Headsail Reefing

Roller furling headsails have the distinct advantage of limitless reefing. If you feel that your headsail is a bit over-canvased, simply pull in on the furling line to reduce the amount of sail area exposed. 

The goal of reefing is to produce a smaller sail that is nearly flat, that way any excess wind is spilled off and does not overpower the smaller sail. Roller furling does make the sail smaller, but baggy instead of flat. Foam luffs can help reduce the amount of bagginess, but it will still occur to some extent. While a smaller baggy sail may be more powered than an unfurled flat sail, the truth remains that the sail can simply be furled up even more, making the exposed sail that much smaller. While roller furling can't produce the best sail shape when partially furled, it does have the distinct advantage of being able to always make the sail smaller.

Hank on sails are known for their reliability and excellent sail shape. There are much fewer moving parts involved in setting a hank on sail as compared to all the mechanisms needed for a roller furling sail. The problem is sail makers don't have a method in place to reef your headsails.

When I talked with my sail maker about this, his suggestion was to purchase a smaller jib. This means that I would have to perform a headsail change during reefing conditions. This might be the standard operating procedure on board racing sailboats where there are plenty of crew to help execute a speedy headsail change and a limitless budget to buy all of these sails, but I don't have either of these faculties on my boat. I needed a way to reef my hank on sails that could be quickly carried out alone and not break the bank!

Yes, I had a juniper bush growing in my bow. It died because I forgot to water it for a few weeks (and maybe the salt spray).

Yes, I had a juniper bush growing in my bow. It died because I forgot to water it for a few weeks (and maybe the salt spray).

The old staysail that came with the boat had a reef point in it, and this gave me the idea to have reef points added to my current headsails. I talked it over with my sailmaker and they decided to give it a try. They told me that most people with hank on sails are racers and the rings add too much weight to the sail, which is why they don't typically put reefs in headsails. I told them I would be fine with a bit of extra weight in the sail and they went to work installing the reef points in the sails!

The standard way to reef a hank on headsail is to:

Lower the sail into the deck
Attach the reef tack point to the deck
Attach the sheets to the reef clew point
Raise the reefed sail and adjust the sheet leads as needed

The problem with this in my opinion is when I lower the headsail, the boat becomes unbalanced. This will make the boat head into the wind as it has lost all lee helm from the headsail. The other issue is I would have to crawl all the way out onto the forepeak to switch the tack point during rough seas. I know I should reef before it gets bad, but at some point, I'm going to be caught off guard and need to do it in sloppy weather.

I have installed a downhaul system for the headsails so that I can lower them all the way from the mast in a controlled manner, never setting foot further forward in heavy weather. Why not rig something else up that will keep me at the mast where my halyards are when I need to put in a reef? I did just that.

Photo courtesy of Anastasia Forrestal

Photo courtesy of Anastasia Forrestal

I attached a 7mm piece of polyester covered dyneema to the deck tack point, up through the reef tack loop, back through the deck tack point, and then aft towards the mast. This lets me stand in front of the mast, lower the halyard while pulling in on the tack line (through a 2:1 pulley system). Once the tack is drawn down, I can cleat it off on a spring cleat and attach the reefed sheet lines to the reefed clew.

Once the tack and clew are attached, I can easily crank on the halyard to tension the luff again, producing a very flat reefed headsail. 

With the sail up and loaded, the foot will blow in the wind like a skirt. Simply rolling it up will get it out of the way and make it compact for the reefing lines to hold in place.

I also like to tie the clews together to help keep them from flopping around. A flying clew plate can cause a serious amount of pain!

The reef lines are simple to make. I took 1/4 inch 3 strand nylon and passed it through the reef holes, tying double fisherman knots on either side to keep them in place. The ends of the lines are crown knotted and backspliced to keep it from unraveling. Since these lines will be rubbing on the sails, it is imperative that the ends be fuzzy and not melted into hard points!

On a side note, I am using a snap shackle during the dockside test fitting of this sail. Never use a snap shackle in stormy conditions! If that shackle were to open up by accident, the sail is going to turn into a flag, balance will be lost, and it will be really hard to attach another sheet in its place. Always use a sheet that is tied securely with a bowline or a larkshead knot for any reefed sails.

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