COCKPIT CONTROL LINES: Fight the Spaghetti Madness

Cockpit lines

Just as all roads once led to Rome, many cruising sailors now believe that all working lines should lead to the cockpit. The result, unfortunately, is often a pile of multi-colored spaghetti that is hard to manage and actually makes it more difficult to sail your boat.

On aft-cockpit boats the most common scenario now is that almost every line coming off the mast or deck forward of the cockpit is led back through blocks and organizers to a battery of rope clutches arrayed around two winches on either side of the companionway under the cockpit dodger. The more active lines are usually the mainsheet, two control lines for a main traveler situated just forward of the dodger, the main halyard, and one or more mainsail reefing lines (for either a slab-reefed main or an in-mast furling main). Less active lines led to this same location may include one or more headsail halyards, perhaps a dedicated spinnaker halyard and a spinnaker pole downhaul, perhaps one or more topping lifts (one for the main boom, plus one for the spinnaker pole), plus maybe a mainsail outhaul.

On race boats this is not too troublesome. The dodger is normally removed, so the companionway winches are easy to access and grind. The tails of all the active lines are simply flung down the companionway into the main cabin, where there is plenty of room for them to splay about without getting too tangled up with each other. Plus there is plenty of crew aboard. Each companionway winch has a grinder on it, so it easy to work the winches simultaneously if necessary, and there are people at the mast to jump halyards and clear any snags in any line running back to the cockpit.

On a cruising boat, however, the all-lines-to-Rome strategy is very much a two-edged sword. Theoretically, it enables a small crew to handle a boat without leaving the cockpit, but it can also make it harder for a small crew to work a boat. One big problem is winch access. With the cockpit dodger raised, as it normally is on a cruising boat, companionway winches are harder to use. The dodger frame may block winch handles from swinging all the way around their winches. The dodger also makes it impossible for crew to get directly over a winch, which is the preferred position for loading and unloading lines and grinding the winch. Instead the winch must be loaded and unloaded at an awkward side angle; the grinding also must be done from the side, with the grinder sawing the handle back and forth over a short throw distance, thus squandering a large part of the mechanical advantage the winch was designed to create.

Line storage and organization is another problem. Unless you dump lines down the companionway, it is very hard to keep the many lines at the forward end of the cockpit neatly sorted and ready for use. Many sailors install line bags around the companionway, but inevitably several lines get stuffed in the same bag and get tangled with each other, which leads to annoying situations where much untangling must precede even the simplest bit of line handling. The alternative is to make up separate coils of line and hang them neatly on hooks or line ties, but coiling a line while crouching under a cockpit dodger can be awkward and uncomfortable.

Cockpit winch

This one coachroof winch serves five lines led aft from the mast. Here the dodger is removed, which makes line handling easier, but with the dodger on it’s only harder to take lines on and off the winch (Photo by Malcolm White)

Also, lines that must be handled more or less simultaneously are sometimes led to the same winch. A classic example is a slab-reefed mainsail, with both the main halyard and a reef line coming to one winch. This means you must first put the halyard on the winch to ease it in a controlled manner (note, too, you’ll be under the dodger and won’t be able to see the sail, so you won’t be sure exactly how much to ease the halyard unless you have marked it), then you must clutch the halyard, unload the winch, reload it with the reefing line, take up on the reefing line, clutch the reefing line, unload the winch, reload it with the halyard, then take up on the halyard. All of which can be done much faster if the lines are on separate winches.

Yet another issue is friction in the line runs. Leading everything aft to the cockpit means lines must be longer, with one or more extra turns around blocks to create fair leads to the winches, all of which makes the lines harder to pull. This is particularly true of halyards. When a halyard is led aft to the cockpit, it is impossible for one crewmember to hoist it very far by hand, so most of the hoist must be done on a winch, which takes much longer. Extra friction also makes it noticeably harder to control reefing lines on slab-reefed mainsails.

Halyard hoist at mast

With halyards at the mast one man can quickly hoist a sail

Halyard hoist at cockpit

With halyards led to the cockpit it takes two crew to efficiently hoist a sail–one jumping the line at the mast and another at the winch aft (Photo by Malcolm White)

Not that leading lines aft to the forward end of a cockpit is always a bad idea. Often it makes a lot of sense, but it should not be done on a wholesale basis. Instead each line run should be evaluated independently.

First consider the mainsheet, as this is normally the most important and most frequently handled control line on board. On any cruising boat sailed by a small crew, where it is likely one person will want to handle the main and the helm simultaneously, I feel it is critical for the mainsheet to be within reach of the helmsman. Unfortunately, the mainsheet on most modern aft-cockpit cruising boats is led to the coachroof, where it can’t be reached from the helm unless the cockpit is small and the boat is steered with a tiller. Another problem with this is that if the dodger is up you often can’t see the main while trimming it.

The arrangement found on most center-cockpit boats, where the mainsheet is led to a full traveler directly behind the cockpit, is far superior. This takes three frequently used lines (the sheet and the two traveler control lines) out of the spaghetti mix around the companionway and puts them right where the helmsman can get to them. This way a sole watch-stander can easily cast off the mainsheet or drop the traveler if a big puff hits the boat. Another big advantage is that the mainsail is in plain view, and accurate adjustments can be made without having to duck in and out from under a dodger to check on trim. Finally, leading the sheet from the end of the boom rather than the middle, as is required when the traveler is forward of the cockpit, puts a lot less stress on the boom and reduces the effort required to trim the sail.

The only problem with leading a mainsheet to a traveler behind the cockpit is that the sheet must be carefully positioned so it doesn’t catch the helmsman unawares. If the traveler is very close to the cockpit with the sheet angling forward over the helm position, the helmsman may be caught by the sheet in an accidental jibe. This is sometimes an issue on undersized center-cockpit boats, where the cockpit is just a bit too cramped to work well, and also on some older aft-cockpit boats with travelers behind the cockpit. Modern aft-cockpit boats almost never have space for this, and to make the mainsheet accessible from the helm the sheet and traveler must instead go right in the cockpit. Usually these days the traveler is mounted on a rail spanning the cockpit seats just forward of the helm. Alternatively, it can be situated on a bridgedeck right behind the companionway. Cockpit-mounted travelers are often seen on race boats, but are much less popular on cruising boats. Most cruisers believe the sheet gets in the way when led to the middle of the cockpit and poses a danger to the crew if there is an accidental jibe or if the traveler is accidentally released and suddenly crashes to leeward. These are valid concerns, but the danger should be minimal if the traveler and sheet leads are properly designed and the crew is reasonably wary.

Another way to make the mainsheet more accessible on an aft-cockpit boat is to lead it to a traveler mounted on an arch over the cockpit. In many ways, this is ideal. A double-ended mainsheet can be led down either side of the arch and can be easily reached by the helmsman on either side of the cockpit. Both the sheet and traveler are also removed from the cockpit, so there is no chance of their tangling with the crew. In some cases these arches span the aft section of the cockpit, but this only works on boats at least 40 feet long, as there must be room under the arch for crew to stand. In others the arch spans the forward end of the cockpit, where it can also serve as a base for the back end of a dodger. This works well on smaller boats, as the arch can be lower here. The one drawback to cockpit arches is that they often look ungainly. Only a few builders now put them on boats, but I suspect they will become more popular over time.

Cockpit traveler arch

This forward traveler arch gets the mainsheet out of the cockpit and provides a solid base for the back end of a windshield/dodger rig. The only problem is the traveler here is too short

I also feel halyards and reefing lines for a slab-reefed mainsail should not normally be led to the cockpit. Halyards are always much easier for a single crewmember to hoist if they are left at the mast. This way you can quickly haul the line hand over hand for most of the hoist, and only use a winch at the very end to haul the sail up the last few feet. On smaller boats 35 feet and under, you really only need the winch to tension the halyard after the hoist is complete. If the mainsail’s reef lines are also at the mast, you can quickly reef the sail from a single location with a clear view of the sail. In layouts like this, the reef lines are normally led to a dedicated winch on the back of the mast right under the boom, though on older boats the reefing winch or winches may be on the boom itself, which is not as convenient. The halyard, meanwhile, runs to another winch on the side of the mast nearby, so it is very easy to handle the lines in rapid succession. I’ve found I can nearly always tuck in a reef working at the mast at least twice as fast as I can in a cockpit; it is also much easier to coil the lines and stow them afterward. The drawback, of course, is that you must go to the mast to do all this. On many modern boats, however, you’ll often need to go to the mast anyway, even when lines are led to the cockpit, to clear lines or to put a tack ring on a reefing horn. Having to shuttle back and forth between the cockpit and mast in the middle of reefing only slows you down.

Lines at the mast

On my boat Lunacy all halyards and reef lines are at the mast, where they are easy to use in rapid succession. The open space here, the flush deck, and the granny bars make this an ideal working environment

The lines that should be led aft to the cockpit, in my opinion, are those used less frequently and those requiring small infrequent adjustments. These include topping lifts, vang lines, spinnaker downhauls, and mainsail outhauls. Also, there is no harm in leading rarely used halyards for roller-furling sails back to the cockpit. Note, however, that any halyard for a headsail that is likely to be changed for another sail while underway should always stay at the mast, as all work concerning the dousing and hoisting of the sail can then take place at the mast and forward of it. Finally, if you have an in-mast furling main, it of course makes sense to have all its control lines led aft to the cockpit. Indeed, there is little point in having an in-mast main if you routinely have to leave the cockpit to cope with it.

ATTENTION, PEOPLE: This post is repurposed content from my book, The Modern Cruising Sailboat. If you find it useful, you should click on over to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and buy the whole tome!

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5 Responses
  1. Richard Elder

    Finally someone puts the “all lines led to the cockpit for convenience and safety” nonsense in its proper place!

    One minor comment: Why lead a roller furling headsail halyard to the cockpit? Just adds length and stretch to the halyard. Better to run it through a line clutch mounted above the main halyard winch on the mast, then take it off the winch and cleat it off at the mast until it is (rarely) needed.

    re spaghetti control, I like a large self tailing winch and minimal purchase on the main sheet for just that reason. This arrangement also enables one to rapidly take in the sheet by hand during a jibe and help keep the main under control— at least for mains under 400 sq ft.

  2. On my Corbin 39 all lines (lots of them) are led to the smallish aft cockpit.
    From experience – not theory – as a solo sailor or with unexperienced crew, I can’t imagine it otherwise.
    I could make a huge list of advantages for this option but I can’t help believe that anybody who has sailed in rough conditions will agree with me.
    The wind pipes up, the boat heels to the toerail, is unstable and the autopilot can’t handle the weather helm…and you expect me to crawl up to the mast to reef the main?

  3. Charlie

    @Horatio: To each his own in the end. I’m sure what you have on your boat works for you. But… I have sailed in rough conditions, and I don’t agree with you. Sounds like maybe you need a stronger autopilot. I’d argue if you are sailing alone and are incapable of leaving the cockpit, you’re probably not safe. Thanks for the comment! charlie

  4. Charlie, I agree with you that, in the end, each sailor has individual preferences shaped by experience or type of boat or aesthetics.
    Anyway, I’m perfectly capable of leaving the cockpit in just about any type of situation, I simply don’t feel the need for it (I explained my system for doing so at length in Attainable Adventure, which prompted the author to rethink his system).
    I have six winches, no dodger and plenty of clutches, so maybe I’m in another ball park and don’t represent the sailors you’re reaching out to.
    Sorry if my comment came across as overly critical.

  5. Charlie

    @Horatio: No offense taken. I like to see differences of opinion here. Having no dodger, I should think, does help make a cockpit-centric system truly workable. I’ll check John’s site for a detailed explanation of your system. Meanwhile, I should note I have a bias in favor of leaving the cockpit. As in, I enjoy getting out on deck, even in strong weather. I would argue, too, you need to regularly inspect fittings and rig details on deck, and having to go to the mast to reef and hoist helps you do this. charlie

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