Reefing rules

Henry Buckminster, of Seattle, Washington, asks:

"My 35-foot 7⁄8 rig sloop has a 135 percent roller-furling jib, and once the wind starts blowing over about 12–14 knots I want to take a reef. But I’m not sure whether I should reef the mainsail or the headsail first. Are there any reefing rules when going to windward, and does the protocol stay the same when I am running off on a close reach or a run?"

Win Fowler replies:

The answer really depends on the type of boat and the condition of your sails, but you should always have a sail combination that will keep the boat upright, the sails reasonably flat and the helm well balanced. That said, with most fractionally-rigged boats it’s best to reef the main first. Doing so will reduce the mainsail area by about 25 percent, will flatten the sail, and will move the sailplan’s center of effort forward; the combination should reduce weather helm and help you steer more easily through the building chop.

However, if you have a low-stretch headsail that is relatively flat and you aren’t experiencing weather helm, it might be quicker, and easier, to roll in a few turns of the headsail. Most headsails get fuller when they are rolled up—not a good feature when going upwind in a breeze—but my experience is that you can roll up to about 1⁄3 of the headsail before it becomes so full that it’s no longer effective for windward work.

Remember to move the jib lead forward when you reef the headsail, to keep the top of the sail from twisting off too much. Finally, when sailing off the wind you still want to keep the boat upright and the helm balanced. On a beam reach, the best move might be to reef the headsail first because an overlapping jib tends to become much fuller once the sheet is eased; mainsails don’t have that problem. But if you are on a broad reach, or even running, reducing mainsail area first will help keep the bow down, and that will reduce the tendency to broach. The best way to learn what works best on your boat is to try various combinations and see the results for yourself.

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