In the seventh instalment of her series on double handed sailing skills, Pip Hare explains the best process for reefing and getting the best out of your boat upwind

Double handed sailing skills are increasingly important to master as the recent boom in double handed racing, both inshore and offshore, continues and boats designed for couples to cruise two-up become ever more popular. We now regularly see crews of two managing all sizes of boat, and sailing them with the same efficiency and expectations as full crews.

These techniques are designed for double handed crews sailing a yacht with an autopilot, and an asymmetric spinnaker. We’re sailing a J/99, which has a fixed bowsprit and hanked-on jib. Thanks to Key Yachting for their support.

Beating can be one of the less challenging points of sail for a double handed team. If the boat is well balanced with an appropriate sail plan, the autopilot will steer efficiently and one person can manage the cockpit while the other rests or, on longer voyages, manages cooking and maintenance. In poor weather only having one person on deck at a time ensures the crew can take time to get dry and warm between watches.

There are, however, times when it is useful to have both sailors on deck when sailing upwind. Previously we focussed on tacking double handed, while this month we’ll focus on reefing and active upwind trim.

Managing power and reducing sail area when sailing upwind are important skills for double handed crews to master; for those racing without the benefit of extra weight on the rail, the boat will overpower more quickly and require different techniques to sail fast as the wind speed increases. Cruising sailors will want the confidence to know that, should a squall arrive or conditions change quickly, they have the capability to respond with ease and without drama.

The boat will overpower more quickly without crew on the rail. Photo: Photo: Richard Langdon/Pip Hare Ocean Racing

Sail trim

As conditions get gusty, a double handed team will need to use all trimming tools available to keep the boat from overpowering, so if regularly sailing short-handed it is worth investing in a cockpit setup that allows the commonly used controls to be managed easily by one person from the helm. This will include traveller, backstay, mainsheet and vang, and you could also look at cross sheeting the jib sheets for longer tacks on smaller boats.

Playing the mainsail constantly in gusts can be exhausting for a two-person team, but also impractical over long distances as it doesn’t allow a solo watchkeeper to navigate, make a cuppa or leave the cockpit for any reason.

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As the wind speed increases, think about using more twist to give a softer leech. For the mainsail this means bringing the traveller up to centre or just above and easing the mainsheet to twist the top of the sail off. The backstay can be very effective at opening the leech of the mainsail and it’s often worth trying more backstay before changing the sail shape with traveller and mainsheet. The jib will also benefit from twist by moving the jib cars back, and easing the sheet a tiny amount. As the mainsail is eased to reduce power it will be essential to twist off the jib to avoid turbulence in the back of the mainsail.

This soft trim will allow the boat to maintain speed through a greater range of wind angles, making it easier for an autopilot or a human to drive in wavy conditions without the constant need for sail trimming. You may need to increase your average wind angle by a couple of degrees, but particularly on an offshore passage this is often a fast mode of sailing in moderate to strong winds and a lot less tiring for double handed crews.

Put the traveller down and ease the mainsheet to allow boom to rise, then ease the halyard down to first reefing point. Photo: Richard Langdon/Pip Hare Ocean Racing


The most efficient way to reef as a double handed team is with both sailors hands-on, and the autopilot steering. This way you’ll be able to pull reefs in and out at the same speed as a fully crewed team.

Upwind reefing

When upwind reefing I find it best to change the autopilot mode to compass before starting sail handling – it would normally be steering to apparent wind. Sailing in compass mode should maintain a steady course while reefing and avoid any course corrections that would lead to loss of steerage while the mainsail is depowered.

Crew in cockpit can pull on reefing line with one hand while keeping loose tension on the halyard with the other. Photo: Richard Langdon/Pip Hare Ocean Racing

Once the pilot is set up, release the mainsheet or dump the traveller to depower the mainsail and ensure the boat is able to keep a steady speed and course under jib alone; in larger sea states you may need to bear away a couple of degrees from your optimum close-hauled course. Once the pilot is holding steady, the helm can move forward in the cockpit to manage running rigging while the trimmer heads to the windward side of the mast to manage the sail.

With the autopilot driving, the second crew at the mast guides down the luff and attaches the reefing cringle. Photo: Richard Langdon/Pip Hare Ocean Racing

If using lazy jacks or a lazy bag to contain the reefed sail area, ensure these are pulled on to the correct tension before reefing. Drop the traveller, release the vang, and then ease the mainsheet just enough to unload the leech. Try not to dump the mainsheet further than required – if the boom is flogging wildly it will, in turn, give movement to the reefing lines which can loop around the end of the boom.

Drop the main halyard down to the first reefing point, but no further – marks on the halyard will help a lot. The crew at the mast should not need to pull the sail down if it runs on sliders or batten cars, as gravity should bring it down. If it’s not descending alone this could be a sign that you have too much power in the mainsail and need to release vang or mainsheet. Bolt rope sails do not slide down so easily and may need a little help from the mast crew.

Once the halyard is clipped on, grind it up to re-tension the luff, then tension the foot by taking in the reefing line. Photo: Richard Langdon/Pip Hare Ocean Racing

Once the sail is down, attach the reefing cringle to the gooseneck. While this is happening overhaul the reefing lines as much as possible to reduce the risk of them tangling around the boom. I do this by grabbing all three reefing lines in one hand and pulling through the slack together.

Once the forward end of the reef is attached, re-tension the halyard. Then tension the reefing line, double-check the vang and mainsheet are sufficiently eased to allow the boom up to meet the new foot of the sail, then trim the reefing line like an outhaul. Keep the autopilot in compass mode until the reef has been tidied away to ensure a steady course while someone is working on the boom. Once all is squared away, switch the pilot back to apparent wind mode and trim in. You may need to power the boat up slightly post reef, moving the jib car forward, using more mainsheet and easing the backstay.

Once reef is set, sheet the mainsheet back on, then tidy the reef away and secure the mainsail with elastics. Photo: Richard Langdon/Pip Hare Ocean Racing

Reefing offwind

Reefing off the wind can be a challenge but there are some tricks that will help a short-handed team master this skill – without needing drastic course changes and even while flying a spinnaker if desired. The main challenge when reefing off the wind is how to depower the mainsail sufficiently to allow it to drop.

As breeze builds you may need to increase jib twist earlier than when fully crewed. Photo: Richard Langdon/Pip Hare Ocean Racing

Reaching and white sails

When white sail reaching, switch your pilot to compass mode prior to easing the mainsheet. This may allow you to take advantage of any decreases to the wind angle during gusts, or while the boat is surfing. Prior to releasing the mainsheet and dropping the main, sheet the jib in to a close-hauled position. If you’re able, pull the jib car forward, and if using in-haulers pull them in. This may take a little time, however the action of drastically over-sheeting the jib should create enough disturbance behind the mainsail to lift it off the spreaders and allow gravity to do its work so the mainsail will drop as the halyard is eased.

An autopilot remote control is helpful for manoeuvres. Photo: Richard Langdon/Pip Hare Ocean Racing


When reefing under spinnaker or cruising chute keep the autopilot steering in True Wind Mode and do not be tempted to head up in an attempt to depower the mainsail as this will power the spinnaker up. The mainsail will come down, but it takes a bit of time and you’ll need to use a slightly different method and be patient.

Prior to reefing, ensure the vang and mainsheet are completely eased and the traveller is fully descended. Drop the main halyard to the reefing mark. If the sail does not descend pull the halyard forward through the jammer by hand and then close the jammer at the reefing mark. This will allow the sail to drop down independently as the boat accelerates or rolls over waves and unloads the main. The crew at the mast can also try pulling the luff down, working in time with waves and boat speed – as the boat surfs the apparent wind will go forward and the mainsail will unload.

Meanwhile, load the reefing line on to a winch and gently start grinding the back end of the sail down. When reefing downwind, as the mainsail drops the leech of the sail will be blown forward, pushing the sail against the spreaders and making it more difficult for the sail to descend any further. Pulling in the reefing line as the sail descends will keep the leech to windward and allow the front of the sail to drop more easily. Watch the sail carefully when grinding on the reefing line. If the boom starts rising up or the sail shows unusual load lines, stop and wait for the luff to descend again. Drop the sail in stages, pulling on the reefing line and the luff in turn.

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