Topping Lift Tips and a Hack

In our recent chapter on vangs I wrote about ways to get rid of the topping lift altogether, my preferred option, particularly for offshore boats.

But the bottom line is that if we don't have a really good rigid vang and a decent boom gallows, we will have to live with a topping lift and its associated problems:

  • Chafe of the leach.
  • Slapping around as the boat goes over every wave.

By the way, if you have only sailed inshore, don't make the mistake of not doing something about the above before you do a significant offshore passage. What you will hardly notice inshore with no swell on a day sail will drive you nutso at o-dark-thirty on an offshore passage in swell.

And if a topping lift is allowed to slap around for an entire long passage, like say a trans-Atlantic, I can guarantee you will make some sailmaker's day at the end of the voyage—I used to be a sailmaker and smile with fondness when I remember topping lift damage, which is deliciously expensive to fix because it messes up the leach tabling.

So here's a cool hack to fix the topping lift, see the above diagram:

  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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Terence Thatcher

Hmm. When you try to ease the main out, doesn’t the topping lift, now tethered to the backstay, keep the boom end from going all the way out? What am I missing? (I have a soft vang, but use your preferred method for my topping lift, without the shock cord. I have not suffered mainsail leech wear on long passages, but now you have me worried.)

Richard Ritchie

Small keelboats like SB3 use a stiff horizontal carbon batten at the masthead to hold the backstay (I assume) clear of the roach when slack. Might this not be neater?

Richard Ritchie

Good point. It’s resting position would have to be inside the backstay, angled downwards. I guess the batten could even be strapped to the top of the backstay with free end pointing downwards.

Stein Varjord

Hi Richard,
I like the idea. I think one might need to test a bit to find potential problems, like backstay interference, as John mentioned, which I agree could be a problem, but may not be so. Perhaps that could be solved by having two battens, one on each side of the backstay, probably angled perhaps 60 degrees from each other, and then connecting them to the lift via a line between the two ends going through a ring on the boom lift? This type of solutions need more pondering and testing, so I don’t really know what I think of it yet.

Peter Mahaffey

We all know that topping lifts are a pain in the backside, but is the hack recommended in this article really worth the candle? If one was being picky, one might ask many sailors would need to have accidents with the necessary bosun’s chair before any advantages are outweighed?
The fact is that tens of thousands of yachts make offshore passages and trans-At crossings every year and I’m not aware that topping lift damage to leaches is a hot topic wherever crews meet for beers at the end of their voyages.

Stein Varjord

Hi Peter,
I think the reason that mainsail wear isn’t a big topic while drinking beer is predominantly that people focus on having done the passage and being happy. If they want to talk about problems, most of them have had more “dramatic” ones than some wear they haven’t noticed yet. I do notice that few boats report wear on the normally smooth passat winter passage from Europe to the Caribbean, while after the more northerly rougher return trip, few boats avoid significant damage and wear, including the main leech.

I also think that on an ocean cruiser, being able to get into the mast and work there safely is just as important as being able to swim.

Michael Lambert

This reminds me of the bungee self-tailor idea of Hugo boss fame most recently. It went across his room then through a block to the mainsheet. I was wondering about doing that on a cruising boat, particularly a cat, when one might want to dump the main fast. If the handle is left in for convenience it can take a few seconds to do it if it’s in the normal self-tailor. Upon reflection a slip hitch would work too if there is something handy to tie it to. Off topic I know, anyway, carry on.

Stein Varjord

Hi Michael,
I come from racing on extreme boats and love the idea from Alex Thomson’s Hugo Boss. However, I think it’s not very practical for cruisers. Extreme boats keep speeds that mean their main is always sheeted in quite hard, even going downwind. That means the actual sheet mostly doesn’t go in or out a very big distance. Also, on very long distance sailing, the wind angle stays mostly the same for a long time. I assume Alex has a moveable cleat on the sheet to adjust where the shock cord pulls on the sheet, for different wind situations. I think it looks brilliant for racing this way, but probably not suitable for most cruisers.

In the totally insane Formula 28 open construction multihull class, we used self tailing winches on the main sheet. The sheet was either held in the hand (in gusty situations) or put into the self tailer as normal and then returned back around the winch, below the handle. That way, to release totally we could just pull the rope to get it out of the self tailer and release the sheet completely. After grinding it in some, we had to pull the tail a bit to make the rope loop short.

The Formula 28 class was a very free ‘box rule” construction class. Number of hulls: Whatever. Weight: The lowest you can manage. Sail area: As you wish. Etc. In real life they were 28 foot long multihulls, 400 to 700 kilos, 880 to 1400 pounds total weight, upwind sail area just under 100 square meters 1100 square feet. Most teams had this as their full time job. Easily the craziest and fastest boats I have ever sailed. On Lake Garda, I’ve passed 35 knots boat speed, perhaps 40 knots, on one of those. Averaged over about 500 meters. This was in the 90ies, before foils. Yes, of course I was scared. 🙂 The point of going into this in detail, is to show that mainsail control was very sensitive. Also It might be entertaining for you and thinking about it makes me proud. 🙂

Notably, this type of boats all have rotating semi wing carbon masts and use an extremely powerful cunningham as the primary means of power control. Pulling it hard enough will bend the mast a lot, flatten the sail and loosen the leach for a good depower. The main sheet is for trimming angles and for emergencies. The above method worked well enough to become what all did, in this close to limitless class. That means it’s proven to be good. I use the same method on our cruising cat (not the turbo cunningham). No cleats or jammers allowed on the main sheet.

Michael Lambert

Thanks Stein, I have never sailed that fast but I’m learning wing foiling so I’m experiencing some serious sensation of speed, with very fun wipeouts. My thoughts on his bungee was that he was playing the main: grind and ease, grind and ease. I think of those times when the kids are around the cockpit table, sailing inshore with wind off the land so puffy, and a big one hits unexpectedly, and even though you’re not right at the winch you just push it into the winch a tad so the drinks don’t spill….. BTW that trick about bringing the tail around is great, I’ll have to try that next year.

Michael Lambert

There is one thing I like more than bungee hacks: magnet hacks. What if each batten included a magnet making a straight line where the tl wants to be, paired with spliced in magnets in said tl. If it’s windy enough to blow it off it’s windy enough to reef….

Stein Varjord

We have a cat, with the boom quite close to the mast foot, so a vang isn’t really an option. We have the option 3 boom lift solution, using a 5 mm Dyneema spliced at both ends, attached at the mast head, with a 1:2 purchase at the bottom end using a Ronstan Shocks instead of a block. https://www.ronstan.com/marine/product.asp?prodno=RF8081R I strongly prefer this principle over blocks everywhere the rope is mostly not moving a lot. Other brands also make great alternatives, also for higher loads and lower friction, but are not as cheap and easy to get hold of.

We have the adjustment line led into the boom, as it’s equipped for 4 reefs and our present main only has 2. It can be locked in an integrated jammer at the mast end of the boom or, via 2 blocks, at the steering position.

Steve Maynard

We are sailing a performance cruising cat – Outremer 4X – and there is zero room for a vang and there is no backstay – I am torn between letting the Topping Lift stay a bit loose and swing or pulling it tight and accepting some chafe but less slapping – especially against the leech (North 3Di sails) which will not be simple or inexpensive to repair if damaged. The TL runs from the boom and is sheeted at the mast. Would a dyneema splice be an option? Less momentum/weight to slap around and much more slippery than the line on their now.

Stein Varjord

Hi Steve,
I think I’d look at the idea Richard Richie suggests above; a batten at the top of your mast that pulls the topping lift up and aft. I guess you have a relatively big roach on your main, so the batten would need to be fairly long and stiff. Probably attached about horizontally in the unloaded state?

I’d strongly recommend changing to unsheathed Spectra / Dyneema, for its much lower weight, especially in wet conditions since it doesn’t draw water, and the smooth slippery surface that doesn’t chafe much.

Scott Halpern

I like this better than my approach which involved attaching a pre-tensioned shock cord to the topping lift within the mast. It did work and kept the lift from slapping the leach and wrapping the back stay, but has the potential for snags..

Dick Stevenson

Hi John and all,
I went a little different route.
My TL is fixed at the masthead and held with a lashing at the end of boom: basically, the TL is fixed in place and also in length at the beginning of the season and not adjusted during the season at all. This may not work for every boat as it demands the topping lift be just a scootch slack when the mainsail is really strapped down going to wind. And, following from this, the boom height at anchor is pretty much the same as close hauled sailing which also may not work for every boat or sailor, but has been fine for us. Not thinking about the TL’s adjustment is a blessing and it also pays dividends as my lazy jacks are set at season onset and never need adjusting. The older I get the less I like to think and to fuss.
To control the TL when under sail, I have a thick shock cord (for good pressure) fixed a few feet up the TL and then brought to a turning block at boom end and run forward to mid-boom to give it length. It is tensioned at season onset as well and then left alone. In this way, the TL is under a moderate amount of tension when sailing and tends to just hold itself away from the sail (for the most part).
I have used the above for a couple of decades, 2 ocean crossings and a lot of miles of coastal sailing in swell and not felt like my leach was chafed. Nor have there been comments from sailmakers who I try to get to inspect my sails on a yearly basis. It is a joy to not fuss with the TL or lazy jacks: once set at season onset, they are left for the season.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I think I follow you.
When reefing off the wind, I try to have the boom end over (or near) the side of the boat where it is unlikely to catch a wave. Even with slippery track, it helps to not have the boom out farther as the sail will plaster on the spreaders. And, with a fixed topping lift, the boom end can never dip below that fixed length.
I figure I use my third reef once, perhaps twice, per year and the last time the third reef was put in in the protected anchorage in anticipation of what was to come. When already out, I do not remember being concerned about dipping the boom end into the sea. When putting in the third reef, the halyard is loosened, the boom drops onto the topping lift, the tack is fixed and the clew is then positioned bringing the boom end up to its quite high third reef position and relieving the topping lift of its duty. The shock cord is keeping the topping lift from mis-behaving too badly.
This has worked for me for years with no discernable damage occurring. That said, I believe your hack is really quite nice and a much better solution, especially for those who wish to be able to adjust the topping lift. I am really happy not to fuss with the topping lift or the lazy jack settings.
I am thinking about using your hack into a hybrid system. Although my topping lift has not been a worry damage wise, I do not like anything to be flailing about as it certainly does when it pulls and tugs on the shock cord. Your hack could go a long way towards having the kind of settled controlled feeling that I like Alchemy to have when underway.
My best, Dick

James Ferguson

Hi John,
My TL is also my spare main halyard. It does take adjustment at times at the mast, but that is usually done after hoisting the main. It has worked well for a longtime.

Rob Gill

Hi John,
We have a beautiful Doyle fully battened laminate mainsail with a big roach (for a cruiser) and I so dislike looking up at the sail and seeing the topping lift slowly destroying the air-flow (especially in light winds), and the cloth!
So this “hack” works for us, but I have to admit it is not an entirely original thought on my part, it coming after we set up our two-part preventers for offshore in 2017, following exactly your method. The standing parts of the preventers work and stow so well, it got me thinking how it could solve our topping lift problem.
We have a Forespar solid vang, that has a super-strong internal spring. Even though our boom is heavy, we just don’t need a topping lift except at anchor in big winds, swell or waves to stop the boom moving around and making a noise. We don’t have boom gallows and we do like to have the TL ready as a back-up in case that spring were to fail, so usually either the main is up, or the TL rigged, or both. Offshore or on long coastal passages we remove the TL before setting off, but we can remove it underway also, using a boathook from the transom to catch the TL and bring it safely in reach.
Our TL is in two parts. The top running part is conventionally adjusted, with double-plait rope and plenty of tail, that comes up through the mast and exits over a generous sheave at the top of the mast, and with a spliced loop on the end. The bottom standing part consists of a length of unsheathed spectra (same length as our boom) fixed at the aft end of the boom, and with a spliced loop in the free end. When rigged it is this Spectra part that is mostly in contact with the sail. Around the coast, these two parts are joined using a soft shackle and the TL operates conventionally from the cockpit by hand or winch.
On passage the bottom spectra part is secured along the boom using a length of stretched out bungee cord sewn inside the plait. The upper (sheathed) part is secured using the soft shackle near the foot of the mast, and ready as our reserve halyard. We can then reconnect the TL underway, or on arrival by the mast, in complete safety.
BR. Rob

Neil Mckinley

Hi
Advice on accessing middle of back stay ?

Hans Boebs

Hi John,
I never found any chafe on the leach of my main although my old main had an enormous roach. The new main -2nd season this year – still has some roach, but much less. But I must admit that the TL wraps itself around one of the backstays frequently. This doesn’t disturb me, as it invariably frees itself when tensioned. It can be adjusted at the mast and serves as a spare halyard also.
As my present main is quite new, why take a chance with chafe ? And I like the simplicity of your TL shock cord hack, so I’ll definitely rig it up next season. But now I come to think of it: Snowball has two backstays which angle from the mast top down to both counters. Well I think I will decide on just one of the staysto lash the block or ring to in the hope that the stretch in the shock cord will cover the additional way to lee when the boom is out on the “wrong” side. If that doesn’t work I will find a way to move the ring halfway between both stays.
Btw: getting it rigged up there is no problem, as hereabouts we take the rig down every winter, a practise that I came to appreciate once more when I had to remove the standing rigging on a race boat in France that had never had her mast unstepped for more than ten years. Getting the ss bolts out of the aluminium spreader ends was just hell. Besides I think you are right: it should be nothing very special to go aloft and do work or inspection in the rig, not even for a singlehander.
That boat had no topping lift and I hated the mains’l handling.

Tom Stokes

Is a modification needed for boats with SSB backstays?

Dick Stevenson

Hi Tom,
Shouldn’t think an insulated backstay for SSB would make a difference (at least for the traditional set-up: some newer antennas go over or beside the backstay). The antenna lead cable only goes up to the lower insulator and after that, there is only the upper insulator along the wire. I should think the shock cord attachment to the backstay would be between the two insulators and that the hack would work without problem. Nor would I suppose the additional equipment to change the antenna functioning.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Alasdair Flint

My boat is quite small at 26 ft and the wooden boom is a fair bit longer than the foot of the sail which doesn’t have too much leach. Nevertheless, a long time ago I had to go up the mast returning from Iceland to recover a chafed topping lift which wore against the sheave entry on the mast. Of course I can sail easily enough without a topping lift, but I always like one rigged in case the main halyard fails. I like to use a three strand polyester line with a bit of stretch. This has the great advantage that when you are moored you can rig the boom tent roughly in position and then tighten down the mainsheet to tweak it so the boom is dead level.

To stop the topping lift flapping around, I get a 2 m length of 8 mm bungee with a snap hook seized on each end. Then about 1.2 m up the topping lift I tie a rolling hitch in the centre of the bungee and stretch the clips down and fasten them to the boom. When I ease off the topping lift the bungee allows a small loop of rope to form above the boom but keeps the rest of the rope tight and stops it from flapping about. Seems to work for me!

George DuBose

An Englishman showed me what I believe is the safest topping lift arrangement.
A line goes from the end of the boom, up to the masthead, then down the mast (inside?) and out to a mast winch or cleat. When the sail is raised, take a boat hook and catch the bight between the end of the boom and the masthead and lead the bight to a reefing hook on the forward end of the mast. The topping lift doesn’t have to be disconnected from the end of the boom. When dropping the mainsail, just release the bight from the reefing hook and pull the end that was attached to the cleat on the mast and tighten. Easy Peasy…

Alastair Currie

George system is not so uncommon on some older yachts, except topping lift at the boom end passes through a ring which is attached to a foot line. The line is pulled, the topping lift eased and the topping lift ends up stored along the foot of the boom and running from the ring back tot he truck at the mast head. It’s just a variation of what you mention without but without wielding the boat hook. I can imagine the topping lift frapping away on the mast, so hauling it off with a bungee cord to a shroud would solve that.

Knut Haugen

Sorry for the errors, I could only correct once…
The end of the story:
As we went to the Harbour Master to confess our sins, the only comment was: “This is something the municipality will take care of”…
So if you still wonder; I still have the same topping lift, and yes, I am going to rebuild it!

Knut Haugen

A good story what might happen with a strong topping lift: 25-30 knots of wind , 2 reefs. On purpose reef 1 and 2 have rings so the boom gets higher over the cocpit for every reef. My backstay are split , and too often the topping lift is jammed in the wire-splitter- so did the mentioned day.
Ss usual we were going to sail to the dock (almost 60-70 meter free space. Going downwind we prepared with fenders etc, furled the genoa, turned into the wind and eased the sheet, but alas, the wind was like reaching, so easing the sheet meant more speed! There was an apprentic steering, so I told him not to continue close to the dock, but he did not catch the order, and we were sailing along the dock with increasing speed. A light pole on the dock became very close, so the main was quick taken in to clear the pole. But alas, the boom passed the pole, but the bloody topping lift did catch just under the flood-light…
Well, the boat (16 tons) came to an sudden stopp while bits and pieces from the pole was spread all over the place…
As we dropped the sail an tied up, the two guys in the boat next to us, nearly dropped their cognac

Some editing issues, a phone is not the best when writing …
John, please add a line between the text box and the “save/cancel/delte button. With a phone its almost inevitable to push the wrong button

Martin McOmber

Last winter I worked with Brion Toss on replacing the standing rigging and updating some of the running rigging. (Mine was one of the last masts he un-stepped before he passed, and it was the first mast stepped by his shop under the new ownership of his longtime business partner Ian). Brion really dislike the standard topping lift on my 1984 Passport 40 — in my case, it dead-ended at the masthead and then ran through a dedicated sheave at the boom end, internal through the boom and exited close to the mast and belayed on a cleat on the boom.

As I had a sheave at the masthead for a spare main halyard, he had me use my spare halyard as my new topping lift by belaying it at the boom end. The spare halyard runs back to the cockpit, so it makes it a snap to adjust boom height while securing the boom when not in use. At dock or anchor — and normal cruising around the Pacific Northwest — I leave the spar halyard/topping lift belayed at the boom end. I’m planning to take the boat offshore next summer. After reading John’s post on rigid vangs (I just rebuilt my QuickVang from Halls and happy to say they had all the parts for it) I figured I needed a way to prevent chafe from the topping lift/halyard on longer passages under sail. I figured the best solution would be to just move the spare halyard from the boom end and connect it to a belay point on my radar arch.

I have tried this out and it provides lots of room to keep it off my leach. Seems like there is adequate clearance between the two halyards at the mast head when sailing off the wind.

Simple solution. But I haven’t really tried it yet offshore. Am I missing something?

Terence Thatcher

If 12 strand dyneema really causes less chaff, could one just use it instead of your hack, John? Or do we want some give in a topping lift? But I may do this anyway when spring commissioning comes.

Petter Mather Simonsen

John,
Having read about your setup, I understand that you propose to you loop and tie off the shock loosely around the topping lift. I could envisage that that creates a point of chafe between the cord and the topping lift rope. Have you considered the option of sliding a low friction ring onto the topping lift and then lash shock cord tight around the low friction ring. (A ring or use a device similar to the one Stein mentiones – https://www.ronstan.com/marine/product.asp?prodno=RF8081R) The ring will then slide smoothly along the topping lift as it moves. What disadvantages, do you see with this modification?
Greetings!

Eric Klem

Hi John,

I like that solution and I think it will work a bit better than what I have typically done. I have taken a bungee from ~1/3 of the way up the topping lift and taken it back to a point as high as I can reach on the backstay, typically with a ring lashed there. This works but does promote the slack being at the bottom. I got the idea from seeing people do it similarly but to the end of the boom, my thought was that going to the backstay helped maintain more uniform tension. Your solution with the block likely fixes the geometry issue which promotes slack at the bottom.

I am a big fan of having the topping lift just be a second main halyard if at all possible. Our boat actually has 4 sheaves on the front of the mast and 2 on the aft end, all identical. I can’t imagine why we would use all of the ones forward so we keep up there a jib halyard, spinnaker halyard, main halyard and topping lift/spare main halyard.

The solutions that people have suggested that involve retrieving the topping lift with a line or boathook if you also have a rigid vang are quite clever, I had never thought about it. One of the most common questions we get about using davits is how we get the griping lines all the way around the dinghy and the answer is that we throw them over and then use a boathook to grab the line again.

One other thought on this. People should work to not have the boom drop too much when they drop the main both for the topping lift but also the lazyjacks as they will both get a lot of slack while sailing if there is too much difference. On the first sail of the season, we crank the mainsheet in all the way and then adjust these. When a reef is tucked, a bit more slack is generated but on the lazyjacks, at least there is sail now filling it out so we have never needed to adjust them.

Eric

Nicholas R Shaw

John any suggestions on accessing the mid portion of the back stay? Seems a bit tricky to me like you have to go up the mast then pass a line around the back stay and carefully ride the bosun chair back down to where you need to get. Is there any other advise you can offer on this detail?
thanks
Nick

Nicholas R Shaw

Oops I see the earlier post addressing this question. No need to respond John.
thanks

Joshua Marieholm

So John .. thx for a huge trick and info of your website… help me a lot in my refit project https://youtube.com/c/sea4see
My question for you..
I for sure will use HM halyards .. in this article I understand that I need the fuse”.. previously I used dyneema sheet for Genoa and mainsail.. please could give me your advise to get the best setup for cruising sailing boAt sheet and halyards? Thx In Advance
S/Y ellös