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Adjustable Sheet Leads

This article was originally published on SailNet in September, 2000. 

I am writing this aboard my boat in Faial, one of the beautiful Portuguese islands in the Azores group. This is my third visit in as many years, and I am always stunned by the beauty of these islands and the friendliness of the local people. Not much has changed here since my first visit in 1979, and it looks as if nothing will change for the next decade or two. It's a rare place among the well-traveled sailing routes of the world.

The author steers his 50-foot steed across the Atlantic. Not having to leave the safety of the cockpit to adjust the sheeting angle of his headsails, he says, is a bonus to safety as well as performance.

I arrived after a quick and uneventful passage from Spain and hope to depart soon for Bermuda, 2,000 miles away. I have recently spent quite a lot of time at sea, first sailing the cold waters of Newfoundland and now the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, I feel more committed in my beliefs about sails and sail design than ever before, especially regarding what works for the cruising sailor in an offshore environment. You really have to get out here and do it before you can write about it and advise others.

While in the Azores, I spoke with many of the transient sailors who were en route to Europe, or back to the US. They all agreed that as much as they like their time at sea, they always sail as hard and as fast as they can to get back to land. So in this article we will look at additional ways to make that happen by getting the best performance from your sails. Boat speed and performance are, after all, important parts of good seamanship.

"The most effective way to sail across an ocean is to have a number of different sized headsails of varying weights and shapes, and change these to suit the conditions."
I've mentioned before that my ideal cruising sail plan would start with a large mainsail with full-length battens in the upper leech, coupled with smaller, non-overlapping headsails. The ideal rig would also have an inner forestay. If your boat has a different rig, don't worry, there are still a few things you can do to ensure that you get the best out of whatever sail plan you have. The most effective way to sail across an ocean is to have a number of different sized headsails of varying weights and shapes, and change these to suit the conditions. This is how it was done in the days before roller furling, and discounting the time (and inefficiencies) spent changing sails, once the right sail was up the boat really performed well. The helm was balanced and the sheeting position was perfect for the sail. With roller furling now an established part of almost every cruising sailor's inventory (and I am not going to try and talk you out of it), a lot of sailing efficiency has been lost. As soon as you reef a roller-furling headsail, the sail shape goes awry, the center of effort gets raised (at a time when you need it lowered) and worst of all your sheet lead is in the wrong place.

For sailors who reef their headsails by way of roller-furling, easily adjustable jibsheet leads can help recover some of the performance lost through reefing.

There are several ways to recover some of the performance lost through reefing your roller-furling headsail, and the first and most useful modification you can make is to add a jib-sheet lead adjuster. With modern tracks and cars it is easy to add a track system where the car can slide on the track even while under load. On most older cruising boats, you still have to remove the load from the car, pull the pin, adjust the car, replace the pin, and then sheet the sail back again. Most jib-sheet lead adjusters are devised from block and tackle purchase systems that attach between the car and a point at the front of the track. The purchase is usually led to the cockpit or someplace where it can be trimmed conveniently. Once you take a reef in a headsail, the clew travels forward and the top of the sail twists open, which depowers the sail. If you have an adjustable sheet lead, you can simply compensate by pulling the sheet lead car forward until it's in the right place for the smaller sized sail.

You can also have your sailmaker add trim lines to the headsail so that it will be easy to move the lead to the correct position. You might also have them add reefing marks on the foot of the sail. With these marks as a gauge, you can reef the sail to a predetermined amount of sail area, and mark the deck exactly where the sheet lead should be located for each setting. This will take much of the guesswork out of trimming the sail when it's reefed, and you'll find it especially helpful if you are tired or the weather is rough.

The raised clew on this ketch makes the sail easier to trim and offers good visibility from the helm, but it does sacrifice some performance.

One quick word about clew height. The lower the clew, the better the performance you'll get from the sail. Raise it up and you lose some performance, but you do gain some flexibility when reefing. With a high-clewed sail, there is less need to move the sheet lead. Indeed, on the old high-clewed Yankee jibs the clew was so high that you hardly had to make any lead adjustment. For ocean-going vessels, it's actually a wise idea to have the clew high enough so that you have good visibility under the foot of the sail from the helm, and so that waves coming over the foredeck will pass unobstructed under the sail. But you don't want the clew so high that it sacrifices performance, especially if you have a jib-sheet lead adjustment system on board. And finally, if you have a double headsail rig, you might want the clew on the headsail higher than the clew on the staysail—this arrangement seems to work better.

The mainsail traveler aboard the author's boat spans the full width of the vessel, offering a greater range of adjustment.

Now that your headsail is working more effectively, let's look into modifying your mainsail hardware. I like a long mainsail traveler with cars that slide easily and a block and tackle arrangement that allows you to move the sheet position with ease. Controlling the back of the mainsail is important, and having the ability to reduce heel by lowering the traveler while not losing lift (and drive if you are reaching) is good for performance. On my boat (granted it is a racing boat), the main traveler runs the whole width of the boat and I am able to adjust the aspect of the mainsail to maintain the correct amount of heel and balance without losing lift and drive. This saves wear and tear on the autopilot as well, which is no small consideration for those of us who rely on that device to do the bulk of the steering on long passages.

Making these two changes to your deck layout will allow you to get more efficiency from both of your principal sails. In the next article we will take a look at those colorful sails up front, which many cruising sailors avoid because they seem intimidating or complicated. I would have had a much slower passage between Spain and the Azores if I had not flown my big asymmetrical spinnaker most of the way. As a bonus, this sail also provided some much-needed shade. Meanwhile, I am off to Peter's Café Sport (a well-known and well-worn watering hole here in Horta) for a cold beer. It's true, the local beer does still cost less than a buck and it's very good too. I will file my next article from the mid-Atlantic, thanks to the wonders of satellite communication.

Suggested Reading:

Headsail Reefing Basics by Brian Hancock

Choosing the Right Headsail by Dobbs Davis

Reading Flow and Making Adjustments by Tom Wood

SailNet Store Section: Headsail Reefing and Furling Systems

Brian Hancock is offline  
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