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Sail Adjustments for Strong Winds

Learn How to Adjust Sails to Reduce Heeling Before You Reef

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When winds approach storm force, clearly you need to take steps to stay safe on your sailboat. Typically you first reef the sails or switch to storm sails. You might then prepare to heave to, run off downwind, or lie ahull.

In many cases, however, the wind is becoming stronger but does not yet require storm tactics. As the wind builds, usually the sailboat is heeling further and weather helm (the tendency of the boat to head up into the wind) is becoming more problematic. In these cases, there are other sail adjustments you can make to reduce heeling and maintain better control of the boat. Try the following steps when conditions are not bad enough yet to reef or use other storm tactics:

  • Move the traveler down. When sailing close-hauled, stronger wind or gusts will cause the boat to heel far over and head up into the wind, making control more difficult. Instead of moving the traveler up to center the boom as you would in lighter wind, move it down to leeward to allow some wind to spill. You will still have plenty of driving power, but the boat will heel less and have less weather helm.
  • Ease the mainsheet. If the boat is still heeling too much, ease the mainsheet a little. This spills some wind from the top of the sail, reducing heel, while keeping the bottom of the sail still in trim for driving power.
  • Ease the jibsheet and adjust the sheet car. This works the same as with the mainsail to reduce heel. Moving the sheet car aft will help keep the lower part of the jib in trim while allowing some wind to spill from the upper jib, reducing heel.
  • In a gust, head up. "Pinching" or luffing up when a gust hits will prevent heeling too far and make it easier to maintain control of the boat. Watch the sails carefully to avoid heading up too far and stalling the boat.
  • Reef the main and/or furl the jib when these tactics are not enough to prevent excessive heeling. Reefing is your first major strategy for heavier weather. To make it easier to reef, try heaving to first.

These basic sail adjustments will help you increase your confidence and skills whenever the wind gets a little higher than usual. Practice will make them second nature. At the same time, be sure to follow safe sailing principles such as the use of PFDs and tethers whenever conditions become more challenging.

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