Reducing Sail Underway

When weather hits without warning, the Del Viento crew have a routine to reduce sail quickly and efficiently.

del viento
Underway in about force four conditions, both sails full-on.Michael Robertson

Far and away the most common reaction we receive from people unfamiliar with our nomadic life at sea is, “What about storms?” As in, “Aren’t you afraid your boat’s going to sink in a storm, down to the bottom of the ocean, all hands lost?” Our pat answer is to assure them we don’t like storms and to tell them that we don’t sail when stormy weather is forecast and that forecasting is getting to be pretty reliable.

The more accurate answer would be that we don’t aim to sail in bad weather, but it happens and we deal with what comes. We’ve thus far succeeded in avoiding the really bad stuff. But the question of the day is: How do we deal with what comes, with squalls and other higher-wind events?

del viento
Windy at the mast, ready to reduce sail.Michael Robertson

There are many references out there to find answers for how some people think a sailboat crew should respond to adverse weather. Do this. Do that. Follow these steps. The information that’s out there can be digested and memorized and there’s probably even an app for that. Unfortunately, that’s not enough.

Before I first left to go cruising in 1996, I took comfort in having read the Pardeys’ tactics for surviving storms. I carried their book and others on my shelf. No matter that I’d never even practiced heaving to. Six months after casting off, I learned that the reality of life on a pitching, rolling, chaotic boat in weather is difficult to imagine realistically and then subject to shaping by a multitude of factors I never anticipated. The takeaway: you’ve got to go out and experience it and practice your response, on your boat, with your crew.

Fast forward 20 years and I’m well into my second cruising chapter. This time I’m aboard a bigger boat, voyaging farther afield, and with my family aboard. I’m more experienced, we leave port better prepared, we have better access to information, and we still occasionally run into bad weather. But fortunately, we have a simple, tested, and effective strategy for facing strong wind: we reduce sail. It works every time. It hasn’t always been easy for us; we’ve traveled a long, bumpy road to learning exactly when and how to reduce sail. But we’ve got it down now.

We don’t have a furling main sail. We don’t have a slippery mainsail track. We’ve got a honkin’ main that we hoist old school, up the mast on plastic sliders. We need almost all pressure off the main before she’ll drop. We used to go straight for the motor when it was time to reef, firing it up to point our high-freeboard bow into the wind while we reduced sail. It was a poor approach. First off, I’d rather listen to a baby scream and cry than to the racket the main and boom and all the attached hardware makes as we point into irons for what feels like an interminable period. Second, watching me go forward at night on a wet, pitching, rolling, bucking deck is not Windy’s idea of a good time. Fortunately, we learned a while back that reefing our main sail doesn’t have to involve the Yanmar. Today, we heave-to before doing anything else.

Gone are the noise, cacophony, and sense of urgency that comes with pointing a 400-square-foot main into the wind. Instead, we simply sheet in the main, backwind the headsail (first deploying it if necessary), counter the forces with the helm, lock the wheel, and relax. Things are then relatively quiet and peaceful and we can go through our reefing steps at a slower, safer pace.

Following are those steps we take to reduce sail. There are other approaches to reefing, depending on the boat and the equipment and the sail configuration. This is what works for us on Del Viento.

  1. The two of us sit in the cockpit for 20 seconds to 2 minutes—however long it takes—and we review out loud the actions we're about to take. Even though we've been sailing together for a long time, even though we're about to do something we've done time and time before, and even when there is a sense of urgency because we're late to reef, we don't skip this step.

  2. On a cloudy or moonless night, one of us ducks below to turn on the spreader lights.

  3. I release the Cunningham rope clutch in the cockpit (we use this to secure the tack for the reefed sail--I know that's not its intended role aboard).

  4. I make sure both reefing lines are uncoiled in the cockpit (they both run through rope clutches).

  5. Windy runs the first reefing line to a cockpit winch that she will use for the final few feet of pull.

  6. I go forward to the mast and make sure I have slack on the Cunningham line and disengage the hook from where it's stowed.

  7. I remove the main halyard coil from the winch, uncleat the line, and ease tension on the main halyard while Windy pulls the first reefing line in. Even though this approach is slower than dropping the main quickly to its reefed position, we coordinate because if we don't, despite having lazy jacks, the main sail will fall forward or otherwise into a position where we often cannot pull the reefing line tight without first wrangling the sail.

  8. Windy pulls in the slack we're creating in the second reefing line, to keep it from wrapping the main sail batten ends.

  9. As the tack for the first reef point meets the boom, I hook it with the Cunningham, call back to Windy to pull the Cunningham line tight, and then I tension the main halyard.

  10. I coil the main halyard tail and stow it before returning to the cockpit.

  11. Windy unlocks the helm and tells me which direction she is going to fall off, we fall off, and during that maneuver I control the main sail via the traveler lines, the main sheet, and the boom brake lines.

  12. We high-five and resume our heading.

I think the point I’ve not made—and one that has been made a million times by others, but that is so important it really cannot be overstated—is that reducing sail changes everything at sea. Sailing in a gale is never as calm and peaceful as sailing in 10 knots, but when not overpowered, when you have the right amount of canvas up, sailing in a gale is just as manageable as sailing in 10 knots. Imagine that, experience that, and practice that and you’re ready for (almost) whatever the weather throws at you.

In our twenties, we traded our boat for a house and our freedom for careers. In our thirties, we lived the American dream. In our forties, we woke and traded our house for a boat and our careers for freedom. And here we are. Follow along with the Roberston's onboard Del Viento on their blog at www.logofdelviento.blogspot.com.