Yacht Sail Handling Skills Guide

Sections: Mainsail Headsails Spinnakers Lowering and Stowing Sails Sail Organization

Flying sail furler mainsail and roller furling systems when hoisting a sail jib furling systems and mainsail furling systems contained in this sails tutorial with rigging diagrams.


Bending on the Sails on the Boom

"Bending on" is the term describing the fitting of the mainsail onto the boom and usually is done at the beginning of the sailing season with the mainsail stowed on the boom and removed at the end of the season. The jib and headsails are ‘bent on’ when needed, being stowed when not in use. Modern yachts use a roller reefing system allowing the headsail or jib to be furled tightly around the forestay when not sailing.

Mainsail Foot

Yacht mainsails are either attached to the boom by sliding the bolt rope out along the groove in the boom or with slides being attached to the sail and running in the boom groove. The tack is then fastened to the gooseneck by a shackle or lashing. The clew is then pulled towards the aft end of the boom using the outhaul. Outhauls are usually adjustable with the warp running inside the boom, to a winch or cleat.

Mainsail Luff

The luff attaches to the mast with slides that run in the mast groove. If it is a fully battened mainsail, the battens run from the leech to the luff, being fitted into low-friction sliders enabling the sail to be hoisted and lowered easily without pressure from the battens.

Reefing Lines

Lines that [ reef the mainsail ] are led from the boom end through the reef cringles in the leech. They lead back down to the boom before being led forward at the end of the boom to a winch and cleat or through turning blocks back to a winch in the cockpit.

Hoisting the Mainsail with the Halyard

Before hoisting the [ mainsail ] , position the boat to face head-to-wind. If this is not done, the sail will fill as it is hoisted, creating difficulties with the boat starting to sail. Before hoisting the sail, hoist the topping lift by about a foot ensuring that the weight of the boom does not hinder the hoisting sequence then loosen the mainsheet.

When hoisting, check the [ battens ] are securely fastened into their pockets. One arrangement uses offset batten pockets ensuring that the battens are securely anchored. Use a double [ reef knot ] if they are to be tied in.

  • While checking the halyard is clear aloft, remove the ties holding the stowed sail in place on the boom then fully release the mainsheet then pull on the halyard.
  • When hoisting, watch to make sure that the sail does not snag.
  • The halyard is led to a winch either on the mast or in the cockpit.
  • While the crewman pulls up the mainsail, the person at the winch takes in the slack, winching the halyard when the sail is nearly hoisted.
  • Pull the halyard so enough pressure creates a light crease into the sail parallel to the luff.
  • Cleat, coil, and stow the halyard, ease off the topping lift, and tighten the boom vang.

The sail is set correctly for the wind speed when the vertical luff crease disappears. When horizontal creases develop in the luff, either re-tension the halyard or tension the [ Cunningham tackle] to remove the creases.

Jib and Headsails

Roller Furling Jib or Headsail

[ Roller furling jib ] and reefing headsail systems have a headfoil fitted over the forestay. The headfoil contains a groove in the aft edge where the sail's luff rope is fed.

The roller furling drum at the base of the headfoil is where the tack is shackled while the head is shackled to a halyard swivel. The jib or headsail sheets attach to the clew in the conventional way and then led aft through turning blocks or fairleads.

When the sail is hoisted, roller furling the jib or headsail is done by pulling on the line wound around the furling drum rotating the headfoil, thus furling the sail. Every skipper using a reefing jib and headsail system must have a spare headsail that can be set if the system fails. A number 3 jib with a wire luff is sufficient for this purpose, as it covers a wide range of wind speeds.

Hanked-on Jib or Headsail

A yacht has a number of headsails of different sizes suiting a range of wind strengths and are stowed in a sail locker, and rigged when needed. The headsail is removed from its bag and the tack is attached to the stemhead fitting with a shackle, or hooking it over a ram's horn. Clip the luff hanks onto the forestay, attach the sheets to the clew, then shackle the jib halyard to the head ready for hoisting.

Hoisting the Headsail

A roller furling jib or headsail will already be hoisted and stowed in its furled state.

  • Release the furling line and pull on the jib sheet to unfurl it.
  • With hanked-on headsails, hoist the sail using the jib halyard and halyard winch.
  • The headsail can be hoisted in any wind direction unlike the mainsail.
  • Ensure the sheets are free, allowing the mainsail to flap freely until ready to sheet in.
  • With the jib halyard one turn around the winch drum, hoist the sail by hand using the winch handle when needed.
  • Finally, tighten the jib halyard until a small crease appears in the sail, parallel to the luff.
  • Cleat the jib halyard and coil and stow the tail.

When the headsail is sheeted correctly, check that the creases in the luff have disappeared. When horizontal creases develop, or there is scalloping between hanks, release the sheet then tighten the halyard until they have disappeared.

When sailing, changing headsails should be done with a plan of action with the skipper and crew to ensure safety and working conditions are not compromised. If weather conditions are bad, the skipper places the boat on a broad reach which takes the tension out of the rig ensuring safer working conditions.

  • The new sail is set up on the windward (weather) rail so that the redundant sheet is able to be tied on, and the sheet lead positioned at its pre-marked point.
  • The previous sail is then lowered and either stowed below, via the fore or main hatch, lashed to the rail, or bagged by one crew, as the other crew hanks on the new sail.
  • The boat is tacked enabling the new jib to be hoisted and set and the other sheet attached.


Flying headsails, such as spinnakers, are set and lowered while a headsail is set on the forestay preventing the 'forestay wrap'. This occurs when the flying headsail wraps around the forestay immobilizing the boat.

The headsail on the forestay is lowered once the flying headsail is set. Cruising boats also use asymmetrical flying headsails with sail handling devices designed to offer more control during hoisting and lowering. A symmetrical spinnaker is a more effective sail operating through a greater range of angles to the wind.

Sheeting systems for spinnakers are now simplified to single sheets; leading aft they run through a floating block controlled by a line running through a toe rail-mounted snatch block near the shrouds. This 'Barber hauler' system had its origin in dinghies, enabling the spinnaker to be pinned down forward of the beam in strong wind conditions preventing rolling.

Spinnaker hoisting control is achieved by 'rubber banding' it. This is done with the sail passing through a bottomless plastic bucket having rubber bands stretched around the outside and slipped off the bucket around the sail at intervals of 1 metre. The sail is then packed in its bag with the head at the front and the clews on their correct sides.

  • The windward sheet is placed in the spinnaker pole with the attached pole uphaul/downhaul, with the pole hoisted parallel with the deck.
  • Lightly tension the sheet and guy before loading them onto the winches and cleat off.
  • After the spinnaker sheets have been secured to their appropriate clews, the spinnaker is then hoisted from the rail midway between mast and pulpit while steering the boat onto a broad reach.
  • Quickly hoist the sail, making certain it reaches the top by having a reference mark on the spinnaker halyard.
  • The sail is pulled to the pole end by sheeting the guy, then cleat the sheet so that the pole is midway between the forestay and shroud.
  • Haul in the sheet allowing the rubber bands to break therefore filling the sail.
  • When the spinnaker is under control, then lower the forestay headsail to the deck.

A correctly set spinnaker is when the pole is adjusted to the point where the two clews are level and the windward edge collapses rhythmically throughout its length.

Lowering and Stowing Sails

Sails are lowered by the reverse of hoisting procedures.

  • Before lowering the mainsail, tighten the topping lift taking the weight of the boom if there is no solid boom vang supporting the boom.
  • Position the boat head-to-wind stopping the sail filling with wind, ease the mainsheet allowing the sail to flap.
  • Lower the mainsail, keeping tension on the halyard and when down, secure the halyard and tighten the mainsheet preventing the boom swinging around.
  • If there is a headsail furling system installed, roll the sail around the forestay by easing the sheet and pulling on the furling line.
  • A hanked-on headsail is lowered to the deck by easing the halyard and can be lowered with the wind in any direction.
  • A crew member goes forwards gathering the sail onto the foredeck preventing it from falling overboard.


The mainsail is left stowed on the boom during the sailing season and shielded from the elements by a sail cover as sailcloth becomes damaged by long-term exposure to ultraviolet light.

Fully battened mainsails stow neatly on the boom when lowered with the aid of restraining lines called lazyjacks. Lazyjacks are rigged from the mast to the boom constrain the sail enabling it to stack on the boom requiring sail ties to secure it.

Conventional mainsails do not stack neatly when lowered, and are stowed by hand.

  • When the mainsail is lowered, pull it to the leeward side of the boom then move around to the boom’s windward side.
  • Ensure the mainsheet is pulled in and cleated before starting and then reach over the boom, grab the leech of the sail some distance up from the foot.
  • Pull it aft and towards you forming a pocket then pack the rest of the sail into the pocket, pulling the leech aft creating a neat bundle.
  • With all the sail inside the pocket, pull the pocket tightly around the sail, securing it with sail ties tied around the bundle and boom and fit the sail cover.


A jib or headsail, when stowed furled on the forestay, requires protection from ultraviolet light, which degrades the exposed part of the sail. Sailmakers allow for this by designing in a sacrificial strip of material along the leech or alternatively a cover is hoisted over the furled sail.

When a hanked-on headsail is to be used in the near future, it is temporarily stowed in the bag on the foredeck. The sail remains hanked on, ready to hoist, with sheets attached while the bag protects the sail and keeps the decks clear.

  • When stowing the headsail on the foredeck, pull the sail out along one sidedeck and furl it by rolling it up so it can be secured to the top lifeline and held clear of the deck.
  • Otherwise, use the headsail bag to cover and protect it while it is still hanked to the forestay by folding the sail in half by pulling the clew up to the tack and head.
  • Pack the bulk of the sail into its bag with the tack, clew, and head protruding leaving the sheets attached, but removing the halyard then stow the bag in the pulpit.

When sailing with hanked-on headsails there may be a need to change to a different sail. When removing the previous sail, stow it immediately in its bag in the sail locker but if stowed temporarily on the foredeck lash it securely to the stanchions preventing it slipping overboard and never leave a sail on deck in rough weather.

  • When lowering a spinnaker, first hoist the genoa and steer onto a broad reach.
  • A rope is placed over the leeward sheet allowing it to be reached and pull in, meanwhile checking that the halyard is free to run out without snagging.
  • Ease the pole to the forestay, releasing the windward clew from the guy by pulling the tape tail fixed to the snap shackle.
  • The halyard is released and let out rapidly in conjunction with pulling the sail under the boom from the main cockpit hatch ending up in the saloon.
  • Tidy up the sheets and halyard and pack the spinnaker away by rubber banding it.

Sail Organization

Properly organized sail stowage makes sail handling simplified. This entails making sure that each sail has an accessible stowage point, with sail bag contents labelled with the type and sail number. Each sail should be bagged correctly and on opening the bag, all corners are accessible and easily identified. Ensure that the tack, clew and head of each sail are tied in with the drawstring of its bag so that mishandling of the bag will not displace them in the bag.

When sailing at night, tactile identification helps in the location of the sail you require. This form of identification can be holes punched into a tag, or thick layers of tape around the draw cord or bottom strap of the bag. Able to identify the corners and sides of the sail makes the job of newly-recruited crews easier and hence speeds packing and hoisting.

Some sail makers stamp the corners and fix a coloured tape to the foot or leech, but if sails lack these identification aids they can easily be marked by the skipper.

Roller furling mainsail and furled sails and jib furling systems

yacht mainsail
reef knot
cunningham tackle
jib furling
yacht reefing lines