The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Turning A Small Simple Boat Into a Cruiser—On Deck

One of the things that I really screwed up while buying our new boat was our initial goal of avoiding project boats…wow, did I screw that up!

That said, in my defence, once I really dug into the boats available, what I found was that those that had the equipment we wanted inevitably had way too much other complicated stuff we didn’t, both on deck and below.

It seems like most owners just can’t resist the siren call of the newest cool gadget, but the last thing I want to spend my old age doing is dealing with unnecessary complications like in-boom furling and all-singing all-dancing marine electronics or electrical systems, all of which are the absolute antithesis of the simple elegance that Phyllis and I have always strived for, even on our 56-foot boat.

The other benefit of this approach is that a lot of the complicated gear I see on secondhand boats is poorly installed, particularly if installed by a “professional” boatyard—yea, I’m really pissed at boatyards at the moment—so I think it’s often better, and in the end cheaper, to buy a simple boat and add the gear we want ourselves, with the added benefit that we will know that it has been maintained properly from day one.

By the way, don’t have a meltdown if you have any of the above items I was rude about, we are all different with different missions for our boats and this is about us and our mission.

That said, I do think that there is an unfortunate trend in cruising to add complexity to solve every problem, or maybe just to have the coolest boat in the marina, or to talk about on the forums, rather than choosing the simplest alternative that will get the job done.

I also think the recent trend of trying to have every convenience we have on land on our boats is one of the worst mistakes in cruising —results in a lot of work and expense instead of sailing and fun.

Even with our 56-boat we did not try to turn her into a condo with all the mod-cons, and we know for sure that cruising a 35-foot, 11,000-pound boat will include a considerable amount of discomfort and inconvenience. Just part of the experience…but don’t you dare remind me of that when I have not had a hot shower in two weeks and the bag of dirty laundry is about to reach critical mass.

Anyway, regardless of how big and complex or how small and simple a boat we have, the decisions we make, and our process of making them based on our 50 years of owning cruising boats from 22 to 56 feet, will be useful, as will the thoughtfully expressed opinions of you members, both experienced and new to cruising, in the comments.

One more thing that struck me as I wrote the last paragraph: Big and complex, while it’s not my choice, can work as long as the owner has enough expertise, money, and time, but what never works is a small complex boat—just not enough room for access or the tools and spares required to keep all that stuff working.

Whatever, let’s look at some of the challenges Phyllis and I need to solve on our new-to-us J/109.


The boat came with a minuscule Danforth and a huge Fortress that does not fit in the anchor locker. Both with all rope, three-strand rodes that have hardened with age. Definitely for the dumpster, since stiff rope that hockles can jam at just the wrong moment and it will happen just when we need the anchor in a hurry.

The Fortress may stay as a kedge, but clearly the bower (primary anchor) needs replacement.

There is a quite beefy removable anchor roller, but it will probably need modification to stow most anchors on and there is no windlass.

I don’t see any of this as big problems because the J/109 has a surprisingly large anchor locker.

And that leads to another tip: When selecting a boat make sure that the basic infrastructure is there for anchoring. We rejected several boats because they did not have deck accessible or forepeak rode lockers.

We can always modify a roller, add a windlass (not sure we will do that), change rode and buy a new anchor, but if the designer has not thought about anchoring at all, as is surprisingly common, it will always be a horror show, no matter how much time and money we throw at the problem.

That said, designing an anchoring system for this boat will be challenging because of two requirements:

  • We have set an absolute weight limit of 100 lbs on the bow for the entire system and we would like to get well under that.
  • One of the coolest things about the J/109 is the ease of shorthanded spinnaker handling conferred by the extending sprit, so we can’t interfere with that.

Still, we have ideas…stay tuned.


The J/109 has, to put it mildly, a big rig for her size, and although we view this as a feature, not a bug, we will be reefing and un-reefing a lot.

That said, less often than on a masthead-rigged boat of the same power, since one of the coolest things about a fractional rig is that it can be de-powered an amazing amount simply by bending the mast with the backstay adjuster, although making that work really well does take a good eye for, and understanding of, sail trim.

In case you have ever wondered, this ability of fractional rigs is how boats like the 505 dinghy and the Etchells 22 keel boat, both of which I have sailed a lot, manage to sail well in winds from nearly nothing to 25 knots true without reefing. In fact, neither boat even has reefs.

That won’t work with our J/109, since not being reefed at over 20 knots true requires big weight on the rail or a trapeze. I did suggest to Phyllis that she might like to try the latter, and that we could even add a rack like the 49er, but her enthusiasm was muted.

So I guess we are back to sorting the reefing system. Well worth whatever effort we need to put into the task since the very cool way a boat like the J/109 can, and should, be low-stress cruised is to reef upwind and then shake out the reef when reaching or running, resulting in still having good speed long after boats with less rig in them are motoring, and often without even setting a spinnaker.

Our boat is, like all J/109s, set up with most of the lines brought back to two winches on the cabin top, but the awkward thing is that there is still the need to go to the mast to put the tack ring on a hook or remove it.

Fine with a full race crew, but a silly situation for short- and particularly for singlehanded sailing, since it requires, at least in the later case, being in two places at once: cockpit to handle the halyard and reef clew line, and mast to deal with the tack ring.

So we will either be moving all reefing lines and the main halyard to the mast, or figuring a way to do it all from the cockpit. I suspect the latter since it’s much more practical on smaller boats, with lower loads, than on large ones like our McCurdy and Rhodes where we did all reefing at the mast.

We might even experiment with single-line reefing if I can overcome my hate of complex systems with lots of friction.

Anyway, we are starting with an open mind, will be experimenting a lot with reef rigging, and will report on the drawbacks and benefits of each option, together with whatever we settle on.

One thing I know from my experience of making reefing super easy on our McCurdy and Rhodes 56 is that generally accepted wisdom around reefing is often, maybe mostly, wrong—be prepared for surprises.

By the way, the above assertion is supported by our observation over the years that many (most?) shorthanded cruising crews avoid reefing like the plague, primarily because their boats are so poorly set up. I suspect this also accounts for the mystifying (to me anyway) popularity of in-mast and in-boom furling systems.

Anyway, reefing does not have to be hard to do. We will get reefing right and the process of getting there will be fun.

Definitely some new chapters coming for our Sail Handling Made Easy Online Book.

Lazy Jacks

We will be fitting lazy jacks, particularly since we don’t want to have to tie in points to stop the bunt flapping around every time we reef.

I’m guessing we will just stick with the simple tried and proven system we debugged over the years on the McCurdy and Rhodes, although we will think about improvements, like, for example, using low friction rings instead of blocks.

Mainsail Track

I’m a firm believer that all cruising boats should have some kind of low friction mainsail luff system. We fitted a full-on Frederiksen (now Ronstan) ball bearing system on the McCurdy and Rhodes, and it was one of the best upgrades we made.

For this boat we have already bought a Tides Marine track system that, while not ball bearing, came highly recommended by a sailmaker who specializes in J/109s, and will be a lot lighter than a ball bearing system, too.

Spinnaker Handling

One of the things that really pushed us to a J-Boat, against say a Sabre Tartan, or X-Yacht, or even the more cruising oriented, but still fast, J-42, is that we really wanted the extending sprit.

The big pay off is that a boat so equipped can be quickly and easily (with practice) jibed in much the same way we jibe a genoa downwind.

And this ability to jibe easily without messing with any sort of pole, together with the added area and efficiency of having the spinnaker tacked six feet forward of the bow, means we will never have to sail dead downwind, and that in turn means we will sail far more and motor far less, even in light airs—the apparent wind you get from sailing hot angles with a big asymmetrical spinnaker is a wonderful thing, particularly on a big-rig boat like the J/109.

Just a quick aside. While tacking downwind will be great for the sailing we primarily intend to do, I still firmly believe that ocean-crossing cruising boats should be set up to sail downwind with the main on one side and the jib (preferably high cut) on the other (as well as an asymmetric). Just a great tradewind rig and much easier on the autopilot (and the crew’s nerves) than sailing hot angles once the breeze and waves are up.

Back to us. To make this work to the point we will actually do it, we have to make setting and striking the spinnaker easy, double- or maybe even singlehanded.

The boat came with a snuffer, so that will be our initial approach, particularly since we used one for years on the McCurdy and Rhodes 56 to set an asymmetric. A task we became so confident in that we did it often even though the spinnaker was huge, the loads colossal, and jibing a bitch.

In fact, the problem that increasingly limited our spinnaker usage, and increased our motoring, had nothing to do with setting or striking but, rather, that the task of wrestling that huge spinnaker in and out of the forepeak became too much for our aging backs—won’t be a problem with the J/109 in that we can pick up the spinnakers with one hand.

The other option we want to look at and experiment with is top-down torque-line furlers for the spinnaker and maybe even a Code 0 on a bottom-up furler, although the latter will require adding a bobstay to support the sprit, something quite a few J/109 owners have done.

These sails and furlers, like so many cool innovations that trickled down from racing, are changing the way cruising boats are rigged and sailed and will eventually, I’m sure, put the final and long overdue stake through the heart of that invention of the devil (actually, poorly-conceived racing-rating rules), overlapping genoas, as well as encourage all of us to sail more and motor less.

Crew Overboard Prevention

One of the bigger challenges we are facing is how to put together a good crew overboard prevention system, particularly since I will often be singlehanded and we intend to sail both early and late in the season when cold water exponentially increases the dangers of ending up in the drink.

And the further challenge is that we need to figure out how to do this without restricting our movements to the point that we can’t sail this high performance boat properly.

We have some ideas, but a lot of iteration will, I’m sure, go into this that will result in several new chapters for our Crew Overboard Prevention Online Book.

Adventure 40 Prototype

One of the things that excites me about this project is that, although our J/109 is a lot smaller boat than the Adventure 40, a lot of the improvements and retrofits will be directly applicable. This will be a great way to get a jump on A40 development.

Lots More To Do

Next time I write about the new boat upgrades, I will look at the challenges we face in fixing and upgrading the DC electrical system to support cruising as well as on-deck navigation and fitting radar. Oh, and I’m guessing the autopilot is toast.

I have a busy winter coming, me thinks. But then, as a friend of mine is wont to say, “every man needs a project”. I sure have mine.

Further Reading and Watching


So, do you have any brilliant ideas to address the above challenges? If so, please leave a comment. But remember, simple and elegant is the goal here.

More Articles From J/109 Fibreglass Fractional Sloop—Performance cruiser/racer:

  1. Turning A Small Simple Boat Into a Cruiser—On Deck
  2. Our New Boat Selection Process—Part 1, Fitness For Mission
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Steven Schapera

Its most educational for us lesser mortals to observe your approach and understand your decision-making process. What I find most valuable, however, is how your writings continiually reinforce the “keep it simple” mantra. It is so easy to get sucked in to the belief that a gadget or a new tech will solve all problems – forgetting that sometimes this exposes us to new problems, usually when its dark, blowing 40kn, and shorthanded. Thank you for helping me to focus on the fundamentals.

Stein Varjord

Hi John,

As always, when you dish out some opinion, you make me smile in agreement, perhaps even feeling a bit of triumph or even malevolence towards the receiving end. Am I a bad person if I enjoy that? 🙂 Anyway, thanks!

I also love rigs that allow extensive shaping of the sails, for the reasons you mention. The “consensus” that these rig types are not suitable for cruisers is false, in my opinion. I think the misunderstanding is based on the fact that many very trimmable rigs are unsuitable, and those are seen as proof, disregarding the useful concepts they contain.

A properly trimmed sail makes the boat perform well, which is an important ingredient of seaworthiness. Loads of cruisers can’t sail well to windward in really strong wind, partly because their sails can’t be flattened properly. In my mind, that’s a critical fail and makes the boat useless for cruising. Useless for anything else than staying in a harbour, really.

We don’t absolutely need to be able to bend the mast to flatten the mainsail, but it certainly is a very effective tool. It’s totally realistic to have a bendable mast and still have a very robust and easy to handle rig. I have not sailed a lot on J-boats, but they seem to be a good example of this. On a pure cruiser, I might go for an even stiffer mast, preferably carbon, but still easily trimmable.

As an aside; on light racing multihulls with a rotating mast, (and several other boat types) the square head mainsail makes aft stays impossible. Still the mast is bent just as much. That’s done with the cunningham. This might sound weird for the majority, as the cunningham is just to flatten the luff. However, on the mentioned boat types the cunningham has a huge purchase and may get more tension than the main sheet.

One example is the Formula 18 beach cats I sailed a bit 10 to 15 years ago. Relatively low tech open class with many boats, high level of racing and loads of fun at a limited cost. They typically have a 1:12 purchase on their main sheet, which is pulled hard most of the time. The cunningham typically has a cascade 1:16 to 1:20 purchase. Both crew are on a trapeze. The crew runs the main sheet and the cunningham, also while hiking. Mostly the cunningham is the one used to balance the boat, pulling it bends the mast (a lot), flattens the sail, keeps the camber in the right spot (mast bend alone moves it aft), and opens the leach. All this turns overpower and stall into dramatic acceleration, which is the difference between gaining from a gust or being overpowered and out of control, often capsize.

The point of mentioning this is that it illustrates so well how a simple trim makes a huge difference in boat performance. A cruiser has far less drama in its reactions, but it’s basically the same problem and solution type we look for. If our stiff robust cruiser rig does not include an actively trimmable mast curve, that’s fine. It’s much less in need of the “perfect” sail shape than a racer. But still the sail shape desperately needs to be trimmable in predictable ways in all conditions, especially when reefed down. If not, the boat is a cripple.

Wow, that got me into a rant. 🙂 Sorry. Maybe this would be more useful somewhere else?

Ernest E Vogelsinger

John, wouldn’t it be possible to control the mast curve on a masthead rig by tensioning a cutter- or baby stay (if shroud geometry allows this)?

Reed Erskine

Fascinating article in many respects. I just have one dumb question, or maybe two. I have a J42, which I dearly love, but have always wondered about that distinctive mast rake, which I’ve seen on catamarans and schooners, but not on mono-hulls. What is the functional advantage of this rakish feature?

As for the ability to crank down the backstay to flatten the mainsail and depower the rig in brisk conditions: is this feature unique to fractional rigs, and, if so, why?

Also wondering about the anchor windlass decision, but will enjoy the suspense of awaiting future revelations in that department.

Reed Erskine

Thanks for the concise explanation of the engineering and geometry of the fractional rig, which seems to be standard on all newer sloops. Tuning these bendy rigs and dealing with problems like mast “pumping” is both intuitive and technical. After sixteen years of sailing my J, I’m still learning.

Stein Varjord

Hi John and Reed,

I think some designers will disagree with me, but I’d say Johns assumption is the core reason for big rake on multihulls too. Aesthetics and the feeling it looks fast. However, there is a reason to think it has a performance benefit.

The idea is that an aft raking sail will alter the wind motion slightly downwards, creating a bit of lift, rather than the opposite, which happens when a boat heels over. This effect is real, especially when the sail is let out a bit on the traveller, but how big the benefit is in total can be discussed for a while….

P D Squire

French designer of cruising yachts Daniel Bombigher always drew a lot of rake. His argument was that it made it easier to identify your boat when rowing out to it after dark, particularly if a lot of wine had been consumed just prior.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

On big traditional boats, rake served 2 purposes that I know of:

  1. When becalmed and slatting, a raked rig can often get away with just leaving the sheet loose so that the boom never went out enough to load the sheet. On these rigs with booms that are many thousands of pounds, sails that are close to a thousand and gaffs that are in the thousands too, this could be a real advantage. With a relatively vertical mast, the boom would not return to center on its own and would cause enormous shock loads.
  2. With big gaff rigged sails, you couldn’t have a permanent backstay but a raked mast and shrouds that were vertical in side profile provided enough support.

One other note on rake with more than 1 mast is that each mast must be a little more raked as you go aft, usually by 1-3 degrees. If not, the rig looks wrong and the mastheads look too close because of where you normally view the boats from.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

I have no idea on that one. Most of my traditional boat knowledge is around Gloucester fishing schooners and coasting schooners and I have some knowledge of Baltimore clippers and larger square riggers like barques but I don’t know anything on the traditional UK boats that can’t be found with a google search.


William Murdoch

Don’t throw the old rope in the dumpster. Find a Boy Scout troop or other youth outdoors organization and give it to them. Fifty+ years ago a similar gift from the telephone company gave us the best monkey bridge at the Camporee and endless games of tug-of-war.

Marc Dacey

I have a friend in the theatrical industry who works as a rigger (of gantries, sets and lighting). I was able to hook him up with a Sea Scout leader and large amounts of superannuated jute and manila line went to them for ropework use that would otherwise have gone to the landfill. Very sad line for boat purposes can, if unchafed, be used safely ashore.

Marc Dacey

We are quite happy with our Tides mainsail track setup, especially since the newish main is full-battened. That and the new Harken furler are making things considerably easier than they used to be.

David Shepherdson

Good to hear, I just installed a Tides Marine Track on my new to me J120 yesterday and a new Harken MKIV furler is on order.

Murray Fitzgerald

G’day John. I am enjoying your new adventure and intrigued by some choices. We have a top down endless furler on the spinnaker and as a frequent solo sailor I love it. Forecast permitting, it is often rigged before leaving the anchorage.

Ernest E Vogelsinger

John, viewing the video you link to I was actually shocked how they jibed, the main going completely uncontrolled from port to starboard (although it looks quite benign, check at 05:20). I have to add that I have absolutely no idea or experience how to sail a racing rig, is this how you would do it? Additionally I didn’t see any kind of preventer…

Rob Gill

Hi Ernest, “what John said”, plus gybing the sail with the aim of keeping your boat under the rig. So just before the main crosses the centreline of the boat, start to apply opposite helm as if trying to counter the gybe (but not too much you gybe back). This keeps the flow over the keel and rudder attached, the rig vertical, and mitigates the risk of a windward broach. If you watch the video you will see as soon as the boom crosses the centreline, the boat steadies on a straight course – pretty sure the helmsman is applying counter-rudder to achieve this until the boat is stable on the new course.
This racing technique is helpful with a displacement masthead cruiser in heavy airs.
Br. Rob

Stein Varjord

Hi Rob and John,

The casual reader might say that racing boats and dinghies are not relevant here or to the main topics of AAC, but I beg to differ… The observations you both mention are highly relevant for cruisers, especially in heavy weather. My pet peeve goes about like this:

– Sail fast dinghies to get intuitive understanding.
– With enough power, all boats behave like dinghies.
– No dinghy skill = A dangerously incompetent helm!
– Fast dinghies are the ONLY place you can learn it well.

That’s shaped to tease, of course, but I honestly don’t think it’s exaggerated. Hopefully we can mostly avoid the situations where that type of skill is needed on a cruiser, but can we be certain? I don’t think so. I know for certain I have saved 3 lives, including mine, in a very bad storm 22 years ago by having those skills.

What you do to get those skills is about the best fun you can possibly have in life, so why not? 🙂

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Fully supported! Even if we don’t talk about handling life threating situations, a fast dinghy is light enough to react immediately to small changes in sail trim and steering, while a 10-ton boat needs some time – so you usually don’t know which of your actions has been responsible for the reaction you notice. I have learned sailing while racing 470 boats on Austrian lakes (yup, loong ago).

But as I noticed this topic is mostly discussed religiously, so I just get my popcorn ready and wait for the other side of the arguments 😉

Eric Klem

Hi Ernest,

If you really want to scare yourself, look up a “Hudson River sloop gybe” although I wouldn’t try it with a spinnaker up. This is performed by getting on broad reach and letting the main all the way out then putting the helm hard down until the boat is above a beam reach on the other tack before bearing away again. The idea of this is that when the main comes across, it never actually fills on the new tack, it just luffs and then you bear away. This works because you sail by the lee for quite a bit before the main blows over and if the boat is turning fast enough, you will be above a beam reach on the new tack before the main makes it across. This technique was used by traditional working boats of a pretty good size (look up the sloop Clearwater for an example) and when done right is pretty reliable. I have done it and while it scares me, it does work but I would not make a habit of using the technique. The later commercial boats that used it had a “patent gyber” that replaced the traditional sheet horse and these were decent shock absorbers plus the sheets were quite stretchy so you had some leeway if things went wrong but people did break stuff gybing.

Part of the reason this technique became popular was that the alternatives were not much good either, especially for a place like the Hudson river where you might be constantly gybing. Chicken gybing caused the boats to heel a lot more briefly and boats would often miss tacks if there were seas going which could be unpleasant and wet for the cargo or downright dangerous if a shore was approaching. Hauling in the main to gybe like most cruising boats do often required more muscle than was available. Some of my scarier moments on boats involved hauling in 2000 ft^2 and 5000lbs+ of sail and spars as far as we could and then letting it slam across and having to let 200’+ of sheet rip out with smoke pouring off the quarter bit. Handling that sheet was the really scary part, too many turns on the bit and you would have a lot of rig landing on your head and too few or a jumped turn and you would lose control or get horrendous rope burn and hopefully not get caught by a bight and pulled into a block.

Note, this is not to be confused with “getting paid off baltimore style” where some shock load at the end was desirable. This technique involved sailing near shore, sending the crew member who was being relieved of their duties to the end of the main boom to fix the outhaul lashing and then gybing and hoping they knew how to swim. Thankfully, I think this practice ended before any of us started sailing.


Jeffrey Thayer

I cannot agree more about learning to sail in small-ish boats. They give the kind of feedback to the learning process that you just don’t get on bigger boats. Dinghies of course are great, but not everybody has that desire/opportunity or bravery. I teach complete newbies to sail on San Francisco bay (15 to 20 kts typical) on J-24s and Merit 25s. They still provide instant feedback on crew work, but lower the cost of mistakes which are inevitable for learners.

Matt Marsh

I am very fond of the Topper Topaz for that purpose. Tough enough to survive a lot of mishandling, fast enough for a thrill, simple enough for one person to sail without being overwhelmed, but with all the essential controls for really tuning the boat and rig for the wind you have. Stable enough to forgive some mistakes and carry a kid or two with you, but tippy and flighty enough to punish you appropriately the instant you get something wrong.
There are of course many other boats that are just as good!
We’ve really noticed that all kinds of helm and sail trim mistakes that get shrugged off by the C&C 35 as “eh, that’ll cost you two-tenths of a knot until you notice” will, in a smaller boat, get a reaction of “Eff you, skipper, you can’t do that to me, now smarten up!”

Michael Lambert

I learned on a sunfish and 420s in polluted northern Narragansett bay, and yes, got good at not going in the not-a-drink. But I’d say wing foiling takes it to the next level. You are directly holding onto the sail so you feel everything after watching clues on the water, and jibing in light air involves flagging out the sail so the apparent wind can reverse without you hitting a wall. More like a square rigger though with more speed.

Mark Bodnar

I’m interested to see your decision regarding windlass. I’m bobbing around the same waters on an even smaller cruiser (CS30) so I’ve be pulling my anchor by hand. It’s a smaller anchor and I’m still in shape for it but realize time won’t make that easier.
Thinking about long term I’ve wondered about adding a manual windlass (a vertical style – I only found one manufacturer) specifically so I could use an Ewincher ( That saves running wiring (or extra bow batteries) and also gives gives me flexibility to power other winches if needed.

Mark Bodnar

I hadn’t thought of that. Can the chain portion be managed effectively? I guess a combination chain/rode gypsy could be made to fit?
I’ve never used a manual windlass so no idea they were heavy.

Mark Bodnar

Looks nice. I’ve not really dug into the details either – more just a potential long term plan.
I had been looking at — but unable to find info on weight. Plus doubt it has the 2 speed advantage and as you noted the gypsy would be an issue if faced with hybrid rode

Colin Post

Hi Mark. I too have a CS30. The only area that I can see that has enough strength in the deck, is immediately aft of the anchor locker to mount the winch. How would you feed the rode back to the locker? Would you just leave the locker open when anchoring or weighing. Apologies for what may be a foolish question. I have only had the boat for a week!

Mark Bodnar

Colin – you’re asking a question for which I don’t have a specific solution as of yet. My thought about adding a manual winch/windlass is no more than a theoretical idea yet.
That said – My guess would be to build a frame across the aft end of the anchor locker so it can be bolted into the toe rail bolts as well as maybe secured to the rear of the locker – then mount the “windlass” centered in the back of the locker protruding up. Cut and re-build the locker lid so the “windlass” protrudes and the rode is fed down into the locker.
Enjoy the CS 30 – great little boat

Mark Bodnar

True – as noted I’m hauling my anchor by hand as it is – with no sig issues. I was thinking about what I might be facing in the future if that gets too difficult.
As for the positioning – I’ve not dug into the details but was not sure the structure of the deck would support a winch – but wouldn’t be hard to beef up the area.
Another solution I could also use snatch blocks to lead the rode back to a cockpit winch – use a winch handle or eWincher as needed. Not a great place for the rode to pile up but for a small boat not unmanageable.
In all it’s not something I’m doing anytime soon but I’ll be interested to see the solutions others come up with.

Matt Marsh

We have a horizontal manual windlass. I suppose if I really had to break the anchor out, it might be useful. But it’s awkward and slow, and for the most part it just sits there and creates a trip hazard. I can haul in the rode 10 to 15 times faster by just grabbing it and pulling. And if the anchor’s being stubborn, shortening up to 1:1 scope by hand and then bouncing the boat around a bit usually does the trick.
With a heavier rig than our 33 lb Bruce + 15 (?) ft of chain, I might change my mind, though.
And if starting from scratch with a rope rode and a “no power windlass” criterion, I’d definitely consider just using a big self-tailing sheet winch, far enough back from the bow that the 6-foot chain leader won’t reach it. The same winch would be useful for docking and for launching the dinghy.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

Sorry to hear that it is turning into a project boat but that does seem to be the standard, at least the projects you have listed so far are not huge. Given the choice of overcomplicated and simple but needing work, I agree with the choice you made. It is funny how simple is so hard to define. To me, our boat is not simple (it does have refrigeration and hot water after all) but it is not complicated (basic electronics, simple sail handling systems, no shore power, etc). However, when I compare to most other boats, it seems incredibly simple and then occasionally you run into the person who has no electrical system at all and just uses kerosene lanterns and you don’t know where you fall. I just have to think about keeping the boat at a certain safety level and then evaluating everything else on a comfort and performance gained versus time, money and maintenance added.

On the ground tackle subject, meeting a 100lb budget is going to be interesting, especially if you don’t want to go with an aluminum anchor and if you try to go with a windlass. For the size anchor I would want to run, it would be at the limit of doing it without a windlass for a younger fit person, I grew up doing this and it is not always easy or safe. Looking at the current locker, it appears that they intend the anchor stock to thread under the locker lid. From experience I can tell you that if you bury the bow, you will get a lot of water weight up forward real quick. Of course, if the lid needs to open, it is hard to do much else other than raise the locker floor really high to keep the volume of water low (this is what we did). If you decide to do a windlass, have you considered installing a horizontal one just under the lid as far aft as possible while still in the locker so it doesn’t change your clear deck at all? If the back of the locker is a good bulkhead, it would not be hard to fabricate an angle bracket for it to sit on supported off this bulkhead. I have done this successfully a few times including on our current boat and like it a lot for coastal sailing, probably not ideal if the bow will spend a ton of time underwater when you don’t want a deck opening locker at all. Since you would have a relatively shallow locker, you would need a way to manage the chain and rope pile. I would think that a Maxwell HRC8 would fit the bill nicely, it has enough pull for what you need and it has a high chain speed so you don’t even need to use the freefall all that often. The only trouble is that it is 25lbs and then a few pounds for cabling and another few for mounting but I don’t know of any good options that are really lighter.

I will be watching what you do with reefing and the spinnaker. So many boats this size are fitted just like your J109 with all reefing done at the cockpit except the tack ring and short of adding an additional set of reef lines or going to single line reefing, the only thing that I know to do is to mark the halyard so at least you don’t make extra trips to the mast. On the sails, I keep wondering if things have gotten to the point where it is worth it to look at a Code 0 or a more modern spinnaker shape for relatively slow boats like us.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

If you are willing to entertain an aluminum anchor, that makes a big difference. It also explains why you are entertaining the idea of going without a windlass, a 26lb aluminum Spade would seem to be plenty big and represents a weight that could be handled safely by hand, at least in calm weather. I do wonder whether you would have setting issues by going with both an aluminum anchor and short chain unless you are willing to lay out tons of scope. I grew up anchoring boats up to 48′ on hybrid rodes, mostly with 30′ of chain but I found 50′ to be better on the first boat we owned just so that we swung more similarly to other boats but I am guessing we spend more time in crowded places than you. In many ways, if you can get away with it, your idea of <10′ of chain would be best both for weight and getting rid of the washdown pump and it may even be a good tradeoff if it forces you back to a steel anchor for setting.

Agreed on preferring the Maxwell to the Lewmar offering. We have a horizontal Maxwell and despite lots of abuse, it is doing well. The only issue is that I can’t get it fully apart as some stainless screws going into aluminum have seized, I wish that I had tried to get tefgel on those when we first got it. If you don’t get a windlass, some way to automatically belay the line is really helpful for hand-hauling. I don’t know if there is an appropriate device like a giant rope clutch that has very low pull through friction or maybe a captive prusik like used by tree climbers.

What are you thinking of for rope rode? I find polyester intriguing for its better fatigue and chafe properties so you can use a smaller diameter but it forces a snubber unless you have a lot out. However, I think that it gets really heavy when wet although I don’t know if it is worse than anything else, numbers on this are probably available somewhere. Nylon would be an easy choice and works fine but is pretty heavy even when dry. If you are really weight conscious, you could think about some form of high modulus rode but then you have the snubber attachment issue and the loads issue when the snubber is not attached like when hauling up. Steve Goodwin is successfully doing this with single braid dyneema in his anchor testing by having splices regularly which he can hook to, it is the first time I have actually seen this tried and not just speculated about. What is best is probably highly coupled to the windlass/winch decision as those tend to be pretty picky about diameter, construction and material.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

Yes, it does seem like it is going to be somewhat iterative and good on you to accept that. I think your idea to figure out whether you can do an aluminum anchor and short chain first is good. For an interim solution while you figure out if you need a winch/windlass, a handy billy or similar purchase in the 3 or 4:1 range can be pretty effective if you can’t easily get a good lead to a cockpit winch or want everything including you and the mud to stay on the foredeck. If you put a “rope wrench” or equivalent at the bow, to first help you with handhauling then to allow for resetting of the handy billy without having to mess around with something like a rolling hitch, I think it would go pretty quick. Some of the boats that I worked on have heavy enough chain that once it leaves the windlass, you can’t manage it by hand and so it would be flaked out with a small purchase which was surprisingly fast and effective once you figured out how to set it up.

Some super rough math seems to show that a winch can work if you don’t mind going slow but it is going to be slow and usually it will just be a tailing device. Typical windlass chain speeds are around 1ft/s but can get as high as 1.5ft/s. The Karver winch you link to has a drum of 84mm so 213mm or 0.7ft/turn. That would require a drum speed of 1.4 rps for 1ft/s and therefore 1.4 rps on the winch handle in the lower gear (direct drive ratio). That is pretty fast, my rough guess is 2-3X what a normal human can sustain even under light load and an ergonomic installation so I would expect the real chain speed to be more like .3ft/s. Using the mil human factors handbook number of 19 lbs for this type of action, someone could sustain a peak of about 115 lbs of rode force when the handle was perpedicular to them and less in other positions. Going to the low gear on that winch, the numbers look more like 0.04 ft/s (2.4 ft/min) and 856 lbs which could break out a stuck anchor but would be a really slow way to drag the boat forward if it was blowing hard and you couldn’t use the engine. I would think that in an ideal world, this second ratio would be much less deep for windlass duty, like 3:1 reduction rather than 7.44:1 as you could peak at much higher than 19lbs and would rather have the speed. What this all really shows is that even if you get a small 600W windlass, that is a lot more power than a human can do. I think the numbers for the average adults for a few minute burst is in the range of 2-300W for the legs and I would expect the arms to be half that or less (my 2 seconds on google didn’t give me a quick answer). This suggests that even a wimpy windlass is capable of on the order of 6X the power that a human can do even with an ergonomically installed winch with good gear ratios so as long as the gear ratio in the windlass is decent, it gets the job done a lot faster. If the energy is coming from your arms, this is the order of magnitude of speed you will be looking at, the real way to do it would be to go to your legs but at that point, I think you would have been better off with a small electric windlass.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

I grabbed a few pictures of our setup this weekend. I also remembered that I really need to clean out the locker after trying to do a good deed and using it to carry some rusty chain we found back to proper metal recycling….

Our boat came with an upper and lower locker setup and we keep the majority of our chain in the lower locker with the remainder through a small pipe to under the V-berth. In this case, the windlass is mounted on a box made of 3/16″ stainless plate. The aft end of the box has a piece of plate covering some of it which ensures that it can’t rack. Running through the center is a piece of pipe which the chain is inside. The purpose of this pipe is to raise the level which water would have to get to inside the upper locker for it to be able to get into the lower locker. Bolted to the side is a cleat for belaying the chain which you can just see under a piece of double braid that is stored on it. We use a wired remote windlass control which is mounted to the bulkhead behind the windlass so when you go to use it, you just reach in and grab the remote out of its holder. We also have a wireless remote wired into the solenoid which gets used about once a year but I have a switch on that one to disable it for fear that we have unwanted windlass behavior. Also mounted to the bulkhead is a big piece of fiberglass tube that sticks aft in which our washdown hose is stored.

I do not consider this arrangement to be optimal at all and have had on my to do list since before I even implemented the current solution but honestly it works pretty well so I haven’t fixed it. We bought our boat in Michigan on a trailer and towed it back to Massachusetts and only had 6 days before launching so I knew I wanted to install a windlass but I also didn’t have the time to do the fiberglass work to do it the way I wanted so I hacked together the current solution in probably 2-3 hours, even the wiring took longer. What I would really like to do is to eliminate the windlass pedestal completely and raise the partition between the lockers to make it so that we could fit a bit more chain in the lower locker and make the total max water weight in the upper locker lower too. The chain pulls out from under the V-berth without any prompting but someone has to pull it back in, we only use enough chain to do this about once a year so not a big deal at all. Another thing that would help would be to move the windlass a few more inches aft to get it more optimally situated over the locker. At the time, I was worried about servicing and also getting to the manual controls and freefall but I find it easiest to unbolt the piece I made for service and I have come to feel I wouldn’t use the manual option. It would be great to get the chain drop in the center of the locker instead of offset to starboard but I think this would require a change of direction or angling the roller which isn’t possible with the current bow casting.

I have done this sort of arrangement a few times but never with a partitioned locker before, the current one is my least favorite implementation and I don’t think I ever took pictures of the previous ones. If you don’t want to add a horizontal partition, instead of building a box, I have built a big right angle bracket going to the bulkhead. I would just cut out 2 triangles of your chosen material, place them the width of the windlass apart and weld plates across each of the short sides leaving the hypotenuse open. I used stainless as that is what I am set up to work with but aluminum would seem a good choice, I have started playing with the aluminum brazing rods and I wonder if they would hold up in a marine environment or if the alloy is not appropriate.


Eric Klem

And another one showing the piece the windlass sits on.

Anchor locker close up.jpg
Eric Klem

Hi John,

I think you are wise to look at what happens as the anchor comes onto the roller, that often messes with a lot of setups. In addition to the roller furling drum interference issue, there is also the issue of the lead angle to the windlass. With vertical units, I have seen these jam and do other horrible things as the chain angle briefly greatly exceeds the design limit, obviously a windlass that is closer to the roller is worse than one far away. With a horizontal unit, I have never had any problems even though it will go out of spec on those too in many instances but this just means that it grips on less of the chain wheel. If I remember right, I have our windlass aligned so that the base of it is parallel to the chain except when the anchor is coming aboard which means it is tipped back slightly relative to the water. Since the locker partition is angled the other way, that box it sits on is much taller forward than aft. As you point out, a roller holding the chain down can work.  Keeping loads low as the anchor comes aboard is probably important as well which means either 1 really large diameter roller or 2 offset which is what I built for us.

Good to hear that you are going in early and will have time to sort this stuff out.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

I had forgotten about the eWincher option, that certainly could change the calculus. They claim 1.7 rps which would give you equivalent speed to a windlass of 1.2 ft/s in the taller gear and 0.16 ft/s in the shorter gear of the Karver winch. They don’t give you the relationship between max speed and torque that I can see and it is dependent on motor type and implementation but I still think it should be fine for light load speeds but may be a bit slow if you were trying to drag the boat forward in a blow. With regards to forces, they claim a maximal handle force of 77lbs. Again, I don’t know what this means, is this the stall torque (I hope not, that is hard on motors and gearboxes) or the nominal torque (probably not, you usually allow peaking over this) or somewhere in between? Even if we only used half of this number, 39lbs is more than double the 19lb number I used for manual so the forces are reasonable at 235 and 1755lbs. I still think you would ideally have the shorter gear ratio not be so deep, you don’t need nearly 2000lbs of pull for a 35lb boat but you do want more speed in that low gear. Switching from force method to energy method, the unit is a 450W input unit and approximately 230W output after efficiency losses so this allows you to compare to existing windlasses. To do this, you do have to either run the numbers on gear ratios or assume that they were selected appropriately. The winch and powered handle option does has the advantage potentially of multiple ratios if a winch can be found with appropriate ratios. For a small boat, like say 35′ and under, I could see this working if you did your homework on gear ratios if there were a strong reason not to get a windlass.

One of the keys with a winch is going to be what line is used in the anchor rode. When using it just as a line brake, you can probably have a decent range of lines. But I would think that once you start using it with the handle, you would definitely want something that would fit in the self-tailer.


Bill Attwood

Hi John,
Chain stopper in place of windlass? Depends on weight of chain and anchor and the state of your back, but has many advantages: weight, simplicity, cost, muscle building. I often haul our anchor using the chain stopper instead of the windlass, just to confirm that I can – 25 kg Rocna and 10 mm chain. We tend to anchor in not more than 5 meters, and I’m not sure how I would cope with an additional 5 meters of chain, for example. Only drawback I can see is the need to get the anchor really quickly, and running out of puff halfway through.
Yours aye,

Bill Attwood

Hi John,
As an addendum, if one is seated on the foredeck and can use legs and arms, a person of average fitness should be able to produce 250 to 270 watts. Canny use of the boat yawing if there is a strong wind means that the chain can be got easily at those times when it goes slack. I also wouldn’t break out the anchor using a windlass, but use the weight of the boat, or with the chain tight, all hands to the stern. As you may have guessed, I have a masters in sucking eggs!

James Sarrett

Hi John & Phyllis, first off, Congratulations on your new boat!

I crew on a J120 (jib and spin trim, depending on what’s needed) in some local races around here (SoCal) with 7-9 other people. I find that I’m always learning something new from somebody who’s been competitive for 20 years on one. So, I’m interested to hear how you plan to gybe shorthanded. Inside or outside? Pull the snuffer down most/all of the way first? We normally do inside gybes, but the bowman has to be pretty spry pulling the clew back and down to keep twists from forming.

The J-Boats all sail very well, and have a great layout for a full crew, but as you say there will need to be some modficaitons for shorthanded conditions, so we’re all following along intently to see what you settle on.

Stuart Jackson

I wanted a boat with the ability to do fun afternoon performance sailing similar to the J109 but also able to cross an ocean. Some difficult trade-offs but this is what I came up with

Stein Varjord

Hi Stuart,
I think X-Yachts have much in common with J-Boats. I like them. I met the Danish founder and house designer Niels Jeppesen when competing with him in the 3/4 Ton World Championships in Torquay 1986. We also sailed an X then. He’s a very nice and competent guy. He has sold his shares and recently started working for their main competitor of that segment in Scandinavia; Arcona, Sweden. That’s another brand definitely worth considering. Now the two are similar, but X used to be focussed on regatta boats with limited cruising abilities. They now make more boat types. Quality used to be good, and I have the impression it’s even gotten better, but I haven’t sailed one for 15 years…

Stuart Jackson

Niels must have left very recently as he is still credited with the latest designs. Agree the boats are built for performance first, which I also think equates to being enormous fun to sail. The downside of a lively boat is that it is less forgiving and more demanding for blue water cruising, The boat is easy to sail with two for coastal sailing but I think a crew of four is minimum for a long passage.

Stein Varjord

Hi Stuart,
Yes, he apparently had a one year limit on working for others and started the new place a couple of weeks ago.

I don’t really think performance boats have to be significantly more trouble to handle when cruising. They definitely can be, but if the rig is well set up and we don’t sail “pedal to the metal”, it’s mostly fine. Performance means that you you need far less power to move along at the same speed as a slower boat. It also steers dramatically better and lighter than a typical cruiser.

The number of crew needed for crossings depends on other issues than boat speed capabilities, I think. I’ve crossed the Atlantic with just one more person onboard, on a catamaran easily passing 20 knots boat speed. We even had rough weather and a fair bit of upwind. Never any stress. 6 hour watches. We were well rested at all times. If the boat is well set up and sailed conservatively, I actually prefer a performance boat for any use. I come from racing, so maybe I’m just damaged goods. 🙂

Stein Varjord

Hi John,
Amen to the KISS principle! (Keep it simple stupid). My favourite quotes are the one you used, and: “Two items fail twice as often as one item.” 🙂 I’m fanatic about making things simpler.

In some racing classes that has actually been the trend more than 30 years, (as you know, but others here might not). In the extreme classes, like the IMOCA 60 and multihulls, some details in the rigging have returned to systems used for thousands of years. Rope standing rigging and a rope lashing replacing several bits of steel. Often no spreaders. The reason is partly that it’s stronger and lighter, but mainly that it’s more reliable. Failures can be clearly detected before they happen and repairs are easy, even while sailing. Also, since they’re often sailed solo long distance, the handling methods are designed to be simple.

All these properties are valuable on a cruiser. I think cruisers should be designed with many of the same methods planned in. Some can be installed on existing boats, but mostly the boat needs to be designed for simpler systems. It’s even cheaper, if we educate ourselves to be able to maintain it, which is easy.

Stein Varjord

Hi John,
I haven’t met Niels for some 30 years, so I have no inside info. Still, from public statements and attitudes, my impression is that the tone is good among them all. I assume that he wants to enjoy new challenges and develop ideas with his design company. He’s probably financially comfortable anyway.

Dean Surette

on the J-109 Interested in if you have made any modifications to protect the V berth from water coming in on the telescoping pole “seal” into the V berth? I’ve been on a few J-109’s where the V berth is getting some water intrusion, the J-boats did provide a semi clear sail cloth to contain splashing however ….
Thank you