August 2, 2011

The joy of reefing

ONE OF THE LOVELIEST aspects of sailing concerns being in full charge of a boat in heavy weather. It’s wonderful to be at the helm of a responsive boat in a gale of wind, a boat that responds with fingertip control, rising buoyantly and firmly to oncoming waves, or surging confidently downwind on a white blanket of foam. In both cases, it’s the correct sail area for the strength of the wind that determines the amount of control you have, and therefore the ability to reef or changes to smaller sails.

And yet I can hardly believe the number of sailboats I see with no reef points on the mainsail — or, if they have rows of points, no reefing lines reeved, ready for action.

I am not talking about dedicated club racing boats, of course. They never reef if they’re just racing around the cans. And they are therefore never fully in control, either. The number of broaches and pitchpoles confirms that. No, I’m talking about family daysailers and ordinary weekend cruisers.

This lack of ability to reef always worries me. I regard reefing as an essential safety factor, especially in boats that normally carry a lot of weather helm. Many boats require to be sailed fairly upright if they are not to be overwhelmed by weather helm, but all too often, instead of properly reefed mainsails we see skippers simply spilling wind from the mainsail, using the so-called “fisherman’s reef,” allowing the sail to flog mercilessly and strain the mast and rigging to breaking point. It’s panicky, heartstopping stuff, and you can’t carry on for long like that.

Because of the problems with reefing the mainsail, many skippers start by rolling up the jib. In most cases, that shifts to center of effort aft, thus adding to weather helm and lessening what control the helm has left.

The ability to reef the mainsail quickly and easily is, as I said, an important safety feature, especially for singlehanders. And, without it, you’ll never experience that snug feeling in heavy weather of quiet power and control, that wonderful feeling of being in charge of a calm, powerful, and almost-sentient being when Nature is throwing its worst at you.

Today’s Thought
He that will use all winds must shift his sail.
--John Fletcher, Faithful Shepherdess.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #230
Longitudinal cracks in wooden spars do no appreciably weaken a mast or boom. They are a sign that, in fact, that the wood is not “dead” or abnormally brittle. The rule of thumb is that if you want to fill the cracks for aesthetic reasons, do not use any material that sets hard, and make sure the wood is perfectly dry before you apply it.

“You should give up smoking.”
“It takes years off your life.”
“Nonsense. I’ve smoked since I was 16 and I’m 60 now. What do you say to that?”
“Well, don’t you see? If you’d never smoked you might be 70 by now.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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