Reefing Under Sail

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to watch one of the Tradewinds boats from a distance “struggling” in 25 knot plus winds at the eastern entrance to Raccoon Straight.  My initial thought was that the boat was in trouble, so we started in that direction to lend assistance.  As we got closer, we realized the motor was running, the boat was head to wind, and the crew as struggling to get a reef in.  It wasn’t fun to watch.  Both sails were being trashed by the wind (we needed to restitch the jib UV cover the next day) and the resulting reef was very poorly set.  Watching it reminded me of one of my mentors as I was learning to sail who had a favorite saying … “If you can’t reef under sail, San Francisco Bay will eat your lunch, and you have no business sailing there!”

As an instructor teaching Bareboat and Advanced Coastal Cruising classes, I have come to realize the truth and wisdom in this statement, and sadly, how may sailors out there can’t do it when it is actually safer, easier, and much less noisy than turning on the motor and pulling up head to wind.

To put a reef in under sail, come close hauled, trim the jib, and release the main. While the main is released, the boat will heal less allowing you to comfortably ease the halyard and put in the reef.  Typically the reef tack is set first, followed by the reef outhaul, and then the halyard is adjusted.  It is truly as simple as that. The only challenge is understanding the exact process as it applies to different boats.  Some boats have two lines (tack and outhaul) for each reef.  Some have a single line that sets both tack and outhaul.  Some have a hook and ring at the tack.  Some boats are so simple as to have a roller furling main that just needs to be rolled up a bit.  Regardless of the set up, sail close hauled with the main released and reefing will be a snap.

What happens if you are sailing short handed and your crew is scared and not able to help.  It’s not quite as quick and efficient, however, try reefing while hove to.  Generally that can be accomplished without the help of an untrained crew member.

One final thought.  Remember the rules of the road.  Reef while on a starboard tack and you will generally be the stand on vessel.

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10 Responses to Reefing Under Sail

  1. Gene Stangel says:

    Easy = Elegant!
    Another great tip!

  2. Gary Johnson says:

    Thanks Don,
    I really appreciate you keeping us tuned in. This is very good advice.

  3. Butch Florey says:

    Reef early, Doesn’t make much speed difference, and when the wind raises you are ready. I use to practice reef reefing under sail in 10 knots of wind so my crew would be ready when we needed. put in a reef sail for 10 minutes and shake out the reef. We got so good at it we could do it in 30 seconds. course that was after the ones that seem to last forever.
    Doesn’t get any better than this!

  4. Sean Casey says:

    That could have been me you saw “struggling” out there. And not for want of knowledge of reefing, but for one simple, stupid error: leaving with dock without thoroughly thinking through how to reef on that particular boat. It’s one of the older boats; the outhauls — it’s got two — thread through the boom on which there is a winch. Very different from most boats in the fleet. You have to know which line is for which reef, and you have to know you won’t find them in the cockpit. All of which I knew, at one time, but because I really hadn’t thought through the procedure beforehand, I had my crew flailing about while drifting toward the victory ship. Not a pretty sight, but that is the stuff of hard-won lessons.

    • Don Gilzean says:

      Hi Sean
      Thanks for being willing to share your experience. You doing so helps to point out just how frequent reefing presents a problem if not practiced ahead of time, and on the specific boat. I say this, because you were not the skipper I spoke of.

  5. Val Z. says:

    It’s important ,besides that you need to know where reefing lines are, is the job of the helmsman, he needs to watch the wind and jib, to make sure the boat doesn’t accidentally changes the tack while sailing close hauled under jib.

  6. Thanks Don for sharing these tips.
    Very useful information and it makes complete sense now.

  7. Jeffrey says:

    Thanks, Don!

    If this wasn’t us out there aboard Valhanna in October 2017, it may as well have been: As we tried to reef, enough past the time we should have, our problem became the jib furling drum. We hadn’t paid tension as we trimmed, and wound up with an override in 30-knot winds. I was fortunate to have two crew far more experienced than me, which makes me appreciate the crew comment more. These fellas were also equipped with strong wills and even-temper, yet our recovery was still briefly stressful.

    Reef early!

  8. John Travassos says:

    Great tip. I find it safer and far less hectic to reef at hove to. My wife, who doesn’t particularly care for sailing as a crew, doesn’t have to do a thing. And in rough seas (if you’ve waited too long to reef) I don’t have to worry about MOB and her sailing away without me. Yes, a safety line is prudent.

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