Learn to Reef Your Sails in Any Wind


Imag­ine you’re out on a 36-foot sail­boat, the main­sail and head­sail ful­ly engaged, the wind dial­ing in at 17 knots. No prob­lem. You’re on a reach, the port rail near­ly buried, but not quite. The winds fresh­en, kick­ing up to 25 knots—well into small craft advi­so­ry. The sail­boat heels more than you would like. It’s time to ease the strain on the boat and the crew by reduc­ing your sail area—in sail­ing lin­go, reef­ing. Is your par­tic­u­lar reef­ing sys­tem the best for you and where you sail?

The ety­mol­o­gy of “reef” has roots back to Old Norse, rif, which meant rib. You can think of those low­er reef sec­tions of the main­sail as ribs. When you reef, you “remove” a rib (so to speak), or two or three, of the sail, mak­ing it a small­er tar­get for the wind.

Set­ting the Stage
Let’s say you’ve sailed a fair amount but only in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia where the winds are typ­i­cal­ly light. If the wind picks up a lit­tle, it’s easy enough for your crew to step up on the cab­in top, by the mast, and low­er part of the main­sail (the “main”), mak­ing it a small­er pres­ence in the wind. You tie the loose foot of the sail to the boom, and you con­tin­ue sail­ing. Safe enough, yes? This is slab reef­ing in its sim­plest form.

All is well. Life is good—until you move up to San Fran­cis­co in June, hav­ing your 30′ sail­boat trucked up instead of brav­ing the open ocean. After all, the ocean in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia has a rep­u­ta­tion for offer­ing up some tru­ly unfor­giv­ing heavy weath­er. More than one sail­boat and sailor has per­ished in those deep and tricky seas. San Fran­cis­co Bay also has a rep­u­ta­tion. It’s pro­tect­ed from the deep swell and freak­ish ocean waves, but the cur­rents can run up to six knots, give or take, with small craft advi­sories not uncommon.

On your first day of sail­ing in SF Bay, with gnarly sum­mer­time winds, your sim­ple slab reef­ing didn’t work so smooth­ly. After all, try­ing to secure part of a wind­blown, tem­pera­men­tal main while stand­ing on the cab­in top, the boat pitch­ing and heel­ing at a 45-degree angle, is pre­car­i­ous at best. You swear to find out about reef­ing options when you’re safe­ly back in port. You are remind­ed there’s quite a dif­fer­ence between the ease in light-wind sail­ing and the chal­lenges when winds strengthen.

Get­ting a Lit­tle More Com­pli­cat­ed: Jiffy Reef­ing
Your eas­i­est and most pop­u­lar upgrade option is jiffy reef­ing (or at least a form of it, depend­ing on your def­i­n­i­tion). Instead of hav­ing hal­yard and top­ping lift con­trol at the mast, route them back to the cock­pit. You will need some addi­tion­al hard­ware to guide and lock your lines (look at neigh­bor­ing boats for ideas; ask at your friend­ly marine store). Now you’re able to drop or raise the main from the “cozy” com­fort of your cock­pit, and keep the boom from drop­ping on your head in the process.

The amount of the first reef area can vary from sail to sail, but let’s say two feet up the sail from its foot is where you will find a num­ber of cringles (grom­met holes) run­ning par­al­lel to the boom. One of these holes will be the reef­ing luff cringle next to the mast, while the oth­er impor­tant one is the reef­ing leech cringle, next to the leech of the sail, toward the boat’s stern. Run a line through the luff cringle, bring­ing it back to the cock­pit. Then run anoth­er line through the leech cringle, rout­ing it as well to the cock­pit. Again, look at oth­er boats for ideas; don’t be in a hur­ry; think it through. When you need to reef, and you low­er the main by the two feet (in this case) and the cringles drop down close to the boom, you can use these two lines to pull the sail snug to the boom so you don’t have a loose low­er sec­tion of the main just flop­ping about in the wind.

When time per­mits, and if need be and the seas per­mit, you can tie the mid­dle­most grom­met holes to the boom, using sail ties. How is this an improve­ment? You can do all of this with­out leav­ing the cock­pit. If you think this doesn’t mat­ter, you haven’t tried han­dling sails in heavy weath­er while stand­ing above the cab­in top and main­tain­ing a foot­ing with­out falling overboard.

Anoth­er Option: Roller Reef­ing
Roller reef­ing the main: There are two approach­es to this. Actu­al­ly, three, if you con­sid­er not doing it. One is to have a boom that rotates, essen­tial­ly wrap­ping the foot of the main around it. Anoth­er is a ver­ti­cal rota­tion sys­tem that resides inside the mast and wraps the luff of the main. Before con­sid­er­ing either of these sys­tems, it is impor­tant to meet with an expe­ri­enced sail­mak­er, since these types of reef­ing can leave you with a main that no longer presents an opti­mal shape to the wind. Remem­ber, these sails aren’t just a flat piece of “can­vas.” They have shape. Note that these main­sail roller reef­ing options add con­sid­er­able expense and are not as popular.

Roller reef­ing the head­sail (jib/genoa): Imag­ine a light­weight pipe fit­ted over the head­stay. The jib is fas­tened to this “pipe” while a drum is affixed to the low­er part of the “pipe.” A line attached at the drum, and run­ning back to the cock­pit, allows rolling up some or all of the jib, effec­tive­ly giv­ing the option of reef­ing. This approach is com­mon, espe­cial­ly in sail­ing where giv­ing up some of the jib’s effec­tive­ness, when par­tial­ly rolled up (again, think shape), is accept­able in light of the con­ve­nience it offers.

If you are an off­shore sailor, where any hard­ware fail­ure regard­ing the mast, boom, and sail rig­ging can be dis­as­trous, roller reef­ing is not often used. Expe­ri­enced sailors don’t want any equip­ment where a jam can be dif­fi­cult, and/or time-con­sum­ing, to repair. Imag­ine you are sail­ing in 25+ knots of wind and your roller-reef­in­g/­furl­ing boom jams. Now what? The same con­cern can apply to head­sail roller reef­ing. When sail­ing in close-in or pro­tect­ed waters, where a fail­ure means you can eas­i­ly limp back to a dock, then a prob­lem with a roller sys­tem might not be as much of a concern.

There’s an age-old proverb that goes some­thing like this: “If you feel you had bet­ter reef [because the urgency has become quite appar­ent], then you should have reefed already.” Many sailors wait until they are being blown over before they reef, but the pre­ferred approach is to reef before the boat begins heel­ing exces­sive­ly. It’s smarter, and easier.