Reefing: How, Why and When to Reef

Reefing: How, Why and When to Reef | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

July 24, 2020


When I was starting out sailing, “reefing” was one of those subjects that scared the hell out of me. First off, if you were reefing you were likely going to be in nasty weather.

Second, if you had to reef, it meant touching all sorts of things on the boat that I might not be able to put back when I was done. It all seemed a bit too technical and it was intimidating.

That was until I moved to the coast of East Carolina and to sail meant not only to reef, but reef regularly, if not every day.

In Long Island Sound we were lucky to even have wind, let alone a need to reef, but in East Carolina, the winds regularly blew 15 to 20 directly off the North Atlantic and would top out in the 30s almost daily.

Sailing, and more to the point, teaching sailing, became a challenge to say the least and to reef was not just an option, but a necessity.

So let’s clarify our terms on what it is to “reef” a boat and then we’ll discuss why it is so intimidating.


Table of contents for this article

What is Reefing?

To “Reef” a sail means to shorten it. And really nothing more. It is the simple act of reducing sail area, so as to reduce the surface area and thereby reducing power. A sailboat is powered by the wind and when there is too much wind it is overpowered. 

An over powered boat becomes difficult to steer, has excessive heel and can be quite scary.

With newbee sailors in my little hunter 26, an over powered boat taught the student very little.

The student would fight the helm incessantly and the boat would constantly round up or turn to wind with gusts of heavier breeze.

Thankfully the Hunter 26 is built for overweight adults so it doesn’t heel excessively, but in a heavy breeze, that little boat was no picnic.

On bigger boats like the Endeavour, a reefed main means a lower center of gravity in addition to reduced sail area.

That boat with a full keel and relatively light build danced on top the waves like a hobby horse.

On one run I made up Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke, I had my wife blowing chunks for six of the seven hours we were out there.

By lowering the center of gravity and depowering the boat, we had less force aloft pitching the boat side to side and fore and aft.

So now we know what reefing is: shortening sail to depower the boat and lower the center of gravity of the boat to make it more comfortable for the crew. 

When should we reef?

If you think you need a reef and don’t already have one in, it's too late. Reef early and Reef often. Reef your boat at the dock or on the hook well before you ever head out. You don't want to be dancing on the fore deck with lines flying and sails dropping in 25 knots of breeze with a six foot chop. As with all things regarding water safety, if you think it might be dangerous, it is.

Reefing at the dock is actually harder than reefing a boat on a mooring.

On the dock your boat could be 350 other degrees than upwind.

On a mooring, odds are your boat is head to wind at all times and that is how your boat should be when you start to reef, head to wind.

How To Reef

With your boat head to wind, slack your main sheet and raise your main, all the way up. This will allow you to see the reefing points on your sail.

Many bigger boats have at least two sets of reefing points which includes corresponding tacks and clews. For these purposes however, let's just talk about using the first reef points.

About 4 feet up from the foot or bottom edge of the sail, you will see two or three or more holes sewn into the belly of the sail. These are your reef points.

Follow them fore and aft and note that there is another hole sewn into the leading edge of the sail that corresponds with these reefing points and that is your new tack or front corn of the sail.

There will be another on the aft edge of the sail or the leach of the sail which is where you will attach your outhaul making that the new clew or back corner of the sail.

I'm always a little scared that these points will fail in a heavy breeze, but engineers with much greater intelligence than me put them there, so I tell myself I am being ridiculous. But this where the failure will take place if and when it ever happens. And we’ll talk about that more in a few paragraphs. But for now have faith that the sail manufacturer knew what they were doing by putting these reef points in your sail.

Now that you have found your reef points take a reefing line or sail tie and feed it through the holes.

Some boats have what they call a jiffy reefing system and lines are pre-fed through these holes.

Other boats have lines permanently sewn into the sail.

But for clarity take a small line and stick it through the hole. Now you can lower your main four feet so that the reef points with the lines fed through are sitting on your boom.

This is where it can get very messy and can be very difficult.

A sticky mast track or a stiff halyard or block at the mast top can make lowering your main four feet nearly impossible.

If you have a friend or crew member, this job will be much easier, but all too often a sailor finds him or herself on deck alone, so we will assume you’re by your onesies.

With your main lowered a small fraction, cleat it off and attend to those reef lines.

Gather up the sail and as neatly as possible tie those lines around the bottom of the boom using a “reef” or “ square” knot.

If you have a hook on the front of your boom you can hook your new tack to it, or otherwise fasten your tack to the front of your boom, or “gooseneck” with whatever system you have.

Take the outhaul and tie it or fasten it to the new clew at the back of the boom and make all those attachments as tight as you can.

Once you're satisfied that your attachments will hold in heavy breeze, go back to your halyard and haul away.

You will note that your sail looks a bit smaller and perhaps even a bit awkward with all that extra fabric bunched up at the bottom and a bare pole at the top.

If your sail looks like a smooth airplane wing, rest assured you have done it correctly. It's the shape we are going for and there are no style points deducted for an ugly reef.

Functionality is key.

You're ready to hit the waves now.

There are no hard and fast rules about reefing. Every boat is different and every skipper has a different comfort level.

My rule is anything over 15 I would prefer to have a reef rather than not. But your boat might love a stiff breeze and only wake up at 20 so don’t go by my rules.

But listen to that little voice inside you that says, “it’d be a good idea to reef.”

When they start talking to you, it’s time to reef.

When Things Go Bad

Now let's talk about when things go bad. Sails rip, masts fold in half and lines break, It’s what they do and when the wind picks up, the chances of bad things happening increases exponentially.

That is why some skippers don’t ever reef, because they don’t want to be out there when the seas turn gloomy.

But if you have to go and you have to reef, there is always a chance that things could break.

Think about your mast like a soda straw.

When you hold it at the top and bottom, it is quite strong. But when you apply just a little pressure to the middle, it can fold in half easily.

That's the same thing as your 65 foot aluminum mast.

When you lower your main and reef your sail, you are changing the application of force on the mast.

Smart people took this into consideration when they designed your boat, but then again Mother Nature is a fickle sort and can do things those smart people never considered.

So it is always a risk that things can break when you decide to reef.

Know Your Boat’s System

And another point: know your boat. Practice reefing on a calm clear day when you have lots of time.

Your first time reefing your boat should not be at midnight 25 miles out to sea with a freshening easterly.

Know what reef systems your boat may have. Jiffy reefing systems, when they work, can be a great asset, but if they are rigged wrong, as they almost alway are, they can be a nightmare.

I have also seen reefing systems where they feed heavy monofilament up through the sail in lieu of reefing lines. It’s not my favorite design because again, it is never rigged correctly after the first day it is installed.

By learning the system you have on the hook with lots of light and little stress, you will have the skills you need to have when the need arises.

Roller furlers are also great, if they are rigged correctly.  A simple pull of the roller furling line can shorten a jib or a main and reduce sail quite nicely.

But again, you're changing the angle of force on the stay or mast and when the wind blows harder things are easier to break.

I also have seen skippers confuse their halyards with in-mast roller furlers with cataclysmic results.

Taking the tension off the halyard allows the main to drop just enough to jam the head of the sail at the top of the mast. Then the sail will not go in or out and you are stuck with an overpowered main and no way to douse it without climbing the mast.

Not an enviable position.

Whatever reefing system you have and whether you are a fair weather sailor or a crusty old salt, reefing is a great tool to make an unsafe voyage safe and an uncomfortable crew comfortable on a windy day.

But when the wind abates and you're ready to shake out your reef, there are a few things you ought to do.

Bring your boat head to wind once again.

Untie all your reef lines and reattach your tack and clew to their normal positions.

You will likely have to lower your main a little to get these fastenings loose, but once the sail attachments have been returned to their full normal positioning, you can haul away on the main and feel the boat wake up once again, with a full throated breath of breeze.

The first time you shake out your reef, you will notice the advantage of a full sail and it will feel like you stepped out of a car after a long road trip, ready to stretch your legs and run.

Nothing beats the feeling when your boat wakes up and all the forces at play work together to make your sails sing and your hull hum.

And quite frankly, the sense of accomplishment and confidence you will have when you have navigated your vessel through your first heavy weather, successfully reefed sail and made it to the safe side of the storm to see the sun shine again, can not be overstated.

Good weather never makes a great sailor, so reef early, reef often and take the longest leg with confidence, knowing that you have the tools you need to get your boat home safely.

Reefing: How, Why and When to Reef

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Reefing: How, Why and When to Reef

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