Dec 26, 2023

Expert advice: sails and rigging

Keeping sails and rigging in tip-top shape are of key importance to sailors. Read our tips and tricks from experts to improve their longevity

Sails and rigging are the engine room of any sailing boat from small dinghies up to giant superyachts. No matter how big or how new your boat, the sails and rigging need to be checked regularly and will need intermittent updating.

Updating of rigging on a yacht in particular will often be a requirement for insurance purposes so any owner will want to be mindful of that and make sure they upgrade often enough for those purposes – usually 10-15 years, but check your policy.

But you don't need to focus on buying new to make improvements to your boat. Sure brand new sails will give you a performance boost, but there is plenty to be done with your old sails and rigging to improve performance and their longevity.

Keeping lines shorter will help keep a clear cockpit. Credit: Dr Nick Bamford

When changing your standing rigging, look at your running rigging too.

The hi-tech, non-stretch polyester with which we just replaced our old wire and rope halyards has massively reduced the friction and now makes hoisting the mainsail a joy.

And this prompted another review. The advantages of all halyards and reefing lines led back to the cockpit, in terms of ease of operation as well as safety, are well known.

But the price you pay is that mountain of spaghetti cluttering up the cockpit!

I realised that a lot of mine was simply not needed. The lines were the length they were because they always had been! It was time for a rethink.

I treated myself to a £20 butane rope knife and set to work, and the result is a joyfully tidy cockpit.

I do have one other rigging tip, which I discovered when I lost a reefing line in the boom.

While specialist mousing devices are not cheap, curtain wire is! And it works a treat

Carabiners will make it easier to reef. Credit: Harry Dekkers

How often did you try to hook the reefing eye of the mainsail at the forward end of the boom only to find that it has fallen out before you are able to hoist the halyard?

I have overcome this issue by welding carabiners on the existing ramshorn hooks on both sides of the gooseneck.

Sails and rigging advice: Ensure genoas are well secured on their roller reefing forestay before leaving the boat. Credit: Theo Stocker

When wandering around marinas, moorings, and boatyards, I am always dismayed by the number of yachts left with a triangle of genoa unfurled on their roller reefing forestay.

Not only does this engender potential weakness as a result of exposure to damaging solar ultraviolet, but that small handkerchief of unrolled sail can be worried by strong winds until it risks a catastrophic unfurling with consequential ripping and destruction of the flogging material.

It seems that every winter I spot a tattered rag of an unfurled sail that could have been properly protected by secure tight rolling.

My habit is to roll my genoa away with at least two turns of overlying sheet to trap the sail; the sheets are then tightened and securely tailed on the winches. This protects against unwanted unfurling and also provides an extra handhold.

When leaving the boat for any time, those more obsessional than I might back the sheets up with a safety lashing around the sail/sheet combination, as well as tying a preventer onto the roller reefing drum so that any damage to its furling line does not result in the sail unwrapping.

Tony's homemade mast steps are still going strong after two circumnavigations of the world. Credit: Tony Curphey

Mast steps are invaluable when you are cruising. They don't have to be expensive. Mine cost me about £100, which was the price of a flat aluminium bar and Monel pop rivets. It's necessary to have a good large pop riveter like the trellis one I have.

I used my small, onboard vice to bend them into shape. Make sure each step is wide enough for your foot with hard shoes on.

Start from the deck and put as few on as possible, spacing them apart as far as you can step up. You can use your bosun's chair to drill and rivet, using 4x 6.4mm rivets per step.

Finish off with two together at the top so that you can stand on them and work at the very top of the mast.

I finished mine off with gold spray paint to match Nicola Deux's 1970s mast.

The mast steps have been there for five years and two circumnavigations, and are as firm and strong as when first fitted.

The mast has 14 steps, but I have long legs.

Soft shackles are just the business these days; easy on the hands, no chafe to worry about and no pin to drop in the drink.

Soft shackles made from Dyneema are lighter and stronger than stainless steel, they are also kinder to your boat and your hands.

But a soft shackle, such as the one above does still present and issue in that getting them undone does require you to pull the inner core to open the loop end and allow the diamond knot through. This is why a quick-release system is a good idea.

Tie off the ends once you have passed your quick release lanyard through the shackle. Credit: Duncan Wells

Pull the inner core of the shackle out so it makes a loop sufficient to get the diamond knot through comfortably.

Then make your hole. Use a fid (a pen or screwdriver will do) to separate the 12-strand rope, pass the lanyard through and tie in a knot. Now set the shackle and smooth the outer core from the diamond knot end to the loop end and nip it up tight.

To release, pull on the lanyard.

Sewing on anti-chafe covers to lines ahead of a passage. Credit: Patricia and Julian Morgan

Chafe and rubbing damage is an ongoing enemy and it is surprising how quickly small rubs can lead to considerable damage to sheets, sails, halyards, lines and equipment.

On long-distance passages we do a detailed boat inspection, using a checklist, at least twice a day, including looking for signs of chafe.

We have installed tough anti-chafe covers on halyards and reefing lines where damage is likely, for example where ropes pass around sheaves or blocks.

We carry a bag full of short lengths of plastic pipe, which we use to pass over mooring and other lines when wear is likely to be an issue.

We also have plenty of readymade Dyneema soft shackles and loops, and have replaced many of our shackles with Dyneema equivalents, again reducing wear and damage.

Sails are very susceptible to chafe on long passages.

We have to be careful that our mainsail does not rub on our spreaders and shrouds when sailing downwind and have had covers sewn over our batten pockets where chafe has arisen.

We put one reef in the main when running to stop the sail touching the upper intermediate shrouds.

Sails and rigging advice: A soft shackle makes an ideal genoa sheet attachment. Credit: Vyv Cox

There are many different ways in which genoa sheets may be attached to the sail, ranging from the simple but inelegant cow hitch, via bowlines or other knots, to some quite sophisticated methods.

In most cases they may be much of a muchness but there is one particular case that complicates the issue, and this is the presence of a baby-stay.

On our boat the combination of a large overlapping genoa and baby-stay has probably led to more sailing foul-ups than anything else on the boat.

Over the years we have tried most common methods of attachment but in every one there is a good chance that the knot or join will catch when tacking.

The only answer, short of going forward to unhitch it is to let the boat's bow fall away until the sail blows free, not conducive to efficient tacking and doubling the effort of sheeting the sail home on the new tack.

We have tried most types of bearing on the stay itself, large and small diameter plastic tubes in various order, but none was truly satisfactory.

Then, soft shackles came onto the market. This seemed like the perfect solution to the problem, and so it proved.

I spliced loops into the end of each sheet, not quite as easily as it might have been as I was using a welding rod as a fid, and working with rope that was several years old.

Nonetheless, after an afternoon's work we had a new system to try and the transformation was remarkable.

I cannot claim that the sail never hangs up on tacking but the occasions are pretty rare.

We have now used this same original shackle for 10 years and it continues to give excellent service.

A permanent preventer attachment makes sailing easier. Credit: Helen Melton

Our Westerly Ocean 43 has a large, fully battened mainsail.

In light winds, or in anything less than flat seas, we have found it is essential to pin the main into place to curb any unnecessary flogging and hence prevent an accidental crash gybe.

Having a dedicated preventer line and pulley blocks in the cockpit locker ready for such conditions was helpful, but attaching it to the end of the boom in a centre cockpit boat whilst at sea felt like a needlessly hazardous manoeuvre that I wasn't comfortable with.

We solved the problem by rigging a permanent line along the underside of the boom, one end with a hard eye splice and the other with a snap shackle.

From the relative safety of the mast foot, the preventer can now be secured and winched into place.

Wash your turning blocks with warm water – Graham Walker

Sails and rigging advice: Salt crystals and other debris can prevent turning blocks and clutches from running smoothly. Credit: Graham Walker

Before we set off on our Atlantic passage from Las Palmas, we had an expert rigger do full rig inspection for us.

At the same time he gave us a lot of valuable advice about maintenance.

One thing he recommended was to wash all of our turning blocks and clutches with warm, fresh water to remove all the salt crystals and other debris ingrained in the blocks and their bearings.

We took his advice and used a lot of warm water to wash everything down thoroughly.

It was eye-opening to see how much friction we were able to remove from the system by getting everything really clean.

That then translated directly into less effort on sail handling and sail changes.

Using an ascender and climbing hardness has made it easier for the crew of SeaEye to climb the mast. Credit: Helen Melton

After a few years of taxing work winching a crew member, sat in a bosun's chair, up the mast we rethought how to lighten the load, (literally) and bought ourselves two ascenders and a climbing harness.

Also known as jumars, they clip and lock to a rope – we use the spinnaker halyard on our boat – sliding freely in one direction but clamping firmly when pulled in the opposite direction.

By using them in pairs, one with a foot loop affixed, the climber can alternate taking weight through their harness whilst easily manoeuvring the other upwards, then stepping up on the foot loop.

In an emergency, the mast can be ascended alone without support whilst if crew are available, a second halyard can be used as a safety line.

This brings about an added advantage when descending in that they can be lowered away efficiently on the winch.

A rigger, who has recently worked on our boat, works alone and always uses this technique, mousing his own halyard to be 100% certain of the condition of the line bearing his weight.

It is recommended that you wear a helmet when climbing the mast.

A worn furling line fairlead can make hauling lines heavy work. Credit: Harry Dekkers

Do you sometimes wonder why your headsail furling line is not running freely? Is it the wind, the furling system itself or is it a problem with the furling line fairlead?

I found out that mine was 50 pert cent worn out, as you can see in the picture.

No wonder it took me a lot of effort.

It is also worth remembering that when unfurling your headsail, always control the furling line because if a strong wind makes the headsail run out too fast, the furling line will be tangled in the furling drum and you will only notice it once you need to furl the sail again

Sails and rigging advice: Make sure every crew member has experience going aloft. Credit: Kate Walker

Who normally goes aloft when the need arises?

Depending on the task and the situation it may not always be appropriate for this to be the most experienced person (possibly the skipper) or the lightest member of the crew.

On a long passage it makes good sense for all members of the crew to have experience going aloft and putting other crew members aloft.

Before our transatlantic we made sure that everyone on board had the opportunity to go aloft and experience working on the mast.

Tony's mainsheet horse has stood up well to a circumnavigation of the world. Credit: Tony Curphey

Most of the changes I make to my Nicholson 32 are for economic and simplistic reasons.

When I built the new large stern locker to reduce the volume of my cockpit, I had to move the mainsheet horse.

The new mainsheet horse was very simple and cost only the price of four new long 12mm stainless steel ringbolts.

It is also better than the old one because it's higher so doesn't chafe on the top guardrail when sailing off the wind.

I used the original four bolt holes for the new long ringbolts but raised them with hardwood by 5 inches.

A single length of 3-strand pre-stretched 10mm polyester rope (the boltrope from an old sail) was passed through all four ringbolt eyes and the ends tied together.

The sliding part of the horse is a 12mm stainless steel bow shackle, over all four parts of the rope. All ringbolts have equal strain.

The rope horse did a complete circumnavigation via the Southern Ocean with very little sign of wear.

Chafe guard will make your sheets last longer. Credit: Graham Walker

When we started sailing longer passages we read about the problem of chafe, particularly on genoa sheets when poled out downwind.

The junction between the jaw on the pole and the section of sheet just behind the bowline seemed to be a particular area of wear.

\We learnt that rigging the pole so as to minimise movement between the jaw and the sheet makes a massive difference.

To try to eliminate any possible chafe we put Dyneema chafe guard on the first 2m of the genoa sheets, covering the area that would be in contact with the pole jaw.

After 12 years we’ve replaced a few metres of chafe guard, but we still have our original genoa sheets.

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Keeping sails and rigging in tip-top shape are of key importance to sailors. Read our tips and tricks from experts to improve their longevity Secure every inch of your sails – Jonty Pearce Homemade mast steps – Tony Curphey Preventing chafe on sails and rigging – Julian and Patricia Morgan The ideal Genoa sheet attachment – Vyv Cox Permanent boom preventer – Helen Melton Wash your turning blocks with warm water – Graham Walker Think like a climber – Helen Melton Practice working aloft – Graham Walker costs around 40% less than the cover price can also find the latest deals Facebook Twitter Instagram.