Lessons in simplicity.

Once upon a time….in a well known Hamble boatyard…..

I think it might have been the very last job, or next to last job, that i did as somebody who kind-of hung around the big boats and worked on refit projects.  The last one might have been on an older Whitbread maxi but the one i am thinking about today was a first generation Volvo 60 so it’s about the time that ocean racing was moving from big and good looking (but slow) late IOR maxi’s to big sailing dinghy’s with lids, water ballast and then canting keels and all that gubbins.

The job i am thinking about involved some work on the rig and then re-stepping the mast, sorting all the deck gear out and taking the boat out sailing again with paying guests on board.  I seem to remember that the plan was to take the boat over to the Irish Republic and try to take the round Ireland record.  Whatever….although i sailed on the boat a few times i didn’t do that trip and the delivery crew managed to run her aground and did major damage to the keel box or so i heard it at the time.

One of my jobs once we got the rig back in and tensioned up again : big ram under the mast taken up to about 60 tons load ! was to re-run all the halyards and control lines back to the ‘keyboards’ either side of the hatch.  Coming from maxi yachts which have a lot of space and tend to be fairly simple the V60 was more like a big Merlin Rocket dinghy where the designer had added every possible control line that would pull something in, out, up, down or sideways and all from this one position.

Something like the spaghetti on ‘Hugo Boss’ (open 60)


It certainly wasn’t obvious , at first. even what everything did, then when i had worked that out i had to route the various lines through turning blocks, lead blocks and ultimately into a bank of jammers : the ‘keyboards’.  As i remember it there wasn’t just one layer of lines at one point 2 sets of fairleads stacked vertically…..and i used to enjoy that kind of thing.

Now, you might be wondering what on earth that’s got to do with my little Hunter Liberty and it’s unstayed masts and simple rig…..but it’s that i have seen something similar to the above done with a Liberty’s control lines and almost ended up replicating the same error again with my own boat.

Last winter when i was preparing to leave the Exe i worked on a project, i called it the cabin top project, to have all of my boat’s control lines coming aft to the section of coachroof next to the hatch.

Something like this, about halfway into the project.


As you can see from the photograph and as i can attest, it’s a difficult boat to move forward on because the side decks are so narrow and the boat is very light and dynamic.  When i do go forward to do a job or sort a problem it’s all but impossible to stay on the dide deck and the only place to work is right in the bow well and essentially standing on the anchor or it’s rode.   One time when i was trying to go forward to sort out a problem she almost had me over the side when the boom swung out at me when i was off balance.  My idea was well meaning : get all the control lines aft where i can work them from the cockpit…..including as i remember it the anchor warp.  More on the anchor warp idea later in the post.

On the little Liberty, with it’s 2-stick configuration, there are more lines to sort out in one place than you might realise.  So, from the main mast we have : the halyard, vang, the 2 reefing clew lines and the 2 reefing tack lines, then we have the lazy-jack pullers, one each side.  That’s not so bad so far until we start adding up the number of jam cleats required but then we also need to add all the lines from the mizzen mast as well because that small area of the cabin top is where the mizzen’s lines come to as well.  Quite honestly it got messy very quickly and because the boat and rig wasn’t initially set up that way it ended up with slack dangly string everywhere.

As some of you regulars will know i have owned and sailed  3 boats in the last 10 years, not counting the DY which i never actually sailed. Those boats were the Frances 26, then the Liberty and finally the Gaffer.  Best of the 3, ergonomically was the Frances by a long way, by far the worst was the Deben gaffer in every respect.  The thing about the Frances is that i didn’t set her up as a ‘modern’ boat at all, in fact i simplified here even from her initial state.  The only lines she had in the cockpit were her sheets , the vang and a topping lift.   She was a joy to reef, all i had to do was dump the power, top up the boom and then go forward and do everything else at the mast.  The working space there was excellent and even better was her foredeck.   The Frances’s foredeck was bigger and safer than every IOR boat i have ever sailed except for maxi yachts.  Even with her little bowsprit and hanked on jibs all the sail handling and anchor work was easy.

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Now that the Liberty is my long term boat i’m back to trying to work out the simplest and most effective ways of doing everything : and that’s both all sail handling jobs and anchoring.

As some of you will have noticed i have already converted the rig from conventional booms to sprit-booms and stripped away a lot of the complexity of the rig as it was when i bought her.  The vangs have gone, so that’s 5 blocks and 3 lines less, then i have got rid of the lazy jacks…..let me think : 10 lines , 8 blocks and multiple lines.  What i have added is just the 2 snotter tackles, a topping lift on each mast and a tack downhaul on the mains’l.    What i hadn’t done at the time of fitting the sprit booms was work out my reefing system especially for the mains’l which needs 2 reefs.

In the ‘sprits and snotters’ post i used a short video clip of the Core-Sound 17 ‘Carlita’ and her reefing system as i intended to copy that.   Carlita’s reefing system is basically similar to a modern thru-mast slab reefing system except that the turning blocks are mounted on the sprits and at the point where the sprit lays against the mast.  Her reefing technique is just the same functionally as any modern yacht and uses the same lines except that she may also have tack downhauls…..all in all 4 lines and some 8 turning blocks.

This week i took WABI”’ out for her first sea trials since the sprit-boom refit just to see how they work.  I’m actually quite pleased with the result, as hoped i can now stand upright in the centre of the cockpit with trying to make a kink around the mizzen boom. The mizzen sprit at the mast is above my head and never seems to get in the way.  Hoisting and lowering the sail is as easy as it always was and i have quickly adapted to altering the snotter tension to shape the sail.    The mains’l sprit works equally well although i may yet build a slightly longer one as i might be able to squeeze some more sail area in.

Once i’d had a first sail i anchored, dropped the mains’l and started adding all the gear to allow me to reef it from aft so , initially just concentrating on the first reef.  Thus i added turning blocks at the clew and one near the mast and then one at deck level.  As with Carlita i attached a jam cleat onto the side of the sprit.  Pulling the reef down was easy enough although i would still have had to add a tack downhaul…..my system of reefing is to lower the halyard to a preset point and then get tension back in the luff by heaving down on a tack downhaul.   That’s actually the way i hoist and tension the sail anyway but it would need a new downhaul for each tack point.

At anchor, Jennycliff bay.  Just for interests sake also note the new mizzen-stick position……seems to work fine there.


So, i took a break and sat in the cockpit having a brew, and yes amazingly this was February in Plymouth sound and not raining.   There hadn’t been much wind that morning which is why i hadn’t gone any further and also why it was such a good day to put sails up and just mess around with the rig.   As i was having my break though the wind got up a bit and the mizzen, which i had left up, started acting as a riding sail which is a useful feature but is best with a reef in for that job.

Now, i hadn’t set up any system of reefing the mizzen at all.  Normally with the old boom the clew reefing line, if rove, tends to hanging around under the boom because it never had a thru-boom system of reefing lines.  That was always one very annoying feature of the mizzen rig.   I decided to reef the mizzen but without using any lines at all, rather by using a short strop and hook to directly attach the reef clew to the eye bolt at the end of the sprit.

All i had to do was slack the snotter off, haul the sail down a bit, cow-hitch the strop into the reef clew ring and then clip the hook (i found a small Wichard hook) into the eye bolt.  Because the clew of the mizzen is also only hooked at the tack i could also unhook the tack and re-attach the hook at the first reef tack point.  Sound complex but it was done in seconds and with me standing in the cockpit.  With the 2 points solidly attached at sprit and mast and with no dangly lines to deal with the reef was in and the sail back up in it’s riding-sail configuration and the job done.  The combination of the right length of strop and the amount of take up available at the snotter kept the sprit in the same position at the mast which meant that it was also still bearing on it’s wear pad and leather patch.

First look at the mainsail reefing set-up with a conventional cheek block for the reefing line and a jammer/turning block at the mast end.



Looking at the mainsail again i realised that i could try the same approach with a strop to attach the clew to the eye bolt at my end of the mains’l sprit as that point tends to sit on the coachroof and i can easily access it by standing securely braced in the companionway even with the sail half up.   All i have to do once again is slack the snotter, ease the topping lift but harden in on the sheet (with halyard off) and i can handle the fairly docile leech as long as the boat is hove-to…..which it should be with the mizzen up and certainly was that day with the mizzen up and in riding sail configuration.   The only job i couldn’t do from the hatch or the cockpit was to heave the new reef tack point down but which i could do if i rove a simple downhaul through the reef tack ring just the same as the tack itself.  That would need a turning block at the mast base and maybe a low friction eye to help lead the tack downhaul aft but that’s still less lines, blocks, jammers and complexity than a conventional slab reefing set-up.

On the day i didn’t have a spare Wichard hook in the rigging bag to play with and all of the bits like carabiners and maillon’s were too big to clip into the 6mm eye bolts that i have used as clew and sheet attachment points.  I did work out the approximate lengths of strops that i would need at the clew end and one solution could be to add a second eye bolt/eye nut combination a few inches of the existing one that could carry one part of the mainsheet tackle under the sprit and be used to clip the reef-clew into.

Funnily enough my quick and dirty solution on the day was very similar to the simple systems often used by fishermen and small boat sailors that did actually use similar rigs. It’s said that gaffs and lugs, sprits and snotters , were all simple solutions made by poor boatbuilders and riggers for poor men.  Today i could just have walked into the chandlery and picked up 6 new cheek blocks, several single blocks, new, jammers, cleats and fasteners.  The bill would have come in at about £300 just for the hardware or the alternative would be a couple of Wichard hooks, some scrap line and maybe a couple of single turning blocks.    It would be entirely feasible to just lace the clews into the eye bolts but i happen to think that it would save useful time to just hitch the strop and clip it in……almost like clipping the ‘pro’ during a sticky moment in rock climbing.

If there is a personal lesson here it is to stop thinking along conventional lines and by that i mean trying to do the job in the same way that i have always done it.  In this case i have often had to set up reefing systems from my Frances 26 and my gaffer right up to Volvo boats and Maxi’s.  Slab reefing definitely works for big boats where there is lots of sail area to get under control quickly and often where a winch is needed to heave it down and out.  I don’t think the same approach is necasary at all with my boat which, i think, is better without all those additional lines and expensive hardware.  The outcome so far is that i will have a safe and secure method of reefing and the local chandlery’s profits will be down by a few hundred quid this week…..equally that money not spent could go towards a pillar drill !


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