I'm new to sailing so I'm pretty conservative. I tend to prefer 12-15 kts, hopefully with gusts not over 20. I haven't tried to reef my main yet, but I suppose if I did I could handle a bit more. I only have one headsail, a 110 hank on, so I'm limited there.
I went out once in my ideal conditions, and while out there winds increased, 20 kts steady with gusts to 30. I was not prepared for that...not reefed or anything. I was only on the main and when it happened the boat became quite a handful. I was literally fighting the helm, the boat was trying to round up (didn't know what that was until then) heeling way over and generally scared the **** out of me. My mouth was dry, heart was racing...but I figured out really quick to work that mainsheet constantly, easing out and trimming up as needed, and as soon as I felt that strong puff to let that puppy out and spill some wind. As soon as I got under the protection of a cove I doused and had like 5 smokes before I motored back in.
If you don't know how to reef you are missing the boat! I have a sailing buddy who had never reefed. I forced him to practice it on days when it wasn't necessary. He had been in a serious car accident that busted him up in little pieces, and so was very fragile. This really cut into his sailing. Then he learned that reefing kept the boat on her feet, and make the motion much more gentle. So now he reefs at the dock if it looks at all windy. It's easy to shake out a reef if you are wrong, and you don't get bet up if you are right. When sailing he always heaves to in order to reef. He tucks everything in nice and neat. I don't bother, I'll let the jib drive the boat slower while I reef. I often watch other boats getting beat up by being over canvassed, and we zip on by.
Practice, practice, practice. Do it at the dock, do it heaved to, do it while sailing, put it in, take it out. Once you know how to do it your confidence level in high winds will go way up.
Gary H. Lucas