Reefing a balance lug sail

I had to write this information out for my Friends at Really Simple Sails (RSS) who make quality but excellent sails for the GIS and Oz series of boats. These sails may fit other types of boats too.

It is quite possible just to reef the main lines at the edge of the sail and not worry at all about tying up the middle of the sail. That’s what the racing guys do. They don’t want to have to waste time tying in and untying middle reef points.

This photos shows my BETH sailing canoe with only the main reefing lines tied in … the middle part of the sail is just allowed to do what it wants.

That is … intermediate reef lines are far less necessary than people think.

Beth reefed Sailing in Clayton Bay South Australia. Sailing canoe by

However … if going a long long way in rough weather having a big bag at the bottom of the sail can carry inconvenient water or do something else that may not be fun. So then we have to talk about intermediate ties. I like the all in one solution below rather than individual ties or tingles. It is fast to put in and take out and won’t damage the sail if one of the reefing lines lets go.

One of the advantages of a balance lug sail is reasonably easy and efficient reefing.  I put together a guide on how we do it on Storer Boats.  it is a useful method to consider as it is faster than tying individual reef points.  It will suit John Welsford’s SCAMP, several traditional Humber Canoe Yawls, Bolger Martha Jane, Pheonix 3, Piccup Pram and many others

This diagram just shows the front end reefing because I want to make a point about having the line permanently there and just pulling on through the cleat.

Many boats are unhappy when the crew moves forward so having a cleat that can be  reached from the middle of the boat is quite useful.

Front Reef Line – The sail is reefed normally by lashing down the luff and leach using the big eyelets on the edge of the sail. As small boats get less stable as you move forward in the boat having a reefing line tied off on the boom, through the front eye for the reef and to an eye or block on the sailthen back along the boom to a cleat. I would recommend either a CL217mk2 Clam cleat (it is a side entry cleat so you don’t need to thread it or a traditional horn cleat.

If this is tied in first and pulled very tight that is enough. I would probably recommend spectra for the rope so it doesn’t stretch at all.

Back Reef Line – The back end is more accessible from the body of the boat usually so can be tied in manually.

It is very important the sail is tied down to the boom as well as pulled out towards the end of the boom. If the reef is going into the front sail on the boat, don’t overflatten the sail. Depth in the foot of the front sail will help you keep going against waves, particularly upwind. Much, Much faster. It gives you power low down that won’t heel the boat too much and a touch more weather helm to stop the waves knocking the bow off the wind.

Basically you want to have a depth to chord (distance direct between the tack and clew of the sail) ratio of 1:10. So put a mark on the boom for the back of the sail and write “Reef 1” or “Reef 2” beside it. Guide marks like this can save a lot of time and reduce the risk of making an error.

Reef Point Lacing – there is some urgency usually attached to reefing. For most boats the reef lines are the important item. But often when there is some chance that the sail will be unreefed a bit later or there is not time to snug everything down racing sailors won’t bother at all with the reef point lacing in the body of the sail. It depends on the boat but often the untidiness is not great.

Additionally, the traditional solution of an individual tie at each of the eyelets is slow and awkward to put in and remove. Also it is a rigid system. If one of the reefing lines comes undone all the load will go on the first sail tie and risks ripping the reef point eyelet out of the sail.

I recommend the same method used on racing yachts. They use a thin shock (bungee) cord that spirals around the boom and will stretch and not damage the sail if a reefing line comes undone or breaks. Also the number of eyelets is minimised.

It is also quicker than tying in several separate ties along the boom. Tying individual reef ties belongs on full crew square riggers doing Cape Horn!

Note that with larger boats it is best to set up the main reefing lines before you go sailing.  We recommend this with the forward end of the reef with small boats too as it keeps the crew in the bow for a much shorter time, whereas the aft end can be sorted out with a length of line in many boats rather than needing fittings on the boom.


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2 thoughts on “Reefing a balance lug sail

  1. Great ideas. Cautionary note: I’m a doctor and met a woman patient who had a bunji cord snap while working on a backpack. The hook caught her eye and she made medical history. Wear goggles or a motorcycle helmet — something to protect yourself if you have any hooks at the end of the bungi cords — or use use non-stretching rope.

    • Good point Stephen,

      In this case the tension is not so high and there are no hooks … all done with knots. And evein if it did break, it passes through so many intervening eyelets and under and over the boom that it will just slacken in place.



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