Offshore Log: The Reefing Staysail

With a double-headsail rig, you already have some powerful gear-shifting options. Putting your staysail on a furler adds an overdrive.


One lesson we learned during our circumnavigation was the danger of the dogmatic approach to almost anything, from the choice of a boat to the selection of a rig. There are those who claim that the only suitable offshore boat is a deep, heavy, traditional boat with a long keel. Others scoff at anything so old-fashioned, and say that a modern, lightweight boat is the only way to go. 

Offshore Log: The Reefing Staysail

What we’ve found is that given careful preparation and a modicum of good luck, you can sail around the world in almost anything.

There’s one tenet of cruising dogma, however, that we have found to be so true so repeatedly that we are convinced of its validity. For safety, convenience, and performance, the only choice for the foretriangle configuration on most boats is the double-headsail rig, with a relatively small roller-furling genoa on the headstay, and a roller-furling heavy staysail on an inner forestay.

When we left Rhode Island in 1997, westbound round the world, Calypso’s foretriangle was a bit of a compromise. We had a relatively large (135%) roller-furling genoa, and a removable inner forestay with a fairly small, hank-on heavy-weather staysail. I would call this an adaptation of the coastal cruising rig, with a nod towards offshore sailing.

My thinking was that the big genoa would be useful in light air, and could be reefed for heavier air. When it started to blow hard, we would furl the headsail, and I would go forward to raise the staysail, which was kept hanked on in a bag at the inner forestay.

With the inner forestay on a release lever, I could remove the forestay to make it easier to tack the fairly large genoa when not using the staysail.

In practice, we never removed the inner forestay. On the few occasions when we tacked upwind in light air-offshore, you might go days without tacking, even when the goal was dead to windward. I merely reefed the genoa before tacking to make it easier to pass between the inner forestay and the headstay.

I dreaded going on the foredeck to set the staysail, and often put it off until far too late. Setting the sail required unzipping the storage bag, hooking on the halyard, then going back to the mast to raise the sail. By this time, mind you, it would always be blowing 30 knots or more, and headed upwind, the foredeck would be pretty wet and wild. While I was hoisting, Maryann would start to trim the sail while it thrashed about and threatened to tie its sheets in knots. No fun.

In 1998, we bit the bullet and installed a big Furlex 300S furler on the inner forestay. We have never looked back. In fact, we have seen more and more boats converting to this rig. The changeover is obviously easier if you already have an inner forestay, but this rig is so much better than anything else that it’s usually worth the trouble to install, even on a boat without an existing inner forestay.

Although commonly referred to as a cutter rig, it’s more properly called a double-headsail rig on most boats. A cutter rig implies, among other things, that you normally sail with two headsails: a jib and a staysail. In most cases, boats with a double-headsail rig use one headsail at a time: the big reefing headsail on the headstay, or the smaller staysail on the inner forestay.

There’s a lot of prejudice against a reefing inner forestay, particularly when the staysail is used as the heavy-weather headsail. Conventional wisdom states that a heavy-weather headsail should hank onto the forestay, since it could rip out of the foil of a furler. There’s also fear about the reliability of furling systems.

This is nonsense. A properly designed and properly installed heavy staysail on a reefing inner forestay is a far safer and more efficient rig than its hank-on cousin.With a proper halyard lead and a correctly built staysail head, with a luff-tape head pendant if necessary, a headsail in a luff-groove device is as well-attached to the stay as a hanked-on sail. The luff-groove sail will also usually have a better shape due to the even tension on the luff and the lack of local distortion around hanks.

The advantages of the reefer/furler are obvious. There’s no more going onto a pitching foredeck to set the sail. The sail is under complete control as it is unrolled, so there’s less risk of damage or entanglement. Because it’s easily set, the staysail will be used more often, and more likely at the proper times. You will have a more versatile rig, since the foretriangle can be changed from full size to almost infinitely small from the safety of the cockpit, and with relatively little work.

The permanent inner forestay, when coupled with running backstays, offers dramatically greater fore and aft support for the mast, reducing the risk of rig failure.

In short, the naysayers are wrong.

The Staysail
First and foremost the furling staysail is your heavy-weather headsail. The maximum size the sail should be is 5% of the height of the foretriangle squared. For a boat with a 53-foot foretriangle height—typical of a masthead 40-footer—the maximum area of the staysail would be 140 square feet.

This is actually quite large for a storm headsail on the typical 40-footer. However, it is a very good size for a heavy-weather headsail on the same boat. With a properly sized furler and properly designed staysail, the sail can be safely and efficiently reefed to a much smaller size for the really hard going, giving much more versatility than the non-reefing staysail commonly used for heavy weather.The non-reefing staysail will either be too large for storm conditions, or too small for “normal” heavy weather, which is far more common.

Offshore Log: The Reefing Staysail

The cut of the staysail will be determined by the location of your sheet leads. The sail may have to be cut fairly high at both tack and clew to clear foredeck obstacles such as a dinghy carried upside down forward of the mast.

A low-cut, high-aspect-ratio staysail will be more efficient for upwind sailing, but is less forgiving of sheet lead changes when the sail is reefed. The low-cut sail also puts much greater loads on the lead blocks due to the greater deflection angle of the sheet at the block. Generally speaking, a higher-cut staysail is less efficient, but more forgiving of trim errors. For most of us, the choice of a high-cut sail is a no-brainer, all other things being equal—which they seldom are.

In practice, most boats have a short piece of T-track for the headsail lead, and don’t change the lead as the sail is reefed. This is almost an essential compromise, as going forward to move a lead block partially defeats the purpose of this do-it-from-the-cockpit system. A short piece of track allows for variances in the cut of the staysail, and lets you tweak the lead block position at your leisure, before the sail is used in anger.

Some boats now come with a boomed staysail. Although this has some significant advantages in trimming the sail, it has the disadvantage of putting a solid swinging spar on the foredeck. If the main boom is potentially the most lethal piece of gear on a boat, a staysail club must be considered in a similar light.

A reefing staysail is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It should be custom-made for your boat by a sailmaker with real experience in offshore sailing. This is no place for a discount sail. The sail should have the full array of controls, including leech line, foot line, and telltales. Sophisticated cuts are fine, as long as the materials and design are suited to the conditions in which the sail will be used.

Conventional wisdom says that the cut of the staysail doesn’t matter much since you won’t go upwind when it’s blowing 40 knots. In offshore cruising, nothing could be further from the truth. Along with two other boats, we were caught in a local gale just 30 miles out of Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, at the end of an Indian Ocean crossing. It was almost dead to windward. Snugged down to two reefs and well-cut staysail, we covered the distance in five hours, beating the other two boats in by two to three hours, never tacking. Each of the other boats was forced to tack at least twice, and both ended up motorsailing to make it in. I ‘d like to say that it was our sailing ability that made the difference, but the autopilot did all the steering after I quickly discovered that it did a better job than I did. The good staysail, however, made a huge difference.

In 30,000 miles of offshore sailing, we have only reefed Calypso’s staysail a few times. In practice, we go upwind—not by choice, mind you—with full staysail and double-reefed main (a total of about 370 square feet of sail area) in winds of up to 40 knots. Beyond that, we’d just as soon not go upwind unless absolutely critical, thank you.

Despite having a separate trysail track on the mast, the trysail stays in the bag. Two deep reefs have done the job in all the conditions we have encountered, although we have sailed off the wind with no mainsail at all a few times. For offwind sailing in really heavy air—over 35 knots—a scrap of rolled-out genoa will keep the boat tracking better than a staysail by shifting the center of effort further forward.

Sizing the Furler
Don’t make the mistake of choosing a furler that’s too small. Just as in winches, there’s no such thing as a furler too big. The larger the diameter of the furler drum, the easier it is to reef or furl the staysail, and the less likely you are to overload any of the components.

Don’t size the furler based on the size of the staysail. The loads on the 140-square-foot staysail of a 42-foot cruising boat will be huge compared to the loads on a similarly sized jib on a smaller boat, because the staysail will be used in much heavier weather.

Offshore Log: The Reefing Staysail

Be sure the staysail furler requires the same size luff tape as the primary headsail furler. The larger luff tape will give added security against pull-out, and will allow you the option, in case of an emergency such as the destruction of your jib, to set the staysail on the headstay as a small jib.

As a general rule, if your headstay furler is sized properly, going down one size for the staysail furler will be a reasonable choice. Aboard Calypso, we used identically rated furlers for both the genoa and the staysail. It is massive overkill on the staysail, but it gives peace of mind that far outweighs the penalty in cost, weight, and windage.

Furling Lines and Leads
Some furler kits come with a furling line. With others, you provide your own line. We like to use a hard-lay, high-strength line such as a double braid with a Spectra core and a polyester jacket. Lines with a firm lay are harder to handle, but they seem less prone to being wedged into the turns of line already on the furling drum.

Chances are that the furling line will lead to your secondary cockpit winches for additional grunt power in reefing or furling in very heavy going. If that’s the case, the furling line must be sized not only to fit the furler drum, but to fit the self-tailer of the secondary winches.

If you’re going to put the furling line on a winch—and you will, at least in some circumstances—you have to be aware of the risk of damage to the rig if you try to reef or furl the sail when there’s some problem with the system, such as seized furler bearing or an hourglassed sail. We’ve seen more than one headstay and forestay pulled completely out of a boat by an adrenaline-pumped crew furiously grinding away without paying attention to what’s going on up there on the foredeck. If it’s harder than normal to reef the sail, look for a problem before applying more grunt. Needless to say, care here is even more critical if you put the furling line on a powered winch, or if you have a powered furler.

Furling lines don’t last forever. They tend to wear most at turning blocks, winch leads, rope clutches, and in the drums of self-tailing winches. Replace double-braided line whenever the cover starts to shred or chafe through.

We use heavy-duty Lewmar Superlock clutches to hold furling line loads. Because these are probably getting close to their working load limit in very heavy air, we leave the loaded furling line on the winch as a backup in these conditions.

Furling line leads can add considerable friction to the entire system, making reefing more difficult. On staysail furlers, the first lead block is usually mounted on a stanchion slightly aft of the furler drum. This will result in high side loading on the stanchion. You don’t want this lead to result in a right-angle turn for the furling line. Although it may clutter the deck more, it’s better to install the first lead block further from the furler, on the next stanchion aft.

The block should also be mounted as low on the stanchion as possible—consistent with the correct line entry angle to the furling drum—to minimize leverage on the stanchion. In extreme cases, it may be necessary to use a deck-mounted high-load turning block for the first point of deflection.

Whether deck-mounted or stanchion-mounted, the first lead block must be able to swivel.

From here aft, the angle of deflection is relatively small, and the loads on the stanchions are far less. We have used Schaefer Clear Step lead blocks on both headsail and staysail furling lines for 30,000 miles with no problems. These blocks require flushing with copious fresh water at regular intervals to keep the bearings free-running, and must be periodically examined for ultraviolet degradation of the sheaves.

With any fixed stanchion-mount blocks, it’s critical to keep the blocks properly aligned with the line to reduce friction . Changes in the heights of the blocks on the stanchions as you move aft must be gradual, with minimal vertical deflection between blocks.

Fairleads and blocks without roller bearings have no place in this application. There’s enough friction in the system already, so there’s no sense in adding to the problem. The bigger the lead block sheave, the lower the friction will be.

Running Backstays
Perhaps the strongest argument against any inner forestay system is the need for running backstays. Runners can be a nuisance. As generally rigged, they require changing over from one side to the other as the boat is tacked.

Surprisingly, we’ve found the runners to be more of a problem in downwind sailing than upwind. We use the runners all the time, upwind and down, in light or heavy air, just for the additional rig support, even when the staysail is furled. That just reflects our ultra-conservative way of sailing offshore, and may not be necessary on other boats.

Upwind, the runners are necessary to minimize pumping of the rig, which at the very least reduces the efficiency of the staysail. Most cruising rigs are so overbuilt that the typical runner arrangement, with the runners tensioned by a four-part self-cleating purchase, does not really provide significant additional tension on the inner forestay. For that, you need to put the runner tail on a winch. Runner blocks must be carefully chosen for the expected load, particularly if you expect to tension the runners using a winch.

Were we rigging a new boat, we would configure the runners with a retractor line from either the flying block or the lower block to a point on deck just aft of the lower shrouds. The retractor would lead from that point aft to a clutch. Swapping over the runners would then just require a couple of easy maneuvers from the cockpit, rather than a trip on deck.

When we rigged our boat, Phil Garland of Hall Rigging convinced us to install runners of ultra-low-stretch Technora, rather than wire. The T-900 runners are far lighter than wire, and do not chafe the main on the leeward side when sailing upwind with both runners on. (Racing boats usually use runners of Kevlar or PBO “rod.” which is even lighter and lower in stretch.)

Generally speaking, a normal masthead rig with a permanent backstay is not going to fall down just because you take your time with the runners.

If you already have an existing removable inner forestay, 90% of your work is already done if you want to convert to a furling headsail. If you’re starting from scratch, the installation will be much more complex. You have to locate a suitable strong point for the lower termination of the inner forestay, and find a suitable location on the mast for the upper termination, halyard block, and running backstay tangs. You also have to determine sheet leads, and locate a suitable spot for the lead blocks. This may require local reinforcement of the deck.

Consultation with your boat’s builder, a yacht designer, or an experienced rigger may be required unless you are very comfortable with complex projects. Once these issues are resolved, the installation is much the same as a conversion from an existing non-reefing staysail setup.

Installing a reefing staysail may seem like a big job, but if you’re serious about long-range cruising, whether coastwise or around the world, this is a rig configuration that will greatly simplify your sailing in a wide variety of conditions. It’s definitely worth the trouble.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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