Maximize Your Person Power
Not so long ago, cruisers relied almost entirely on muscle to provide the power they needed to sail their boats. Tackles, a few small winches, and perhaps a manual windlass were all that most voyagers fitted. Today, more cost-effective means of power generation have led more cruisers to adopt electric or hydraulic power systems to do the heavy lifting. We take a different approach.
Though some sailors may believe that cruising in a boat like our 36-foot, Sparkman & Stephens-designed Sunstone is a form of masochism, we really dont disdain modern technology. However, we believe that for the average cruiser, the most versatile and effective form of power we have to sail our boats is still person power. Instead of turning to electricity or hydraulics, we rely on modern mechanical gear that lets us take full advantage of our own muscles.
The first step is to eliminate works greatest enemy: friction. Compared with sailors 50 years ago, we have countless allies in the battle against friction. Small-diameter, synthetic, braided line slips more easily through blocks with sophisticated bearings. Angled genoa cars and swiveling blocks have taken the place of bulls-eye fairleads. Dry lubricants such as McLube SailKote have replaced oil and grease.
Despite these advancements, the old enemy hasnt disappeared. In fact, in their quest for so-called comfort, some cruising-boat arrangements actually add friction and make our jobs harder. Today, many cruisers want to do everything from a safe, dry cockpit, so halyards and reef lines turn two, three, or even four extra corners to reach clutches and winches. Sheets reach winches via turning blocks so they wont interfere with cockpit dodgers. All those extra corners add friction to the system, demanding more power to work sails effectively. Theres a good reason why race crews "bounce" their halyards, a technique in which a person at the mast pulls up the sail while another on the halyard winch in the cockpit merely takes up the slack until the winch is needed to tighten the luff. At the mast, only the friction of the sheave at the masthead interferes. By the time the halyard reaches the cockpit, at least two more blocks have intervened. Hauling the sail up at the mast is both faster and easier. This is one of the reasons we like to keep our halyard winches on the mast.
Turning blocks also add considerable loads to lines and blocks, which have to be stronger—and more expensive as a result. Finally, the probability of a snag in the system rises in proportion to the number of holes through which a line passes.
When planning or altering a deck layout, consider efficiency at least as much as comfort. In reality, the two arent mutually exclusive. If you can do a job faster and easier, youre making your life aboard more comfortable. For example, with halyard winches and clutches on the mast and reef lines led to a winch on the coachroof, its easy for one person to take in or shake out a slab reef in three to five minutes on any point of sail—so long as the autopilot or self-steering windvane can hold a reasonable course. Some single-line reefing systems allow one person to reef entirely from the cockpit. However, most reefing systems with halyards led to the cockpit require two pairs of hands. If the winches are under the cockpit dodger, they cant be used efficiently, which slows down the whole process. Is a system really more comfortable if your off-watch partner has to lose half an hours sleep to take in a simple reef?
When we bought Sunstone in 1981, she had absurdly small primary winches for her size, even though they met the winch manufacturers recommended minimum specs. They might have been OK for a Turkish wrestler, but they werent much use to Vicky. So we spent almost twice as much on a pair of huge primary winches as wed ever spent on a car. Since then, weve increased the size of every other winch. Our primary winches are Lewmar 55s; the secondaries and both halyard winches (on the mast) are self-tailing 43s; the reef winch on the coachroof is a self-tailing 40.
Big winches can make for easier, faster, more efficient work, but without good technique and smart winch location, your oversized winches will be for naught. The most effective winch grinders adopt a well-balanced position over the winch so that they can use arms, shoulders, and upper body in harmony to avoid getting stuck at "top dead center." They can also change gear effectively without changing position. Ideally, you should locate the winch where you have room around it to stand or kneel athwartship or in a braced, fore-and-aft position. Your shoulders should be centered over the winch, with room to swing the winch handle comfortably beneath your body, even when the boat is heeled. Mast winches should be mounted at about waist height or slightly higher. This gives a comfortable winching position that allows you to use your whole body.
Too many winches are mounted where such comfortable and efficient positions are impossible. In other cases, cockpit dodgers have turned good positions into poor ones. Sometimes it may even be worth introducing a little friction to achieve a good winching position. Reef winches are a good example. Winches mounted on the boom or on a mast pad under the gooseneck reduce friction, but theyre generally too small and poorly placed for efficient use. Bringing reefing lines and winches down onto the deck can improve overall efficiency.
Winches are a great way to make efficient use of person power, but simpler, cheaper options are available. Cruisers can learn useful lessons from racers, who rely on light, powerful, multipart tackles. Many cruisers use simple four- and six-part tackles for mainsheets and boom vangs. These are practical and effective for lighter loads, but they run out of power at the top end, when the wind really starts to blow.
Our solution is a cascaded tackle system. Our basic mainsheet tackle is 5:1. This is a good compromise between speed and power for most conditions. Weve added a second, four-part tackle thats attached to what would be the standing part of the principal tackle. The 20:1 power of this cascaded tackle is just what you need to pull in those last few inches of sheet. Rather than having to use our backs, we can do this with a quick pull with one forearm. Similarly, the boom vang consists of two linked two-part tackles that are in turn linked to a six-part tackle, giving a total ratio of 24:1. The only problem such an arrangement presents is that it can bend the boom too much!
Two unwanted side effects of block-and-tackle arrangements make them less suitable than winches for some jobs. Adding tackle to long runs, such as those of halyards or reefing lines, means youll be dealing with longer tails than you would if you used a winch. And under extreme loads, such as a preventer under the strain of a backed main, its usually easier and safer to control a line that has a few turns around a winch than one thats only locked into a clutch or cam cleat.
Having gear in the right place is essential. Often, simple items like cleats are placed in apparently sensible positions—until a person actually gets on the end of the line thats under load and tries to adjust it or make it fast. The test of gear location is whether you can use it effectively in the most difficult circumstances that are likely to come up. Cleats for mooring lines often seem to be placed to allow more room for sunbathing than to assure ease of handling in a gale.
Though they may interfere with sunbathing and encourage toe stubbing, foredeck cleats need to be located toward the center of the deck, where you can work around them and use them for a variety of purposes, not just for dock lines. In an ideal world, afterdeck cleats would be given the same consideration, but since few boats under 50 feet have the space to give aft cleats the room they deserve, proper placement usually involves some compromise.
Many cruising boats carry poles, either for flying a spinnaker or poling out the genoa. Usually the tail of the foreguy that helps control these poles is led to a cleat or clutch far from the winch to which the afterguy is led. You have to be an orangutan or a sprinter to accomplish pole adjustments in full control. Alternatively, a foreguy led through a single block on the pole end and a double block on the foredeck, with tails led to cleats on both cockpit coamings next to the winches, gives extra power and full control from a single comfortable position on either side.
A simple way to minimize effort is to work in the most efficient position. Sometimes this may mean sitting down on the job! This position not only helps avoid back strain, but also can permit at least limited use of our very strong leg muscles. Even a small raised foothold and a good nonslip surface on an otherwise smooth deck can help enormously when fighting a recalcitrant line under load.
All of these tricks can help us use both effectively and flexibly the person power thats available. Of course, this does assume that you have at least a modicum of muscle tone. If your only exercise is raising cold beverages to your lips, then you may still need even bigger winches.
Tom and Vicky Jackson are wintering aboard Sunstone in British Columbia.