Running Rigging

How To Cross an Ocean: Sails and Rigging

What makes a sailboat different from a powerboat? Sails and Rigging!

A beautiful and comfortable yacht with walk in closets, air conditioning, and every last gadget under the sun with non working sails and rigging is just a floating tomb that can't get you to shore. Eventually, you will run out of resources and die! You need to be able to get back to land, and to do that you will need working sails and rigging. 

It is imperative that you fully inspect all your standing rigging, running rigging, and sails before you head out to sea. If you have any problems, you need to address them before you head out to sea.  

Now, having perfect sails and rigging when you head out to sea doesn't mean that you will make it across safely without complications. While out at sea, problems can begin to occur, and you need to be prepared to manage and repair all issues associated with your sails and rigging.


Lets start with your sails.  

Your sails need to be in good condition. This doesn't mean new, it just means "good". They can be stained, they can be old, but they need to be capable of getting you across the ocean and safely to the other side.  

Sails need to be inspected closely, giving extra attention to the condition of the sail cloth, condition of the stitching, and the condition of every cringle in the sail. 

The cloth should sound "snappy" when you flex it around. If it sounds and feels like a bed sheet or cotton tee shirt, then your sail cloth is old. This doesn't mean that the sail needs to be replaced, but it should raise a red flag in your mind about the condition of the sail. Old sails will still act as giant bags that can pull you down wind and get you across an ocean, as long as the sailcloth is not so old that the cloth will blow out on you. So, your sail sounds and feels like an old bed sheet, but is it ok to cross an ocean on it? Simply take the sail in to a sailmaker and ask them to evaluate the sail. Let them know that you are about to cross an ocean and ask them if they think this sail can make it across! They know sails and can tell you how much time a sail has left just by looking at it. If your sail is in good condition according to the sailmaker, then you should feel safe going out to sea. If your sail is not in good condition according to the sailmaker, then follow their recommendations before you head out to sea!


The stitching should be in good condition. You want to check for chafe and missing stitches. Be sure to inspect any place that running rigging passes near a sail, as the rigging can chafe away the stitching on that part of the sail. If the stitching is laying flat and looks shiny, then you are fine. If the stitching is loose, fraying, or missing, it should be repaired before heading out to sea.

The last place that you should inspect on your sails are all the cringles. Cringles are the little rings in your sails, and each cringle is a stress point and a potential point of failure. The tack, clew, head, reef points, and reefing tie points are all potential points of failure. The reefing tie points are a very weak area, since they are not reinforced to resist stresses, they are very easy to rip if you are shaking out a reef and forgot to untie one of the reefing ties. 

The cringles should be rust free, and all the stitching around the cringle is in good shape. The sailcloth around the cringle should also be in good order, ending neatly inside the cringle without any fraying around the cringle. 


Each cringle is a potential failure point, so reducing the number of cringles is a great way to reduce your exposure to problems.

Reefing tie points are the little ropes that go through your sail that you tie to hold the bottom of your sail neatly when you are reefed. If you have lazy jacks, they will hold your sail when it is reefed. A sail tie at the end of the boom will hold the end of the sail in place without the need of tying the little ropes! If you don't tie the little ropes, you won't have the issue of ripping the sail at these points.

Not putting the little ropes in the sail means that you have reduced a large number of potential failure points! In our mainsail, the first reef has 4 cringles, the second reef has 3 cringles, the third reef has 3 cringles. That's 10 potential failure points that can be removed by simply not using the little ropes.

The second area that can be improved is the tack points for reefing. Cringles in the sail are a potential fail point, while having the tack stitched onto the side of the sail with webbing will mitigate this problem by simply replacing your "hole in the sail" with a stitched on loop.

In our mainsail with three reefs and a Cunningham, the number of cringles was reduced from 20 to 7! The tack, Cunningham, head, clew, 1st reef clew, 2nd reef clew, and 3rd reef clew are the only "holes in our sail" that are loaded.  

Now, having good sails when you set out to sea doesn't guarantee that you will arrive on the other side of the ocean with good sails! You need to be able to check the sails yourself and you should be able to carry out any repairs along the way.

It would behoove you to carry spare sailcloth, sail thread, and a method to sew the sail. You can have a fancy and expensive sewing machine, or you can also have a "Speedy Stitch" hand sewing instrument. Having it is great, but be sure you also know how to use it. Reading the instructions is nice, but be real here: open the thing up and practice with it before you go out to sea! While in shore, you can pull up a YouTube How-To video to answer a question, but you can't do that out at sea when you actually need to do the procedure.

While out at sea, you need to constantly check your sails for chafe! A common problem that will happen when sailing downwind is the mainsail chafing on the shrouds. It will reduce your speed, but simply not easing the mainsheet as far will keep your mainsail off the shrouds and reduce this point of chafe. 

Your headsail's lazy sheet is another point of potential problems. The lazy sheet will lay limply across your deck, rising and falling as you move through the seas. This lazy sheet is just rubbing over and over again, chafing itself, as well as anything else it is touching. This may seem unnecessary to a coastal cruiser, but when crossing an ocean, you will be on the same tack for days, if not weeks! Something that is rubbing a little today will rub constantly until it saws all the way through!

Since you will be on the same tack for so long, it is easy to simply walk the deck and check for potential chafe points and position the lazy sheet in such a way that it doesn't rub. I like to pull enough slack on the sheet that it will lay flat and still on the deck all the way up to the clew, then raising up to reach the clew.


Aside from making sure your sails are in good order, it is important to carry the right kinds of sails. Having your working sails (mainsail and jib) is critical as these are the most commonly used sails for general conditions. You should also carry sails for the extremes! Storm sails and light air sails are a good idea to have with you, but not a "Need to Have" item. 

It might feel like we are berating sails and not going over rigging as much. The reason is sails are big and it's easy to overlook a small problem on such a large sail. The truth is rigging is smaller, but just as important to inspect.

Steel rigging rusts, corrodes, and breaks, but it is quite resistant to chafe from sails and sheets. You want to check for broken or corroded wires, paying extra attention to the ends of the stays (this means the top of the stay way up on the mast too). If you see any signs of corrosion or cracks, it is important to repair or replace the failing component.

Just like with sails, it is important to be able to carry out repairs at sea. With steel rigging, you need to carry the materials to fabricate and install a new replacement stay. To do this, it is wise to carry a length of wire equal to your longest stay. The problem with this plan is if you break two stays, you can only replace one of them! Steel stays are heavy, so carrying a full set of new rigging carries with it a steep weight penalty! Just like with sail repair, having the tools and parts to repair your rigging isn't enough; you need to know how to use them and with rigging, you need to know how to use them very well! Steel rigging HyMod fittings have little cones that crush down on the steel wires of 1x19 rigging cable and are one time use item. If you only have one, you better know how to use it and use it well because you only get one try with it!


With synthetic rigging, you don't have to worry about corrosion, but you do have to worry about chafe. Be sure to inspect your stays for fuzziness and chafe, and be sure that nothing is rubbing on the stays while you are voyaging. It is very important to make sure that the lazy sheet isn't rubbing on the forward lowers or cap shrouds because they will saw through your rigging in the course of the ocean crossing. 

Synthetic rigging is weaker in the form of chafe, but the tradeoff is very little weight. Since there is practically no weight penalty, you can feasibly carry a full spool of rigging allowing you to fabricate all your stays again. This removes the issue of "which stay to replace" if you break two stays, you can easily replace both! 

Keeping an eye on your sails and rigging before you go out to sea is important, but keeping an eye on your sails and rigging while out at sea is critical!  

Your sails and rigging are the powerhouse that will bring you across the sea. Keeping them in proper working order is paramount to making it across the ocean. The fancy coffee maker might be a cool gadget in the galley to show off at the marina, but it is absolutely worthless when it comes to getting your yacht to the other side of the ocean. Sails and rigging are what make your yacht a sailboat, which is why it is critical that you maintain them in working order and know how to work on them yourself. Accidents happen and you will have no outside help on your yacht. You will need to know how to take care of any and all problems that could arise with your sails and rigging as you cross the ocean.  


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Reefing When Ocean Crossing

The biggest distinction between ocean crossing and coastal sailing is the lack of help. If something breaks close to shore, there are plenty of people around who can help you. They will tow you back to a marina where an army of skilled labor exists to get you back out there sailing! In the ocean, if something breaks, you better know how to fix it yourself with the supplies you are carrying on board your yacht because no one is coming to help you!

This lack of aid is precisely why you should reef early. If you see a storm coming, don't wait for it to hit you to then start adjusting the sail plan! Reef now and wait for it to pass over. Once it has passed and completely cleared you, then shake out the reefs! This will ensure that you and your gear are exposed to minimal risk during the ocean crossing.

Maddie and I sleep in the V-Berth up in the bow and our third crew member sleeps in the quarter berth. At night, we rotate watches accordingly. Maddie has first watch from 9 to midnight. I have second watch from midnight to 4:30AM and the third crew member has the morning watch from 4:30AM until we all get up. Since we are up in the bow, we hear the sound of the stem cutting through the water, and we can also feel how much we are heeling over. I have frequently poked my head out of the forward hatch to see dark and stormy looking clouds all around us and notice that we are full sail! I assume that the crew member on watch is keeping an eye on them and tracking their movements with the compass. A storm that is not coming at you is not a storm you need to worry about. Then we pick up speed and begin to heel over to an extreme angle and I hear a desperate cry from the helm.

"It's time to reef!"

Yes, it is time to reef, and it was time to reef a long time ago! The two of us run up to the mast and begin taking in the sails while Maddie works the sheets and helm to keep us safe. I quickly tuck in a few reefs in the main while he lowers the jib entirely. After all of this, he will usually say something like, "We reefed at the perfect time" and I don't understand what he is talking about.

Now, he knows how I reef. I track the storms on the horizon and if I find one that is coming at us, get ready to reef. I will also reef if everything looks fine but the temperature just dropped significantly. I will reef at the first hint of anything getting stronger, and the reefing is so easy to do!

The boat is stable, the winds are light and manageable, and I easily tuck in a reef or two in the main without really needing the winch handle. The jib is easy to pull over the deck by tugging on the lazy sheet and releasing the halyard. There is no fuss about it, this is the perfect time to reef!

Once we are reefed, we wait for the storm to strike and when it does, nothing happens! We do not heel, we do not panic, and most of all, we do not risk ourselves or our boat in the process.

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Downwind Sail Plans

While most sail plans include the obvious sails such as a mainsail and a jib or genoa, there are other sails to consider! Some of these sails will end up being useless and others more useful than expected.

By far, the most useless sail to invest in is the spinnaker while the most useful sail is the trysail. The spinnaker is a large unruly downwind sail that no one ever flies. It takes a competent crew to set and douse it, and if anything goes awry, it happens quickly and severely. Out of fear or laziness, there is always an excuse not to fly the spinnaker.

Now for the most useful sail: the trysail! This little sail is sold as a storm sail, but it has so much more potential than that. We use our trysail whenever we are sailing downwind, light or heavy airs. The trysail doesn't use the boom, so accidental jibes go from a fear to a nuisance. Being such a small sail, it won't produce sufficient weather helm to bring the boat up into the wind when paired with a well sized headsail, such as a 100% Jib, Genoa, or Drifter. Best of all, the trysail keeps its forces on the boat within the deck.

What I mean here is the trysail is set on the mast and sheeted to the aft toe rail. As you ease the sheets while going downwind, the sail will fill up its belly next to the mast within the spreaders. The clew will simply move forward and not outboard. This means that the Center of Effort (CE) is kept midship and merely moves forward, not out.

A third reefed main is about the same size as a trysail, but set on the boom. As you ease the reefed main, the boom will move the clew very far outboard of the rigging and deck. The result is a long lever arm aft of the mast that is pushing the yacht to weather. This will create a lot of weather helm and may begin to struggle against the headsails lee helm.

When sailing downwind, the last thing you want is weather helm. You want to go downwind, and so should your sails. Instead of spending money on a downwind spinnaker you will never use, consider buying a trysail and adding it to your downwind sail plan.

One last point, you might be wondering why even fly the trysail since it is such a small scrap of cloth. The answer is simple, it adds sail area. Albeit not very much, but more than you had before you hoisted it up!

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Headsail Trimming in the Dark

On night watch, you will inevitably have to trim a headsail in total darkness. The moon has either not risen or is new, offering no illumination on the matter at hand. Stars, while bright and beautiful, will not grant you vision of your headsails either.

You could shine a flashlight at the sail, but this will only destroy your night vision making the remainder of the process even harder.

So how do you trim a headsail in the dark? By feel.

If the headsail is too eased, it will flutter and that fluttering can be felt in the sheet as it approaches the winch. Simply ease the sail until you feel it start to flutter, then winch it in until this damaging vibration ceases. At this point, the sail is trimmed in as little as possible so you don't risk being over-trimmed either.

Next time you can't see your sail, simply touch the sheet and let your fingers see for you.

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Ocean Crossing and Chafe

Ocean sailing differs greatly from coastal cruising. In a coastal situation, you can afford to be risky. You can fly too much sail, heel over too far, maybe even push the envelope of what the yacht is capable of. If something breaks, the penalty is rather costly and small, as a repair facility is always at hand. Should your mast break, a sail tear, or a sheet part, the result is the same: the boat broke and will be fixed promptly at a nearby facility.

In the ocean, there is no nearby facility. If something on the boat breaks, you are left to your own devices to repair it. Carrying too much sail can risk tearing the sails with no sail loft for a thousand miles and no way of getting your yacht to shore! Setting the sails against the rigging will also cause them to chafe, and that will lead to a gash forming in the sail cloth.

On a deep broad reach or run, you may be tempted to ease the main all the way out and let it drape against the rigging, but each wave and puff of wind will cause the sail to shimmy up and down on the stay, sawing through the cloth.

Instead of trimming the sails to perfection, it is more important to trim the sails to longevity. Keep them set in a way that they do not contact any part of the boat or rigging. This will keep them from chafing and will almost guarantee that your sails will make it across the ocean and be ready to carry you back home when the time comes.

This might not be the fastest way, nor the most efficient, but it certainly is the safest and most frugal way to trim your sails.

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