yacht sails into the sea

Set Sail, Reef and Recover: land & Water (Instruction)

Setting a sail definitely means more than simply hoisting the sail. Basically, depending on the size/length of the boat, it is dictated whether the sails can be set on open water (yacht), on a rigging buoy (smaller yacht) or even partially on land (dinghy).

Based on the premise that any true yachtie would/should be familiar with how to handle their sails, I would like to focus the following explanations with respect to dinghy sailors. In addition, I assume that as a sailing beginner you will first try yourself out on an inland waterway.

Set sail

With a dinghy, the jib (headsail) is usually set first. With the much smaller jib, the dinghy can be maneuvered for a short time without the mainsail – for example, when the dinghy is in a box and the mainsail can only be set later due to this position of the boat.

On land, this is quite easy, especially when working in pairs. The jib is set from the furled state if possible: Out of the foot luff (horizontal edge of the sail triangle).

The helmsman pulls the jib halyard (a free-moving wire from the top of the mast) and the foresailor unrolls the “sail sausage” aft of the ship.

Setting sail on the water

To set the jib, the boat is first turned with the bow into the wind. As long as the boat is on land, this is of course very simple – the slip car is turned until it fits.

However, if the boat is lying on the jetty in the water, it must be turned until the wind blows over the bow. If the jetty mooring box should be relatively narrow (and it usually is), then mooring lines or mooring buoys are the right alternatives.

For this reason, there are buoys anchored in front of almost all jetties, to which the sailors move (paddle) to be able to set (and later also recover) the sails in peace.

Moored here at a distance, the dinghy automatically turns into the wind. You should only make sure that the line that leads over the bow to the buoy is also long enough for the dinghy to move freely (schwojen).

The jib is set

In most dinghies, the forestay (tightly bolted wire from the top of the mast to the bow) is relatively thin and serves only to prevent the mast from tipping over when the jib is not set.

In the luff (the forward edge of the sail) of the jib, a more stable wire rope is inserted, which takes over the function of the (old) forestay when the jib is set – also because it has to withstand much more pressure.

To set the jib, the sail head (upper part of the sail) is first attached (fastened) to the jib halyard with a shackle. The jib halyard, the wire that usually comes out of the mast at the trailing edge or down the side, is then used to hoist the jib out in as neatly furled a condition as possible.

The neck of the sail (lower point of the sail) is also attached with a shackle to a hole behind the forestay fitting. At this stage, the jib sheets (ropes for operating the jib later) should not yet be attached to the clew (eyelet in the sail through which the sheets are passed).

yacht sails into the sunset

When the jib is raised, it is not yet set.

Once the jib is set, it must be properly tensioned. To do this, a second person hangs on the (thin) forestay, e.g. by supporting themselves with their foot on the bow or the slip car.

Caution: To avoid injury, be sure to wear sailing gloves. While the foresail hangs in the forestay, the helmsman can push the jib halyard through until he can hook the wire loop at the end into the hook bar.

Sometimes only a cleat is provided – then you have to use it (using a cleat is a subject in every water sports school).

Also common are jib systems in which the jib is attached to the forestay via so-called jib hanks. This system is very useful if you want to sail alone and also rig alone. Since here the forestay is no longer stretched, but the jib runs more or less close to the forestay to the masthead.

What happens next?

Once the jib is set on the mast, the two-part jib sheet is fastened to the clew with a bowline (be careful with knots!) – or, depending on the system, also with a clew. The two ends of the sheet must then be passed on port and starboard through the corresponding clew points (eyelet sockets screwed to the boat).

At the end, the two jib sheets are secured with figure-of-eight sheets (note: knotology) to prevent them from slipping out unintentionally. To prevent the jib from flapping (fluttering), it is secured on one side in a sheet clamp.

The mainsail is set

If possible, the mainsail is always stored rolled. This prevents unnecessary kinks in the sailcloth and, of course, also extends the service life.

If the main boom has a groove, the first thing to do is to pull the foot of the mainsail into the main boom – whereby the sail should still remain rolled up and the main boom should not yet be attached to the mast.

Then the downhaul (a reduction that allows the lower edge of the sail to be pushed) is shackled or knotted into the eyelet in the clew at the rear end of the boom.

To set, pull on the main halyard, which in most cases runs directly on or in the mast and comes out at the base of the mast via a pulley, until it reaches the top.

Depending on the type of dinghy, there may be a mechanism at the top of the mast for hooking the sail stop, or you may have a wire loop at the end of the mainsail halyard that can be hooked to the base of the mast. In the simplest rigging techniques, the main halyard is simply attached to a cleat, which is usually located on the side of the mast.

Setting sail is teamwork

Setting the sail is best done in pairs. One sailor pulls the halyard, the second introduces the sail on the luff rope (usually on the side where the sail is to be pulled up in the mast, a rope is sewn – the luff rope).

Once this is done, the luff must be pulled in and fastened in the same way. Setting the sails is much easier with single-handed dinghies like the Laser types.

Here, the sail is simply unfurled and pulled over the assembled mast using the condom method. The mast and sail are then inserted into the hole in the deck. Done!

The process is similarly simple for these types, as the foot luff does not need to be threaded into the main boom either. The lower side of the sail is simply attached to the clew aft. That this type of rigging also leads to high sailing pleasure should be proven by the Olympia status of the Laser

sailing boat at sea

Reef sails

Of course, you and your crew have checked the weather before setting sail. Sometimes, however, surprising developments can occur and force you to reduce the sail area.

A very bad idea in such moments is to take down the sails completely or to try to manage with the smaller jib alone – always assuming you don’t have a motor. In that case, first get the engine running, then take down the “rags” and head for home.

Correct reefing

While there are no possibilities to reduce the sail area on common single-handed dinghies (so you have to see how you can manage and offer the wind as little sail area as possible), the larger dinghies usually have so-called reefing systems.

The simplest and also the most practical: three horizontal rows of thinner ropes are sewn into the mainsail – the reefing rows. Eyelets are sewn into the sail on the mast leech at the height of each reefing row.

If necessary, you lower your mainsail with the mainsail halyard until the corresponding (reduced) sail area is reached. You can now hook the corresponding eyelet on the main boom and furl the mainsail until the corresponding row of reefing is reached and you can tie in the sail horizontally.

Now you have a much smaller, but absolutely functional sail that will bring you to port in a controlled manner. Even the common sailing maneuvers like tack and jibe are possible.

Note: Never try to take the mainsail completely down and sail only with the smaller jib. This will not work for purely physical reasons.

But: Even if the mainsail is only the size of a handkerchief after reefing, you will still make it to port without capsizing (falling over due to wind).

Maybe not yours, but at least and in any case on land.

Surely it is easy to imagine that a reefing maneuver in wind and wave is a rather strenuous and complicated exercise. Since sails, but always anticipates, reefing should be completed before leaving the marina, but at least before the fall.

Recover sails

Actually, the order of the sail furling actions is indifferent. When lowering or furling the sails, you only have to make sure that they are really tied securely and tightly.

Nothing makes the later mooring as “interesting” as the sudden and uncontrolled unfurling of a sail into which a gust of wind then blows! If a dinghy is parked on land with the sails set. Or if it is to drift unattended in the water, a few important settings must be observed.

The abandoned dinghy can quickly break, for example, if it becomes independent in a gust of wind or capsizes (overturns). Because the sails suddenly get full wind pressure. In addition, passers-by of the neighboring boat could also come to harm, which would not only be very annoying (club harmony!). But also dangerous.

If sailing is merely interrupted, the sails do not necessarily have to be recovered. Most importantly, the dinghy should be placed with the bow into the wind or given enough line to move (swing) freely on the jetty or buoy.

The mainsail should still be lowered and furled to the main boom. The jib can be left up, but tied to the forestay when furled.

In very light winds, the jib can also be pulled very tight and tied in a cleat.


Setting your sails is no trouble – if it’s teamwork. With two people, it’s no problem at all. Setting sails alone is always a bit more complicated – just like recovering. With controlled reefing of the sails, every change in the weather can be sailed without major

After recovering the sails, you should pay more attention to the folding of the sails. If possible, the sails should be stored in a rolled condition. If this is not possible for space reasons, the mainsail can also be folded using special techniques.

Here it depends on the size of the sails, what material they are made of and how long they are expected to be stored. The best thing to do then is to ask the sailmaker you trust how the sail should be stowed.

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