Ten for two is an appalling cricket score. It translates to the batting team scoring only ten runs, at the cost of two wickets. But we’re not here to talk cricket. We are here to talk sailing. Shorthanded sailing, in fact. I preface the following with this advice: “Shorthanded” is NOT a number; just one or two people aboard. Rather is it is the number of persons aboard relative to the size and complexity of the yacht. For a while I sailed as the Professional Mate on the J-Class Endeavour. We were eleven in the permanent crew, and twelve on a transatlantic passage. In that case, twelve souls was shorthanded. There was nothing on the sailing/handling/deck work side of the boat that one person could do.

This month I offer ten ideas to upgrade your boat to make it easier to sail shorthanded. I suggest that “easier” is as much a safety issue as a raft, flares, MOB drills and so on, as much as, well easier. This falls under Cooper’s Rule 5: The Dipstick Rule, which states that if the dipstick is readily accessible we will check the oil more readily (because it is easy). You know the other side of this idea. Here we go.

1. Rigging: New lightweight and very strong lines could be replaced for things like the halyards and sheets on the headsail and mainsail. A key detail and one that helps minimize water retention, is to have the lines ‘stripped’. This means that the cover is removed from that portion of the line (the business end) that need not be in a clutch or self-tailer. Because they do not stretch as much as the half-inch diameter Dacron double braid you have now, the sails need trimming less often. Also, the lines will be a thinner diameter for the given strength. This detail means they will ‘render’ (the proper term for passing around blocks), much more easily. Ask the cordage guys and they will invariably say the ideal minimum spec is to have a line diameter to sheave diameter ratio of 8:1. Half-inch line, four-inch block. You know you don’t have this, don’t you? And for the cruising kite, likely you do not use in in hard winds, up to 20 knots true is the highest wind most folks I work with on these sails will sail in. Given these sails are in fact mostly used in under 15 true, look at changing the thick polyester sheets you have now with stripped Dyneema, which does not hold water. One snap of the line and most of the water’s gone.

2. Sailing performance: Yes, I know you don’t race but the efficiency of the sails, their shape and presentation relative to the apparent wind speed and angle has an impact on the helm. You know that when you have too much sail up or the sails are too deep (and ready to be replaced, right?) the helm is heavy and the boat is difficult to steer. Well, this is wearing, and makes you reluctant to have lesser skilled people steer because it’s difficult. It’s also harder for the pilot to steer, consuming battery power, and so on. So:

3. Sail control tools, Mainsail (Cunningham, outhaul, mast bend and traveler) The Smart Pig (aka Cunningham) is absent from many boats I go on. You are giving up a gear useful in sail trim here. Construct a 4 or 6:1 tackle and lead the tail aft so you can adjust it easily – cf Rule 5. The outhaul for the mainsail. Most boats have very poor systems for adjusting the outhaul on the main. With a little noodling and some string and blocks it is easy to make a 6, 8 or 10:1 tackle to adjust the outhaul. Likewise, bring it to where you can adjust it and you WILL use it. Traveler control. Again many boats have the traveler on the cabin top some several miles from the helm station. It is possible – I have done it – to re-configure the leads for the traveler control lines so they lead to where the person steering, or an adjacent crew may adjust the traveler. Done right, the crew need not even put down her book.

4. The halyard tension and sheet lead adjustment: For the headsail using low-stretch halyards, adjusting the luff tension and moving the sail shape forward is a decided advantage in managing the power from the sail(s). Upgrading your ability to adjust the headsail’s lead position, fore or aft, is a high value adjustment for variable breezes and can be done using another detail taken from the Open Solo class. The 3-d ring sheet lead. This mod incorporates a lead ring of a size suitable to reeve your (now thinner) headsail sheets through. Attached to this ring is a purchase of a suitable strength to let the ring float UP, and more importantly from the purchase point of view, be pulled DOWN. This up and down movement is the functionally the same as moving a lead forward or aft on a track on the deck. Harken has a handy calculator to estimate the sail’s sheet load and car loading at any given wind speed. Go to: Harken, Prod support, calculators). For instance, a 300 sq. ft. genoa calculates to a load of 512 lbs. in 20 knots apparent, The car load they say is 30 % of this (for a genoa sheeting at 45 degrees, so calculates to 153 lbs. Using a 6:1 tackle, the load you need to move calculates to about 25 lbs. A 6:1 is gained by using a 2:1 at the ring and a 3:1 tail. The load is higher, 60% (of sheet load) for a #3 leading more up and down

5. Backstay adjustment impacts for both sails. For the mainsail, the ability to bend the mast allows the mainsail to get flatter. Mainsails have built-in curve at the luff, called, surprise, luff curve. When the mast bends, this curve is pulled forward making the sail flatter. When the stay is eased, the sail gets fuller. For the headsail, backstay tension helps pull the forestay up to weather, it straightens out and so also helps make the sail flatter.

6. There are two considerations/options with respect to upgrading to an adjustable backstay. You need not go and buy the heavy duty crank or hydraulic tensioner. Depending on the boat size and a variety of other considerations, a multipart cascading purchase is a very viable alternative. It is easy to make, light, likely inexpensive compared to the hydraulics and so on. Second, do your due diligence on replacing the wire backstay with synthetic material. On a 33-footer, the backstay weighs perhaps 20 lbs. Go and weigh it this winter. A cordage backstay will weigh probably less than a pound.

7. Other sails to span the extremities of the wind speed you mainly sail in If you sail enough over a wide enough area, time will come when you need, or should have, and might prefer to have both sails for very light air and small sails for over say 25 knots on the boat. If you have a 150% genoa on the furler, then you know that over about 10 knots true you have too much headsail up. There are a couple options. One is a Solent-stay and sail (this is a three-credit course in itself) the other is having a smaller headsail in the first place. The bulk of the classic U.S. production cruiser/racers from the late 1960s to about 2000 are burdened with large, overlapping headsails because that’s what the racing boats of the day had. In many areas, a modest headsail of even 125% LP will suffice for most casual cruising and fun sailing.

8. Tacking: Clamp your kid’s GoPro on the back rail for a while and record yourself tacking. The most common method I see is to cast off the sheet, turn the boat, wait until the headsail is flapping to leeward, then grind. Preferred is to take the sheet out of the cleat or self-tailer. Make sure the new side has two or three turns on the winch. As the boat tacks, cast off the old side, keeping one turn on the winch until the clew is at the shrouds/mast, and starting to pass around the rig. Drop the old sheet (leaving the turn on the winch to provide a bit of backpressure), and tail in the new side. Do NOT tail underarm, pulling in front of your stomach. Much better to grasp overhand and pull the sheet past your left and right sides with each tug. You get a lot more line in per pull this way…easier to show than write about.

9. Buttons: The latest autopilots have remote/wireless pilot controls – yet another trickle-down invention from the solo offshore scene. Spend some time investigating this equipment. It may be possible to upgrade merely the CPU part of your system to use this car key fob-like device.

10. Plan, Plan, Plan. IF you are on the glide path to Exit Plan, practice too. The essence of shorthanded sailing is the higher demand on seamanship skills, i.e. what is going to happen next. If you have a problem on a 40-footer with ten people, resolution is orders of magnitude, like ten, easier than on a boat with two persons.

Bon Courage.


Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog,
joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.

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