Mainsail Handling Made Easy with Lazyjacks

JHH5II-10397

Other sailors are often surprised that Phyllis and I set, reef, and strike our 56′ McCurdy & Rhodes cutter’s 600-square-foot mainsail without resorting to complex gear like roller furling masts or booms.

But, actually, it’s pretty easy using the simple gear that we have installed and fine tuned over 22 years and well over 100,000 miles.

Setup

The core of our system is our lazyjacks. In my opinion, any boat over about 45 feet that will be sailed shorthanded needs lazyjacks. Having said that, many of the systems we see out there are way too complicated. Here’s all you need:

JHH5_101030
This is definitely a case where a picture is worth a thousand words—click on this one to see it bigger.

Mast Termination

We dead-end the lazyjack upper line, which combines to a single line just above the photograph, to a padeye each side of the mast with a cow hitch using a soft (no thimble) eye splice.

The upper line is of a length so that the hanging blocks are about 30% of the mainsail foot length above the boom, although I don’t think this dimension is super critical.

One of the most common mistakes I see in lazyjack design is placing the mast termination point too high, which results in a much higher chance that the aft batten ends will foul the lazyjacks during a hoist or when shaking out a reef. When setting up your system, make sure that this termination point is no higher than 50% of the mainsail hoist above the boom top surface.

And, no, you do not need to reeve the lazyjack upper line mast termination through a block and bring it down to the deck for adjustment. (There is an exception to this, which I will get into later.)

Update September 2021: Mast Line Lengths

As to the lengths of the lines from the mast and the legs off them:

  • Measure the distance from the upper termination point on the mast to the middle of the boom halfway between the tack and clew positions.
  • Divide that measurement by three.
  • Make that the length of the upper lazyjack line from the mast termination to where the legs split off.
  • Make the forward leg length the same.
  • Make the aft leg length a tad longer so a line drawn horizontally through the blocks in their deployed position is about parallel with the boom.

Don’t get too fussy about this part since small differences won’t cause problems.

Boom Termination

We terminate the lower line with an eye splice, cow hitched to a padeye, and then run it through two bullet-blocks and two small cheek-blocks (as shown in the photograph) to a cleat forward on the boom.

We have left enough length in this line so that we can let it run through the blocks without losing the end when we gather the lazyjacks forward to the mast.

Here are the locations of our lower line terminations and blocks, expressed as a percentage of the mainsail foot (not boom) length, measured back from the aft face of the mast:

  • Aft padeye: 80%. Don’t be tempted to place this eye any further aft in an effort to contain the aft part of the main, since in so doing you will once again increase the chances of the leach fouling when hoisting and shaking out a reef.
  • Aft cheek block: 60%.
  • Forward cheek block: 40%.
  • Cleat: 20%.

Line Type

Do not use high modulus, ultra-low stretch (Spectra or Dyneema) lines for your lazyjacks because you need a bit of stretch so that when you have tightened the lower line at the cleat, say to contain a reef, you won’t break something if you subsequently trim the boom hard down with the mainsheet or vang.

In fact, once we get this lower line adjustment right, we don’t touch it for weeks at a time.

Ordinary Dacron braid is fine for the entire system, the softer the better.

If you have a roller-bearing car mainsail track, make sure that the upper line, as far down as where it splits into two, is thick enough that it can’t get in-between one of the cars and the aft face of the mast, as this will cause an intractable jam that will necessitate you going up the mast to clear it—trust me on this. In our case a 3/8” (10 mm) top line has solved this problem.

The lower two legs of the upper line and the lower line can be lighter, and in our case 1/4” (6 mm) works fine and is probably a good diameter for all but the largest boats.

Doing a nice splice in braid to marry up the two lower legs to the rest of the upper line is surprisingly tricky. You may wish to consider punting, as we did, and delegating this job to a good rigger. Whatever you do, you want nice smooth splices to eliminate chafe on the sail.

Blocks

We use Harken 29 mm bullet blocks on the two legs of the top line and cheek blocks of the same type on the boom. These blocks are light and robust—ours are over 20 years old and still work fine.

In Use

Ok, we have a simple, tried and proven, lazyjack system. Now let’s look at how we use it in practice.

Hoisting

This will come as a surprise to many, but we never run the lazyjacks forward to the mast before the hoist. Doing so is an unnecessary hassle and, worse still, will dump the sail on the deck, thereby making it harder to hoist and increasing the chances that something will foul on a deck fitting.

In fact, the only scenario where we need to run the lazyjacks forward is when we set the storm trysail.

Having said that, if we were on a long tradewinds passage we might run the lazyjacks forward to reduce the chances of chafe on the sail. However, we have never seen any evidence of chafe on the main from the lazyjacks and therefore think that this much-touted problem is overblown.

Back to setting the main. To make this work with the jacklines in place, we need to hoist in that moment when the boat is perfectly head to wind so the upper part of the mainsail slips up between the lazyjacks without fouling them. This sounds harder than it is and, in fact, I have frequently done it singlehanded, at sea, with the autopilot steering, in the dark (headlamp on).

Of course, because of the way we have installed the lazyjacks, once we have the main more than half hoisted (which happens quickly), the fouling potential goes away. Now you know why I was so anal retentive earlier about the upper and aft termination point positions!

But just having the lazyjacks right won’t make this work. You also need to be able to:

  • Hoist fast and in control.
  • Be able to see the sail as it passes through the lazyjacks.
  • Be able to quickly let the sail drop a foot or two to clear a batten end if it does foul.

All of this will be a lot easier if you are set up as we are:

  • The main halyard terminates at the mast, rather than running aft to the cockpit. (Even if your halyard does run aft, all is not lost if you have enough hands that one person can jump the halyard at the mast while another tails out the slack in the cockpit.)
  • The exit box for the internal main halyard is 8 feet above the deck so that the person hoisting can reach up to their full stretch when hauling the sail up—i.e. jumping the halyard.
  • There are no clutches on the main halyard, at least on the mast, to get in the way when hoisting and cause friction.
  • There is a dedicated winch for the main halyard, preferably mounted on the mast, so that a few turns can be quickly thrown onto it when the sail gets too heavy for hand hoisting. On our boat, that point is reached when the sail is about three quarters of the way up, by which time any chance of it fouling on our lazyjacks is long over.

Being able to hoist our mainsail fast at the mast has many other advantages, too, including less wear and tear from luffing and less chance that a batten will be thrashed out of a pocket.

An Exception

Having said all that, if you prefer to have your main halyard led back to the cockpit, and particularly if your boat is large enough that you use an electric winch to hoist, I would suggest that you bring the lazyjack upper lines down to deck level through a block on the mast so that you can quickly slack them off to bring them forward to the mast prior to hoisting. Otherwise there will be too much risk of fouling on the lazyjacks as you hoist and, with your head down or worse still under the dodger, you may not see the snag.

Yes, I know you could bring the lazyjacks forward by slacking the bottom line, but it will take much longer with more line length involved because of the geometry of the boom block locations—inconvenient for daily use.

Dropping

When we drop the main, we turn head to wind and run the halyard fairly fast but with two turns on the winch for the first two-thirds to maintain some control.

I have seen many people carefully lowering the main while twitching each fold into beautiful alternate symmetry but I don’t recommend this practice, since the longer the sail luffs, the more life you are taking out of it.

Furling

Dropped our way into the lazyjacks, the main just takes a few pulls aft on the folds to tidy up ready for the sailcover. The secret here is having full length battens, which we strongly recommend, although specifying them does pretty much force you to buy some kind of luff track system to replace slides.

By the way, after dropping the main, don’t laboriously pull the leach reefing lines forward through their blocks, as I see so many people doing, since this will add friction when you come to hoist the sail. Instead, do as we do, and use the aft two reefing lines as sail ties by wrapping them round the boom and sail, and tuck the flaked third line into a fold of sail, where it will fall free on the hoist.

Once again, if you hoist from the cockpit, you may wish to ignore this advice and pull the lines through, since with our method there is the risk that a loose reefing line will foul on a deck fitting during the hoist, and you are less likely to see this when facing forward operating a main halyard winch, often under the dodger.

Reefing

The biggest payoff of our lazyjack system is when we reef since, unless we expect to be shortened down for a long period, there is no reason to tie the points in—one of the most dangerous jobs on an offshore boat—because the bunt of the sail is nicely contained by the lazyjacks. (More on our reefing system here.)

Sailcover

We had our sailmaker build our sailcover with slots for the lazyjacks that are closed with heavy-duty zippers, which works well and adds very little time to putting it on and taking it off—just as well, because we are holy terrors for covering the sail, even if it’s late afternoon and we will be using it the very next day.

Some sailors like covers that integrate directly with the lazyjacks to get around this requirement, but we don’t because of the added complication and the fact that most of them (all?) obstruct your view of the reefing blocks so that you won’t know if something is fouled or the sail is being cranked into the sheave.

We also don’t like more complex systems like the Dutchman with all of its proprietary bits and pieces.

KISS

In fact, the overriding theme that runs through our system is elegant simplicity. You see, every time you add complexity to any rigging system you also add two undesirable things:

  • More to break, jam, foul, or otherwise screw up.
  • More friction. When you are handling a big sail, friction is your mortal enemy.

Further Reading

Conclusion

There you have it, a simple system that only costs a few hundred dollars but can make your boat much easier and safer to sail—don’t leave home without it.

  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. The Case For Hank On Headsails
  20. Making Life Easier—Roller Reefing/Furling
  21. Making Life Easier—Storm Jib
  22. Gennaker Furlers Come Of Age
  23. Swept-Back Spreaders—We Just Don’t Get It!
  24. Q&A: Staysail Stay: Roller Furling And Fixed Vs Hanks And Removable
  25. Rigid Vangs
  26. Rigging a Proper Preventer, Part 1
  27. Rigging a Proper Preventer—Part 2
  28. Amidships “Preventers”—A Bad Idea That Can Kill
  29. Keeping The Boom Under Control—Boom Brakes
  30. Downwind Sailing, Tips and Tricks
  31. Downwind Sailing—Poling Out The Jib
  32. Setting and Striking a Spinnaker Made Easy and Safe
  33. Ten Tips To Fix Weather Helm
  34. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 1
  35. Running Rigging Recommendations—Part 2
  36. Two Dangerous Rigging Mistakes
  37. Rig Tuning, Part 1—Preparation
  38. Rig Tuning, Part 2—Understanding Rake and Bend
  39. Rig Tuning, Part 3—6 Steps to a Great Tune
  40. Rig Tuning, Part 4—Mast Blocking, Stay Tension, and Spreaders
  41. Rig Tuning, Part 5—Sailing Tune
  42. 12 Great Rigging Hacks
  43. 9 Tips To Make Unstepping a Sailboat Mast Easier
  44. Cruising Sailboat Spar Inspection
  45. Cruising Sailboat Standing Rigging Inspection
  46. Cruising Sailboat Running Rigging Inspection
  47. Cruising Sailboat Rig Wiring and Lighting Inspection
  48. Cruising Sailboat Roller Furler and Track Inspection
  49. Download Cruising Sailboat Rig Checklist

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 25 years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 20 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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