Simply put, reefing is the art and practice of reducing sail area. Every sailor knows that the wind exerts its force over the exposed surface of a sail, but many don't realize that even a small increase in wind speed can bring about substantial increases in the force of the wind. And, when you consider that spars and rigging
, along with the sails, create windage that absorbs the wind's energy, it's easy to see that the more surface area that's presented to the wind, the more impact the wind's energy will have on the handling characteristics of a vessel.
Knowing when to reef is a much-debated subject among sailors. If you find yourself fighting the helm as though King Neptune himself were wrestling the rudder beneath you, or if the cabin down below has become a zero-gravity environment with hooting crew members flying amid airborne gear, it's pretty obvious that it's time to reef. However, prudent sailors recognize the tell tale signs that indicate a reef might be necessary well in advance and they respond accordingly. If there's an increase in wind speed or a change in sea state, they take note. They might also discern increased cloud cover or a decrease in the air temperature or a drop in the barometric pressure. When underway, it's important to notice these changes and reef before the sails start loading up too much or before the conditions deteriorate and managing the boat becomes dangerous.
The time-tested rule for veteran mariners is to reef deep and reef early. Shortening sail to suit the power of the gusts instead of the average wind speed will keep the boat balanced and life below more manageable. Ideally, the procedure should occur in anticipation of strengthening conditions. If you're daysailing, reefing while still at the dock is prudent if the forecast calls for heavy air. If you're offshore, analyzing and interpreting weather events and comparing these to the forecast should lend insight into whether reefing will be necessary or not. While we all like to make good time underway, safety should should take precedence. And reefing early can keep things like sail cars, battens, blocks, and other essentials from breaking when the wind really starts to blow.
Reefing is often discussed with a specter of dread hanging about the topic, and it becomes easy to imagine crew members clinging to the mast, shouting desperately at each other in the face of a maelstrom. But this needn't be the scenario at all, because with the proper equipment, reefing the mainsail can be accomplished in a few simple steps. Here's how:
|"Before you start tightening your reef, look up to see that the halyard is run cleanly from the masthead and isn't tangled around anything like a spreader."|
Let's say you're planning to reef the mainsail before you even leave the dock. So, with the boat oriented into the wind, you take the sail cover off, find the main halyard, and attach it to the head of the sail. Then you look up to see that the halyard is run cleanly from the masthead and not twisted around the shrouds or anything else. After you attach the halyard securely to the head of the mainsail you can release the mainsheet and other mainsail controls (like the vang, cunningham, and reef lines
) and then raise the sail, taking care that the wind isn't going to swing the boom into any nearby boats. Once the sail is up, take a look at it to ensure that all battens are in place and won't shake loose, and that there are no tears nor other anomalies that disqualify the sail for heavy-air work.
Then lower the sail and find its luff—the edge closest to the mast—and choose which set of reef points you'll be using. Along that edge of the sail there will be a series of cringles, or large stainless grommets. Some sails may have only one set of reef points while other sails may have two or three. Complicating this is the fact that some sails may have an attachment point for the cunningham, a sail flattening device whose luff grommet looks similar to the first reef cringle. This is a good time to examine the sail to determine whether you are working with a cunningham or the reef tack. Reef points usually have several layers of heavy reinforcement designed to take the full load of the sail, and cunninghams typically have less reinforcement.
Once you locate the first reef point, find the reef hook, horn, or other gear that is used to secure the luff cringle. The reef hook may be a fitting located on the boom near the gooseneck where the sail is connected to the boom or it may be a stainless steel hook tied to a piece of line and attached to a cleat while others may have a hook connected to the forward end of the boom. Regardless of the system your boat has, put the forward most reef cringle over the hook or put the hook through the reef cringle. Then tension the halyard so that the cringle stays attached to the hook.
Now it's time to focus on the other end of the sail near the aft end of the boom. The clew of the sail should be attached to the outhaul—the sail trim device that controls the draft of the sail and puts tension fore and aft on the foot, or bottom of the sail. Run your hands up the leech—the trailing edge of the sail—until you come to the first reef cringle there. This should have a line traveling through it if the reefing line is already led. But every boat is different, so you may have to hunt around to find the reefing line if it's not already led to the cringle. The idea is to make sure that the line is led up from the boom, through the cringle, and then back down to the boom and secured somehow there. Depending upon how your boat is rigged, the reefing line should be led forward along or through the boom to a winch or a cleat on the boom, or it may travel all the way forward to a block on the mast and back down to a winch on the deck.
Before you tension the reefing line, make sure that you are dealing with the same set of reef points along the leech of the sail as you are along the luff. Once you are sure the reef points are the same and the lines are sorted out, get the reef line as taut as humanly possible. Any slack in this line will leave your sail looking like a wrinkled handkerchief and not the flat, aerodynamic shape you need in heavy air. After that, you can raise the halyard as far as it will go and apply a generous amount of halyard tension. Remember, always look up when raising a sail. If you just crank away blindly on a winch, you won't know if the halyard is lead around the spreader or snagged somewhere else and you'll end up damaging either the sail or the rig, and certainly the halyard.
At this point, your reef is now almost complete. All you have to do now is tidy up the bulk of the sail that's not being used. If your sail has them, you can use the reef ties—the lines that hang from small grommets in line with the reef cringles—to secure the sail. Again, notice the manner in which the sail is constructed. Typically reef ties are small diameter lines led through grommets. Contrary to popular belief, these ties are not structural, but are put in place in order to keep the bunt, or bottom part of the sail, from flapping around. If the reef ties are tied too tightly and the clew becomes loose, long vertical creases will develop in the sail, radiating from the reef ties. If that happens, the reef points can easily tear out of the sail and leave a big hole in the sail. Tie the reef lines with a slip knot or a square (reef) knot. Should the winds lighten, these knots can be easily untied, releasing the sail, and allowing you to ease the halyard, release the clew, and re-hoist the full sail. Now, if your sail isn't set up with reef lines, don't worry, you can still tidy up that bulk of sail that's hanging around the boom by rolling it and tying sail ties around the roll near the aft and forward-most reef points.
Reefing while underway essentially follows the same procedures outlined above, although balance becomes more of an issue should you or one of your crew have to go forward to put the luff hook in place and handle the halyard and clew line. Heaving-to is probably the easiest way to put a reef in, though plenty of reefs have been put in with the boat head-to-wind, or by paying out the main until it luffs.
Now, there are a number of different ways in which reefing systems are set up. What I've described above is usually called jiffy reefing, but some boats are set up so that you use just one line to affect the reef and there aren't any hooks or other fittings involved. That is usually referred to as single-line reefing. And some systems have the reefing lines terminate on the mast, some on the boom, and others are led back to the cockpit for convenience. Also, there are methods of roller reefing, but the idea is essentially the same—the object is to shorten sail in the face of rising wind velocities.
In the case of roller reefing, the technique is somewhat different. Some boats have booms with internal gears and an accompanying crank that allow you to roll the sail around the boom. With this set up you first raise the mainsail and then lower the halyard while cranking the boom to roll the sail around the boom until you get to the desired setting. Other systems can include a spring in the gooseneck—a manual mechanism that allows the sail to be rolled up by hand like a window shade. And there are a number of newer systems that are capable of stowing the entire mainsail either in the boom, behind the mast, or inside the mast.
No matter what system you use, you'll know that you have reefed correctly if the sail is free of creases and wrinkles. If you have reef points, you might consider using bungee cord instead of line for these. Should these areas load up, they'll be less likely to rip holes in the sail if there's a little give built in by way of the bungee cord.
One thing every sailor can do to ensure that reefing works as intended is to practice tucking in a reef in the mainsail before the wind kicks. Doing this will provide familiarity with the procedure and build your confidence for when the real need arises. Reefing really needn't be intimidating. Remember, there's plenty of good sailing to be had when the wind pipes up.