Being able to reef quickly and easily can take a lot of the stress out of sailing single-handed. Here are some options for shortening sail on your own

In Pete Goss’ classic account of his Vendée Globe campaign, Close to the Wind, he tells the tale of a boat show encounter with a member of the public who assumed that single-handed sailing meant sailing with one hand tied behind your back. Sailing alone isn’t usually quite that difficult – and once you’re out there, the sailing part of single-handed sailing is relatively simple. What is more daunting is what happens when you get closer to land, or need to come alongside, and carry out the sail handling jobs on board which usually take a full crew.

We’ll cover coming alongside in another article, but there’s nothing worse than attempting to reef in a rising breeze when you could really do with another six arms. Here are some ways to make short- or single-handed sail handling much easier.

Hoisting the mainsail

With a boltrope  mainsail, it can be helpful to hoist the sail using the bight of the halyard so that you’re close enough to the mast to sort out any snags or jams...

With a boltrope mainsail, it can be helpful to hoist the sail using the bight of the halyard so that you’re close enough to the mast to sort out any snags or jams…

...and you can pull the slack through the clutch once the bulk of the sail is hoisted

…and you can pull the slack through the clutch once the bulk of the sail is hoisted

 

Even hoisting the main can be daunting for a first-time single-hander. Bolt rope mainsails are particularly troublesome. You can make life a lot easier by converting a mainsail to sliders, so that they are held captive at the mast as the sail is being hoisted. Better still, sliders and a lazyjack system will really simplify things. But if a bolt rope sail is all you have, make sure you have a good pre-feeder, which will keep the luff lined up with the luff groove. Life is made somewhat easier if your halyards are at the mast, but even with them led aft you can lead one round a winch and take it forward with you, or use the bight of the halyard as it heads aft to hoist the sail, taking up the slack later.

 

Reefing the mainsail

Most reefing systems are designed for full crews, but there are things you can do to make reefing the main single-handed much easier. We’ve used a slab reefing main as found on many boats, but in-mast furling and single-line reefing mains will obviously make life easier, although these systems do have their drawbacks.

Lead lines aft…

With your reefing iines led aft you can have full control of the tension from the cockpit. Here we’ve added a downhaul to the luff cringle, which is led to a footblock and aft to a cleat

With your reefing iines led aft you can have full control of the tension from the cockpit. Here we’ve added a downhaul to the luff cringle, which is led to a footblock and aft to a cleat

With the addition of a couple of foot blocks, you can lead your reefing lines aft to a clutch in the cockpit. This has the major advantage that you can tension the reefing pennants from the safety of the cockpit, and use a winch to tension the lines if necessary. You can also add downhauls to the luff cringles and lead these aft too. This means you’ll have reefing lines, luff downhauls and main halyard all in the same place – the cockpit – and can reef easily from there. In the picture above they are led through the gap in the boom casting aft of the gooseneck, down to the mast foot and back to the cockpit.

…Or you could move everything forward…

If you’re happy working on deck, having the halyards and reefing lines at the mast can make life easier

If you’re happy working on deck, having the halyards and reefing lines at the mast can make life easier

Another option, which depends upon your boat’s set-up and your mobility, is to move everything forward to the mast. This might seem a little odd, but if you’re happy working on deck, it makes sense. With halyards at the mast, you have everything to hand and are in the right place to hook on cringles, pull down stuck slides and sort out any problems.

…Or, if they are split…

Even with lines lead aft, you can take the tail of the main halyard around a winch and forward with you

Even with lines lead aft, you can take the tail of the main halyard around a winch and forward with you

If the halyard is aft and the reefing lines are forward, you can take the halyard round a winch and take the end forward with you, so you can ease it down with one hand and pull the sail down with another, secure the cringle, then make off the halyard.

Reefing horn securing ideas

Reefing horns work well, but have an irritating habit of throwing off the cringles at the worst possible moment. That’s why a way of securing the cringle onto the horn is useful.

Here are some ideas – send us yours if you have a way that works for you!

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One trick is to use a rubber doorstop, pushed on to the horn, to secure the cringle. These cost £2.48 for two from B&Q, and they work really well.

 Another option is to add a snap shackle to the horn, either by lashing it on or getting one welded on, to provide a positive method of attachment that won’t shake loose.

Another option is to add a snap shackle to the horn, either by lashing it on or getting one welded on, to provide a positive method of attachment that won’t shake loose.

 

 

The headsail

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The best solution for a short- or single-handed sailor is a roller-furling headsail, which can be deployed or put away at a moment’s notice: a roller headsail means that you can easily reef and unreef to suit the wind. If single-handed, it can be worth putting a smaller jib on the furler if you’re expecting heavy weather. This not only sets better than a large headsail that’s reefed, but also means that if the furler fails and releases the whole sail, you have much less flogging sailcloth to deal with.

Non-roller headsails
Despite the proliferation of roller-furlers, many boats – especially cruiser racers – still have hanked-on jibs or headfoils. You can still use these single-handed, but they need a bit more planning. It’s best to be conservative with the choice of headsail – you can always let some more mainsail out to compensate.

Once again, if you’re happy working on deck, halyards at the mast can make things easier – you’re nearer the sails and can more easily sort out problems. But even if your halyards are led aft, there are things you can do.

Hoisting
Hoisting can be tricky, but:

  • make sure you have a good pre-feeder.
  • Carefully flake the sail on deck so that it will hoist as easily as possible.
For boats without roller headsails, a snap shackle (circled) and shock cord works well.  A halyard cleat on the mast also helps

For boats without roller headsails, a snap shackle (circled) and shock cord works well. A halyard cleat on the mast also helps

One useful trick is to have shock cord on the deck to secure the sail, but with a ‘trip line’ rigged to a snap shackle for a quick-release system. Here, we’ve tied a snap shackle to the pulpit rail, with a light line led aft through the stanchion bases. A pull on the line releases the shock cord and lets the jib free.

One thing that can help if you’re happy working at the mast is to fit some halyard exits on the mast, along with a cam cleat. These mean that you can hoist the sail from the mast, cleat it off and then take up the slack in the halyard from back in the cockpit.

Dropping the headsail
With the autopilot on, a good way to drop a hanked-on or headfoil jib is to take the halyard forward with you and ease as you collect the sail. This makes it controlled and very easy to retrieve the sail.

Taking the tail of the halyard forward with you makes for a controlled headsail drop – but make sure you flake it first to avoid tangles

Taking the tail of the halyard forward with you makes for a controlled headsail drop – but make sure you flake it first to avoid tangles

 

 

Poling out the jib – the safe way

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If it’s too windy for a spinnaker, or you’re not happy flying one, then poling out the jib is the next best thing. Here’s a way to set up the pole safely. The pole is clipped on to the windward spinnaker sheet, which is then taken to the jib’s clew. Attach the pole to the mast, then lift it over the windward rail. You can now go back to the cockpit and do everything else from there – easing off the leeward jib sheet and pulling on the new windward sheet (we’ve used a spinnaker guy here). You can also adjust the up- and downhaul to make it fly right. The important part is that you can do it all from the cockpit, out of harm’s way.

Short-handed spinnaker drops

You don’t see many single-handers flying spinnakers – hardly surprising, as the thought of what happens when they go wrong is enough to bring anyone out in a cold sweat. But used in moderate conditions, and knowing how to drop it safely and in a controlled manner, a spinnaker can still be flown single-handed. Here’s how to drop it safely.

Bear away until you’re just above dead downwind, so that the main blankets the spinnaker. Pull the sheet in hard. If you have twinning lines on the spinnaker, pull the leeward one on hard too, so that the clew of the sail is held firmly on the gunwale.

Lower the pole and ease it forward until you can reach the snap shackle from the bow.
Pull the pin on the guy’s snap shackle to release the tack. The spinnaker should now float happily behind the mainsail, and you can take your time to make your way back aft and collect the sail, lowering the halyard slowly.

With the pole eased so you can reach it and the sheet on hard, you can pull the pin on the  snap shackle...

With the pole eased so you can reach it and the sheet on hard, you can pull the pin on the
snap shackle…

The spinnaker is  held tight along its  leech and sits happily in the lee of the mainsail

The spinnaker is held tight along its leech and sits happily in the lee of the mainsail

This lets you collect the spinnaker easily and without too much drama

This lets you collect the spinnaker easily and without too much drama

 

Autopilots and tiller tamers

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A good autopilot makes single-handed sailing much easier: add a remote and you’ll have control from anywhere on board. But if the budget doesn’t stretch that far you could consider a tiller lock These let you leave the helm for short periods of time – and on long-keelers and well-balanced boats, they’ll give you some freedom to leave the helm.

Heaving to

Even with lines lead aft, you can take the tail of the main halyard around a winch and forward with you

With a good autopilot, you can just reef while maintaining a course. But a more seamanlike approach is to heave to. This will slow the boat to a slight drift and give you all the time in the world to reef the mainsail. Back the jib and lash the helm, and once the boat has settled down you can reef the mainat your leisure.