Your choice of deck hardware will be determined by the size of your boat and the way the deck is designed. There are four components to a lines-aft system.
Mast base blocks
With every turn a line makes, friction is added, so don’t buy cheap, inefficient blocks. If the mast base has tangs, you can shackle blocks to them. If not, you have several choices. You can fit spring-loaded standup blocks, which will need to be bolted through the deck with strong backing plates; half-moon blocks, which will also need to be deck-mounted; or swiveling fairlead blocks, which are riveted to the mast. Standup blocks are self-aligning, but if you’re using half-moon blocks, your line leads need to be spot-on.
These are used where line direction needs to be changed, so the lines enter the rope clutches at the correct angle. They’re available in two-, three- or four-sheave sizes, from Schaefer, Spinlock, Antal, Lewmar or Harken. Some can be stacked to allow more lines to fit through narrow gaps. The organizers I’ve used all seem to be good, irrespective of make; your choice may come down to something as subjective as looks. You may find you need to raise organizers off the deck to prevent the lines from the mast from entering at an above-horizontal angle and chafing on their metal edges. Because the lines on our boat need to be guided over the breakwater at the front of the cockpit, I fitted 2in wood risers under the organizers.
Getting a grip
A line will either be fed through a clutch or jammer (aka stopper) to a winch, or (on a small boat) terminate in a cleat of some kind—jam, clam or horn. A jammer is just that—once the line is tensioned, it is gripped by the jammer’s jaws; the more load on the line, the tighter the jammer grips. The corollary is that you can’t release a loaded line from a jammer without first nipping it up on a winch. A rope clutch gives you more control and can be released under moderate load, although it is wise to first take a turn around a winch.
If you need to decide between a jammer or a clutch for a particular application, consider whether the line will ever need to be released under load in an emergency. If the answer is yes, choose a clutch. The best-known clutches are from Spinlock and Lewmar, though Antal and Easylock are also well-established names.
Clutches and jammers vary widely in price, according to line size and the loads they’re expected to hold, so do your research. Spinlock and Lewmar have good online guides to clutch selection. We fitted two banks of four Spinlock XTS clutches, but could have gotten away with lower-end XAS clutches or even jammers for the lightly loaded lines.
You don’t need powerful winches for main or genoa halyards, or for reefing lines, though it is better to over-specify than under-specify. According to Lewmar’s winch selection guide, #16 winches should be entirely adequate for an average 35-37 foot cruiser. Self-tailers are of course desirable, but expensive, and certainly not essential in this role; the clutch or jammer will be closed while you’re winching, so if you let go of the line it’s not going to go very far.
On bigger boats, it’s not unusual to see an electric winch fitted on the cabintop to handle halyards. It also comes in handy for hoisting people up the mast.
An inconvenient convenience?
Some people find that leading lines aft causes as many problems as it solves. It’s not a cheap exercise. Apart from having to purchase the hardware mentioned above, you may discover that some of your halyards and lines aren’t long enough to reach back to the cockpit and will have to be replaced. With the lines passing around blocks and through deck organizers and clutches, you’re putting more friction into the system and you could find your sails are harder to raise without resorting to winch power. You will inevitably end up with lots of line tails in the cockpit. Lastly, the belief that leading lines aft frees you from ever having to go on deck is a fallacy; there will always be a reason to go on deck, whether it’s to free a fouled sheet, hoist a downwind sail, prepare or secure an anchor, or tidy up the mainsail you’ve just dropped from the safety of the cockpit.