Trim Your Jib Like a Pro
A former America’s Cup winner shares tips on getting the most from your headsail. "Seamanship" from our December 2011 issue.
The headsail on every boat works well alone, or in concert with the mainsail or a staysail. I enjoy skillfully trimming a jib because it always makes a boat sail faster and in balance. The lessons I’ve learned haven’t been exclusive to the racecourse. Many years ago, I was sailing to Bermuda with the late Walter Cronkite aboard his Hinckley 64, Wyntje. As we approached the Gulf Stream, the wind velocity increased, as did the size of the waves. To keep the boat balanced, I started setting up to change to a smaller jib. It was hard work hauling the heavy Dacron jib on deck. Just before I started the sail change, Walter motioned for me to return to the cockpit, where he asked me, “If you want a smaller jib, why don’t you just roll it up?”
“Great idea,” I thought. We both laughed. As a long-time racer, I’d never been on a boat with a roller-furling headsail.
Of course, most cruising boats today use rolling-furling headsails. Trimming techniques are easy to master. Experimenting is a good way to test different settings. Once a boat is sailing well, I try to return to the same settings. It helps to use visual references to set up the headsail. Attach yarns as telltales to the leading edge of the sail. These are very helpful when we trim the sail. Generally, I like them about 1 foot aft of the luff. Spread the telltales out with one a quarter of the way down from the head, a second telltale at the halfway point, and a third telltale positioned about three-quarters of the way down the luff.
Use the halyard to adjust the sail. In light wind, I ease off the halyard so that wrinkles, or scallops, appear on the luff. As the wind builds, I tighten the halyard to remove the wrinkles. When you ease or tension a halyard, the curvature of the sail, called the draft, will move accordingly. Your initial goal is to trim the sail with the maximum amount of draft located in the middle of the sail. If you need more speed or the wind lightens, power up the sail by moving the draft forward. If the breeze is on or you want to sail a higher course and point closer to the wind, move the draft aft.
You can also adjust the jib lead so the leading edge of the sail luffs evenly. If the telltale at the top of the sail luffs before the middle or the bottom, the jib lead should be moved forward. I recommend making small adjustments at a time. If the bottom telltale luffs first, then move the jib lead aft. When sailing on the wind, I trim the headsail so the leech of the sail is within a few inches of the spreader. It’s very important never to trim the headsail too tight, because the spreader can rip the sail.
The next reference point is the boat’s angle of heel. Most boats sail fastest upwind when heeling about 20 degrees. If the boat heels over too far, it’ll start making leeway, which means it’s sailing sideways. A properly balanced boat can be felt in the helm. I like to sail with a slight windward helm—that is, with the boat balanced so that the forces driving it turn it lightly toward the wind—on the tiller or wheel. If you have too much helm and have to struggle to keep the boat on course, reduce sail area or adjust the sail trim.