Mainsail Reefing Protocol

Elroy Schwartz of New Orleans, Louisiana, asks: "When I was learning to sail I was taught when reefing a mainsail (with slab reefing, that is) to first tighten up the reef line securing the clew and then take full tension on the halyard to tighten the luff and tack. When I reef this way on my current boat, which I bought used a couple of years ago, the foot of the sail gets
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Elroy Schwartz of New Orleans, Louisiana, asks:

"When I was learning to sail I was taught when reefing a mainsail (with slab reefing, that is) to first tighten up the reef line securing the clew and then take full tension on the halyard to tighten the luff and tack. When I reef this way on my current boat, which I bought used a couple of years ago, the foot of the sail gets so tight I sometimes break the plastic luff slide nearest the tack. But when I do things the other way around (tighten the halyard and tack first, then the reef line for the clew) I never have this problem.

Why does this happen if both the clew and tack end up just as tight anyway? Also, does it really make any difference which line is tightened first?"

Win Fowler replies:

In my experience it is best to tension the luff of the reefed sail before tensioning the clew. The tensioned luff helps to support the slides (by way of the tension on the bolt rope or tape along the luff and, to a lesser extent, the sail fabric itself) and spreads the load evenly among slides. You may feel you are tensioning the lines equally whichever way you reef, but I’m sure you are pulling the clew out farther when you tension it first than you would if you tensioned the luff first.

In the days of cotton sails, and before winches were used to tension reef lines, it made sense to tie the clew down first (along with the reef nettles) before tensioning the halyard in order to get the foot reasonably supported before loading the sail. But modern sail fabrics and powerful winches have tipped the balance in the opposite direction.

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