As an instructor of offshore sailing and navigation, I regularly take sailors offshore who want to improve their skills and gain real ocean experience before venturing forth in their own boats. Most experienced voyagers have their own ideas about how to set up a boat for offshore work. What follows are some of my thoughts, based on the more than 17,000 miles I have sailed aboard my Cape George 31 cutter Solstice.
Consider the following scenario: Three serene days into an ocean voyage, we notice a cirrostratus halo around the moon and a long-period swell running opposite the prevailing wind — a storm is approaching. A few hours later we reef for a brief squall; the wind dies and we shake out the reef. The wind’s strength intensifies with each squall that follows. Finally the front fills in and it is blowing a steady 40 knots. Our destination is directly upwind now. By morning the seas build to a seven-foot chop. The forecast changes: “Expect similar conditions for another two days.” We decide to switch headsails — dousing our large headsail that we need to be furl-reefed in these winds, and hoist one more efficient for the conditions.
The brief account above demonstrates why offshore sailors rely upon their running rigging setup to manage their vessel on various points-of-sail in a wide variety of wind and sea conditions. We need to easily set trim, reduce and drop our sails to sufficiently supply the sail-power needed to drive our yacht where we want to go, and through the prevailing conditions.
The scenario also implies that our decision-making offshore is greatly influenced by the particular setup of our yacht’s running rigging. Had we lacked familiarity or practice with our running rigging, or had the setup itself fallen short in its design or flexibility, we may have believed it prudent not to change headsails, but rather heave-to, run with the storm, or try to motor into it.
Our choice of offshore strategy is mostly limited by the ease of manipulating our yacht’s running rigging, and our understanding of its limitations and possibilities. If we have to under-canvas, turn around, or try to motor because our running rigging setup is difficult to use, then we’re limiting our options. Plus, we’re also probably staying out longer with increased exposure to bad weather, not sailing when we could be, or worse… not voyaging where we want to go.
Yankee jib sheet and Yankee furling line on winches close together for easy handling.
Deck layout and required crew
An offshore yacht’s running rigging should be organized and laid-out in the manner the crew intends to use it. This point is significantly important, because if repeated practice reefing the mainsail takes us 12 minutes with a crew of two (for example), our feeling may be that’s too long a time span — why? Perhaps the running rigging setup was designed for a racing crew of three, or perhaps there’s a piece of the setup missing? We must trace the steps required to perform a task with our running rigging, and determine the order of events to complete it, and where to position and brace ourselves for the action.
Controls that support each other should be paired together. For example, it’s helpful if the main-halyard and main-reefing controls are adjacent to each other so one person can easily lower the halyard and also take-in on the reef line; however, in this example someone will still need to set the mainsail’s tack at the boom’s goose-neck. Unless we’re sailing a fully-crewed yacht, there will be some movement between the cockpit and the foredeck to accomplish sail handling tasks; however, it shouldn’t require an army of people either, if through careful planning one person will suffice.
Offshore crews often sail short-handed. Trends in running rigging setups that allow tasks to be performed by one person (keeping a second crewmember at the helm or lending a hand while an autopilot is employed) make logical sense for many reasons, mostly because we tend to go offshore with a limited quiver of equipment and a philosophy of doing more with less.
Cockpit versus mast
Practically speaking, some running rigging components belong in the cockpit of an offshore yacht, for example: mainsheet, main-traveler, headsail sheets, spinnaker sheets and guys; as well as running backstays and headsail furling controls, if used. However, unless we’re seriously racing offshore, nearly every other running rigging control (primarily halyards) could arguably remain at the mast. One of the most obvious reasons for this point is to alleviate having every running rigging control-line cluttering up the cockpit!
Exner works the main reefing line with the main halyard nearby.
Halyard controls at the mast make sense for the offshore yacht, especially for short-handed crews. Several advantages present themselves when considered: First is the relative position of the immediate things we’re manipulating: halyard shackles, sail heads, halyard tails, potential halyard-capture on spreaders, and sail luff attachments. Minimized control-line friction should be the second advantage as halyards come straight down the mast from their turning-sheave, through a rope-clutch if desired, and to a winch — self-tailing halyard winches on the mast are a great use of a generally limited equipment budget! Thirdly, for the short-handed offshore crew, the mast becomes our central position aboard the boat to handle sails. While clipped into our jack line, we can travel between the cockpit to deal with a sail’s sheets, the bow to handle a headsail, or the leeward rail for a spinnaker, and back to the halyard on the mast. Finally, mainsails can be reefed easily, quickly, and single-handedly when the halyard and main-reefing control are paired at the mast.
Headsail furlers and the furled-reef
It’s first important to note that all furlers can’t be furl-reefed. The difference between those that can and can’t be furl-reefed is whether the unit’s design allows us to partially expose a sail’s area to the wind (reefed), rather than have it completely rolled-up or rolled all the way out. Those units that can’t be furl-reefed may either damage the sail, the unit itself, or both if we try to sail with them partially rolled-out.
A headsail furler that can furl-reef is an important component of the running rigging setup for an offshore yacht. They allow us to shorten sail at a moments notice, and they’re a convenient way to deploy or put-away a headsail. They’re best used in an offshore yacht’s setup when the control-line is led to a self-tailing winch in the cockpit; although, when there’s no wind-force upon the sail, the control-line can typically be hauled by hand to furl-up the headsail. In winds of moderate strength or above, a furler’s control-line must be manipulated using a winch.
A good technique for furl-reefing a headsail short-handed requires the furler’s control-line to be on one self-tailing winch, and the headsail’s sheet on another. This works very well even while sailing in strong winds using a wind vane autopilot, and greatly reduces the violent luffing of the sail. Try reducing the sail-area in increments by first easing the sheet by two to three feet and cleating it; then, grind-in the furler’s control-line on the other self-tailing winch to trim out the sail. This technique is especially useful when micro-adjusting the headsails square-area in an effort to balance a yacht being helmed by a wind vane autopilot.
Headsails destined to be furl-reefed should be purpose-constructed to do so. Furl-reefed headsails tend to present a poor aerodynamic shape the further we furl them in, but the sails do work, albeit not very well. To improve a sail’s shape during furl-reefing, it’s best to have a sailmaker sew into the sail’s luff a section of foam that will draw-up the sail’s draft as it is furled in.
The boom vang and mainsail twist
The modern boom vang can exert powerful upward and downward force on the boom, directly influencing the mainsail’s leech shape — specifically referred to as, and controlling, sail-twist. The units do so via hydraulic pressure, or via a stainless steel spring combined with an external purchase system. The results of these designs are so significantly important to controlling mainsail shape, that their use in conjunction with a stoutly constructed and reinforced boom-gooseneck greatly minimize the need for a main-traveler, because no matter how eased the mainsheet, the boom vang becomes the dominant control of the boom’s influence on mainsail-twist.
The running rigging setup for a yacht going offshore would do well to incorporate a modern boom vang, as proper use of mainsail-twist can shape a wide groove of sail power. Wide grooves are especially useful in powering an offshore yacht through a sea state that causes the yacht’s frequent motion to pitch, yaw, and roll. Proper twist in the mainsail ensures the yacht is always supplied with sufficient sail power without over-powering the mainsail at any given moment.
Flexibility and redundancy
We bolster our confidence to go offshore when be believe our yacht’s running rigging setup has been created with flexibility and redundancy in mind, whereby out-of-the-ordinary problems can be solved with ingenuity. One level of redundancy for select running rigging components seems to add sufficient flexibility to the offshore setup. For example, we should have a primary and dedicated main-halyard that exits the masthead on the centerline, but design our boom topping-lift as a backup main-halyard by exiting it from the masthead offset to port, let’s say. We incur further flexibility in this setup if the main-halyard tail is on the starboard side of the mast and the topping-lift tail is on port. Now (for example) during a man-overboard recovery using the Lifesling, after the mainsail is dropped, we have the convenient option to recover the victim from either the port or starboard-side halyard controls on the mast, easily offering our hand to the victim on the side they’re on. Of course, to utilize any system by design or with ingenuity in an emergency requires a cool head.
Potential problems with running rigging
Some problems with running rigging can be foreseen and alleviated during the design stage; others are either sorted before or after the system fails. If we lack the immediate time or budget to solve a problem, we must learn to live with it.
Winch selection seems to be the primary problem with running rigging on some offshore yachts designed today. Too often we see short-handed offshore crews using undersized non-self-tailing winches, likely due to budget constraints. This problem is compounded when the non-self-tailing winch is either handled single-handedly, or insufficient consideration was given during the design stage to where line-handlers are going to position and brace themselves. Often, running rigging can’t even be budged by the strongest of muscles, because the power potential of the winch is too small and there’s no place to gain leverage.
A jammed sail furler could be the nightmarish reality in certain conditions. If a sail remains to luff violently in a squall because it can’t be furled-in, let’s hope there’s enough sea to leeward to fall-off and drop it to the deck before it is destroyed. Worse, let’s hope the furler didn’t jam with the sail half-furled so it can’t be lowered.
One great reward of sailing offshore is the freedom the sailing actually provides us, and we do so by interacting with our sails through the running rigging setup for our offshore yacht.
Capt. Paul Exner owns Modern Geographic Sailing Expeditions and holds a USCG Merchant Mariner Credential with 50-GRT endorsements.