Taming the Main: Sail-Handling Systems for Bigger Mainsails

Dutchman, Lazy Jacks, and Cover-combos State Their Case for Replacing the Extra Crew Member


The mainsail continues to be both the heart of most sailplans, and the bane of many short-handed cruising sailors. In its modern bigger-than-ever context, the sail’s overpowering presence can be so daunting to a couple that they daysail their boat with only the jib unfurled. Others spend tens of thousands of dollars to automate mainsail handling—winding it up in a specially designed mast or boom. In addition to being a costly option, these in-spar and in-boom furling systems add more weight and more complexity to the boat’s sailplan, while at the same time, decreasing the efficiency of the sailplan itself. On larger boats, such trade-offs can make sense because the mainsail becomes so large and unwieldy. But for boats in the mid-range, 30 to 45 feet, there are less costly and more sailing-friendly alternatives to wrestling with an uncooperative mainsail.

Market analysis has shown that boatbuyers are indeed looking for bigger boats, and modern rigs that sport larger mainsails than ever before. This trend toward putting more sail area in the mainsail means that one jib can serve a larger wind range, which is most definitely a good thing. But the flip side of this bonus means that handling the larger, heavier mainsail becomes more of a chore, and there are several tasks that must be accomplished in a timely manner. Setting and dousing the sail are the most frequent rituals, but unanticipated reefing and the dreaded thunderstorm-induced fire drill seem to generate the most anxiety.

The best way to get a grip on the situation depends on the skill, number, and agility of the crew. Racing crews and young, fit cruisers lean toward the equivalent of manual “stick shift” transmission on a car—preferring the simplicity of a mainsail equipped only with a halyard, topping lift (or rigid vang support) and slab reefing with no other form of setting or flaking aid. This is the lightest, fastest, least complicated mainsail arrangement, and it maximizes performance when the sail is hoisted and the vessel and crew are happily underway. However, when it comes time to reef, or douse the sail, this configuration can take on the demeanor of a clothesline-hung bedsheet in a gale. Barring significant intervention from the crew, the breeze decides where the leech of the sail will go once the halyard is released, and mainsail reefing and flaking can become a substantial chore.

Lazy jacks, cover/lazy jack combos, and the innovative Dutchman systems have grown in popularity in recent years, offering a more practical, affordable advantage in the battle to tame the main. For a 35-foot boat, prices range from about $250 for a lazy jack kit, $700 for the Dutchman, to anywhere from $800 to $1,500 (not including sail costs) for a lazy jack/sailcover combo. A close comparison of each of these options will provide some valuable insight into taking the gymnastics out of handling a mainsail.

Hunter Pak


Lazy Jacks

For centuries, sailors have appreciated the value of lazy jacks, a set of lines that act as a sail-gathering guide, catching and coaxing the mainsail into a stack on top of the boom. When the halyard is released, the sail falls in submission on top of the boom as if guided by an invisible hand—at least that how it’s supposed to work when all goes according to plan. And when lazy jacks are properly set up and a few simple guidelines are followed, they are as much a friend to a modern sailor as they were to the short-handed schoonermen who coasted New England. However, in other situations, lazy jacks can snag a batten tip of a sail being hoisted, or on a dark night, a loose lazy jack can even snag a spreader tip just before the crew jibes onto a new tack, resulting in a very different outlook toward the system. In short, this double set of lines is put to use infrequently during a sail, but is permanently carried along for the ride.

Doyle StackPack


It’s essential that the crew develop a routine for setting and unsetting the “jacks” in order to minimize sail chafe and eliminate and chance that a spreader or any other protrusion is snagged. It’s also crucial to keep the boat head-to-wind or at least have the boom in line with the wind when hoisting sail, and—to a lesser extent—when dousing sail.

Cover/Lazy Jack Combos

Some sailmakers offer a mainsail cover that’s attached to both the boom or sail and a set of lazy jacks. When the halyard is released, not only does mainsail drop to the boom, but it ends up in a cozy hammock-like cover and is just a zipper pull away from being completely stowed. This cover/lazy jack combination goes by several names depending on the sailmaker who builds it. One of the early innovators was Doyle Sailmakers with its StackPack—a combo full-batten main, lazy jack, and Sunbrella sail cover. The lazy jacks are fastened 50- to 75-percent of the way up the spar, and the StackPack is sewn directly to the sail. North Sail’s QuickCover attaches to the boom track but functions like the StackPack. Mack Sail’s Mack Pack fastens to the boom at intervals. Other sailmakers offer slightly different renditions of the cover/lazy-jack combo. All take the sail cover as well as the lazy-jack line system along for the ride.

Naturally, in our world of “no free lunch,” there are always some strings attached, and in this case it’s the lazy jack lines themselves, along with the Sunbrella or other acrylic cover that’s part of the package. In some designs, the “jacks” are kept fairly taught and the cover is raised, while in other designs, the lazy jacks can be slacked and the cover is secured to the boom sides. Once a crew gets the feel for how these additions to the sailplan behave, they become less of an inconvenience.

The Dutchman System

In our testing, we found that the Dutchman system simplifies the lazy jack concept. However, it does mandate some additional sail work and minor rigging additions, but the cost-to-benefit seems a bargain. At the heart of the system are three or four light lines clamped to the topping lift that drop vertically through fairleads in the sail to small tabs along its foot, just above the boom. The mainsail is set up with a series of grommets that allow these lines to be laced through the sail, and when a mainsail has been properly trained to fold along its creases, it simply slides from full hoist to the boom.

The system’s simplicity and functional design utilizes monofilament lines (some owners prefer Dacron) that are all but invisible, and the topping lift that they are attached to is already present on many sailboats. Aboard boats with a rigid vang or high-tech hydraulic vang, a topping lift still can be easily rigged to provide attachment for the Dutchman lines. The best bet is to set up the topping lift to function like a conventional halyard rather than a permanently fixed line near the masthead. One advantage of an adjustable topping lift is that should a mainsail halyard shackle get jammed in the topping lift, you can usually free the shackle by slackening the topping lift.

Once the sail has been lowered, both lazy jacks and the Dutchman system add a bit of complication to snapping a sail cover in place. In the case of the Dutchman system, covering up usually involves a series of small secondary zippers that accommodate the vertical monofilament lines. The traditional lazy jack system may only need to be eased a little in order to put on a conventional sail cover. Unfortunately, lazy jacks can also complicate mainsail hoisting by trapping batten tips as the sail gently flogs during the hoisting process. Many sailors prefer to ease the lines and gather the tackle together just behind the spar, keeping it there until it’s time to douse or reef the sail. Care must be taken to ensure that the lazy jacks are stowed tightly. Many a newly painted mast has been dinged by the small blocks used in lazy jack tackle, hardware that can slap relentlessly against the mast when a breeze fills in and the lazy jacks have been poorly stowed.

Taming the Main: Sail-Handling Systems for Bigger Mainsails


Reefing lines were easy to use on all of the systems we tested. The most user-friendly systems took into consideration the stack height of the cars used on the mainsail track, and incorporated a block, pendant, and jam cleat tack rather than a tack hook to engage the reef point. The real challenge in many of these setups, however, was how a crew could cope with extreme conditions and the need to set a storm trysail. Once again, the Dutchman system, when set up with an adjustable topping lift, provided for the easiest transition to a storm trysail. All that had to be done, once the mainsail was lowered, was to slacken the topping lift and gather up the loose monofilament line—this cleared the area aft of the mast and allowed the storm trysail to be easily set.


Mainsails up to about 250 to 300 square feet are easy enough to handle that flaking aids are optional rather than essential. Over this size, and up to about 500 square feet, any of the three options mentioned can be as valuable as an extra crew member. However, we found that the Dutchman system did get our most enthusiastic nod of approval, even though all three systems certainly improved mainsail handling significantly. Our testing revealed that the single set of mainsail-penetrating lead lines of the Dutchman system provided a more positive guide for the mainsail, directing it into a neatly flaked stack on the boom with fewer strings attached.

The fact that each of these approaches allows a crew to use a well-cut conventional mainsail is a big plus. There’s no need to succumb to an overly flat, roachless, in-mast furling mainsail, or a furling boom as heavy as an extra crew member. There is a point however, where the sheer size of the mainsail makes a mast or boom furling system a preferred option, and in a future issue, we will take a fresh look at how mast and boom-furling systems stack up and what new features they offer.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at darrellnicholson.com.


  1. My wife and I found that a post mast furler was the answer on our 48’ ketch. We were East Coast sailors from Maine to the Bahamas. When there were just the two of us we usually sailed jib and jigger. We sailed “Whimsy” for twenty yeaars and only the last three with the post mast furler. We sold her with my 80th birthday and my wife’s approaching disability. I wish we had installed it 15 years sooner.

  2. A sailmaker recommended the Dutchman for my International Folkboat since I mostly sailed singlehanded, and I was pleased with the results. I was able to hoist, douse and reef the main with relative ease. It does require some changes to the sail cover, but it was totally worth it.

  3. Main sail up and down is greatly improved with a more better system than traditional Sail Lugs. Install Track with Ball Bearing Cars and Main goes up quickly and down under control. Throw sail ties on and Cover when Safe!!!

  4. We have a large full baton main with 20’ boom and 64’ mast on our ketch. Taming it was a priority for the two of us as scrambling across our wheelhouse roof grabbing at the flapping sail and swinging boom seemed really dangerous. We sewed our own Stack Pack system taking a mix of the best ideas from Sailrite’s DIY instructions, the Mac Pack and Stack Pack systems. If you are into sewing canvas work and really like planning and designing this is a great project where you end up with something better than you can buy. We sewed in custom straps so it can be totally rolled and stowed on the boom when on sails longer than a day or two to prevent chafe.

    One item that really makes it work well for us is the 20’ long #5 zippers we got from Paskal in Australia. Very expensive to ship to the USA, but worth it. These zippers are twice the size of the #10 zips that you see on most canvas work and open completely like a jackets zipper. Advantages are the stainless pulls do not bind and salt does not affect the zippers operation. The best advantage is it zips closed starting from the mast running to the boom end so helps compact and stuff the sail as it closes, this is the opposite direction of all other zipper systems and a big reason it works well. We can open the sail cover fully while standing clipped in at the mast in about 15 seconds using the “laundry line” pully system attached to the zipper pull. When stowing also while at the mast, we get it about ¾ closed in the same 15 seconds before it jams on some sail folds sticking out that need a simple tuck in to get the zipper past. Still much easier, safer and quicker than before. And getting up on the wheelhouse roof is rarely if ever needed. If you have a very tall boom with hard access, I would consider the Paskal zipper installed this way. The stack pack also “automatically” holds and stows the three sets of slab reefing lines which used to be a spaghetti mess on the wheelhouse roof.

    One other thing that really helps with taming our large main is that we have all halyards and slab reefing on the mast, old school style. With our set up I can jump the main up to within about 2 feet of the top in less than a minute before having to wrap the halyard on the dedicated self-tailing winch (mounted on the mast) to winch the last foot or two and do the final tensioning. By raising it fast, and having a clear view of the process, catching a baton end on the stack pack’s lazy jack lines is rarely a problem and easily fixed. I can do this solo (using the Pelagic autopilot remote fob for keeping the boat turned into the wind) with this very large full baton sail because I removed the halyard clutch from the mast that was adding too much friction. Friction is now only from the single sheave at the top of the mast (and the regular sail slugs). I feel sorry for all the more modern boats with all lines led back to the cockpit where you have to slowly grind up the majority of the main. Ditto for the one in-mast furling system I tried which seemed to be a delicate two person grinding operation to prevent binding the sail as it is wrapped up hidden inside the mast. Typically, you have to go to the mast to sort something out anyway, so why not consider doing everything at the mast if you have a good safe jackline tether system. Sheaves, blocks and clutches add a huge amount of friction (and expense). Experiment without them and see what you think.

    Since I am a sewing fool, I also made large custom rope bags mounted on the mast just below the winches to store the halyard tails. They are mesh at the bottom for drainage, made of a stiff rubberized fabric and are about 8” diameter and 16” tall with a Sunbrella draw string top. With the top of the bag opened all the way I drop the halyard in as I jump the sail up. When the main is up and all the excess halyard is stuffed in the bag, pull the drawstring top closed. When you drop or reef the main the halyard automatically feeds out the smaller drawstring opening without any twists or snarls. And no pile of spaghetti at your feet to get tangled in. No coiling or flaking of the main halyard needed. I like this safe and very time efficient system so much I am rigging smaller rope bags for other reefing and furling lines tails around the boat. The key is keeping the bags diameter just small enough to not let the rope double back inside it and get snarled. For ½” halyard the 8” diameter seems about right.

    Sometimes simple, fast, and easy is also safer.

  5. In addition to the jacks/cover systems, I found the Tides marine sail track/slides system a HUGE help. As a senior, I could hand over hand haul my full batten main all the way up on my Cal ll-46. With ease. Then just a quick single crank for tension. To drop the sail, free the halyard and it would literally drop into the cover. Good enough till you anchored or docked. Then finish tucking in and zip! And you don’t even have to go up the mast to install it. Just slide over old track and fit the new slides on the mail.

  6. Great tips and tricks in this thread.
    Reduction of friction with ball bearing mast head sheaves as well as ball bearing mast slide systems from manufacturing source you like best are massive improvements. I sail a 24.5 meter schooner mostly single handed. Hoisting and reefing are both easily accomplished with above systems with a simple set of lazy jacks. Just remember to tighten them well before lowering the main
    Leeward lazy can be slacked and taken fwd prior to hoisting with wind 20 to 40 degrees off the bow to keep any boom movement away from deck crew
    Have fun out there

  7. We have a Dutchman system, which uses a topping lift halyard attached to a line looped through blocks. The line runs through the Dutchman clamps. We have been able to adjust the clamps position on the loop so that it is now “set it and forget it.” We do loosen the topping lift halyard (to a point we’ve marked on the halyard) once the main is raised so the topping lift isn’t constricting the boom/sail. When coming in, we tighten the halyard (to our other mark on the halyard) so that the Dutchman system is more taught and ready to do its job. The main drops and flakes itself pretty neatly. Also, some have mentioned issues with raising their main (jumping it at the mast, rather than cockpit pull, etc.). On our C320, we can pull the main up from the cockpit to within about two feet and then crank the cabin top winch from there. I’ve had two Dutchman systems in two different harbors, and one issue is that the monofilament line collects dust from the air. With enough dew, the water and dirt run down through the holes in our sail cover and then stain the mainsail at the point of the Dutchman grommets. I recently tried a new fix: I took some squares of an old blue T shirt (same color as sail cover) and wrapped them around the fishing line and into the holes to try to intercept the “mud.” We’ll see how it works.

  8. Our 48′ ketch was equipped with lazy jacks when we bought her but I disliked them. They seemed to frequently be in the way or they were tapping (sometimes banging) against the mast when retracted. If left deployed, they could tap or smack against the main. I removed them and didn’t regret it.

    During our 8-and-a-half year circumnavigation, I couldn’t count the number of times I tucked a reef in or shook one out but if I had a dollar for every time, I’d still be poor but I would have a lot of dollars. I got to the point where I could go up to the mast, tuck a reef in and return to the cockpit in just a few minutes, our old fashioned sail slugs notwithstanding. Very heavy weather took longer. Among those in our informal ‘fleet’ with in-mast furling, every single boat had problems with getting the sail jammed at one time or another. On my boat, I prefer to keep it as simple as possible.

    Fair winds and calm seas.

  9. In my personal experience, I have come to dislike the ubiquitous “Sail Pack”. I sail on a wide array of vessels and find them very problematic. I understand that if all the details are worked out they can become more stream lined but it is a rare instalation that is set up well and then maintained.
    My complaints are:
    Most systems are difficult to stow while sailing, requiring extra steps after the main is hoisted, leaving a messy bag flopping and beating about the foot of the sail. It chafes itself to death.
    The system hides the foot of the sail during reefing, leaving the crew guessing whether or not the reef is all the way in, over tensioned, or caught on a fold in the sail etc.
    They get in the way of all other maintenance and work.
    They add friction to the reefing system.
    They are often more difficult to close than just putting a sail cover on, so they are left unzipped and UV damage ensues.
    I recently sailed a 40 plut foot Sloop that has a new name brand sail pack installed by the loft. At the end of the sail it only took 3 experienced men 10 minutes to get the main stowed in the pack making me wonder where the labor savings was hiding. Somewhere under the sailpack no dought.

    I like simple dependable systems and the 20 or more sail packs I have used were all more trouble than they were worth.

  10. I realise you have said you intend to cover in-mast furling in a later edition. I have a 43ft boat with in-mast furling. The original was 34 sq m (366 sq ft) with negative roach and appalling shape after 12 years. I had this changed to a new vertically battened sail 41 sq m (440sq ft) with positive roach which is actually a fraction larger than a conventional fully horizontal battened sail for my model which would have been 38 sq m (410 sq ft). So i have a much better shape and control than the original and is 20% greater sail area than the original and in fact 9% larger area than a conventional horizontally battened sail. None of the complications of lazy-jacks/Dutch system etc and all managed from the cockpit with an electric winch. Has never, ever, jammed. What’s not to love?

  11. My wife and I, now in our mid-to-late 50’s have sailed our 42′ sloop for >20 years. In the beginning it had a dutchman system that significantly simplified mainsail handling. About 5 years ago we installed a Leisure Furl in-boom furling system. We love it. It’s dramatically safer and will undoubtably extend our ability to manage the 370 sq ft main. We reef sooner and more often and neither of us have to even be on the high part of the deck (or steps on the base of the mast) to secure it! It was well worth the hefty cost which we coordinated with replacing the mainsail.