Techniques & Tactics

DOUSING THE MAINSAIL: Do It After You Park The Boat

Unfurled mainsail

I do a fair amount of singlehanded coastal cruising during the summer, usually just going out for a quick overnight whenever an opportunity presents itself. When departing my mooring at Portland Yacht Services (or any mooring for that matter), it has long been my practice to raise the mainsail before dropping the mooring pennant. That way I can get sailing ASAP, usually immediately. When anchoring or picking up a mooring, however, my habit for many years has been to douse and stow the mainsail first, then secure the boat.

But when you're sailing singlehanded this is often stressful, particularly on the Maine coast during the summer, when there are lobster pots everywhere waiting to catch a turning propeller. Sometimes I've felt like a Keystone Cop, running back and forth between the cockpit and the main boom to make adjustments to the autopilot to dodge pots while stowing the sail. Even when there aren't pots around, there are usually other things to keep an eye on--rocks, shoals, other boats, etc.--unless you play it super-safe and stow your main a mile or more before you really need to.

This year it finally dawned on me to try it the other way around: pick up the mooring, or drop the anchor, then drop the sail.

I've found it makes an enormous difference. With both the main up and the engine running I can make a perfectly controlled approach to a mooring or anchoring spot. There's no juggling act, where I need to both mind the approach while simultaneously stowing the sail, and in most cases I actually only need to put the engine in gear briefly at the very end of the process. In many cases I needn't put the engine in gear at all, and it is running only as a precaution.

If I'm picking up a mooring, I usually douse the sail immediately afterwards, to keep the boat from sailing around on it. But once the sail is down (see photo up top) I can just leave it there and tidy it up and tie in the stops at my leisure. If I'm dropping an anchor, what I usually do is back the main by hand by pushing the boom up to windward to get the boat backing down on its anchor rode. Then I drop the sail and focus on perfecting my set before putting the stops on.

I'm sure some of you are now slapping your foreheads, remarking on what a dope I am for not figuring this out earlier, because you, in your infinite wisdom, have been doing it this way all along. But I don't guess there are too many of those. I've been watching sailboats come into anchorages and mooring fields for decades now, and most people have their mainsails stowed long before they park.

Mooring pick-up

Many more of you, I'm sure, are thinking what I really need to do is install lazyjacks, so I can just release the main halyard during a parking approach and worry about tying in the stops whenever, or maybe even never. But personally I've always found lazyjacks to be a major nuisance when you're doing anything with a mainsail other than dropping it.

Others, of course, may be patting themselves on the back for having in-mast furling mainsails, but I am even more prejudiced against those than I am against lazyjacks. Crippling your sail's performance just so you can put it away easily seems like a non-starter to me, unless you're dealing with a very large mainsail on a very large boat.

One big advantage of mooring or anchoring a boat with the mainsail up is that it makes you look competent. Like maybe you're Don Street or Larry Pardey and don't even need an engine to park your boat. If this is what you actually aspire to, this is a very good way to practice before you do in fact throw your engine overboard.

There are certain provisos. First, you should in fact be reasonably competent at picking up a mooring or setting an anchor before trying this, particularly if you are sailing singlehanded. If parking is always a fire drill for you, having the mainsail up during the drill won't make it any less exciting. I'm now accustomed to having the main up during a normal head-to-wind approach, but in an unusual situation where, say, due to strong current I had to come in downwind or across the wind I would probably take it down first.

Second, you do have to pick your moments. When making an approach, if I can't see clearly where I'll be ending up--i.e., if I obviously will have to hunt around for a mooring or a spot to anchor--I still drop the main beforehand. I also still do this if the mooring field or anchorage in question is crowded and the wind is blowing hard.

With competent crew aboard you can cut your provisos much more closely, perhaps even delete them, but if you'e singlehanded I think it's still smart to be cautious.



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