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How to start sailing shorthanded

2024 April 1

With a few tips and some practice you can spend more time sailing your boat and less time waiting for crew

Making the boat go

Next on our list is handling the sails. Roller-furling headsails are, of course, a huge help for shorthanded sailing and fortunately most boats are already set up with them. The most important thing to remember with them is that frequent maintenance is important. If you sail in salt water, flush the system with fresh water after each sailing. Furlers never fail sitting at the dock; they fail when the wind is building and you need to shorten sail. 

Let’s talk about shortening sail. Mainsails seem simple: they provide power and control of the boat and, at times, overpower it. It’s important to keep the slides, bolt ropes, sail tracks, reef lines, mainsheet blocks and all the control lines working smoothly. Like the roller furler, a fouled block in a building wind can wreak havoc on your day. 

About the Author Dave Rearick has been sailing the Great Lakes and oceans of the world for over 50 years. He completed a solo circumnavigation onboard his Class 40 Bodacious Dream in 2014 and wrote the book “Spirit of a Dream” about his journey. The book is available wherever books are sold and at www.spiritofadream.com.

Do you ever reef? It’s OK to admit you don’t, but let’s change that mindset. We often equate great sailing with the rail in the water and spray everywhere. But, a wonderful sail keeps the boat evenly heeled while relaxing and enjoying your time at sea. Knowing how and when to reef is an important part of enjoying your boat shorthanded. The rule of thumb is if you think you should reef, then reef. You can always shake out the reef if you change your mind later. I often leave the dock with a reef in place, and once I’ve sailed a safe distance offshore, I shake out the reef if it isn’t necessary. This keeps the boat and my anxiety in control. It’s also not necessary to use all the sails to go sailing; often, I’d go sailing with just a working jib. It wasn’t important how fast Geronimo was sailing, but that I was on the water. The truth is, I was lazy and wanted to avoid folding the big sails at the end of the day.

 Shorthanded sailing is about finding ways to do with two hands what other people do with eight or 10 hands—figure out how to hold lines, trim sails, steer the boat and dock the boat with a partner or by yourself. Rope clutches, cam cleats, lines, self-tailing winches, electric winches, additional cleats and sail ties all make sailing more accessible. Each boat has its own arrangement of lines, and getting as many of these lines back to the cockpit where you can efficiently manage the boat without having to go up on the bow makes shorthanded sailing easier and safer. 

Learning shorthanded sailing skills opens up horizons and adventures. Ask around your marina to meet those who do shorthanded sailing. Then, ask them for some tips or the chance to go with them on a sail to observe and learn. You’ll find shorthanded sailors weirdly willing to help you.

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