Going to the mast to raise and lower your mainsail or to tweak other sail control lines is no big deal on a bluebird day. It's also not so bad if you have lots of experienced crew all working together as a team, watching out for each other's safety. But what about when the weather turns ugly with driving rain and pounding seas? Or maybe you're sailing shorthanded, alone on watch at night, or with an inexperienced crew? It's in these circumstances that the benefits of having your sail controls led aft to the cockpit, and at your fingertips, really start to shine. It's also this kind of logical setup that allows a couple out cruising to easily handle a larger boat and it's attendant sail plan.
Almost all boats over 20 feet that are built today incorporate the ability to control sails easily from the cockpit. If you're not ready for a new boat yet, but would still like to enjoy the advantages of easy sail control, don't despair. We just made this change ourselves on our 23-year-old, 46-footer Serengeti. What follows is a break down of the steps necessary to accomplish this on your own boat.
Diagram Your Deck It really helps to begin by sketching a diagram of your deck and noting the existing location of each halyard and control line. Determine which of these lines you want led aft, and which are better off staying put. If you run all of your lines aft, you may end up with hundreds of feet of coiled lines that are more of a hindrance than a benefit. Analyze and prioritize how you use each line to determine which ones you'd like aft. Aboard Serengeti, our main goal was to be able to control our large mainsail—raising, lowering, and reefing without leaving the cockpit. This led us to running many other, but not all of our remaining lines aft in the process.
If your headsail or mainsail is on a roller furler, it's usually not necessary to lead the halyard aft since furling sails are raised and lowered infrequently. All you need in this case is a method to occasionally tighten or loosen the luff of the sail. This can still be accomplished at the mast if you leave a winch there. Another option is to lead the line back temporarily to the cockpit, adjust its tension, then re-secure it at the mast.
Choose the Hardware Once you've determined which lines to lead aft, add to your deck diagram a schematic depicting the most efficient route back to your cockpit. To minimize friction, keep your runs as straight as possible. After your schematic is complete, you can spec out and order the deck hardware you'll need for your project. Take a look at the schematic we created for Serengeti below.
If your boat is small—25 feet or less—your hardware could be as simple as a single stand-up block at the base of the mast to turn a halyard aft to a cockpit cleat. As boats get larger, mast base blocks are often used to route a line out to a deck organizer, which turns the lead aft to the cockpit. If the block at the mast base needs to articulate to ensure a fair lead, choose a stand-up swivel block, or a hinged block. When multiple halyards and lines are routed aft, rope clutches are often employed in the cockpit so that several lines can share a common winch. On larger boats, or in cases where a sailor doesn't have the strength he or she used to, it's common to see an electric winch at this location.
Choosing the right deck hardware for Serengeti
took awhile. For our 23-year-old girl, we sought a traditional, timeless look to the hardware, but with the low-friction performance of modern ball bearing blocks. We decided to use the stainless steel Half-Moon mast base blocks and deck organizers by Schaefer Marine. These durable blocks provide a blend of classic good looks with modern technology. In the cockpit, we mounted two Andersen self-tailing winches and multiple Spinlock rope clutches.
Position and Install With your new hardware in hand, lay each piece in its approximate place on deck. Check below to ensure that there's not a bulkhead or other structure that will interfere with your backing plate and nuts. If your headliner is removable, consider yourself lucky. If like us, you have a non-removable headliner, you'll have to drill or cut holes through it to secure the backing plates and nuts. But don't worry, you can make a trim plate to cover the holes, and no one will ever notice. In fact, it's quite common for boats to have trim plates covering the backing plates of their deck hardware.
If you're adding rope clutches and a winch behind a dodger or splashboard, be sure to position them carefully. Make sure you can fully turn a winch handle and can completely open a rope clutch without jamming your fingers or having restricted in motion.
The final positioning of each piece of hardware before drilling holes through your deck requires running the lines through the proposed hardware and making them taut. Only taut lines will allow you to confirm that both the lead into and out of the sheave is fair. Of course it's really not possible to pull your lines taut with the hardware still all loose on the deck. So as a starting point, we found it helpful to drill our holes and "dry fit" the rope clutches first. With our rope clutches secure, we could run our lines forward to the deck organizers, and pull them taut. This allowed us to manipulate the deck organizer to achieve the best position and angle to turn the line toward the mast. After doing that, you can drill your holes for the deck organizers, and "dry fit" the organizer to the deck.
The last items of deck hardware you want to "dry fit" are your mast-base blocks. Their alignment with the now non-moving deck organizer is crucial. Even more care needs to be taken if you're installing non-articulating mast base blocks as we did. After locating the exact spot for the first block, drill only one mounting hole through the deck. Insert your fastener and barely snug the nut from below. Run your line through the mast base block, and pull it taut. Confirm the lead from your deck organizer and the vertical lead up your mast. If you need to adjust the lead, you should be able to pivot the base of the block since you've only installed one fastener at this stage. Once perfectly aligned, mark and drill the remaining holes for that particular block, then you can repeat this process for all remaining mast base blocks.
Once all your holes are drilled and a dry-fit of all the new hardware gives you the desired result of smooth, freely running lines, it's time to bed the hardware permanently. (See our article on "Drilling and Filling Holes in Your Boat
" for tips on this procedure.)
If you have a dodger or splashboard protecting your cockpit, you may need to cut holes for the lines to pass through. A canvas dodger is the easiest to modify. We had both a fiberglass dodger and a wooden splashboard to go through. In locating these holes, we chose to lift the lines off the deck a couple of inches so that there would still be some protection from water running aft down the cabinhouse. To lift our lines, we had to raise our rope clutches and deck organizers. To accomplish this, we fashioned bases out of Starboard, a plastic lumber. Raising our rope clutches also resulted in a cleaner lead to the cockpit winch.
Depending on the length of your existing control lines, you may need to replace them with longer ones to reach all the way back to the cockpit. If you're doing this, keep in mind that it's a good idea to use contrasting colors for easy and fast identification by the crew. This is particularly valuable if your crew is inexperienced—it allows you to just say, "pull the red line."
Once your halyards and control lines are efficiently led aft, you and your crew will enjoy a new luxury of easy sail handling. In all weather conditions, even with shorthanded crew, you can make major changes or small tweaks quickly, comfortably and without getting wet—all from the security of your own cockpit. Sailing just got a whole lot more fun!