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Seamanship - Reefing Afloat

Go To: Sailing - Techniques and Manoevres

Posted on 20 December 2009 16:14

Sailing is a pastime that depends on the elements, which are sometimes hard to predict, and don’t always play by the rules. From when you rig up, to setting sail, to a few hours later, the weather and wind in particular can completely change, and you need to be able to adapt to changing situations.

More on this later – lets’ get on with it before it gets too windy. Wait a minute – that’s what we’re here for! So, let’s learn what to do when it gets’ windy. By now you should be familiar with boat balance, and what to do to stop it heeling or rolling over – get your weight out over the side, on a trapeze if necessary, or if it’s still too much, let the main sheet out and let the sails out. However – there is only so far you can take this. There’s little point to having the entire sail in use, and letting it out all the way so it flaps because it’s too windy – at some point you need to decide to reduce the sail area, or reef the sail. This will reduce the amount of sail area in use, and may lower it enough that you can sail properly or at least with the sails pulled in so they don’t flap, and it will no longer overpower you.

If you can predict the conditions well enough, or want to play safe, then it’s best to reef before you launch, as reefing on land is a lot easier than reefing afloat! However, it’s not always practical to do this. At the very least, if the forecast or advice given to you is even slightly likely to take a turn for the worst, you should ensure you can reef afloat if you need to. First of all, you’ll need a sail you can reef, which will usually have reefing points. See our article on Reefing to see the different types of reefing you can do – we’ll be concentrating on slab reefing, which is what you’ll find on most modern cruising dinghies.

Once you have a sail that you can reef, you should make sure you have enough string to do it – you’ll usually have 4 - 5 reefing points along the sail, and you’ll need as many pieces of string as holes to do the reefs. You’ll also need a longer one for the new outhaul.

Moving on, let’s imagine we’ve done the necessary preparation, have all our gear we need with us, and gone out sailing for the afternoon. After an hour, the wind starts gusting up, your crew are getting a little nervous, and you’re all getting a little wet from the spray. You decide you need to reef the sail, but are too far from land or any suitable mooring point. What do you do?

There are several ways you can reef afloat. The first and safest involves anchoring, and setting it, to make sure you don’t drift too far while you’re reefing. Once you have the anchor holding, you can drop the mainsail all the way, drop the sail and boom onto your laps (ideally one person on either side of the boat for balance), and then reef the sail using the techniques described in our reefing article.

The other ways are best used if you are more experienced and know what you’re doing, so you can reef more quickly, or don’t have an anchor in your boat. You can either go head to wind, or the safer option is to lie to, slightly off the wind. This way the boom will be bouncing around out over the side of the boat and less likely to hit anyone on the head. Lower the main sail a few feet, just enough to allow you to reef the sail without dropping it all the way. This method works best on newer dinghies; some, like the Laser 2000 or the Laser Stratos, have a reefing line from the back of the boom, all the way through the boom to a jammer located near the outhaul. This reefing line is attached to the back most reefing point on the sail when rigging the boat, and when pulled, will simply pull that reefing point down to the boom and assist you in reefing the sail. This saves you having to tie a reef knot to that reefing point and also having to attach a new outhaul, as the reefing line doubles as an outhaul.

Whether you have this new design or not, once the sail is dropped slightly, secure the reefing points to the boom. If you are head to wind, the boom may bounce around and make this difficult, but if you are lying to, while it won’t bounce around over your head so much, you probably won’t be able to reach the back two reefing points as they will be out over the side of your boat. Secure the reefing points that you can reach, then push the tiller away from you and pull the sail in briefly to turn the boat head to wind, where you can finish the last reefing points. Once you’re done, hoist the sail back up if you need to take any more slack up (if you dropped it too far). Remember, it will be easier to take the boom off the gooseneck to do this, so you’re only pulling on the sail and not against the boom, then pull the boom back down onto the gooseneck.

So that’s how you reef afloat, without coming back to land. If it’s still too windy when the sail is reefed, then at that point you should consider quitting for the day! When we did our seamanship course up at Plas Menai in Wales, it was Force 5 gusting 7, and we were sailing a Laser Stratos, with a reefed storm sail, and it was still too windy even though we only had the same sail area as a large bath sheet!


Reefing, like most of the skills known as seamanship skills really applies more to cruising or day sailing than racing – you won’t see many people race with reefed sails (most racing sails don’t have reefing points), as it defeats the purpose. One class which does easily allow for different wind strengths is the Laser – when it’s not windy or your really brave, you can use either the Laser full (standard) rig or even the Rooster 8.1; when it’s getting a bit windier you can drop down to a Radial rig, and if it’s blowing a hoolie, you could even drop down to a 4.7 metre rig, although this has a very low boom.

Much of your sailing ability you learn comes from experience. When you’re starting out, you may need to rely on more experienced people to advise you on weather conditions, but eventually you will pick it up. From looking at local conditions before going out, to checking weather forecasts or shipping forecasts, you will start to be able to predict when the weather might turn bad, and either decide not to go out, or at least prepare the boat for if conditions do worsen.

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