Discover How to Adjust Boat Sails to Reduce Heeling Before You Reef

Sailing in heavy weather
Learn how to protect yourself before you reef. Getty Images

When winds approach a storm force, you need to take immediate steps to stay safe on your sailboat. In this scenario, you typically reef the sails or switch to storm sails first. You might then prepare to heave to, run off downwind, or lie ahull. According to Sailing Magazine, winds over 35 knots are rare and are only seen about 10 to 15 percent of the time. Regardless, it's important for sailors to be trained in making adjustments and adhering to protocols in order to keep the boat and its passengers safe when poor weather conditions come about.

In many cases, however, the wind can become stronger but not require storm tactics immediately. As the wind builds, usually the sailboat is heeling further and weather helm (the tendency of the boat to head up into the wind) becomes more problematic. In these cases, there are other sail adjustments you can make to reduce heeling and maintain better control of the boat. Try the following five steps and storm tactics when conditions are not bad enough yet to reef the sails.

1. Move the Traveler Down

When sailing close-hauled, stronger wind or gusts will cause the boat to heel far over and head up into the wind, making control more difficult. Instead of moving the ​traveler up to center the boom as you would in lighter wind, move it down to leeward to allow some wind to spill. You will still have plenty of driving power, but the boat will heel less and have less weather helm.

2. Ease the Mainsheet

If the boat is still heeling too much, ease the mainsheet a little.

This spills some wind from the top of the sail, reducing the heel, and keeping the bottom of the sail still in trim for driving power.

3. Ease the Jibsheet and Adjust the Sheet Car

This works the same as with the mainsail to reduce heel. Moving the sheet car aft will help keep the lower part of the jib in trim while allowing some wind to spill from the upper jib, reducing heel.

4. In a Gust, Head Up

"Pinching" or luffing up when a gust hits will prevent you from heeling too far. It will also make it easier to maintain control of the boat. Watch the sails carefully to avoid heading up too far and stalling the boat.

5. Reef the Main And/Or Furl the Jib

This is important to do when these tactics are not enough to prevent excessive heeling. Reefing is your first major strategy for heavier weather. To make it easier to reef, try heaving to first.

General Sail Tips

These basic sail adjustments will help you increase your confidence and skills whenever the wind gets a little higher than usual, and practice will make them second nature. At the same time, be sure to follow safe sailing principles such as the use of PFDs and tethers whenever conditions become more challenging.