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from Rob Legg Yachts
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Have you ever set a reef? - Rob Legg

It seems that the frequency and ferocity of sudden storms may be on the increase, and the ability to reef a sail could be of much more importance in the future.

For years we sailed 24s and 28s in all weathers and although I had always provided the gear for setting a slab reef, we had never tried it. We had used the flattening reef often and knew well enough its effect in strong winds but never practiced the moves necessary to set a full reef in bad conditions, content to know it was there if it was needed. We just flattened off our mainsail when it started to blow and it was fun just to flog our way to windward as you did in a dinghy, and then have the thrill of planing downwind. One day on the bay a bad storm came through in the middle of a race. We were caught half way between St Helena Island and Sandgate and were dangerously overpowered. Never wanting to pull out of a race, and having nowhere else to head for, we decided to drop in a reef and carry on racing.

This was a disaster! Even with an experienced crew on board, and having all the gear set up, it was not as easy as we had expected. First we tried to let the main down to where we thought it should be, but being on a close reach at the time, it just didnít want to lower, so we had to round up nearly into the wind to get it to move. Then, with the sail and boom thrashing around madly and having forgotten to ease the vang, the reef line would not pull the sail right down and out on the boom. Even with the vang released there was considerable strain on the reefing line, so the halyard winch had to be used to bring it fully in. It was almost impossible to raise the mainsail enough again because of the friction of the billowing sail.

Finally after what must have been five minutes of frustration we were off again and sailing more comfortably, but it was a lesson well learnt, and although it was very seldom needed we practiced reefing, and in the end that five minutes was down to fifteen seconds, and we were satisfied that we could sail on now confidently and safely in 30 plus knots of wind and still enjoy it.

Here are some notes on what we did to make the difference:

The main halyard was marked at the point where it entered the cleat when reefed, this eliminated the need to re hoist the main after the reef was set.

The reef line was also marked where it entered the cleat when fully in, and led to where the winch could be used to get that last bit in, this eliminated the need to question if the foot of the main was in enough yet.

Remember that the mainsail luff and foot does need to be hauled out very hard to help reduce the fullness of the sail.

This is the order in which our reefs were set:

  • Ease the vang a little
  • Set the traveller out wide and sail the boat on the wind under headsail alone
  • Drop the main to the halyard mark
  • Helmsman hold up and steady the boom
  • Reefing line hauled in and winched up to its mark
  • Retighten the boom vang, and then with practice you can be sailing again in fifteen seconds.
In winds over 30 knots a reef needs to be at least a metre deep. It may look untidy, but it is certainly very effective.

If you have to drop your headsail on a halyard provide for a tie down, as we have had the sail blow half way up the forestay again.

In an emergency the boat will sail very nicely under reefed main alone.

I have attached part of a letter that we received some thirty years ago from the late Bruce Castles a skilled and dedicated Mk1 RL24 owner. It will give you an idea what to expect if you get caught in a blow. It also partly explains my dislike for overlapping and masthead rigged headsails on roller furling gear. Rob Legg