Ten Mainsail Tips for Short-handed Cruising

Cruising short handed often means a different approach
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Most long range cruisers are trying to sail downwind when we can, but it doesn't always happen. Many cruisers are also sailing short handed. So handling the main on a cruising boat differs in many ways from that for a racing boat. Whatever your configuration you have to use the big sail to balance the helm and create or decrease power.

Here are ten reminders of aspects of handling the main that will make your boat faster, safer, more comfortable, or, sometimes, all three.


1. Be under- not over-canvassed.
Unless you are in VERY benign weather, make sure you are not OVER-canvassed in the main. Getting the main reefed, particularly when short handed, in forty knots, is not much fun.

2. Experiment with the usefulness of the main.
If you are embarked on a long journey, experiment with how many extra knots the main gives you on your particular boat. Particularly when reaching, you may find that the boat actually sails faster with less main. In many boats, sailing wing on wing, with two headsails and no main, especially with a short-handed crew and the possibility of storms, is almost as fast without any main at all, and there's no possibility of being caught out reefing or having to douse the main in heavy weather.

3. Adjust as you go.
To get optimum speed, make sure that you are using the main at its best, by adjusting it when you adjust the rudder. In other words, as you sail closer to the wind, trim the main as you go. Then when heading off the wind, ease the mainsail early so the bow can fall off without having to battle the main to do it. These small adjustments can make an immense difference to your daily run.

4. Keep watching the telltales.
There should be telltales streaming from the ends of the battens on conventional mainsails or from the leech of the roller furling sail. If the sail is trimmed properly, they will stream together, straight aft. If the telltales start fluttering on the windward side of the sail, pull the mainsheet ON. If the telltales start fluttering on the leeward side, let the sail off, until they stream together again. You will get to know your own sail, and the way it behaves – which telltales are the most important, etc. The telltales will also not flow freely if the outhaul, traveler and vang are not adjusted correctly.

5. Watch the adjustment of your outhaul.
In a stronger wind, the outhaul needs to be on more to flatten the sail, while in softer air, letting the outhaul off will soften the sail and give it more shape.

6. Don't forget the traveler.
The traveler in stronger breezes may need to be let off, while in lighter breezes, bring the traveler on, again to give the sail more shape to catch and use the lighter air.

7. The boom vang will help.
The boom vang also needs to be eased in light air, again to shape the sail, and in heavier winds, bring it on.

8. Rigging a preventer.
The preventer – the line that runs from the end of the boom to the foredeck or bow when you are running downwind – serves two main roles, and should be used whenever necessary. In heavy weather its main purpose is to stop the sail from accidentally gybing the boat. In very light weather it can also prevent the mail from flopping back and forth in a manner that is not only annoying but wearing on the gear.

9. The boom brake.
For short handed cruising, the boom brake is invaluable, as it enables gybing in a controlled manner. In terms of priorities, it probably comes only after a good anchor in the shopping list for short-handed cruisers.

10. The old Adages:
Reef early, reef often. Experimenting will tell you when is the best wind speed to reef, but in many cruising boats it's around 15 knots. If you ever wonder whether you should be reefing, you should! You'll never be sorry you did, but you may be very sorry you didn't!