The past decade or so has seen a consistent trend towards simplified and efficient deck layouts with reduced friction resulting in easier sail handling. So how can owners of older boats take advantage of these improvements?

Easier sail handling - diverters

Coachroof line diverters: correctly positioned these can reduce loads by up to one third, a simple route to easier sail handling.


1. Change your mainsail reefing

Decent mainsail reefing systems can make a huge difference to the ease of sail handling. With a well-planned system on any boat under around 40ft it should be possible for one person to tuck in, or shake out, a reef in no more than 90 seconds. So-called single line systems are popular for this purpose – they make reefing simple, although there’s a lot of rope to haul in for each reef, and a lot of friction to overcome when the reef is shaken out. If using the existing mainsail luff cringle will need to be repositioned for single-line reefing, but this is an easy and relatively inexpensive modification for a sailmaker to carry out.

Another popular alternative is to fit separate luff and leech pennants for each reef. Although this results in more individual lines to handle, there’s a lot less friction in the system. It also has the advantage that it’s often easier to retro-fit to an older rig than a single-line system. This approach also allows the luff of the sail to be physically pulled down to the boom when sailing downwind, which reduces the need to luff up, thereby increasing the apparent wind, when reefing. Similarly, a mast track with roller bearing cars is easy to retrofit and significantly reduces friction compared to conventional sail slides.


2. Change your headsail setup

On modern boats, the move away from large genoas to non-overlapping jibs, roller-furling code zero reaching sails and cruising chutes means a huge amount of complexity can be saved and the individual sails are both easier to handle and significantly more efficient than their forebears.

Easier sail handling: furling headsails

The move away from large roller genoas to smaller furled headsails improves performance especially in medium to strong wind conditions.

Such a change is also well worth considering for an older cruising boat. Granted, some area will be lost from the headsail, but the advent of roller-furling reaching sails more than makes up for this off the wind. In addition, when close-hauled in all but the lightest airs a smaller jib will set better than a typical roller genoa, enabling the boat to sail both faster and closer to the wind. This is particularly marked in strong winds, when half-furled roller genoas are extremely inefficient, whereas a decent smaller jib with only a couple of rolls to reduce its area can improve pointing by 15 degrees.


3. Reduce friction


Coachroof line diverters: correctly positioned these can reduce loads by up to one third.


Many cruising yachts suffer from having been originally supplied with undersize deck gear to minimise costs. At the same time the positioning of banks of identical coachroof mounted clutches is often driven more by aesthetics than by practicalities. The problem here is that the lines must be routed through turning blocks or deck organisers – and every bend increases both loads and friction, making sail handling harder. For this reason on performance yachts clutches now are often positioned in single units, rather than banks, so they can be angled correctly for a direct lead.

On many cruising boats relatively simple changes to existing fittings, such as upgrading deck organisers to models with low-friction roller bearings, and repositioning them such that lines are turned through the minimum possible angle, can reduce loads by as much as one-third and friction by an even greater amount. This easy modification alone may be enough to enable for winches that were previously under specified to be retained.

In addition, if you frequently feel as though additional coach roof winches would make life easier, a simple solution is to fit diverter wheels that allow a line to be taken from one bank of clutches to the winch on the opposite side of the boat.


4. Upgrade your ropes

Modern low-stretch lines are appealing as they help maintain good sail trim over a wider range of wind speeds. However, it’s also important to recognise that these also place higher peak loads on equipment.

You therefore need to plan for the implications of increased load on each component in the system. The importance of this should not be underestimated – something as seemingly innocuous as changing a halyard can cause the masthead sheave to fail. Equally, it’s becoming more common for a new halyard to fail (with the cover irrevocably damaged) if the clutch that will hold it has not been upgraded to suit the new rope material – fortunately replacement jaws are available for many models, which reduces the cost of upgrading.

Riggers are well versed in spotting where problems are likely to occur and in suggesting effective solutions. Therefore, even if you’re an owner who does most of the work on the boat yourself, the cost of a rigger’s time is a worthwhile investment relative to the amount of expertise you are buying.

A by-product of improvements in rope technology is a return to attaching blocks to boats with rope – as was commonplace in the days of gaff rigs. Even if the idea of fixing highly loaded items to the boat with string feels uncomfortable, the benefits of this are easy to appreciate: the blocks are lighter, more compact and have full ‘soft’ articulation in any orientation, which minimises both friction and wear.


5. Use cascades and purchase systems

Another development is that a reduction of friction in blocks has led to purchase systems being able to replace winches on many control lines.

Easier sail handling: Cascade system

A simple cascade system on a kicking strap – adding one extra block doubles the purchase reducing loads.


This has been further boosted by the availability of blocks such as Harken’s Carbo AirBlock range. These are injection moulded from a structural polymer, making then 60 per cent stronger, yet 30 per cent lighter, than the company’s traditional blocks that rely on stainless steel cheeks to transfer loads.

A cascade is the simplest, lightest and cheapest way to double or quadruple the purchase in a system. Often this is in the form of a 4:1 block and tackle connected to number of single blocks that hang below each other, with each successive one doubling the purchase of the system. This is one of the cheapest, easiest and yet also most effective ways to upgrade the kicking strap (vang) purchase and is also extensively used for backstays on contemporary deck layouts.

This is particularly useful with a fractional rig, where a powerful backstay will help to tame power in the mainsail, delaying the point at which it needs to be reefed.

Backstay cascade

Easier sail handling: a backstay cascade is the preferred purchase system for most boats under 40ft.


In the past, complex hydraulics or other mechanisms were used to achieve this, however these days a cascade purchase system is the preferred method for almost any boat under around 40ft. An 8:1 system may suffice for small day sailers, although larger vessels will benefit from 24:1 or even 36:1 systems.

Improving your sailboat's performance and your deck layout could be easier than you think with Try: Yacht Deck Fittings: Service and Repair Tips or 10 Great Modern Sailing Innovations.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.