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Reefing Downwind

It may not be pretty, but reefing while sailing downwind means not having to fight a spike in the apparent wind

It may not be pretty, but reefing while sailing downwind means not having to fight a spike in the apparent wind

We’re broad reaching with two reefs already in the main and the breeze rapidly building. We’ve already seen gusts in the upper 20s and a few above 30 knots. A third reef is clearly needed, but luffing up to depower the mainsail will see the apparent wind spike from the low 20s to the mid 30s. What’s the best option?

At this point, a captain is likely to fall into one of two camps. Some will say rounding up is unavoidable—you need to reef and therefore have to bring the apparent wind forward of the beam. Others will tell you to keep sailing downwind, minimizing the apparent wind strength, and reef with the wind aft. Which is correct?

I’m firmly in the latter camp. For a start, avoiding wildly flogging canvas is kinder to the boat. Just as important, turning broadside onto the waves or bringing them forward of the beam will also be uncomfortable for the crew and is liable to fire-hose everyone with spray. This in turn can lead to cold, seasickness, tiredness and other related problems.

Never forget, the power of the wind increases with the square of windspeed. Therefore sailing at 6 knots on a dead run in 20 knots of true wind and then rounding up with the wind 60 degrees off the bow sees the force of the wind experienced by the boat increase by a factor of more than 2.5.

I’ve sailed a wide variety of boats in which it has been standard practice to avoid rounding up to take the pressure off the sail when reefing while sailing a downwind course. These vessels range from quarter-tonners and modest cruisers to the latest shorthanded raceboats, an old-school Nicholson 55 yawl and an 80ft IOR maxi.

With either single-line reefing or separate luff pennants, you should still be able to drag the sail down, even when pressed hard against the shrouds and spreaders. It may not look pretty, especially with the first and second reefs. But then neither is rounding up and flogging the sail.

My partner’s boat, Zest, a 36ft one-off designed by Rob Humphreys, has swept-back spreaders and standard luff slides, plus simple roller cars for the full battens. Yet we’ve never found reefing downwind to be a problem, even though when racing we may carry the full main until it starts gusting over 30 knots. It would be even easier with a frictionless roller-bearing luff car system.

On a side note, some may worry about damage to the sail when pressed against the shroud and spreaders. However, my experience has been that’s only a worry for those who are engaged in a trade wind circumnavigation. Zest’s last racing mainsail, made of a high-tech membrane material, lasted for 24,000 miles, and it was flogging, not spreader chafe, that was responsible for its eventual demise. 

September 2021

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