Between the Sailboat Sheets

There's more to sailboat sheet management than meets the eye
Sailing World


Windy conditions make jib sheet management trickier. Bill Records

Few things will take a crew down faster than mismanaged jib sheets, whether the problem is a tangled leg or a luffing sail. Around the racecourse, proper sailboat sheet management means anticipating potential snares and nipping them in the bud. In a CJ, this entails constant attention to the slack in the lazy sheet and keeping both sheets in the correct areas. In a 420, it means nailing the right balance of windward and leeward sheeting. In all college dinghies, sheet management means incorporating the right touch of delicacy, especially when it’s light.

On the way out to the racecourse, you should already be aware of the status of your jib sheets. In an CJ, this means ensuring that the bungee or line provided (this could be the bowline) to safeguard against cleat snags is affixed to the mast. Also, check the jib cars. Generally speaking, three holes should be showing from the back in medium and light air; in heavy air when you’re easing frequently you should go to just two holes showing. Don’t forget to check the knots either, and retie them exactly how you like. Leave at least five inches between the knot and the end of the jib sheet—unless they’re so short that you must tie it right at the end for proper winging—so that you’ll have something to grab onto even if the rest of the sheet gets sucked into the block.

This leads to the constant tending of CJ sheets. Whenever possible, take the slack out of the lazy sailboat sheet so that you’re prepared for the next tack. Don’t sacrifice a hard flatten or immediate hiking to do this, though: prioritize. Each should be on the correct side of the boat and free from any kind of snare such as an accidental wrap around a hiking strap or even your own foot. If it’s heavy air, hiking is more important than fiddling with the sheets, but you do have a couple options to make sure that you’ll be able to nail your trim on the next tack perfectly. One is to wait for a lull and take the slack out then, or you can compensate when you tack and burn through the extra slack by trimming the sheet over your head. Good heavy-air crews have this move locked down, and it makes the flatten even more powerful with the added arm extension.


Jib sheet management is a completely different game in 420s. There is no one formula when it comes to trimming, and it takes a lot of finesse, especially in light air and/or chop. While the cleats in a 420 make it possible to “set it and forget it,” this will lead to improper jib shape and decreased height and speed. After putting on the leeward sheet, grab the windward sheet from _in front _of the fairlead with one hand and take out the slack with the other. This will allow you to get much more tension on than if you simply pull on the windward sheet from behind the block. In heavy air, don’t sacrifice hiking to do this by sitting up straight; instead, roll your shoulders forward to grasp it while still hiking hard.

Windward sheeting in light air 420s is a whole new can of worms. You can constantly be making little adjustments while looking up at the top of the jib to make sure that the slot is perfect. The basic formula is to trim in the leeward sheet, put on windward sheet, then ease the leeward sheet just a touch – hardly more than uncleating and recleating – to add some roundness to the jib. Push the windward sheet up the mast to keep the bottom of the jib even slightly more open in painfully light conditions. To avoid stalling, ease off windward sheeting as you get into a lull, and then ease leeward sheeting to let your sail breathe even more. As you get back into breeze, pull them back on gently.

Around the course, there are a couple of danger areas when it comes to lazy sheets. The first is immediately after the start, especially if you were luffing on the line. Another is around the leeward mark, when the now-lazy sheet may have been all the way extended if you just came up from a wing. If you can take the slack out in these situations, then do it; if you don’t have the opportunity, just be aware that on the first tack off the line or up the new beat you may have excess sheet to trim in. On some level, always be cognizant of your sheets so that you can avoid snares or a sloppy tack.


On the flip side, you should also be wary of trimming in too quickly out of a tack. MIT’s Fireflies are especially problematic when it comes to this; with smaller jibs, it’s easy to over-trim and stall out after a tack so make sure you get in as many practice tacks as possible before you compete in them. Larks and V15s are good boats to practice delicacy with; although there are cleats, you don’t windward sheet so the main focus can be on trimming the leeward sheet. Especially in light air, don’t yank the sheet in all the way after the tack but instead ease it in the last 15% or so.

Jib sheets will vary from fleet to fleet, and in some fleets they will even vary boat to boat. Assess the situation when you hop in and adjust it—cars, knots, cleat safeguards—until you’re set up for success. Don’t be overwhelmed by sheet management; it’s okay to make tiny sacrifices in hiking and looking up the course in order to set up properly for your next tack. As you become more experienced, these sacrifices will become infinitesimal and proper trim and preparation to make the next tack the best one possible will become second nature.

Amelia Quinn is a senior at Tufts University, studying a little bit of Arts and Sciences and a lot of sailing. Find more of her blogs here, and pick up our March 2013 issue for our annual Guide to College Sailing.