(A version of this article was also published in SAIL Magazine April 2013)
I’ve had the good fortune to sail aboard a wide variety of boats from 7′ dinghies to 180′ square riggers. Aboard traditionally rigged schooners with simple block and tackle, powered by a few humans, we moved a lot of heavy things: anchors, canons, fishing dories, wooden gaffs, topmasts, booms, etc. on a regular basis. We used friction to our advantage when belaying or surging, and we reduced friction as much as possible when hauling or striking sail.
It was aboard these big boats that I was first introduced to Jan Adkins. His book ‘Moving Heavy Things‘ is a clever, humorous, enlightening read in which he eloquently states,
The Power of Simplicity
The more complex a machine or procedure or set-up becomes, the less directly it applies its power. Simple forces applied intelligently should carry the day. This is no snub of wile or cleverness or inventiveness, only a caution against dissipating your efforts in the bother and friction of complication.
Elizabeth, our former 28ft cutter was rigged simply. There was no boom vang or cunningham, no battens or lazy jacks, not even roller furling on the jib and she didn’t have any lines led aft to the cockpit. Yes, every time we had to raise, reef, or lower the mains’l, we got out of the cockpit, and went to the mast to do so. We prefer it that way.
What we enjoyed most about sailing Elizabeth was the ease with which her sails went up, came down and reefed. The battenless main allowed her slugs to slide effortlessly up the track. Her single sheave halyard enabled us to raise the main in less than 10 seconds, without a winch. Likewise, the lack of lazy jacks induced no friction or chafe on her threads as the mains’l fell effortlessly when released, even off the wind.
Because it was so easy, we reefed often and we reefed early. There was no hemming and hawing over the question: to reef or not to reef. If the thought crossed our mind, we reefed, long before conditions got too hairy.
I’ve heard many accounts of owners performing the ‘all lines led aft’ upgrade. The belief is that lines led to the cockpit make sailing safer and easier. By not having to leave the cockpit to adjust your sails, you reduce the risk of injury or falling overboard. By having all lines led to your fingertips, you can remain safe under your dodger or bimini, while staying dry and in control.
That’s bilgewater! (sailor talk for bullshit)
The notion that leaving the cockpit is dangerous must be denounced. What is far more dangerous is not being able to feel the wind on your face or being able quickly and efficiently drop or reef sails. It is my opinion that the running rigging complexities found aboard many modern sailboats actually contribute to the difficulties and fear of sailing in bad weather. It is a fact that the more turns and bends a line must make, the more friction is introduced into the system, and this fact alone makes lowering sails more difficult.
I have yet to sail aboard a boat with lines led aft that did not at some, point when efficiency is paramount, force me to leave the cockpit, deal with a snag, overhaul some slack, or re-lead a fouled line. Inevitably this occurs during the worst conditions, completely negating the number one reason the lines were lead aft. Furthermore the sailor who is not accustomed to getting out from behind the dodger while underway will be unrehearsed for the foredeck dance when the squall’s sinister song plays.
Between the two of us, Teresa and I have owned three boats so far: Two Nor’sea 27’s and a Bristol Channel Cutter 28. We’ve sailed our boats for years making both offshore passages and coastal day-trips—most of the time single-handed. Efficiency, safety, and ease of use have always been top priorities. But it wasn’t until our third boat, the Bristol Channel Cutter, where the lines were not led aft, that we felt the most confident in handling and adjusting sails in any condition.
I like sailing aboard a variety of boats. By doing so, I gain exposure to new and creative techniques. But despite having sailed aboard many, and even owned boats with lines led aft, I’m even more convinced that there must be a better solution. Until I find a system that combines both the accessibility of lines led aft with the efficiency and reliability of the opposite, I’ll stick with the system that provides fewer opportunities for problems. I’ll keep my rigging simple, direct, and always running smoothly.
Why I dislike leading lines aft summary:
1) Additional cost of longer lines, fairleads and larger winches required for increased loads
2) Lines running along deck makes footing more treacherous
3) Increased friction on halyards inhibits sail lowering ability
4) Single line reefing doesn’t produce a good reef
5) Excessive line clutter in the cockpit causes snags, knots and high potential for tripping
6) Doesn’t afford the opportunity to inspect your rigging at the mast regularly
7) Doesn’t prepare you for going forward for when the shit hits the fan. Remember: practice makes perfect
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject in the comments!