Reefing offshore while racing short-handed is a skill worth honing, as Deb Fish explains to Andy Rice

The double-handed team of Deb Fish and Rob Craigie have got mainsail reefing down to a fine art. “Even when we’re really familiar with each other and we know our processes, we still talk everything through before we start. Good planning and communication are the most important ingredients for making sure things go well and avoiding the big mistakes,” Fish explains.

On a double-handed boat like their Bellino it’s also about sharing out the workload as evenly as possible. Whatever works for a two-man team should work when sailing fully crewed where more hands make lighter work of the job. Deb says the overriding goal is to get from no reef to reefed in as short a time as possible to minimise the risk of damage to the sail.

Plan ahead

Our reefing system is just normal slab reefing because we want to keep things simple with the minimum chance of things going wrong. A few items will make life so much easier for any reefing manoeuvre, eg constrictors on some lines. When you’ve got a reef in, you need to have the main halyard, jib halyard and reefing line all in tension, ideally on winches. But because we don’t have three winches available, we put constrictors on the main halyard and the reefing lines.

Before you start a long offshore race you’ll have looked at the forecast and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what reefs you might need to use, if any. If we’re looking at a really light airs race we won’t have the reefing lines in. But if in doubt we’ll be set up for having the first reef, or if there’s the slightest chance of needing the second reef, we’ll put it in.

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The other consideration is knowing which tack we’re likely to be on when we’re putting in the reef. The aim is to have the reefed part of the sail on the opposite side of the boom to the reefing line. You can control the sail from the mast if your boom is eased sufficiently for the sail to be flapping head to wind.

Steer to the best wind angle

Just before reefing we’ll change course if necessary to allow the mainsail to flap freely without pressing on the spreaders when the kicker and mainsheet are released. If we’re beating we don’t need to change course, but if we’re deeper than about 70° true wind angle we’ll come onto the wind, and adjust the jib accordingly.

Be safe, sure and fast

The better you have talked through the manoeuvre, the better equipped you’ll be to execute the reef safely, securely and quickly. Putting in a reef should take no more than a couple of minutes provided everything goes smoothly. We minimise time out of the cockpit by doing all the prep first. I then move to the mast where I clip my short tether to the base of the mast to allow me to brace securely and use both hands confidently.


Be meticulous about doing things in the right order. For example, make sure you tension the mainsail luff before you put the reefing line in, otherwise it’s easy to damage the luff of the sail.

It’s also important to have the reefing lines secured at the right position along the boom for your re-reefing points – if your boat doesn’t have a fitting in the boom, you can use Dyneema line. I also control the sail to the desired side so that the reefing line runs straight from the reefing point to the boom, with the sail on the opposite side.

Photo: Richard Langdon/Pip Hare Ocean Racing

Work as a team

Make sure your roles are well defined and know where the potential sticking points are in the process. For example, when you’re shaking out a reef there can be a lot of friction in the reefing line, especially if you’re using a constrictor.

If Rob is struggling to wind it up, I’ll be pulling it through for him to make his life easier. The same for when I get back to the cockpit, I’ll pull in the mainsheet as Rob has already been working hard on the winches for the past couple of minutes. It’s about sharing the physical workload as much as possible.

Tidy up

Once you’ve completed the reef, get back up to speed before tidying up. Lastly you’ve got to decide whether you want to tie the base of the sail up with sail ties. If the reef will be in for any length of time it’s worthwhile, not least because you have much better visibility.

I find this the least secure part of the operation – at the mast you’re very secure, the middle of the coachroof is less so. So depending on how long it’s in for, we may not bother with any ties in the middle, we might just secure the front and the back. Just make sure you have your backup plans for anything that might go wrong. Plan for what you’ll do if the reefing line breaks, because they do from time to time. They’re under a lot of load. Replace often and keep an eye on them for wear and tear.

If you do tie the reef in, put the sail ties around the sail, not around the boom. If the reefing line did break, the clew would just go up in the air, whereas if the sail tie was tied around the boom then it would rip straight through the sail.

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