How to Reef a Main Sail in Five Easy Steps!

Did you know that you can get your boat to sail better and faster when you reef a main sail? You might think that reefing sails was just for sailing in heavy winds. But often, your boat will sail smoother, faster, and easier with this simple, easy-to-use technique. Here are five fast steps to put this super sailing technique into play on your sailboat today!

Reefing means to reduce the amount of sail exposed to the wind. Have you ever climbed up onto the roof of your home or gone outside to get some fresh air on the upper floors of a tall building. If it’s a breezy day, that wind will blow with more strength higher off the ground than it does near the ground.

Sailing winds are similar. Near the top of your sailboat mast, the wind blows with a lot more speed (velocity) than the wind near the water surface. That’s because wind at the surface slows down because of friction–or contact–with the water surface or nearby land. Higher up off the water, the wind encounters less friction, so it blows at a higher velocity.

When Do You Need to Reef Your Sailboat?

In a sailboat that has the mainsail hoisted on a tall mast, the upper part of the sail has a lot more wind blowing onto it than the lower part. Sometimes, this can cause the boat to heel a lot. When you boat heels too much, the rail, or outer edge of the boat might dip into the water. This causes the boat to slow down.

This can also cause weather helm–or the tendency of the boat to want to round up (point toward) the wind. You will know that your boat has too much weather helm when it becomes difficult to hold the wheel or tiller and keep your boat on her sailing course.

Put balance back into your sailboat with reefing. Reefing reduces the amount of sail area (surface area) up high. When you reef, you lower the mainsail down closer to the water surface. This gets the mainsail out of those higher velocity sailing winds that cause you to heel so much. Here are the five steps to take to reef your sailboat. They are written for short-handed sailing crews. So with just yourself and one other person, you will be able to reef your boat.

1. Prepare Your Main sail for Reefing

Before you go out for a day of sailing, prepare your boat for reefing. This will save you lots of time and effort once you are out sailing and find you need to reef the mainsail.

Reeve (thread) a long piece of line from a cleat on one side of the mast, up through the tack reefing grommet (ring) and back down to a cleat on the other side of your mast.

Reeve a long piece of line from an eye mounted on one side of the end of the boom, up through the clew reefing grommet, back down to a cheek block (a flat block) on the other side of the end of the boom, and up to a cleat near the forward end of the boom.

2. Head Up Into the Wind

Point the bow as close into the wind as possible. Get the mainsail to flutter. This takes tension off of the mainsail control lines and halyards to make reefing easy. Ease the boom topping lift (the line that runs from the end of the boom to the top of the mast to hold the end of the boom up) until it has lots of slack. Ease the boom vang all the way so that it has lots of slack. Ease the mainsheet so that it has lots of slack.

3. Lower, Reef, and Tension the Luff

Un-cleat the mainsail halyard. Lower the main sail about half way down the sailboat mast. Cleat the halyard to hold it in place. Pull on the tack reefing grommet line to remove all slack and cleat it off. Hoist the main as high as possible by hand; then wrap three turns around the halyard winch.

Grind on the winch until you just see a light vertical crease build along the luff of the mainsail. Stop grinding. Ease the main just a bit until the crease disappears. Cleat off the mainsail halyard.

4. Reef and Tension the Clew

Un-cleat the clew reefing line from the boom. Haul (pull hard) on the line until the clew reefing grommet and end of the boom come together. Often, you will not be able to pull the clew down all the way to the top of the boom. Cleat off the clew reefing line.

Make a simple downhaul line to pull the clew reefing grommet closer to the top of the boom. Thread an 18″ piece of line through the clew reefing grommet, haul down on the reefing clew grommet, and tie off the downhaul line beneath the boom with a square knot.

5. Test the Helm for “Feather-weight” Balance

Check the results of your efforts. Take two or three fingers and see if you can steer your boat with the tiller or wheel and hold it on course. If you can do this, you have achieved perfect sailing balance. Still fighting the helm to hold a sailing course? Continue reefing, but move to the bow. If you have a furling headsail, roll up the headsail just enough in order to achieve “finger-tip” steering control. If necessary, change to a smaller headsail, like a working jib.

Use these five easy steps and sailing tips to learn to reef a main sail and achieve the ultimate goal of perfect balance. You will be rewarded with blazing speed, power, and performance–wherever in the world you choose to sail!