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Do You Know These Five 'Time-to-Reef' Signals?

by John Jamieson on 30 Mar 2012
Er...do you think we should have reefed a little while ago? .. .
You may have heard the sailing term 'Reef when you first think of it'. But you might be surprised how many sailors forget to follow through with this simple rule of sailing safety. With today's push-button and pull-a-string technology for winching or rolling up a sail, it's almost too easy to become complacent.

Think of reefing as a balancing act instead of a heavy weather tactic. Sailboats that are balanced tend to sail flatter, faster, steer with less effort (manual, wind-vane, or auto-pilot), and provide more comfort for the sailing crew. Sail your boat balanced and you will maintain good control in all sailing conditions. Watch for these 'time-to-reef' signals to keep your boat sailing balanced with power, speed, and performance:

Whitecaps to Windward?

Do you see whitecaps blowing off the crests of waves to windward? Constant whitecaps tell you that a strong breeze has filled in and will continue for some time. Reef to add power to your boat sails and punch through those waves like a hot knife through butter.

Gusts more Frequent?

How often do those gusts strike the sails and cause the boat to heel? An occasional gust might not be of much concern. But lots of gusts every minute mean you need to reduce sail to keep the boat on her feet.

Helm Hard to Hold?

A balanced helm means being able to steer without strain with one hand. Lots of weather helm and 'white-knuckles' on the wheel or tiller indicates a boat out of harmony with wind and sea. Reef sails to the point that your boat can almost steer herself!

Rail in the Water?

Each time your cruising (or racing) sailboat digs the leeward rail into the water, you lose valuable speed. Extra friction and drag make you slow down. Keep the lee rail clear of the water for faster cruising passages or to beat the competition on race day.

Rounding Up from a Run?

Apparent wind drops when broad reaching or running. And that can lull even the saltiest dog into thinking that the wind has lightened up. Check for whitecaps to windward long before you need to round up. Reef before you round up to keep your boat under positive control.

Use the signals that surround you to warn you that it's time to reef right now. Become the true master and commander of your small cruising sailboat--wherever in the world you choose to cruise!

John Jamieson (Captain John) teaches sailing skippers the no-nonsense cruising skills they need beyond sailing school. Sign up for his highly popular free sailing tips newsletter here. Become a member for instant access to 425+ articles, video tutorials, newsletters, and free eBooks.

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