Running Rigging for Cruising Sailors

When it comes to running rigging, cruising sailors can learn a lot from racers, and in the process maximize their fun while getting the most out of their sails, hardware and lines.
cruising boat rendering
This rendering of a roughly 40-foot cruising boat shows a deck layout optimized for ­performance sailing, with plenty of lines that are well-led for trimming and reefing. Bruce Bingham illustration

During my 75 years of sailing, I’ve become aware of the chasm between cruisers and racers. But I’ve never understood it because I have always been both. Even when I cruise, I’m racing—against changing weather, the need to get home in time for dinner, whatever. What that really means is that I’m determined to get the most speed out of my boat at all times. And to do so means having excellent running-rigging systems.

There are three issues in play when deciding on whether to install or upgrade your running rigging. First, do you want to increase your ease and convenience when adjusting sail trim? Second, are you willing to add lengths of line (as well as lengths of time) to make sail-trim adjustments? And last, how much investment are you willing to make to reach your sail-handling (i.e., running-rigging) goals?

I can scratch only the surface of this complicated topic and not present a ­comprehensive guide to all systems and conditions. Hopefully I’ll encourage you to think of how you might be able to improve your systems to make your sailing better and more satisfying.


Let’s begin by looking at sail-trim adjustments, which encompasses many items: sail curve (or draft, also called cord), luff tension, foot tension, sail twist from head to foot, and attack angle (the angle of wind as it approaches the sail’s leading edge, or luff).

On racing boats, all of the power required to make these adjustments is enhanced with more-powerful winches, larger crews, expensive low-friction blocks, and extremely strong and flexible lines. All of the running-rigging systems on racing boats are also appropriate for cruising boats, but cost often plays a deciding factor when making hardware and arrangement choices.

Increasing the power of running-rigging systems will always cost more, but it will also result in ease of handling and efficiency of controlling mainsail and headsail trim. Let’s move on, focusing first on the main.


Main Outhaul

Mainsail draft (depth of the sail’s curve) is controlled primarily by the outhaul but also may be supplemented by halyard tension and mast bend. So, let’s concentrate on the outhaul if for no other reason than its ease of use, as long as it is easily adjustable and also conveniently reachable. Unfortunately, most outhauls that I see on cruising boats are not adjustable and are usually a bundle of knots, difficult to reach when under sail, and almost impossible to untie without a marlinspike or fid. So let’s fix this first.

The mainsail outhaul on my Cape Dory 28 Nikki’s boom end is a 2-to-1 tackle with its hauling end attached to another 2-to-1 tackle, also called a cascade or Burton. In light air, when sailing to weather, the draft of the main can be flattened by taking in on the 2-to-1 part of the tackle. In strong breezes, flattening the mainsail’s draft is easily done by hauling in on the Burton only, a total power ratio of 4-to-1. Both of the outhaul tackles have their own clam cleats mounted on the side of the boom.

There’s often quite a lot happening at the end of the boom, and too often it’s a jumbled topping lift impossible to adjust. Bruce Bingham

Mast Bend

I don’t ­recommend mast bending to most cruisers because its proper application depends largely on the boat owner’s knowledge of the nature and dimensions of the curve built into the sail by the sailmaker. In a nutshell, though, when sailing to weather, mast bend will flatten the luff of the sail. When sailing off the wind or in light air, a straight mast will increase the curve or draft of the sail for better drive.



If your halyards are only general-purpose Dacron line (like those used for dock lines and sheets), as you tighten them, they will stretch and have little to no effect on sail shape with increased wind. Keep in mind that as windspeed increases, the draft of your sails will also increase, causing a greater heeling moment. The increased draft will also cause the sail luff to become fuller and reduce the ability to point upwind.

I really like limited-stretch and no-stretch halyards. They help reduce the sail draft near the luff from increasing when the wind builds. Limited-stretch halyards won’t stretch markedly when tightened in order to flatten the sail luffs. No-stretch or limited-stretch halyards might sound racy and will cost more, but the payoff is better performance, especially in strong winds. Good halyards are an easy fix that pay big dividends.

Cunninghams and Downhauls

Cunninghams and downhauls are essentially the same thing: Their function is to provide tension adjustment to the lower portion of the luff of a sail. A Cunningham, however, is more associated with the mainsail; downhauls are ­generally used with a headsail or staysail.

Cape Dory 28
On the other hand, the topping lift and outhaul setup on my Cape Dory 28, Nikki, is tidy and efficient. Bruce Bingham

The purpose of Cunninghams and downhauls is to provide a rapid and convenient method of changing and distributing the tightness of a sail luff from tack to head, primarily on sails whose luff is in a mast slot, aluminum furling extrusion or attached to a stay with piston hanks; all of which cause friction that resists the luff from equalizing its load along its length. Since the halyard pulls upward from the top and the Cunningham pulls downward from slightly above the tack, the load in both directions equalizes the tension of the sail’s luff.

When you hoist a ­mainsail, there will often be about twice the tension on the luff above the spreaders than between the spreaders and the gooseneck. The load on the Cunningham is used to increase the lower luff tension. So, instead of cranking the halyard so tight that the winch is nearly torn off the mast or cabin top, raise the sail only until you begin to feel the luff load up, then tighten up the Cunningham until it feels about the same as the halyard. That’s the way your mainsail was designed and made, with about equal tension along the full length of the luff.

The cordage used as a downhaul or tack attachment for staysails and headsails, ­including those with roller-­furling systems, should be set up as tackles that are adjustable under sail. The cord should be long enough to set up a 4-to-1 tackle, and cleated or tied so that rapid luff tension can be adjusted ­without a hassle, whether slacking off in light air or tightening in a heavier breeze.

Gaining Mechanical Advantage

When I bought my schooner, At Last, back in the mid-’70s, she had lots of line and blocks but not a single winch. I think that most of her previous sailing had been done by a crew of six or a smaller crew made up of 300-pound gorillas. At that time, I weighed only 135 pounds, and my partner, Katy, was about 15 pounds lighter. Neither of us were what you would call “husky.”

Sailing At Last in light air was not difficult, but when it blew over 8 knots, every evolution became quite physical. We learned the first rule of manpower pretty quickly: The more line we pulled to achieve any sail adjustment (main or foresail sheet trimming, gaff hoisting, etc.), the more power was developed and less personal exertion was required.

Yes, eventually we did install sheet winches for each of the headsail sheets, but not for the main or foresail halyards or sheets, outhauls, vangs or topping lifts. For those, we added blocks and line to each system. It was like multiplying our crew. Every sail-trim maneuver became markedly easier—but slower. So, if we at least doubled the line length by adding sheaves, we also multiplied the power by the same ratio (not deducting for friction) and reduced the ­hauling load by the same ratio.

The rule of tackles is straightforward: The number of moving parts equals the mechanical advantage (power ratio). Google “block and tackle mechanical advantages,” and you will find excellent graphic diagrams with their power ratios.

midboom mainsheets
Racing sailors were responsible for developing midboom mainsheets, which help control both mainsail twist and boom angle. Bruce Bingham

Leading Systems to the Cockpit

More and more boat owners want every sail-control line led to the cockpit. This invariably requires at least three additional blocks or sheaves to be added to most ­running-­rigging systems, thus increasing friction as well as adding lots of line (I call it “spaghetti”) in or near the cockpit. In the case of reefing, leading all lines to the cockpit actually makes most reefing much more ­difficult and inefficient.

In 2009, my 28-foot Nikki won the Florida West Coast Boat of the Year award in a long series of races over several months’ time. Most wins occurred in extremely high winds because we had practiced reefing in under 45 seconds. That had become possible largely because of deftly efficient tackles, all kept within a single person’s reach. Only the main sheet went to the cockpit and was usually handled by the helmsman.

traveler system
A good traveler system is reliant upon ­robust tackle arrangements, and good cam cleats. Bruce Bingham

Mainsheets and Travelers

Thirty years ago, virtually all mainsheets were attached to the aft end of the boom and to a multisheave block on a short and mostly inefficient traveler at the stern of the boat. Because of the position of the traveler, its angle of effectiveness was fairly narrow, so when far off the wind (beam and broad reaches and running), the amount of downforce on the boom became little to ­negligible, rendering the traveler useless.

A double-legged ­mainsheet never accomplished its intended goal of acting like a traveler. Such a mainsheet always vectors the load to the longitudinal center of the boat on all points of sail regardless how far apart the lower blocks are spread. It was the racers who came up with the idea of moving the mainsheet to the approximate middle of the boom and down to a longer track and adjustable car (the traveler), usually just forward of the main companionway hatch on the cabin top. With this arrangement, the mainsheet becomes the major controller of both boom angle as well as mainsail twist by its increased downforce on the boom and sail.

The traveler car should be controlled by a port and starboard tackle of at least 3-to-1 advantage for boats up to 24 feet, 4-to-1 for boats up to 30 feet, and 5- to 6-to-1 for boats up to 34 feet and beyond. I also recommend the use of cam or clam cleats for all traveler control lines.

Boom Vang

Racing sailors also came up with the idea of a boom vang attached to the forward portion of the boom at the upper end, and to a bale at the base of the mast at the lower end. This is what you usually see on most sailboats today. That simple arrangement was a giant leap forward in the area of mainsail-twist control. But almost indiscernible additional improvement seemed to occur. Nowadays, most boom vangs aren’t all that efficient and ought to be brought into this century.

The first improvement should be to pull downward on the boom vang line in order to pull down the boom. However, I rarely see a vang rigged this way, which means it loses about half of its power ­advantage. Most vangs I see are pulled upward or aft to ­exert a download on the boom, thus losing more power.

A really practical boom vang should have at least a snap shackle on the lower block so it can be quickly detached from the mast base and moved to a car on the genoa track or a hole in a perforated aluminum toe rail. This will allow the boom vang to exert much more of a vertical download. The more vertical the vang, the more downforce on the boom. Another benefit to the detachable boom vang is that the lower block can be brought forward of the mast and attached to a stout deck-pad eye or perforated toe rail so the boom vang can also act as a preventer when sailing downwind.

Boom vangs
Boom vangs are often mistakenly overlooked by cruisers. When detached from the mast base and moved to the toe rail, they make good preventers. Bruce Bingham

Doubling the power of the boom vang can be accomplished simply and easily with a small investment by adding a 2-by-1 cascade (also, again, called a Burton), which is a single 7-by-7-foot or 7-by-37-foot stainless cable run though a wire block on the boom with one end shackled to the vang bale at the mast base. The other end of the wire is fashioned with an eye to which the upper end of the vang tackle is attached. So if your vang tackle is 5-to-1 and the cascade is 2-to-1, your vang will become 10-to-1. Then by moving the lower end of the vang from the mast to the toe-rail eye, a dedicated deck-pad eye or a genoa-track car, you have doubled it again, all for about $40.

The vang that I have ­described is most efficient when sailing long distances without jibing or tacking, but if you’re simply afternoon daysailing around the bay, the vang would be more conveniently left attached to the bale at the mast base.

I have never seen a rigid boom vang that was routinely adjusted while under sail; they’re really only a boom ­support system while under power or tied up to a dock.

Main Boom Topping Lift

I put the topping lift in the same underused category with the main outhaul; too often it’s a bundle of knots at the end of the boom that have not been adjusted or adjustable in decades.

Proper vangs exert downward pressure and control mainsail twist. Bruce Bingham

A proper topping lift is meant to raise and store the boom off the Bimini when not in use. When under sail, however, its purpose is to adjust the weight of the boom so it changes the sail twist in various wind conditions and points of sail. It works in the opposite direction of a boom vang; it pulls the boom upward while the vang pulls downward. Upward increases sail twist, and downward reduces it.

A topping lift should also be used to take the weight of the boom off the mains’l leech when putting in a reef, then tightened again while shaking out the reef. The topping lift should be adjustable on any point of sail, which translates into “reachable.” Also, lifting your outboard from your ­dinghy becomes a simple matter by using your boom vang tackle attached to the end of the boom, and “topping” the boom with the topping lift so the outboard can clear the aft pulpit and lifelines.

Backstay Adjusters

These are used to apply tension to the backstay, which is transferred to the headstay for the purpose of flattening the luff of the headsail…or slacking the backstay, thus also easing the headstay to add more draft to the jib or genoa, as would be desirable when off the wind. When closehauled and/or sailing in a stiff breeze, a flattened headsail is preferred to lessen the boat’s heeling moment and to allow the boat to point up a little closer to the wind. With a backstay adjuster, this can be done in a few seconds with an adequate tackle arrangement.

Adjusting a headstay is usually impossible while under sail with the headsail sheeted in tightly. There are special turnbuckles and hydraulic backstay adjusters that can be used while under sail, but they are not as rapid as the appropriate backstay tackle systems. When tightening the backstay, the mast is also slightly bent to help flatten the draft and remove the “cup” from the luff of the mainsail at the same time as the headsail. So double benefits are derived from one simple adjustment.

Summing Up

Making your boat perform better does not have to be, nor should it be, a lot of work. In reality, effective running-rigging systems will make sailing a lot less strenuous, as well as more enjoyable and rewarding. Your boat will look better and perform better, and teach you a lot about getting the most out of the wind while adding joy to your afternoons under the clouds.

Don’t avoid the possibilities. Embrace them.

Boat designer, builder, writer, illustrator and longtime CW contributor Bruce Bingham lives aboard his Cape Dory 28, Nikki, on Florida’s Gulf coast.