The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

A Dangerous Myth about Reefing

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.

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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. Cruising Sailboat Roller Furler and Track Inspection
  51. Download Cruising Sailboat Rig Checklist
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John Peltier

Have you written the editors? This is a safety-related issue that would be useful to read about in the next issue’s Letters to the Editor.

Marc Dacey

I appreciate it, John, as on Lake Ontario with a “skinny main” IOR-style boat as the majority of my boating practice, I’ve rarely taken in a reef. I just douse the headsail up to 32 knots or so. So I lack the experience with a more proportional sailing rig, like my steel cutter with a 15 instead of a 10 foot boom, to know when to reef (aside from “early and often”). In 14 years of sailing in some rough stuff, I have reefed under half a dozen times, despite being rigged most seasons to do so (slab reefing). Offshore, I’ve either been with racers who don’t reef as a point of pride, or with boats that have in-mast furling, which is a different set of decisions, in my view.

In other words, I would’ve tended to take the advice on “earings” at face value, because it sounds superficially seamanlike. Of course, so does your own advice, but I would give greater weight to the opinions of a fellow with tens of thousands of NM under his belt than those of a magazine, no matter how reputable.

So thanks for another gem I will tuck under my belt. If it’s any consolation, I do concentrate on the tack hook and the clew when reefing, and I do plan on having my cutter’s “ocean” main set with a deep first reef and a 40% second reef, because otherwise I’d need a trysail.

Frankly, even the steel beast goes hull speed under just an unreefed staysail and no main at 35 knots, so maybe I need to recalibrate or get that trysail and install a track for it!

Marc Dacey

Good to know. My mast is a very strong Selden with doubled uppers and two backstays, 11 5/16″ stays in all, plus a ridiculous number of halyards and lifts, about eight in all.

I believe I could take a parallel track for a trysail fairly easily, as I don’t think anyone makes “track gates” anymore.

So how have you rigged for a trysail on the current boat, John? A good cautionary tale, by the way. Nice bacon save!

C. Dan

Just went back and looked through your reefing slideshow, which is great.

Your systems are… beefy. Laughably so compared to my 28′ pocket cruiser (for which I am still planning the reef system).

But if this is the quality we have to look forward to for the A-40, I think there will be a lot of very happy customers.

Matt Marsh

Here’s another “rule of seamanship” that I wish would go away:

“When you’re near other boats, slow down.”

Yes, it sounds courteous and seamanlike. But a “typical” motor cruiser around here is a planing hull weighing in at 2 to 10 tonnes. Such a boat, at 20-25 knots, makes a relatively gentle wake and presents an obvious, predictable visual target. If its driver decides to be courteous and slows to 12 knots, the wake doubles in height and develops a nasty breaking crest, the bow trims so high that he can’t see ahead, and it gets harder for other skipper to judge his course. To us small-boat folks, this is Not Fun.

Common sense, once again, would be preferable: In many cases, I’d rather be passed by a 7-tonne cruiser that’s tracking a straight course at 25 knots than one that’s plowing a hole and yawing like crazy at 12 knots.

Marc Dacey

Could it be my seasons crewing in balls-out racing that means I’m not shy about telling other boats to “hold your course” or “I am taking your starboard/overtaking you”?

Lots of time spent looking at other boats closing on marks and trying to discern the lay line means I have a pretty good spatial awareness, an internal, meat-based AIS, if you will. This means if I see a potential collision, *and I have right of way as per COLREGS*, I will not hesitate to make my intentions clear to other boats.

This may or may not include slowing down, but usually not.

I agree with the preference for trawler-types over spastically helmed sailboats with dopey skippers. A boat like a Monk 36 will track like a streetcar and can be dealt with even in a restricted channel.

Jacques Landry

Right on John.

I was taught a quite similar rule by my late father, but to secure the mainsail clew, not the reef. I have twice seen a failure at that end while sailing, once on a small Kirby 25 (20 years ago) when the tie-up point just separated from the boom, and lately when the outhaul shackle snapped off while crossing between islands in the Caribbeans (few months ago). Both times it saved the day, the boom, whatever was under it and probably my skull! It was very easy to secure the clew with a piece of line so that the sail does not move forward. For the main clew I turn the line twice around the boom so it does not tend to move forward. But that is done before leaving port, not in heavy sea! In fact, it’s permanent as I rarely have to undo the mainsail clew.

Maybe the “expert” has extended the idea of securing the main clew to that of securing the reef clew, and why not in the process save the under-designed reefing system! Pushing a good idea too far has resulted in this monster!

I do exactly as you suggest with the “safety strop”, put in place once the boat is manageable. My main is loose footed, so if I can I tend to make it as tight as possible to reduce the gap between the clew and the boom, although it is not necessary as the leads are just slightly aft of the reef clews.

Another example of a “rule” that can (and often is) taken too far is the idea of letting a lot of chain (or line) on the anchor when in a storm. For sure more chain will hold better, but many “sailors” look at the rule, not it’s implications, and you end up with several boats 30 meters apart with way more chain on the anchor than that 30 meter.

Let see what happens if the wind shifts. Last Christmas I witnessed 3 boats tangled together (and banging each other) in a bay in Martinique. They had all chain out for the night, and woke up in the middle of it with a mess. They had to let their chain go, use their spare anchors and figure it out the next day. I know as I was the only one with a diving kit and air (or maybe the only to say I did ) and spent 2 hours below undoing anchors and untangling chains. I was not far from them but luckily the wind had shifted in the other direction!

What a fun day that was!



That is not a half hitch………


You are correct, Rikki. That’s a cow hitch.

Dave Benjamin

If someone is really concerned about chafe, which I agree is generally not an issue with a well set up system, they could have their sailmaker install a block for the clew reef rather than a cringle. Blocks introduce their own set of issues though and I don’t like seeing our customers add weight and mass to the leech.

On some boats adding an earring is not even remotely practical due to height of the boom.

Reefing should be discussed very thoroughly when replacing a mainsail. If there are cheek blocks on the side of the boom, they may need to be relocated unless the sail designer designs the new main around the location of those blocks. Our experience has been that the blocks are not always well placed and designing the new sail to work with them would violate our best design practices.

Carolyn Shearlock

According to the “rules” of our insurance company, when Hurricane Marty was approaching, we should have bypassed the wonderful hurricane hole we we right next to, and headed to a marina in La Paz (Mexico) — which also would have meant heading TOWARDS the hurricane.

We opted to stay in the hurricane hole, knowing that our insurance would be void. We were fine; the marina we would have gone to was ripped apart by the storm.

Yes, we then paid off the boat in full (one advantage of having a 20+-year-old boat) and cancelled the insurance and just got a Mexcian liability policy. We vowed that no one else (particularly an insurance company) was going to make decisions for us.


Hi Carolyn,
I had a mate from college that I led down the watery path by taking him sailing 0n my boat. He was a pioneer computer programmer who had summers off. Eventually ended up with a boat in the Caribbean that he spent his summers on, so you know he developed a weather eye.

To make a long story short, he was in the VI when a major Cape Verde hurricane started to look like it might target the area. ( I forget the name of the huricane) Called his insurance agent when he still had two plus days lead time and suggested his inclination was to beat feet toward Trinidad where he had often visited. Of course his agent told him his insurance was invalid unless he had the boat in an approved “hurricane hole.” His stories about surviving a direct hit by a category 5 storm by crawling behind a stone wall after his boat was driven ashore in Culebra would make your hair stand on end.


During the years I taught engineering and programming, my department had a Rule: test questions with the word “never” were always wrong and questions containing the word “always” were never right.

Accordingly we demanded our students give us answers based on knowledge and context, not regurgitated Rules. We would usually structure our exams with several questions on the same topic such that Rules would trip up the unlearned respondent.

Unknowingly we had fallen into company with Colregs 2(b):

” In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.”

Then we have the folk rule, “You should never turn your vessel to port during a crossing situation.” [found in several state mandated boating safety courses]

In 1974, I was captain of the after-guard on a racing yawl. We were legging to windward in anticipation of the preparatory flag — we were not yet racing. Ahead of us approached a burdened boat. To leeward and ahead was a competitor on the same point of sail as we were. Suddenly, we heard his jib rattle and within seconds, we had t-boned him, rolled his spreaders into the water, launch two of his crew overboard. Our lookout’s shout of warning was lost to us as he jumped overboard to avoid death.

At the inquest, when asked why he had tacked to starboard into our path when he could have fallen off to port behind the burdened (and clueless) crossing traffic, the captain who had takced responsed “One never turns to port during a crossing situation.” He was a retired Navy captain who had been racing sailboats for 41 years.

I found another crew berth.

Parenthetically, I find that experts these days seem to have far less expertise than one should have to be characterized an expert. I also find that critical thinking — suspension of judgement/acceptance — until many sources are considered doesn’t seem to be surviving the “must be true, I read it online” phenomenon.

Common sense is also suffering from the reinvention of the commons. We have more ways to be stupid these days. It is common sense not to be using a cellphone while piloting a vessel through congested traffic, but people are dying because others are doing just that.

Re-reading the above, I probably should eat breakfast or at least have my tea before I type something like this.

John Armitage

A minor point regarding your photograph of a ‘strop’: I would have tied the last turn in the opposite direction, so the two turns make a clove hitch rather than a lark’s-head.

Derek H

Another “rule” that is bandied about among cruisers who are heading to the Red Sea we learned when we went is: “Always travel in a convoy.” I guess it’s misery loves company b/c by travelling in a convoy through pirate territory you ensure the following: 1) you only travel as fast as the slowest boat, thereby spending even more time in the danger zone, and 2) as a group, you are a much easier target for the pirates to see.
I never understood the mass hysteria that renders otherwise independent thinking people as dumb as a box of hammers.
We went solo, fast and dark (no moon). Better yet, the new rule should be: Don’t go there at all!
You might, if you are bored, put up a post inviting favorite rants as this is definitely one of mine.
Derek H


The tragic loss of Ned Cabot (Northwest Passage and Greenland veteran) on this mornings’ news provides the motivation to take a closer look at cockpit design. Without knowing the details, it appears that Cabot was not clipped in, and had just come on watch when the boat was knocked down and he was washed overboard.

The boat was a J46, with a not atypical cruiser/racer cockpit.
1- Starting from the companionway, the boat has a moderate bridge deck, small by the standards of twin aft stateroom boats, but large enough to require bending over as you enter under the dodger, thus putting yourself in a less athletically balanced position. A bridge deck like this has no function except to keep water out of the interior when the common cheap drop board system is used for closure. Compare that to the Boreal door and tell me which you’d rather suffer a knockdown with.
2- The cockpit is relatively long and straight sided, with low coamings facilitating winch handling. How the jackline system (if it existed) was arranged is unknown, but a cockpit with taller backrests would certainly be more secure and comfortable.
3- The traveler is arranged as a bridge at the height of the seats, requiring one to step up and over it to get to the wheel. Argument #1 for a hard dodger strong enough to carry mainsheet loads, even at some loss of traveler effectiveness.
4- If the helmsman wants to change sail trim even by a millimeter he has to clamber up and around the “ego” wheel.
5- The helm area of the cockpit has a large wheel and no coamings, and is at the very aft end of the boat. If the going is at all wet your butt will be wet as well. Because of the size of the wheel, there is absolutely nothing to hang onto except the wheel, regardless of whether you are seated or standing.

A cockpit design like this is eminently suited for weekend cruising and Wednesday night beer can races, but is it really what you’d choose to go to Greenland with, or to make the November trek south from Newport to the Caribbean?



I don’t understand how letting the clew reef go first destroys the sail due to the other “points” being still loaded. What are these points? The tack reefing cringle and the head of the sail? How could this damage the sail?

Please clarify and elaborate.

Thanks, Eddie