is lifted to the top of a wave and therefore exposed to greater windspeed? Bear away in the hope of getting over the wave back into the trough, or round up a little hoping to slide down the back of the wave, trusting the wave slope to compensate for the increased wind-induced heeling pressure?

    Also, what do you do with the headsail, perhaps reef the main first so you have a full headsail drawing, maintaining boatspeed and therefore reducing wind pressure on the main?

    Is there a practical upper windspeed beyond which this becomes impossible? i.e.; is there a point where Mother Ocean simply will not forgive you for failing to reef earlier?

    This seems to me to be a very important topic. I hope you don’t mind all these questions.

  • John Oct 7, 2014, 8:50 am

    Hi Paul,

    Steering: No helmsperson, in that we almost always using the autopilot at sea. Having said that, you are right, trimming the main in does tend to make the boat a little hard mouthed, but not as bad as you might think since the vang is dumped off quite a bit putting a lot of twist in. And then as soon as the halyard is eased the problem goes away completely.

    Waves: It would have to be a huge wave to tamp the wind down much, but what does happen is that the load comes off everything as the boat accelerates down a wave face, so that’s the time to crank like mad.

    Headsail: No, the headsail will be reefed to whatever size is comfortable.

    Upper wind speed: Yes, there probably is a wind speed that if you were caught with a full main, it would be difficult to shorten down, but it has never happened to us. And I do know that I can reef this way in at least 45 knots steady. Having said that, when sailing a 25 ton boat with just two people, it is very important to stay ahead of the situation—laziness will be punished.

  • Paul Oct 7, 2014, 6:14 pm

    Thanks John,

    Somehow I’d got the idea that you had the vang on not off during all this.

    My comments about hiding from the wind in wave troughs reflect my experience in small open boats in off New Zealand’s West coast. The waves are big for a dingy but you’r right of course, it’d be a hell of a storm to produce the same effect on an ocean crusier.

  • Jeff May 6, 2015, 2:25 pm

    Thanks for this article. I’m in the process of rigging my self built cat and have decided to reef from the mast. Is there a rule of thumb for sizing the winches? I have a 33 sq. meter main with a 2:1 halyard.

    • Dave Benjamin May 6, 2015, 2:40 pm

      Jeff,
      Are you asking about sizing the reefing winch, halyard winch, or both? Most manufacturers have application charts. With the 2:1 you won’t need a really big winch for the halyard. I prefer Andersen winches but everyone will have their own thoughts. I’d think a #28 would be adequate for the main halyard and their smallest (10?) for the reefing winch. The numbers don’t translate across the board to all winch manufacturers so be sure and check an application chart.

      • Jeff May 6, 2015, 2:49 pm

        I was asking about both. I should’ve just checked the application charts, but thanks for the response anyway. I will check them out.

        Thanks.

    • John May 7, 2015, 8:20 am

      Hi Jeff,

      Getting winch sizing right is really important, and so I think I would check with the designer of the boat and have him do real load calculations, particularly for the reef pennant winches, rather than use rules of thumb or winch manufacturer tables. If in doubt at all, go up at least one size, particularly for your boat since the huge stability of a cat means that if you get caught with too much sail up and must reef quickly the loads on the reef pennant winches will be huge. Of course you could round up and let the sail flap to unload, but that’s a dangerous tactic, particularly on a cat when over-canvassed, so have the designer calculate the loads assuming a full main with at least 30 knots apparent wind while running off.

      • Jeff May 7, 2015, 10:02 am

        Those are very good points, John. Thank you for the response. Needing to round up is a big thing I’m trying to avoid. The sizes in the manufacturer tables put me into the lower end where self tailing isn’t available. At least for the couple I looked at. Between going up a couple sizes into the self tailer range and asking my rigger to run the numbers to be sure of the size, I think I’ll end up with a solid system. Thanks again.

  • Stein Varjord Jan 20, 2016, 12:08 am

    Hi, John and all.
    I cannot deepen the knowledge here but just wanted to add my two cents worth of thoughts. The system John and Phyllis use much resembles what I’ve done on many boats, but I think the system they have developed mostly has better components. I’ve also tried some alternative systems, but not too much, as they’ve always made me think ugly words.

    As I see it, slab reefing is the only system that properly works on a main. I’ve seen some cruisers having the main on a normal headsail furler just behind the mast. Just open, no boxing it into the mast. I’ve never tried it, but I think that might be useful. Stoweaway masts, with a similar thingy inside the mast, make me think of ugly words again. Vulnerability, useless sail shape, weight high, annoying noise in a blow, etc… Yes, I’m a nitpick, but…. 🙂

    Ed Seling and Peter Sotham suggest a method I’ve also tried and which might be even easier than the one described in the article. Roughly: 1 Lift the boom end high. 2 Pull in the clew reefing lines fully. 3 Use the mainsheet to pull down the sail. 4 Hook on the tack ring. 5 Tighten the halyard. 6 Trim the sheet.

    The advantage of this is that pulling in the reefing lines is done unloaded, so it’s fast and easy, and pulling the main down with the main sheet one has plenty of power with little work, so also fast and easy. There are some troubles though, so I think the method might be not as good on big boats. The leech ant top of the sail can be kept fairly under control all the time, but the luff is properly loose most of the manoeuvre. This might cause the lower third of the sail to rest on spreaders etc and might cause damage. Also, when the sail collects on the boom, it may get misaligned a bit as the aft end of the sail is collected first and the boom by then is angled quite high. It seems to work fine mostly, though.

    Double halyards have some important advantages. The purchase makes it possible to hoist bigger sails by hand, most of the way. As the desired luff tension can be achieved with about half the halyard tension, mast compression is reduced, but this should only matter to racers. Rope clutches stand a better chance of managing their job. (Karver clutches will hold almost anything. 3 jaws.)

    There are also downsides to double halyards: Extra cost and weight aloft. Twice the rope lenght means more stretch. The block at the sail head can hit human heads, which I can attest to might make ugly words feel suitable. The important point for long distance sailing: It’s less simple and will give new problems. has a tendency to gather a lot of twist in the rope, meaning that the halyard will sometimes jam. The only way to avoid it is to regularly untwist the halyards, and make sure that the block at the top of the sail cannot rotate relative to the sail. It MUST be locked.

    A lot of racing multihulls use double or more halyards because the loads are so big that it’s the only way to manage. Some also use locks in the top of the mast to solve it. For cruising, I think I’d avoid both and use normal single halyards with good winches and clutches. I also think Andersen Winches are the best by the way. Hold the rope best while making the least wear, and a completely indestructible failproof build, but they cost and are heavy.

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