Before purchasing our sailboat I never realized the variety of rigging options available. In fact, I’m not even sure I understood exactly what the rigging was!
Rigging consists of the mast and all the wires attached to it. Not only does the rigging hold the mast in place – it also determines the sails you can use and how you use them.
From a practical perspective a boats rigging options and sail configurations can make life harder or easier for a cruiser
In my latest video (above) I explain our rig, demonstrate how we get our sails out, the way in which we reduce our sails in rough weather – otherwise called ‘reefing our sails,’ and I also contrast our rig to other configurations most popular with cruisers.
Once you’re done watching the video, I’ve explained more below…
Here is our most basic sail configuration – a full main and headsail out
This rig option is called a sloop. The mainsail, above the cockpit, is called a fully battened slab reefed mainsail.
The sail has five horizontal fiberglass battens or rods running across the sail to increase sail performance. The ‘slab reefed’ bit means that the sail comes down into the boom rather than furls or rolls into the mast.
To get the mainsail out, it raises up from the boom by a rope or halyard attached to the top of the mast
Our headsail, also known as a jib, or genoa, is unfurled or rolled out from the most forward wire from the mast to the bow of the boat. The wire is called the forestay.
Did you know? The headsail on a sailboat is always a jib but not always a genoa. A genoa sail is one that extends back past the mast when unfurled. If you’re ever in doubt, use the term Jib rather than genoa.
Both our main and headsail are operated through electronic winches and furlers, or rollers. We can use everything manually but due to the size of our boat it would take a lot of energy, time and strength.
Getting the mainsail up
I’ve been asked several times if our 56’ sailboat is too large for two people. One of the worries people have about sailing a boat this large is the physical strength required to operate such powerful sails.
As I mentioned, everything is automated to get our sails out. Getting our main up and our jib out is far easier on this boat than it was on our 35’ Moody.
On the Moody I had to work like mad!
To raise our mainsail, my husband, Simon, points the boat into the wind. By doing so the sail and ropes are under no force from the wind. A boat cannot sail when pointed directly into the wind. Everything flaps around.
As Simon is turning into the wind, I go up to the mast, find the main halyard, or rope that pulls up the mainsail.
I wrap the halyard around a winch at the bottom of the mast on the deck. The halyard is wrapped four times around and then put through the ‘lock’ on the winch.
Before I start winching the halyard, I take a few minutes to look around to ensure there are no obstructions. I look up the mast to the top to confirm the halyard is free to move and that it’s not wrapped around a spreader or caught up on something.
I look at the cars on the track that slide upwards bringing the sail to the top
Especially when I start to raise the main, these cars can often get stuck along the track
If someone was inexperienced in our system they could fail to notice the jam, continue to use the winch and something could break – perhaps the car would bust out of the track?
Whenever the car doesn’t feed into the track correctly, I immediately stop the winch, take the halyard break/jammer off and slowly let the main slide down ever so slightly to release the car.
I then close the main halyard break/jammer and begin raising the main again
Aside from watching the cars on the track, I’m also keeping and eye on the middle of the sail to ensure that it feeds up through the lazy jacks. Lazy jacks are lines located on either side of the main that ensure the main stays on the boom, rather than falls over to one side, when the main is dropped.
From time to time, a batten can get stuck on the wrong side of the lazy jacks
Usually I time the flapping of the sail with getting through the lazy jacks but on occasion I have raised the main too far and it gets stuck. I then have to complete the same exercise I do if the car gets stuck on the track. I simply bring down the main a bit to ease the jam and the batten will flap back into the middle.
The next thing I look at is our reefing lines
Reefing lines are ropes that hang off the back of the sail that help to reduce the size of the sail in windy weather. I’ll explain how we reef our mainsail in a bit.
There are three lines that need to raise up from the boom as they’re fed through the back of the sail. For the most part, these lines simply unfold as the sail goes up. From time to time, however, one of the lines can get knotted or wrapped around the boom.
If I ever feel pressure on the winch or notice that something doesn’t look right, I stop the winch and inspect the back of the boom to ensure that the reefing lines are, indeed, raising up freely.
The final viewpoint that captures my attention when raising the mainsail is the halyard that is coiling at my feet. While I’m looking up and back, there’s a rope building up near the winch that often needs to be moved or thrown to the side so that it doesn’t get caught up in the winch.
When I have a new crewmember on board I often ask them to coil the rope as it feeds out through the winch. It allows me the privilege of not having to concern myself with that one potential hazard.
After five to ten minutes of using my toe to push a button that controls the automatic winch the sail is finally up
I instruct Simon that we’re ready to sail, he notifies me that he’s going to turn into wind and within a few seconds the sail and ropes stop fluttering, wind takes hold and we instantly start to move forward.
To ensure a clean deck, I coil the main halyard, tie it off and then hang it on the mast or tie it to a side rail. It’s very important to make sure all ropes are not only coiled but tied in place. We’ve had a few situations where the weather unexpectedly became rough and an unsecured rope slide off the decks and into the sea.
Trailing ropes not only slow the boat down but they create a massive issue if they get caught in the boats propeller
After the main is out, either Simon or I bring out the jib, or otherwise called a genoa. To unfurl the jib, I first wrap the jib sheet, or rope that pulls the sail to the side of the boat, around a winch located on the side of the cockpit.
While using the winch to bring the sail into the boat, at the same time, I use another button to automatically unfurl the sail. So…the sail starts to unfurl or unroll and while that’s happening I’m also winching in the jib sheet so it doesn’t flap all over the place uncontrollable.
Once the sail is completely unfurled and the jib is positioned for our point of sail, Simon and I sit back and enjoy the fruits of our meager efforts.
What are the pros and cons of our sail configurations?
For the main, I’m very happy we have the fully battened slab reefed main. The battens definitely help our sail to have a lovely shape and increase performance. When looking at a sail without battens you can definitely see a difference in how the sail forms.
I also like the fact that the sail is fully used. No part of it is stuck in the main or in the boom for those that unfurl from those locations. We have quite a bit of control on creating that lovely shape that propels us quickly to our next destination.
What I don’t always like is the fact that I need to be outside of the cockpit on the foredeck to raise and lower the main.
In bad whether it’s not the safest place to be
For 95% of the time, I’m happy to be on the foredeck but there have been a couple occasions where a storm surprised us, we got hit with 50 knot winds and I had to prepare to drop the main. Of course I had a lifejacket and harness on attaching myself to the mast.
I remember one particular wave hit us at an awkward angle and my upper body flew back towards the starboard side while my feet remained on the coach roof.
If it wasn’t for the harness and tether I would have gone swimming
Otherwise, the other downside to our mainsail is covering the sail
When we drop our mainsail, Simon heads into wind, I then open the break or clutch at the mast that locks the main halyard. The sail stays within the lazy jacks and drops into and on top of the boom.
Dropping the sail takes seconds. Putting the sail cover on (pictured above), however, takes around ten minutes and often requires someone to go on the boom.
To cover our sail, we haul up the cover (rolled up), place it on the boom by the mast, attach a zipper to either side of the boom and then we have to unroll the cover while we pull the zipper along. The zips can be zipped from the deck as there are long ropes attached to them but it’s often easier to get in the boom, organize the sail and slowly inch back pulling the zips while on the boom.
The reason I included this aspect of our set-up is due to the difficulty of this task
Simon and I are fit and able to easily get the sail cover on now but I couldn’t imagine my parents trying to do the same task.
Regarding our furling jib, we can operate this sail from the safety of the cockpit and it’s super easy. We have, however, had a situation where the furling unit triped and the electric button didn’t work. Not knowing where the trip switch was, Simon went to the bow of the boat with a winch handle to furl the sail in manual. It must have taken around five winch turns to effectively roll the sail in for one turn.
Simon was on the bow crashing onto the waves for what felt like a good twenty minutes
After that experience we looked through our files and found that the furling unit trip switch is located below the forward starboard bed.
Reducing or ‘reefing’ our sails in windy weather
Up to 25 to 30 knots we don’t reef our mainsail. When the wind goes over 30 knots, we’re getting massive gusts or we see a squall/bad weather on the horizon we put at least one reef in the mainsail.
To put a reef in, this is the procedure I use:
1. Before raising the sail, at the mast, I attached a clip on either side of the boom to a metal ring. There are three sets of metal rings. The first metal rings on the way up the sail will reduce the sail the least and the third metal rings will reduce the sail to its minimal amount.
2. Ensuring the two ropes holding the clips have the jammer or break on, I raise the sail until the metal rings are held tight.
3. In the cockpit Simon releases the boom vang enabling the boom to raise up a bit.
4. I then take the metal rings corresponding reefing line (the lines that hang off the back of the mainsail) and grab it from under the boom by the mast. I run the line down to a pull on the deck and back up to a manual winch on the side of the mast. I winch the line in causing the back of the sail to be pulled down and back where the reefing line pulls.
Note: the excess sail simply sits crumpled up in the boom.
5. I then pull in the other reefing lines, by hand, if they’re hanging down.
6. The reefing lines are all coiled up and neatly tied so to hang from the bottom of the boom.
7. The last thing we do is bring the boom down a bit using the boom vang. By doing so we can better control the shape of the sail.
Here’s a picture of the main sail reefed with the excess sail in the boom
Reefing the jib
Look at the picture below and locate the two marks on the jib, or headsail, that look like tally marks, I and II. They are at the front of the headsail near the bow.
These marks indicate where we can furl the sail in to effectively reduce it’s size or reef it. The marks indicate where the sail is reinforced to handle the stress required while reefing.
If we’re going to reef for a short time we’ll simply furl in the headsail to one of these marks. If however, we’re going to require a reefed headsail for a long duration, we’ll completely furl in the headsail and raise our staysail.
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that our rig is a Sloop. We also, have the capacity to attached another wire midway between the mast and the bow. This wire enables us to fly a staysail thus making our configuration into a cutter rig. In future articles I’ll explain more about using our staysail.
Reefing our sails is not difficult but once again, it’s not ideal to be on the foredeck when the weather is taking a turn for the worse. Salty seadogs are known to say, ‘If you’re thinking of putting a reef in, it’s already too late.’
So…whenever we’re in doubt, Simon and I put at least one reef in
It’s easier to take it out and raise the sail than it is to drop the whole sail and put the reef in.
Boats that have in-mast furling do not require the crew to leave the safety of the cockpit to reduce their sail. If you’re considering various rigging options, in-mast furling
As I mentioned at the start of this article rig configurations can make things easier or harder for cruisers.
If you’re in the process of looking at boats, make sure to understand what, exactly is involved with things like putting your sails away. Find out how you have to reef the sail – do you have to leave the cockpit and are you happy with that? In many cases having a sail that unfurls from the mast makes life much easier. Sure you have to sacrifice sail performance but what’s more important – going slightly faster or having an easy life?!
Ultimately, I love our boat and I love the way she’s rigged. I certainly wouldn’t change a thing as it works for us.