Windage and drag are two of a racing sailboat’s worst enemies, especially around a sail’s leech. Many racers eschew in situ reefing lines until it’s absolutely necessary to reef. (Some cruisers also don’t use reefing lines, as they can chafe sailcloth.) The risk is that you can get caught out if you’re not careful.
A smarter, faster way to reef without leaving reefing lines in place is to use messenger lines instead until it’s time to reef (see illustration), as this avoids chafe, windage, and drag. For each reef cringle on the leech, a thin-diameter messenger line—strong parachute cord (“p-chord”), available at rigging shops, works great—is led through the clew eye, up through the reef cringle, and back to join the other end. Ideally, the messenger line should be spliced together, but a double fisherman’s knot also does the trick.
You’ll want a “cut” splice in the messenger, forming a small loop (see illustration). The messenger lines are fitted at the beginning of the year and stay in place through the season. I recommend using cut splices that are 1 inch long for every 13 feet of boat length, as bigger boats require larger-diameter reefing lines. The aim is to have the loops small enough that the reefing line cannot accidentally drop out, but big enough to feed the line through more than once.
When it’s time to reef, the crew passes the end of the reefing line through the cut splice, wraps it around the P-cord two or three times (a bit of rigging tape is useful), and then pulls on the messenger so that the reefing line goes up through the reef cringle and back down to the boom, where it’s secured. Next, simply ease the halyard and reef as you normally would do.
This system works best if you leave your reefing lines permanently led through your boom. Simply tie a figure-8 knot at the end of the line and cinch up the slack so that the knot lies against the boom-end sheave until it’s needed.
Some people prefer to rig their messengers with two or three cut splices. This way, the end of the reefing line is passed through each cut splice (sewing-needle style), which makes it less likely that the line will accidentally come free.
Ian Nicolson has written 24 books on sailing and has another two in the pipeline.