Sailing Without The Main Sail And Other Ways Of Shortening Sail

If you are out sailing and need to shorten your sail due to high winds, there are certain things you can do. You may need to shorten your sail if your boat is heeling too much.

If you need to shorten your sail, one way to do this on a keelboat is to lower the mainsail. Another way is to lower the jib sail. Finally, you can do what is known as reefing: reduce part of the main sail or the jib sail. All of these are what is known as shortening the sail.

Sailing Without The Mainsail

Lowering The Mainsail

A sailboat is made to be sailed with both the jib sail and mainsail, but there may be some circumstances when you need to sail without the mainsail and only the jib. To sail with only the jib, it is important that you understand the boat you are sailing and you know that the boat has a backstay.

You must know enough about the type of boat you are sailing so that you do not do anything to damage the boat or the jib sail.

If you find yourself in a situation where the wind is so strong, and your boat is heeling too much, you can shorten your sail. One way you can do this is to lower the mainsail and sail only with the jib sail.

Not all boats are the same, but the instructions I am giving below are for a basic keelboat. If you have another kind of boat, you will need to learn what your boat is capable of and able to handle or not handle.

If the wind is very strong, you can consider lowering the main sail on your keelboat as follows:

  • Lower the main sail.
  • Your boat will no longer be balanced as the most balanced way to sail a boat is with the jib and mainsail both up.
  • The wind pressure on the jib will tend to rotate the boat’s bow away from the wind. To compensate for this pressure and lack of balance with just the jib sail up, you will need to use the tiller to help you balance the boat.
  • Push the tiller slightly towards the mainsail to keep the boat sailing straight.

If you are out in high winds, it may be hard for you to ultimately lower your main sail. I know the Ensign boats that we sail. It is much easier and safer to lower the jib than the mainsail. Especially out in high winds, if someone needs to get on the boat’s deck to lower the mainsail, it could be dangerous and not the best choice in this situation.

Lowering The Jib Sail

Lowering The Jib

If you find you are in high winds and need to shorten your sail as the wind is too strong, one of the easier and usually safest things you do is lower your jib. The Ensign boats I sail make it very easy to lower the jib sail even in high winds.

When you lower the jib sail, you need to remember the following:

  • Lower the jib
  • When you lower the jib, the boat is no longer in balance. The wind pressure on the mainsail will tend to make the boat want to rotate the bow towards the wind. It would help if you steered with the tiller to compensate for the ship wanting to turn towards the wind. Push the tiller slightly away from the mainsail to keep the boat sailing straight.
  • Not all kinds of boats can sail windward with the jib down.

I have sailed with the jib lowered quite a bit. When we enter or exit the harbor area, we always bring the jib down and dock the boat with only the mainsail. Sailing with only the jib is one of the safest positions and ways to sail the boat through the harbor area.

Reefing The Sail

Reefing The Sail

Another thing that you can do is known as reefing the sail. Reefing the sail is a way to shorten the sail and is used a lot by experienced sailors in strong or heavy wind.

To reef, the sail means bringing the sail down a bit, so your sail is not as full when entirely up. It also means that your boat will go just as fast, but you will have more control in a high wind situation.

When in a higher wind situation, we may just reef the jib sail in a higher wind situation. This gives us a bit more control without losing too much speed. In other circumstances, they may reef the main sail.

The main point of reefing the sail is that you are reducing the size of the sail by doing what is known as shortening the sail.

Here are some things to remember when reefing the sail:

  • You reduce the mainsail or jib; usually, you lower it about a foot or so. You want to have enough sail so that you can continue to sail but at the same time be able to gain better control in a high wind situation.
  • When you lower or reef the sail, you must ensure the sail is secured in the lowered position. Loweringng the mainsail is best when on the close reach or Hove-To position or when the main sail is luffing. We also call this the safety position.

For most sailors reefing the jib or mainsail is the right call for them to make in high winds. When we are in some high winds, we find that reefing the jib is often the best call for us as we still have the mainsail to sail, but at the same time, we gain control in the higher winds.

When sailing, it is important to know and understand all these options to ensure that you can safely sail your boat.

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Milwaukee community sailing center is located on Lake Michigan in downtown Milwaukee Wisconsin. The sailing center is registered as a charity whose primary focus is to teach basic, intermediate, and advanced sailing classes to adults, youth, and children. They are also a charity 501c3 organization that helps many underprivileged children learn the art of sailing.

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Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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Sailing Without The Main Sail And Other Ways of Shortening Sail