Shakedown sail – in the way, bodies learn then need to relearn.

We were away at the weekend so yesterday, belatedly, was my first sail of the year. There were a couple of problems, so, while it’s still fresh in my mind, here’s a short description for Folksong owners and anyone else who might be interested. If, by my not keeping quiet about my mistakes, it sounds as if I have no pride, you’d be wrong, I have lots of pride, but as I get older I find I can take it or leave it . . .

I made some changes over the winter. I have already mentioned the forward lifelines. I also added a downhaul for the genoa/foresail and a single, endless sheet for the foresails. I was looking forward to a gentle sail to try these out. As it happened, the wind was forecast 4-5 and appeared to be force 5 as I motored down the Cattewater. Whatever, it was stronger than I wanted and I would need a reef.

The mainsail slides stick and it becomes impossible to haul the sail unless the boat is exactly head to wind. Generally this is fine single-handed because the boat will hold its course under engine and with the tiller lashed, but, when the wind is stronger and tending to blow the head away, it can be a struggle dodging between the halyard at the front of the cockpit and the tiller. OK, that’s par for the course but yesterday it was more of a struggle than usual. I convinced myself the problem was with the reefing. I eased lines and fiddled with the tack hook. Still there was a problem and, when the sail finally jammed about a foot from full stretch, I realised that one of the mainsail slides has been rigged upside down (by me). It was the fourth slide down from the peak so most of the slides would need to be removed to fix the problem. The struggle then became one of standing at the mast, tugging the luff of the sail, running back to the tiller, back to the mast and so on. Eventually it came down and the sail had to be snuffed with a couple of ties as we drifted side-on across the Sound. All but the top three slides were removed, the offending one uprighted and the whole lot re-rigged. The sail went up quickly and easily.

I looked up to find a police launch close behind. I immediately thought he thought I was in trouble rather than patiently dealing with a problem.  However, he started energetically signalling that I should tack. Normally in Plymouth Sound large grey warships are highly visible and you see them coming, but submarines are painted black, are low in the water and creep up on you. I tacked in a hurry and took a quick photo as I sailed away.

(Click on image to enlarge)


However, I had tacked before the reefing line, which I had previously loosened in error, had been re-cleated.


Consequently, the end of the boom hung low. I wasn’t able to sort it out immediately as I was busy avoiding a submarine (!) but despite this we were reaching fast under a badly set mainsail alone and I found I could bring her further into the wind and would probably have made the eastern entrance to the Breakwater. “That’s good to know,” I thought. Sense prevailed, I found some space, headed into the wind, let the sheet fly and went to the mast to sort out the reef line. The tip of the boom came up and the sail set nicely with one reef. We headed back across the Sound.


Before setting out, I had rigged the working foresail and hoisted it to try out the new downhaul. It ran best if the line was threaded between each third hank.


Bodies learn. Over the years, my body has learnt to move around the cockpit, tweaking lines, adjusting the helm, monitoring the gps, all without thinking. But change the routine, the rhythm falters and the music fails.

So . . . I released the clutch and hauled on the fore-halyard and nothing happened . . . I’d forgotten to release the new downhaul.


I will get it right next time . . . or the time after.

Also, the foresheets are now endless – two bowlines on the tack of the sail, the sheet running through the cockpit, the free sheet loosely around its winch, the excess in a bag at the front of the cockpit. More than enough line, (it needs shortening), to manage the sail without shifting position . . . and yet time and again I crossed the cockpit to prepare to tack, reaching for the end of the old free sheet that would have inevitably slid forward along the side deck. The new sheets are brilliant. Although I did note the bowline on the port sheet was the wrong way round so that the short free-end faced outwards. It caught on a stay – the starboard one didn’t.

If the wind wasn’t what me the owner wanted, it was perfect for me the helmsman and the boat. Blue Mistress averaged 6 knots with 7.4 the maximum on the gps. With one reef and the working foresail – (a cut-down mainsail, shorter luff and longer foot than the jib), we shot down the outside of the breakwater, enjoying swell and spray and being glad to be back at sea.

When the time came, the downhaul worked perfectly and the new lacing held the sail on the deck – although I forgot to tighten the port sheet immediately before releasing the halyard and hauling in on the downhaul. As I keep saying, I’ll get it right next time.

(Images by Bill Whateley)








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